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It can't happen here

Stephen Gowans

in 1935, the American writer Sinclair Lewis, best known for his novels, Main Street and Babbitt, wrote It Can't Happen Here, a tale of an American president who becomes a dictator to save his country from welfare cheats, promiscuity, runaway crime, and a liberal press. Enraged by the fascism sweeping Europe, Lewis wrote his novel as a rejoinder to its title. Yes, fascism can happen here, he warned.

Skip ahead six decades. Augusto Pinochet, former Chilean dictator, is being detained by British authorities on a warrant issued by a Spanish judge. Pinochet is to be charged with murder, in connection with the political repression that followed the ousting of Salvadore Allende, the socialist president of Chile, in a CIA-engineered military coup.

Pinochet supporters come forward, arguing that the coup was necessary to save Chile's economy. Peter Munk, head of the Canadian mining firm Barrick Gold, praises Pinochet. Time Magazine has Munk saying: "Maybe I'm less sensitive to these issues because I see that what people need first is economic security, and only when they have that can they afford to focus on human rights." It's not clear whether Munk's reference to people needing economic security is a reference to the people of Chile or the security of his own investments. Margaret Thatcher, stalwart Pinochet friend and apologist, elevates the former strongman to the pantheon of champions of democracy, calling to mind Phil Ochs' line, "The name for their profits is democracy." Apparently, saving the economy from the reformist depredations of socialists and Marxists is democracy distilled.

Now skip ahead to today. After having ousted the former Pakistani president in a bloodless military coup two years ago, the country's new military ruler, General Pervaiz Musharraf, declares himself President, pushing aside figurehead president, Mohammed Rafiq Tarar. For good measure, Musharraf abolishes the elected legislatures. All of this to save Pakistan from the chaos of civilian rule, which had been driving away foreign investors and threatening the economy, Musharraf says. The international community, big on introducing democracy to formerly Communist East Europe, says little.

Now, to Ontario. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, OCAP, a direct action, in-your-face group, is gearing up for a campaign of economic disruption, aimed at toppling Ontario's Harris government. "All previous challenges to Harris," OCAP says, "including the potentially devastating Days of Action, fell short because they made the mistake of thinking the Tories would retreat before a massive display of disapproval."

Days of Action was a program of rotating mass protests and one-day work stoppages held in various Ontario cities to express opposition to the legislative agenda of the first Harris government. In terms of deterring the Harris Tories, Days of Protest was a flop.

Unhappy with the failure of previous protests, and like the Wobblies, the anarcho-syndicalist union of the early 20th century, OCAP stresses direct action over politics. "[O]nly a level and method of mobilization that creates a deep political crisis can stop the Tories," OCAP declares.

"This will not be done on the basis of protest, but by means of economic disruption. Blockades, take-overs, strikes..."

OCAP's first salvo is a visit to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's constituency office, where the Minister's office furniture is removed and dumped unceremoniously on the street. Now you know what it's like to be thrown out on the street, Flaherty is told.

And more to follow. Economic disruption! Blockades! Take-overs! Strikes! Those who do well by the economy sputter in outrage. Peter Munk's words about economic security coming before human rights, hang in the air.

Outrage is offered in copious dollops in what political commentator Dalton Camp calls "a 250,000-word editorial wrapped around a newspaper," or what you and I know as the National Post. The estimable right-wing rant rag turns over the front page of its June 18th edition to a diatribe by Robert Fulford against OCAP and Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom, who had written a long article on OCAP's direct action tactics, and the growing respectability of direct action among left-wing groups, including some unions. Walkom's sin, it seems, is that he didn't denounce direct action, for which he is accused by Fulford of editorializing in a news article. In fact, that's precisely what Walkom hadn't done.

This seems as bizarre as Thatcher calling Pinochet a democrat. But a weird sort of logic pops forth in Thatcher's celebration of Pinochet's democratic credentials, and of Fulford getting his bowels in a twist over direct action. Pinochet restored for Chile what Thatcher (and Peter Munk and maybe even Fulford) might call "our" kind of democracy -- a safe kind that doesn't disrupt traditional power structures and leaves the economic security of wealthy people's investments alone. One that doesn't cause economic chaos and scare off foreign investment.

As to direct action, is not "our" kind of protest. "Our" kind of protest, like "our" kind of democracy, is safe. It doesn't threaten traditional power structures. It doesn't threaten to sink the economy. It doesn't scare investors off. And most of all, it doesn't work. As singer-songerwriter Ewan MacColl pointed out in his song, Legal-Illegal: it's legal to picket; it's just not legal to do it effectively.

Meanwhile, direct action by nurses in British Columbia and Nova Scotia in the form of work stoppages and refusal to accept overtime prompts governments to use strong arm tactics to save health care from chaos, all the while creating chaos by depriving medicare of adequate funds so that people who go to cocktail parties with Peter Munk get whopping tax breaks. Letter writing campaigns, letters to the editor and MLA's, and traditional union activities, like the Days of Action, do nothing to halt the inexorable make over of society into one more pleasing to those who can pay for their own health care, spring for their own education, and never have to worry about losing a job. So it is that some who find the new style not so agreeable become fed up. The threat of blockades, take-overs and strikes follow.

Writer William Blum once remarked, ours is the ten-second democracy of the ballot box, accompanied by tolerance of dissent so long as it doesn't threaten established power.

When dissent is effective, when it becomes disruptive, when the economy needs to be saved from chaos...

It can't happen here. Can it?

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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