Speaking up for the 99 per cent
By Ian MacLeod, The Ottawa Citizen November 14, 2011
Michelle Couturier is a capitalist’s dream: MBA, bilingual, trained in urban planning and architectural technology, with job stints at SNC-Lavalin, the federal government and the Bank of Canada.
At 29, she’s also an Occupy supporter, donating tarps and canned food to the movement’s Confederation Park camp and attending the Montreal camp.
On Oct. 20, days after the Canadian sites sprang up, her position as a project manager for large capital projects at the central bank was eliminated.
The same day, a major study reported Canada’s ever-widening class disparities, with the top 20 per cent of the population receiving the lion’s share of rising income and wealth between 1994 and 2008.
“The messages of the movement — the extremes of capitalism — resonate in me,” says Couturier.
So too, with Aalya Ahmad, 40, a PhD in comparative literature, sessional university lecturer, communications specialist for a national union, mother, and an active Occupy Ottawa supporter.
She agrees with philosopher Noam Chomsky that the world is splitting into a plutonomy and a precariat, the powerful one per cent of top earners versus all the rest, the 99 per cent.
“A huge mass of people are not only dependent on the one per cent for all the good in life, but also they don’t feel entitled to any kind of decent living conditions, decent wages, benefits, and they’ll sort of docilely accept the plutonomy calling on them to tighten their belts and accept austerity measures and that job security, pensions, health care and social programs and all these things that people fought for generations to establish will be a thing of the past.
“They seem to be always be up for debate and that disturbs me.”
It is the Couturiers and Ahmads — well-educated, middle-class and with a sense of social justice — who help drive social movements in Canada, while news media cameras tend to focus on the most outspoken, outrageous and transient elements.
“The relationships that are forming right now through these different (camps) are going to continue to percolate and shift and change into other kinds of initiatives in the future and that’s a really inspiring and hopeful thing,” says Jacqueline Kennelly, a professor of sociology at Carleton University.
Official tolerance of the camps has waned dramatically, with the forced closing in London, Ont., and looming threats of the same in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and other cities.
Some Canadian commentators and other observers say the three-week-old northern wing of the movement is fizzling.
Couturier, Ahmad and others, however, believe even without the camps the movement, led by support in the United States, may be close to reaching a critical tipping point via the Internet and social media.
The news media focus on the camps offers a skewed picture of the deeper movement, says Ahmad.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole ground flow of support underneath it. I think that the perception being created that you’ve got to camp to be part of it, which is not true.
“Whether or not the camps get dismantled, I think people have experienced a sea change.”
What happens next, “at this point, it’s like a big jigsaw puzzle and we’re all still fumbling a bit, we’re human, we’re not these sort of slick individuals who can wrap something up in a package and sell it to people.”
One measure of progress is the unexpected support in the United States of online groups such as Occupy Marines and Occupy Police. Under the rallying cry of Semper Occupar the former warriors are offering logistical and security support and have even issued Rules of Engagement:
“The goal is to win people over, not to alienate our brothers and sisters. Defensive strategies never win. Do not respond to verbal attacks or hostile propaganda from Nay-Sayers by using the language of the opponent. Reframe. (sic)”
Meanwhile, Couturier predicts, “if it goes into the New Year and keeps progressing, we will start seeing change in 2012. It depends on what kind of leadership takes over. There’s no need for hierarchy in this movement, but there is a need for some kind of leadership to be able to translate solutions rather than just screaming problems.”
Many in government dismiss the movement as long-haired, hippie dope-smokers.
But not all.
“There are so many people frustrated and angry at the system, they’re starting to act out,” says a federal official monitoring the movement in Canada and overseas. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
“If these guys can get through the winter, which I think they will — a bunch of camps will get closed out — but as a movement now, it’s moved onto to the Internet anyway so it’s going to keep going.
“This movement has legs and it will, over the next year to two years, force the financial institutes to realign the way they do business with the rest of society.
“I wouldn’t have said that a month ago, and three months ago I’d have laughed if you said it. But what’s interesting is there are so many people getting behind the movement or, at least, giving it tacit support.
“It’s not going to be like a French Revolution, it’s going to be a ballot box social initiative. People want their politicians to reassert control,” over the corporate and financial elites. “They know that politicians don’t have control anymore.
“When you see police forces saying, ‘We don’t know what to do’, trying to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong, it’s not clear to them, and you see retired marines and retired vets saying we’re going to support this thing, that’s interesting because those people bring skills and organization.
“When you see protesters in Egypt from Tahrir Square going to the U.S. Embassy (on Oct. 28) protesting against the violence that’s being used on (Occupy) protesters in Oakland, (California), you kind of sit there and go, hang on, something’s changed in the conversation here.”
Coincidentally, the last available copy in Ottawa of Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, (Princeton University Press, 2008), was sold this week.
Author Sheldon S. Wolin, a political philosopher and professor emeritus at Princeton, details how America’s political class has become subservient and conjoined to the financial and corporate classes. The unending, free-enterprise quest for profitability, he argues, has supplanted democracy and the ideal of political and social equality.
Meanwhile, a security intelligence source, says the Occupy movement here and elsewhere is working hard at controlling and expelling potentially violent elements.
“Any large social movement will get spinoffs, people who are angry because they don’t see progress (or) because they want to see violence.
“We’re using a couple of different social science models on how peaceful social movements can eventually turn into political violence and so far, our modelling tells us we don’t see any violence yet, but it’s a question we’re looking at for the spring.
“If we don’t see progress in this, tangible results where politicians do something, if we don’t see results by the spring or the summer, then there’s a possibility that, like any other large social movement, it’ll get some spinoff groups,” that will engage in violence.