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The Quebec Students' Strike

Stirring Canada From Its Slumber

by BENJAMIN CAMPBELL

Tens of thousands of students took to the streets of Montreal again on Saturday, in defiance of the Quebec government’s Bill 78, which aimed to legally curtail their rights to protest. As has become increasingly common, the students were greeted by police responses of tear gas and dozens of arrests. That evening, Montreal-based mega-band Arcade Fire performed to a TV audience of millions, sporting the red squares that have come to symbolize the student movement. It was fitting that the band that jolted the music world with “Wake Up” would endorse the political movement that now serves as a similar call for a country somnambulating through economic crisis.

Thus far, the rest of Canada appears to have greeted the protests with a yawn. The ostensibly liberal media incessantly scolds the students, reminding everyone of the meager stakes involved, given that Quebec has the lowest tuition rates in the country. These critics are seemingly unaware that the attack on students is not only a national phenomenon, but can be seen internationally from the United Kingdom to Chile, and most egregiously in the United States.

Whereas most of the country appears unable to connect these dots, the students have. Recognizing that their struggle is about far more than the proposed tuition hike, the Quebec student association, Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSÉ), has issued a broad “call for a social strike”, insisting that they “must be joined by all of the forces that make up our society”. Spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois eloquently tied their movement to a broader class struggle:”Those who want to increase tuition fees; those who want to cut public services; those who want to privatize healthcare; those who want to cut if not abolish government environmental regulations; those who want to disregard women’s rights, aboriginal rights, the rights of all minorities; those who have been hammering away for decades to desecrate workers’ right to organize; all these people are the same. … These people are the ruling class. These people are the bourgeoisie.”

At present that type of language is likely to draw a collective eye roll from the rest of Canada. “Bourgeoisie”? What is this, the Sixties? And so we are currently witnessing much of the same contempt that was rained down on the Occupy movement, and is consistently showered on the Greeks and Spanish. How dare they challenge the economic laws that govern things? How dare they stand in defiance of capitalism?

Indeed, we haven’t heard talk of class struggle in decades, yet Canadians rarely seem to ask why that is. Most Canadians seem not to recognize the rightward shift of their entire political spectrum, yet alone that it has been a global phenomenon. The decline of the New Democratic Party from Tommy Douglas to Thomas Mulcair has paralleled the Third Way of the U.K.’s Labour Party, the corporatization of the American Democratic Party, and the sell-out of Greece’s ostensible Socialists. This subordination of politics to business interests has been steadily increasing for decades, and proves Nadeau-Dubois’ basic point about the iron grip that the global investor class has on our basic institutions of governance.

Unable to see the broad strokes, Canadians are largely untroubled by their enormous housing and household debt bubbles, as though they have learned nothing from countries like Spain, Ireland, and the United States. Those who have expressed alarm have prepared all sorts of superficial explanations, blaming governments, banks, or home-owners, as if Canada’s debt bubble is an anomaly, unrelated to dozens of similar phenomena globally.

In similar fashion, most Canadians appear unconcerned or supportive of Jean Charest’s curtailment of civil liberties, the Federal Concealment of Identity Act, or the counter-terrorism focus on environmentalism and anti-capitalism. Those few who are concerned are quick to point the blame at political villains like Stephen Harper, thus denying the relation between Canada’s slow erosion of civil liberties and a broader global trend, seen most clearly in the creeping authoritarianism of our southern Big Brother.

Thus, Canadians seem unable or unwilling to contemplate the interconnectedness of the globalized world, and the reality that they are a part of a world in deep crisis, both economic and ecological. It appears that Canadians would prefer to think of themselves as merely innocent bystanders, hurt by the recklessness of Americans and Europeans. In fact, Canada is very much a part of the globalized capitalist economy, and hence very deeply entangled in the present historic crisis of capitalism.

Quebec’s students are some of the few Canadians speaking out about the broader global crisis. By referencing the “bourgeoisie”, Nadeau-Dubois is not speaking of some nefarious cabal, but simply the global investor class rationally investing their capital for profit.  Presently, there are insufficient investment opportunities for all of the existing capital, and it is this overaccumulation of capital that has plunged the world into global economic crisis.

For years, even decades, capital was able to stave off the present crisis, by seemingly creating profits out of thin air, via stock market bubbles, real estate bubbles, debt, and more debt. By thus postponing crisis, capitalists have written a check that they are now scrambling to cash, lest it melt into air. Governments are thus frantically scurrying for profitable investment opportunities to accommodate the present overflow of capital. Part of this, as CLASSÉ puts it, “involves the dismantling of public services aimed at privatizing what remains of the commons.” Another side involves workers learning to accept further subordination to the interest of owners. CLASSÉ also references the ugliest side, with “indigenous peoples seeing a new colonization that pillages the territory remaining to them”.

These the symptoms of the current global crisis. They are all related, because it is a crisis of capitalism. The capitalists are quick to look at the workers and lay the blame there. The way they see it, it is the fault of the people for not working hard enough to keep up with their need for profit. There are thus two possible responses to the crisis. The first is to agree with the capitalists, and vow to work harder to subordinate our lives further for their profit. The second option is to respond to capital: We agree, we are not working hard enough for your profit, and we do not want to. We wish to run our own lives, and make our own decisions for our own interests, not for the interests of profit.

The latter is the response of the people from Syntagma Square, to Puerto del Sol, to Zuccotti Park, and that is now being carried through the streets of Montreal. We can only hope that the rest of Canada recognizes this, wakes up, and joins in the struggle.

Benjamin Campbell is a freelance writer in New York City.