Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

The “How To” of Caring Community

by Dave Belden

These are lean times for utopian thinking. We know too much about its dangers and failures. What within previous utopian experiments, from communism to kibbutzim to '70s communes, undermined them? Human nature? Our particular cultures? We fear it was both, and that it's beyond our power and skill to remedy. Half of us can't even maintain our committed couple relationships, so how are we going to pull off a caring community?

So instead we focus on the reforms that have made life under capitalism better for so many of us: the New Deal, trade unions, OSHA, minority rights, etc. These we can believe in. So we adjust to becoming reformists, not revolutionaries... but only until we recall that the people who raised hell and made these things happen often were revolutionaries. If you imagine, believe in, and strive with utmost energy for socialism, maybe you get a New Deal; but if you only strive for a New Deal, maybe you get today's Democratic Party.

These are also lean times for inspiring leadership. Today's activists, steeped in anti-racism, feminism, GLBTQ perspectives, and other deconstructions of Western ideologies reject the hierarchical models of old, including those that Dr. King and Gandhi were able to leverage to good purpose. Charismatic politicians can still briefly inspire hope across a wide spectrum. But the most committed left activists -- those who must create vibrant movements if the Obamas are to be pushed into effectiveness as FDR was -- have yet to develop the nonhierarchical leadership models we need to be effective.

What is missing? Tikkun has worked ceaselessly to enable left-wing activists to become spiritually grounded and savvy about the mass political psychology of the heart, and to inspire spiritual utopians to become political.

But the only way to convince activists today that non-alienating national nationwide movements are possible is to actually build viable, functional, nonhierarchical, caring ones. Is this even possible?

Is an orchestra possible? Or science? Or indigenous life in the Australian Outback? Or the Balinese terraced rice fields? Of course, but only through very painstaking acquisition of traditional or newly invented skills -- both craft and relational skills.

The critical idea now is that it's the skills, not the ideas, that we are lacking in creating a caring society. For many, in addition to a struggle, the sixties were a romance: a falling in love with love, peace, and connection. But this romance rarely matured into a working marriage. We lacked the "how to" knowledge. It was the dream of a symphony without the training it takes to learn the orchestral instruments and play them together. The epiphany without the technique. A psychedelic vision of Oz, without the yellow brick road: no way to get there.

Many people have been working at it. The cutting edge of social transformation today is in the technique, the how to overcome our toxic conditioning and learn to cooperate, lift each other up, help each other lead, meet each other's needs, and have empathy for friends and enemies, even while building viable political movements. I see it happening, slowly, in various places -- restorative justice circles, nonviolent practices, grassroots interracial work, twelve-step groups, some nonprofits and seminaries, some teamwork in corporations.

It is said that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master any major set of skills. But socialists and would-be builders of a caring society have rarely imagined they would have to devote so many hours to practice changing themselves and developing interpersonal and organizational skills just in order to create a functional caring organization and wider culture -- even though that is, after all, one of the hardest things to create. But maybe that's what it will take. Maybe, to get the powerful results we want, we have to develop cultures and apprenticeships as exacting as a scientist's, a hunter-gatherer's, a musician's. Trade unions and progressive churches have long schooled their people for social change in hierarchical organizations. But in our time we have barely known what training is needed for nonhierarchical organizations to become strategic, dynamic, and successful. How do we employ the abilities of charismatic personalities to the full without giving up the dream of horizontal power-sharing? It depends on the cultural forms we create, the training we all manage to acquire.

Over the next twenty-five years I fully expect the emergence of a new role: the relationally expert activist who will teach the rest of us how to work with each other while still giving our energies and creativity to changing the larger society.

David Belden is the managing editor of Tikkun.

 Source Citation: Belden, Dave. 2011. The “How To” of Caring Community. Tikkun 26(1): 26

tags: Activism, Spirituality  
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