The G20 Protests

“We will take back our city from these exploitative profiteers, and in the streets we will be uncontrollable.”

The National Post knows how to design a front page, don’t they! This declaration from groups planning demonstrations at the upcoming G20 summit dominates page one (June 22) in revolutionary red and anarchist black.

“Day to day, the tentacles of global capitalism threaten to choke the life from us … Rest assured that when the G20 comes within striking distance this June, we won’t miss.”

Where does this adamant opposition to capitalism originate? In the third quarter of the eighteenth century, I’d say. It pre-dates Marxist anti-capitalism. It’s a product of the German Counter-Enlightenment. And it’s not shallow. It’s not something you could hope to talk a person out of in an afternoon. The men and women you’ll see at the G20 protests are hearing in their minds the echo of arguments originating with Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Herder, Heidegger, Rousseau, Schiller, Schliermacher. Listen to the literary critic, Lionel Trilling: “the characteristic element of modern literature, or at least the most highly developed literature is the bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through it.” By “literature,” Trilling means, in addition to novels and poetry, the major works of the last two centuries in philosophy and the social sciences.

“The historic sense of our literature has in mind a long excess of civilization to which may be ascribed the bitterness and bloodiness both of the past and of the present and of which the peaceful aspects are to be thought of as mainly contemptible – its order achieved at the cost of extravagant personal repression, either that of coercion or that of acquiescence; its repose otiose; its material comfort corrupt and corrupting; its taste a manifestation either of timidity or of pride; its rationality attained only at the price of energy and passion.” (Trilling, “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” [1961]. Trilling’s students read Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Conrad, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Gide, Fraser [The Golden Bough], Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.)

We don’t have to suppose our G20 protesters have read these works. Some have. More will have met the Counter-Enlightenment in books like Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs McWorld, or Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

And I don’t want to suggest that the sheer adventure of behaving outrageously isn’t a spur. What the heck, we’ve cleared the streets for them. We’re spending money like water to prepare our city for a great encounter. We’re giving them splendid advance publicity. We could hardly have done more to attract the demonstrators if we’d issued formal invitations.

Think of it this way: the G20 demonstrations promise participants more thrills than a Pride Parade. Pride can be outrageous, even offensive, but it’s licensed; it’s advertised as a tourist attraction. It’s a bourgeois, civilized affair, roundly supported by capitalism and the governing authorities.

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