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Martin O'Neill © 2001

 

 
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Picture the following procedure: a group of people – strangers to each other a few hours before – link arms and approach a line of riot police. They are chanting "Sol… Sol… Sol… Solidarité!" They come to a halt, perhaps forty yards from the cops. Stop. Change their chant. Now it’s "This is what democracy looks like!" or "The Whole World is Watching". The Riotcops level their guns and let rip with a flurry of tear-gas canisters – some aimed high in the air, so as to fall to earth among the demonstrators, others aimed straight, so as to hit those in the front line. Sometimes there might be a water cannon as well. For special occasions, when the mood takes the Riotcops, there will be plastic bullets. Place yourself in that crowd. You have a ripped T-shirt tied around your nose and mouth, so as to slow the penetration of the tear-gas. You stand your ground, although you know what’s going to happen. Sure enough, your eyes begin to itch, you start to cough, you turn and start to retreat. Sure enough, all of a sudden, you can’t open your eyes, you can’t see where you are, and you can’t breathe. Your eyes are streaming with tears, and there’s a sharp, burning pain in the back of your throat. You stagger as far as you can, until one of your comrades reaches out to you, looks after you, washes the tear-gas from your eyes with a bottle of drinking water. You can see again, and just about breathe. You look around at your comrades – coughing, spluttering, looking after each other. In a few minutes you will regroup. Turn around. Walk slowly towards the Riotcops. "Sol… Sol… Sol… Solidarité!" Take another tear-gassing. Recover. Go again. You will amaze yourself with the number of times you can repeat this procedure. And you will grow more proud and more defiant each time it is repeated.

My first tear-gassing left me, to be honest, incredulous, and, to be more honest, absolutely bloody livid. Contrary to what you might have read in the press, one needn’t have been hurling rocks at the police in order to get attacked by them. Just being in the central part of the city, within sight of the fence, was provocation enough for them. They had obviously decided that there was going to be a war, and decided to take pre-emptive action – a first strike strategy, so to speak. Having never previously thought that, in Canada of all places (!), merely being in the sight of some police was a sufficient reason to be shot at, I was, to say the least, amazed when the first gas-canisters exploded around us. But, because we are human beings, we can take a bit of punishment, especially when we have right on our side. And, to be honest again, even though this was the stronger CS gas, rather than the standard form of tear gas, it’s clearly not going to kill you. You can deal with it. And, to be still more honest, what it does to your eyes and throat are only tertiary effects. Its primary effect is to summon up an enormous quantity of righteous anger – enough, I’ll predict, to keep one powered up for years to come. Its secondary effect is, shall we say, epistemic: it is to guarantee that a number of beliefs which you might have entertained: about the potential for violence inherent in the capitalist state, about the disrespect for human beings upon which the whole dirty business is based, are more true than you might ever have imagined.

Karl Marx, who would have enjoyed himself in Quebec City every bit as much as I did, might help us to shed some further light on things here. Consider his use of the Hegelian dialectic. People in society start off as an undifferentiated unity – this is what Riotcops are. All look exactly the same, they enjoy no separate identities, all hiding behind identical masks -- contrary to reports, most of the mask-wearing at Quebec City was by the Black Bloc that is the Riotcops, not by any species of anarchist -- acting as one, amorphous, sub-rational lump. Man then ascends to differentiated disunity – this is what the capitalist people who might support the FTAA look like. They have separate identities, and separate interests, and pursue them separately. They can act rationally, and act for their own interests, and do so. The dominant ones construct elaborate structures which allow them to do this to their best advantage, and then force these structures on the poor and exploited, all in the name of freedom. These people are glad that the guns, and water-cannon, and CS gas canisters are all on their side. This, though, is only an intermediate stage. What we head towards, after we leave behind such childish things, is the stage of differentiated unity. This is when separate, rational human individuals can come to bind themselves together with one another, overcome their alienation from one another, and join together for their common good and as a way of constituting themselves as truly human. This is what the "protestors" are – Socialists, Environmentalists, Pittsburgh Steel-Workers and Norwegian Trade-Union organizers, Quebecois undergraduates and English philosophers – banded together as real people might do, in the knowledge that the dismal dialogue of the political powers-that-be, and the tired-out imperatives of the capitalist order, are not the only options, and never will be. So, Karl Marx would have had great fun in Quebec, grinning at the theatre of the dialectical tableaux being enacted on the streets. He would also have enjoyed it for the more obvious reason that – as his escapades on the Tottenham Court Road amply demonstrate – he understood the fun to be had by running away from policemen.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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