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Beyond Resistance: Making better world in the here and now

The essay below is both parts of the essay that was published in two parts in

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


I have spent the last year mostly away from the mad activism that has characterized much of my adult life. After the G20 and its aftermath, I decided I needed a break. It was finally time to write the memoir that I had wanted to write for several years. So I decided to take three months totally off from activism. It turned out I needed more time. With some exceptions, I have stepped back from organizing, blogging and most speaking. You may be surprised that during that time, when Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto and Stephen Harper, prime minister, I have become more hopeful about possibility of actually making the world a better place.


So I am in a reflective mood. While others in this series have concentrated on more short-term goals, I want to talk about the kind of transformation we need in ourselves in order to help lead the profound transformations that are necessary for the world we want. The transformations that I think are necessary now go well beyond the overthrow of capitalism that was my focus for decades or even the smashing of the patriarchy, which we talked about but had little idea of how to actually accomplish. Now I think we have to end domination of every type and that means that we have to change the way we treat each other and the earth.

It is important to recognize that times have changed and break out of the rote responses to attacks that has become a habit with many of us. My generation understands what it means to have social power and how it can change things even without political power. In my case, I was involved in the anti-war movement that made a major contribution to ending the war in Vietnam, the student movement that transformed the university and its governance, and the women's movement that made a revolution in the ability of women to be agents in their own lives on a global scale. And mobilizations can still have a powerful role to play in the transformations to come. One example is the way in which the mobilizations after the G20 arrests helped reverse an almost universal support of the police action. But mobilization alone even when combined with elegant theory is not enough.

As one of my favourite writers on the left, Robert Jensen, points out in his thought provoking essay, The Power and Limits of Social Movements, "The potential power of social movements at this moment in history flows from this commitment to speaking the truth -- not truth to power, which is too invested in its delusions to listen -- but truth to each other."

In that spirit, I want to say that our problem is not in the Right, it is in ourselves. Most people in this country and indeed around the world recognize the problems of capitalist society and dislike its inequality, its greed, its unfairness on every level. Most of them are not fighting it because they don't see an alternative that makes sense yet. In some places, like the Middle East today, things are so bad that they are willing to fight without knowing the outcome. In others like in Latin America and even in the U.S., there is inspiring leadership on the Left but it too often gets mired in the powerful structures of global capitalism because the power of social movements is not strong enough to counter the power of the corporate elite. And capitalism doesn't seem to have the flexibility it once had to adapt to and co-opt movements for social justice

We on the Left are relying too much on old ideas and old practices that worked in a time of expansion of global capitalism. In fact, change is happening in multiple ways that are different from the past whether on the Internet or in communities. For example, Wikipedia and Wikileaks, both non-profit ventures outside of traditional media circles have deeply challenged the monopoly of information held by the corporate media. Projects like Transition Towns that are creating alternative ways of living more at harmony with the earth are spreading at a local and global level. Not everyone engaged in building alternatives to savage capitalism consider themselves on the Left, for one thing. For another, the powers that be no longer have the flexibility they once had to co-opt various forms of social change. Their failure to come up with even the pretence of a solution to climate change not to mention their failure to solve the deepening economic crisis are signs of that.

Or as my friend, filmmaker Velcrow Ripper, explains more poetically in a recent piece that appeared on these pages "We need stories rooted in a fierce love, which means boldly facing the heartbreak of species extinction, of human suffering, of ecosystem collapse, while celebrating the explosion of compassion, love and possibility that is rising all over this trembling globe."

Facing the heartbreak

What does it mean to face the heartbreak and human suffering? We on the Left have been great at analyzing the problems, but that is not the same. Whenever I participate in a group that is dealing with people's feelings about the state of the world or their lives, there seems to be a deep well of sadness in almost every person whatever their gender or race. Men and women like me often cover it up with anger but it is sadness, nevertheless, heartbreak as Velcrow says. In our patriarchal culture, including on the Left, expressing anger is acceptable but sadness is not.

Kahil Gibran was a poet much loved by new age hippies in the 1960s. I didn't pay much attention to his wisdom in those days because of the sharp divide between politicos and hippies. In his poem Joy and Sorrow he says:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

If we never express our sadness and pain how can we feel the joy? And if we don't feel and express the joy, how can we persuade people that the transformations we seek will make their lives better.

I remember one tweet from those heady days in Tahrir Square last winter when the people's revolution was at its height, "Tahrir Square is love personified." It said. It was not only the courage and the passion that was contagious but also the joy. Everyone's cynicism in the possibility of change was overcome, not only in Egypt but globally.

More and more people are realizing that changing ourselves is an important part of changing the world. There is nothing new in these ideas, the women's movement long ago said the personal is political, but I want to go further than these political ideas, which remain significant, to the notion that all of us were raised in a highly dysfunctional society from the perspective of human connection.

In addition to the sadness about the state of society and of nature, almost all of us whatever oppression we might have experienced for social or economic reasons suffer from some kind of deep personal wounds. And if we don't face that sadness, that pain, we will inflict it on ourselves and others in a way that is hurtful. Much of the dysfunction on the Left comes not from political differences which can be creative and productive but from people acting out this pain. We become part of the problem instead of the part of the solution.

I was in therapy at the time when I was most busy and most recognized as an activist. I went through a lot of change both from the activism and from the therapy but I kept the therapy private. Only a few close friends knew what I was going through. We have privatized our emotional problems. Our opponents in the corporate elite use their considerable resources to make sure their top executives get the kind of management training that deals with inter-personal problems but with the exception of the anti-violence movement, we have mostly privatized this essential part of changing the world.

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to be part of the Art of Leadership, a training programme created by Robert Gass, the founder of Rockwood Leadership Institute that focuses on leading from the inside out. Robert has combined the knowledge of personal development, spiritual wisdom, and analyses of power and processes of systems change to create transformational leadership training programs. Over the past decade, Rockwood has been training hundreds of social movement leaders mostly in the U.S. but also in Canada. As one who benefited from the training, I can tell you that it made a huge difference in my work and in my life. More importantly, I have been meeting Rockwood graduates who are bringing these methods into the work or their organizations, unions and communities.The impact is significant, opening up a new level of creativity and exposing the heartbreak for collective healing. At the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit last summer, for example, a new transformational change caucus was formed.

Robert defines transformation change as a change that cannot be reversed. It requires change at a personal, behavioural and structural level. If you change at just one of those levels, the change can be reversed. And it's not just Rockwood now focusing on personal and behavioural change. Non-Violent Communication training deals with many of the same issues. In Canada there is a new project trying to bring together several transformational methods like NVC called the Inner Activist. More and more people are starting to deal with the reality that if we want to change the world we need to change ourselves and our organizations.

The question that remains to be answered is what would a movement for structural change look like. We have examples of peoples' democracies that emerge in periods of great upheaval whether the neighbourhood social economies and factory occupations in Argentina in face of the economic collapse of the 1990s or the neighbourhood organization in Tunisia and Egypt last winter. But in each case, the state apparatus takes over and restores some form of the old order. The strategies of the old Left have always focused entirely on that state apparatus. Many of the strategies of today's new Left or new progressive forces are community based without developing new ideas about how the state will be transformed.

It is probably in Latin America where the most advanced experiments in structural change are occurring. There, I think Bolivia is most advance with a political party based in powerful social movements and accountable to them. Evo Morals has always said that taking state power was just the first step in transforming Bolivian society. What we see in Bolivia is a constant struggle where the government and the social movements are in a complex dance of conflict and support. Bolivia has some of the most powerful social movements in the world and a relatively weak state so it makes sense that such a process would begin there. While we can learn from it, there is no one model. Had we had stronger social movements in the U.S. that might have happened to pressure Obama to make necessary structural changes there.

There are some efforts like the new PartyX in B.C. that is developing apps for participatory democracy that might provide some tools for changing the democratic structure. When I wrote Imagine Democracy in the early 1990s, I saw the participatory budget in Brazil as a model of how we could transform democracy but even in Brazil the forces of the established order were able to co-opt the leadership of the PT (Workers Party) who did not transfer what they learned at a local level to a national level.

On the economic front, we have even fewer examples. What challenges we have to capitalist approaches to the economy are either highly bureaucratic public structures or highly decentralized local organizing. Probably the most significant economic alternative we have today is the open source programming. It provides an alternative economic model not based on property rights and competition but rather on innovation based on sharing knowledge. I think the battle to keep the Internet open and movements to break the stranglehold on intellectual property rights are among the most important efforts at structural change on the economic front.

The other area of significant structural change is the food movement. Here we are seeing an alternative distribution system that goes around the centralized system of monopoly distribution sometimes through conflict but mostly through creating community alternatives. Global movements like La Via Campasina and even the Slow Food Movement are globalizing local initiatives. In the U.S. activists often talk about scaling up initiatives. The food movement is an example of how to do that starting from very local initiatives linking up and then globalizing through sharing experiences, knowledge and material solidarity.


Working with Indigenous people over the last couple of decades, I have learned that many of them don't separate head and heart the way we do. The same is true for many Eastern philosophies. This more holistic approach to life is not only more sustaining for us, it is ultimately more sustaining for everything on the planet. And it's not just head and heart. It is social justice and environment; it is sexism and racism. Today all issues are connected to all other issues. Like a ball of wool, wherever we pull, the unravelling affects every part of it.

We also need to value much more those projects that bring us together to create something for our community. Again my generation of politicos often dismissed the alternative life styles created by back to the landers or hippies living off the grid in the city as the work of privileged people who could afford to create alternatives. Today such alternatives may very well be pointing the way to a future economy, more local and community based and a future democracy, more citizen and less professionally based. It is important that those of us who communicate about social change start to see such projects as just as important as the protests. People need to believe in each other again and our capacity to create solutions to the problems society faces. Not to mention that we don't have all the answers to the massive problems we are facing, working on alternatives whether in the sphere of democracy, food, energy, education or transportation will help to find them.

Living well

Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, says there are enough resources in the world for all of us to live well but not enough for some people to live better. This is a reality that few of us in the global north who are living better are willing to face. Much of the social democratic left is still holding on to the dream of a growth economy and burying their heads in the same sand that covers the urgent necessity of dealing with the crisis of climate change in the interest of getting more votes. The radicals might be more aware but too often their approach is rooted in a moralism that is just another form of domination, not in a vision of how we could be happier and healthier in world where resources are shared more equally.

In Velcrow's upcoming film, Evolve Love, Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network says people are still sleepwalking but soon they will awake. When they awake, will there be beautiful alternatives to the individualistic, competitive, winner take all world in which we live?

We live in dangerous times, there is no doubt. I think the political Right will wind up in the dustbin of history in the not too distant future. Rupert Murdoch's rapid decline and hopeful fall is a sign of how quickly the immoral action of arrogant dominators can be exposed when the timing is right. But whether there will be a move to a fundamentalist Right, like the Tea Party or the Taliban based on fear and hatred or to a more egalitarian progressive society based on equality and love depends on the collective us. I think one of the reasons the radical Right is gaining ground is that on some level people recognize the depth of the crises and that new solutions are necessary. The Left, at least the part that is visible to a mass public, is mostly proposing little adjustments and hasn't had to courage or the vision to propose sweeping new solutions.

The Left is not a homogenous force either in Canada or around the world but we are networked and learning how to magnify and support the work of our comrades around the world, learning from them in the process. When I wrote Transforming Power a few years ago, I couldn't find any Canadian groups that were using the new political tactics and strategies that I saw in Latin America, Europe and even the U.S. Today there are several.

The task is not only to stop the worst excesses of the Right but to do so in a way that contributes to building a better world here and now. My generation understands a lot about confronting power and winning. I think the younger generation understands much more about how to construct movements for change in today's world. One of the important tasks ahead is to recognize what from the past is helping us and what is holding us back. At Hollyhock's Social Change Institute last month I met with a group of people who are proposing a series of cross-generational dialogues on strategy to learn from each other about what those new strategies might be. There will be one in Vancouver organized by the Gen Why Media Project in the fall. I think the kind of strategic discussions we will have there is an important part of what we need to do to build a future for the Left.

Read other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada.



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