Vandalism, violence, and deficit reduction: Thoughts on the G20 Summit in Toronto
I spent the past several days well away from Toronto's downtown core, well away from the G20 protest areas, well away from the security net that effectively divided the city into two. I used to live downtown, near the University of Toronto, and I still work downtown, in a high-security area, but I now live in the suburbs east of the city. I didn't ignore what went on, though. I couldn't. It was all over the news, scenes of a police car on fire, of protesters crowding the streets, of police in riot gear, of the security fences, of vandalism and violence, of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, of mayhem much unlike what we are used to here in Canada.
And, in general, my feelings are mixed.
While I do not approve of the vandalism and violence, and while I think that the confrontational methods used by some of the more extreme protesters are counter-productive, I tend to sympathize at least somewhat with some of the prevailing views among the protesters. It's not that I'm anti-capitalist, it's that I object to decisions affecting the very fate of our planet being made inside a security fortress. There is security on Capitol Hill, yes, as well as on our Parliament Hill in Ottawa, but those bodies are democratic. The G20 isn't. The leaders were elected democratically, for the most part, but their deliberations were anything but democratic.
Write the protesters off as "thugs," like Prime Minister Harper did, or anarchists, which some of them are, but their anger and frustration are reflections of something much deeper than anti-government opportunism. Look past the vandalism and violence and what you find is an understandable hostility towards the status quo, along with serious objections to the policies imposed on the world's billions by the leaders of the wealthiest nations.
What did this summit accomplish, after all? Did these leaders agree to do something about poverty, genocide, or climate change? No. They basically just agreed to a set of neo-liberal (a label I dislike but will use for lack of anything better) principles centered around balanced budgets. You can read the G20 statement here if you like. The primary goal is "a full return to growth with quality jobs, to reform and strengthen financial systems, and to create strong, sustainable and balanced global growth," and the most significant agreement was to cut deficits, with government debt "at least stabilized or on a downward trend by 2016," according to Harper. The commitment is voluntary, with an exemption for Japan, which faces serious fiscal problems, and concerns from the U.S., which, under Obama, is (rightly) focused more on economic stimulus than on deficit reduction.
But how to cut deficits? Some countries will do so through tough austerity measures, as the new government in the U.K. has already initiated. Given that raising taxes is often not a viable political option (and it should be noted that many of those in attendance at the summit the leaders of conservative governments, and hence not so inclined towards tax increases: Harper, Cameron, Merkel, Berlusconi, Sarkozy, etc.), the likeliest way to reduce deficits is to cut spending on social programs. And that means disproportionately harming those who need those programs the most, the poorest and neediest citizens of the G20 nations, those without a voice in Toronto, inside the security fortress, those for whom many of the protesters were speaking.
To be fair, the G20 statement does make reference to "providing social protection to our citizens, particularly our most vulnerable," as well as to "supporting the poorest countries during the crisis," but the focus is clear, and I think C&L's Ian Welsh got it right:
It's really, really simple. The rich crashed the world economy. They were bailed out, with their wealth having almost entirely recovered and corporate profits likewise have pretty much recovered. Now, at the G20, the world's leaders are discussing how to make regular people pay for the rich's follies.
The world's developed countries have built extensive public health systems, promised citizens a paycheck for life and erected a welter of protections around some industries and types of jobs. Now their leaders are conferring over a singular dilemma: how to take some of it back without undermining the economies they are trying to sustain.
You notice that somehow, no one is talking about going back to 1950's levels of progressive taxation, with a top rate around 90%. No, what they're talking about is making the middle class and the poor pay for the sins of the rich.
The key thing here to understand is this: there is no crisis for the rich or corporations anymore, therefore as far as they are concerned, there is no crisis.
At the G20, today, what is being discussed is how to take away what's left of your economic future. Ordinary Americans didn't see a pay raise in the last decade. Not only won't they see one this decade, they'll take a loss, and now even the European experiment in taking care of the population is on the chopping board.
This is your future being decided, and no, they don't think you have a say in it.
And that's part of the problem. You don't. Which is not to say that governments shouldn't pursue fiscal sanity, or to suggest that the G20 leaders don't care at all about "ordinary" citizens, but the fact is, there's a massive disconnect between the priorities of the G20 nations and the priorities of the vast majority of their citizens -- and the priorities of the vast majority of people in the world's wealthiest countries weren't under discussion in Toronto, not in any meaningful way.
Even here, even in the biggest city in one of the world's richest and most privileged countries, a city of massive wealth, you find people living in cardboard boxes or sleeping on heating grates. Go just a few blocks from the security fortress and you find poverty, misery, despair. As anywhere else, you find people struggling to make ends meet, to pay the bills, to put food on the table, to take care of their children. You find people just trying to get by, people trying to deal with an economic crisis that they still feel even while their elected leaders talk about slashing social programs and multi-national corporations rack up profits in the billions. You find people for whom the G20 Summit meant nothing, even if, in the long run, and even if the economy improves in macro terms, it may bring them more pain.
And, again, what of climate change, of oppression and genocide, of human rights, of any other issue that may resonate with the "ordinary" citizens who were shut out of the summit? Nothing. Deficit reduction was the name of the game, that and protecting the interests of the global oligarchy that pulls the strings while the rest of us are silenced.
Really, is it any wonder there was such rage on the streets of Toronto over the weekend? Is it any wonder that those who are shut out, even in a supposed democracy, want to have their voices heard?
And it is any wonder the police cracked down to prevent those voices from being heard? As The New York Times reported:
An escalation of aggressive police tactics toward even apparently peaceful protests at the Group of 20 summit meeting led to calls for a review of security activities.
After allowing a small group of people to burn police cars and smash windows unimpeded on Saturday afternoon, many of the 20,000 police officers deployed in Toronto changed tactics that evening and during the last day of the gathering.
There was a notable increase in both the numbers of police officers who surrounded demonstrations as well as more use of tear gas and rubber or plastic bullets. At the same time, there was a visible drop in the number of demonstrators in the city streets.
As a result, the violence by some demonstrators that marred the opening of the Group of 20 meeting did not reappear on Sunday, and more than 600 people were arrested Saturday and Sunday.
"Civil liberties are in rough shape today," said Nathalie Des Rosiers, the general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which had two of its observers arrested and detained. "We will have to have some accountability for what is going on."
In a statement, the Canadian branch of Amnesty International called on governments to review the security measures made for the meeting, including a temporary suspension of various civil liberties in the portion of this city's downtown near the meeting site.
It's all well and good that there's free speech, and that's essential, but the real issue here, and it explains much of the rage and outrage, is that too many voices are simply shut out of the conversation entirely. After all, you can protest all you like, but they won't hear you and don't care to hear you. It's like banging your head against some mad bugger's wall, as Roger Waters put it in a different context.
And so what can you do? Thankfully, most of the protesters behaved peacefully. Again, I won't go so far as to condone vandalism and violence. And perhaps some consideration will be given to alternative views once democratic parliaments, as opposed to a summit of world leaders, take up the issues at hand. But when you see that you've been shut out, that your leaders have erected security fences to keep you back and brought in scores of police to keep you down, maybe, just maybe, you want to lash out. To me, the story is not just that so many protesters demonstrated peacefully but that so few expressed their rage openly. "Ordinary" citizens, after all, those without a seat at the table, are justified to feel disenfranchised and disconnected, as well as to be discontented with the conditions under whey they are governed.
Much of the focus in the media will continue to be on the vandalism and violence, and on the clashes between police and protesters, but there is much more to what happened than that, and it was all about so much more than that. Sometimes people just want to be heard, after all, and sometimes, even in a democracy, especially with their leaders ignoring them and seemingly taking their very democracy from them, people have to take to the streets.