Ethan Cox is a Montreal-based writer and political organizer. He was formerly FTB’s news editor and the Quebec director of Brian Topp’s NDP leadership campaign. He is currently a special correspondent reporting on the Maple Spring for Rabble.ca where this post originally appeared.
‘Adapt or die’ is the first law of the human race. It is by adapting to our circumstances that we have survived. But being an adaptable species has its downside. It makes us vulnerable to the myth of inevitability.
There are few better examples of the myth of inevitability that Hitler’s thousand year Reich. Why did otherwise decent people go along with the insanity of the Nazi regime? Because they believed its continued dominance was inevitable. It would carry on for a glorious thousand years under the glowing aryan sun. They could either accept it – adapt to it – or die. Being an adaptable species, many chose the path of least resistance.
Of course there was nothing inevitable about it, and the thousand year reich died cowering in a bunker a scant few years later.
I don’t bring this up to draw any parallels. Little on this earth is comparable to Hitler, but it illustrates the fact that even the most perverse of regimes can seem reasonable, and more importantly, inevitable, from the inside.
That’s where we are today: stuck in a broken political and economic paradigm to which we submit because it seems inevitable.
The great American writer Chris Hedges situates the current social movement in Quebec in the same place I do: on the front line of a global struggle against a broken system. He also posits that the failure of mass movements against this broken system will lead to the rise of the truly violent and extreme.
“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.”
I don’t think I really need to explain what’s wrong with our system. You already know. You may justify it, accept it or ignore it, but you know all is not right in our inequitable world.
Over the last fifty years, and particularly during the last decade or two, the rich and powerful have increased their power, wealth and influence exponentially, while life has gotten harder for everyone else. The common good has capsized under the drive to transfer our resources to a small elite.
Increasingly, institutions designed to serve the interests of the many – government, media and police to name a few – have become defenders of a status quo which works only for the minority. The same minority which, not so coincidentally, bankrolls the political campaigns, owns the media and dominates the realm of “public” opinion. We have all the trappings of democracy and free speech, without the substance of either.
In the words of Noam Chomsky, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”
The most dire and existential threat to anyone in the public eye is to appear “unreasonable”. We self censor, to an appalling degree, lest we be judged to have set foot outside of this narrow spectrum.
Many a good person crafts their message to remain “reasonable”, to avoid the fate of Quebec students, who are “naive, unrealistic, stupid, selfish, entitled spoiled brats” as you may have heard.
We know instinctively that something is wrong, deeply wrong, but we agree to limit our opposition to the playing field set out for us. It’s a rigged game, and as soon as we accept to play within these limits, we condemn ourselves to defeat.
Within this narrow spectrum of debate, we are the unreasonable ones. “Greed is good!”, as our state broadcaster Kevin O’Leary is fond of telling us. All power to the shareholders!
Within this spectrum love is a weakness, compassion a debilitating condition. Any measure, however minor, to redress the inequality of our society or provide a social good equally to all is dismissed as communism.
Don’t like it? Move to Cuba. Because the only alternative to the brutality of today’s “modern” capitalism is communism. By relying on a bipolar view of political organization, we become convinced that whatever the ills of our system, the alternative is worse.
Think we should invest in education and hospitals, rather than fighter jets and corporate tax cuts? You are simply too stupid to understand the complexities of our global economy.
Want to talk about the “they” who control power and money in our society? You must be a conspiracy theorist, as if there was some amorphous “they” pulling the strings! It is to laugh!
Because it is ridiculous to identify the 0.4% of the world’s population who control 38.5% of the world’s wealth, and assume that they will use the power they wield to protect a system which benefits them greatly.
Preposterous to assume Rupert Murdoch isn’t the only media mogul influencing the editorial line of the media properties they own to maximize their profits. Even though they have a legal obligation to their shareholders to do just that.
If we suggest that those in power are short sighted to a fault, oblivious to the destruction of our world, and even the future prosperity of our current system, we must be stupid, or crazy, or both. It’s not as if shareholders care more about this year’s profits than long term sustainability, or as if politicians care only about their re-election, and the money that requires, right?
Our world is upside down, and somehow we have been convinced that walking on the ceiling is normal.
But this unsustainable balance of power is a house of cards, a carefully maintained illusion which depends entirely on our subservience to it. If we walk away from our televisions, break the bonds of our isolation and talk to each other about our dreams, our desires, we realize we are neither alone, nor crazy.
This realization is the most remarkable aspect of the social movement unfolding in Quebec, and the sense of community it has brought about.
From Rimouski to Trois Rivières, from Montreal to Laval, the casseroles pot banging protests have broken our isolation, introduced us to neighbors we never knew we had, and gotten us talking about what kind of society we want to see.
They have brought us into the streets, and given us a taste of the incredible power we wield when we work together.
The students are not selfish. On the contrary they have sacrificed their own semesters for the well being of future generations. They have initiated a broad social conversation about our priorities, our goals.
When we have that conversation, we inevitably come to the conclusion that we need change. And the desire for change is an incendiary threat to the powers that be.
This is why we have been so viciously vilified by a media elite who feel their control slipping. What is happening in Quebec is a serious challenge to the status quo, and the pundits who have spent months loosing their most vicious invective at this movement cannot understand how it stands, unbowed, to fight another day.
Last Saturday I spent the day escorting an independent documentary filmmaker and activist from Toronto around to a couple of the protests. We talked for hours about protest, and solidarity and the possibility of a better world. She asked how this movement carried on, and had not yet been beaten into submission or cowed into compliance as so many others are.
We agreed that perhaps it was the joy, the love, the community and the solidarity in our streets which had struck a nerve.
As many reasons as there are to be angry, maybe people need a reason to be hopeful. Perhaps Jack Layton was onto something with his message of “love, hope and optimism”.
We need a movement not of anger, which discourages and demoralizes us in the face of a Sisyphian struggle, but of love, and hope.
Our greatest weapon is our love. A journalist today asked what made people return to the street each night, often for five or six hours at a stretch. What gave people the physical strength to do that?
I don’t believe it’s anger, or rage, although that is certainly part of it. When you walk in our streets, when you see the grey hair and the strollers, when you see your hope, your joy and your love reflected in the brilliant smiles on each face you pass, when you realize that you are not alone, it does something to you.
We are in the street not for ourselves, but for each other. The intoxicating realization that together, we have the power to build the world we want to see is like a drug. The realization that this upside down world is no more inevitable than the thousand year reich is empowering, and floods us with more strength than we ever knew we had.
My filmmaker friend has a tattoo on her arm which reads “love is the movement”. She says it speaks to the fact that we all do what we do out of love. Love for each other, love for the planet, love for the generations to come.
The phrase has stuck with me in the days since, tugging away at my brain. Our love is our strength. We are not so far gone, we are not so lost that we have stopped caring about each other.
Our love is our most potent weapon, and the one our enemies cannot understand, or defeat. Contrary to what we are taught, we are not motivated solely by self-interest. We are in this for each other, we just forget that fact sometimes…
We are at a moment of great possibility, of great promise. But it is also a moment of great danger. This is our chance to clean up the mess we have made, but if we fail, yet again, we risk the spiral of violence Hedges describes.
Far from inevitable, our system is profoundly unsustainable. In its slavish adherence to the mantra of greed, it grows uncontrollably, beyond the limits of what it can control.
This system will come apart at the seams, and we must step in and fix it before it blows up. Not for ourselves, but for each other, and for our children.
Hedges concludes: “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.”
In 72 hours, the idea of Casseroles Night in Canada spread to over seventy locations across Canada and internationally. One week later casseroles took place in over 125 locations around the world. From Paris to Montevideo, Brussels to New York.
Call it austerity, call it insanity, but our system is broken. From one corner of the globe to the other, this knowledge unites us.
Quebec is our beachhead, our inspiration. It starts here, but it will not end here. Be brave, be bold, be loving, be joyful. Now is our moment, we may not get another one.
For my brothers and sisters here in Quebec: ne lâche pas! The whole world is watching, and taking strength from your courage. As I write these words I am watching massive police brutality in our streets on CUTV, whose camera crew was attacked, yet again, and forced off air. Stay strong, stay united and keep fighting. Your sacrifices, your injuries, are not in vain.
They beat you, ridicule you, harangue you and mock you because you’re right. And because you’re winning.
We all struggle for a better world in our own way. If we are to succeed we need the realization that our disparate gripes have a common cause. We need a single, unified movement of resistance to out of control greed and inequality. And we need it right now, not a moment later.
It starts with you. Grab a pot, a spoon and step outside. Talk to your neighbors, dance in the street. You have the power, and now is the time, for now is all the time there may ever be.
Please check out the Casseroles Night in Canada Facebook page for more information on how you can support Quebec’s social movement, and protest Harper’s budget at the same time! This Wednesday, everywhere in the world!
Follow me on Twitter, good judgement to the contrary, I do sometimes feed the trolls: @EthanCoxMTL