Can fusing personal and social change radically transform our societies? We say yes. Michael Edwards introduces openDemocracy’s new section: Transformation.
On a winter’s night in 1955, a young preacher named Martin Luther King climbed into the pulpit of the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Once there, he delivered a speech to a packed crowd of close to five thousand people that would eventually lead to his own assassination, but breathe new life into the struggle to transform America and the world.
Martin Luther King. Credit: mugshots.com. All rights reserved.
If his speech that night is remembered at all these days it’s because of what it helped to launch - the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which heralded a decisive turn in the movement for civil rights.
What King said has largely been forgotten, yet the content of his speech was revolutionary in ways that stretch far beyond the context in which he delivered it. As I listen to it now on a scratchy YouTube clip the hairs on my neck stand up straight, the voices of the crowd rising to a crescendo as King talks about love for others and non-violence as the keys to the struggle for equal rights.
“But it is not enough for us to talk about love,” he said, “there is another side called justice. And justice is love in calculation. Justice is love working against anything that stands against love. Standing beside love is always justice.” “There lived a people, a black people” he continued, “a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights, and thereby infused new meaning into the veins of history.”
Love is the anchor or inward expression of social justice, I think King was saying, and justice is the outward expression of “love in calculation” - a conscious design for remaking the world around a radically-different rationality than self-interest. Deep transformations are possible if love and justice reinforce each-other to create a permanent shift in direction among human beings and the institutions they create.
“Only new selves could give birth to a new world, but only a new world could sustain the new human beings who constituted it, and who would sustain it in turn,” as Josiah Royce put it in the aftermath of the American Civil War, almost one hundred years before.
Today there is a resurgence of interest in the possibilities of transformation that combines the personal and the political. There is an upsurge in attempts to put them into practice, spurred on both by the failure of conventional approaches to make much headway against inequality and the urgency of problems like climate change, which demand boundary-breaking solutions.
That’s why we are launching Transformation as a new section of openDemocracy, designed to celebrate, articulate, challenge and debate the practice and potential of radical changes in our societies, examined through the frameworks of love and social justice, personal and social change.
King, of course, was drawing from much older sources when he made his remarks that night, including philosophers like Royce and later on Paul Tillich (the subject of his doctoral dissertation), the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and his Satyagraha movement, and the traditions of the social gospel. It’s also fair to say that there were others in the civil rights movement like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker who translated King’s words into on-the-ground realities with much more consistency, through their commitment to grassroots democracy and the struggle against sexism among their colleagues.
Then as now, there will be no end to patriarchy without deep-rooted changes in men’s behavior; no solution to climate change unless all of us reduce our consumption and carbon footprint; no decline in inequality unless we learn to share resources with each-other; no meaningful democracy until we work through our differences in a spirit of common purpose; no lasting peace if we continue to project our fears and insecurities onto other people.
But turning these examples around, there must also be real and living forms of politics and economics that grow from and reinforce the best qualities in ourselves, and in which we can actively participate. “We must be the change we want to see in the world” is a favorite quotation attributed to Gandhi, but it’s equally true that we must see the change we want to be – otherwise transformation is pure theory, and that means showing people that real economies can deliver justice and wellbeing, and real politics can bring people together to break the logjam of vested interests.
Unfortunately, such boundary-breaking experiments are in short supply, constantly constrained by the mantra that change is impossible because of – insert your favorite bogeyman – the world economy, footloose corporations, human nature, the weakening of governments, corruption in politics, the decline of the public, too much TV and far too much Rupert Murdoch. If we believe that only small changes are possible in our political and economic systems, then small change is all we’re going to see – another turn of the wheel with little or no forward movement.
The challenges of uniting personal and social change in this way were central to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, expressed through civil rights, gay liberation, the rise of the women’s movement and the first stirrings of environmentalism. In the decades that followed, this spirit was less in evidence in politics and activism, though it remained alive among feminists and other radicals like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and bell hooks in the USA. Elsewhere, the social and spiritual sides of activism began to move apart, perhaps exhausted by earlier efforts or beaten down by the arrival of the neo-liberal revolution, and the celebration of self-interest and materialism that followed in its wake.
We want Transformation to be a place where people across the world can re-activate this conversation by engaging with each-other about the meaning of deep-rooted social change; about how politics, economics and social activism are actually being transformed; and about the lessons that are being generated along the way.
We are interested in contributions in any area of transformation. This includes practices like “mindfulness”, which seem to help the processes of personal development along, and new institutions and ways of doing things that build on and nurture a commitment to non-violence, love for others and radical equality. Most of all, we want to publish stories of people who are re-combining the personal and political in new ways.
We hope you are as excited by this project as we are, and that you’ll join us as readers and writers, networkers and publicists.
Marrying a rich inner life dedicated to the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion with the practice of new forms of politics, economics and social activism is the key to transformation, but how this will actually work is anybody’s guess. Those who think they already have the answers waiting to be rolled out in detail are either fools or liars, for this is a path that demands a huge amount of rigor, effort, clarification and patience. Transformation is not another good-news magazine, but a place to engage with each-other about the realities and struggles of the radical imagination.
We want to challenge the reluctance of many progressive activists and writers to take the personal dimensions of social change as seriously as the political, by showing that personal change is not New Age narcissism – it means engaging in the daily struggle for dignity and justice in a different spirit that opens up more effective routes to action.
At the same time we want to challenge the reluctance of many spiritual and self-help advocates to take the political dimensions of personal change as seriously as the inner life they espouse, by showing that love flourishes more easily when new institutions are built on sharing and solidarity instead of the mindless pursuit of competition, growth and power.
Combining love with justice is always difficult and demanding, never more so than in situations of fierce discrimination, violence and dispossession, but learning from these situations is unavoidable if transformation is to have real meaning. It is in these hardest places that the most important insights are often found.
All great stories are love stories in one form or another, but the story of love and justice has not yet been told. With your help we aim to put that right. Welcome to Transformation.