At a co-counselling workshop for middle-class people last weekend, the leader was urging us to organise to change the world. He emphasised that middle-agent roles in society are designed to make things run smoothly, to make a bad system work (for those who benefit from it). As individual middle-class people, as teachers, nurses, managers, administrators, journalists, priests, we imagine we are making things better for the people we teach, treat, manage etc, or at least that we are stopping worse things happening. We want to do good. Sometimes we do improve the lives of individuals. In some cases, of many. But playing our roles is keeping a bad system going all the same.
Organise to change it. How do you do that?
When people organise, new things become possible. New powers emerge from people in organisations – powers that are more than the sum of the capabilities of the people as an unorganised crowd.
These are deep philosophical matters. But actually we all know what I mean.
At the workshop, the first leader had to leave and I took over. I was trying to grasp the mechanics of organising to change the world. What makes it difficult, what could make it easy; what works, what runs away from you and does things you never meant it to.
Then I had a brainwave. The first organisation we were in was the family. Our families. When we came along the bones of it were already set up. The rules were set by others, who had decided where we fitted in.
I asked people about their families, and how it might have affected their attitude to organisations and their role in them. Lots of people spoke up. Some were eldest children, who felt responsible for everything. Some were youngest, who felt organisations were established without consulting them and they had no chance of changing anything. Some had been bullied or abused by parents or older siblings. Some girls had been made to look after elder brothers and younger siblings. For some people the whole family had been besieged by racism.
The great thing about co-counselling is that we have the tools to free ourselves from factors in our early personal histories that limit us as adults. Once we’ve noticed them (which can take some doing) we can work on them in counselling sessions, remembering, expressing emotions, making links, having insights. Eventually they lose their power and free up a trapped part of our intelligence, making it possible for us to act on our thinking.
A couple of people stood up to tell us of things they were doing in greenland that had given them hope. They urged people not to wait, but to join organisations and take initiatives in them. One woman had chosen her organisation carefully – she wanted one that was aiming for system change. After putting on events in the UK to draw attention to COP21 in Paris, they cycled to the site of the climate change talks. In the past, discouragement (from early life in the family, in part) stopped her taking action, but once she acted together with other people, hope grew.
Hope. We started exchanging information about hopeful things happening in the world. Middle-class people aren’t supposed to do this…. at least, not about real sources of hope. Because of the forces of oppression, many of the things people came up with had been heavily opposed, but the courage of the people involved still gave us hope. Just a few examples from the many that were mentioned.
One was the Kurdish female fighters, the YPJ, who have been glamourised in Western media – a woman with a gun. Our informant emphasised their feminism, how they were fighting ISIS for their own sakes, to preserve the gains they’d made in gender equality in Kurdish society.
Indigenous organisations, like Idle No More, are struggling against environmental destruction in a way that offers leadership to everyone. In Shoal Lake 40, First Nations people are obliged to haul their water because their supply is contaminated with mercury. Ottawa has recently withdrawn its plan for a treatment plant, and this decision is being vigorously protested.
Someone mentioned the co-operative movement – not the bank of that name, but the huge movement worldwide of co-operatively owned enterprises. Many see them as an important element in systems that could replace capitalism.
I thought of the work of some of the African activists I met in Paris. I’m currently co-counselling with one of them, an activist in Activista who is training and organising women
in the campaign for access to land for farming in the Gambia.
In our original families it wasn’t always clear how we could be powerful, or what interests we had in common. Middle-class culture can be just as confusing. But it’s possible to emerge from the confusion, and to join the ranks of hopeful people organising against this dangerous, deceptive system.