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).
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