Friday, December 16, 2011

A progressive dialogue on the future

An open conclusion to the series

By Murray Dobbin
December 16, 2011
This week marks the end of our weekly series "Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons," a project begun last spring to help mark the 10th year of rabble. The series reflected the role of rabble as a site for activists -- a place for people who want to change the world to go, where their values are reflected back to them and where the world is not put through the perverse filter of the corporate media.

The series was launched because it seemed to us at rabble -- and this was hardly a unique view -- that progressive forces in Canada were in disarray and in a state of confusion as to how to deal with the new, right-wing world order. We had just come off one of capitalism's worst crises in decades -- the 2008 financial meltdown -- and yet we had virtually nothing to say about an alternative. The old saw about crises being opportunities seemed not to apply to the left. For us the crisis was, well, just a crisis. It was a crisis that working people would pay for just as they had paid for the rise of neo-liberalism since the mid-1970s.

In the introduction to the series I wrote:

"..we have been on the defensive for over 20 years -- since the historic fight against free trade in 1988. Young activists have with rare exceptions, experienced nothing else but negative campaigning -- stopping the next outrage, trying to anticipate the next assault on our values, defending social programs and the environment, fighting the WTO and IMF. We have been so preoccupied with fighting off the right; we have taken little time to imagine the future we want."

We invited people to contribute to the series in the hope of shedding light on the many social movements which had once been robust, dynamic and clearly speaking for Canadians and their values on a whole range of issues. We also hoped that writers, thinkers and activists would take some time out to imagine the future they were (presumably) fighting for.

We were also looking for guidance and inspiration on how to organize against the global crises -- economic, social, environmental -- that seemed to rarely be the focus of mass mobilizing.

"We face globe-threatening crises -- climate change, species extinction, a looming water shortage catastrophe, more economic disasters created by finance capital, peak oil, and the relentless growth of consumer culture. But we have not created organizations or movements that can address these issues effectively. It seems that only the equivalent of a cultural revolution -- a movement to counter consumerism -- will address many of these issues and make political change possible. But it is unclear how that will happen."

Lastly, as stated in the second half of the series' title, we wanted people to explore how we could reclaim "the commons:"

"Reclaiming and rebuilding the commons -- that is what we share and do together -- is fundamental to fulfilling the World Social Forums' declaration that "a better world is possible."

The 30 or so submissions to the series were excellent contributions to these goals and the series attracted many rabble readers and supporters. It is also clear that such a progressive dialogue is not something that could be contained in a limited series and it was never imagined that it would. We had hoped to kick start that dialogue with the expectation that it would continue into the future and help guide progressives' deliberations and actions.

Coincidentally, not long after we launched the series, the amazing Occupy Wall Street phenomenon launched a world-wide protest focused on one of the most pernicious and most obvious effects of globalization: the almost unbelievable levels of inequality that the last 30 years of liberating the "market" has wrought. In Canada, we have not seen these levels of inequality since 1929. In three decades we have seen the super rich -- the 1 per cent -- double their share of the national income from 7 per cent to 14 per cent.

The OWS phenomenon took everyone by surprise, most especially those organizations and leaders traditionally assigned the task of representing ordinary people and defending them against the ravages of capitalism. OWS at one in the same time reinforced the series' assumption -- that our traditional organizations were failing us -- and gave us renewed hope that a better world really was possible and was being created in the hundreds of occupied sites around the world.

Here people really did reclaim the commons and reinvent democracy. Thousands of activists, often isolated from each other, joined together in oases of consensus decision-making and new communities -- with their libraries, health centres, child care and general assemblies. In the midst of a world that seemed to be devolving before our very eyes, a burst of anger and optimism demonstrated -- to us and to "them" -- that progressive values were not irrelevant, not smothered by the capitalist monolith and that they were still capable of mobilizing tens of thousands of citizens and inspiring the admiration and support of literally tens of millions.

The rabble dialogue will continue in the new year but on an occasional basis -- with rabble encouraging contributions and occasionally commissioning pieces that address particular issues. The Occupiers have given such a dialogue a new meaning and perhaps a new urgency. Where do we -- and they -- go from here? How will the hope and caring of OWS continue to spread? Will the traditional organizations that have, to their credit, supported OWS go beyond "support" and actually reinvent themselves so that they can create that same spirit of democracy in their own politics? Will OWS actually inspire many dialogues within the many movements which still struggle to change the world for the better?

We will see. Nobody knows because this kind of movement, if it is a movement, has not happened before. But we do know that we must have dialogue, discussion, debate, disagreement and a flowering of diverse ideas and strategies, to advance the noble cause and vision of the Occupiers.

Let the dialogue continue.

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's bi-weekly State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee. He is the curator of rabble's Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons series.

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

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