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From NIMBY to PRIMBY: What I Learned From Two NIMBYs and Introductory Proletarian Theory

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Cartoon by Stephanie McMillan
Cartoon by Stephanie McMillan

NIMBY in My Neighbour's Back Yard

The Stop the Mega Quarry victory in the fall of 2012 was the most inspiring news story of my life. Never before had I heard of a company succumbing to public pressure and retreating. It reminded me of the scene in Rocky IV when Rocky finally lands a few punches on Ivan Drago and cuts him. At the end of that round, Rocky's trainer emboldens, "Now he's worried. You cut him! You hurt him! You see, you see? He's not a machine! He's a man!" The difference is that capital isn't human and it doesn't bleed. In my naiveté and enthusiasm of over a year ago, I thought this unprecedented win would immediately lead to a revolution. It didn't.

So assured was I this was a revolutionary moment, that I started to write a story on the historical significance of this victory, despite not yet having studied revolutionary history. During my research for this story, I found a diagram that showcased the elites involved in this particular struggle. I began to question whether this was a grassroots mobilization or not. Feeling confused by the class interests of the people who had led this fight, I dropped the work on the story.

NIMBY in My Back Yard

By that time, I'd started to pay attention to the "Ring of Fire" (ROF) giga project -- estimated to be six times the size of the Alberta Tar Sands. Six times! I'd also started researching the NIMBY phenomenon because of -- you guessed it -- my very own NIMBY. Back in the spring of 2012, Sudbury had been chosen as the site for Cliffs Natural Resources' chromite smelter for the ROF.

Call me clueless, but I never perceived a negative connotation to the phenomenon called NIMBY. I just thought of it as a kind of "Hell, yeah!" sort of thing. But when I began researching the NIMBY phenomenon, I learned that it is in fact a derogatory term used by capitalists to slander local people who are worried about their land, water, air and co-habitants. Industrial capitalists, often referred to propagandistically as "developers" (they say developer, I say destroyer), oppose the right of people who will be directly affected to protect their home from the destruction that industrial expansion brings.

Of course the first line of defence is always the local inhabitants of an area. Who else would it be? When people experience firsthand capitalism's excessive and ruthless expansionism, they are seeing capitalism with their own eyes for the first time and not through the flashy images of "development" on their television screens. These are real ecosystems with real people -- not sets with actors. What people involved in NIMBYs experience is a political awakening. It's really quite normal. Capitalists know this, and that's why they have a specific propaganda program for it.

Capitalists have characterized and exploited NIMBY conflicts as reflecting conflict between community and society, and this attempt remains a crucial aspect of their propaganda campaign, but researchers have shown that land use conflicts are a symptom of much deeper social conflicts. NIMBYs express conflict between community and capital, and also between community and the state. However, I would argue that since the state is exclusively responsible for regulating the flow of capital, that conflict with the state is also a conflict with capital and constitutes an unnecessary distinction. Therefore, NIMBY conflicts are a strong source of anti-capitalist opposition -- class struggles -- which have been unorganized and unidentified as such in the corporate media, which coincidently, is owned by a handful of capitalists.

In fact, I would argue that the corporate media acts as the containment mechanism for this front of resistance by never ever characterizing these struggles as such. Instead, we are dominated ideologically, politically and economically by the characterization of this crucial resistance as isolated and selfish.

The ruling class defames NIMBYs because it is their best tactic for obfuscating the fact that these first lines of defence play prominently in blocking industrial capital expansion. We can feel somewhat successful as a people that this aspect of our struggle is relatively intact. Whether we recognize it or not, we are practicing opposition to capital with this type of resistance, and we can build on that.

Struggles against industrial extraction companies have been increasing in the last few decades as capitalism plays itself out more and more desperately in the age of extreme energy. Someone on the revolutionary left might wonder how to integrate these mobilizations into a more broad and combative mass movement. We have very few untouched, natural places left in the world and every biological indicator we have is failing. What if we've learned our lesson and are not prepared to surrender anymore? No people should be forced to pollute or leave their land base to survive. Until we accept that real people, real animals and real ecosystems live in every single place that industrial products come from, and until we learn to respect where everyone lives, we'll always be dominated by capital. We could have learned this from First Nations. We didn't.

The NIMBY phenomenon itself is evidence that expansionism -- of any kind -- is not what conscientious people want. And I think NIMBY fights have to be claimed for the revolutionary anti-capitalist intentions they express. In fact, NIMBY struggles may be the richest source of revolutionary moments we have available to us in this country -- an unnatural resource, if you will.

Unfortunately, these struggles against industrial capital expansion are being fought at the same level as jury duty. We sit around hoping our land base doesn't hold any of the resources capitalists need to make their ridiculous products. If our land base comes up on the capitalist's list of must-destroy places, we'll fight, but if it doesn't, we carry on, business as usual.

Stop the Ring of Fire

And so, my land base, Sudbury, had come up on such a list, and a very small group of us wanted to fight it. We wondered how we could tap into the Mega Quarry win, but there were serious differences between the Mega Quarry and the Ring of Fire -- mainly, that the Mega Quarry was very close to the GTA, and the Ring of Fire is incredibly isolated in the wondrous Boreal Forest.

The indigenous inhabitants of the Boreal Forest and all the biospherical labour it provides were our primary concerns. We felt that protecting the Boreal Forest is a part of our treaty rights and responsibilities as settlers. We rejected the notion that First Nations are somehow exclusively responsible to protect their land. To place the burden of stopping industrial expansion on First Nations seemed to us to be an extraordinary advance for colonialism, a crucial aspect of capitalism. We also knew the best way to protect Sudbury would be to stop the ROF.

During the course of thinking about how we could inspire people to care about a giga project that wasn’t in their back yard, we thought we could expand the NIMBY phenomenon by reconceptualizing the size of our back yards. The acronym we came up with was TWIMBY: The World Is My Back Yard.

And so, our very small group came up with a plan to stop the Ring of Fire. At the time, one of the members of our group, Fionna Tough, was dividing her time between Toronto, Peterborough and Sudbury. We decided we would organize awareness raising events in each city with the hope that these events would catch on across the province. That was our plan.

The first event in Toronto went very well. Fionna organized an impressive event and we collected over 100 signatures on our petition. But soon the class interests of our leadership of the Stop the Ring of Fire campaign would be challenged.

Proletarian Theory in My Back Yard

In the fall we met a revolutionary proletarian militant and my entire life began to make sense. I was easily convinced that capitalism has to be defeated – not reformed or blocked. Capital is structurally required to expand so blocking capital forces it to go somewhere else, sometimes forcing it to explore riskier options. Take for example, when pipelines are blocked. Blocking the Keystone XL pipeline has forced capital to reconfigure Enbridge’s pipeline network. As a bonus, capitalists will be able to transport more tar sands bitumen with this route. Capital has also resorted to drastically increasing bitumen transport by rail, with devastating consequences, as we saw in Lac-Mégantic.

Likewise, NIMBY mobilizations such as Stop the Ring of Fire and Stop the Mega Quarry were conceived to block capital. The Stop the Mega Quarry website reassured they were not an anti-quarry group and they had no plan to build on the mobilization of the popular classes from whom they drew support. This is a critical limitation of single issue politics. To betray organized people in this way is a blow to our collectivity, one that should be regarded as a serious form of collective harm.

So, it seems my concern regarding the leadership of the Mega Quarry struggle was well placed. The leaders of this struggle were only focussed on advancing their own interests, protecting their own land base. That’s not right. We can’t just fight capital for our own ends. When we do, we offload the fight against capital somewhere else, possibly somewhere where the first line of defence isn’t as strong. If we don’t do away with capitalism, people the world over will be doomed to fighting industrial expansion until our biosphere collapses. I cannot accept this as our historical role. If it is, the capitalists are right: NIMBY struggles are isolated and selfish.

Fundamental Contradiction

From the perspective of class struggle, it matters which class is the most antagonistically opposed to capital. This is called the fundamental contradiction. There are only two autonomous classes: the working class and the capitalist class. The working class is the only class positioned antagonistically enough to defeat capitalism. The middle class isn’t autonomous. It’s a buffer between the two autonomous classes. If the middle class did not exist, capitalism would continue. The same is not true of the working class.

Due to its lack of autonomy, the middle class is historically incapable of defeating capital. It can only engage in reformist struggles in order to reproduce itself. The middle class dominates lower classes with its particular struggles and the status quo is built on these struggles. If the middle class cannot achieve their desired reform independently, they will try to temporarily ally with the lower classes in order to advance their interests, often at the expense of the masses.  The rest of the time, the middle class is allied with the capitalist class, exemplified most crucially during elections. The electoral process is the highest registry of class alliances.

It’s easier to understand the class alliances of the middle class if we refer to them by their old-timey name: the petit bourgeoisie. This nomenclature makes their interests as a class much more clear. The petit bourgeoisie has its own propaganda regarding the “war” on the middle class. The middle class is only trying to reproduce itself with this propaganda. It’s not in their interest to defeat capital. Adding insult to injury, collaborationist unions have abandoned working class culture, preferring to cater to the “labour aristocracy”, who have much more in common with the middle class than they do with the working class.

The good news is that the middle class can be brought into line. The middle class has subordinated itself to the capitalist class for a long time, but there’s no reason why it can’t transition to subordinating itself to the working class – from bourgeois “democracy” to proletarian “democracy”. NIMBY struggles, as well as pipeline and other popular struggles, will need to come under the leadership of the working class. Without their leadership, these struggles are reformist – just like Stop the Mega Quarry and just like Stop the Ring of Fire. The question is: How can we subordinate our struggles to the class most antagonistically opposed to capitalism?

The Working Class

For revolutionary purposes, the working class has to be autonomously organized, and has to produce surplus value. In Canada, many working people do not fit that definition. The promotion of middle class identities, collaborationist unions, automation, free trade agreements, and so on, were all deliberate tactics conceived by the capitalist class to distance us from capital, to distance us from the production of surplus value, the only form of new value created under capitalism. It is now very difficult for workers in Canada to touch capital.

Therefore, our best option for pushing the fundamental contradiction forward here is for the working class to recognize their own class interests, and to begin organizing with full consciousness of their class. Working class consciousness has been badly depleted, and there’s a lot of work to do to reclaim it, but it’s important that we do so. Those of us in the imperialist countries have a tremendous obligation to the rest of the world to prepare to end capitalism.

Imperialism is the final stage of capitalism. If we don’t know this theoretically, I think many of us know it intuitively. The working class, as well as all dominated classes, must make supporting the international working class an integral part of our theory and practice. This can feel very counterintuitive at this moment in history with current political trends favouring local resiliency: eat, drink and shop local. (The localism trend is being led by the middle class. At this time, they do not have a plan to feed everyone. Their interest is to secure premium food for their class.) But this is a struggle that is happening on (at least) two fronts. If we practice solidarity with the working class at home and abroad, we’ll create the conditions for a working class revolution. Everyone who agrees should work to build a proletarian revolution in their back yard! PRIMBY!

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rm_charbonneau (Rachael Charbonneau)
Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
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The site for the Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op has been archived and will no longer be updated. Please visit the main Media Co-op website to learn more about the organization.



About the Sudbury Working Group

The Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op was formed to create independent media in the North, to speak to our issues and outlooks on our communities as well as the world around us. Independent media provides an avenue for people who are wishing to gain critical perspective on the issues that matter most to us, and to give a voice to those people and stories that you won't find in the mainstream media.

The Sudbury working-group site is no longer being updated and has been archived.