Transforming democracy

Transforming Power by Judy Rebick

Transforming Power
from the personal to the political

By Judy Rebick
Penguin Canada 2009

ISBN 978-0-8020-2 (cloth) $75
ISBN 9780143169468 (paper) $24.00

Book Review

Political activist Judy Rebick has written a visionary and inspiring book that suggests applied people-power can transform politics from an élitist, secretive, and corrupt process into an open, grassroots democracy that could radically and vigorously tackle the urgent issues of our time.

Her writing is highly-charged and visionary, but her focus on the politics of left-wing South American countries, with a few exceptions, glosses over the fact that Canadian political culture is different. Can western democracy be transformed, or are we just too affluent to change?

A prominent Canadian journalist, political activist, feminist, and writer, Rebick was born in Nevada, emigrating to Canada with her family when she was nine. President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women from 1990 to 1993, she soon became the leading and very outspoken voice of the Canadian feminist movement.

CBC pinko feminist

Rebick co-hosted a political talk show on CBC Newsworld from 1994 to 1998, then a women’s discussion show until 2000. She helped launch the left-wing online publication in 2001, becoming its publisher from 2001 to 2005. She currently occupies the CAW (now UniforSam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University in Toronto.

I guess that makes her a card-carrying CBC pinko feminist, a category of journalist that drives Canada’s right-wing conservatives into apoplexy. I’m warming towards her already. Rebick’s background puts her on the leading edge of progressive Canadian politics, and her book is a refreshing glimpse of a possible way to defend and improve western democracy.

The book arose out of Rebick’s growing despair that by 2005, after decades of effort, the anti-globalisation movement had failed to counter the neo-liberal agenda, halt environmental degradation and global warming, or protect citizen’ rights against the increased emphasis on security following 9-11. She felt that the Left had lost its way.

South American activism

Rebick decided to look to South American politics to find a way forward. In January, 2006 she heard Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez speak in Caracas. At first, she thought he was a “crackpot,” but on meeting other South American activists when she returned to attend the 2006 World Social forum, she began to appreciate their new approach to politics.

South America had been hit by neo-liberalism “with the force of a tsunami,” she writes. The brutal dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s had been replaced by democratically-elected, left-leaning governments. In 1998, Hugo Chavez rose from humble origins to become Venezuelan president. Chavez used his country’s oil income to improve conditions for the poor and assist grassroots indigenous movements in other countries.

On December 21st and 22nd, 2001 millions of piqueteros took to the streets in Argentina’s major cities, especially Buenos Aires, forcing the government out of power after draconian neo-liberal policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund caused disastrous economic collapse.

Bolivia’s indigenous government

In 1999, after generations of racist suppression and exploitation, Bolivian workers and campesinos (70% of Bolivian are indigenous) decided to form the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo), a political coalition to contest elections. MAS is not a classical political party — an important difference.

Lead by Evo Morales, MAS came a surprising second in Bolivia’s 2002 election. It won a majority in 2005, with Morales becoming only the second South American indigenous president in 500 years. MAS and the campesinos beat back a strong right-wing challenge in 2008 using only peaceful resistance. Morales won 64% support in a recall referendum.

Rebick became fascinated by Morales and Bolivian politics, meeting him and many of his ministers in La Paz in 2006. She was impressed by the “tremendous support he has from an amazingly well-organised and mobilised indigenous campesino movement,” and his non-violence.

Power to the people

The fundamental difference between conventional political culture and the new South American approach is its inclusivity. Political power is drawn from grassroots political organisations that empower individuals to become active within their own community, regionally, and nationally.

This ‘bottom-up’ democracy is the core thesis of Reick’s book. She shows how participatory budgeting, in which residents decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget, revitalised the City of Porto Alegre in Brazil, and here in Canada the Toronto Community Housing Association, whose community management plan is based on the same principles.

Rebick applies this fundamentally different approach to all aspects of personal and social relations, from feminism, racism, environmentalism and the Internet, to political leadership, community-building, First Nations, non-violence, the Green Economy, and political parties.

Can it happen here?

Although Rebick is enthusiastic about South American democracy to the point of being starry-eyed particularly about Evo Morales, she presents a powerful case for change. But one big question remains unanswered:

Can it happen here? Are enough Canadians prepared to step outside their comfortable, consumer role to involve themselves in community, regional, and national political processes? Can Canadians sweep aside the barriers that prevent full citizen participation in this élitist democracy?

Rebick thinks so. In an interview on CBC Radio’s The Q she spoke of already seeing “a bottom-up engagement of citizens, with people in their communities organising to solve problems themselves, and not always looking to government and complaining that government isn’t doing it.”

The way ahead

Rebick sees encouraging signs, but admits that community activism is happening more in the USA than in Canada. Although her book succeeds in drawing attention to the South American experience, its unabashed enthusiasm seems like “pointing to the cows in the neighbour’s field.”

Grassroots support from individuals and local community organisations powered Barack Obama into the White House. Undoubtedly, his success could change Canadian politics to a degree. But would this be enough?

Rebick has taken the cause to the streets. She has set up a blog site to promote the book and act as a focus for something to happen. Her book tour included speaking in major Canadian cities, but I feel that more is needed. Perhaps kitchen table study groups using her book as the focus?

Whatever, the bottom line is that with Transforming Power, Judy Rebick has written a seminal book could be the key to transforming democracy.

Majority Coalition Canada

Canadian political culture, past and future

Introduction to these reviews

Will Canadian politics simply be a continuation of the past, or have we gone through a political sea change that will result in a radically transformed and more polarised political landscape?

»Read the Introduction to this review»

In Search of Canadian Political Culture

In search of canadian political culture

By Nelson Wiseman
University of Toronto Press, 2008

ISBN: 9780774813884 (hardcover) $85
ISBN: 9780774813891 (
paperback) $29.95

»Read our review»

Majority Coalition Canada

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