Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: The plural present

| June 3, 2011's extended series on the Canadian left -- Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada.

Welcome to's extended series on the Canadian left -- Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- a look at where it stands after the 2011 federal election, and what the future can hold. The series will run in this,'s 10th year, and is curated by journalist Murray Dobbin.

A different way of organizing for change. This is the challenge Murray Dobbin poses for us, and challenging it is. It is challenging in part because the forces at play are so huge. How does the little guy oppose the neo-liberal giant that is wreaking havoc on civil rights and environmental stability?

But perhaps more importantly, it is challenging because all of us are so well-practiced in the current ways of organizing for change.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Judith Butler urged her readers to not just react, but to deeply consider how things had reached such a point, and to be intentional about charting new paths "in the direction of non-violence." In order to be able to understand the responsibility for change as a collective process in increasingly globalized conditions, Butler believes we have to find ways of "hearing beyond what we are able to hear" and "being open to narration that decenters us from our supremacy in both its right- and left-wing forms."

I agree. If we are to take the challenge to find different ways of organizing for change seriously (and I do), and if we agree with Judith Butler about the importance of openness to narratives other than our own in the pursuit of peaceful approaches to change, then organizing differently can't mean strategizing better or playing the game more effectively.

Vying for power keeps us entrenched in the polarizing discourses of left and right, us and them, progressive and conservative. Let's be honest: these are all euphemisms for "better" and "worse" -- and "they" know it. I have a few problems with these ways of understanding current events:

First, it conveniently leaves "us" off the hook each and every time, no matter who 'us' is. (And I must add: I don't always feel comfortable identifying with the 'us' in which I am sometimes included, as I'm sure there are some who don't feel comfortable always being excluded from it).

Second, by adhering to arbitrary divisions among Canadians, 50 per cent of the people "we" believe we are speaking on behalf of are alienated. This is both disrespectful and counterproductive.

Third, by doing so, "we" close our ears to the possibilities that 'their' perspectives may in some ways a) be valid, b) be enlightening as to what is going on and why, and c) expose important ways 'we' might also be implicated in the current state of affairs.

Fourth and finally, if "we" do succeed in persuading the population, we will merely accomplish the reification of yet another set of norms, which the little guys will likely resist because that is (thankfully) what our system is designed to ensure happens. This brings us no closer to reclaiming the commons.

No, there's got to be another way. Or rather: other ways. The "s" in "ways" is significant here.

I recently took a writing workshop that I believe provides important insights into this conversation by bringing together both Butler's and Dobbin's hopes for the future: nonviolent ways of relating with each other in the public realm that have the capacity to bring about positive change.

H. L. (Bud) Goodall, a prolific creative nonfiction writer, reminded those of us who participated in the workshop that relating with a reader is much like relating with a person because (let's not forget) readers are real people. So with that in mind, here's a little writing advice that translates well into the political sphere as it, too, is about relating with real people:

Be compelling

Goodall reminded us (as writers) that even though we have been trained to think that information is the most important thing, this is not how readers work. If they remember the story, they'll remember the information. If they don't remember the story, then it doesn't matter how 'right' or potentially useful the information is; you've lost them.

So rather than honing arguments, might we instead find creative ways of reaching out to and connecting with those we feel inclined to persuade? Butler reminds us that finding ways of connecting across the vast expanses that divide us can "furnish a sense of political community of a complex order ... by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility."

In other words, we have to not only understand how our fates are intimately connected to those with whom we align. More importantly we have to understand how we are intimately connected to those with whom we differ. Only by recognizing our current predicaments as shared human issues instead of partisan politics will we find different ways of organizing for change.

Invite, don't lecture

Goodall told us, "If you tell me this is the way the world is, I'm going to resist. If you invite me into your story, I'm going to be inclined to join you." Not only is persuasion and argument unlikely to 'hook' readers; it is quite likely to repel them -- inclining them to disagree, rather than identify, with you. So what alternative is there? Goodall's advice to us, as writers, was to "develop a relationship with the reader."

I'm sure you see where I'm going with this.

Simple as it sounds in terms of writing or even interpersonal relationships, it's not. And it's certainly not simple when it comes to larger social processes. But as Butler says, "we are, from the start, given over to the other ... by virtue of bodily requirements ..." There is no denying our inherent human interdependency.

To work towards change differently, I believe, could mean working from this as a starting place. Asserting what makes 'us' different, and asserting why 'they' should recognize that in order to move forward isn't working. Might we instead consider working from the understanding that we are interconnected in the most complicated ways, and proceed from there? There is no disentangling ourselves, so what if we stopped trying to set ourselves apart and instead work hard on coming together?

Humanize all characters, not only the protagonist

Goodall reminded us not to turn our surrounding characters into stick figures. He said, "every time you introduce a character, you have an obligation to convey them as complete human beings."

To look at the "them" (the right, the conservatives, whoever) as equally complicated as "us" -- well, that would be revolutionary, wouldn't it? What might it change to understand that all of us are responsive to each other and to social conditions? What might it change in terms of how we engage - in political debates or in the streets of our communities? How might this help us understand how all of us have been perpetuating things as they are in certain ways? What possibilities might it then open up for engaging differently in order to elicit different social and political responses?

Work in the 'plural present'

Bud Goodall reminded us that if each of us told the story of what was happening right now, each telling would be different, and each telling would be partial. This is the case of any telling of any story. Telling a story as if it is the only one forcibly shuts off the imagination of the reader - and this is no way to start telling a different kind of story, is it?

Which is why the "s" is so important.

I appreciate that this series urges us to think differently about change. But I wonder what possibilities might emerge if we shift the challenge into the plural: To find different ways of organizing for change. We need to open ourselves to the plural present: to the possibility that this is not about nailing down the one right story and working towards it, and to the idea of staying in motion so as not to risk cementing positions.

Importantly, openness to multiple narrations does not lead to the dangerous position that "anything goes." Indeed, Butler warns that adhering loyally to strict lines of solidarity "has become a means by which to stifle any serious public discussion." In her critique of American reactions to 9/11, she observes that citizens were placed in an impossible situation in which opposing the war meant supporting the attacks -- "as if the sympathy with the one translates, in a single symbolic stroke, into support for the latter." This conflation need not occur -- in that case, or in any.

Whether it comes to writing or to national politics, perhaps there are some basic relational dynamics that might inform possible next moves. It's not easy. But this may be the time to stop looking for easy and start doing the hard work required to move forward together.

Janet Newbury is currently a PhD candidate, instructor, and researcher at the University of Victoria. She is also involved in a number of social justice-related initiatives in her hometown of Powell River, British Columbia.

To link other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- please click here.

Thank you for choosing as an independent media source. We're a reader-supported site -- visited by over 315,000 unique visitors during the election campaign! But we need money to grow. Support us as a paying member (click here) or in making a one-off donation (click here).





We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.