Tuesday, June 29, 2010


That will show them. We burned two police cars and smashed the windows at American Apparel. Now they'll dismantle the whole apparatus of the capitalist system and then we can...uh...become farmers and start growing our own food. Except I don't know how to farm, so I guess I'll buy my food from...oh, wait...

We elect our leaders (well, some of us do) and it’s good that they meet, but judging from some peoples’ reaction we shouldn’t have leaders at all, and, if we do, they shouldn't have meetings. There’s a certain appeal to this, I admit. Government is too big and tries to do too much. A large percentage of our elected leadership has a very marginal mandate, is demonstrably incompetent, and is almost entirely self-interested. These facts tend to discourage people, but it’s actually precisely because of them that it’s so important for people to get involved. Politics, by definition, involves the exercise of power, and it’s vital that people use such influence as they have to ensure that governmental authority is exercised by consent, justly, and with restraint.

As citizens of a liberal democracy, we have the right to alter the calculus of costs that go into governmental decision making. We can make our views known, we can vote, we can get involved in politics, we can peacefully protest. In ancients Athens, they had a word for people disinclined to do so: the politically uninvolved were called “idiots” - hence the origins of the word. So I have no objection in principle to those who demonstrated at the G20 summit, inexplicably held in downtown Toronto last weekend. I doubt that the marches had an particular impact on the decision making that went on within (the leaders didn’t see the protests and the media didn’t report on the agenda of the various peaceful demonstrators) and I doubt, too, that many of the marchers were particularly well informed about the issues about which they were marching. Indeed, something is seriously bonkers with the leader of a major union who says, “Working people have never been given anything” when the rank-and-file union membership he represents earn, on average, nearly $60 per hour when pension and benefits are factored in.

But let me put the following case to you: supposing that you’re a member of an organization that’s concerned about the ecology or the women’s rights in developing countries. Here are two courses of action open to you: in one, you can go to the G20 summit and peacefully demonstrate, in the small hope of making your views known, or you attend the same demonstration, don a mask, and throw bricks through windows and at the police. Which of these two actions are more likely to garner public sympathy and support for your position?

It’s not even a question that needs to be posed. Tim Horton’s franchises were vandalized in downtown Toronto over the weekend, and to most Canadians that’s an act that falls below spray-tagging the exterior of a cathedral on the list of things that are likely to get you sent to hell. And the acts of violence committed by various thugs claiming to be demonstrators reveal rather conclusively that the members of the “Black Bloc” aren’t interested in politics at all. They’re interested in pointless violence. Oh, they claim to be “political anarchists.” Very well: take ten of them are random. How many of the ten, do you think, could engage you in learned discourse about the philosophies of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and Rudolph Rocker?

“We’re living in police state!” I keep reading on internet chat boards and hearing on Youtube. Was the police response overzealous at times? Of course it was. The police are an organization like any other, and amongst their ranks there will be a measure of bullies. There are also bullying garbage collectors and mail carriers and librarians and teachers. Given a slightly different trajectory in life, they might have been members of the Black Bloc. The difference, of course, is that your typical librarian doesn’t have legal powers of arrest and an assortment of weapons with which to take out their grievances on others. But for my students with a head full of steam and inclined to be more in sympathy with the Black Bloc and their ilk than with the police – who are themselves working people, remember – here’s something to bear in mind. The first sign that you’re not living in a police state is that you survive the experience when you say that you are.

1 comment:

Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by symptoms of a peptic ulcer!