Being politically active has taken on a new price in Quebec. The situation surrounding the recent WTO protests exposed a frightening side of the state’s defense of capitalism and its institutions.

The Popular Mobilization Against the WTO reports that police performed three abductions on Tuesday, July 29….Shaken witnesses filed reports with Libertas [a legal defense committee] stating that armed men in suits “grabbed” one man and forced him into a red van. “(Witnesses) asked if they were police, and they said ‘Maybe we are, maybe we aren’t.’”…No, not Argentina, 1983. Montreal, last week. Sara Falconer, Montreal Hour, Aug 7-13 ‘03.

This was the situation as described by the Hour, one of Montreal’s weekly newspapers. The response to the main protest was just as outrageous. Out of 600 protestors, only a few of whom committed acts of vandalism (not violence), there were 236 arrested…also, two dogs were taken into custody. The arrests took place in the so-called “Green Zone,” explicitly advertised as the gathering place for those protestors who were committed to avoiding confrontational activity. The Hour compares this with the chaotic situation in Genoa, Italy during the G-8 summit in 2002, where “whole city blocks burned, and over 200 people were injured, [but] there were only 240 arrests.” NDP leader Jack Layton was among those calling for an inquiry into police tactics.

There was so much police activity in Montreal that weekend that the riot squad rented “Jean Legare” hospitality buses to transport itself. Protestors were loaded, not only into paddy-wagons, but also onto commandeered city transit vehicles. Either the police had run out of available resources due to their excessive tactics, or they did not wish the extent of their heavy-handed operations to be observed by the general public. After the first day, which saw the arrests and vandalism, armed security guards were on duty in front of shops and businesses around the downtown, ready to protect property by shooting people. There was no more vandalism. A march on the second day of protests, of between 250 and 350, was stopped when it was clear protestors were being followed and monitored by a police contingent larger in numbers than they were.

One of the real failures of the anti-WTO protests in Montreal was that the organizers were unable to include the labour unions. Involving organized labour means involving ordinary working people. Unions bring financial backing and a real force of numbers to any protest. Aggressive police tactics are seen in a completely different light when masses of working people are involved. And these working people would have had the opportunity to see firsthand what little importance their interests have in the minds of the bourgeoisie and their government. The activist community failed to include labour, and the labour leaders failed to insist on being included.

The latest events in Quebec have illustrated in graphic relief the desperate situation of capitalism, both on the global arena and at home, as it is today. The WTO meetings, for their part, were characterized at the top by a complete lack of cohesion and much infighting, and on the street by mass arrests and excessive police-state tactics. Day after day, news reports conveyed the sense of defeat which characterized the meetings, while the mass arrests and their impact on the protests grabbed the headlines.

These episodes were a reflection of one pervasive trend: the current downturn in capitalism. While this trend will have a negative impact on the standard of living for the global working class, it also poses an opportunity unlike anything seen since the early 20th century. The abject failure of the WTO meetings in Montreal grew out of the increased competition among the various national ruling classes, which in turn was brought about by the tense economic situation. When capitalism is thriving and economies are growing, countries tend to cooperate and get along better with each other, because there is more wealth to go around. A downturn in the global economy, such as the dramatic one we have been witnessing since spring 2001, brings to the forefront the interests of the competing national bourgeois classes, and thus exacerbates the competition between countries. The downward cycle of capitalism which we are currently experiencing has a polarizing influence on the capitalist class, and thus threatens to fragment the organizations of international cooperation such as the WTO.

Simultaneously, the ruling class fears the vulnerability of its position of power in times of economic crisis. This explains the current obsession with security, since the events following September 11 have laid bare the contradictions and tensions that have been building up for decades. But it also explains the rank heavy-handedness of the police in dealing with protests against the WTO and other similar protests. (For example, when social-housing advocates slept in a city park to illustrate the situation of homelessness in Montreal, the demonstration was attacked by riot police and tear-gassed.) The use of police-state tactics to deal with political opposition is not simply the result of an out-of-control police department. If the state wished to bring an end to this behaviour, they could easily do so. In fact, such measures reflect the fear of the ruling class. The economic and political elites are afraid that if they allow a popular movement to build, their already susceptible positions in society will come under serious threat. The state therefore sanctions the use of excessive force to serve as a deterrent.

From the perspective of the working class, however, this downturn in capitalism signals an opportunity. It is one of the hallmarks of a revolutionary situation that the ruling classes begin to split and fight among themselves, just as we observed with the WTO meetings in Montreal. A revolution is not a violent overthrow: it is the reorganization of society at its basic level. Our task lies now in preparing ourselves to take advantage of the situation being presented to us. A unity among the working class, in the state of weakened capitalism, can bring about such a revolutionary change.?