Radical Democracy

I have been spending some time over the last few days reading Henry Giroux’s “On Critical Pedagogy.” I am trying to understanding what Critical Pedagogy (CP) is, how it is different than other approaches such as teaching critical thinking / liberal inquiry, and — especially — what its goals are.

On the one hand, it’s pretty easy to tell that the goal for CP is for students to understand the true causes and manifestations of oppression and to see how to bring those to the light and presumably to fix them.  But as I have alluded to before in posts, it can be hard with CP or Critical Theory (CT) in general sometimes to tell what the goal is beyond a sort of pointing out of moral shortcomings.  

Reading Giroux, I get the same feeling.  It is hard for me to understand just what he is aiming for.  You can get clips of it around the edges: “Education becomes central to  . . . struggling collectively . . .  to restructure society in the interest of expanding the possibilities of democracy” (73).  Yes, but what possibilities? 

Whatever he is driving at, it’s surely something to do with democracy. He critiques what he calls “liberal democracy,” which he says has been “mediated historically through the ‘damaged and burdened tradition’ of racial and gender exclusions, economic injustice, and a formalistic, ritualized democracy that substituted the swindle for the promise of democratic participation” (83).  “Substitute the swindle” — what a great phrase.  But I sense he means more than just more people participating democratically.  He writes about “the promise of a radical democracy” and “the promise of a more fully realized, substantive democracy.” But again, it is very difficult to tell exactly what his political vision is and how it is different from traditional democracy.

I am with Giroux on a number of his criticisms — the pedagogical role of the media / culture needing to be analyzed by students, the corporate nature of higher ed, the commodification of democratic rights, the need for educators to be more deliberate about their ends and purposes.  And if he were just writing about the importance of teaching students Critical Theory in order to understand the true nature of a capitalistic liberal democracy like ours, I would appreciate his work.  And I do.

But at the same time, Giroux, like Freire, has an overtly political goal for education, one which as he says a number of times involves progressive social change.  But with his insistence, over and over again that critical pedagogues question or “problematize” all “hegemony” (including knowledge production) — not necessarily to see if this knowledge is true, but to expose, I suppose, that it was created by a powerful group ostensibly only to protect its own power — it is hard not to wonder what exactly Giroux’s ideal society is.  Aristotle said that all education was inherently political because it was based on one’s conception of the good life, and the question of what is the good life is always a political question.  But what is the good life — and the good society for Giroux?  Clearly he holds democracy up as some kind of ideal, but it is a “radical” pedagogy, something different from a normal democracy.  What is it?

Perhaps in reading more Giroux, I will find this answer.  But in the meantime I did some basic research into the term “radical democracy” and uncovered some interesting information.  Who knew?

According to the internet, radical democracy is, “”a type of democracy that signals an ongoing concern with the radical extension of equality and liberty.” Apparently there are three strands: deliberative, agonistic and autonomist.  

The deliberative one, associated with Jurgen Habermas and the work of John Rawls, sounds a lot what I think of as “regular” or liberal democracy: reason- and consensus-based, deliberative, optimistic that various groups can act in enlightened self-interest, and what John Rawls, another proponent, called “overlapping consensus” between different multicultural groups.  Again, sounds like what we have.  I wonder what makes it radical.

The autonomist one, which apparently is in part associated with something called “post-Marxism,” didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  

The agonistic version sounded like what Giroux is and — lo and behold — there he was, mentioned on the Wikipedia page as a proponent of this.  Apparently this version of radical democracy stresses “expanding the liberal definition of democracy, based on freedom and equality, to include difference.” Again, this sounds like the sort of pluralism — and, in its focus on agonism (or as he puts it, “struggle”) — that Giroux is so obliquely advocating.

The Wikipedia entry says:

“. . . liberal democracy and deliberative democracy, in their attempts to build consensus, oppress differing opinions, races, classes, genders, and worldviews . . .  Laclau and Mouffe argue based on the assumption that there are oppressive power relations that exist in society and that those oppressive relations should be made visible, re-negotiated and altered.  By building democracy around difference and dissent, oppressive power relations existing in societies are able to come to the forefront so that they can be challenged.”

My first thought is: I wonder how they ever make decisions?  How does such a society productively channel itself?  I agree that struggle is important — even a deliberative-focused democracy must struggle.  Consensus is hard, and, in our society, often the result of much battering and bruising in the arena.  The clash of perspectives in the marketplace of ideas — and usually there is very much someone who emerges having lost the battle.  To see this being oppressed — versus seeing this as simply losing the argument — seems to me two very different ways of seeing the world.  Now, this is very different of course than not being able to participate in the arena at all.  Then there is the question of doesn’t more direct democratic participation often lead to the tyranny of the majority, or suppression of other kinds?  It is hard not to have a number of questions about this political vision.  I am intrigued to learn more about this.

I have to say that, although I have not finished his book yet, I am disappointed so far in Giroux for his lack of clarity about the specific political project that he is advocating.  Again, it seems to me something very different to say that the liberal democratic system is not living up to its own ideals and must improve through critical inquiry.  But that does not seem to me what he is saying.

As I start to understand CT more, I realize that I do think much of it is valuable — in so far as it seeks to illuminate and to understand.  But in so far as it is simply critiquing from a normative perspective, a sort of moral indignation or outrage that sees the worst impulses at play, I think it’s far less valuable for understanding.  Especially when it is shadowy about its own normative vision of the way things should be.