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Book of the Week: Judy Rebick’s Transforming Power

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
28th September 2009


Given the failure of the Left, the labour movement, and the social movements to creatively resist neo-liberalism, it makes sense that when a new generation emerged to fight corporate globalization, they created horizontal structures and demonstrated an abhorrence of any kind of top-down leadership.

Book: Transforming Power: From The Personal To The Political. by Judy Rebick. Penguin Canada, 2009

Judy Rebick’s book on the rise of networked politics has been very well received so far.

For example, here is a review Hilary Wainright, Editor of Red Pepper:

“In Transforming Power, Judy Rebick tells the story of how, in the wake of decades of destructive politics, many new pathways of social change are being made around the world: from small grassroots groups, to new online mobilizations, to experiments in democratic, pluralist states; from urban USA to the Indigenous Americas.

As humanity confronts the greatest economic crisis in 80 years, and the ecological crisis that is he greatest challenge in history, politics as usual seem barren and irrelevant: part of the problem to overcome, not part of the solution.

Judy’s book is a timely intervention and will inspire new thinking and dialogue on how to build the movements and communities that will bring about the radical changes we need in our world.”

In this first excerpt, from Chapter 8, “A New Grammar of Democracy”, Judy looks at what the new online-enabled movements have learned from the successes and failures of past generations of activists.

Judy Rebick:

“WHILE THE NEW LEFT OF THE 1960S, feminism, and various New Age projects challenged authoritarianism, the political Left never managed to change its authoritarian and patriarchal mode of functioning. The Left believed that to be effective and take on a centralized and authoritarian power, they, too, had to concentrate power. For the social democratic Left, the pressure of the media to conform to highly managed political interventions and, eventually, to highly managed political conventions was deadly to internal party democracy. As early as 1979, British socialist feminists were making the argument that the political Left needed to transform itself, following the example of the new social movements, most importantly the feminist movement.

But the problem goes beyond patriarchal modes of functioning to our very notions of power. The Left has always seen power as being located in the state and in the corporations. The way to change the world was to get state power and make changes to state and economic structures. The women’s movement, anti-racist groups, and the environmental movement introduced the idea that we must also change our personal behaviour if we want to change the world. All these movements broadened the idea of politics into the realm of the personal relationships between people and the relationship between humans and the environment. Power was understood as something each of us exercises in our lives as part of a dominant group, including our human dominance over nature and its creatures. These ideas of power were influential in organizations and in community, but somehow didn’t change our ideas of political change. Today we are seeing the beginnings of that kind of change in the notions of transformative power.

Hilary Wainwright writes in her saucy U.K. magazine Red Pepper:

- Closely associated with an understanding of transformative power are the distinctive understandings of knowledge influenced by movement-based politics. In good part as a result of this politics and—not unrelated—developments in the philosophy of science, we are increasingly aware of the plural sources of knowledge: as tacit, practical and experiential as well as scientific. We are working increasingly with complexity, ambivalence and uncertainty.… A recognition of the many perspectives from which a single phenomenon can be understood must be reclaimed as tools for analyzing and changing a complex real world.

These new understandings of knowledge point towards an emphasis on the horizontal sharing and exchange of knowledge and collaborative attempts to build connected alternatives and shared memories. They stress the gaining of knowledge as a process of discovery and therefore see political action, the exercise of transformative power, as itself a source of knowledge, revealing unpredicted problems or opportunities.

This recognition of the importance of experiential and practical knowledge deepens the nature of debate. It implies debate driven not so much by the struggle for positions of power as by a search for truth about the complexity of social change, a production of collaborative knowledge that itself becomes a source of power.

An early example of this kind of collaborative knowledge emerged from a decimated labour movement in the United States in the 1980s. Then president Ronald Reagan had waged a relentless attack against trade union rights that had seriously weakened not only the labour movement but the rights of workers. The mainstream labour movement was stuck in business unionism, and unable to change its tactics to meet the new challenge coming from neo-liberalism.

Some progressive unionists decided to take another route, going around the power of the leadership of the labour movement rather than confronting it head on. These union activists understood that organizing the workers in the new economy—including those in precarious work, part-time and contract workers who are rarely organized—would be central to rebuilding the union movement. They also understood that making allies within the community would be the key to success. They created an organization called Jobs with Justice.

I first learned about Jobs with Justice at the World Social Forum in 2002. I noticed them because there were so few U.S. groups at that Social Forum and because they were working with some Canadian groups I knew. A few years later, at a leadership training session I attended at the Rockwood Institute, I met Sarita Gupta, who is now the executive director of Jobs with Justice. I asked her how Jobs with Justice organizes. She said,

Even though we are a national network, each of our local groups is locally autonomous. Because of our commitment to local autonomy, our national office doesn’t say “Here is the campaign that everyone is going to work on.”

Our leadership has resisted the normal model of national organizations. We felt that in order to build a strong grassroots worker movement in this country, we have to make sure the organization is accountable to local struggles. We’ve built a network that’s collaborative and not competitive because we understand that we are part of a broader movement, learning from one another. There is a big culture of peer-to-peer learning. Instead of the experts in the national office swooping in to help the national campaigns, we look to one another to help, so our coalition in Boston will help our coalition in New York City.

Our structure is hybrid. We have national stakeholders, but also each of our local coalitions have institutions around the table as a steering committee or whatever governing body works best for them. We also have activists who sign a pledge card, saying,

“We are committing to be there for someone else’s struggle as well as our own at least five times in the next year.”

We have a hundred thousand people who have signed these cards and are the base of mobilization. Those activists are playing a very big role in helping to organize and ensuring we are actually speaking to people.

Early on we structured it that way and resisted the notion of paid staff. Larry Cohen, who is one of our founders from the Communications Workers, said,

“If we are going to do this right, then I will commit as a union that our organizers will give 10 percent of their time to helping get the coalition up and running.”

This helped us resist hiring full-time staff. Now it’s twenty-one years since we were founded, and we are slowly moving toward hiring. But everything we do considers staff and volunteers. For example, we never just do training for the staff, we always include activists and community leaders, so that collective learning is happening in a cross-section, not just for the staff.

People who work with Jobs with Justice come together around an issue or set of issues and make decisions for that particular struggle. It starts at the local level, where the ongoing work takes place. Volunteers can participate at multiple levels of commitment, and decisions are made by consensus.

Like Clayton Thomas Mueller from the IEN, Gupta calls this action base-building.

She explained,

“People take the pledge to support others very seriously. Part of our ideology is around this movement work. We believe that through taking collective action, people are transformed, and their vision of the world or what is right or wrong changes, and their commitment changes.”..

Gupta points out that the organization is rooted in local struggles. It is at those local tables, as she calls them, that relationships are built.

These relationships permit differences to be worked out. Then the national organization can help to mobilize across cities to support a particular local struggle or organize a national campaign that is supported across the board. At the moment, Jobs with Justice’s national campaigns include a push to strengthen labour laws to regain rights lost under Reagan and a demand for public health care insurance.

It makes sense that Jobs with Justice was founded by some of the organizing departments of local unions, since this locally based, relationship-building, networked approach has always been that of organizers trying to get new people involved in the union. The organizing departments of unions have always been closest to the ground and to grassroots workers. It’s not surprising, then, that Jobs with Justice, a new kind of labour organization that works with the unions, is at the same time outside of them, working with the community.

Given the failure of the Left, the labour movement, and the social movements to creatively resist neo-liberalism, it makes sense that when a new generation emerged to fight corporate globalization, they created horizontal structures and demonstrated an abhorrence of any kind of top-down leadership.

In the demonstrations against the various summits of the WTO, FTAA, G8, and the rest of the alphabet soup of global-governance institutions, young demonstrators set up affinity groups and spoke circles that made decision by consensus.

These affinity groups have morphed into a new kind of movement politics that is most advanced in Europe. It is called networked politics, and it is tremendously effective in a number of ways. Many of the most visible protests in Europe, such as the Spanish response to the 2004 Madrid subway bombings, the rebellion of immigrant youth in the suburbs of Paris in 2005, and the mass upsurge in France in 2006 against a new employment bill that discriminated against young workers, were all organized through informal networks. When formally organized political forces wanted to set up a coordinating body in Spain to institutionalize these semi-spontaneous uprisings, none of the young people involved were interested. Not only do these groups resist any kind of formal structure, they also opt out of the corporate global media system by refusing to have identifiable leaders or spokespeople.

Jeff Juris, an American activist and academic from this new generation, explains

“that none of these practices or ideas are necessarily new; these discussions go back to the debate in the early part of the twentieth century about different kinds of organization [between anarchists and socialists]. But technology facilitates more decentralized practices, and allows for scalability. In the debate between vertical and horizontal forms, the horizontal forms perhaps have more of an advantage than they used to, so they are diffusing relatively widely.”

The World Social Forum is probably the largest and most complex political network in the world. Its Charter of Principles contains three principles of horizontality. One is respect for diversity that not only values and celebrates political, social, and cultural diversity but sees the need to constantly extend the network to new actors. The second principle is that no individual or organization can speak in the name of the network. People may speak for themselves or for their own organizations, but no one speaks for the WSF. The third has to do with the inevitable decision-making process that comes from this form of organization, and it insists on consensus. Before you roll your eyes and say that this could never work on a large scale considering the complexity of modern society, we should look at a very similar network that has taken on mighty Microsoft and produced an amazingly successful computer operating system, as well as numerous programs that many believe are of much higher quality than the corporate product. Open source software functions like a network, in many ways similar to the World Social Forum.

The open source system, also called Linux, was created by Linus Torvalds, whose approach has been characterized as “release [program codes] early and release often; delegate everything you can; be open to the point of promiscuity.” In theory, this could result in products and projects that were chaotic and contradictory. However, Linux competes successfully with Microsoft, which is based on the old proprietary methods, and continues to grow.

Contributors to open source projects are motivated by the challenge of writing new code, building on the creativity of others, and the chance to act as partners in the project, rather than by personal financial gain. Challenge and the opportunity to collaborate must be available before a person can start an open source project, or a project founded on the open source model. While people pursue their individual interests, they are doing so while promoting the good of all. Thus, while each person is actually following his or her own agenda, the end result also benefits everyone else involved. In a way, open source turns the neo-liberal ideal of self-interest as a motivating force for the market on its head, liberating the creativity of each individual but in the context of a collective project, in which sharing knowledge and building on the knowledge of others becomes the goal—rather than profit and competition. This is a particularly exciting idea, because one of the acknowledged strengths of capitalism is its capacity for innovation, and we are always told that money must be the motivating force for that innovation. Open source proves that challenge—rather than money—can be the motivating force for innovation.

The metaphor of “open source” is also becoming a key element in the new ideas about democracy. The code is legible, transparent, and open. It can be modified by anyone and favours individual autonomy, participation, and control over giving power to a representative or a particular group. Openness, as an ethical principle, also refers to reciprocal listening, communication, connectivity, and inclusion.

Jai Sen, a veteran activist from India who is theorizing this idea of open space, says,

The central idea here is that an open space, rather than a party or movement, allows for more and different forms of relations among political actors, while remaining open-ended with respect to outcomes. It is open in that encounters among multiple subjects with diverse objectives can have transformative political effects that traditional forms of movements, coalitions, and campaigns, with uniform themes and goals, exclude. By the name itself, it also seems to offer scope for a much wider range of actors to take part and contribute, including those not necessarily involved with politics or movement; so it is more inclusive.

Of course, neither the software movement nor the anti-globalization movement lives up to these ideals, but both demonstrate that individuals and groups working together as equals, without power being distributed in a hierarchical way, can be very effective at producing the results that the group desires… Lawrence Cox, an Irish activist and sociologist, said that we must redefine the way we see power itself. Instead of seeing it as located in the state or in the corporation, we have to see power as something in all of our relationships. “Then every single movement we do is a laboratory in which we are experimenting with the grammar of democracy. If we get together in a circle and balance the presence of women and men, we are somehow thinking about how the future grammar of democracy will be.”

This is an exciting idea, because it means each of us can change the theory and practice of democracy through how we interact in our organizations.

Thomas Paine, a father of the American Revolution and an important democratic theorist, pointed out in his 1792 essay The Rights of Man:

It appears to general observation, that revolutions create genius and talents; but those events do no more than bring them forward. There exists in man [sic], a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be able as such to bring forward, by a quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.

Perhaps the young activists across Europe and North America are practicing a form of democracy, which, while short of revolution, does manage to liberate the genius and talents in ordinary people by using open space, horizontal structures, and self-organization. The question is how does this liberation of human potential interact with existing power structures to transform them?…

The Obama campaign used the principles of networked politics both to fundraise and to organize. The most sophisticated online fundraising operation in the world, www.moveon.org, was assisting him, and obviously he has brilliant online strategists from the generation that grew up with networking online. While the campaign machine itself was probably organized in a fairly traditional, professional, top-down manner, they were organizing a grassroots campaign. If you signed up as a volunteer, you could get a list of phone numbers of people to call and a script of what to say. No one monitored what you were doing; you didn’t have to join the Democratic Party to do it or go to a meeting to be trained. They just assumed that if you supported Barack Obama and wanted to volunteer time, then they wanted you involved.

That’s it. Anyone who got that email could host a meeting for Barack Obama. Just like the Sud étudiants in France, the IEN, or Jobs with Justice, the Obama campaign provided the tools and resources and left it up to the individual to handle the meeting. That kind of confidence in supporters is rarely seen in a traditional campaign, in which control over the message and the campaign is of paramount importance.

It wasn’t just online that this open friendly approach governed the campaign.

According to an October 8 article in his blog on Huffington Post, electoral campaign expert Zack Exley explains the genius of the Obama campaign was in combining the openness of networked politics with the a sophisticated electoral machine. “The Obama campaign is the first in the Internet era to realize the dream of a disciplined, volunteer-driven, bottom-up-AND-top-down, distributed and massively scaleable organizing campaign, “ writes Exley. Instead of staff recruiting volunteers to knock on doors, they spent their time identifying volunteer team leaders and training them to organize others thus vastly increasing the volunteer operation on the ground. The slogan of the organizing campaign was “Respect Empower Include,”

Jeremy Bird, the Ohio general election director and one of the driving forces behind making teams a national strategy, said, “We decided in terms of timeline that [our organizers] would not be measured by the amount of voter contacts they made in the summer—but instead by the number of volunteers that they were recruiting, training and testing. ..

Regional Field Director for Southwest Ohio, Christen Linke Young said,

“I feel like people are committing more time this election because there’s a community thing going on, and they’re part of something that’s local and social. But we’re also more effective at harnessing volunteers because the teams do a lot of the training and debriefing themselves—it scales well. Everyone who goes out canvassing comes back with at least one story of someone they impacted. The team leaders are trained to give people time to tell those stories, and so everyone gets a sense of progress and they learn from each other how to be more effective next time.”

But when the openness of the Obama campaign met the vicious attacks of the McCain campaign, they were forced to a certain degree back into the old model of the battle of titans. Nevertheless, they kept the positive message and the friendly open approach to their supporters right up until election day…

Internet expert Jesse Hirsch says the Obama campaign will transform electoral politics in the same way as the Kennedy-Nixon debate, which marked the moment that television took over electoral campaigns. The challenge is to figure out how the networked politics approach can impact on the hierarchical institutions that have most of the power in our society. Open source shows that on the economic and creative level, networks have as good or better outcomes than hierarchy. Obama shows that introducing even an element of networked politics into a highly structured political system can vastly increase people’s participation and the campaign’s creativity.

Recognizing the weaknesses of networked politics does not in any way take away from its considerable strengths. It is the network with roots in the ground, on which any lasting transformation of power will take place.

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