Thursday, May 24, 2012

Quebec, Protests, Activism, and Threats to Power. . .

So-called "radical" political protest and activism, from the great peasant revolts to the 'velvet' revolution, has always been, in the final analysis, about the big issues of justice, social and economic equality, and political representation. Sometimes activist movements have erupted into distinctly anti-capitalist efforts, more often such efforts are more modest and localized in nature. In the past thirty years or so in Western 'democratic' nations, activists' movements have generally been focused on protecting the gains that were made during the long post-war boom. The issues in this cause have been connected to holding the line on wages, workplace safety, tuition rises, public (and private) pensions, environmental protection, and the expansion of democracy. However, in the past decade or so we have seen a gradual change in discourse which has begun to subtly shift back toward the bigger issues of overall inequality and capitalism in general. Though this change is too general to be reduced to any one moment, I often think of the great WTO riots in Seattle. The reason for the change in discourse is fairly simple - the the post-war gains in economic and political equality are being lost and these losses coupled with a looming environmental crisis are causing a slow ideological change. Though the concentration in media control has made this ideological shift weaker and more gradual than it might otherwise be, the change is becoming palpable. The three primary areas that are changing people's minds are an awareness of the startling growth in income inequality in Western capitalist nations, the distinct attack being waged upon democracy by Western elites, and the environmental crisis. As usual, capitalists and economic and political elites have blithely ignored the general impact of their thirst for money and power and this is resulting in a growing number of people who are searching for the underlying causes of our big social and economic problems and the basic issues of capitalism will increasingly become a target for political activism. The more you take away from people the less they have to lose and the more they will look toward the economic system that is at the root of their perceived suffering.

Obviously the reaction of the economic and political elites to such activism will be predictable. They desperately attempt to portray economic inequalities as the outcomes of a "natural" and unchangeable process. Marx called it 'reification,' which is the portrayal of relations between people as only relations between things. They want you to believe that the control of our wealth by a handful of people is the result of some natural, unavoidable process rather than a result of a conscious effort by rich and powerful people.

Outside of the elite, a surprising number of people emulate the ideology of corporatism. The reasons for their support of such an ideology are multi-fold, but the primary reasons are pretty simple - ignorance and fear. Their ignorance is an almost total lack of historical and political knowledge, and their fear is the standard fear of, to borrow a phrase from Edmund Burke, the 'swinish multitude.' Many people see political activists on television and they imagine that any such activism will necessarily result in the rise of another Robespierre and the guillotine. The most unfortunate factor in this public ignorance and fear is that it often becomes the primary push toward greater and more dangerous radicalism. Events such as the French revolution are generally easily avoided through simple reforms. But elites, in their greed for money and power, get comfortable in their power and their egoism gradually convinces them that their positions and wealth are somehow 'god-given' and a natural expression of their merit. They are loath to succumb to reforms which may cede any of their wealth or power and in an effort to protect that power they gradually push the nation toward revolution. The scenario plays itself out over and over again until it begins to look like a comedy of errors, as it has over the past week in Quebec.

The political and economic elite in Quebec (and by association the rest of the nation) see the growing threat of radicalism expressed in a what began as a relatively simple student protest. Because the political elite are desperate to shift economic wealth away from the people and toward the rich and the corporate class, they gradually take the tax burden away from corporations and the rich and they slowly throw it onto the middle and working-classes. Anything that begins to threaten that shift strikes fear into the capitalist class, as it did in the Swing Riots of the 1830s or the anti-corn law riots in the 1840s. (In the early 1840s the Anti Corn-Law League whipped up the revolutionary fervor of working-class in an effort to overturn the Corn-Laws but it quickly betrayed the workers when it realized that the working-class didn't care that much about the corn-laws but they actually wanted real reforms in the system of industrial manufacturing.) In Quebec the ruling class was comfortable in ignoring the protests as long and it felt no threat to their overall plan to maintain their power. However, in the face of a perceived threat, it was the political elite that quickly expanded the issue beyond a protest over tuition fees and made it an issue of controlling dissent in general with a law that de facto attempts to stop protest altogether.

The efforts in Quebec may simply die away (as many such protests do). But make no mistake, these protests are part of a larger historical moment in which people are questioning the radically expanding wealth of a small group of people and a growing power of a corporate elite. Each time I see someone deride protestors as "selfish" or "stupid" I shake my head. As France inched toward revolution in the 1770 and 1780s the elites dismissed anyone who protested inequality as simple 'troublemakers" and "malcontents." And instead of reforming their shockingly unjust system of wealth, they further oppressed and attacked any and all opposition until it was too late and they found themselves at the wrong end of a guillotine. Deride radicals and activists if you will, but you do so at your own risk. Today they are only trying to protect their jobs, their right to an education, their pensions, and their basic democratic rights. Leave their demands unheeded and tomorrow you will find them in your gated communities, in your legislative buildings, in your corporate headquarters. And instead of carrying signs they will be carrying guns and bombs. And if you think it can't happen -- open a history book! It has happened time after time and it will happen again. As long as Western elites continue with their system of radical inequality it will not be a question of "will there be another revolution," rather it is only a question of "when will the next revolution be on our doorsteps?"


doconnor said...

"such activism will necessarily result in the rise of another Robespierre and the guillotine."

This still happens frequently. It happened during the 1979 Iranian revolution. It even happened to a certain extent during the recent Libyan revolution.

A lot of people support corporatism just because they are authoritarian followers.

kirbycairo said...

The cases that you cite reinforce my very point. Both the Shah and the Libyan government paid the price of resisting reform. In the case of the Shah, it arguably the most repressive regime in modern history and the Shah's murder of even reasonable opposition leaders de facto led to the strengthening of a more radical and dangerous resistance. Something very similar happened in Libya.

As for the other point that some people are just authoritarians - indeed this is probably true. But since authoritarian regimes very often turn out to be just as repressive to many of their mainstream supporters as they are to their more radical opposers, one must surely conclude that a great many supporters of an ideology such as the one that Harper representes are simply ignorant and (I suspect) a little dim-witted.