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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.

In the first half of this essay, I spoke about the centrality of dealing with our emotional issues collectively as part of strategies for social change. I argued that healing from the oppression and hurt of our individual lives is essential to being able to lead the kind of change we want to see but that we have mostly privatized that kind of healing. In this section, I talk about the connection between this kind of personal and behaviour change with the structural change that is also necessary. I conclude on the importance of multi-generational dialogue in coming up with the strategies we need.

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.

Judy Rebick’s blog can be found here.

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

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.