The People's Drum- Reflections on Casseroles Night in Canada

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Last night people from across Canada- and many other places in the world- came out into the streets andgrandma banged pots and pans in solidarity with the people of Quebec. What originally began as a student protest has now morphed into something much bigger after the Quebec government passed Bill 78, effectively outlawing the ability to assemble and protest in public.

Some have compared Bill 78 to a hidden version of the The War Measures Act, which was last utilized in the 1970s to combat the rebel/terrorist organization the FLQ, which was fighting for Quebec sovereignty. That time there was killings and bombings and murders. This time, not so much. I will say, as a quick but important aside, that one of the characteristics of the neoliberal state is increasing authoritarianism. This is something to be on the lookout for. And also to reject. Which is one of the reasons I was out in the street last night banging on my pot with vigor.

My friend Matt showed up at my place last night at 7:30pm, and we assembled our gear. Matt had on a Canada sweatshirt and I had on a red CBC jacket I use for work (which my dad won somewhere). We packed our pots and spoons and headed into the heart of downtown. I was really curious if there would be much of a turnout. But along the way we saw others heading in with their pots and pans too, so we started to get a good feeling. When we got to the art gallery it was heartening to see the throng of people, I would say around four hundred or more.  [below image Vancouver, May 30, 2012]




The form of protest being used in Quebec- and recreated across Canada and elsewhere last night- has been dubbed casseroles, and it has a long history in both Europe and Quebec. It's also been used as a form of peaceful civil disobedience in many other places in the last fifty years, including Chile, Argentina, Spain and Iceland (in 2008).

It was good to experience last night why this is such an effective form of protest. First off, it's bloody good fun. Maybe it goes back to the fact that most of us banged on pots and pans as kids, or maybe it even goes further back to the power of ancient tribal rhythms (and it was fascinating to hear different rhythms spontaneously break out last night), but whatever the reason it's rather enjoyable making a ruckus like that with so many other people. Which ties to another part of its power- it makes one heck of a racket! Here's a short clip from the Vancouver rally last night for a sample:



There's also something very universal about it. First of all, almost everyone's got a pot, and it was actually rather humorous to see people with their kitchen gear out in the streets. I could just imagine the countlesscasseroles-toronto soups and stews that had been cooked in these vessels. There's also something about this form that brings out people of all ages; there's a certain inclusivity about it, and there's something extra powerful about walking alongside people of all ages. I feel good about any protest where some old lady is banging on her pot beside me.

[image on the right- Toronto, May 30, 2012]

Another thing about this form of protest- it's pretty funny. Seriously, the spectacle of hundreds or even thousands of people making a God awful clatter like your three year old did on the kitchen floor, it can't help but make you chuckle. As the group of us marched down city streets last night, with the police on motorbikes doing a good job of being one step ahead and blocking traffic, so many of the faces of onlookers were smiling. People in bars and restaurants stared with a fork in mid air and a smile on their face. Even the people in cars who had been temporarily blocked were having a good guffaw.

Above and beyond all this- or maybe because of it- I experienced a really moving form of human connection out there. I felt something similar on the first day of the Occupy movement too, when I marched through the streets with a great hodge podge of humans. What I'm about to say might sound strange, but I've mentioned it to a few people now and somehow they seemed to understand the essence of what I'm trying to express, so I'll try it again here. On these two days, the opening day of Occupy and then again last night for casserolescassseroles, I felt that for the first in my life humanity was moving around me. That we were up and running. That some merry-go round of existence, call it the rat race, the daily routine or the Matrix, whatever, but this felt profoundly different, as though a bubble had burst and we'd collectively surfaced for air or awakened from a dream. Something felt palpably alive, molecular, chemical. And it felt connected. I experienced a feeling of wholeness in those moments, like you could've taken away everything I owned and I'd be perfectly happy. There was something in that feeling of unity and fellowship with all Others that felt as true, good and beautiful as anything I've experienced.

[above image Vancouver, May 30, 2012. below image, my pot and spoon when I got home :)]

The feeling has stayed with me all day, and as I've thought back to the night, or watched the videos beingpotandpan posted from across Canada and the rest of the world, I keep breaking out in these deep sobs. It isn't sadness, I don't know what it is really. It feels more like a great thaw. How long have I, have we, been starved of this? How deep has our separation from one another gone in this modern period, how long have we been in collective exile from one another, from the Earth, from ourselves? And what have we been doing to hide this pain?

I didn't want to just walk and clang beside folks last night, I wanted to look them in the eyes too. At last years integral community seminar, Stephan and Miriam had us start the afternoon group sessions in a giant circle, and we had to spend a few minutes just slowly looking around the circle at people straight in the eyes. Gawd what an irritating practice. I'm usually game to open up and push into new development and edges, but this practice was like an excoriating pad on that part of me that just wanted to hide. Not connect. Not look anyone in the eye with full open vulnerable soul. But I did it. And it got easier. Slowly. And I'm glad I did, because as we walked down the street I kept turning and looking at someone in the eyes and smiling, and they'd smile back, and their eyes were always twinkling, and it wasn't awkward, and we didn't look away, and we shared something unspoken. Yesterday, I felt like I'd seen the future, smelt it, heard it rustling and whispering in the trees.

I'll finish with this video that the filmmaker Ian MacKenzie shot last night and has already cut together. It beautifully captures a lot of what I've been trying to describe above. Godspeed to the people of Quebec and the whole-Earth-community as it slowly awakens.




Postscript- Schopenhauer's Foundation of Morals via Joseph Campbell

There's one other thing that's been coming up for as I reflect on this deep connection I felt out there, and on my emotional response all day today. I keep on hearing Schopenhauer's view of the source of the moral impulse, a view often repeated by Joseph Campbell. It's always resonated with me, and I think it's worth thinking about in terms of what happens in these moments of human solidarity and fellowship. Maybe in those moments we're being rendered increasingly diaphanous to the whole of which we've always been at one, but have forgotten. If that's so, God bless this growing recollection. Here's Joseph Campbell:

The great German philosopher Schopenhauer, in a magnificent essay on "The Foundation of Morality," treats of this transcendental spiritual experience. How is it, he asks, that an individual can so forget himself and his own safety that he will put himself and his life in jeopardy to save another from death or pain — as though that other's life were his own, that other's danger his own? Such a one is then acting, cacerolazo-1Schopenhauer answers, out of an instinctive recognition of the truth that he and that other in fact are one. He has been moved not from the lesser, secondary knowledge of himself as separate from others, but from an immediate experience of the greater, truer truth, that we are all one in the ground of our being. Schopenhauer's name for this motivation is "compassion," Mitleid, and he identifies it as the one and only inspiration of inherently moral action. It is founded, in his view, in a metaphysically valid insight. For a moment one is selfless, boundless, without ego.

And I have lately had occasion to think frequently of this word of Schopenhauer as I have watched on television newscasts of those heroic helicopter rescues, under fire in Vietnam, of young men wounded in enemy territory: their fellows, forgetful of their own safety, putting their young lives in peril as though the lives to be rescued were their own. There, I would say — if we are looking truly for an example in our day — is an authentic rendition of the labor of Love.

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  • Comment Link Olen Gunnlaugson Sunday, 03 June 2012 02:01 posted by Olen Gunnlaugson

    Brother T.

    Just a quick note here, keep in mind that Bill 78 doesn't outlaw the ability to assemble and protest in public. It stipulates that protestors give 8 hours notice. In other words, a work day's notice.

    Apparently Geneva, Toronto, New York, Los Angeles and Spain as jurisdictions that require far more than eight hours’ notice — up to 40 days, in the case of L.A. — in order to hold a protest.

    Keep in mind that Bill 78 was put together quickly in response to a gang of thugs infiltrating UQAM in Montreal, randomly walking into classes in session and harassing students and profs, bullying them into shutting down their classes.

    Also for what its worth: the tuition raise of $219 a year (the last proposal) is the equivalent to a couple of months of most student's digital / internet phone packages..

    Otherwise I quite enjoyed your piece here, the Schopenhauer/Campbell perspective + Ian MacKenzie's work you showcase offers an inspirational reframe around the potential for a more enlightened protest process..

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 05 June 2012 01:06 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Olen, thanks for jumping in on this one, you’ve opened up some important points of discussion. This is going to be a long one, please bear with me.

    a) Bill 78 and Increasing Tyranny

    In terms of Bill 78, I did say “effectively” outlaw protests, by which I meant it makes the spontaneous and immediate ability of people to organize much more difficult. It’s essentially a power play with which to break the strength and capacity of the protest movement. In general I would say that for me, the free right to assemble and protest are non-negotiable components of democracy, and both are a part of The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom and should stay that way. The cities you mentioned who have implemented similar measures of having to ‘gain permission’ for the right to protest have almost all experienced some sort of popular uprising, and this move is a way for dominant power to check that in the future.

    In general, I’d say that we have to become more suspicious of the workings of authoritarianism and tyranny, and this awareness seems to be a muscle that’s atrophied for populations (like us) who grew up in the stable conditions of post-1950s Keynesian social democratic states. But that “golden age” (as some have called it), where there was a certain more equitable agreement between the state, workers and capital, is over, and we’re witnessing the growth of tyrannical elements within our societies as corporate power increasingly captures our states (what some have called Inverted Totalitarianism Tyranny and elite power have been a part of the human experience since the beginning of civilization/Neolithic societies, and up until very recent times, has usually displayed its power with open force (if you want to see brutal elites, listen to Dan Carlin’s The History of Rome. That’ll make your toes curl). Huge portions of the people on the planet still live under such regimes, and in my view there’s zero reason why we should think this dimension of human nature would not also, under the right circumstances (which are now in place), find its way into every possible nook and cranny of our own systems.

    (As a quick but important aside, the founding fathers of the United States were deeply motivated by stopping tyranny of all kinds (and tyranny was the word they explicitly used), and they made a whole series of decisions in the creation of the US constitution and the general make-up of the US republic with this in mind. For an interesting discussion of this, see Robert Harrison’s Entitled Opinions podcast on ‘The US Constitution’. Episode 90. Again, we seemed to have lost the kind of critical awareness that these people had).

    For example, listen to this (from an article that I think is an important corrective to much of what’s out there in the mainstream media):

    “A member of the Quebec Liberal Party, head of the tax office in the Municipal Affairs Department, Bernard Guay, wrote an article for a French-language newspaper in Quebec in mid-April advocating a strategy to “end the student strikes.” In the article, the government official recommended using the fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s as an example in how to deal with “leftists” in giving them “their own medicine.” He suggested organizing a political “cabal” to handle the “wasteful and anti-social” situation, which would mobilize students to not only cross picket lines, but to confront and assault students who wear the little red square (the symbol of the student strike). This, Guay suggested, would help society “overcome the tyranny of Leftist agitators,” no doubt by emulating fascist tyranny. The article was eventually pulled and an apology was issued, while a government superior supposedly reprimanded Guay, though the government refused to elaborate on what that consisted of. Just contemplate this for a moment: A Quebec Liberal government official recommended using “inspiration” from fascist movements to attack the striking students. Imagine if one of the student associations had openly called for violence, let alone for the emulation of fascism. It would be national news, and likely lead to arrests and charges. But since it was a government official, barely a peep was heard”.

    I think if we hear that kind of thing, and the hair does not stand on up on our neck, then we all need to seriously review our 20th century history. That is the true voice of tyranny in my opinion. If we don’t come to an understanding this, we’ll be like mice sitting contently in an open field as the hawks circle above.

    b) Neoliberalism, Debt, Austerity- What the Fight is Really About

    I also think we need to broaden our scope about what this whole ‘Maple Spring’ is all about. It’s not simply about tuition hikes, although this is important too as I’ll make a case for in a moment, but about something much bigger and broader and global.

    One of the problems with this whole issue is that there’s a hidden political-economic context here, and we’re forced to debate within the parameters set by this largely invisible framework. That is, this whole thing is really about the socio-economic worldview of neoliberalism and its increasingly negative impact on our societies. I’ve been trying to draw attention to this set of policies in a series of posts, and I invite you Olen or others reading this to look at this latest one for a whole series of resources around the neoliberal worldview.

    A recent article in the Guardian wrote that the Quebec protests, “have become a symbol of the most powerful challenge to neoliberalism on the continent”.

    Chris Hedges wrote this in a recent article: “We have created a kind of global oligarchic elite which is super national – it owes no loyalty to any particular country. It has reduced the working class within the US, within the developing world to a level of an almost subsistence existence… It's a reconfiguration by corporations of a global economy where the working and obligated middle class is increasingly caught in a vice in which there's no escape. The system of globalization, of unfettered unregulated corporate capitalism doesn't work for the ordinary citizen and that we are seeing ignite – popular protest”.

    I think we have to ask ourselves, if this was only about a small tuition hike of “$219” a year, why are people all over the world protesting in solidarity with Quebec? Why were there solidarity demonstrations in London, New York, Mexico, and so many other places, with big numbers out all across Canada too? Because people know that something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, that we’re increasingly losing our wealth and our democracies to the predatory powers of an increasingly sick system. Here’s a recent quote from the philosopher Simon Critchley that speaks to this whole issue:

    “Power is the ability to get things done. Politics is the means to get those things done. The location of power and politics was once understood to be the nation-state… Our belief was that if we worked politically for a certain group, on the right or the left, then we could win an election, form a government, and have the power to change things. The fact is that today politics and power have fallen apart in liberal democracy. They are separated, maybe even divorced. We know this. We feel this viscerally. Democracy at this time in history, even representative liberal democracy, risks being no more than a word, a kind of ideological birdsong. Power has evaporated into supranational spaces”.

    In an interview with Jeremy Johnson, William Irwin Thompson called the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, “All part of the same global phenomenon, the resistance to authoritarian technocratic management at the top”.

    So that’s just a sample of resources around what I think is the greater context for all this is. And it’ll take us some time to get on top of this hidden economic context, because one of the ideological victories of neoliberalism was to persuade us that “There is No Other Alternative” For instance, in his book ‘The Lexus and the Olive Tree’, Thomas Friedman referred to the constellation of neoliberal policy as “the Golden Straightjacket that all countries must adopt to be seen as moving forward” (p.105). As I said earlier, we end up debating and fighting over scraps within this context, as though this is ‘just the way it is and has got to be’, and I think it’s paramount that we pull the scope way out and get outside of this economic worldview so that we can see it and dismantle it along the small percentile amassing vast wealth off of it.

    Lastly, just a few resources around debt in general, and student debt in particular. I won’t go through all the details, but the article I linked to above- ‘10 Things Everyone Should Know About the About the Quebec Student Movement’ - has some important information in points 1 and 2 around debt. Here’s a short passage:

    “So, Quebec students pay half the average national tuition. True. But they also graduate with half the average national student debt. With the average tuition at $5,000/year, the average student debt for an undergraduate in Canada is $27,000, while the average debt for an undergraduate in Quebec is $13,000. With interest rates expected to increase, in the midst of a hopeless job situation for Canadian youth, Canada’s youth face a future of debt that “is bankrupting a generation of students” []. The notion, therefore, that Quebec students should not struggle against a bankrupt future is a bankrupted argument”.

    The situation of student debt is far more advanced and far more horrific in the US. Here’s an article about a new documentary on the situation, ‘The Human Face of Student Debt’- There’s a couple of things to say about this debt. One is that it largely serves to profit banks, and as the 10 Points article points out, several Canadian banks pushed for the tuition hikes in Quebec. Secondly, it creates people that are trapped in and indentured to the system, a sure fire way to maintain the predatory status quo. Tripp Fuller was discussing the brutal reality of student debt in the US on a recent podcast of Homebrewed Christianity, and he said, “How is it possible for someone to follow the gospel in their actions when they are in this kind of debt? It’s not.” [] Exactly. Our friend and colleague here at Beams, Bergen, has just graduated with a substantial chunk of student debt, and is feeling a very serious tension between his integral-evolutionary goals and motivations, and having to work 12 hrs a day at a job he doesn’t much care for in order to pay off this debt. This is real, and this whole situation needs to recognized for what it is and ultimately rejected.

    Well, I leave it there. Olen (if you’re still reading along!) I know this is a lot, but I’m passionate about this topic and I’ve taken it upon myself to put in the time and effort to try and bring some of these things into a more general awareness. The hour is getting late, and the stakes are high. Neoliberal policy is sowing the seeds of deterioration on a mass scale, and social unrest will only increase over time. And as Chris Hedges points out in an article just released today, this is creating the conditions for a return of fascism from the left and the right, and we’re already seeing the increasing success of far-right /fascistic parties in Europe. He writes:

    “If these mass protests fail, opposition will inevitably take a frightening turn. The longer we endure political paralysis, the longer the formal mechanisms of power fail to respond, the more the extremists on the left and the right—those who venerate violence and are intolerant of ideological deviations—will be empowered. Under the steady breakdown of globalization, the political environment has become a mound of tinder waiting for a light”.

    But he finishes with this:

    “There still is time to act. There still are mass movements to join. If the street protests in Quebec, the most important resistance movement in the industrialized world, spread to all of Canada and reach the United States, there remains the possibility of hope”.

    I agree.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 05 June 2012 18:21 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I just read this post from an Canadian Anglican Bishop called "How Do I Spell the Word Tyranny- I Spell it- Harper". Here's a key passage:

    "How sad and distressing it is to see the sham, the play acting that presently characterizes the statements and actions of the supposed Government of Canada. (It does not even deserve the name of government ) I thought that I was cynical and had seen too much in my life regarding politics and public posturing, but never in the over 40 years of following parliament have I seen this depth of depravity. In the last 12 months I have seen clearly the rise of tyrranical policies and the application of such mind and state control that the people of Canada , unless they soon react, will find themselves not only slaves to a corporate and political domination they never chose but they will experience the extinguishing of any of the hopes and dreams that they once had for a nation firmly based upon the foundations of compassion, justice and peace.

    For God’s sake, for all of our sakes, wake-up Canada".

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 07 June 2012 00:57 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Just want to add a few more resources here for those reading and interested. I did a Google search for neoliberalism and the university on a hunch, and it came up with loads of interesting materials. Some huge intersections and conflict going on there. When I read through some of this it reminded me of things I saw slowly changing/creeping in while I was at university (1996-2003). Here's a couple of good ones:

    And then David left a link yesterday on TJ's piece about the Quebec protests, to a rather mind blowing article that looks at neoliberalism and the university via the meta-frame of energy and energy decline. A great read:

    'Goodbye Faculty- What's the Point of a University Anyway?'

    The first commenter had this to say: "An excellent discussion of how the current paradigm can only produce more complexity and extractive hierarchy. This could be an extremely helpful and insightful overview essay for academics as they search for explanations of why their serene world is slipping away. Also, it pints out avenues of resistance, power-base building, and positive action. Thanks".

    David, Matt and I have been discussing some of the implications of this energy problem (or non problem, depending on your view) in the thread on TJ's piece:

    TJ also linked in his comments to a very helpful set of resources around the Quebec protests, called 'Conflict 101'.

    It's got a couple of good articles that pick up on the neoliberal dimension of the conflict.

    And since it's Wednesday again, the casseroles are starting here again in an hour and a half, so off I go back into town. But maybe not a wooden spoon this time, I only have one left. Will have to go metal. :)

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