I gave a talk last week at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University to the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Many in the audience had pinned small red squares of felt to their clothing. The carre rouge, or red square, has become the Canadian symbol of revolt. It comes from the French phrase carrement dans le rouge, or “squarely in the red,” referring to those crushed by debt.
The streets of Montreal are clogged nightly with as many as 100,000 protesters banging pots and pans and demanding that the old systems of power be replaced. The mass student strike in Quebec, the longest and largest student protest in Canadian history, began over the announcement of tuition hikes and has metamorphosed into what must swiftly build in the United States—a broad popular uprising. The debt obligation of Canadian university students, even with Quebec’s proposed 82 percent tuition hike over several years, is dwarfed by the huge university fees and the $1 trillion of debt faced by U.S. college students. The Canadian students have gathered widespread support because they linked their tuition protests to Quebec’s call for higher fees for health care, the firing of public sector employees, the closure of factories, the corporate exploitation of natural resources, new restrictions on union organizing, and an announced increase in the retirement age. Crowds in Montreal, now counting 110 days of protests, chant “On ne lâche pas”—“We’re not backing down.”
The Quebec government, which like the United States’ security and surveillance state is deaf to the pleas for justice and fearful of widespread unrest, has reacted by trying to stamp out the rebellion. It has arrested hundreds of protesters. The government passed Law 78, which makes demonstrations inside or near a college or university campus illegal and outlaws spontaneous demonstrations in the province. It forces those who protest to seek permission from the police and imposes fines of up to $125,000 for organizations that defy the new regulations. This, as with the international Occupy movement, has become a test of wills between a disaffected citizenry and the corporate state. The fight in Quebec is our fight. Their enemy is our enemy. And their victory is our victory.
This sustained resistance is far more effective than a May Day strike. If Canadians can continue to boycott university classrooms, continue to get crowds into the streets and continue to keep the mainstream behind the movement, the government will become weak and isolated. It is worth attempting in the United States. College graduates in Canada, the U.S., Spain, Greece, Ireland and Egypt, among other countries, cannot find jobs commensurate with their education. They are crippled by debt. Solidarity means joining forces with all those who are fighting to destroy global, corporate capitalism. It is the same struggle. A blow outside our borders weakens the corporate foe at home. And a boycott of our own would empower the boycott across the border.
The din of citizens beating pots and pans reverberates nightly in cities in Quebec. The protesters are part of what has been nicknamed the army of the cacerolazo, or the casseroles. I heard the same clanging of pots and pans when I covered the protests against Manuel Noriega in Panama and the street protests against Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who despite Law 78 has been unable to thwart the street demonstrations, is the latest victim. I hope the next is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney; they, and Charest, are puppets manipulated by corporate power.
The importance of the Occupy movement, and the reason I suspect its encampments were so brutally dismantled by the Obama administration, is that the corporate state understood and feared its potential to spark a popular rebellion. I do not think the state has won. All the injustices and grievances that drove people into the Occupy encampments and onto the streets have been ignored by the state and are getting worse. And we will see eruptions of discontent in the weeks and months ahead.
If these mass protests fail, opposition will inevitably take a frightening turn. The longer we endure political paralysis, the longer the formal mechanisms of power fail to respond, the more the extremists on the left and the right—those who venerate violence and are intolerant of ideological deviations—will be empowered. Under the steady breakdown of globalization, the political environment has become a mound of tinder waiting for a light.
The Golden Dawn party in Greece uses the Nazi salute, has as its symbol a variation of the Nazi swastika and has proposed setting up internment camps for foreigners who refuse to leave the country. It took 21 seats, or 7 percent of the vote, in the May parliamentary elections. France’s far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, pulled 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. The right-wing Freedom Party in the Netherlands is the third largest in the parliament and brought down the minority government. The Freedom Party in Austria is now the second most popular in the country and holds 34 seats in the 183-seat lower house of the parliament. The Progress Party in Norway is the largest element of the opposition. The Danish People’s Party is Denmark’s third largest. And the Hungarian fascist party Jobbik, or the Movement for a Better Hungary, captured 17 percent of the vote in the last election. Jobbik is allied with uniformed thugs known as the Hungarian Guard, which has set up patrols in the impoverished countryside to “protect” Hungarians from Gypsies. And that intolerance is almost matched by Israel’s ruling Kadima party, which spews ethnic chauvinism and racism toward Arabs and has mounted a campaign against dissenters within the Jewish state.
The left in times of turmoil always coughs up its own version of the goons on the far right. Black Bloc anarchists within the Occupy movement in the United States, although they remain marginal, replicate the hyper-masculinity, lust for violence and quest for ideological purity of the right while using the language of the left. And they, or a similar configuration, will grow if the center disintegrates.
These radical groups, right and left, give to their followers a sense of comradeship and empowerment that alleviates the insecurity, helplessness and alienation that plague the disenfranchised. Adherents surrender the anxiety of moral choice for the euphoria of collective emotions. The individual’s conscience, a word that evolved from the Latin con (with) and scientia (knowledge), is nullified by personal sublimation into the collective of the crowd. Knowledge is banished for emotion. I saw this in Yugoslavia. And this is what happened in Germany during the Weimar Republic. The Nazis, who knew whom they could trust, forbade recruitment from the Social Democrats. They understood that the bourgeoisie liberals of that political stripe lacked the desired ideological rigidity. But the Nazis embraced recruits who defected from the Communist Party. Communists easily grasped the simplistic, binary view of the world that split human relations into us and them, the good and the evil, the friend and the enemy. They made good comrades.
“Comradeship always sets the cultural tone at the lowest possible level, accessible to everyone,” Sebastian Haffnerwrote in his book “Defying Hitler,” which more and more looks like a primer on the disintegration of the early 21st century. “It cannot tolerate discussion; in the chemical solution of comradeship, discussion immediately takes on the color of whining and grumbling. It becomes a mortal sin.
Comradeship admits no thoughts, just mass feelings of the most primitive sort—these, on the other hand, are inescapable; to try and evade them is to put oneself beyond the pale.”
William Butler Yeats, although he saw his salvation in fascism, understood the deadly process of disintegration:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Those of us who care about a civil society, and who abhor violence, should begin to replicate what is happening in Quebec. There is not much time left. The volcano is about to erupt. I know what it looks and feels like. Yet there is a maddening futility in naming what is happening. The noise and cant of the crowd, the seduction of ideologies of hate and violence, the blindness of those who foolishly continue to place their faith in a dead political process, the sea of propaganda that confuses and entertains, the apathy of the good and the industry and dedication of the bad, conspire to drown out reason and civility. Instinct replaces thought. Toughness replaces empathy. “Authenticity” replaces rationality. And the dictates of individual conscience are surrendered to the herd.
There still is time to act. There still are mass movements to join. If the street protests in Quebec, the most important resistance movement in the industrialized world, spread to all of Canada and reach the United States, there remains the possibility of hope.