Reassessing Political Education
We are truly living in an age when information has become more easily accessible than it has ever been, but concurrently, a disdain for knowledge has become all the more prevalent. People will Google anything and believe whatever the first search result tells them, but trying to get some people to read a book on any subject of material import can sometimes feel like pulling teeth—at times especially so if they have no reason to believe that a given text will somehow make them into a millionaire.
The primary mode of learning today is not intentional study, but merely consuming information. Generally, when we seek information, we want it quickly and easily, without requiring much thought of our own accord, like fast food. Under these conditions, those of us who practice and lead in political education should consider reevaluating our approach, that is, if our intent is to be at all effective.
The following statement is one that even I have had trouble accepting; it is not reflective of things as they should be, but things as they are: As it stands, our approach to political education has been too fixated on reading as a standalone mode of ideological dissemination. I say this as someone who is a staunch advocate of reading—and reading full texts—as someone who does political education for my organization, and has started a book club myself. We are too reliant on reading.
This statement should not be misunderstood. It is not made to take the position of those who would claim that the diligent and collective study of history and political theory is superfluous or only secondary to political action (as if either political action or political theory could effect the liberation of a people when divorced from one another). We do not take the dismissive attitude of some professional class academics, in which it is condescendingly presumed that working class Black people do not have the wherewithal to read and can only be reached through “more accessible” (read: dumbed-down) means, nor is this statement meant to proclaim that we have thus far satisfied our needs for political literacy. We certainly are not reading enough; we should read more. What I am advocating for here is not the eschewal of book reading, but a diversity of tactics—a holistic approach to political education.
Our system of political education today has been mostly relegated to reading groups and book clubs and, while these systems of collective study are vitally necessary, many of them seem to be serving less so those who are in dire need of political education and more so those who just generally enjoy reading and love intellectualizing. A genuinely radical political education program, if it is to serve a purpose beyond intellectualizing, if it is to be both communicable and effective, should not be approached purely from an academic or instructional standpoint but those who lead in political education should consider their role as that of propagandists.
Consider the prevalence of bourgeois propaganda and its effectiveness. It can scarcely be escaped. It has a hand in everything from movies to television to social media. Even on an interpersonal level, you have probably heard someone in your neighborhood, or your barber, or your cousin, or your auntie tell you of a “financial literacy” program and try to promote (or sell) it to you. Alongside this, there will be celebrity activists, athletes, and motivational speakers joining the chorus. When it comes to financial literacy programs, there seem to be just about as many people selling them as there are buying them, and they are propagated as the panacea for all the socio-economic ills of the Black community. This, of course, is not happenstance. This campaign was not developed organically to address the needs of Black communities but is directed toward Black communities from without as a counterinsurgency measure designed to direct the liberative efforts of Black people away from those ideas and actions which threaten the existing order and toward ideas and actions which are dependent upon it.
Of course, there is some merit to gaining the knowledge that would allow one to responsibly handle one’s own personal finances, but this is not the primary purpose and function of financial literacy programs. The primary purpose of these programs is bourgeois ideological indoctrination. This is most clearly evidenced by the fact that these programs are predicated upon the idea that the socio-economic standing of Black people should be credited not to systemic inequities or the many mires of racial capitalism but only to the poor financial savvy of Black people generally relative to other races. This is then followed by the notion that poverty itself, along with other forms of material suffering, is a “mindset” and ultimately that a failure to escape poverty is but a failure of personal and mental initiative. It is quite an insidious bit of work, but it has been thus far effective.
The success that financial literacy has shown in defanging a budding Black radicalism at its source has called into question the supposition of professional class academics who have suggested that working class Black people simply cannot find the means to study. It has shown that the Black masses are more than willing to study should a given propaganda campaign prove that studying would be worthwhile. If the average person is willing to read “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” before they are willing to read the works of Nkrumah, or Rodney, or Wynter, it is ultimately because the bourgeois propagandists have been more effective in their campaign than us.
To be sure, hardly anyone when they are watching a Marvel movie, their favorite sitcom, or sharing a motivational speech on social media is conscious of the fact that they are consuming bourgeois propaganda. It is ubiquitous to the point that it is imperceptible. One would never have to open a book—one could be entirely illiterate—and still be thoroughly indoctrinated into bourgeois ideology. We put ourselves at a profound disadvantage when we demand that political education should begin with reading. The education of U.S. military personnel certainly does not begin with enlistment. It does not even begin with grade school history lessons. It begins with Call of Duty.
Few of the people who believe that Black capitalism is the saving grace of either the Black community collectively or themselves individually and have anointed Boyce Watkins as their personal life guide have reached these conclusions because they read “The Wealth of Nations” and were summarily inspired by the works of Adam Smith. Almost none of the people who have come to believe that the Earth is overpopulated and lacks the resources to sustain all of humanity have reached this conclusion from being persuaded by the works of Thomas Malthus. Someone might suggest that the reason for Black suffering is that Black culture is simply more destitute than that of other races, and they will not need to have read the works of Thomas Sowell to come to this conclusion. This is the nature of bourgeois propaganda. Its adherents need not be concerned with the origins of their information; they need only blindly lend credence to whatever ideology sufficiently upholds the status quo.
The ruling class has fostered a culture of anti-intellectualism in which the only information one would be encouraged to pursue is that which is purported to contribute to relative status elevation within this social and political class structure. Knowledge of class struggle is not only discouraged; it is virtually eliminated. Confronting these conditions is not a task that can be met on one front alone. Our methods of ideological dissemination should employ every mode and avenue imaginable, from art, to music, to movies. They should be employed in a way that is entertaining, engaging, and easy to consume and, ultimately, leads people to further study. The ideology of Black liberation should not be consigned to the academy but must be made manifest in the culture.
In this, I am not speaking necessarily of a Pan-African Superman with a hammer and sickle on his chest (that may be a bit too on-the-nose), but, for example, in the way that hip-hop today features endless advertisements for luxury fashion and car brands and is utilized to promote a culture of profligate consumption and wealth accumulation—in this way, it can also be used to disseminate ideas which contribute to the collective liberation of Black people.
Integrated within these efforts should be a campaign to eradicate the rampant anti-intellectualism festering within U.S. culture. There should be no more division between thinkers and doers—between intellectuals and workers. We have no need of intellectuals for intellectualizing’s sake. We need working intellectuals and we need intellectual workers. One without the other simply will not do. This is the crux of a comprehensive revolutionary political education program, that it should operate in full synthesis of theory and praxis and not merely as the rhetorical wing of the revolutionary struggle. Our primary purpose is not to preach at people or to go door-to-door handing out pamphlets in the style of evangelicals. We should speak to people in the real world, in community and in relationship, without haughtiness or pretense. We should do more asking questions of our neighbors than making declarations. And foremost, above all else, we should be putting whatever knowledge we may have to the use of alleviating the immediate suffering of people here and now, firstly, because of our immense love for the people that no text or theory can engender in us and, concomitantly, because there is no form of propaganda more effective than results.