Book review

Author’s insights on power offer hope in volatile times

In April, activist Judy Rebick spoke at a Parkland-sponsored event at Calgary’s Arusha Centre. Post writer Jamal Ali had the opportunity to meet the author and was inspired to read and review her book, Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political.

Judy Rebick knows a thing or two about the political. She’s the founder of rabble.ca (the popular Canadian news and discussion site), once hosted a news program for CBC, and a former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. She’s also a successful author. In her latest book released earlier this year, Rebick looks at how globalization and mass communication are changing how we see power and politics. She argues that mass communication is allowing people to coalesce and react on a larger scale to things that personally affect them.

But it’s not the subject of the book, so much as its call to action, that’s extraordinary. This inspirational book is an invitation for humanity to work together in making our world a better place. Throughout the book, Rebick weaves together her personal experiences and observation, and thorough research. She reveals how a greater cohesion between ideas, people and practices can provide the paths to change needed in our global community.

Rebick draws heavily on her involvement with the women’s movement in Canada in the early 1980s. She argues that the women’s movement was powerful because of its political and personal relevance to women. “ ‘The personal is political,’ wasn’t just a slogan, it was a lived reality,” she writes. “To liberate women, we had to liberate ourselves – our minds, our bodies, and our emotions.”

It is interesting to note that feminist ideas and practices – specifically, egalitarianism and consensus politics – are among the most influential in the new movements and struggles described in this book. She sites the environmental and peace movements of the 1980s as two of the movements that benefited when feminists joined their ranks.

But in the course of researching this book, Rebick was surprised to discover that the roots of feminism had gone deeper than she ever expected. At a workshop on feminism and political parties that she delivered in Berlin, almost all of the participants were young men. “When I asked why, the young men responded that of all the movements and political currents of my generation that had influenced them, it was feminism that had influenced them the most,” she writes.

Knowing that we live in a patriarchal world, Rebick’s experience in Berlin enlightens me. As a feminist, male writer, I have been deeply influenced by feminist ideas and practices. Women across the world – including Rebick – have made enormous efforts to make our planet a better place. In fact, they are my role models.

Rebick’s book also examines some basic tenets of power. Within the majority of organizations around the world, power is built from the top, creating a hierarchical structure of power. But Rebick’s trip to Bolivia during the summer of 2006 revealed a very different model of power than we are used to. Her observation of the Bolivian experiment in democracy led her to conclude that it was one of the most extraordinary revolutions in the history of humanity.

The Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) led by the Bolivian Evo Morales is unique in the sense that it’s not a political party but a political instrument of the social organizations. All the indigenous campesino (peasant) organizations came together and formed a political organization that could contest elections. While these organizations started the MAS, they were joined by most of the trade unions and neighbourhood organizations, as well as various elements of the middle class, including intellectuals. Essentially, it is the social organizations, not Morales, who have the real power. Bolivia’s democratic experiment clearly illustrates a bottom up approach to building power.

What is so extraordinary about Morales, who came to power in December 2005, is his policy of economic reciprocity rooted in human values, like giving, receiving, and returning. As a result of this policy, he cut his own salary and those of elected officials and government mangers by 50 per cent. With the money saved, the country was able to hire 3,000 new teachers. In his first six months in office, he increased the minimum wage by 50 per cent, launched a massive literacy campaign and broadened free health care. He made changes to laws so that women could own land and redistributed land to peasants. His boldest move was the nationalization of the foreign oil and gas holdings in the country. On May 1, 2006, Morales announced that foreign companies would have six months to renegotiate their contracts or leave the country. The older wells are being taxed at 82 per cent, exactly the same percentage the companies took for so many years and are now being forced to return. Since all the foreign companies accepted the deal, for the first time in their history, Bolivian people are benefitting from the riches that lie under their land. Before the nationalization, the government, received a shameful $3 million a year from hydrocarbons. Today, the figure is $2 billion, allowing for vital improvements to the national economy.

Rebick’s book offers hope that the world is still changeable – but it starts with the individual.

“Maybe finding this power in ourselves, the power to love rather than hate, the power to feel suffering rather than shut it out, the power to feel compassion rather than anger, is the power we need to change the world,” writes Rebick.

Her advice for those seeking change? “Get started.”

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

Jamal Ali is a writer and mental health advocate residing in Calgary. His work can also be found in Schizophrenia Digest and Alexandra Musings.

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