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Building Community through Constructive Resistance: a reply to James Hutt

Wednesday, December 9, 2015 12:00
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The Canadian Left ought to transfer its energies from parliamentary politics to grassroots activity—if my Media Co-op blog can be said to have a theme, that would be it. In one post after another I’ve argued that whatever effort the Left puts towards elections and lobbying is so much energy wasted; what is required is direct intervention.

A number of people have been kind enough to say that I’ve made a strong case for this position, though not many actually agreed with it—and plenty more have condemned it as appallingly wrong-headed. This was very much present in my mind when I became aware that James Hutt of Solidarity Halifax had written a commentary on the 2015 federal election.

Hutt’s piece left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was pleased to find that Hutt’s reflections correspond with my own on some key points. On the other, given that I’ve had to face some harsh criticism for having had the temerity to air such views, I was rather disappointed to see that he made no mention of my trail-blazing efforts.

On a less pettish note, Hutt’s essay seems to me a serious attempt to grapple with the implications for the Left of the recent electoral contest. This is laudable and stands in salutary contrast to the apologetics that were produced by various leftists upon the defeat of the Dexter administration in this province and that have recrudesced in some quarters in response to the 2015 parliamentary poll. Hutt ends up stopping somewhat short of where I think the Left needs to be but he has definitely made a promising start.

Hutt begins by outlining how he and everyone he knows laboured mightily on behalf of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the recent federal election. All of them were shocked by the defeat of the party’s veteran local candidates but New Democrat partisans are well acquainted with disappointment and usually they just get on with business after the party experiences a setback. On this occasion, however, Hutt resisted that impulse and forced himself to make a proper assessment of what had taken place.

The features of the election that commanded Hutt’s attention were how the NDP tried to sell itself to “the corporate media and business classes,” the collapse of the party’s share of the popular vote, and the complete inability of radicals to “even influence the most left leaning of political parties to adopt a progressive vision.” These elements have together convinced Hutt that the Left cannot go on this way.

Hutt examines two alternatives to an electoral focus: “propaganda of the deed” and “the power of word.” By the former, rather mischievous expression, he means nothing more dramatic than “disruptions, banner drops, [and] media stunts.” Hutt quickly dismisses this approach—correctly, I’d say; I don’t see it as a serious option—and then moves on to his preferred alternative.

On my reading, Hutt’s “power of word” program involves promoting left-wing ideas through word-of-mouth campaigns. Hutt states that leftists must “be in constant conversation with people who believe differently than us (or don’t believe at all),” and need “to get better at explaining our ideas to families, to older generations, to rural people, to the apolitical.”

My impression is that Hutt believes that “the majority of working people” would embrace left-wing ideas if only leftists would communicate these concepts properly. Perhaps so, but I find it hard to imagine how this could happen given that, as Hutt says himself, the number of radicals in Canada “is small enough to be discounted.” In any case, it would be a mistake to suppose that Canadians don’t know what they’re missing when it comes to left-wing ideas. By and large, people understand that a genuinely left-wing program necessarily entails opposition to capitalism. I don’t doubt that many Canadians already sympathize with this impulse and even more might come to feel that way after a one-on-one discussion with a committed leftist. Nonetheless, just about everyone in this country is of the opinion that capitalism—like democracy, in Churchill’s famous quip—is the worst possible system “except for all of the others.” This leaves next to no room for a popular politics any more radical than a mildly roseate liberalism.

While I don’t expect much to come of explaining left-wing ideas to the masses, this is not the entirety of Hutt’s plan. He also talks about the importance of “the deep, messy and ever-evolving personal relationships of community,” and avers that, “There is no replacement for face-to-face organizing and community building.” Unfortunately, he fails to expand on these statements, so it’s impossible to be sure how Hutt would like to see any of this instantiated. In any event, I certainly agree with the general sentiment—and whatever Hutt has in mind here, it can only be an improvement on the Left’s current futile focus on elections.

As I see it, the Left can hardly go wrong by engaging in any work that could rightly be described as building community. In saying that, though, I don’t mean to suggest that any one way is exactly as good as any other. Over the past few years I’ve put considerable thought into this matter and what I’ve come up with is an approach that I call constructive resistance. Explicating a novel concept is never easy but sometimes it helps to come at one’s subject indirectly. Rather than saying straight off what constructive resistance is, it might be best to proceed by way of analogy.

Humans must respire to live; equally we must produce to survive. Capital poisons the productive process much as pollution makes the air unfit for breathing. The idea of constructive resistance came to me from the consideration that if you attempt to purify a space by sucking out all the bad air, what you’ll be left with is a vacuum. Moreover, if the area is part of a larger complex that is everywhere mephitic, the space must inevitably become contaminated again the moment one ceases pumping (or even while one’s still at it, depending on relative pressure).

When one considers capital in these terms it becomes obvious that standard left-wing approaches are not adequate to the task. Contemporary “anti-capitalists” address the problem by furiously paddling the air with hand-held fans. Social democrats once imagined that they could filter impurities from their immediate surroundings; nowadays they console themselves with air fresheners. Leninists favour the seemingly logical expedient of attempting to shut down the source of pollution. What they fail to understand is that the root problem is not capitalism—a historically specific set of private property relations—but capital proper, which is to say, a form of self-expanding accumulation premised on the extraction of surplus value from waged labour.

The correct method for dealing with a polluted space is, of course, to chase out noxious fumes by bringing in a salubrious atmosphere. In a like manner, the way to push back and ultimately to extirpate capital is by developing processes of production that foster and give expression to our humanity. This is constructive resistance.

The lineaments of this better world are no great mystery. I have no doubt that all people who, in James Hutt’s words, “believe in and strive for deep social change,” would agree with Marx that the ideal system would be one in which, “the associated producers govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way.” The trouble is that almost everyone who shares this vision reflexively puts off its realization until some indefinitely distant future, whereas it is precisely now that we must begin building it.

To be sure, some leftists—typically of an anarchist bent—have tried to undertake such work. Sometimes this takes the form of stand-alone projects such as the Loaded Ladle and Out of the Cold. In other instances, left-wing activists go further by establishing “intentional communities,” which is to say, enterprises in which the participants live together, attempting to meet their daily needs through collective action on the basis of a shared progressive or radical perspective. Constructive resistance bears a certain resemblance to these forms of endeavour in that all alike use positive, productive labour as an instrument of political struggle. Despite this similarity, however, constructive resistance is quite distinct.

One major difference is that, unlike with the other options, you don’t have to be a saint to resist constructively. In saying this I mean no disrespect to any of the above—quite the opposite. The point is that joining an intentional community in the name of a higher ideal, or donating one’s time to initiatives like the Loaded Ladle or Out of the Cold, requires a considerable degree of self-sacrifice. No doubt many who engage in these activities find them personally rewarding but, whatever the motivations of these individuals, only a small proportion of the population is ever likely to feel similarly disposed.

With constructive resistance, by contrast, there would be no need for people to uproot themselves from their surroundings nor would they be asked to selflessly donate their energies for the sake of those less fortunate than themselves. Rather, they would undertake their work within their existing natural (i.e., not intentional) community and they would attain the same direct benefits from their labours as anyone else in that community.

An even more important distinction is that, alone amongst these initiatives, constructive resistance offers a means of directly creating the world that we wish to see by replacing capitalist relations of production with socialist ones. Intentional communities can do no more than form socialist bubbles outside of mainstream society (which capitalism can then blithely ignore) while an enterprise like the Loaded Ladle offers no challenge to capital at all since the provender used in its servings is generated through capitalist relations of production.

In saying this I intend no disparagement of any of the above forms of activity, still less of the individuals who take part in them. All these efforts are positive, well-motivated and bring good into the world. That being said, I think it is of the first importance that leftists recognize that such initiatives, for all their virtues, lack any essential capacity to change the system. They are not, in a word, revolutionary. Constructive resistance is.

Perhaps the best way to conceive of constructive resistance is in terms of Hugo Chávez’s “elementary triangle of socialism”: social ownership of the means of production; organization of production by workers; production for social needs. Constructive resistance means asking how we can bring the triangle into our communities right now, today, by changing the ways in which we provide for ourselves. It is about taking back the means of production, not by expropriating the factories of the capitalists (that comes later), but by collectively using whatever skills and resources we currently possess to satisfy genuine wants—not the artificial “needs” that capitalism imposes upon us.

Communities are, of course, heterogeneous, and the challenges facing a First Nation located far from any urban centre are likely to be as different from those of an inner-city neighbourhood as either would be from an outport. Naturally, one would not expect constructive resistance to take the same form in each place. Furthermore, even two relatively similar communities facing cognate challenges might still choose divergent forms of constructive resistance according to the contrasting dispositions of the members. For example, one potential response to a housing shortage would be to take over disused buildings while another would be to undertake new construction. Both (or neither) could be undertaken as a form of constructive resistance.

At this point the obvious question is: how is all this to come about? The answer cannot be that leftists should tell the public what a good idea constructive resistance is, because the causes of human behaviour depend, in the main, not on notions but on material realities. There is no use in proclaiming that constructive resistance is the morally correct course of action because most of us, most of the time, do not direct our lives according to what we believe to be right but rather in concordance with what we deem to be in our own objective interest. This might seem to imply that what is needed is to convince the public that a program of constructive resistance is in just about everybody’s objective interest. Well, good luck with that: capitalism bombards all of us with the opposite message from one end of the day to the other (which is a major reason why so few people join intentional communities).

Here it might seem that I’ve corralled myself, but not so. As every student of creative writing knows, it is much better to show than to tell. It is not on the basis of argument but by dint of practice that constructive resistance can best and most suitably be advanced: I trust the results will speak for themselves.

All this might seem very neat but I’ll admit that there is a catch. It may well be that constructive resistance would prove itself in action, were it put to the test—but to be able to boast of any results whatsoever, some sort of prolusion must first occur. This raises the question of what could motivate people to make that initial trial.

As just stated, I see no point in trying to convince the public that some neoteric concept entitled “constructive resistance” ought to be preferred to the system currently in place. The whole world tells us that There Is No Alternative to capitalism, thus anything that purports to be such an alternative is apt to be dismissed out of hand. Moreover, people seldom allow abstractions to dictate how they conduct their lives from day to day (else, for one thing, all Christians would be impecunious). In short, nothing will come of attempting to show the superiority of the idea of constructive resistance. A different approach is needed.

What proponents of constructive resistance would need to do is start by investigating the existing conditions in various natural communities—ideally, communities that at least some of the proponents call home. In each location the proponents would identify one or more basic needs that are not being satisfactorily met and then work out how the community could satisfy these needs through constructive resistance. To take a few examples: in an area noted as a “food desert,” a plan for growing vegetables for household consumption could be developed; where child care is identified as an issue, a collective could be organized in which neighbours would take it in turn to look after one another’s children; if housing is lacking, ideas could be explored for constructing dwellings as a community trust.

In every case it would be essential to select an activity that is congruent in spirit with the elementary triangle of socialism but, above all, one that will produce useful results—something that will work. With this attended to, there would be no need to argue the merits of the abstract concept of constructive resistance; instead, in each instance people would be asked only to evaluate concrete suggestions for achieving specific goals.

As previously noted, I am confident that many people will turn to constructive resistance after they see it in action. In other words, once under way, it will become self-sustaining. At the outset, however, there is some danger that it might appear almost an alien imposition of self-righteous leftists. I do think there is a real risk of it taking on this cast if approached in the wrong way but equally I believe that the problem can easily be avoided by taking the appropriate steps.

First, as stated above, it would be best if the individuals proposing constructive resistance were in each case already members of the community in question. At a minimum, they should have organic links to that community so that they do not act as or appear to be “outside experts.” Second, while the proponents need not recommend constructive resistance on any grounds other than the immediate practicality of such action, the proponents ought to be prepared to explain their own commitment to the elementary triangle of socialism should the issue arise. In other words, proponents should not preach socialism but neither should they avoid discussing it when appropriate.

This only amounts to a preliminary sketch of what is entailed in constructive resistance but some restraint is called for inasmuch as this text purports to be a response to James Hutt’s essay. As to that, in closing, as in my opening remarks, I want to make clear how encouraged I was by Hutt’s piece. To break from the orthodoxy of one’s peers requires independence of both spirit and thought and I give Hutt full credit for thus distinguishing himself.

Two cheers for James Hutt then. I think he’s right on target in highlighting the uselessness of supporting the NDP (and, by extension, of anyone seeking political office) as well as in saying that the Left needs to shift its attention to the challenge of building community. Two cheers but not three, though: for if we want to stop fighting a losing rearguard action against capitalism and start waging a successful campaign against capital, the Left must also take up constructive resistance. This will not come about as an initiative of any institutions—not from the unions, not from think tanks or non-governmental organizations and definitely not from the NDP. It can only come to pass through the commitment, the initiative and (to steal an expression from a worthy local outfit) the radical imagination of individuals who are determined to start building socialism now.


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