Vandalism as Performance Art…
Channeling the Spirit of Madame Lafarge…
It’s been two weeks now since the Big Protest, and Toronto’s Finest are announcing the apprehension of at least one new suspect every day. It’s taken countless hours of intrepid policework–interviewing eyewitnesses, wading through reams of photos and video, and applying all of the latest forensic techniques–to track them down. No doubt this will add somewhat to the $1.2 billion budget for Summit “security”. Some might speculate that if police had simply arrested the criminals while they were in the act of torching cars and smashing windows in plain view, it might have saved a lot of expensive face-recognition software and post-facto sleuthing (and some damaged property). Instead, they’ve turned a case that even Inspector Clouseau could have solved into an Agathe Christie mystery. Another example of government in action, I suppose.
The public relations division of the police (assuming that policing and public relations are still distinct operations) at first explained that it was difficult to identify the culprits. Difficult to identify them? Even with their night-vision goggles? The smashers and looters were all wearing identical black costumes and hoods, the official uniform of the soi-disant Black Bloc, who turn up at global economic conferences and summits with the reliability of Canada Geese at garden parties. Since, for the Bloc, protest is a full-time sport (and the G-20 is a “major” on their circuit), surely, with the vast information-gathering resources of CSIS, Interpol, the CIA, and FBI at their disposal, our billion-dollar security forces should have been prepared for the possibility that they might pop up on Toronto’s streets with the idea of breaking stuff.
The objective observer might conclude that it is no longer police policy to stop crime in progress, rather to ensure that the crime being committed is committed as smoothly as possible. This has certainly been the policy during the violent armed occupation of Caledon by Native Canadian thugs. Arresting criminals in the act is apparently old school. What police do now is something I heard described at Caledon as Non-Interventionist Surveillant Force (yes, NSF). That explains, I suppose, how one Black Bloc member after another was able to don the uniform, emerge from the crowd, run on cartoon tippy-toes to a store window, take a few theatrical (but not always efficacious) hacks, and run back to the crowd in NFL-style celebration, setting the stage for the next act of vandalism-as-performance-art, progressing storefront by storefront, all the way down Yonge Street. The inner child in me was disappointed that the police didn’t simply cover their eyes and count to ten.
But undoubtedly the supreme emblem of last month’s G-20 Summit was the image of an ordinary citizen (a banker, as it happens) tackling a Black Bloc activist as he tried to escape through the shattered window of a Bell store with a brand new Blackberry in hand. That an enemy of the global market should be so determined to acquire one of its iconic products, if not the symbol par excellence of the soul-less consumerism and corporate culture he affects to despise, tells us something about the reflexive protest against capitalist greed. One is reminded, as so often in these times, of one of Chaucer’s hypocrites, the sanctimonious Pardoner, who always preached his sermons on the text Radix malorum est cupiditas, and proceeded immediately thereafter to enrich himself by selling fake pardons to repentant congregants.
Since Dives and Lazarus, the parable of the opposition between capitalist vice and socialist virtue has been the longest-running theme in the history of Western morality. There are those who still see it today as the central message of Christianity (notwithstanding Jesus’ insistence that the unfortunate poor are no less capable than the undeserving rich of sin). In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and more recently during the Third Reich, the hatred of capitalists went hand in hand with the persecution of Jews; but not even that has given the abominaters of capitalism pause. Less ominously, The Theme has furnished novelists from Dickens to Atwood with stock characters and plots; given birth to such university departments as Women’s and Post-Colonial Studies; and, as one need hardly mention, enabled Hollywood to get rich, by excoriating the rich, since long before Michael Moore.
Of late, the yoke of capitalist excess has borne relentlessly and hard upon the ordinary citizen: from the Reagan Era of Greed (the 1980s), through the Age of Irrational Exuberance (the 1990s), and (in the first half of the current decade), the Big Oil Plutocracy of George Dubya. Today, we’re only tenuously recovering from THE WORST RECESSION SINCE THE GREAT DEPRESSION, thanks to Dubya’s Wall Street cronies. Or was it Reagan-era de-regulation?
In either case, everyone now agrees that the age of UNFETTERED CAPITALISM is over (as though until the advent of Obama, Ayn Rand had been in charge of the U.S. economy). Less than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, central planning, state ownership of major industry, and the sympathetic magic known as the Keynesian “multiplier effect” are once again in good odour. Not even the Soviet disaster was disastrous enough to discredit socialist dogma, or the class-warfare propaganda through which it is evangelized–so central to our civilization is the myth of the conflict between the capitalist ego and the common good.
One waits in vain to hear some interlude in the history of human misery ascribed to “unfettered socialism”. How awkwardly the phrase rolls off the tongue! Fossilized Marxists in university economics departments still insist, of course, that the world-wide economic and humanitarian catastrophe that perdured from 1917 to 1989 was occasioned not by socialism but by a socialism as yet unmired from capitalist selfishness (socialists being incapable selfishness). But what about today’s European sovereign debt crisis? What reckless ideology shall we blame for the insolvency of the governments of Greece and Spain, who have facilitated the inordinate demands of their citizens for four-day work weeks, two-month vacations, early retirement, lavish pensions, and cradle-to-grave social programs? It’s odd that the populist pitchforks are always out for corporate executives who receive “excessive” compensation but never for the good citizens of the welfare states who aspire to lead lives of ever-greater luxury and ease on the backs of the evil, wealth-producing entrepreneurs and bondholders who pay for them. If corporations are guilty of making “obscene profits”, shouldn’t we condemn the boundless desires of Greek and Spanish citizens as “obscene entitlements”? Thankfully there is a word other than greed for our insatiable appetite for more and more generous government benefits and public sector wages. The bards of The Theme call it “compassion”.
Few seem to have noticed that the European debt crisis has obliterated quite as many trillions of global market-wealth as THE WORST RECESSION SINCE THE GREAT DEPRESSION. But there are no marchers in the streets (other than Greeks demanding more gifts); no mobs calling for the heads of pandering leftist politicians (as for the heads of Wall Street bankers); no popular outcry for the reining in of an unfettered socialist state, or a reduction in the excessive compensation of European welfare recipients. For decades European welfare states have depended upon creative accounting and impenetrable financial practices–what the hell, let’s call them “financial instruments”: borrowing in order to bribe their voters with paternity leave, free nappies, and all the other necessaries of a decent quality of life; paying the interest on those loans with money from other loans; and meeting those obligations by borrowing again, ad infinitum. It’s the sort of legerdemain that, if attempted by a Wall Street broker with a dodgy Russian-sounding name, would immediately be denounced as a Ponzi scheme, and result in his social ostracism and lengthy imprisonment. When perpetrated by politicians, it merely guarantees their re-election.
In today’s weird climate of vengeant egalitarianism, the mere suspicion of corporate malfeasance is enough to channel the spirit of Madame Lafarge. Lately there has been a steady procession of Wall Street bankers and other prominent CEOs summoned before congressional committees–the television age equivalent of being paraded in tumbrels through the public square–where pampered multi-millionaire politicians on both sides of the aisle have gotten to play Jimmie Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. To have watched them vie with one another in demonstrating their solidarity with the common man is to have witnessed some of the great performances in the history of political theatre. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have yet to decree that the heads of Wall-Street bankers be fixed on poles for public villification and catharsis, but, for some time now, reports of white-collar convictions have been greeted with widespread expressions of glee. (Doesn’t anyone remember the definition of envy?) Throughout Canada a few years ago, the sentencing of Conrad Black to six and a half years’ imprisonment prompted unseemly celebrations; and while Black’s personal enemies were certainly among the celebrants, the general mood of triumphant righteousness was clearly rooted in ideology.
Black was convicted of having diverted to his own pockets six million dollars of his shareholders’ money. It’s the sort of petty cash that Canadian and American governments steal from taxpayers, misappropriate, or waste every hour of every day of the fiscal year. The G-20 Summit was only the latest of a succession of billion-dollar boondoggles within the past decade (coming in the wake of the e-health scandal, in the wake of the gun-registry scandal, in the wake of sponsorship scandal), but I have yet to hear of a politician or civil servant being sent to jail for six and a half years. I mention only notorious illegalities; I say nothing of those that remain hidden, or the trillions stolen, misappropriated, and wasted by governments legally, through programs run with utmost probity and efficiency.
But toward the public sector, there is abiding goodwill (as toward the private, a presumption of malevolence). This is doubly odd given the coercive element in the individual’s relation with the State. Perhaps Conrad stole six million from his shareholders (though his conviction is now in doubt, the legal provision under which it was obtained having just been struck down by the Supreme Court). Each of these shareholders purchased Hollinger stock of his own free will; each might have invested in a thousand other companies; each chose Hollinger knowing the risk, and presumably only after taking into account all of the relevant data, including Mr. Black’s style of corporate governance. The taxpayer enjoys no such freedom. He cannot choose where to “invest” his earnings; or not to. He is a shareholder in the welfare state whether he likes it or not (indeed, under threat of imprisonment). When governments abuse, defraud, and pauperize him, he has a much greater cause for indignation. Still, the overwhelming demand is for the regulation of Wall Street.
In today’s social democracies, the top twenty to thirty percent of earners typically contribute ninety-five percent of the taxes that pay for the social programs enjoyed by the rest of us. The welfare state is effectively sustained by a capitalist minority of helot-workers. And yet it is they who are the vector of mass resentment. It’s all a mystery to me. Surely derivatives must be easier to understand.