Whither Social Democracy? What up Québec? (Part 1)

by Andrew Loewen on September 1, 20127 comments

Tens of thousands (of us) take to the streets in Montréal for the 6th time in 6 months, August 22 2012

We emerged from the movement and have maintained a left-wing activist character. Québec Solidaire is very different from an old-school “Labor Party” like Canada’s New Democratic Party. Those parties have adapted to neoliberalism and the business class. They have become social liberals. – Benoit Renaud

The Social Democrat as a Naïve Boy

A young American recently posted a question on my Facebook wall. Someone I’ve never met but I know through online discussion. He asked how I arrived at my political perspective. I said that before I came to a radical (anti-capitalist) perspective I’d been an unconscious, de facto social democrat as a kid. What I didn’t say was that an older brother who got me into skate-punk and thrash metal well before I hit puberty fueled an anti-authoritarian streak closer to anarchist, or that in junior high English I turned in book reviews of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal this Book and a biography of Leon Trotsky I found in the school library (the Hoffman was my brother’s; I remember a chapter called “Fuck the Flag”).

That said, what I believed in was a robust public sector including all healthcare and education, progressive taxation, increasing environmental regulation, highly funded social services (my dad grew up dirt-poor, on a southern Alberta farm in a family of 11 children), strong labor laws, raising the minimum wage, and a wicked CD budget for the downtown library. I was a well meaning but naïve kid who to my great chagrin hit puberty a little late, in the early 90s.

After giving birth to 3 boys, the middle with Down syndrome and a severe heart condition, my mom became a special needs elementary school teacher. I shared a bedroom with my Down syndrome brother Patrick, now dead, until I was about 12. For a couple years I had a brown tree-climbing migrant brother who found healing making watercolor paintings of flowers, when my parents opened their already strained household to a 16-year-old Cambodian refugee when I was 5. If that all makes my parents sound like saints, they weren’t, but they were Mennonites who grew up hard in rural Canada in the 40s and 50s and valued social justice as part of their understanding of the Christian gospel. My parents weren’t active in their union but they were in one and they struck. Growing up in the same bedroom as a disabled brother of course sensitized me to a constellation of issues, from the shortcomings of institutional healthcare to the broader fact that capitalism views the mentally handicapped as human waste. I should’ve mentioned this stuff in response to the question on my Facebook wall but privileging concision, and reticent about biography, I didn’t.

From Social Democracy to The Restoration

The golden age of social democracy was the long economic boom from roughly 1945 – 1973, which we might call late Fordism. As I’ve previously discussed (here, e.g.), the circumstances that generated this great economic expansion and enabled the Keynesian compact between Labor and Capital were unique in the history of capitalism and cannot be repeated. That’s just a big old sad fucking fact, and one that Labour and NDP leaders have responded to by moving further and further to the right, decade after decade. In short, their response has been to succumb to the diktats of the capitalist class, offering neoliberalism lite to the party faithful. Campaigning in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, NDP leader Jack Layton kept to his most visionary economic talking point in 2008: ATM fees are too high. Well-meaning Canadians adored the man. Raised in Montréal and fluent in French, he was known to Francophones as “Le bon Jack.” The shock and pain of his untimely death to cancer a year ago was wrenching for millions, even though his political vision was pathetic. Alain Badiou calls the neoliberal era of the last 30+ years (the milieu for the entire lives of Gen Y and the adult lives of Gen X) The Restoration. By this he refers to the period extending from the return of the French monarch in 1815 (after the French Revolution and Napoleon’s reign) to the European revolutions of 1848. A reactionary time. The 1990s comparable to the 1830s? But what about feminism and gay rights and indie rock!? It’s a fair point, well, about feminism and gay rights, and I’ll try to address it in part 2. Let’s have a moment with Napoléon’s hat, on permanent display at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in downtown Montréal (free admission).

Since the “world revolution of 1968” the Old Left comprised of trade unions allied with labor parties (the British Labour party and the NDP in Canada, New Dealers in the US) has been in stupendous retreat, to the point that private-sector union membership in USAmerica now sits below 7%. The US public sector itself is at its leanest in 45 years (that’s under Obama, the same administration presiding over a 50-year peak in poverty and a human encagement industry that has 25% of all prisoners in the world locked up in a nation with only 5% of the world population). If you want an image of the power of workers to shape social policy and make gains in the 20th century (in the West), this is pretty good:

The Québec Model

Among North American polities from Tennessee to the Yukon, the most robust welfare provisions (and the steepest income tax rates) are found in the “Québec model.” This model means a Canadian province of 8 million people with a GDP nearly equal to Greece has cool stuff other places don’t. Like public childcare ($7-a-day daycare), beautiful outdoor/public swimming pools in working-class neighborhoods, a network of Maisons de la culture (Houses of Culture) in 12 Montreal boroughs for modern dance, theatre, music, and art exhibitions (tickets are cheap or free), the most affordable post-secondary education on the continent (student militancy gets results), rent control, and, again in Montreal, the largest subway system in Canada. If it sounds kind of rad that’s because it is.

Maison de la culture du Plateau-Mont-Royal

Care to guess what trade union density is in la belle province? It’s 40%. The highest on Turtle Island. The US spectrum runs from 26% in NY state to 4% union density in North Carolina, where America’s leading Marxist Fredric Jameson and his nameless graduate assistants summon dizzying dialectical treatises on postmodern capitalism amidst mass poverty and NASCAR. The reason Québec is a more decent and just society than North Carolina is simple: one day an ambitious and conscientious section of upper-middle-class Québécois went off to Harvard Law School and got a world-class education. And then, piloting a political vehicle first built by genocidal slavers 150 years ago, they courted corporations, financiers, and the business class to get elected and govern like champs. My liberal friends. How I chide you! It was the militant, cop-kicking organized working-class, steeled in the crucible of bringing hell to the Anglophone ruling class, stupid. That’s what delivers the bread and roses.

These days the common sense of pundits, economists, and politicians is that the Québec model of social democracy is in crisis, and trying to maintain or rebuild it is “magical thinking.” We’re told that rolling back the welfare state and shredding the safety net, opening up the north and preying on aboriginal land for pillage by Canada’s ruthless extractive industry, while transferring ever more wealth and power to the 1%, is an inexorable law of something no one can oppose: modernization. We must know: the welfare state is an anachronism. Austerity is like keeping up with the Joneses when Mr. and Mrs. Jones are setting thermite charges on the foundations of their house and selling off their children’s fingers and toes to invest in mood rings. But of course the ruling class doesn’t live in our neighborhood, and blowing up the institutions won by the Old Left and stealing our children’s future is no flesh off their backs.

Even in Québec the hegemony of this neoliberal “common sense” has taken hold: throughout the historic student strike and broader maple spring celebrated around the world, provincial polls consistently showed a majority of Quebeckers supported the tuition hike and opposed the strike.

In the Pines

I’m a fairly recent transplant to the island of Montréal. I grew up in the steak-and-petro-state of Alberta, where you learn to hate French class in elementary school and dipshit rednecks in strip mall bars spit truisms about how Québec is “a province of ungrateful whiners.” Given that the Toronto-based national weekly Maclean’s used its front cover to smear Québec students at supermarket tills nationwide, I can only imagine the vitriol directed towards Québec students in Alberta (Yo Maclean’s: On s’en câlisse).

Out west, I first got to know some real-life Québecois students in my early 20s, working, sleeping, eating, fucking, and raising hell with them in remote cutblocks, bush camps, and small town bars in northern interior B.C., treeplanting in the Bulkley Valley, which is to say in unceded Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan territories. What does this have to do with social democracy, you might ask. It’s like this. I put myself through my first university degree doing brutal (if lucrative) non-union piece-work, traveling a thousand kilometers, about the distance from Rome to Munich, to pitch my tent in the mud and plant thousands of trees a day on the sides of mountains. My Québecois comrades, mostly students, traveled nearly 5000 km after papers and exams, farther than from Rome to Tehran, for the privilege. With tuition increasing every year and decent-paying jobs in the city sparse, we all made our tuition and money for the school year on aboriginal land, cracking holes and shoving little tree plugs into the apocalyptic landscapes of the industrial north. After graduating and a 2-year stint teaching English in South Korea and Taiwan, I returned to the northern interior in 2004 for a fourth planting season. It was April, spring, and the standing pine forests weren’t green – the only color for coniferous trees – but autumn red. The forests were dead. Mild winters and blazing summers in B.C. had led to what some call the largest insect blight ever seen in North America. The mountain pine beetle, a tiny black bug the size of a grain of rice, wasn’t dying off during the mild winters and it was swallowing pine forests with industrial furry during the hot summers. Add some glowing cigarette butts or lightning and the deadwood roars.

Supernatural British Columbia™

This is the world millennials have always lived in, the one we inherited in the endless afterword to the postwar boom eulogized in baby-boomer nostalgia like The Wonder Years. Perennial tuition hikes, historically unprecedented debt burden, insecure, far-flung, and erratic employment, stagnant wages, rocketing inequality, environmental catastrophe, and weakening mental health and social services to prop us up in the midst of the greatest economic contraction in 80 years. Never mind young people in Greece and Spain where the youth unemployment rate (that’s age 24 and younger) is more than 50%. We know our world isn’t improving. And we know that class cuts across generations, and people of all ages (including all the seniors on fixed incomes) are kicked and kept down in this contemporary class war. And all this is why we’re in the streets. And why, ultimately, we will win.

Part 2


Andrew Coyne on September 1, 2012 at 11:00 pm. #

I don’t know what article you think you read by me, but I didn’t write any article for Maclean’s on the Quebec students. Indeed I haven’t written any articles for Maclean’s on any subject in the last eight months, as I left Maclean’s last year.

Andrew Loewen on September 2, 2012 at 9:39 am. #

Attribution corrected.

Andrew Loewen on September 2, 2012 at 9:50 am. #

You are, however, an enemy of the student movement and the civil rights of everyone in Québec Andrew, as this sneering neoliberal hatchet job in the National Post makes clear. So the message to you remains the same.

The future doesn’t belong to neoliberal thugs like you.

Daniel Adaszynski on September 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm. #

Solid article Loewen! Passionate without going one-sided and intelligent without being manipulative. Thx for the words.

Andrew Loewen on September 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm. #

Thanks kindly! Btw, do I know you? Did we plant together or something?

Jan Briggs on September 2, 2012 at 9:56 pm. #

I haven’t read as fine an article in too many years. Nice edge. Thanks, Jan

Joe GF on September 5, 2012 at 1:56 pm. #

Nice Andrew!