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Welcome to rabble.ca’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, rabble.ca’s 10th year, and is curated by journalist Murray Dobbin.

Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.

– Che Guevera

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.

Kahlil 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.

To be continued…

The second half of Judy Rebick’s essay, which will appear Friday July 29, will discuss some directions for structural change that is so necessary for transformation. Her blog can be found here

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

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is the author of Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political and was the founding publisher of rabble.ca. She also holds the CAW Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy.