Image: Outside In: A Political Memoir

Outside In: A Political Memoir by Libby Davies
(Between the Lines, 2019, 26.95)

I recently spoke to a graduate of an Ivy League university who told me that he lacked confidence and wondered if I had any suggestions on how to build one’s self-assurance. I replied that the various solutions that our contemporaries suggest were not very helpful. Focusing on individual achievements in terms of status, wealth, or power would not produce the courage that he was looking for. True conviction does not essentially come from pursuing one’s own needs but instead comes from serving a cause that transcends one’s personal concerns. The resolve of individuals — for example, the Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the professor Noam Chomsky, or the spiritual leader the Dalai Lama — is directly related to their broader social justice commitments. Self-confidence lies in dedicating one’s life to a greater project and its principles. Unfortunately, North American society — in its media, its education system, and the spectacles that it values — inculcates the opposite.

One example of this negative influence are political memoirs. Memoirs recount historical events, acts, and circumstances as dramatic personal experiences. The intuitive desire of modern readers to receive personal forms of ordering information and narration predisposes them to appreciate political autobiographies more than other forms of historiography. These memoirs, in our society, tend to perform a conservative task. They chronicle historical dynamics in terms of the heroics of political leadership and therefore conceal the larger economic and cultural forces that influence social relations. If things did not proceed as planned the implication usually is that this was entirely due to a failure of individual decision-making either on the part of the politician or on the part of those whom the person was struggling against. For this reason, while political life stories may inspire individuals, they rarely produce collective mobilization.

What is noteworthy about Libby Davies’ political autobiography Outside In: A Political Memoir is that it offers us a more complex form of reminiscence: the book includes not only the decisions of political elites but also the role of political activists and social movements — those on the outside — in their struggle against larger structural forces. The text inspires engagement and should be read by every member of a progressive social movement or political party.

Davies was born in 1953 in Aldershot, Britain to left-leaning parents. Her father was a soldier in the British Army and her mother was a member of the Women’s Army Corps — working in the War Office in Whitehall as a Morse code operator. Because of her parents’ military service she lived, from a young age, in various parts of the world, such as Cyprus, Germany, and Malaysia. She notes from adolescence she was captivated by writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka. The first two writers of course emphasized a philosophy of action which demanded that one take responsibility for one’s self and one’s political world.

Outside In outlines Davies’s career as a community organizer, a city councillor, and eventually deputy House Leader of the federal New Democratic Party (NDP). Her commitments were impressively comprehensive. Unlike many activists, she did not lock herself into single issues or a political silo. A glance through the photographs in the book show her, among other things, advocating for the rights of the homeless, for safe-injection sites, for LGBTQ+ rights, celebrating a nuclear-free zone posting, advocating for a Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry, calling for a national housing program, protesting against the Free Trade Areas of the Americas (FTAA), supporting sex-worker safety and rights, participating at an Idle No More event, supporting redress for head tax payers, visiting a Palestinian refugee camp, attending an international AIDS conference, participating in an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) protest, and attending May Day rallies. Davies’ politics were impressively “intersectional” long before Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s term became part of the leftist lexicon.

Davies reflects on the relationship between social movements and political parties. Unlike the slacktivists’ focus on digital networks, she persuasively notes that trust built on personal relationships is at the core of social movement and political organizing. The most touching parts of the account are Davies’ appreciative descriptions of the various individuals — such the Vancouver poet and activist Bud Osborn — who shaped and accompanied her social justice projects.

The book demonstrates the enduring importance of the NDP and social movements. The party and activists’ commitment to universal health care, affordable housing, cultural diversity, and an overall egalitarian agenda have been crucial to Canada’s social progress. Canada’s generally high rating on the United Nations Human Development Index reveals the role that NDP policies and political struggle have had in providing the country with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Those of us who have lived in both Canada and the U.S. have had direct experience of residing in a country that has a social democratic party versus residing in one that does not. The U.S. has a liberal party and a conservative one but it does not have an NDP. That absence has played itself out in numerous ways. The recent politicians who have produced the most excitement among U.S. progressives — Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — argue for many policies which have already been implemented in Canada because of the NDP and the activists that exert pressure on it. Outside In is an inspiring lesson, and legacy, in terms of the resistance and transformation that social movements in collaboration with political parties, via courageous, compassionate, representatives such as Libby Davies, can generate.

Thomas Ponniah, PhD, is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, and the co-editor of Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (Zed Books 2003), and co-editor of The Revolution in Venezuela (Harvard University Press 2011). 

Image: Outside In: A Political Memoir

Thomas Head Shot by Monianne (1)

Thomas Ponniah

Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D, was a Lecturer on Social Studies, Assistant Director of Studies, and Faculty Associate of the Project on Justice, Welfare and Economics at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He...