Harbinger of a broken system

Most things happen in isolation; some things appear as part of a wider condition.  Recently, an example of the latter has been taking place in the Canadian Province of Quebec where massive street demonstrations by university students against proposed tuition hikes are creating significant and continual unrest. Now in its fourth month, the demonstrations have drawn over 300,000 protesters to the streets enraged over the proposed 75 per cent increase in higher education tuition fees. Four student associations are seeking a freeze on the tuition hike and have participated in four failed negotiation sessions with the government.

An MSNBC reporter, Miranda Leitsinger, has Montreal police saying that at least 1,600 people had been arrested in connection with demonstrations as of Friday, though the police later reported that dozens more were detained. At least five of the arrests were for people violating a new city by-law that bans wearing scarves, masks and balaclavas at protests since these items make identification difficult.

By late March, more than 300,000 people – or about three-quarters of Quebec’s student population –  were participating, organizers say, but the number of striking students had dipped to around 160,000 when the province’s government passed an emergency law, “Law 78”, on May 18 limiting where and when protests could be held and imposing potential fines of more than $100,000 on violators. But instead of quelling the demonstrations, Leitsinger reports, “Law 78” drove people who were unaffected by the tuition hike, but angry over the legislation, onto the streets, revitalized the strikers and sparked court challenges amid claims it endangers freedoms of expression and association. In response, the government suspended classes until mid-August, essentially putting the students in a lockout.

On the social side, the MSNBC report says the movement has been dubbed the “Printemps Érable” – or “Maple Spring” – a play on words related to the Arab Spring (“Printemps Arabe”) protests that swept across the Middle East and North Africa.

The confrontations also triggered a new style of protest in Montreal: a college teacher reportedly called for the tactic in demonstrations, made popular in Chile, Argentina and Spain, of the banging of pots and pans, called “les casseroles” in French.

In emphasizing the financial crisis behind the increases, the government said that since 2005 all of the Province’s universities had finished each fiscal period with a deficit. The total deficit for the institutions reached Cdn$469 million in 2009, and climbed to Cdn$602 million in 2010.

The situation in Quebec is a microcosm of what is happening to the global financial order that has begun unravelling in recent times.

The world press is awash with revelations of a number of national economies in trouble – Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain – and in many of those places people have taken to the streets protesting the so-called “austerity measures” being introduced by the establishment.

The Quebec clash is over tuition hikes.  In other places, there are other triggers – higher taxes; unemployment; budget deficits, etc – but the condition of bankrupt economies with the consequent “austerity measures” is the common factor in them all.

Very complex and sometimes confusing conditions are at play in these financial ruptures, many of them difficult to comprehend, even to investment consultants. Books written on the now well-known debacle in the USA involving sub-prime mortgages have revealed that the concept of “derivatives” in play there were not fully understood by the very investment specialists using them.

For the layman, in these situations like the one in Quebec and others, the factors involved are so complex, and so specialized, that coming to conclusions are tortuous – there are so many overlapping conditions and forces – but some fundamentals are evident.

Clearly there are deep questions about the world economic system under which we’ve been operating, and in particular about the traditional capitalist approach of deferred payments that has become the norm everywhere for nations, and corporations, and even families.  In country after country, the failure of the long-established and warmly accepted economic principle of deficit financing is now being seen.  Much of the problems facing many nations, including the mighty USA, can be attributed to it.

Even within the USA, many state governments are finding themselves unable to honour commitments to infrastructural development, or to social programmes, because the money that was supposed to be there “to pay later” is not there.  In the largest US economy, that of California, the public coffers are empty, and several other states are effectively broke and will have to turn to federal bailouts.  The wheels are coming off the wagon.

The other piece in this scenario is the premise of “rights and entitlements” which is almost a stanchion among the world’s citizens these days.  Every nation feels they have a right to affordable education and health care, and well paved roads, and effective police forces, and efficient airports, and cheap gasoline, to name just a few.

As to how to fund that, however, the voices go silent – they just want the provisions, period.  Just this week, on the annual Tavis Smiley television seminar aimed at black America, the former Surgeon General of the USA proclaimed the rights of all citizens to affordable health care and for a doctor “who cares about you.”  Nations have come to hold as an unquestioned precept the right to have certain services or programmes or provision of up-to-date infrastructure as a matter of course.  As the financial structures of countries wobble, the question is how to fund such things, and the query hangs in the air.

This week, as well, an official of the Department of Transportation of the USA calmly told a television interviewer that there are now more than 300 bridges in his country that have been declared unsafe.  He emphasized the word “unsafe” twice.  When asked why the problem wasn’t being fixed, the official said, “In a sentence? We don’t have the money.”

You don’t need to be particularly perceptive to see the condition – the signs are everywhere.  The long entrenched capitalist economic order is unspooling on every hand, in permutations large and small.

The MSNBC story on the Quebec demonstrations quotes media writer Ethan Cox thus: “People feel that they are all having the same problem and that problem is with a broken economic system. That problem of austerity, that problem of misplaced priorities is a global problem and is one that affects people in the U.S. as much as it does here in Canada.”

Where it will end up, even revered economic pundits of late don’t seem willing to guess.

For those of us in Guyana who grew up in a time when many people distrusted banks and kept their money in the mattress, the folks from those days don’t seem so peculiar now.


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