Local Protest, Global Resistance: The Montreal Student Movement

Note: If you are reading this in Montreal, please join us for the massive, and potentially historic protest tomorrow afternoon, June 22nd.

“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.”

– Chris Hedges, veteran NYT foreign correspondent, in a recent piece.

While international reports have condemned the actions of the Quebec government (and we can include the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in those concerned) and placed the Montreal student movement squarely in the context of global movements like Occupy, the Canadian media continues to be conspicuously (read: shamefully) silent on these matters. While I will address the frightening implications of Canada’s horribly skewed mainstream media in the next post, it is clear in the contrast between local and international reports –  3000 news reports from 77 different countries in recent weeks – that there has been a concerted effort on the part of Canadian media conglomerates to negatively frame the student movement. The complicity demonstrated by media, government, police, and private interests in their aggressive action against this peaceful popular movement lends creedence to the idea that the Canadian corporate establisment has been shaken and now feels threatened by this show of solidarity in resistance to neoliberal policy.

Some have failed to grasp the connection between what seems like a modest increase in tuition and more general negative trends. Some have referred to Quebec universities as underfunded, and others have cited the current recession as a reason to augment fees. Not entirely different arguments depict Quebec students as a spoiled generation, unwilling to pay their fair share.

Many of these arguments cite the higher tuition fees across Canada before nodding to the colossal tuition in the US, apparently these people are thrilled with the US model. Last time I checked – and Stephen Harper’s government throws this label into serious question – Canada is a social-democratic nation. We invest in our future health, safety, prosperity and education. We do so at home and abroad because we are wealthy as a nation, and people within and outside our society are poor. This consistent historical investiture is responsible for our (once) glowing international reputation. Comparing Canadian tuition to the United States is a perfect example of the dominance of the neo-liberal model. Why not compare Canadian education costs to tuition in other social-democratic nations like Sweden or Germany? I suggest that this is because – as a society – we continue to be duped by the notion that corporate tax cuts and laissez-faire economics create a more favourable economy for all, while the truth is clearly the opposite. Here is a very concise video-explanation by Quebec research group IRIS on the myths of education funding, and the proof that the Quebec government’s position on this issue is dishonest, hypocritical, and regressive:

The video is in French, but there is an English translation here.

The truth is that Canada is becoming a more and more unequal society, and that the tuition hikes are just one aspect of our evaporating social democracy. Do these figures about Canada seem alarming to you?:  

– The richest 1 per cent increased their share of total income from 8.1 per cent in 1980 to 13.3 in 2007 and the richest 0.1 per cent doubled their share from 2 per cent to 5.3.

– The 100 best-paid CEOs made an average of $6.6 million, 155 times the average wage of $42,988 and the tax rate for richest dropped from 43 per cent in 1981 to 29 per cent in 2010. More interesting figures here.

Our government is giving out over 10 billion in corporate tax cuts annually, and yet it would take less than 1% of the Quebec government to offer free education in the province. This is the battle of our generation, this is our popular upheaval. The financial crisis and its disgusting revelations on the results of economic inequality and de-regulation have barely stalled the advance of globalized neoliberal policy. It is surreptitious, but it is everywhere increasing inequality and crushing the social democratic concept of a fair society.  

As if this set of troubling realities were not enough, the  legitimate and democratically expressed outrage at this issue has been met with violence, repression, politically motivated arrest, and illegal detention by a government engaged in the mass suppression of democratic rights. In one of the most outrageous examples of this, journalists from French daily newspaper Le Devoir went undercover wearing red squares (the symbol of the movement) to Montreal’s F1 race. What their article detailed was a series of run-ins with the public servants known as the Montreal police (SPVM), who aggressively searched and illegally detained them while admitting to criminal profiling. The implications are obvious and damning: there is publicly-funded  army of armed men and women in Montreal who are protecting private interests by arbitrarily arresting those who display their sympathy with this movement. Call it political repression if you want, it runs counter to all that the free society claims to be. I repeat that this is the same government that passed a law to repress the student protests that a constitutional expert has said “contavenes the [Canadian] Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] on all kinds of grounds” here (more on exactly what rights are being contravened below). Again, I ask you to read my friend Ethan Cox’s article on the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights’ reaction to this law. If these actions do not outrage you, I urge you to reflect on the ideas of democracy and civil society.

As a city, as a province, and as a nation we cannot stand idly by while our basic rights are being actively repressed by a callous and corrupt government. Our MOST basic rights:

The right to freedom of peaceful assembly (Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Fundamental Freedoms 2C) and freedom of association (Fundamental Freedoms 2D).

The right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure (Legal Rights, 8).

The right not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned (Legal Rights, 9).

Let us all take a stand aginst this tomorrow and for as long as it takes to wake up this irresponsible government. A victory here goes toward the fight worldwide against repression, corporate domination, and neo-liberal policy. Let us all stand for our democracy and our rights, let us all engage in the fight of this generation. 



In Case You Did Not Hear The Music

“[A]nd those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” – Friedrich Nietzsche

I have had a post brewing for a while now, and while I’ve had trouble getting back on track, recent events have made it difficult for me to delay any longer. I may have drifted a little, but I began this blog with a series of posts on the perils that confront social democracy in the midst of an international financial crisis.  As I see it, the perils are two-fold: firstly coming in the form of a regressive return to dangerous kinds regionalism, ethnocentrism, and repressive authoritarianism, and second, as an abdication of our social democratic principles in the face of a globalizing neoliberal ideology dominated by multinational corporations that masquerades as objective good government. Now, a growing protest movement in my native city of Montreal has come to represent a powerful form of popular resistance to this trend.

What began as a small student resistance to tuition hikes on March 18th, 2011 in Montreal has blossomed into a movement that has garnered international attention from the press (see articles in The Guardian and the NYT), and parallel solidarity protests all over the world (including TorontoLondon, and New York). More importantly, it has seen marches of over 250 000 people – the biggest protest rallies in Canada since the Iraq War – and on May 22nd, the 100th day of the student strike, I was present at the largest display of civil disobedience in Canadian history in response to a repressive law passed to squash the protests.

Moreover, what began as a group of students organized by their unions has attracted the sympathy of people of all ages and walks of life who understand that this movement cannot be divorced from the false austerity that our irresponsible government has imposed. Our provincial government – like the Canadian federal government, and many other governments around the world – has given away billions in corporate tax cuts while cutting social programs in a bid at austerity. I will touch on this notion of false austerity in a coming post, but suffice it to say: Canada is not Greece, and important questions must be asked about where the money we DO have is going.

The reason that this movement has accrued so much varied and international support is that it resonates with those who are dissatisfied with the political failure to represent actual citizens (the Occupy movement is one such example). It is absolutely unthinkable that Jean Charest, the premier of Quebec (or any other major leader for that matter), would have waited 100 days to address the concerns of the business community (a point made in an excellent short article in the Toronto Sun), but it took him that many days to sit down with students who had put 250 000 in the streets twice. The youth of Quebec have called our societal priorities into question, and they deserve our dedication and support as they call their government into question. A government that has mismanaged public funds, bullied and condescended to their own youth, and attempted to restrict the civil liberties of their citizens. This is democracy in action, and a population prepared to fight for their social democratic principles in the face of a false austerity that would continue to expose us to the whims of multinationals rather than address the needs and desires of whom it is purported to serve. The music is ringing through the streets of Montreal, and it is being heard all over the world. Through collective action we may take a stand against domination and repression.

In coming weeks I will continue to post on this subject. If you’d like to read more, check out this great piece by my good friend Ethan Cox.

Gone is The Age of Reason?

During the recent GOP debate in Florida, the television audience was treated to such awe-inspiring moments as Newt Gingrich’s promise to “pray for guidance and stop the war against Christianity that is being waged by the “secular elite,” and Rick Santorum’s solemn declaration that he never “bought into the global warming hoax.” Somewhere, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are muttering to themselves, extremely puzzled by the course of history. While the – previously discussed – government of Viktor Orban attempts to disassemble the democratic institutions of the third Hungarian Republic, Santorum waltzes on stage and proclaims that rights come from God, not government. Holy shit indeed.

While vibrant modern democracies have considerable room for a variety of social and political conservatism in public debate, the current wave of conservatism that has spread throughout the West is nothing short of regressive in its political ambitions. In terms of political ideas, the GOP debates have been nearly bereft of interesting or original thoughts (that is, with the exception of Ron Paul, whose failure to do better in the face of such poor opposition only brings up uncomfortable questions about American democracy). Meanwhile, the Canadian government – once paraded as a leader in climate change and transparency – suppresses its media and threatens NGOs over tar sands criticism, pulling out of the Kyoto pact while denying the connection to its lucrative yet environmentally harmful extraction process. Difficult economic times have seen the abdication of political principles before, but the real trouble is that we may not be quite sure what those political principles are anymore. Globalization and the free market have teamed up in the right wing to cloak themselves in the guise of unqualified positives, and conservatives worldwide have presented economic efficiency as the only reasonable form of governance in the “free world.” This is what allows mind-bogglingly prominent figures like Santorum to question fundamental scientific and political convictions like global warming and secular government. Three hundred years ago Franklin and Jefferson would have laughed him out of town.

While not wishing to lump Enlightenment ideas into a convenient category, or deny the important influence of counter-Enlightenment thought, it must be said the political values of our global world order, and certainly those of Western nations have been formed in accordance with Enlightenment ideals, namely those of rational political organization, secular government, tolerance, and an internationalism, or cosmopolitan sense of cooperation. Will Hutton, in a recent op-ed for the Guardian, comments on a new conservatism that departs from this tradition as embodied by Messrs Santorum and Orban: 

“The dynamic element on the political right across the west is giving up on the Enlightenment. No longer does it want to embrace tolerance, reason, democratic argument, progress and the drive for social betterment as cornerstones of society.”

While I find Hutton’s criticism a little heavy handed in that it brands all parties on the right with broad strokes of anti-Enlightenment while treating the Enlightenment itself somewhat monolithically, he expresses a central concern of mine in a very short article: political regression is very possible, especially at a time like this. The tendency to regionalism, regressive political ideas, and extreme conservatism becomes heightened in times of crisis, and is responsible for the increased inability of multilateral bodies to find solutions to global problems. It is no coincidence that Europe has become a bad word in the US elections. The EU’s financial struggles have made them a scapegoat for the welfare state, and even worse, multilateralism. Both Obama’s attempts at instituting a functioning health care system, and his desire to work on multilateral solutions to international affairs have inspired the GOP candidates to accuse him of trying to “turn the United States into Europe.” When did the West become so fractured that the word Europe has become an insult in American elections? And how are the major arbiters of international relations to maintain a united stance on global issues while so divided? Moving forward, I will continue to discuss the threat to Enlightenment ideals, and the dangers of political tribalism in the West. It is my feeling that the continuing crisis exacerbates these problematic political phenomena, and that a renewed commitment to progressive political values can come from a reflection on Western political and intellectual history. Hutton illustrates this feeling nicely:

“On issues big and small, we need to get better and cleverer at understanding our Enlightenment legacy and turning it into policies and institutions whose value is obvious to all. The Enlightenment is, with all its imperfections, what drove the rise of the west and will continue to do so if allowed. There is no long-run happiness nor well-being in organising our economies and societies around blood, ethnicity, blind faith and the tribe. The Enlightenment is under siege around the world. It is time to rally to its defence.”

“A Common House that we have Built Together”

“The EU is not a doormat to wipe your feet on, but it is a common house that we have built together Mr. Orbán.” – Daniel Cohn-Bendit  (my translation)

Last week’s article made reference to Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary as an example of a regionalism (or tribalism) that arises in times of crisis. This week I promised a discussion of that phenomena as linked to the loss of Enlightenment ideals. This post and the next will engage with that discussion, but I had to include another little note on Viktor Orbán. Below are two videos of the same speech by Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the European Parliament. The first is in the original French, and the second includes English simultaneous interpretation. Unfortunately, the interpreter leaves much to be desired in the passionate pontification department, so whether you have any French or not, I suggest you have a look at some of the original (if only to gauge the spirit of the delivery). Essentially, Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the Greens–European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament, equates Mr. Orbán’s reforms with totalitarian politics, and urges the EU to step in to moderate what he views as a anti-intellectual, anti-semitic, and dangerously nationalistic regime. As you’ll see, the speech is very well received.

The parliamentary row has uncovered more divisions within the EU as the continued desperation of the European financial crisis would benefit from some increased solidarity among member nations. So yeah, bad timing, but not entirely coincidental. Orbán has no doubt sought to capitalize on the negative EU sentiment in Hungary to consolidate his party’s grip on the country’s media, legislature and judiciary. This type of reactionary crisis-politics in the EU is not limited to Orbán but is shared across many Eurosceptic groups. As cracks appear in the unity of the European project, some suggest that the crisis is evidence of the EU’s inability to function as a unifying force.

While austerity measures are ushered in across Europe in awkwardly grandiose parliament buildings, Eurosceptics the world over pat each other on the back, rejoicing at the perceived failure of the EU’s supranational polity. Inevitably, the same tired discussion of Europe’s meaning, limits, and commonalities gets dragged to the fore, kicking and screaming.  

While Orbán tries to associate the “dictates of Brussels” with the commands of an authoritarian empire (memories of Soviet rule still fresh among Hungarians), others assert the pre-eminence of the nation-state in the face of an “unnatural” political grouping. A recent Foreign Policy article entitled “The Myth of Europe” kicks sand in the face of an anemic EU as it lies mired in its troubling financial issues. The article’s main thrust suggests that the EU’s “most profound crisis” is one related to identity, and that a lack of unity is the true thorn in the side of this novel political project. In other words, that radically different national views prevent a united Europe, and thus, doom the EU.

Here we have the traditional notion of the nation being applied to what should properly be understood as “postnational.” The EU was established as a means to off-set regional divisions on a continent ravaged by national hostilities, have 60 years of peace damaged our memories? Does the idea for a continent of formerly antagonistic nations to become united through political and economic links become less relevant and powerful with the YES result in yesterday’s Croatian accession vote?

Again, I am alluding to my own wariness of those that would seek to shrink back into more familiar parameters during difficult times. Call me an idealist, but I do think of the EU – and postnational politics in general – as a noble project of the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant associated the establishment of political peace with “cosmopolitanism,” or an increased connectivity of nations. If Europe is to wield significant international influence in the future, it can do no better than by continuing to forge unity and cooperation among potential antagonists. In brief and somewhat crude terms, this is the connection between the EU and the Enlightenment that I would like to establish. My next post will go into more detail on this subject, expanding on my belief that some anti-EU sentiment is a symptom of forgotten – or ignored – Enlightenment ideals (another crisis in a crisis). If the EU can truly be described as a “common house” that the members have “built together,” then it should be celebrated as such – current financial issues aside. The continued international influence of Europe, and the West in general, hangs very much in the balance.

Crisis upon Crisis

In an article this week, Erik Dronen notes how political issues – specifically, those associated with democratic freedoms – tend to take a back seat to economic issues in times of crisis. Though it is true that harsh economic realities can stifle lively political debate, there are some political conversations that tend to rise out of crises.

This week I’d like to introduce a topic that will be a re-occurring concern in my next few posts. In keeping with my original theme of “Crisis upon Crisis,” I will be discussing the manifestations and consequences of a political tribalism that arises out of a desire for self-protection and isolation in uncertain times.

One of the truly wonderful aspects of our globalized capitalist system (present pre-“occupations” with its very real perils aside), is the way that it connects us – especially in times of prosperity. When business is booming, political boundaries blur, linguistic and religious differences appear less significant, and the world is smaller. However, when the global economy suffers, our species has a remarkable tendency to seek comfort in the familiar, local, and – most disturbingly – tribal. Many of the great political projects of the 20th Century occurred in the wake of the Second World War, and were designed to curb the power of the nation-state as arbiter of international affairs. The UN and the EU can both be placed in this category, along with many other intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations. Today, there is evidence of a reversion to the national that is taking place as a result of crisis-related unrest.

Europe, though not alone, is a good example. While a new conservatism grips European governments with bleak economic prospects, populist leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán threaten to destabilize the political grounds on which the EU was formed. While Orbán’s government threatens to dissolve many of his country’s democratic institutions, his offering of Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s offer of citizenship to German-Czechoslovakians before WWII. Orbán’s contempt for democracy is compounded by his nationalistic rhetoric, he was quoted as saying: “the republic is merely a cloak for the nation” in 2006. It has been quite a while since Europe last saw a head of state make such openly nationalist statements in reference to a nation as a particular ethnic or cultural community. Sixty years after the Treaty of Paris came into force, could Europe descend into a divisive new tribalism?

Viktor Orbán

The problem is not Europe’s alone, but can be seen as a worldwide wave of conservative politics capitalizes on fear and insecurity. A month ago, the Canadian government announced it was withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, citing the “economic situation” as the chief factor. As this crisis spreads and deepens, will opportunities for international cooperation be sacrificed to national interests in the name of fiscal conservatism? Will the great progress made in international diplomacy be squandered by inward-looking government? These are some of the questions I ask myself when reflecting on these concerns.

In a recent op-ed piece, Will Hutton makes reference to the Orbán government in the context of a very interesting discussion about what he sees as the abandonment of Enlightenment ideals. Next week I’ll be responding to that article by making a case for the EU as an Enlightenment project, and delving further into the dangerous rise of political tribalism that I have introduced in this article.