Launching a Left Hook
The idea came to me during an otherwise routine teaching session in a first year social science class, some years ago. Having read, but only partially understood, a few sections from Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, my students seemed unwilling and unable to really get behind the idea that people could have, at any time in history, lived and understood their lives outside of capitalist imperatives.
Of course, they didn’t say that exactly. What they said was, “human nature is to be selfish. Socialism is a nice idea, but there’s no way people would actually cooperate. Everyone is always trying to gain an advantage over everyone else, so the only way to keep society moving is to let people pursue their self-interest.”
Never mind that Polanyi was demonstrating that, for most of human history, people had, in fact, lived by different sets of governing principles. This room full of people was certain that there was a ‘human nature,’ just one, and that we were all driven by it. Coincidentally, it looked exactly like the fully-deformed liberal capitalist individual. I didn’t think I was going to be able to break through this powerful, but ahistorical, shell of capitalist ideology.
As it turns out, this story belongs to my very small category of teaching successes, and I am happy to report that by the end of the year we had reached an agreement that capitalist profit-motive is not necessarily ‘natural’ and that there are other motivators that could be just as powerful in shaping human behaviour and sociality. The breakthrough came at the unlikely hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs (I suppose it belonged to their also-very-small category of success stories.)
“What motivates the Toronto Maple Leafs?” I asked. After a chorus of answers like “nothing,” “they stink,” and “who?,” we agreed that they were a bad example. “Alright then, what motivates a successful hockey team? How did the Vancouver Canucks get to the Stanley Cup Finals?” The answers, of course, were drawn from the ‘common-sense’ discourse in hockey, that they were motivated by a passion for the game, a deep desire to win, by the spectre of winning hockey’s crowning accomplishment, the Stanley Cup.
“But I thought people were driven by the capitalist profit motive? How does that fit into this?” All agreed that yes, players play hard in order to earn a higher salary, but that money was not what really pushed players when the crunch was on. One student talked about his own experience on a minor league hockey team; even though there was no money whatsoever attached to victory, they played their hearts out night after night for a chance to win the league championship. Players at all levels of the game endure all manner of physical and emotional punishment in the name of ‘taking one for the team,’ a point that seems to fly in the face of everything we are told by capitalist ideology about the individual.
Isn’t the individual supposed to maximize their personal gain at the expense of everyone else if necessary? In my own life, I can think of plenty of times when I subsumed my self-interest for the sake of some sports team or another. I earned plenty of unnecessary welts and bruises for my troubles. But without knowing it, I was demonstrating the continued power of non-capitalist motivators for human behaviour.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs were ever going to be successful, one student insisted, they would have to learn to play as a team, to ‘lay it all on the line’ for one another. I told them it would also require the combined forces of Peter Pan, the Fairy Godmother and Gandalf the Grey, and the war of words was on, and would continue all year.
But what was significant was that sports had provided a window into the possibility of a different world. Everyone could understand and relate to the idea that the most powerful motivators in our lives are often not at all connected to capitalist profit; in sports it could look like the drive to battle harder for a loose puck in the corner, but these non-capitalist motivators are everywhere in our life, in the unshakable bonds between parents and children, the happiness derived from making a loved one laugh, or the emotional high from delivering a perfectly-executed artistic performance.
From that day, I recognized how useful sports could be as a pedagological tool, and the seeds of the idea for “Left Hook” were sown. I am excited to launch this project, and I look forward to learning much from the wisdom of other thoughtful, progressive people committed to making a better world – that includes sports.