Which People, What Democracy? (Why the CLASSE Manifesto Matters Outside Québec)

by Andrew Loewen on July 12, 20122 comments

The governing Quebec Liberals are arguably the most corrupt provincial government in Canada. Yesterday newspapers reported they seek re-election early this fall. So, nice timing then by CLASSE, the participatory leftwing student organization at the vanguard of the provincial Student Strike, who published a new manifesto for a “social strike” in the provincial newspaper Le Devoir this morning.

While the Manifesto is short on concrete proposals of what a “social strike” actually means (like, er, what is it?), it successfully outlines a vision of society directly at odds with what’s on offer at the ballot box — in Quebec, and everywhere else in the world. In the context of a French province that wants to be a nation-state — where government sits in a National Assembly not a meager provincial legislature — the manifesto articulates a renewed notion of two fundamental political concepts: The People and Democracy. Since the French Revolution, the people has been a category of political contest. Who’s in, as an active citizen, and who is denied or has only partial rights? (read: millions of undocumented migrants, for one) The incremental expansion of the franchise, from propertied white males and on to women, so-called “minorities” (such as former slaves), and the rabble, is a key chapter in the bestselling liberal storybook of social and historical progress. “It takes time, but things are slowly getting better.” So goes the dominant tune — the common sense — of liberal democracies from generation to generation.

Faced with this quaint proceduralism, today’s CLASSE Manifesto says, bull pucky. Fuck that. This tune of musical chairs is played out. And we all know CLASSE is right, don’t we? The former Obama campaigners blasted with eyeball-scraping pepper spray in the Occupy encampments definitely know it. Less certain perhaps is whether those in the massive “Love Canada, Hate Harper” tent know it. As I commented on a Facebook thread yesterday, nearly everyone I know in Canada thinks the Harper government is the problem in itself, the root of all evil, rather than an odious symptom of the kind of settler-colonial nation Canada is and always has been (dominated by extractive resource capitalism and Bay Street, expropriation and exploitation). Voting rights expand, the Residential Schools close, but the political spectrum on the ballot only shrivels as the planet burns. Electoral politics have become a dismal charade — the last place to look for vision and inspiration, in Quebec and everywhere else (with the exception of Greece).

Against all this electoral miserablism, the CLASSE Manifesto pits participation against representation, and people, the people, against forces that attack the common good and undermine our future.

Democracy, as viewed by the other side, is tagged as « representative » – and we wonder just what it represents. This brand of « democracy » comes up for air once every four years, for a game of musical chairs. While elections come and go, decisions remain unchanged, serving the same interests: those of leaders who prefer the murmurs of lobbyists to the clanging of pots and pans. Each time the people raises its voice in discontent, on comes the answer: emergency laws, with riot sticks, pepper spray, tear gas. When the elite feels threatened, no principle is sacred, not even those principles they preach: for them, democracy works only when we, the people keep our mouths shut.

Our view is that truly democratic decisions arise from a shared space, where men and women are valued. As equals, in these spaces, women and men can work together to build a society that is dedicated to the public good.

We now know that equal access to public services is vital to the common good. And access can only be equal if it is free.

This is a vision rooted in celebration and defense of a very old notion: the commons. Or, if you prefer, sharing. And the people here are “those of us at the base of the pyramid,” the mass of people, who collaborate and share — celebrate, build, and defend — what is common.

This burden is one that we all shoulder, each and every one of us, whether we are students or not: this is one lesson our strike has taught us. For we, students, are also renters and employees; we are international students, pushed aside by discriminating public services. We come from many backgrounds, and, until the colour of our skin goes as unnoticed as our eye colour, we will keep on facing everyday racism, contempt and ignorance. We are women, and if we are feminists it is because we face daily sexism and roadblocks set for us by the patriarchal system; we constantly fight deep-rooted prejudice. We are gay, straight, bisexual, and proud to be. We have never been a separate level of society. Our strike is not directed against the people.

We are the people.

This is an inspired and inspiring document. It’s not terribly long and worth reading in full: HERE. So much more robust in its social vision than anything I’ve seen emerge from the Occupy movement, whose residual (if not outright dominant) liberalism mires its participants in the New Deal and Great Society nostalgia of their parents and grandparents. By contrast, the CLASSE Manifesto moves to name an enemy. A profound adversary which the liberal tradition is in fact predicated on protecting, not fighting. This enemy assails the public good and privatizes the commons: commodification.

This is the meaning of our vision, and the essence of our strike: it is a shared, collective action whose scope lies well beyond student interests. We are daring to call for a different world, one far removed from the blind submission our present commodity-based system requires. Individuals, nature, our public services, these are being seen as commodities: the same tiny elite is busy selling everything that belongs to us. And yet we know that public services are not useless expenditures, nor are they consumer goods.

Together we have realized that our underground wealth cannot be measured in tons of metal, and that a woman’s body is not a selling point. In the same way, education cannot be sold; it ought to be provided to each and every one of us, without regard to our immigration status or our condition. Our aim is for an educational system that is for us, that we will share together.

There’s much more to think about and say here, particularly about how the version of grassroots syndicalism and direct democracy avowed here can (or cannot) be put to use in defense of Quebec’s existing public services, which by nature are in fact highly bureaucratic, top-down institutions embedded within a larger government apparatus. How much can community assemblies and student syndicalism do to defend public services in the context of an ongoing global economic crisis with no end in sight? But with the traditional heart of social democratic politics — trade unions — increasingly hollowed of principle and fighting spirit, the politics of CLASSE forge a way forward.

In his most recent book The Rebirth of History; Times of Riots and Uprisings, the French philosopher Alain Badiou effectively describes the relation CLASSE takes to the state: “You decide what the state must do and find the means of forcing it to, while always keeping your distance from the state and without ever submit­ting your convictions to its authority.” CLASSE, which has roughly 80 000 student members, maintains a strict distance from all political parties, though it doesn’t go so far as Badiou, who counsels against voting itself. And unlike the Occupy movement, the Quebec student movement has brilliant, charismatic leaders, individual faces like the dashing 21-year-old history student Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (pictured) who’s currently on tour. Imagine if the Occupy movement — instead of a phobia of structure — had leaders like this (and organizations, like CLASSE, with press secretaries).


Barry Weisleder on July 13, 2012 at 11:06 am. #

Spread the Quebec Strike!
Solidarity with the Students!
As the winds of mass protest and demands for change continue to surge across Quebec, now is the time for students and working people in English Canada to march in solidarity with the students’ movement. What began as opposition to tuition hikes in Quebec has grown into a fight against austerity and a defence of fundamental civil liberties. Thousands, almost every night, for over 100 days, and up to 300,000 students and workers on several occasions, have marched in Montreal and across the province.
Because Quebec has a history of mass protest action, its people have the best public transportation system, the lowest tuitions and the most affordable provincial childcare system in the Canadian state. The Liberal government under Jean Charest is worried about the potential power of a united front of students and labour to advance an agenda for the 99%. Charest’s use of the police to crack down on protestors, and the launch of a war against democratic rights is his answer. Law 78 restricts freedom of assembly, protest, even picketing on or near university facilities, indeed anywhere in Quebec without prior police approval. The law also places restrictions upon education employees’ right to strike. This bill has been heavily criticized by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and by dozens of legal bodies, as a “violation of fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression.” Despite every attempt by the Charest government, by the police and the right-wing media to defame the protests, students continue to hit the streets, incredibly ever growing in strength.
In Ontario, with the rapid corporatization of universities, with tuition fees hiked by over 300% in the past decade, it is no longer enough to endorse the example of the Quebec students from afar. It is time to emulate their actions. While capitalist governments deliver bail outs and tax breaks to the 1%, students are being forced to pay for a recession we did not cause! Students: from Vancouver to Toronto to Halifax to St. John’s, now is the time to show Charest, McGuinty, Harper and the other bourgeois leaders that an attack on any one of us, is an attack on all of us!
We say:
* Support the Canadian Federation of Students call for mass rallies, debates and votes across Ontario in September in favour of a student strike to drop fees. Plan actions now to spread the Quebec strike.
* Create a common front of students’ organizations and labour unions to support the Quebec students and fight the capitalist austerity measures everywhere.
* ELIMINATE ALL TUITION FEES! Free post-secondary education is a fundamental right, not a privilege.
* Cancel all student debt!
* Repeal Quebec Law 78 and all laws that restrict the right to association, assembly, and expression! Protest is a fundamental right.
join Youth for Socialist Action – Jeunesse pour l’Action socialiste

Andrew Loewen on July 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm. #

Re: the above copy-and-paste, notice two “points” absent from the CLASSE Manifesto: exclamation points and programmatic bullet points. There’s not a single one of either. Because CLASSE is a credible organization.

But yes, it would be great if more trade unions joined their wonderful sisters and brothers in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in support of the student movement.