The G8 and the G20 summits took place in Ontario over the weekend and media reports focused on violent protests on the streets of Toronto. How you view the violence depends on where you reside. For most of the world, the protests took on a symbolic importance as anarchy in the streets surged into the vacuum created by the lack of consensus or effective action by the governments of the world’s largest economies—the images of chaos on Toronto’s normally orderly streets reflected the chaos people sense in the global economy right now. For Canadians, the demonstrations and the police response are more than symbolic: they are evidence of a failure on the part of Canadian governments—federal, provincial, and Toronto’s regional and local governments—to maintain peace and order.
The key difference in the perspectives of Canadians and those of the rest of the world has to do with how they view the anarchy of the protesters: anarchy is the logical alternative to global governance that fails, but it is a more worrisome thing when it reflects the failure of a sovereign government.
Summits are often touted by academics and pundits as a proxy for global governance, but they are not a global government. The distinction is similar to comedian Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” as a proxy for the truth, in that the former should not be mistaken for the latter. At best, governance is a process for making decisions and establishing rules. Government is institutionalized, has sovereign responsibility, and for democratic governments at least, is accountable to its constituents. Governance gains legitimacy by who it includes; government gains legitimacy by how it is constituted, what it is capable of doing, and is judged by what it actually does.
As the G8 and G20 meetings concluded, media reports documents both an absence of consensus among the leaders, and an outbreak of anarchistic violence on the streets of Toronto. The lack of consensus was no surprise; I noted it in an article here last week. The media focus on the protests seemed exaggerated to some observers. Jonathan Kay noted in the National Post that the number of protesters was modest compared to the mob that disrupted the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. In fact, the protests were less intense than they had been at the world trade talks in Seattle in 1998, and would hardly have been noticed in a place like Washington, DC that is used to seeing regular marches and civil disobedience.
So why did the anarchists get so much media attention in Toronto? In part, it was because the lack of consensus among the leaders made clear to everyone that the summits would be able to produce very little to address the weakness of the global economy. In the absence of governance, anarchy takes center stage. The protesters were a compelling symbol of the confusion and disarray among the G8 and G20 summiteers.
Outside Canada, however, the protests are little more than symbolic. Inside Canada, citizens might reasonably feel that their governments (federal, provincial, and Toronto regional/municipal) failed to quell the violence and maintain peace and order during the summits. Absent peace and order, Canadians rightly wonder if they’re getting good government. Canadian taxpayers might have expected better given the billion dollar security bill they paid to host the G8 and G20 summits.
The anarchy that emerges when an attempt at global governance fails is merely symbolic, because national governments remain. But when anarchy triumphs over a national government (or over a provincial or local government), it is a far more serious thing. If the protests have any impact after the summits, it will be felt in the damage done to public confidence in the Canadian governments responsible for summit security. For the rest of the world, the anarchist protesters were just a sign of the times, and garnered attention in the absence of better news.