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May 24 2012 14:50 · Normand Baillargeon
A good number of [media] commentators admit to having difficulty understanding what is happening in Québec or squarely demonstrate, by their comments and analyses, that they do not understand completely. Very candidly did Joseph Facal admit yesterday, in the Journal de Montréal: “One of the most striking aspects of the current crisis is the profound difference it reveals in the mentality of many demonstrators and the mindset of people like me. I admit very honestly that I did not see it [the crisis] coming.”
I do not throw the first stone to those people and for my part I admit without shame that I do not understand very well some of the aspects of the crisis shaking Québec [right now]. It will need to end and for time to run its course a little before we can quietly assess and synthesize the events and their meaning: the Owl of Minerva, it is well known, takes flight only at night, after the tumult of daytime.
That being said, in all respect, I think I understand at least in part why some do not understand — and among them, I put not only the commentators, but also a part of the labour movement and the Government. As for the population in general, often, without knowing the details explaining the crisis, it often feels, it seems to me, the essential.
The current crisis is — among other things, I am conscious of it — the expression of a radical critique (and for that reason unusual) of our institutions, our society, a radical critique that a number of people more or less ignore but that has been articulated for many years and now results in unprecedented claims expressed in ways that are also unprecedented.
What does this radical critique say?
Let me to try go quickly — and I hope without too much caricature — to what to me seems to me the essential point.
Here it is. A profound mutation of our civilization occurred at the planetary level toward 1970. One of the central elements of it has been the dismantling of the famous Bretton Woods Agreement, which had been concluded at the end of World War II to restart and frame the world economy.
This agreement favoured trade within the real economy, but also put a major stop to capital flows within the virtual economy, which were deemed dangerous to this real economy made of goods and services. Capital flows which were considered, for good reasons, as granting tremendous and unjustifiable power that had to be refused to holders of capital: holders who could have positively or negatively censored political decisions (by giving them the direction they wished) and would have been granted what Keynes (I think it was him, please correct me if I am wrong…) called a “virtual senate”, and therefore an illegitimate and dangerous (even democraticidal) power over politics: if a law, let’s say on labour, should displease them, the owners of capital might have voted against it by withdrawing their marbles from the game.
One therefore wanted to avoid all that and it was relatively well managed… until the beginning of the 1970s, and therefore during what History called the Trente glorieuses [1945-1975]. The Trente glorieuses, because these were in fact years of strong economic growth, without any major crisis and during which economic and fiscal policies kept alive an egalitarian ideal. To give but one striking example, it was common during these years that countries enforce maximum tax rates of about 90% — and companies paid their taxes. To give another example, the economy was during those years, roughly, at 95% made up of trades conducted within the real economy and at 5% within the virtual economy.
Toward 1970, this system was dismantled. Capital flows were liberalized, thus opening the way to what economist James Tobin immediately predicted, numerous and important financial and economic crisis: to remedy this, he proposed a tax on capital flows, the famous Tobin tax, which was not adopted but which groups like ATTAC continue to defend today.
The ensuing changes were profound and radical.
Economic exchanges, to start, profoundly changed in their nature: they became, roughly, virtual at 95%. The dreaded Virtual Senate exists and it is powerful. Banks profoundly changed in nature: they no longer are money lending institutions, like those our grandparents have known, but major players in high-risk speculative games, capable of disturbing and even destroy the real economy. The wealth concentration in the financial sector that results from this is truly phenomenal. Harmful to the real economy, it enriches beyond any common sens people who engage, in the strict and strong meaning of the word, into antisocial activities that break countless lives. And during this time, the salaries and revenues of ordinary people have been stagnant for decades.
Companies were also deeply transformed. With rights as if they were persons (moral and immortal) since a century already, they evade today from almost any democratic control, and have become sorts of private tyrannies that weigh heavily on the political process and are able to orient in their favour through various pressure groups or organizations they substantially control (OECD, IMF, World Bank, for example): they shape little by little what they call the globalization of the economy, which means, without much caricature, the fact they can go wherever they wish and do whatever they wish and as they wish.
Politics also changes, notably because it puts itself at the service of these economic institutions — if indeed it is still possible to distinguish politics and economic institutions. We are therefore no longer living in representative democracy, but in what we might call representative oligarchy, the alliance of corporations and government. The situation is aggravated by the fact that information is in a substantial measure controlled through mass media, which are companies and often belong to great business groups. An example? That Minister [Lisa Raitt] who is currently announcing her intention to resort once again to a special law in order to resolve a labour dispute (this time CP Rail) and declares that her government was elected to be the “guardian of the economy”. This is totally surreal! Think about it. Not of common good. Not of social justice. Of the economy.
I have probably said all this too quickly and without enough nuance: but the picture is generally accurate. What ensued is well known. Societies and a world profoundly unequal; unceasing and often major economic crisis whose effects are disastrous on the majority of the people; public expenses profiting dominant institutions, which shamelessly ask to be bailed out during times of crisis and request to be subsidized the rest of the time; numerous frontal attacks on the idea of public involvement; the entertaining of the illusion that debt and deficits are caused by the lavish expenses of the State for the common good; the propagation of the lie that we are no longer able to pay for roads worthy of the name, health care for all, decent education, pension funds, social security, unemployment security and salaries.
What we are living
The current revolt is against all that. It was expressed where it could be expressed: in the street.
In the street because political parties did not hear it and do not allow for the expression of all that this revolt carries in its midst.
In the street because labour unions do not hear it or so little and do not allow for the expression of all that this revolt carries in its midst.
In the street because the great media do not hear it or so little and did not allow for the expression of all that this revolt carries in its midst.
Concretely, this revolt says: we refuse to accept that after all these years of supposed economic growth, we cannot or can no longer collectively pay for the common goods that we have put in place yesterday, even less today when a government, whose democratic legitimacy appears to us to be about null, sells of even gives away our collective resources to corporations, some of which are foreign.
It says: the institutions of this world are gravely ill and they need to change.
It says we have had enough of lies and half-truths.
It says: the economy must change. It must no longer be what is presented to us as the only possible horizon of our lives in contempt of everything else. The economy must be something else than what casts its authoritarian shadow over society. It must be a tool that we give ourselves and control in order to put it at the service of common good, and permits environmental concerns, promotion of equality not only of chances but results.
It says: politics must change. The political process is in fact now widely delegitimized, democracy seems to many to be but an illusion while the space for collective deliberation is filled with noises and parasites forbidding a true deliberation.
It is, at least for a part, people who are conscious of all this who emerge on the public scene right now. They are critical, informed and lucid. They cannot be mollified by promises of personal gains, they distrust traditional powers, dread their lies, detect their propaganda: their fight is in a great part altruistic, what they defend goes beyond demands that could be satisfied by usual promises and offers. They implement unprecedented means, practice direct and deliberative democracy, are not fooled by empty slogans. What these people rehabilitate and which many had altogether forgotten it even existed, are ideas of democracy, common good and political struggle.
They are saying to us especially: we will not go quiet and our determination is at the measure of what we understand and reject from the world as it is, a world that must change.
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
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