On Crisis Learning: A Materialist View of Political Learning

One of the most important insights of modern philosophy is that “knowing that,” or “propositional knowledge,” is a “founded” or derivative mode of engagement with the world. More specifically, it is founded upon knowing-how, or practical competence. For instance, to cite a simple and obvious example, our propositional knowledge of grammatical rules is founded on something that is more “originary” [ursprünglich], to use Heidegger’s term, which is our practical competence to speak and understand our mother tongue. Children learn to speak much earlier and much more readily than they learn to state or recognize any of the rules of grammar, or even the definitions of words (for instance, any small child knows how to use the word, “time,” but very few people, even as adults, can say what the word “time” means).

A famous resistance practice-form: women banging garbage bin lids in the occupied counties, Ireland.

A famous resistance practice-form: women banging garbage bin lids in the occupied counties, Ireland. 

Probably, you can produce a set of verbal instructions detailing the steps to go through in order to tie your shoes. But this is not because you carry around with you a set of beliefs about these steps. Instead, it is because you are able to reconstruct the steps by reflecting on something more basic: your pre-cognitive facility/aptitude or know-how, by virtue of which you can readily perform the task with competence and ease, without any need to think of the steps, or to have any beliefs or opinions about how it’s done. This was a key theme in Heidegger’s Being and Time, but also Mao Zedong’s On Practice, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, to name only a few examples of important philosophical works in the early 20th century that touched on this theme. 

There are many ways in which this matters. But here I want to focus on one particular way: how people learn about politics. 

There are, I think, at least three ways that people learn about politics: first, and least importantly, there is learning through political discourse. In political discourse, people develop opinions by considering arguments that they hear or read. So much energy is devoted to the activity of making arguments (even arguments against arguments, the paradoxical apex of political discourse) that one might suppose that it was the main way in which political learning takes place. In fact, however, hardly any political learning happens this way. Part of the reason is that most people, most of the time, only bother to listen or pay attention to political arguments that they find agreeable in advance. Seldom does a socialist read something written by a conservative, or whatever other examples you can think of, in a spirit of open-minded inquiry, i.e., finding out what’s true without assuming it in advance. On the contrary, one knows in advance that one’s adversary’s main claims will be false, but perhaps one wants to find some opinions to attack, or to construct some counter-arguments to discourage others from taking the writer seriously. Actual inquiry is confined largely to exploring the nuances that divide oneself from one’s co-thinkers, on small details or narrow points of disagreement. To the extent that learning takes place via political discourse, it is mostly elaboration and clarification of what one already takes oneself to know (which is itself mainly a function what one habitually does). 

A second type of political learning, which is far more important than political discourse, is political socialization. This is the process by which one develops practical competence in forms of political activity. This can take the form of learning how to identify people and positions as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘feminist,’ etc., based on various signals, such as vocabulary, priorities, paradigmatic ‘tropes,’ and so on. One learns that use of terms like ‘privilege’ and ‘oppression’ is often an indicator that someone is a leftist of some sort, while use of terms like ‘taxpayers’ and ‘law and order’ is an indicator that someone is a conservative. Another type of political socialization or competence acquisition is learning how to perform certain types of political act, for instance, complaining to a public official, or signing a petition, or attending or organizing a protest, and so on. The number and variety of forms of this kind of political competence acquisition are far too many and varied to try to enumerate all or most of them. For now, it is enough to notice that this is not a matter of thinking and reasoning, but a matter of acquiring facility or competence and know-how. There are beliefs involved, of course, but this type of learning is not mainly about belief or opinion formation. It is mainly about learning how to carry out certain performances competently. In this sense, it is more like learning to speak a language with pre-cognitive (that is, non-propositional, non-opinion-based) competence, than it is like learning a set of explicit grammatical rules. It is learning how to perform in certain ways, not what to believe about certain things.

Before turning to the third type — referenced in my title, ‘crisis learning’ — I want to make a couple of concise observations about political socialization (competence acquisition), in contrast to political discourse (opinion-formation). The acquisition of competence is less influenced by debate and discussion. For the most part, it is influenced by leading, i.e., drawing people into a practice, which invites them to internalize standards of skillful performance that may be hard to state, but which are (as it were) internalized by people who learn how to perform in the practice. For instance, people might be invited to attend a town hall public meeting. They might see others stand up and make demands on a politician. Over time, they might develop the competence to stand up and try the activity out. Gradually, they may develop skill and facility or competent ease in the performance. They come to know how it’s done. But it would mostly be pointless to tell them what to do. Instead, it is a matter of drawing them into a practice, where exemplary performances can be witnessed, appreciated, and replicated. 

Two things follow from this practical character of political socialization. First, it tends to be only very weakly influenced by what people say or argue. Second, when people have learned to perform (behave) in a certain way, it is very hard, not to say impossible, to argue them out of it. In other words, once I learn how to tie my shoes in one way, I am unlikely to be easily won over by someone talking to me about some great new style of shoe-tying, which is much better than the way I have learned to do it. No matter how passionately they argue with me, no matter how comprehensive and rationally compelling the arguments are, I am liable to be unmoved. This isn’t because I’m irrational or a victim of ‘brainwashing.’ It is simply because how I act is not a function of opinions so much as it is a function of habits and competences that are more “originary,” to return to Heidegger’s word, than opinions. Know-how has a much firmer grip on me and how I act than knowing-that. 

This brings me to the third type of political learning: crisis learning. Suppose I find myself in the middle of a general strike. Perhaps I am one of those rare individuals who has all sorts of opinions about general strikes and how they should be conducted. (Indeed, I certainly am such a person.) In that case, my learning will be atypical: mostly a matter of figuring out how to “apply” my opinions. If so, it would be a grave error if I were to imagine that my form of learning, as applying opinions, is typical of how most others will learn during the unfolding strike process. On the contrary, most of the learning, by most of the people involved, will have little to do with the formation of opinions based on political discourse. 

For most of my neighbours and co-workers, who (1) have no opinions about general strikes and how to organize or conduct them, and (2) also have very few habits or competences that are particularly relevant to the challenges at hand, their learning will be of a very different sort: not a matter of applying opinions, but a matter of groping around for new habits. That is, they will have to cultivate new kinds of competence, in a hastily contrived way, in the absence of clear exemplars to appreciate and emulate. They may have known for years how to tell the difference between the way conservatives talk and the way feminists talk, or whatever. But now they will have to learn how to react to police officers threatening to beat them if they don’t “move back” or disperse from an area. Or they might have to learn to notice, and finds ways to push back against, certain “cooptation” dynamics in struggle-settings (which is something everyone saw happening during the Black Lives Matter organizing), or how to handle the jailing of dozens of comrades, or whatever. Depending on the background of the persons in question, this might be the first time they have had to cope with situations like this. And so, they have lots of things to learn. 

But clearly, new opinions are not what the situation demands. What they need is a kind of competence reconfiguration. And crisis learning is the kind of semi-improvisational competence re-configuration that people engage in when circumstances demand of them performances for which their existing repertoire of competences offer no guidance. 

It’s a bit like someone who was an only child (hence no younger siblings) and never did any babysitting (hence lacking any childcare skills) suddenly being charged with the care of a baby. The person in this predicament will have to very quickly find makeshift coping routines, and develop new competences, without having the luxury of comfortable socialization into an up-and-running practice with readily visible exemplars of skillful performance to emulate. This is what I want to call crisis learning. 

Politically, crisis learning is far less common than political socialization. And yet, for people with a keen interest in those rare moments of opening, in which upsurges of struggle impart an atypical dynamism and fluidity to political life, crisis learning is one of the most important aspects of politics. 

One could say a great deal about crisis learning, of course. But I only want to underline one simple point: that political discourse is a less helpful or ‘generative’ framework for intervention into this kind of dynamic situation than something else that can be done to facilitate crisis learning: the popularization of portable practice exemplars.

What I’m calling ‘portable practice exemplars,’ Michel Foucault called ‘political technologies.’ It simply means designs for the configuration of activity that can be transported and adapted to multiple contexts and situations, and can serve as a basis for coordination and mobilization in pursuit of certain ends. This is something we saw in the Assemblies Movement. Initially, in Egypt, a simple practice-form was established in Tahrir Square: camp out in a public square, set up assemblies that facilitate public discussion and at least rudimentary decision-making, and use self-organized infrastructure to both address the practicalities of the convergence and to prefigure forms of egalitarian and horizontal cooperation that inspire hopes for a more far-reaching social transformation. This basic practice form was then transported and activated in other places, including Greece and Spain, and later at Occupy Wall Street and eventually in hundreds of cities and towns around the world. 

What makes portable practice exemplars so important is that they can be transported and activated, and used as a framework for rapid crisis learning, without the need for experienced exemplary persons, whose skill at navigating a social practice can be observed, appreciated and replicated. A portable practice exemplar, like the General Assembly, can be set up in a town where no one has any experience in its workings, and everyone can learn together, quickly, in a structured and manageable manner. In crisis learning situations, political discourse is largely irrelevant to the tasks at hand, while political socialization of the usual sort (which draws people into up-and-running practices where they can learn by following the examples of those who already have the practical competences needed) is a luxury that isn’t available, for reasons of time and reasons of fundamental novelty, due the sudden dynamism and instability of the context. 

The final point that I want to make is suggested by my example. It is clear that the General Assembly in a Public Square proved to be a very infectious and fast-moving portable practice exemplar. It worked, in that sense. But did it work, in the more important sense, by moving struggles forward, and helping to open up new opportunities for far-reaching social change? It’s less clear, anyway. Other portable practice exemplars from the past have had similarly mixed results: the consciousness-raising group, the urban guerrilla cell, the ‘party of a new type,’ the commune, the pluralist anti-capitalist network, the women’s caucus, the ‘proletarian guard,’ the spokescouncil with affinity groups, the workers’ council, and so on. None of these has proved decisive, in the manner of a quick fix or secret recipe.

Still, what can be said for them, in contrast to political discourse, is that they answered (either well or poorly) to the needs of the moment in contexts of political crisis: they served as vehicles for crisis learning. And, if nothing else, that made them important and influential in shaping the political learning process of many thousands or in some cases millions of people. It’s a form of learning that ought not to escape our attention.

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