At the end of June, I went to the middle-class conference in Toronto which I referred to in my last post. And since I’d decided to emit all that carbon, on the way home I spent two weeks with old friends in Newfoundland, where I once worked.
It was hard to follow the news in Newfoundland (another ex-colony of my country, which sucked up profit from the fish but never even built a good road). The Globe and Mail is now only available on-line. Apart from the local free paper, you have to get your news from the internet. And there was so much news.
The Brexit vote in Britain. The repercussions and discoveries around the Orlando massacre. Turmoil in the British Labour party, and Caroline Lucas’ proposal of an alliance with the Greens. The US election struggles. (Not counting things I only heard about when I got back, including attacks in other places, including Somalia, Nigeria, Germany and France, seen by the Western media as atrocious and terrifying or as only-to-be-expected and not worth reporting, depending on where they happened.)
With patchy internet, reeling from the amount of information and the feelings evoked, it felt easier to play with the children, or go out in the boat. If you’re not being directly targeted, politics is a choice. Instead of commenting on the events I’ve mentioned, I’m going to tell you about the Toronto middle-class conference. Where else will you hear about that?
Nature in its Place
The Toronto conference was in a student residence in a blighted area of car-parks, seventies concrete buildings, roads and malls. Just around the corner was an arboretum, a well-managed area of natural beauty where black and gold squirrels leapt through the undergrowth, bull frogs groaned in the ponds and deer peeped between the trees. At night security guards kept an eye on the entrances to Nature.
Dividing in order to unite
There were about forty of us. For the first twenty-four hours we met in three smaller groups: people targeted by racism; Jews; and (the majority) white Gentiles. We co-counselled with people of (slightly) more similar backgrounds about our journey into the middle class, our role in it and our feelings about it, and, of course, about our feelings about the groups who weren’t in the room. We separated for a while in order to come together without (so much) strain and pretence.
We left those groups only to separate again, this time into men and women. Women were in the majority. I led the women, and we talked (and took turns expressing feelings in pairs or threes) about the hard choices we have all faced, whatever our backgrounds, and the divisions our oppression sets up between us. (‘I don’t know why she ever had children if she doesn’t want to look after them.’ ‘With her figure she should never wear stripes.’)
All this serious stuff was interspersed with walks, with play, and of course, with meals, and in these intervals we hung out with whomever we wanted to hang out with. Across externally imposed divisions.
Then the conference proper began, and it involved a lot of thinking and listening.
Thinking and Listening
We started by hearing a panel take turns talking about the global trends they saw in the world. Each one spoke for three minutes. This was followed by general discussion. We identified the increasingly clear unworkability of the system, the role of climate change in current conflicts, in migration, the increasing inequality within and between countries, the number of failed states and so on. Then for a day and a half we worked in groups, sometimes randomly chosen, sometimes on the basis of some common characteristic, taking turns answering various questions about the role our organisation (Re-evaluation Counseling), and we ourselves, could play in the coming period of collapse and conflict, so as to minimise the harm and suffering that will be involved. We discussed how we as middle-class could work to make sure that whatever system eventually replaces capitalism is not one based on class oppression. I’m co-authoring a pamphlet on all this, and when it comes out I’ll make it available on this blog.
In the groups we took turns thinking, and everyone else listened. We might speak for three minutes, four or five, sharing the available time equally between us. Although of course what had been said immediately made a difference to the listeners, and might affect what they said in turn, they did not reply to it or refer to it. Everyone put out their current thinking without fear of interruption and without any obligation to respond to what had already be said, or even to use the same language or follow similar trains of thought. Try it sometime – it is surprisingly liberating.
Since so many of us have been hurt around our thinking, some people took time to get going and felt hesitant as they spoke. We listened respectfully to their struggles, knowing these had nothing to do with their intelligence or with the value of their thinking.
Tomorrow I’m going to meet the leader of the conference for a three day work session, with the aim of completing our pamphlet about the current role of the middle class and how, by transferring our allegiance, we can change it. We can refuse to continue colluding and managing for the group that profits from how things are.
Tony Schwartz may be an example of a middle-class person changing course. He was the ghost writer for one of Trump’s books. He now says he ‘put lipstick on a pig’, and has expressed remorse for his role in making his dangerous subject sound so good. I don’t know much about Schwartz, so I’m not his advocate here, but I note that Trump’s lawyers are after him and that he must be running some sort of risk in saying what he’s saying. We all need to do that, including those of us who did not earn such a huge sum of money doing the wrong thing. Richard Wolff, the anti-capitalist US professor of economics, gives several examples in his last economic update of unions of middle-class workers (post office employees, teachers) demanding investments in poor communities so that they can do their jobs. (See for example the Chicago Teachers’ Union.)
But my favourite example remains the UK junior doctors, who have rejected the government’s latest attempt to impose a contract on them which they believe will jeopardise patients’ health as well as their own.