Civilization of the opressed



Porto Alegre, 2003



by José Eustaquio Romão



From our first days of school, we learn that science, technology, religion, art and other superior constructions of human invention, in all historical ages, were born of privileged or dominant social groups. Most of our teachers assured us that even though, sometimes, representatives from these groups have failed to distinguish themselves intellectually, they have always decided which of the creations and inventions of human intelligence should be preserved and disseminated, thanks to the control they have had over the financing of theoretical formulations and their condensation in the fabrication of artefacts.

Since the beginning of the history of stratified societies, the productions and expressions of the hegemonic classes or those they control have constituted what is called “erudite culture”. And, as the expression of those in power, it almost always seems like the only one that should be transmitted to future generations, as if it guaranteed the elevation of special beings to superior levels of actualization in terms of their specific possibilities.

In the same line of thinking, we hear endless claims about the lack of culture of the poor, about the “not-knowing” of the dominated. Even when, from time to time, we have heard tell of their specific ways of analyzing and interpreting reality, their representations are almost never taken seriously and, because of this, they are opposed by the processes of preservation, accumulation and transmission of the cultural patrimony and, consequently, banished from scholastic curricula. In other words, popular culture is almost never considered a constituent element of the preserves considered important for the evolution of the species. It appears as a counterpoint to “erudite culture” and its linguistic expression, when compared to the “cultured norm”, carries a negative epistemological and political connotation.

To cite an example of this cultural bipolarity, in hegemonic historiography, “pas de documents, pas d’histoire” . So, if there is no history where there is no (written) document, there is no people’s history because, usually, the people cannot write. The absolutism of written documents in historical science is an exclusionary ideological contrivance used by literate culture, in the guise of epistemological superiority. To reconstitute the history and historiography of the oppressed, we must use different and alternative sources than the primary, written ones. We need to find other evidence.

It would not be too much to remember here that the marvelous expressive variety of the neo-Latin languages derives from Vulgar, not from Classical, Latin! Thus, it does not make sense that schools in countries with neo-Latinate languages quash the popular dialect in the name of a greater epistemological and expressive wealth in the “cultured norm”. This entails true ethnocentrism, or would it be classicentrism, as evinced, in counter-proof, by the frequently excessive refinement of popular prose and poetry. So that, often, the beauty and precision of the terms and expressions seem to come from a real epistemological-ethical-esthetic “Occam’s razor”


In the end, every thesis remains a hypothesis because it can be negated by a posterior thesis. Many times, humanity has been misled by beliefs in “scientific theories” which later prove to be completely mistaken, not to say erroneous. Such was the case, for example, of centuries of belief in geocentrism . Human theories are merely representations of reality, closer or more distant from objective truth, according to the position of the observer. Fundamentally, greater “scientific intimacy” does not depend so much on the formulators’ talent as on their position in the context.

It is exactly this kind of evidence that obliges us to review the “inescapable” truths which are fed to us, from elementary school on, regarding the significant cultural creations of hegemonic groups and societies in every historical era. So that, by observing the evolution of humanity and consulting the historiography which hung over the trajectory of the “civilizing process” , we may perceive that advances of the human species toward higher ground, in the sense of realizing their full potential, always came from oppressed social formations or segments, never from the socially oppressive classes.

Certainly, it was in support of this evidence that Paulo Freire wrote:

Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressor’s power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression. 

It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves. (FREIRE, 2000: 56)

This same evidence, on the other hand, obliges us to relativize our theses, recharacterizing them as hypotheses, even when we are convinced that the perspective of the oppressed gives them some epistemological advantages and nourishes their impulse to accomplish their initiatives which can elevate them and, along with them, a great part, if not all, of humanity.

However, there is a series of questions which are raised by the hypothesis of the authorship of civilization’s advances by the oppressed. In the first place, the very term “civilization” is loaded with ethnocentrism, insofar as it is the result of a classification made by a “civilized” person of humanity’s stages of cultural evolution. Thus, the discussion of the concept of culture, the stages of its occurrence in social formations and the cultural systems present in all of them is of consummate importance for the propositions of the aforementioned hypothesis. In the second place, it is not easy to identify a vocabulary word or, what is more, to construct a neologism — as Paulo Freire frequently did — which, semantically and without signs of ethnocentrism, accounts for the significance we wish to lend to the idea of a civilizing process. Finally, and perhaps this is the task which seems the most difficult, it is necessary to discover the factor(s) which impel the oppressed to advance Humanity in the direction of “civilization”, rather than retreating to “savagery” or “barbarity”.


A lot of paper and ink has been used in the discussion about the differences, the approximations and the dissimilarities and divergences between the concepts of culture and those of civilization. I do not wish to restate them here. However, I will restate, in a rather summary way, what I have already developed in other works on the concept of culture and its corollaries and implications.

The term “culture” presents a semantic plurality but, given the limits of this essay, we will focus on its significance as “humanization of the world”. In this sense, culture is everything that results from human thought and action about nature, especially when it comes to obtaining the goods and services necessary for the survival and reproduction of the species. In sum, culture is all human action that confers a new significance to that which, originally, things and processes had in their natural state. Beings and natural phenomena exist and are transformed objectively, as if obeying a determining, external teleos. In other words, they evolve as if impelled by an exogenous objective. When a human being makes use of one of these beings or interferes in one of these phenomena, she confers a second significance and another objective, creating culture. Let us imagine, as an example, the use of a tree branch by one of our ancestors to “augment” her arm and, with it, reach a fruit on a higher tree. What was, naturally and simply, a branch became a “food collector”; moreover, it gained new significance and a new objective in the hands of a representative of the species.

In the same way, she could use the branch to beat the head of her runaway husband, now conferring on it the sense of a “weapon”. In the two opportunities, we are faced with acts of cultural creation, as violent as one of them happens to be.

Still from an anthropological perspective, we must derive from this concept of culture, among others, at least three orders of consideration. In the first place, culture is more a process than a structured group of concepts, laws, axioms, postulates, artifacts, etc. In the second place, we have to admit that all peoples, even the most primitive, have culture. Finally, even though they are in different stages, all social formations, from the simplest to the most complex, constitute their culture with three systems of intervention in the Cosmos:

I — Productive Cultural System

II — Associative Cultural System

III — Symbolic Cultural System.

The first is made up of the forms and instruments of “production and reproduction of immediate life”, as Engels wrote in the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1975: 19). In other words, what the Productive System — which some anthropologists, like Darcy Ribeiro (1978), prefer to call the “Adaptive System” — says with respect to the forms, means and instruments of production of material existence. It corresponds to the anthropological version of what the materialist-dialectical explanation calls the “infrastructure of societies”. It is made up, therefore, of means of production and productive forces.

The Associative System is made up of the group of specific norms of human sociability in each one of its known social formulations, as well as the forms, specific also, of its application. Moreover, it has as constituent parts the “instruments” of supervision and application of these norms, which are also responsible for the application of sanctions on whomever disobeys them. It can be said, in more technical language, that the Associative System is made up of the law and bureaucracy of each society, for even though these words are applied only to modern, complex social formations, it is not difficult to imagine their adaptation to more primitive and simpler human communities. In terms of historical materialism, this system corresponds to the juridical-political superstructure.

The Symbolic System, contrary to the first two which are action systems, is a representational system: through it, women and men represent nature, themselves, their relations with nature, other human beings, their mutual relations, the cosmos, etc. The Symbolic System is made up of the sciences, the arts, religions and all forms of captivation, interpretation, representation and worldly expression.

There is another human reality that is not specifically contained in any of the cultural systems mentioned above, even though it passes through them. Perhaps it constitutes another system. That is affectivity, sometimes called “libidinal reality”. It is just as fundamental to the survival of the species as the elements of the other systems, since its imbalance can lead, in extreme cases, to self-elimination; and, evidently, is even more fundamental for the reproduction of the species! Under Freudian rationality , the libido appears as an element diametrically antagonistic to sociability, made manifest as the tragically individualistic search for personal happiness.

In sum, culture may be synthesized as in the diagram contained in Figure 1.

[Insert Figure 1]

The concept of culture, however, is laden with ambiguities. Not to belabor the theme, suffice it to say that it is most commonly used as a synonym of erudition. We say “so and so is a cultured person” when, usually, it would be more appropriate to say “that person is erudite.” On the other hand, the word “culture” denotes a structure, to the extent that it introduces a more procedural connotation. Thus, the reading and administration of the world, by women and men, constitutes a process in permanent mutation. Trying to escape the traps of the ambiguities of the other term, “pedagogy”, the Greeks wound up offering us a word which comes very close to the idea we want to capture and register. That is, “Paidéia”, whose nearest translation is “civilizational process”, or process in search of the full realization of humanity. And it is on this meaning that we construct our thesis or, rather, our hypothesis that any human advances in the sense of this fulfillment can only be developed by the oppressed.

Finally, it comes down to identifying the impulse that causes men and women to develop the process of civilization, of culture, the movement in search of the human utopia, the Paidéia.

However, to discover the impulse — and even to know what to call it — leads peripheral social formations and dominated social groups to surpass their “limit situations”, transforming them into “viable originals”, we would need to analyze the specific situation of every social formation that occurred in the history of humanity. As this examination also surpasses the limits of the present work, the summary considerations we make here about the theme are no more than provocations, hypotheses to be confirmed in the empirical proof of the analysis of concrete social formations. Nevertheless, we will simply foresee something here that may be developed more profoundly later with a simultaneous inquiry into both the concrete history and the history of human thought on the theme of impulse.

Until the XVII century, the human impulse toward the “Paideiatic advance” was seen as the result of a passive movement in the direction of a teleos external to the being and which attracted it. From that point on, various thinkers sought the internal impulse, propulsion of self toward human fulfillment.

Around the year 1600 people began to place this propensity inside men (impelling them) rather than outside (attracting them) as had been the case before 1600. In 1670, Espinoza called this impulse “soul.” In 1818, Schopenhauer called it “will.” In 1890, Bergson called it “vital energy”, while Freud, at about the same time, called it “sex.” Throughout this last period, many naturalists called it “energy.” (Quigley, 1961: 30-31)

Arnold Toynbee, the historian who is a reference for Quigley , developed the theory that civilizations are only constructed by social formations which respond to the (real, but not excessive) challenges they confront. Here, even though he criticizes the teleos (exogenous attraction), Quigley, inspired by Toynbee, ends up returning to the negation of the endogenous impulse: the challenges that present themselves in the trajectory of social formations are those which catapult them toward civilization. It follows that people and social segments only develop if they are challenged. In this sense, indigenous Brazilians, for instance, would be backward, in terms of civilization, because they are seldom if ever challenged, to the extent that they are protected by a benevolent nature, settling for the material comfort that it gives them. Would it not also be worthwhile to ask why Brazilian slum-dwellers are in such an “uncivilized” situation? Could it be because they were unable to respond to the real and excessive challenges of domination?

Paulo Freire made a notable contribution to the discussion about the concept of impulse, developing his theory about human beings’ consciousness of their own incompleteness as a catalyzing element of dissatisfaction and, dialectically, as a propelling factor in the construction of hope and of utopia, in the tireless search to “be more”. Among all the beings of the Universe – incomplete, unfinished and inconclusive like us—human beings are unique in their consciousness of their own incompleteness and, because of this, push themselves toward completion, toward plenitude.

The Freirian contribution goes further to discuss why this impulse is not present in the oppressors – or present in a distorted manner – but only in the oppressed. How do the oppressed, and not the oppressors, make humanity advance, if the dominant ideas, values, projections and aspirations in a class society are ideas of the dominant classes, as Marx claimed? How can the oppressed do anything different from the oppressors, if they inculcate the oppressors’ ideological traffic, becoming their hosts, as Freire affirmed; most of the time, merely wanting to change places with the oppressor, transforming themselves into him?

What is important, therefore, is that the oppressed struggle to overcome this contradiction. Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one. The man or woman who emerges is a new person, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanization of all people. Or to put it another way, the solution of this contradiction is born in the labor which brings into the world this new being: no longer oppressor nor longer oppressed, but human in the process of achieving freedom.

This solution cannot be achieved in idealistic terms. In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform. This perception is necessary but not a sufficient condition for liberation; it must become the motivating force for liberating action. Nor does the discovery by the oppressed that they exist in dialectical relationship to the oppressor, as his antithesis—that without them the oppressor could not exist—in itself constitute liberation. The oppressed can overcome the contradiction in which they are caught only when this perception enlists them in the struggle to free themselves. (FREIRE, 2000: 49)

In fact, the mediation of the situation of oppression is in the oppressor-oppressed relationship. The oppressed, in their impulse, in their transforming movement, can take two paths : either they seek to be elevated to the dominant position, which leads, eventually, to their attempting to defeat or substitute the oppressor, or they struggle to change the situation of oppression. And there is the key to Paulo Freire’s thinking which denies the possibility of human freedom coming from the hands of the oppressors: if it comes, it will come from the hands of the oppressed, which is not to say that it will ever come. It will not come, even from the oppressed, as long as they are interested in changing places. In the first instance, the oppressed will not free themselves or their oppressors; only by following the second path can they free themselves and, in doing so, free their oppressors as well.

We remain ignorant of the impulse factor, what is its motor and why it is located in the oppressed. Could it be because the oppressed suffer domination? We can infer from Freire’s thesis that only the oppressed can be interested in changing the situation of oppression, because of their suffering. But the answer to this question is an essential part of our thesis (hypothesis), which we want to present in our final considerations.


Carroll Quigley (op. cit.) developed the theory that all societies have one or more “instruments of expansion”, which make them advance in the direction of the construction of a civilization. As far as he is concerned, the impulse is sent through this instrument. Nevertheless, every instrument of expansion has an irrepressible tendency toward institutionalization. That is, a factor that exists and works for the sake of the whole society, as was the case with the infantry in the Roman Republic, and produces its development; however, with the passage of time, it is threatened to be overcome by new social needs, because its internal agents tend to resist the changes demanded by the new times. At this moment, the instrument is institutionalized, that is, it no longer attends to the needs and designs of society in general, favoring the exclusive interests of those agents.

Every hegemonic group in the mechanisms of the State which are the instruments of expansion, fearing the loss of positions in the implementation of modifications demanded by society, starts to use these unaltered instruments just to defend its corporate interests. In sum, every dominant group would have a structural tendency to institutionalization, as Quigley says. In other words, every social formation presents various sectors of activity and, in each one of them, more or less dynamic institutions can exist . The more dynamic they are, the more “instituting”; the less dynamic, the more instituted or institutionalized. And their degree of dynamism must be measured by their efficiency and efficacy in responding to the institutional missions with which society as a whole entrusted them. The ‘instituting’ institutions begin to lose their capacity to respond to these missions when they migrate, more and more, within themselves, turning to the objectives of their own agents, sacrificing those of the society at large.

Let us see how this occurs in the broader historical process. In a general way, ascending groups of oppressed people, in their battle against the situations of oppression, obtain a high incidence of identification between their values and ideals and the projections and aspirations of the whole of society. However, once in power, they tend to collectivize their objectives and to crystallize history as the possibility of a series of transformations. In other words, once in the place of the oppressive class, they tend to negate history insofar as they begin to view the society resulting from their victory as terminal, at the same time “forgetting” their original objectives, entrenched as they are in the defense of their rights and ‘exclusive’ ideals. That is why the oppressed perspective of constructing the Paidéia is in movement, not in the structuring of its victory.

Paulo Freire made two important contributions in this sense. First, he studied and wrote “pedagogies”, recommending to his closest friends that they do the same. Increasingly universal in his thought and action, was he not contradictorily recommending a segmented production, turned toward a specific field? Or was he saying that pedagogy, in the “paideiatic” sense ( a process of humanization through culture), is the necessary rationality at the beginning of the millennium? Was it not for this reason that, instead of creating “pedagogical circles” or “educational circles”, he proposed the creation of circles of culture?

In the second place – and this is the most important contribution he made to world thought – he tried to read the world through the eyes of the oppressed, from the perspective of the pedagogy. He did not produce a “pedagogy for the oppressed”, but a pedagogy of the oppressed!

As scholars and re-inventors of Freirian thinking, we ought to pore over every sector of human activity, searching for this perspective of the oppressed, this regard which sees the world, epistemologically and politically, as a space of ‘being more.’ Because the “superiority” of science, of art, of religion and of the remaining forms representing the oppressed is exactly in its admission of change, in the understanding and hope brought about by/through the transformation. One could even argue that this is the rationale of the lowest common denominator – and we know that Paulo thought of “vanguardism” as well as “basism” as alienated/alienating ways to construct knowledge and political militancy. It can even be argued that the world vision of the oppressed is contaminated by traces of the consciousness and culture of the oppressor. So, why consider the oppressed consciousness as more scientific and of greater political density? Here there is no way to escape the distinction made by Lucien Goldmann between “real consciousness” and “possible consciousness”, developed throughout all his work. Paulo Freire himself, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, recommends that we examine this distinction in Goldmann.

In this sense, we must go back, to the science of the oppressed, to the music of the oppressed, to the literature of the oppressed, etc., not only for the generosity and political commitment of the “wretched of the earth”, but also for the epistemological clairvoyance and ontological necessity of the realization of our humanity.

Paulo Freire gave us the example in this particular case, positioning himself in the perspective of the oppressed to detail the educational and pedagogical process. But this process does not appear on the surface of the consciousness of the oppressed, it has to be sought in their insertion in the historical process, in their historicity, which makes traces of liberationist consciousness possible, independent of psychologically and socially manifested consciousness. However, for these traces to become reality, a pedagogical process that unlocks a liberationist education is necessary and, what is more, one that creates Padéia, the process of Humanity’s cultural development.

Nevertheless, we are even now convinced that the richest and most powerful people, politically speaking, and those who employ the most technology are not necessarily those who advance, making the whole of humankind advance with them. The history of societies is replete with examples contrary to these hegemonic beliefs. Let us look, by way of example, at the case of Iberia. Until the XIV century, it was a region on the periphery of Europe , without economic, technological or political power. Even so, from one moment to the next, it realized important syntheses, whether in science or in technology as known in various parts of the world at that time, so as to apply it to the “Great Navigations” and, through them, to allow the advance of the whole of Humanity in various aspects of its process of ‘being more.’ Along the same lines of thinking, when the Iberian social formations attempted to consolidate their colonial empires of domination over other people, they lost their identity with more planetary ideas, values, dreams and utopias and fell into decadence.

So which is, finally, the creative impulse of “civilization”, of culture, of humanization? It seems to be that which speaks about solidarity or, for those who are not frightened by certain or words or expressions, it seems to be the ability to love. In fact, the contrary movement back to nature, the return to “barbarity,” always seems impelled by the category of privatization. The privatization of the Productive System and, consequently of the goods (of production and of consumption) has taken the minority to the alienation of consumerism, accumulation and environmental destruction, imposing on the majority the atrocious suffering of hunger and violence, threatening the very bases of the Planetary survival of the species. But this has already been exhaustively demonstrated. The private appropriation of the Associative System, that is, the utilization of the rights and mechanisms of the State (in the Gramscian sense) has transported the minority to despotic alienation of all gradations and has taken the majority to the madness of submission to those parallel powers of contravention, the drug trade and fundamentalism. The privatization of affectivity leads to the delirium and the mania of narcissism and of solitude.

 Does this mean that the oppressed will always mobilize collectively? No. Not always, because, in most cases, they will be reading the world with the eyes of the oppressor, with the oppressor’s tongue and head. For them to read the world with their own eyes, from the perspective that history impressed upon them, it is necessary that the pedagogy of the oppressed continues to expand.

Only the oppressed have the potential to allow humanity to advance in the sense of the Padéia; but it is only the Pedagogy of the Oppressed which will permit the construction of the Civilization of the Oppressed.

Translated into English by Peter Lownds, PFI-LA, October-November 2002


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