The term “resilience” is often used to refer to people’s ability to withstand and “bounce back” undamaged from poverty, mental illness, and different forms of oppression, primarily by NGOs, nonprofits, and social services, but also by some sections of the radical left. While the term can be interpreted widely, it has acquired a particular meaning that is politically reactionary, and valorizes survival at the expense of political empowerment and social revolution.
Melissa Chudburn criticizes the concept of community resilience promoted by the Obama administration in its 2015 budget and Now Is The Time initiative. The initiative included $55 million for Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), intended for states and communities to implement plans to support youth with mental illness, refer them to the appropriate services they need, and provide adults who work with youth with mental illness first aid training.
While Chadburn recognizes the necessity of such programs, she argues that the concept of resilience ideologically encourages those who live in poverty and with mental illness to merely “take it” and forge on, rather than addressing their systematic causes. According to Chadburn, community resilience is merely a stand-in for non-threatening “cult of citizenship” where the oppressed can quietly endure harsh social conditions they live in.
Built into the concept of resilience is an image of what a resilient community or individual should look like: a crime-heavy neighborhood policing itself or a child who suffered abuse growing into a responsible, civic-minded adult. But if that child were to become a skillful criminal, it’s likely that we, as a society, would consider her a casualty of adversity rather than someone who bounced back but not in the way we’d like. The unspoken byproduct of cultivating resilience, in other words, is the expectation that individuals and communities function the way we think they should.
Of course, getting involved in criminal activities is only one among many options available for the poor. The same can be applied to those who choose to politicize themselves and become a revolutionary. The colonial-capitalist power structure has many ideological tools at its disposable to make activists look weird, marginal, anti-social, dangerous or “terrorist.” The oppressed are admirable and “inspiring” in so far as they withstand their oppression, but not when they take their destiny into their own hands and fight for their liberation.
While initiatives like Project AWARE are well-intended, Chadburn argues, its proponents are
…wrong to valorize the idea that we should remain unchanged, unmoved and unaffected by trauma. Because here’s what happens to me when I embrace it: I quiver with a fake sense of pride and accomplishment for withstanding rape, poverty, bureaucracy, the child welfare system, our sexist workforce and low wages — and coming out unscathed. Yet what I’m really doing is assuaging those in authority by saying, “I am not broken. I can take more.”
By valorizing the people’s ability to survive oppression, the concept of resilience in effect legitimizes oppression.
The long history of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles attests to the fact that their struggles are never about just surviving, but living. “Bread and Roses” is a famous political slogan first coined by Rose Scneiderman in light of the intensifying conflict between labour and capital in the early 20th century, and adopted first by the successful textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts led by Industrial Workers of the World. The slogan declares: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.” Workers don’t only fight for wage increases, but also for dignity and respect.
A similar expression is made in a film Jimmy’s Hall where an Irish revolutionary Jimmy Gralton appeals to the masses: “We need to take control of our lives again. Work for need, not for greed, and not just to survive like a dog, but to live, to celebrate, to dance, to sing as free human beings.”
The people don’t want to just survive, but they want to live with dignity, respect, and above all political power. One of the Black Panther Party’s slogans was “Survival Pending Revolution.” They provided many community-based Service to the People programs to ensure the survival of Black communities. But these programs only made sense within the context of their resistance to the U.S imperialism at home, guided by revolutionary politics with the goal of overthrowing what they called the “pig power structure,” and establishing an egalitarian socialist order in its place. These programs were part of their political project to foster the people’s ability to fight for their liberation. Otherwise they would not have been very different from social services of today that merely manage poverty without seeking to abolish it.
We realize we have come so far off from the politics of these slogans when we see Trish Hennesey, the founding director of social democratic Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, say Living Wages make communities resilient. While she is correct in pointing out the obvious fact that higher wage would better ensure the workers’ and their communities’ survival, what she means by resilience here is not their increased ability to fight for better working conditions, and ultimately their liberation from capitalist domination. What she means by resilience is their ability to withstand exploitation and “weather the storm.” Or worse, they should be better fed so they don’t feel disgruntled against the bourgeoisie.
This is of course not to advocate for accelerationism and the notion that “worse the shit for the people, better the chances for revolution.” Workers and oppressed peoples have the right to fight for reforms that better their material conditions and live a dignified life. The fight should be supported no matter what. The point, however, is that the very rhetoric of resilience militates against fighting as it often encourages them to “take it” if not “turn the other cheek.” Or else they are troublemakers who threaten to disrupt the status quo.
Resilience should not be valorized, but should not be discarded altogether either. There are many things privileged middle-class activists can learn from the masses and their survival. We need to listen to their stories, empathize with them, and build solidarity. But we also need to resist the temptation to valorize their stories of survival and ability to “take it.” The task of revolutionaries is to concentrate and systematize these stories into revolutionary theory, and organize individual experiences into a single fist capable of striking down the old, so they no longer have to take it.