Last night I saw Naomi Klein speak to a packed house at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto. She captured a lot of what I’ve been feeling these days and managed to explain to me why I have been unable to write anything for the past two weeks. I’ve felt there was so much going on that all I could do was some kind of roundup of all the things that would treat them all superficially, or delve into one or two and not mention some huge things that were going on, neither of which appealed to me. Not that silence in these times is better. But Naomi helped me solve my problem with a strategy of her own: try to explain the situation and get help with what to do from people you respect.
It was strange, she said, to be on a platform speaking to a room full of people trying to analyze events that seem to be going too quickly to make sense of. But she proceeded to do as good a job, it seems to me, as anyone could, of offering something that could help people make sense of things.
I would summarize her talk as follows. She started from the basic premise of her book, the Shock Doctrine: that elites use the shock of natural disasters or military violence to impose economic policies that redistribute wealth from the people to the wealthy. She also used a quote from Friedman from the book, that the key was what ideas were “lying around” when a crisis hits. Friedman and the Chicago School and their counterparts around the world ensured that their privization/deregulation/monetarism were lying everywhere, and also helped to motivate and justify the violence that imposed the ideas.
What did that have to do with this moment? Several things. First, the financial collapse of the US banks and mortgage institutions were a direct outcome of these ideas. Second, that the solution to such a crash, the last time there was one of such magnitude (and with similar causes, in the 1920s), was the entry of the government into the economy in a massive way – the regulation, nationalization, taxation, and public investment of the New Deal in the US. At that time, though, there was more grassroots organizing locally (though, like the organizations that exist today, those were demonized and made invisible as much as possible at the time and in historical accounts) and there was more international rivalry (from the Soviet Union and 3rd world nationalism). Today US elites see themselves as victors enjoying the spoils of the world and, like a neglectful partner in a romantic relationship, see no ideological or institutional competition to give them an incentive to behave better.
And yet, Naomi said, this was ours (progressives’) moment to lose. We ought not to defeat ourselves by believing their propaganda about us, that our project failed because our ideas failed. That is not true. And they are proving it for us – by socializing the debt that the banks incurred, they are showing what progressives know and always have said – that government always plays the major role, the only question is whether that role will be on behalf of the wealthy or whether there will be some component of looking after the public. We should not be deceived by their arguments of inevitability, especially now that they have demonstrated their incompetence and their inability to handle the situation. Nor should we be deceived by their declarations of our weakness. We, she concluded, are much stronger than we think.
There were more details, including some very interesting ones, but that was the basic argument she presented. What followed was almost as good as the talk itself though, as Naomi switched from being a speaker to being a host for some of the best activist organizations in the city to talk about a huge number of things that are happening now. It is going to take a lot of people to try to make sense of these times, and the structure of the event was consistent with that message. The activists that spoke were also excellent and at their best. People always ask me what to do, Naomi said, so I am going to get some help answering that question.
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty talked about an ongoing campaign for public housing in Toronto. Public housing used to be one way to house people affordably. The alternative, Naomi pointed out, was the open ended speculative mortgage bonanza that culminated in first the foreclosure crisis last year and the collapse of banks this year. Any US crisis will eventually be a Canadian crisis, since Canada’s elites have made the country so dependent on the US. And any US economic doctrines become Canadian doctrines – at least the elite ones. In Toronto the City’s strategy is to become the biggest slumlord in the city, refusing to do the necessary repairs and keeping the people in the public housing system in squalor, so that the argument can eventually be made that the buildings should be condemned and replaced with condos, privatized. OCAP is part of a campaign to fight this through witholding rent and pooling it for repairs themselves. It is a simple and brilliant strategy that will work if enough people take it up. Another fight is against the invisibilization of homeless people on the streets – once invisible, they lose any protection from the state’s depredations. There’s a street takeover on Saturday October 4th. If you’re in Toronto, be there. This was a moment of extraordinary opportunities and dangers, but the biggest mistake would be to accept the inevitability of capitalism.
More fighting words came from the Tyendinaga support committee, who gave us the latest on Shawn Brant’s case and on a successful fight against a $2 million police station in a community that doesn’t have drinkable water.
Two speakers from No One is Illegal talked the fight against deportations, the exploitation of insecure labor, and the ongoing theft of land and resources from indigenous people, the deeper elements of the whole system. They both talked about what solidarity means – fighting along with the oppressed.
Someone from the Stop the War Coalition pointed out that in all the talk of present and future fiscal crisis that is going to preclude needed investment in social and environmental areas, no one is questioning the need for trillions (in the US) and hundreds of billions (in Canada) of dollars to go to the military. Also, that if Canadian mobilization helped stop Canada’s elites from joining the war in Iraq, it could do the same to end Canada’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan (and future wars).
The Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid talked about how the Palestinians are the experimental subjects for innovation of the Shock Doctrine – surveillance, control, torture, imprisonment, destruction of the basis of survival. CAIA argued for the campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli regime and Canada’s support for it, until Israel complies with international law.
Discussion then turned to the Canadian election that will take place on October 14. An activist from a very clever website, voteforenvironment.ca pointed out that on October 14, Canadians would have their choice of 4 parties with progressive environmental policies and one dinosaur (the Tories). The Tories do not have a majority of the public by any means but they could win a majority because of our electoral system. Unless voters subvert the electoral system by voting strategically (which is NOT the same as voting liberal!). The site gives riding-by-riding information on who the favourites are and who the best candidate to defeat the tories is in each riding. It is non-partisan, other than being anti-Tory, which agrees very well with my position on this election. Please take a look at their site and pass it along. Canadians are some of the most wired people in the world per capita, which means a campaign like this could work. (Another motivation to oust the Tories, related to the high per-capita internet use of Canadians, is the Tories’ appalling digital copyright bills, the subject of some very interesting campaigning: see Russell McCormand’s blog, for a place to start). Activists from a new group called the Department of Culture also announced their campaign and upcoming events (that will be appealing since they’re artists) to try to stop the Harper people.
The whole event was really special for two reasons. One, because it tried to respond to a great deal of what was going on very seriously and sincerely, and managed to present so many campaigns and ideas and still seem politically coherent (at least to me). Two, because the relationship between the activist groups and event organizers and the speaker was just the right one: one of dialogue and mutual support.
The best line of the night was when she was talking about the job of progressives being to move the center. Let the liberals in power make the compromises – movements should push them. And in times like these, the more pushing, the better the eventual compromise. If, for example, they said the green economy couldn’t be afforded after socializing the public debt, then the way forward is clearly to nationalize the oil companies as well as the banks, since oil companies were still very profitable. In short, Naomi advised, ‘get out there and say some crazy stuff’.
PS: This is not an unbiased article, nearly all the groups and people I mentioned are friends, groups I belong to, people I admire, etc.
PPS: I am going to try to write something about the economic crisis in the coming days. People have been asking and I have been researching…