THIS WEDNESDAY past I walked among the vestigial detritus of the Occupy Ottawa site. As a matter of principle (more on that presently), I can’t agree with the recent pronouncements of certain National Post writers; but I would be far from honest if I claimed anything about the “occupation,” as I apprehended it, encouraged me. I am, to put it otherwise, a critic — but a critic who thinks that non-violent dissent is necessary and good in itself. Woe to any society that silences, discredits, censors or otherwise dismisses the minority view because it is non-conformist and therefore in every sense unpopular.
The warning implicit in the preceding cuts both ways. By this I mean the minority opinion bears, precisely because it is a minority opinion, a moral and practical burden of working especially hard to gain support. Sleeping in a tent won’t do. That would be something of an insult to, and a besmattering of, the legacy of those many brave and sleepless warriors of dissent and peace who came before. I definitely won’t make any claims for myself in that regard, but I will boast the character of comrades and predecessors. There is a long tradition of dissent and agitation from which I have drawn encouragement across my life, and both in the past and present I endeavour and have endeavoured to honour this.
In the ’90s I was involved in some illegal occupations of my own. For example, while employed at Queen’s University as a teaching assistant, I noticed that my wages hadn’t risen for four years although my rent and tuition and cost of living and payroll deductions very much had. In nominal dollars my pay cheque had decreased — even more so when inflation was calculated. The same was true for all teaching assistants, and since we knew well that the university had come to depend upon its pool of cheap student labour in the balancing of its books, we knew our economic value. We also knew the burdens were not distributed either evenly or equitably, as it happens in life they usually aren’t. Armed with math and charts and modest yet meaningful demands (which included what we considered reasonable wage and tuition increases) we occupied the University Senate during what was supposed to be a closed-door discussion of the next year’s tuition increase.
In the end we lost that fight, just as we lost the larger battle against the Harris agenda — but not before I was able to stand on the back of a truck, bullhorn in hand, to put forth the case to the journalists who had assembled. Our propositions were clear and simple, and called upon to do so (as on several occasions both in voice and print I was) I could provide a detailed analysis and a set of options and arguments. Such was expected: I would have been embarrassed and shamed by the idea that I might have gone to the street and the table not having done my homework. I endeavoured to familiarize myself with everything touching upon my circumstances, including the dissenters and agitators who had come before. Having done so, I was humbled to learn how much harder previous generations had had it, and how much harder they therefore had worked to achieve the gains from which I myself benefitted. Living wages, safe working conditions, child labor laws, women’s rights — all had been advanced only through struggle, by folks who I confess put me to shame.
Among my proudest and most edifying days was the extraordinary effort of my principled and courageous partner to unionize the Kingston restaurant at which she was employed. Yes, I’ve rather tossed around the adjectives here — but unless you’ve dirtied your fingers and soul at the business of shop unionizing, you have no idea what manner of balls this requires. Again, tent camping warrants no comparison to this emotional and economic hard-ball. In this both crushing and exhilarating work, my partner was supported by a long-time union man with many years’ experience in the farming and restaurant industries. Self-taught and well-read, in accordance with the best of working-class and communist (note: small c) traditions, he knew the history of the labour and rights struggles as well as one could. Better yet, at the proverbial drop of a hat he could sing the songs and tell the stories from back when. He knew well from whence he had come, and would take nothing for granted. Not for him the lazy slogan or the short-cut or the cheap theatre of agitprop. Through folk like that I connected to the sinewy shop-floor, principled, joyful and no-bullshit socialists and communists and idealists among whom I knew I was not worthy to count myself.
These are the sorts of people we need more than ever. Were the occupiers up to the task? That is a question only they can answer, and I hope it has occurred to them to ask it. The work of changing the world even in details is not a matter of gestures and props: it is more difficult and takes more of one than keeping things going within the established channels. One has to get up earlier than his enemies, do his homework better, and outsmart the opposition. All the while, anyone who wants to change the world has to confront the thought that much better and stronger and harder-working people have come and given of themselves. So for goodness sake don’t piss on their legacy.