Democracy is the Road and the Destination

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications. Many of the views expressed in this article emerge from my new book Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political which is the result of three years of travelling around the world, particularly in Latin America to see firsthand what those who were having some success in challenging neo-liberalism were doing.]
I believe we are in a time that is of equal historic significance to the Industrial Revolution, the period that produced many of the ideas of the society in which we now live. The combination of the environmental crisis, globalization, and new technologies is producing profound new ideas about social and political change. And in response, more and more people working for progressive social change understand that the crisis is too great for differences of ego or ideology to divide us from others who share the goals of social justice, equality, and environmental sustainability.

In looking at many of the new efforts at progressive social change, particularly in Latin America, North America, and Europe, what has emerged for me is a new understanding of power. The Left has always seen power as residing in the state and in the corporations. Seizing state power or winning it in an election is the first step to transforming society. The women’s movement posited a different approach, saying that power also resides in our relationships to one another. Men have power over women, and to change society we need to transform those relationships of power in the here and now as well as working to change the laws and structures of society. Anti-racist activists and theorists make a similar point about white supremacy and racial discrimination. In both cases, the change involves not only changing societal structures and oppressive relationships but also changing ourselves. Most members of a group that has faced marginalization and discrimination internalize feelings of inferiority, and members of the dominant group internalize a sense of entitlement. Consciousness-raising groups in the early days of the women’s movement, the black power movement during the civil rights movement, and the queer pride movement and identity politics during the rise of anti-racist politics were all designed to transform oppression into pride and dignity.

What emerges from the new political directions around the world is that transforming power at every level is what is common and central to progressive social change in the twenty-first century. As people work for change, a new vision is emerging of a world as the Zapatistas say in which many worlds fit.


As Van Jones, a human-rights and environmental activist from Oakland, says, “Martin Luther King didn’t become famous by saying, ‘I have a complaint.’” The Left, in North America at least, has lost much of its vision, allowing the Right to frame the issues and spending all of our time fighting against their ideas instead of putting forward our own. We are the anti-globalization, anti-racist, anti-war movements, but what are we for?  What is needed, and happening more and more, is the building of new alternatives at the same time as protesting reactionary policies. Envisioning and creating a new world in the soil of the old is critical to building movements for change in a society where cynicism and fear are so widespread. This vision emerges not always from thinkers on the Left but also from a broad range of actors and thinkers from the practioners of free software who are creating horizontal networked economic models to the spiritual activists who are seeing the need to act in the world if their vision of one world is to become real; from anti-poverty activists in Britain who have taken control of their own housing and services to indigenous peasants in Bolivia who are in the process of taking control of their entire country though a process deeply rooted in their values and sense of radical equality and reciprocity; from the slow food movement that started in Italy that is creating a grass roots alternative food system,  to the landless movement in Brazil that is creating new co-operative communities starting with occupations of land.  

Another common element is the idea that change has to come from the bottom up, from the grassroots, from the people most affected by the change we need to make. The sense of entitlement among the middle classes of Europe and North America and the intense consumerism of our society makes it difficult for people of privilege to imagine a different kind of society, let alone fight for it. That is why many of these new ideas and practices are coming from the Global South and from marginalized groups such as indigenous peoples in the North. Those who have the least to lose have a world to imagine.

This is combined with an approach that is more about process than product, more about setting out on the right path than deciding on the destination. Central is the idea that change will not come from the right set of policies, the right program, or a better ideology. Rather, change will come from the process of building power from the bottom up. No one is trying to outline the path to change. In the diversity of our world, we realize there are many paths to change. “We make the path by walking”[1] is the famous phrase from the civil rights movement in the United States, which is now being put into practice by movements around the world.
At the World Social Forum in 2003, I participated in a debate sponsored by ZNet that seemed to focus on whether the participatory-democracy strategy of the PT in Brazil or the self-organizing of Argentine workers was more important in the path to change. Socialists were more interested in Brazil and anarchists in Argentina; each ideology concentrating on the struggle that would justify its beliefs. The reality is that both strategies have their strengths and weaknesses. We can learn from both experiences and both have their limitations.

Whatever the limits of participatory budgeting as a strategy for fundamental change, it gives us an important model of how democracy can be transformed to work for people by including their voices in a central way. The pressures of the existing system on people in power are so great that even when they are committed to such a truly democratic process, as was Lula da Silva, it is difficult to implement it at a national level. The debate about how to do this continues in Brazil. The experiences of the people in Argentina show the power of horizontal organizing, in which strategies come from the people on the ground instead of from someone’s theories of change, but the grassroots democracy was unable to translate into a national system for change and declined once a sympathetic government was in power.

Neither participatory budgets nor horizontal organizing within communities are sufficient to make fundamental changes, but both are essential elements that are needed to prevent the bureaucratization and corruption that has been the sabotage of so many struggles for social justice and equality around the world. They are also necessary to engage the creativity of thousands of people, many of whom have been the most marginal and excluded people in society, and to draw them into democratic processes.

What I have found, wherever I have looked, is that ordinary people, when they are given, or when they take, the opportunity, are quite capable of making good decisions—in many ways more capable than those who have the official positions of decision-makers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Bolivia, where an indigenous majority took power under the leadership of indigenous cocoa farmer Evo Morales in 2006.

Rooted in centuries-old traditions of communitarian socialism, reciprocity, and a oneness with the earth, and combined with decades of radical and militant trade union and indigenous struggles, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) came to power in December, 2005. Evo Morales is not only the second indigenous leader in the Americas in more than five hundred years but he is also a campesino and leader of the cocaleros (coca growers), one of the most militant trade unions in the country. The MAS led by Morales is not a political party in the classical sense. It is what people here call a political instrument of the social organizations. All the indigenous campesino 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 neighborhood organizations as well as various elements of the middle class, including intellectuals and elements of the urban Left. Like Hugo Chavez, they reject both the old revolutionary strategy of armed revolution, best represented in the person of Che Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia, and the social democratic strategy of change from within. For Morales, taking government does not mean taking power. Power, for those who have never had it, must be built from the bottom up, non-violently but not naively.


There will be confrontation, but large numbers of people can resist it and turn it around.  Indeed since my visit two years ago, the Right in Bolivia has gotten more violent, even killing 17 peasants in the Pando province. But with the mobilization of the people and the rule of law, the MAS has managed to achieve a tremendous amount including nationalization of hydrocarbons, significant agrarian reform, a new constitution that is anti-neoliberal and anti-colonial.  In fact, Evo speaks of Bolivia as the first non-colonial state in the Americas.  Bolivia is having a huge influence across South America in deepening the understanding of the centrality of ending colonialism as part of a vision of a new society.  And that vision includes aboriginal knowledge and wisdom in solving the problems of the planet.

In an interview Evo told me:


The indigenous communities have historically lived in community, in collectivity, in harmony not only with each other as human beings but with mother earth and nature, and we have to recover that. If we think about life as equality and justice, if we think of humanity, the model of the West, industrialization and neo-liberalism is destroying the planet earth, which for me is the great Pachamama [Mother Earth]. The model that concentrates capital in the hands of the few, this neo-liberal model, this capitalist model, is destroying the planet earth. And it’s heading towards destroying humanity. And from Bolivia we can make a modest contribution to defend life, to save humanity. That’s our responsibility.

Legendary Peruvian indigenous leader Hugo Blanco put it this way in a speech he gave in Toronto in 2007:


European religion believes in a superior spirit who created nature to be in service of man. Our culture is completely different. For our culture, we are children of that nature. It’s not that nature was created for us in our service, but we’re children of nature and we have to live in harmony in her bosom. And in her bosom we live in harmony with the plants that do us the favour of feeding us, with other plants as well that may not feed us but indicate to us whether the harvest will be good or bad, other plants that do us the favour of healing us, and in this way, the solidarity extends to all of nature. There is worshipping towards water, towards the sun, towards the river. The other characteristic of our culture is collectivity.

As the young U.S. Aboriginal leader Evon Peter points out, it is only when we start to understand the impact of colonialism in excluding the knowledge and contributions of those whom society has excluded, and begin to reverse it in our own minds, as well as in our governing structures, that we will find a path to equality and social justice.  I believe that the most important part of a new vision is a world in which all forms of diversity are embraced and valued rather than a world in which we value ourselves only by seeing ourselves as superior to others. If European identity was formed by colonialism defining the white race as superior to those Europe was exploiting, perhaps the arrival of hundreds of thousands from the Global South to Europe is the opportunity to turn the world right side up.  I recently attended a meeting at which an Aboriginal woman, in talking about the apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the residential schools in Canada, said, “We have a prophesy that white people and indigenous peoples are tied in a knot by colonialism, and each one of us suffers as a result. Now is the time to untie that knot and find freedom for everyone.”  
The political Left still does not reflect this diversity despite good political positions on race and gender.  The idea that one or another ideology has all the answers needed by the people of world reproduces that white supremacy in the domain of political theory   Hugo Salvatierra who left his post as Minister of Agriculture in the Morales government to return to his native Santa Cruz to help organize against the Right, told a conference in Toronto, “I was so blinded by European ideology (Marxism) that I couldn’t see that 40 percent of our people were already living under socialism.”  
Creating a vision of society of radical equality and true democracy is necessary to a vision of a new world but achieving peace and a fair economic system are equally important.  I don’t have time in this essay to explore either in depth but I can say that in my exploration of how we will achieve peace in the world what emerged most strongly was the need to find peaceful ways of solving our own differences.  Violence begets violence and it is so easy to respond to state violence with our own violence, however ineffective it might be.  Working as much as we can from compassion rather than anger is key to creating a peaceful society.  I’ve been a fighter for social justice my whole life, even risking my job, my physical health and once or twice my life in pursuit of a better world.  I found a lot of my courage in the anger of my youthful rebellion  and anger is a necessary part of standing up against oppression but if we get stuck in the anger then too much of what we do winds up defined by those we are fighting. I want to live in a world where love, compassion and solidarity with every creature defines society.  I want to live in community and connection with others, a world where we take care of each other.  Fear and hatred, too often promoted by governments and fueled by resistance lead in the opposite direction.  As a privileged white North American it is easy for me to say and I understand the rage of those oppressed by imperialism and colonialism but with the exception of the Cuban Revolution, it is difficult to point to an example where a violent revolution has led in the long term to a better way of life for the people.   In Latin America, where the Left has a long history of violent resistance, most of the Left has renounced violence as a method of social change.  If war was ever an answer, it is surely obsolete today.  Creating a vision of a peaceful world again requires a process of peace making n everything we do.  That doesn’t mean avoiding conflict; it means dealing with conflict as much as possible in a non-violent manner.  
Finally on the economic front.  Michael Albert and others have done a remarkable job in outlining models of a participatory economic system. While I appreciate the exercise in imagining how an economy can be just, sustainable and involving people in making the decisions that most affect their lives, I have the same problem with this kind of vision that I have with applying a European ideology whether Marxism or Anarchism to the whole world. The diversity of needs, cultures and resources around the world means that people will have to find their own economic solutions. We can learn a lot looking at practices of creating new economic models that are happening around the world today.


Whether Open Source software, online piracy, recupardos in Argentina, co-ops and Missions in Venezuela, slow food and slow tourism in Europe, social economy in Quebec, there are numerous models of new economic processes. Transforming society from the domination of massive capitalist economic behemoths to decentralized networked democratic economic units from an economy based on the exploitation of Mother Earth  to one based on her protection;  from an economy based on profit and greed to one based on need and solidarity not only will require powerful acts of imagination but also for those of us in the Global North a deep transformation of our own life styles.  There are many people across the Global North and that trying to both imagine and create new ways of sustaining ourselves and Mother Earth.  The challenge is monumental but as ecologist Johanna Macy says, “The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world-we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.” She says we have to move from a growth and greed society to a life-sustaining society.  I end with a quote from a spiritual ecologist to make the point that much of the thinking of how to transform society is not just coming from the political Left but rather from a broad spectrum of people whose focus includes science, ecology, spirituality and art.  We would do well to learn from them as well as from each other.  


[1] From a poem by Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “There is no path—the path is made as we walk. As we walk, we make the path and then when we turn and glance back—we see the road that never again will be trod.”

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