While watching the numerous media reports about the ongoing Occupy Movement through your television or computer screens, it can be easy to dismiss the issues being raised by the movement as a top-view, big-city problem; an American problem; or a simple episode of class-warfare pitting the world's wealthiest against what some members of the media have characterized as a bunch of lazy hippies seeking to carve out their own piece of the pie from the ever fading American dream.
And while each of the various Occupy movements around the globe have had a slightly different focus, and have raised a wide range of issues, the primary themes of social and economic inequality combined with an ever-growing disparity in the concentration of wealth between the richest one percent in society when compared to the now ubiquitously named “99 percenters,” are relevant even in places like rural Ontario.
The seeds of the movement have been slowly planted over the last several decades as the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' has widened. Then in June of 2011, Canadian counter-culture magazine Adbusters called upon citizens of the United States to occupy the financial district in New York city. With popular uprisings spreading around the world, from Tunisia and Egypt, to Spain and the streets of England, the magazine urged American citizens to use their precious freedoms of speech and assembly.
“America needs its own Tahrir acampada now more than ever. Can we get 20,000 people to flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, a democratic assembly and occupy Wall Street for a few months?” Adbusters asked Americans.
Thus began the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The Occupy Wall Street movement along with its kindred movements around the world, has no formal leadership structure. It has resisted being co-opted by any political party. There are however, a few people who have been able to speak to the media with the kind of clarity sought by news organizations who are eager to compress the movement into a simple sound bite.
One of the most prominent - and eloquent - of these figures has been Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges. As a foreign correspondent, Hedges spent nearly twenty years in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. For 15 of those years, he wrote for the New York Times, where he was part of a team of journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for that paper's coverage of global terrorism. In that same year, Hedges also was awarded the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism.
In a recent telephone interview, Hedges told The Independent that while Canadians may feel insulated from the issues surrounding the movement, they have as much cause for concern as those living anywhere else.
“Canada always plays the role that Hungary played in Nazi Europe; it's never quite as bad, but they replicate many of the disastrous policies that their larger ally perpetrates,” offered Hedges, “Canada has all of the problems that we have [in America], just not with the same severity. The corporate state is global, it's not just confined in any way to the United States.”
Recent events in the United States primed the citizenry for taking some sort of action. There was an immense sense among the Americans that a grave injustice to their democracy had taken place. The mortgage market had been turned into a virtual casino, and millions of families had been foreclosed upon. Many more millions lost their jobs, as credit dried up and businesses shut down. Student loans were held by banks which routinely charged upwards of 18 percent interest, leaving most with debt guaranteed to stay with them for decades, dashing hopes of the better economic future a higher education used to promise. Millions of Americans, through no fault of their own, experienced real hardship: homelessness, job losses and loss of health insurance, and an increased reliance upon food stamps to feed children in many families.
All of those events while devastating, would not necessarily bring people into the streets. The hypocrisy of bank bailouts with no strings attached, coupled with calls for austerity for everyone else while bank CEOs awarded themselves bonuses in the tens of millions may have been the straw that broke the camel's back.
People began to understand that there was a sharp divide between those at the top, who had been largely responsible for the economic collapse, and the 99 percent who were not.
Compared with the suffering of many in the United States, Canadians, thankfully, have had it much better. However, the movement has gained traction here because we also have a huge wealth gap. Although our banks did not collapse, the Canadian economy has suffered tremendously, and as a result governments here are calling for - as they often do when times are tough - austerity and a constant chipping away at important social programs which help ordinary Canadians weather economic storms.
Those developments could seriously undermine one of the huge benefits that Canadians have when compared to the United States and other nations. The primary difference between Canada and the United States says Hedges, is our social safety net.
“The difference is that in America when you fall, nobody catches you. You really fall to the bottom. In Canada and Europe there's still mechanisms by which your most vulnerable are not turned into human refuse,” explained Hedges.
Social safety net aside, Canadians can only be protected so much from the financial pressures of the global economy.
Here too, we see the dominance of corporate interests in our politics, workplaces, and everyday life.
Working people are at the mercy of multinational corporations, who thanks to global trade deals can pack up and leave any time - and do. Middle class families have seen an erosion of their wealth, their pensions, and their ability to send their children to universities. There is a constant downward pressure on wages, and jobs, with security, pensions and benefits fast becoming a thing of the past.
Those pressures are felt from the farm gate to the factory floor, to the retail sector as well as the oft-maligned public sector where belt tightening has also resulted in significant job losses.
And while some characterize the Occupy message as being anti-wealth, there have always been rich and poor in every society, so why the concern now with the ever growing wealth gap?
“When you have an oligarchy that cannibalizes the middle class, and thrusts the working class into destitution, then you create a system of neo-feudalism where two-thirds of the country live on a subsistence level, and that makes actual democratic participation and governance impossible. That's something that even the Plutons understood in ancient Athens. But without any checks on corporate power, and on the oligarchic elite which manages corporate power, then you inevitably create an economy that's essentially run by a mafia, and a political system that's run by a mafia,” offers Hedges.
So when the middle class looks around and sees that life is getting harder for them, yet there is a tiny minority at the top of the economic ladder who are doing better than ever, not because they simply work harder than the rest, but because the rules of the game are rigged in their favour, they sense that something is wrong with the system.
The problems that Canada shares with its neighbour to the south are not confined to Parliament Hill, or Bay Street, but rather penetrate the fabric of all of Canadian society, and impact city-dwellers and small town residents alike.
“Rural communities are not in anyway exempt from the assault by corporations. I grew up in a farm town and I watched small farm after small farm go bankrupt, and get swallowed up by agri-businesses, and what that meant for families,” said Hedges, “It impacts rural communities through the corporate destruction of the economy and the environment, but it is harder to organize rural communities because it is harder to get the numbers.”
One of the most valuable assets of many rural communities are their natural resources such as lumber or water, and Hedges says that the current corporate environment has little regard for how the decimation of environmental commodities impacts the health of otherwise vibrant rural communities.
“The commodification of human beings was accompanied by the commodification of the natural world, and unfettered corporations exploit both until exhaustion or collapse,” says Hedges.
What if anything can be done to reverse the trend that has been growing in recent decades? Hedges says that the solution will only be found if corporate power can be brought under control.
“You need to break the back of corporate power, because corporations have no loyalty to the nation state. They are global entities, they're super-national, and what they seek is to make workers around the world compete. So when we talk about workers being competitive in a global marketplace, what we're really saying to the working class is that you need to be competitive with sweatshop workers in Bangladesh who make 22 cents an hour, or prison labour in China. And that won't stop until corporate power is broken,” explained Hedges.
Hedges sympathizes with rural residents who are unsure of their role, or of what they can do to protect what remains of the lifestyle they hold in high regard.
“It's hard because in a rural community when large corporations come in and begin fracking, you just have no recourse. Elected officials are essentially bought off. It's really hard, and it's really frustrating,” says Hedges, “It's hard to know what to do because the traditional systems of power don't work anymore. The concerns and the rights of the citizens are no longer relevant in terms of public discourse and public debate.”
Rural residents need to become more aware of the external pressures that could have an impact on their community and quality of life. And when necessary, they need to band together and make their voices heard in order to at least attempt to ensure that local governments don't fall victim to the sweet candies with a bad aftertaste that are often offered up by the corporate world to small communities as silver bullets to solve rural economic woes.
If local governments fail to hear the voices of their constituents, Hedges says that there are few tools remaining for rural residents.
“That really means civil disobedience, I think that's the only weapon we have left,” says Hedges.
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