The Student Movement in Quebec: Of Small Victories and Big Disappointments

A guest post by Philippe Fournier, following up on his analysis of the Quebec student movement in May last year. Philippe is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Canada Research Chair in Globalisation, Citizenship and Democracy (Chaire MDC) at Université du Québec à Montréal’s Sociology Department, and works primarily on Michel Foucault in global politics.


A Quebec student march route

A Quebec student march route

Quebec’s protracted student crisis, which laid heavy on voters’ minds, has been fixed, at least for now. In early September, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was ushered in as a minority government. The PQ campaigned on a tuition freeze, higher taxes for society’s upper echelons and a fairly ambitious environmental agenda. These aspirations notwithstanding, popular discontent with the Liberal’s handling of the student crisis, widespread accusations of corruption (see the ongoing Commission Charbonneau) and a collective displeasure with Premier Jean Charest’s smug ways, all contributed to the previous government’s demise. All things considered, the Liberals did very well, taking 31% of the vote. The PQ took a mere 32%, hardly a glowing endorsement from the general public. Most analysts believe that it was also a clear message to the incoming rulers that Quebecers had no interest in one of the more fundamental objectives of the PQ’s platform, that is sovereignty.

There are several dimensions and consequences to the PQ’s election, most of which provide an example of things-that-are or of things-that-will-be in western countries facing economic woe.

Students and Protests

The majority of students see the electoral results as a victory and feel vindicated for their continued efforts. A minority of students, many of whom are affiliated or sympathetic to the now recently defunct CLASSE (now the ASSÉ), which was set up especially for the strike, are less enthused and sense that this is only a reprieve in the long and arduous fight for free education.

The PQ has called for a summit on higher education, which will take place sometime in February and is meant to involve a wide-ranging consultation between state officials, student representatives, chancellors and business leaders. The likely outcome will be an indexation of tuition fees to the cost of living and new innovative means to cut costs in University management. Opposition parties are already accusing the PQ of having bowed down to the vociferous demands of ‘the street’ and have warned that this blank cheque would have consequences on the allocation of funds to other social programs. The ASSÉ is predictably sceptical of such proceedings and is not yet sure whether it will participate. After being told by the government that they had to cut a further 120 million before the negotiations even started, University chancellors are ticked off.

Insofar as the student crisis was widely heralded as a social movement and not just a sectorial claim, it is important to assess its overall effect on Quebec’s current political landscape. There are several things we can take away from last spring’s mobilisation. It is an opportunity to reflect on how collective protest unfolds, intensifies and wavers, who are the main protagonists, how it is recuperated or discarded, etc. Above all, it is an opportunity to ask what constitutes a successful protest movement and if we can indeed hail the PQ’s election as a victory for progressive forces in Quebec. Many critics will allege that any sort of co-option by mainstream political forces, and especially by a party that enforced efficiency-based cuts throughout the 1990s, cannot be good news. Others will argue that greater representation of left aspirations within the political spectrum constitutes a necessary step in the revitalisation of our democracies and in the wider promotion of redistributive policies. I guess this all depends on how far you want to take it, but considering the left’s continuing disarray, even in the midst of a global financial crisis and of growing anti-austerity movements in Europe, I suppose we should be content with every gain, however modest.

Last spring in Quebec, students were the main agents of discontent and mobilisation. Historically, students have often been involved in popular protest throughout the world, but have rarely occupied centre stage, perhaps due to their transient and ambivalent socioeconomic positioning (yet to join the labour force so not producing commodities but often moneyed enough to attend University). Seeing that labour movements are much weaker and more conservative than before, students and unemployed youths might just provide an increasingly important lease of mutinous energies. The fact that students and unemployed youths have become the more likely initiators of social and political change tells us much about the general feeling towards institutionalised politics. As Occupy and Quebec’s student movement have shown, some of the more meaningful politics throughout the world have taken place outside of party affiliations. Even the more elaborate Arendtian articulations of civic involvement would struggle to rekindle trust and faith in institutionalised democracy. The fact that almost all self-titled socialist or social-democratic parties have agreed to “modernise” their platforms in the last thirty years, coupled with the increasingly widespread feeling that politicians are corrupt, remote and have consolidated their alliance with the financier class, does little to allay concerns about democracy itself.

Although we would be quick to associate liberal democracy with bourgeois mystification, the stultification and the apparent powerlessness of political formations to integrate swaths of popular aspirations, social justice being the more important one, is dangerous. If we look at the example of Egypt, there is a clear disconnect between the political classes and the movements and aspirations that drew the world media’s attention. In many different cultural and political contexts, post-revolutionary mornings are sour. Typical reactions may include a resigned shrug of the shoulders and in some rare cases, a continuation of protest, which can be quite gruelling.

We Are An Investment Not an Expense

In Le Réveil de l’Histoire (The Rebirth of History, Verso 2012) Alain Badiou discusses the concentric and rippling motions of protest, whereby a vocal and yet-to-be organised minority can become the source of a more significant popular movement. Beyond Badiou’s well-known distaste for democracy, at least in its liberal parliamentarian form, this points to one of the great difficulties of our age, namely that the ‘masses’ are generally conservative, that they are not enthused by fleeting moments of social solidarity and that their tolerance for austerity, unemployment and destitution is greater that one would think. We can allege that the majority is mired in ideology, insofar as we hold on to its traditional definition as false consciousness (or we can say that most people adhere to a calculated realism and a measure of cynicism that is better suited for self-preservation). In any case, left theorising is having tremendous difficulty coming up with a credible and workable notion of ideology, so much so that ideology tends irresistibly towards reality, or at least a very convincing replica of it.

To come back to the protests that have erupted in various parts of the world in the last years, we cannot be sure that this ‘rebirth’ has a coherent and durable form, and from the looks of things, many heartening and impressive mobilisations have since been stifled by the ensuing political process. Rather than suggesting that a righteous and enlightened minority preaching cooperation and welfare should impose its agenda, every social mobilisation should at least try to have an in-build conscience of its own reach, an inherent weariness of political recuperations and an outline of its more long-term objectives and strategies. Easier said than done.

Angry citizens the world over are finding it increasingly difficult to express their grievances within mainstream political formations. Of course, the grievances themselves are not all palatable. Rightful hostility towards the finance/big-business conglomerate can combine with misplaced animosity towards immigrants, homosexuals or feminists, who are seen as a threat to the unity, moral fibre and full employment of the nation (here the examples of France and the US come to mind). Populist discourses are on the rise and concerns about the possible re-emergence of fascism in the midst of ongoing economic woes, have been expressed by a variety of progressive intellectuals such as Žižek and Connolly.

Even if Quebec unions are historically closer to the PQ, some of their old tactics and orientations have been co-opted by the student movement over the years. Indeed, the the ASSÉ replicates the “syndicalisme de combat” embraced by some trade unionists in the 70s. The very notion of a right to strike for students is also tied to the strong tradition of industrial action and organisation in Quebec. But this is as far as the cross-pollination goes for the time being and we go right back to the perennial problem of the left’s factionalism and disunity. As the failure of May ’68 has shown, a coalition between the workers (admittedly a diffuse and uncertain social category in contemporary times) and the students is key for any significant shake-up of the socio-economic structure. There are glimpses of such a common front or a strategic alliance in the countries worst hit by austerity but it has yet to be formalised.

On the bright side, the example of Quebec shows that resilient and organised rallying can overcome a partly hostile populace, police repression and tough anti-protest bills. And I say this to all my English friends, seemingly pointless expressions of collective indignation and somewhat traditional tactics do work. Granted, London is a difficult terrain. With the ever-present lure of mass-hedonism, the warm fuzziness in myriad pubs, the cut-throat business of metropolitan competition and precariousness, and the fact that the state and its police cannot allow money and people to stop moving for a second too long in such a bustling urban center, all make street protest a less than tempting option. But in the end, months of marching, chanting and picketing did result in the revocation of bill 78 (on which see my previous post) and the cancellation of the tuition fee hike, all of which amounts to a small victory for people power.

So specific targets were met, but at the risk of appearing ungracious and overly demanding, the PQ’s volte-face on many of its initial promises puts a considerable damper on the grand proclamations that we were witnessing the left’s awakening in Quebec. The state has simply muted the grievances expressed by a given sector of society, albeit appearing to be broader ranging than a tuition hike, by transferring austerity to other social domains.

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The PQ Backs Down

As we approach the summit on education, the outcome remains uncertain and the likely indexation of tuition fees may not even go completely unchallenged. In the mean time, the PQ is struggling to figure out where it will find the money to offset a user-fee increase in both education and healthcare.

One of the main questions that comes out all this is whether emerging social and political movements in Quebec will have the ability to dent the financial and entrepreneurial establishment’s ongoing capacity to determine the socio-economic compact. Or to put it otherwise, whether it will have the ability to circumvent the implacable logic of Capital’s fickle mobility in a globalised world. The answer seems to be “no” pretty much everywhere we look.

This is precisely the point that was driven home to the PQ by the Quebec establishment in the last few months. A coalition of economic and financial actors with privileged information on the ebbs and flows of the global market prompted the new PM to back down on a series of propositions that involved higher taxes on big business (for more detailed information on where the PQ has yielded, see this article – not a fan of wsws but there’s some valuable info in there – and also this one). So far, the PQ has received the seal of approval from the Quebec establishment and has been praised for its commitment to provide a stable and advantageous business climate. It has undoubtedly strayed from its initial platform, which was perhaps a means to co-opt or appease Quebec progressives, to veer seamlessly into seasoned centre-right pragmatism.

As a prelude to the PQ’s tussles with the business class, Jean-Marc Fournier, interim leader of the Liberal Party, stated that the incoming political party had generated “fiscal anxiety” (the affliction Gerard Depardieu seems to be suffering from), a rare psychological disorder associated with a marginally higher tax rate for the wealthy, which reverses the tested correlation between poverty and anxiety. This is all the more questionable since from 2000 to 2010, Quebecers earning $125,000 a year actually saw a $10,813 decrease in their income taxes and there was $41,449 drop for those earning a million or more.

The tendency among marginally left of center parties like the PQ (perhaps the PQ has the excuse of being a minority government) and the French Socialists to mitigate tax increases for the rich is not altogether surprising if we look at their respective histories in the last 30 years. But this accommodation at the top will surely have to come up against the overwhelming evidence of increasing inequalities, falling purchasing power and growing social unrest.

When presumably left of center parties are made to step back from their initial engagements, we are faced with the need to reconstitute the left’s ideological substance in a way that challenges financial power’s ongoing stranglehold on political possibilities and on political imagination itself.

Whether the PQ was not equipped with a decisive popular mandate, whether it did not really have a plan until it got in power or whether it was not sufficiently determined to implement the platform it campaigned on, a sizeable chunk of last spring’s aspirations and indictments have been swept aside. The dual realities of parliamentary politics and of the managerialism that passes for a philosophy of government in advanced liberal societies, were bound to put a damper on grassroots expressions.

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