Why Resistance is Insufficient

Derived from the Latin prefix re (against) and sistere (to stop, or take a stand/stand firm), to resist means to withstand, to keep something at bay. That is, to resist does not mean to act so much as to counteract. As such, it gives one’s opponent a significant advantage (as Bernal Diaz observed in his Conquest of New Spain, “the first attack is half the battle”).

Even if a resistance can contain one’s opponent, neutralizing them, this problematic aspect persists. And as Trump launches attacks on multiple fronts (shutting down the EPA, attacking women, workers, and Muslims, rounding up immigrants, building new detention centers and oil pipelines, pursuing his wall) even containing Trump is proving difficult. Of course, in launching so many attacks Trump risks spreading himself thin. But, even if substantially weakened, resistance alone never knocks anyone from power. That requires an offense.

As Trump weathers the attacks of the intelligence community and others who aim to restore the popularly reviled neoliberal situation, which gave rise to Trump in the first place, the Left ought to focus at least as much on pursuing an offense as on resistance. For the goal of the Left should not be the restoration of earlier forms of neoliberalism, nor the mere removal of Trump and other demagogues from power, but the advancement of a genuinely egalitarian society. And, contrary to the ideology of progress, which imagines this advancement occurring on its own, according to some Hegelian spirit of history, deviating from inertia requires a considerable degree of effort.

Because Trump and other functionaries of the state have highly militarized police forces and national security apparatuses protecting them, such an offense must proceed with great care. However, for an offense to be successful it needn’t necessarily physically engage its adversary at all. As the legendary strategist Sun Tzu put it in The Art of War: “The supreme art of war consists in subduing an enemy without fighting.” And this is precisely how beating Trump, and other despoilers of the world, should be approached. They can be slowed down, obstructed, weakened and ultimately removed from power by radical non-participation – e.g., by a general strike. Additionally, an opposition can prevail by attacking its opponents’ strategy, and by attacking alliances; the supreme strategy of warfare, according to Sun Tzu, and the second most supreme strategy, respectively – two strategies that work best in tandem.

Attacking Trump’s alliances, and those of the Right in general, pose considerable difficulties, yet many openings exist. While they may be less vocal than his more ardent supporters, most of those who voted for Trump, for instance, didn’t like him much during the campaign, and they like him less now. Many preferred Bernie Sanders, and only supported Trump out of disgust for the neoliberal system that impoverished them, hollowed out much of the country, and added classist insults to these injuries. Moreover, much of Trump’s own party only haltingly supports him. The effectiveness of an attack on Trump’s alliances, however, and other such alliances, will be limited to the degree that it is not integrated with what Sun Tzu described as the supreme strategy of warfare: attacking strategy itself – a strategy less concerned with issuing critiques of reactionary plans so much as with “winning hearts and minds” – winning people over to an altogether new way of thinking about organizing social life.

As few concepts are more central to this question than the concept of security, an attack on “strategy itself” should incorporate a critique of this. Although a universal concern, security is ambiguous and contradictory. As such, it provides ample material for criticism. Derived from the Latin se (which means free from) and cura (care), security literally means free from care – a freedom from care that leads as easily to carelessness as to being carefree. Reminiscent of the relation between liberty and license, implicit in security is a similar contradiction – between care (and a duty of care) and its neglect. Energy security, for instance, is vital. People need energy to heat their homes and cook their food. But when energy security is conceived of in a narrow way (as energy derived not only from fuels that pollute the planet but from fuels that are extracted according to the dictates of a political-economy that advances the economic security of one class at the expense of another), energy security leads to general human insecurity – the economic insecurity of an exploited class as well as the insecurity associated with ecological devastation and/or war, which accompanies the extraction and production of these energy forms.

In other words, discussions of security need to distinguish narrow types of security from broad notions of security – notions of security that are broader, for instance, than the national security of the national security state as well as more universal than the social security of the welfare state. Related more to care, and caring, than to carelessness and carefree-ness, a critical conception of security does not fail to recognize, for instance, that a crucial aspect of our security is not only our well-being, and the health of our communities, but the health and well-being of the general environment – i.e., the planet – as well. And since the nation-state is a construct designed not to produce human security in general but only security for a small class of people, and pits one nation-state against others, leading to war and ecological devastation among other threats to a critical conception of security, the nation-state and capitalism – two sides of the same historically-minted coin – turn out to both be structurally inimical to actual human security.

Indeed, while capitalism certainly produces narrow forms of security it only does so by producing broader types of insecurity. Regulating the world according to the dictates of profit, capitalism doesn’t just consistently fail to satisfy social needs, it actively undermines them. Not only does the prioritization of profit lead to the destruction of tons of food every day – to keep up prices, even while people are starving the world over – so long as exchange-value is prioritized over use-value, human insecurity preponderates. Rather than some marginal dimension, creating scarcity,  and thereby insecurity, is essential to capitalism. As Karl Polanyi pointed out in The Great Transformation, in Africa freely growing food was destroyed by colonial administrators in order to compel people to work – to earn money to pay for food that had until then been available for free. And, in such practices as planned obsolescence, this creation of insecurity continues to characterize capitalistic production.

A similar dynamic amplifies housing insecurity. Since capitalism is characterized by, in Immanuel Wallerstein’s words, “the privatization of everything, in the interest of generating profit,” like other public necessities housing is treated as a private good, a commodity. Produced to create profit, and only secondarily for its use (i.e., shelter/security) the commodification of housing creates insecurity. Again and again, the world over, so-called market forces deprive necessary housing from the poor, and other vulnerable groups, creating insecurity, in order to enrich land owners, bankers, and others who use housing as a means to make money.

This upside-down, scarcity-producing, exchange-value-prioritizing economy systemically degrades the natural environment as well. The privatization of forests, for example, leads to the conversion of so many trees into so many paper cups, among other disposable commodities, creating catastrophic environmental insecurity. And as the incessant drive for profit has destroyed forests, clean air, soil, and water throughout the world, it is not difficult to foresee clean air (like clean water) becoming privatized in the near future. If present trends continue, the commons of breathable air will be commodified, and people will be forced to work for or exploit others in order to simply breathe, raising human insecurity to unprecedented heights. And yet, even if some clean, green energy form were developed, and global warming and ecological degradation could be somehow reversed, the demand for profit would still create insecurity in some form or other in order to compel people to work beyond what is necessary for the production of use-values. Moreover, no matter how clean and green warfare becomes it will still sow death. In short, this society – ostensibly obsessed with security – not only fails to supply actual concrete security to most people, it is structurally pre-determined to undermine all but the most superficial aspects of security.

As religious-thinking (emotion, superstition, and faith) dominates political and economic discussions, and information technology exponentially distances political opponents into members of practically unbridgeable alternative realities, little these days is not embroiled in the religious war of contemporary politics. As such, many will not be able to agree on what constitutes evidence, let alone on the less concrete aspects of social reality. Consequently, many will continue to deny the existence of discrimination, global warming, and other phenomena, while steadfastly insisting upon the reality of myriad imaginary entities, even as the world floods and burns all around. As it stands, however, plenty of people the world over need no convincing that our very survival requires jettisoning capitalism and the nation-state, along with the culture of domination and exploitation that subtends these, and replacing them with a non-coercive, non-exploitative, form of social organization. If we are to develop a society that is not only not contingent on destruction and abuse, but allows us to realize an actually democratic, egalitarian, and fair society, we must abandon these barbaric organizational forms.

Although it is too soon to tell how the resistance to the general and particular arrangement of the world will develop, and whether Trump, among other demagogues, will be removed from power, it is only growing more clear that the racist, sexist, nationalistic governments assuming power the world over enjoy considerable yet limited popular support. And because, as history repeatedly demonstrates, such deeply unpopular regimes inevitably collapse, it is not difficult to imagine that, among others, Trump’s may too. Should this occur, however, it is crucial to recognize that an egalitarian movement will not only be undermined to the extent that it facilitates or otherwise contributes to a neoliberal restoration, such a restoration would certainly produce a more virulent strain of Trumpism. As such, both must be eliminated. Rather than Trump’s brand of reaction, which seems bent on rolling back neoliberalism to the 19th century, or even the relatively enlightened New Deal reaction of Bernie Sanders, we must not react to the current constitutional, economic, and ecological crises so much as develop a response that goes beyond the contradictions fundamental to our exploitative class-based society.

Although it is unlikely that new elections will be held this year, with the lack of popular support Trump and other demagogues enjoy it is not difficult to imagine that a radical political rupture could lead to such a thing in the near future. Moreover, fidelity to democratic norms, and to basic principles of justice and equality, demand that they should be held. If we are to avoid reinstating an equally reviled neoliberal government, however, new elections, as well as a constitution that is responsive to social and economic inequalities and ecological exigencies alike should be two of the key considerations of a critical opposition. Meanwhile, because our commercial press has demonstrated its inability, along with its commercially-generated conflict of interest, to report on substantive issues, the potential political campaigns and debates that new elections would entail – ignited, perhaps, by a radical general strike – would need to be reported upon and framed in a new, critical manner.

Among the security-related issues that these as of yet imaginary debates would foreseeably consider would be such issues as the security of women, people of color, the poor, the aged, refugees, and other vulnerable communities. Universal health care, environmental policy, radical debt forgiveness, the abolition of our extensive prison system and wage labor, the right to housing, the legalization of marijuana and other drugs, and other security-related issues would also foreseeably be discussed. And in addressing the manner in which to resolve our global insecurity, it is also very likely that a communalist movement (the radically democratic, egalitarian communalism discussed by Murray Bookchin, among others, which extends back in history to well before the Paris Commune) would be given voice.

Among other proposals, such a movement might argue that the democratization of society could proceed via a new, radical way of thinking about the community college. Approached from both the federal and the local/municipal level, a community college campus could be built in every neighborhood in the country. Rather than degree-granting institutions, however, these colleges would be publicly and locally controlled and operated loci of democratization. Among other resources, each of these public, neighborhood campuses could have medical and/or nursing schools, along with self-managed medical clinics – enabling each community to train health care providers and care for its own health care needs. Additionally, dispute resolution departments and other departments could be developed within these campuses, allowing each community to more or less resolve its own disputes. And since these would be part of and run by the community, they would be free.

In addition to departments devoted to math, history, biology, and other disciplines, engineering and design departments could flourish in each community college as well, allowing each community, in collaboration with others, to design, build and maintain their individual and/or interconnected infrastructure systems. Responsive to the needs of those who live in the community, and prioritizing broader over narrow notions of security, housing in the various colleges could be managed and cared for by the colleges (i.e., by the community), as well. Instead of receiving housing in exchange for rent, as members of the community people would have a right to this basic level of security.

Likewise, agricultural departments could enable each community, in collaboration with others, to raise its own food. And since these necessities would be produced for use, and each community’s self-care, as opposed to exchange, or profit, they would require far less work, affording people considerable leisure to pursue other activities.

Beyond providing nutritious food, health care, shelter, leisure, and other necessities, there is no reason that these community colleges would not also have sports, dance, music departments, art departments, libraries, film schools, and other resources necessary for well-being and broader notions of human security. And, of course, these campuses and departments would be associated in regional, and ultimately global, confederations more broadly, partnering, trading, caring for common resources, and collaborating in collective projects, scientific research, symposia, film festivals, sports competitions, and scholarly conferences – sharing developments in various disciplines, not out of the senseless, coerced competition and production characteristic of our commodified academia, but out of a genuine interest in and pursuit of knowledge, for its own sake.

Ultimately one could imagine not only the buildings of the neighborhoods but the public utilities and other resources of the neighborhoods merging with the colleges – i.e., with the community – and falling under public, democratic control. In this way the community college communes could develop into more or less autonomous, actually democratic, self-governing communities. A broad conception of human security, however, would require cooperation between these community college communes. And it is not difficult to imagine city-level and regional-level congresses developing from the myriad community colleges of the continents of the planet, eventually replacing not only the institutions of the nation-state, but the nation-state itself.

Some will no doubt dismiss this community college communalism as utopian. And insofar as it doesn’t exist, and is literally “no place,” it certainly is utopian in that respect. However, it addresses the ecological and social crises we are confronting in a far more practicable and realistic way than do proposals, for instance, of settling Mars – an inhospitable  place with a problematic 25 hour day, not to mention no air, and only the possibility of water. As we spin on a planet that is being destroyed before our very eyes by a fundamentally exploitative political-economy – a system gerrymandered and privatized to such a degree as to preclude meaningful reform – imagining radically new ways of organizing social life, beyond the self-cannibalization of capitalism and the state, is not only far more sensible than the inertial, suicidal alternative; as we advance toward ecological Holocaust, it’s the only sane response.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber