What democracy do we have and what democracy do we want?

The challenge that we have is to build democratizing capacities, the possibility of creating utopias from the concrete and daily spaces in which we happen to live.

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Article published in ALAI’s magazine No. 533: Educación popular para reinventar la democracia 13/06/2018

I should like to share four ideas on the present situation of democracy in our region and then indicate what challenges are facing the processes of popular education in this context.


1. Democracy is worn away


The first idea is that liberal democracy is completely worn away in Latin America. The phrase “worn away” reflects the idea that all that used to constitute it no longer has the same influence or utility that it had, it signifies a dissolution of all the factors that constituted its meaning, but that now no longer explain its meaning. Reduced to an electoral moment that is totally penetrated by commercial commodification, the idea of representation has been worn down, and the construction of real participation in permanent democratic processes, is at present not even considered.


Many political parties are alienated from the daily life and concrete problems of the people; political space has been occupied by political actors who have no relation to the dynamics of social movements, without dialogue, without ties with the people with whom they should dialogue. Public policy goes far beyond government. Reducing public policy to what a government does is a common confusion. In order for it to be public, it should be seen as policy where citizens take charge, discuss and take a role in its formulation, its execution, in monitoring its fulfilment and in its evaluation. That which is “public” is not only governmental; governments have the responsibility to dialogue and build policies from the needs and proposals of the citizenry, and then, in effect, social movements have the opportunity to contribute to building the logic of these policies. Governments are not the only elements responsible for public policies.


2. We live with growing inequality


The second idea is that in Latin America inequality grows deeper every day, in terms of economic, social, political and cultural rights. The models being implemented in various countries of our region, since the processes of change that took place at the beginning of this century that did not involve a radical change in the model of capitalist society, are turning backwards, through new neoliberal policies, characterized by deepening social exclusion, and are creating even greater levels of inequality. When we speak of democracy we must think in terms of economic democracy, social democracy, cultural democracy; and those levels of inequality and exclusion in which we live express ever more antidemocratic, authoritarian, discriminatory and exclusive relations.


3. Situations of polarization and aggressiveness are increasing


The third idea is that this inequality is creating a greater polarization between persons and political forces, characterized by increasing aggressiveness. Debates are not being generated with real arguments; rather there are confrontations that express a polarization with clashing elements and growing aggressiveness, based on a total exclusion of reason and counter arguments. Clearly, this shows that we have two models in conflict that pertain to two paradigms in total confrontation: a paradigm of profit, of the market, of individualism, values that are positioned at the centre of policy and society; and on the other hand we have a proposal based on a paradigm of life, of solidarity, of an idea of democracy that can include all people and respect all our rights. This polarization expresses the antagonism of these two models. We are living in a period where we have no possibility of neutrality, but rather we are disputing which of these models will guide us in our societies.


4. Both demobilization and intolerance are being promoted


A fourth idea is that we are living with processes of demobilization and intolerance, due to the fact that it is more difficult to generate processes of democratic debate. This is a more violent scenario, verbally and physically speaking; a context of violence especially against women and against everything that implies thinking of the possibility of another world different from the present one. The criminalization of protest signifies violence against all those who oppose this model and believe it can be changed. All this provokes processes of demobilization, of resignation that internalize the idea that it is not possible to change things, and makes evident our own unfulfilled role and responsibility, as social movements, political parties and popular education, to promote leadership from the popular sectors.


One effect of this demobilization is that other non-traditional political actors appear. There are the churches of the Pentecostal or neo-Pentecostal movements in all the countries of Latin America as a political force in parliaments, municipalities and even in the executive. Their proposal is characterized by a fundamentalist discourse that is anchored in supposed biblical values: the traditional family, life from the moment of conception and heterosexual marriage. Since they do not have a technical economic proposal for the country, having a conservative electoral approach, they ally themselves with the neoliberal teams of the traditional parties. This means we are in a serious moment of crisis, where it is complicated to debate with such fundamentalist people, whose religious vision leads them to believe that the time is ripe for them to build the kingdom of God on Earth, through their presence in the legislative, municipal, judiciary and executive powers. When a group of people believes that a candidate has been chosen by God for this mission and that their message is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, how can one debate with them? We should keep in mind that these are organizations that work among the grassroots, where they are present alongside the neediest people, where they manage to resolve or alleviate many daily problems through assistance policies: this is the other extreme of neoliberal politics, since while the State abandons these sectors, these sects work with people in their neighbourhoods, in their communities and establish relations of confidence, identity and security.


What about popular education?


Based on these four ideas about the “worn down” democracy that we live in, I would like to explore more deeply some ideas on popular education, the importance of the creation of identity, of spaces for constructing commonality and solidarity, in order to think about an equitable and just society.


When we speak of popular education, we speak of something that should always be understood according to the spaces and historical contexts where it was created. We cannot speak of “the” popular education as a unique, homogenous or uniform process. I believe that it is better always to speak of processes of popular education: processes that correspond to particular moments, to particular contexts. We must understand that this means promoting processes of popular education in every historical moment; clearly, the history of popular education in Latin America has much to teach us, not to repeat it, but rather to inspire us towards the future, to face the challenges that we are living today.


Every process of popular education in Latin America has been linked to a process of organization, participation and the aspiration of spaces for the construction of democracy. For example, in the XIX century when one spoke of popular education, it was understood as public instruction and the idea was that education should not only be a privilege for the nobles of the colony, but that it should be for the whole population. And since that time, we find a democratic aspiration in the term “popular education.” When the Cuban revolution began the National Literacy Campaign, when the government of Allende in Chile in the nineteen seventies created a National Program of Popular Education, when the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, in the eighties, created the idea that all education in Nicaragua, informal, non-formal and formal should be popular education; in all these cases they were acknowledging that the processes of Popular Education are tied to democratic aspirations that would strengthen the power of the people. When the Zapatista movement in the nineties arose and created processes of identity from their indigenous roots and spoke of popular education to build a world where there is room for all worlds, this democratizing aspiration that has always accompanied the processes of popular education was present.


An emancipating paradigm


But it is important to understand that the processes of popular education are not only a method, they do not only respond to a methodology or the use of certain techniques, but they are based on a philosophy, an emancipating ethical, political and pedagogical paradigm. This paradigm of solidarity, this paradigm of persons as subjects, as creators of societies, is a paradigm that expresses itself in ethics and politics and hence is the basis of a pedagogy that makes it possible to construct spaces and subjects that build a democratic society through the establishment of democratic relations in all areas and levels.


This is why the Freirian inspiration of a liberating education that builds the capacities of persons as subjects engaged in a social transformation of history, implies that pedagogic processes have to be democratic in order to create democratic capacities. It would be a contradiction to carry out authoritarian, vertical or doctrinaire educational processes to achieve processes of democratic participation. Hence the critique of the “banking” concept of education, as vertical and authoritarian. Hence also the proposal of an education focussed on practical problems, that is dialogic and horizontal, that links practice with theory, that develops critical thinking, an ecology of knowledge and the vocation of becoming more human.


The contributions of Freire let us see that the proposals of being subjects of social transformations and being subjects of creative educational processes are intimately related. If we train ourselves as critical and creative persons, this will express itself in forms of social participation that are critical and creative.


A key idea of Freire, in his book Pedagogy of Autonomy, says: “Teaching is not to transfer knowledge, but to create the conditions for its production.” We have not sufficiently appropriated this idea. To educate is not to transfer contents, but to create conditions to produce, to create, to build transforming knowledge. Hence the key question is: how do we create conditions that make it possible to have a process of learning, of critical reflection, that create a capacity for analysis, communication, awareness of problems, in order to work and understand what is happening around us? That is, to develop our fundamental capacities and build popular leadership in social, political and cultural life. Therefore, when we speak of processes of popular education we are speaking of processes that take place at all levels and spaces, creating capacities that involve essential contributions to spaces of democratization, to the formation of spaces of effective participation, and hence to demand institutional spaces and modify the authoritarian and exclusionary rules of the exercise of formal democracy.


If we have a transforming paradigm of a just, egalitarian and democratic society, this paradigm does not mean that it is a dream that will happen someday, but rather a paradigm that should guide our daily actions. Utopias should be manifest in our daily lives, express themselves in people’s actions; this is the manner in which people build them from now on. It is not something that comes from afar, but something that is built daily by society itself, from its own conditions, analyzing and transforming this reality together.


A democratic society is not possible, if we do not build democratic spaces in the family, the home, work, the school, in neighbourhoods, unions, political parties, organizations... In all the dimensions where there are relations of power, we must think whether these relations of power are authoritarian or democratic. Do they build capacities for transformation, or do they build resignation or passivity? What do we do each day in our work: are we favouring conditions for people to take on leadership, or rather for their conformism?


The challenge that we have, in this historic moment is – in all possible spaces – to build democratizing capacities, the possibility of creating utopias from the concrete and daily spaces in which we happen to live. Therefore, it is indispensable that we commit ourselves to the transformation of the conditions of individualism, the commodification of life, consumerism, violence and patriarchal domination that are expressed in the capitalist system, that is still hegemonic and that oppresses the majorities of the world.


(Translated for ALAI by Jordan and Joan Remple Bishop)


– Oscar Jara is President of CEAAL (Popular Education Council of Latin America and the Caribbean).


This article is based on the presentation made in the convergence activity entitled: “What democracy do we have and what democracy do we want?” at the World Social Forum 2018, Salvador de Bahia, on March 14. In this space, various actors and movements came together: Central Única de Trabajadores (CUT), Movimiento de los Trabajadores y Trabajadoras sin Tierra (MST), Frei Betto, Consejo de Educación Popular de América Latina y el Caribe (CEAAL), Instituto de Estudios Socio Económicos (INESC) and Escuela Nacional de Formación de la Confederación Nacional de Trabajadores del Campo (ENFOC/CONTAG).


Article first published in Spanish in ALAI’s magazine América Latina en Movimiento, No. 533, June 2018: Educación popular para reinventar la democracia (Popular education for reinventing democracy).


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