Quebec and After

For all the pious talk of development, democracy and raising living standards, the “Free Trade Area of the Americas” (FTAA—an extension of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]) is essentially a mechanism for Canadian and American capitalists to gain effective control over public policy in their neo-colonial hinterland.

Princeton economist Paul Krugman ridicules FTAA protesters as spoiled brats who are indifferent to the fact that millions of desperately poor people in Latin America and the Caribbean eagerly welcome any chance to work in a sweatshop for a few dollars a day. But increasing numbers of youth are drawing an entirely different conclusion. If low pay, hellish working conditions and destitution are all that global capitalism can offer to billions of human beings, then it is obviously necessary to look for a radically new way of organizing the global economy.

The ongoing bourgeois offensive within the imperialist countries is leading to an increased awareness among millions of working people that the “efficient” accumulation of capital by the private sector translates into lower living standards, shrinking public services and a degraded and increasingly toxic environment. This recognition is an essential pre-condition for future revolutionary explosions. Of course, growing popular unease with the plans of the ruling class can also find reactionary, xenophobic expressions.  But so far the recent wave of “anti-globalization” protests has had a generally leftist character.

In Quebec City the government created a four-kilometre long, three-metre high, chain-link fence, guarded by some 8,000 cops and other security personnel, within which the leaders of the 34 countries of the Americas (with the exception of Fidel Castro) assembled for photos, handshakes and speeches. Outside the wall, thousands of trade unionists and young militants gathered to express their opposition to the plans of the imperialists.

‘Fortress Quebec Breached’

Despite all the elaborate security preparations and a concerted campaign of harassment of known activists by Canada’s political police, protesters managed to delay the summit’s official opening on Friday 20 April when they ripped down a big section of the fence. The Globe and Mail headline the next day said it all: “Fortress Quebec is Breached.” Unlike in Seattle, where the demonstrators had the element of surprise, the tactical victory in Quebec was achieved despite massive preparations by the police.

The mood at the big trade-union demonstration the next day was festive. Friday’s symbolic victory emboldened the leadership of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to leave the official march and head back to the summit. No other unions participated, and when the CUPE contingent and a few thousand young militants reached the fence the police responded with a barrage of tear gas, setting off a confrontation that lasted long into the night.

While the bourgeois media issued routine denunciations of the supposed “violence” of the demonstrators, they dared not characterize the events as simply an orgy of destruction. By playing up distinctions between the “violent” protesters at the fence and the far more numerous “peaceful” ones in the official march, the media sought to marginalize the young radicals who stood up to the cops. Sinclair Stevens, Brian Mulroney’s industry minister and a well-known “free-trade” booster, created some ripples when he denounced the police violence:

“Some will say that a handful of demonstrators got out of hand and forced the police to take collective action. I can’t agree. The police action in Quebec City, under orders from our government, was a provocation itself—an assault on all our freedoms.”
Globe and Mail, 24 April

The Canadian government, which likes to portray itself as a paragon of democratic rights and humanitarianism, had authorized its thugs to gun down demonstrators for even picking up a stick:

“Lethal force, the instructions read, could be used if it was believed ‘the subject could commit an aggressive act with an object such as a stick....’”
Globe and Mail, 23 April

Many of those arrested were abused in jail:

“Some of the more than 400 arrested during the weekend complained Monday they were stripped, sprayed with cold water and deprived of food. Pierre Morneau said he was among a group who were stripped and hosed down. When they asked what they were contaminated with that prompted police to hose them down, ‘They told us, “You’re contaminated with the scum that you are.’”
Toronto Star, 23 April

The Canadian Labour Congress posted bail for those arrested, while the spineless NDP, which is trying to climb aboard the “anti-globalization” bandwagon, dumped on the demonstrators, not the cops. Alexa McDonough complained “the images in people’s minds are based on the tiny number of very, very violent, irresponsible, anti-social protesters” (Ibid.). Svend Robinson, the federal party’s left winger, claims that the cops shot him in the leg with a rubber bullet as he was marching away from the fence. Yet he joined McDonough in denouncing those who fought back: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the violent attacks by a small number of protesters on police officers, this was senseless, destructive violence” (Ibid.). NDPers, television “personalities” and academic hacks all unanimously denounced the youth who ripped down the fence and stood off the police, but tens of millions of people around the world cheered them.

Leftward Political Shift

Like the November 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, the real story in Quebec is the loss of confidence by a growing portion of “civil society” in the infallibility of the market. This was reflected in a poll published in the 16 April National Post that reported 47 percent in agreement with a statement that the protesters “should be praised” compared to only 33 percent who disagreed.

This is a potentially significant political development. What most disturbed corporate America about Seattle was the depth of popular support for the protesters. These sentiments are of course a very mixed bag. The Seattle demonstration featured a good deal of reactionary flag-waving protectionism and racist anti-communist China-bashing by AFL-CIO bureaucrats. While nationalist/protectionist sentiments were in evidence in Quebec, they were considerably more subdued.

A decision by Canadian immigration authorities to refuse entry to several Mexican activists the week prior to the FTAA confab provoked a storm of protest. This convinced Chretien that it would be more trouble to turn away busloads of U.S. demonstrators than to allow them to proceed to Quebec.

Many of the protesters naively imagine that the capitalist offensive against labor, which the FTAA is one aspect of, can be “fixed” through voting, lobbying and other “proper channels.” The majority of protesters, even among the youthful militants, are still operating within the political framework of what is “realistic” under capitalism. Yet alongside the expressions of protectionism and economic nationalism, a more generalized, if inchoate, anti-capitalist sentiment is growing—a recognition that the fates of ordinary people throughout the hemisphere are linked, and an increasing hostility toward transnational corporations. The imposition of the FTAA will have negative consequences for all working people in the Americas (not only those in the neo-colonies) and as consciousness of this diffuses within the population in Canada and the U.S., the ruling elites may find it difficult to maintain political support for their project.

One notable feature of the demonstration was the solidarity between francophones and anglophones. Concordia, one of Montreal’s two English-language universities, sent 88 buses to the demonstration. The tens of thousands of youth and unionists who attended from all over Quebec were joined by thousands more from English Canada and the U.S.

The Left on the FTAA Demo

Some self-proclaimed Marxists, e.g., the International Socialists (IS), uncritically applaud the recent wave of heterogeneous mobilizations against the WTO, FTAA, etc. Abbie Bakkan, a senior IS leader, appeared on a panel at a 6 April meeting in Toronto where she stressed the importance of keeping this burgeoning “movement” together. She warned that nefarious corporate interests are trying to detach the thoroughly bourgeois Sierra Club from the anti-globalization camp.

Marxists welcome the prospect of political differentiation along class lines within the ranks of the protesters. The recognition that working people and their capitalist masters have counterposed interests has always distinguished revolutionaries from reformists. Marxists do not seek to provide formulas to paper over the class contradictions like the social democrats and union bureaucrats do. Rather, we point to the connection between particular ugly manifestations of capitalism—sweatshops, environmental degradation, etc.—and the historic necessity for socialist revolution. The task of revolutionaries is to help militants see through the nationalism and protectionism pushed by the reformists and understand that the problem goes deeper than bad trade deals and excessive corporate political influence.

Not every ostensibly socialist organization shares the IS’s enthusiasm for the anti-FTAA protest. The Communist League (CL—affiliated with the American Socialist Workers Party headed by Jack Barnes) denounced Quebec, just as it had denounced the 1999 Seattle protest. In an ad for a CL meeting in Vancouver on 27 April to discuss the issue, the CL shrieked:

“The Canadian economic nationalism of the anti-free trade demonstrations in Quebec City is a reactionary trap for working people and youth.”

The Trotskyist League (TL), Canadian affiliate of James Robertson’s Spartacist League/U.S., boycotted the Seattle demonstrations, which they denounced as “dominated by national chauvinism, racist protectionism and counterrevolutionary attacks on the Chinese deformed workers state” (Workers Vanguard, 10 December 1999). While they did send a sales team to the recent anti-FTAA protest, the Robertsonites appear to be almost as disoriented as the Barnesites. An SL leaflet announcing a 28 April forum in New York that featured an “eyewitness report from Quebec” also pronounced: “From Seattle to Quebec: Anti-Globalization Protests Push Illusions in Rapacious U.S. Imperialism.” If this brainless sectarianism were projected back to the 1960s, the SL could have come up with lots of reasons not to participate in either the civil-rights movement or the Vietnam anti-war movement, as both were led by people who regularly pushed illusions in imperialism.

The Robertsonians who sold papers at the Quebec demonstration seemed at a loss to explain how tens of thousands of Quebecois and anglophones were able to join together in common struggle against the cops and the corporations when, according to their theory:

“The recognition by the workers of each nation that their respective capitalist rulers—not each other—are the enemy can come only through an independent Quebec.”
Spartacist Canada, September/October 1995

For Revolutionary Leadership!

The growing wave of resistance to “globalization” indicates that the imperialist New World Order is not quite as stable as investors once presumed. While these protests are far from posing a serious challenge to capitalist rule, growing hostility to the agencies of international capital has compelled the master class to resort to rhetorical expressions of concern for democracy, the environment and the living standards of working people.

The demonstrators in Quebec still have plenty of illusions, but many of them have become deeply suspicious of their own rulers and are hardening in their determination to fight for a more just social order at home and abroad. One must be willfully blind not to see that, in their aggregate, the youth who traveled to Quebec to confront the FTAA are in the process of losing their illusions in “democratic” imperialism. The job of revolutionaries is to accelerate this process by explaining why the imperialist predators must act as they do. Our comrades at the FTAA protest marched under the following slogans: “Down With the FTAA! Down With U.S./Canadian Imperialism!”, “Neither Free Trade Nor Protectionism—For Socialist Globalization!” and “For Workers Revolution to Smash Global Capitalism!”

While the mood of a growing layer of young people in North America is moving to the left, only a tiny minority have yet arrived at the conclusion that the problem must be attacked at its root—that is, the international capitalist system—and fewer still have any idea about how to go about building a revolutionary party capable of providing the leadership necessary to replace it with an egalitarian socialist society. It is to this task that the International Bolshevik Tendency is dedicated—join us!