Education can breed consensus or be a tool of freedom: either way it is a site for the reproduction of culture; it is a cultural praxis. Now more than ever we have reason to engage in a critical analysis of the political and economic systems that control and regulate our lives, however doing so effectively requires the use of intellectual tools that are often the preserve of elites who have little interest in challenging the status quo.
Established in 2008, PRAXIS is a radical education project intent on reclaiming elite knowledge and bringing the tools of effective critique to a wider audience. Operating primarily as a learning circle inspired by the educator Paulo Freire, the group asserts that education is not benign, but political, for knowledge is power. Building a society based on the principles of equality and social justice means delinking critical scholarship from the formal education system and expanding it to the fringes.
Founder Mags Crean describes how entering higher education as a working class woman compelled her to develop the project alongside other community activists and academics: ‘To be honest, I don’t feel I had a choice in developing PRAXIS. It was a necessity. As a person who really believes in the power of education to affect change, I could see that my community was basically excluded from this elite space. When I finally crossed the class divide and entered academic life and the halls of an elite university, the halls felt hollow. There was no urgency to change anything, just analysis and description. Academics have done excellent work linking the ills of the capitalist political economy to cultural and social inequalities yet what is missing when you read the journals and listen to the lectures is an urgency to change what is being described. In most cases, academics do not have to live the injustice they theorise: their families and friends are not affected and they have no real need to change the situation.’
Acknowledging the need for an ‘urgent and grounded response to injustice’, Mags and others in PRAXIS are developing the idea of a Communiversity in an Irish context. This idea relates to the development of an informal network of alternative educational and critical thinking spaces. It is intended to give people the opportunity to link their lived experience with critical issues like the economy, politics, education, employment and injustice. It will be modelled as an educational co-operative with many various actions taking place autonomously at different levels, including learning circles, wider solidarity circles and knowledge exchange forums. The first Knowledge Exchange takes place on April 23rd and is essentially a collaboration between the community and the university (see below for details). This model is designed to link the tools of radical critique with grassroots movements for social change. Any person can attend, but it is particularly geared towards marginalised and working class communities, including the community development sector, whose burden in this crisis has been absurdly disproportionate relative to their responsibility for creating it. In recognition of this, speakers and workshops will address the theme Alternative Economic Development Models: Co-operatives and Social/Community Enterprises. David Erdal will deliver the keynote address, Beyond the Corporation.
Co-hosting the event alongside PRAXIS are TradeMark Belfast, Meitheal Midwest, UCD Equality Studies and Kilbarrack CDP. Stevie Nolan is from TradeMark and along with others will be there on the day to offer practical information on supporting community enterprises. Here he describes the benefits of investing in the co-operative model: ‘Co-operatives offer an alternative [to neo-liberalism] as they represent people before profit: labour is not a commodity, workers are not wage slaves, and they are more stable than privately owned businesses. They also offer genuine economic benefits as they build up local assets and keep wealth in the community by returning dividends to workers and members.’ Stevie also explains how co-operatives can help build a stronger democracy: ‘The welcome transition from violence to peace in the North has been accompanied by a potentially devastating transition to the neo-liberalised economy, but worker co-operatives can resist that change and at the same time challenge sectarianism by bringing workers together to advocate democratically for joint benefits. This allows the values of solidarity and democracy to replace the dynamics of suspicion and mistrust.’
The Basque region in Spain has also recently welcomed a transition to peace and is home to the Mondragon Corporation, a hugely successful co-operative business spanning the areas of industry, finance, education, agriculture, research and services. Mondragon are currently expanding their activities into care for the elderly and stress the importance of building co-operatives that are inter-cooperative, i.e. inter-dependent, mutually supportive and non-competitive. Since its inception in the 1950s, job creation has been part of the strategy and until 2009 Mondragon was able to steadily increase worker memberships. This contrasts with the capitalist model, whereby job reduction is systematically used as a strategy to reduce costs and increase profits. The success of Mondragon shows that another way is possible.
But alternatives to capitalism are only part of the solution. Equally working class communities have reason to organise politically, as economics and power are intricately linked in the neo-liberal model. Conor McCabe is a member of PRAXIS and will deliver a key address at the Communiversity Forum. Here he explains how working class communities have been let down by social democracy and why people need to be put back at the heart of the process of generating capital: ‘Capitalism was never a friend of the working classes whereas social democracy put itself forward as this great compromise between capital and labour. In essence then this is not so much a failure of capitalism as a failure of social democracy. What we have at the moment across Europe is an assault on working class communities by social democratic parties. This is where the shock comes from. It has not been the Right that have been doing this – it’s been the Labour Party in Ireland, the PSOE in Spain and the PASOK in Greece. Since the crash in 2008 social democracy has picked a side, and it is not ours. The separation of work, community, health and education into parcelled boxes of financial “efficiency” has completely and utterly failed. Co-operation offers a creative and sustainable way of reintegrating social and economic life in a way that benefits human assets, not just paper ones. ”
The Communiversity hopes that the Knowledge Exchange will empower individuals and communities by providing them with the critical knowledge and practical tools to create alternatives. It is hosted by PRAXIS in association with Meitheal Midwest, TradeMark Belfast, UCD Equality Studies and Kilbarrack CDP and takes place in the UCD Quinn School of Business on Monday April 23rd 2012 from 10.00-16.00 with registration from 09.30. To book and pay the suggested €10 (individuals) or €20 (organisations) please follow this link. Alternatively email email@example.com and pay on the day. A limited number of spaces are still available.
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