This is part numéro deux of a three-part series using Québec’s mighty student strike as the pivot point between the social-democratic and neoliberal eras of the past and the new historical sequence of Epic Unrest inaugurated by the Global Financial Crisis and the Arab Spring (etc). This second piece builds off the first, which is here.
An eastern exodus began years ago as one by one friends packed up and left Alberta for Montréal. If you know anyone who lives in Montréal you know why. The city is great for artists and intellectuals, who can live cheaply in beautiful old buildings, in charming neighborhoods, in a city that’s at once cosmopolitan, socially progressive, and working-class (the catch is you gotta learn French). In addition to the four major universities (three right downtown) there’s Québec’s unique system of intermediary colleges (CEGEPs) where it’s possible to get teaching work without a full Ph.D. This is the city where critical communication studies, experimental cinema, and radical politics inform the music scene, probably best illustrated by the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
My favorite Montréal post-rock band Fly Pan Am (the bassist tends bar in the neighborhood)
But post-rock and the avant-garde aside, even by *strictly* social-dem standards, the Québec model leaves much to be desired.
I had no idea how thoroughly the neoliberal Restoration has been coterminous with the Québec model until I moved here. Recently I learned that a (lower) middle-class musician friend with a 1-year-old daughter already worries about affording the $10,000+ annual tuition needed to send her to a good elementary school. Who knew more parents send their children to private schools in Québec than anywhere else in North America. The face of the student strike, former CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois? His leftwing academic parents sent him to private school.
Likewise, the privatization and double-tiering of health care is more advanced here than anywhere else in Canada. Some social-democratic bastion.
I arrived in Montréal by way of rent-gouging Vancouver, where I worked crappy jobs (and dedicated myself to activism) for a few years after dropping out of a Ph.D in Chicago. When I landed here I was unemployed and valiantly (clinically) depressed. I’ve experienced firsthand what the safety net amounts to in the Québec model. It blows. Mental health services are geared toward the poor and uneducated, because anyone else will pay for a seasoned therapist (or see a psychoanalyst) rather than get on a waiting list to see a 26-year-old intern in a psych ward: the amateurs practice on the poor. Living on “social assistance” is a bare, dehumanizing grind; even if your medication is covered, it’s impossible to make rent and buy groceries for the month. For all the analogies of suburban consumers as shambling zombies, real zombification is the endless austerity of scraping by on less than $600 a month. To be unemployed for any extended period in our society is to be well and truly screwed (while maintaining the good grace not to sink your teeth into the skulls of the business class). There’s no dignity in it, and limitless misery. (See 10 volumes and counting of first-person testimony at Gawker.) Which is why when unemployment reaches mass levels – in Tunisia, Morocco, Gaza, Rome, Birmingham, and beyond – some people reclaim their dignity by burning themselves alive.
48-yr-old father of three Ammar Gharsalla isn’t enjoying capitalism
Avec Nous, Dans la Rue! (Join us in the streets)
Anyone who’s read key texts of the social movements here, the CLASSE Manifesto and the Manifesto for a Maple Spring, knows they’re lucid and inspiring calls for real reflection and conversation about just the issues I sketched in part 1 and above. But after six months of creative and relentless mobilization, drawing hundreds of thousands to strike and take to the streets in defiance of premier Charest’s police state, one act in late summer was enough to shunt the mass mobilization aside, as effective as switching off a television or knocking out the electrical grid: an election call.
A media juggernaut sets this crass pageant – a spectacle of pseudo-politics – down on the population like a concrete slab. It crushes real discussion and grassroots mobilizing. Yet it’s what people call democracy and what we’re taught to cherish as the height of citizenship in grade school. Elections are, in truth, anti-political. None of the monumental problems of our age are even discussed by politicians, let alone acted on. Comedian Dana Gould calls electoral politics professional wrestling with ties. Only a psychological peewee could maintain faith in politicians and electoral parties at this stage in the 21st century (this means you too, social democrats).
My activist and indie-media friends do great work but all the blogging and graffiti in the world is a pan flash against corporate and state television, radio, and newspapers. Mass media, in all its craven stupidity, still rules. As Paul Mason has shown, social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr) is a powerful tool for exactly the student demographic mobilized in Québec, as it was in The Arab Spring (and will continue to be). But beyond that demographic, its power is slight. It’s like expecting college radio and 7-inch singles to incite seniors to flip their beds and mutiny in nursing homes. And so, the issues raised in Québec’s Maple Spring – inequality, climate change, education, debt, indigenous rights, racism, feminism, social services – were barely hinted at in the televised leaders debates or the blather of pundits during the provincial election here.
Elections are a hollow ritual, like dutifully clasping hands and saying grace even though no one believes in God and mommy and daddy hate each other and beat the kids. What could be more representative of this than millions of Egyptians waging revolution – sacrificing their lives – in the streets for months only to have their transformative aspirations railroaded into a vote between the Mubarak regime itself (in the person of former PM Ahmed Shafik) and the fundamentalist (and neoliberal) Muslim Brotherhood?
The goal sought in the Arab Spring was not liberal democracy or even social democracy. It was something very different: deep, meaningful empowerment of the people. Something unattainable by the ballot. This is why even the rather backwards-looking Chris Hedges says the Occupy movement is revolutionary. At bottom, Occupy does have a demand, and it’s something the State will never grant: the delinking of corporate-capitalist class power from the State itself, such that the people might govern themselves rather than be owned and ruled. Thus, even if occupiers aren’t aware of it, the implicit demand of Occupy strikes at the secret spine of liberal democracy: Occupy brings the class nature of the State itself into the light. (Hint: this is why cops aren’t part of the 99%) And please, naysayers and mopey cynics. Heed America’s greatest historian of social movements Francis Fox Piven: this shit is just getting started.
Whither Counter-Culture and Identity Politics, What Up Clinton & Glenn Beck?
In part 1 (“Whither Social Democracy, What Up Quebec?”), I said I would try to address how feminism and sexual identity politics complicate Alain Badiou’s characterization of the neoliberal era as wholly reactionary. Forgive the broad strokes in what follows.
Alongside anti-racist, migrant, and indigenous mobilization, feminist and gay rights movements are responsible for profound social transformations that have indeed cut against the relentless anti-socialism of the last three decades. This push beyond the bigotries, nativism, and misogyny of the Fordist era is the proudest legacy of the disparate forces of sixties radicalism. But the relation of those movements to social equality and social welfare isn’t simple. These movements emerged at the nadir of the social-democratic era, as society began to lurch from the the Big Government-Big Labor-Big Boss triad of Fordism to the “new economy” of Post-Fordism (think: “flexiblization,” “post-industrial,” “information economy,” “service economy,” “freelancing,” etc). The forces of change in the sixties were anything but uniform (we can’t group white middle-class dropouts and Deadheads with the disciplined militancy of the Black Panthers), but broadly speaking the New Left was a reaction against the restrictive structures of both postwar capitalism and the Old Left that had made peace with it. In addition to the gains made for women, gays, and people of color, this turn against the Man (maaan) and old school leftism also segued into the lifestyle politics of individual choice and juggle-three-jobs freedom of post-Fordism. The left de-institutionalized and dispersed, and it’s never regrouped or recovered.
Modern conservatism, meanwhile, has been a reaction to sixties counter-culture and more decisively, feminism, black power, and gay liberation. Conservatives want a full return to the private tyrannies of the patriarchal family and the workplace. Where conservatives and neoliberals come together, of course, is on the economic end: rolling back the welfare state, booting millions off welfare and into low-wage McJobs (and balancing the budget) as liberal hero Bill Clinton did, and hacking away at regulatory architecture. What for conservatives was kicking off the nanny state blanket and unfettering the market was also embraced by affluent liberals and Richard Florida-types, albeit with a different pitch: “Everyone can be a day trader, or a gay freelance graphic-designer, and work from his own downtown loft!” Meanwhile, latter day social-democrats upheld neoliberal “reform” as a necessary “compromise” to remain relevant.
The irony of conservative populism, meanwhile, is that it asserts the traditional authority structures of Fordism – the Family/Father, the Employer/Boss, the Policeman/General – while championing the very market forces that outmode and undo the patriarchal nuclear family, the “mom and pop” store, the midwest steel mill, the agricultural small-holder, and the (mythical) hermetic border. (No luck outmoding the armed goons we call police, of course.) Conservatives don’t understand that social formations such as the nuclear family are expressions of historically shifting economic modes. They want their timeless WASPy/Catholic/Mormon/Whitesupremacisty Norman Rockwell scene and their ruthless and unstable capitalist dynamism simultaneously. They don’t understand that their family dining table has always rested atop the monstrous thrashing octopus of capital accumulation.
And while we laugh at or even pity such conservatives, in the US (with nearly ten times Canada’s population) it’s conservatives who drive public debate, and indignant liberals who react. And so it is that the culture wars are the chief means of running interference while billionaires like the Koch brothers clean up in the class war. As essayist David Bromwich notes in his compelling chronicles of the Obama presidency, over the past couple decades liberals have largely won culture and conservatives politics (though the resurgent war on women and pushback against gay marriage – not to say bi-partisan attack on migrants and mass incarnation of blacks and Latinos – challenge these identitarian victories). Ugly parentheticals aside, victory in the culture wars gets you Glee on Fox television and a 22% child poverty rate, which works out to 46% of black kids living in poverty with a winsome black man in the White House. Whatever your take on Walter Benn Michaels’ polemics against identity politics – or your appreciation of Glee – this is an indefensible state of affairs which is only worsening.
Retour au Québec
Sixties counter-culture, like almost everything, has a unique history in Québec, where the touchstones are the “Révolution tranquille” and the “October crisis.” On the militant end, America had the inspired Black Panthers and the deranged Weather Underground action-faction led by wealthy kids like Bill Ayers (who destroyed the SDS). While Québec had the FLQ: armed working-class revolutionaries (some trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jordon), for whom an independent Québec was inseparable from the task of overthrowing the Anglophone ruling class and seizing the means of production in socialist revolution.
I can’t do justice to that history of violent revolt here, but I mention it because for all the FLQ’s sins it is precisely parliamentary democracy (electoralism) that has hollowed the Québec independence movement of its revolutionary spirit and deformed it – in part – into jingoistic nationalism. Founded in 1968, the Parti Québécois emerged as the primary vehicle for co-opting revolutionary aspirations into electoralism and purging the independence movement of its radical class antagonism. No surprise, then, that today the PQ plays up (white) Francophone identity politics as a form of populism while serving up a brand of neoliberalism lite now standard for Labor and nominally “socialist” parties throughout the West. Thus, the anti-immigrant nativism of the Tea Party has at least this much in common with the ostensibly social-democratic party politics of Québec (not to mention the “socialist” electoral politics of France). When the economy tanks (and the economy is a tank that always tanks), racist scapegoating crosses ideological lines.
Immigrants attacked by Greece’s popular neoFascist Golden Dawn party (backed by Greek police)
All this said, six months of relentless street action by students and neighbors de-throwned the Québec Liberals, and on taking office with a minority government, the Parti Québécois demonstrated that mass militancy gets results. With the Liberals booted out in a wave of leftwing militancy, the PQ has moved quickly to cancel the tuition hike that sparked the strike, nix the proposed healthcare user fee, repeal the anti-protest emergency legislation, propose a ban on natural gas fracking, and introduce a tax hike for the wealthy. These are moves that would have most leftists – hopefully most everyone – backslapping and fist-pumping. But to truly grasp the moment we live in let’s be clear:
1) Pace social democrats, hapless Keynesians like Paul Krugman, and ballot fetishists, electoral parties and Think Tank wonks were as much the engine of these victories as Anderson Cooper is the leading edge of queer politics. It was extra-parliamentary mass militancy – and its participatory structures – that achieved this, by striking and striking some more, and taking to the street, month after fierce month. (And it was magnificent and life-changing to be a part of, btw.)
2) The student movement and broader uprising seeks much, much more than these defensive, rearguard victories. The movement was blocked by Quebec’s undemocratic trade unions, whose intransigent leadership refused calls to mobilize for a united front, allying instead with status quo governance, while the cops cracked young heads in the streets.
3) The result for government policy is likely a short-term holding pattern. The dominant narrative – and the reality that underwrites it – hasn’t changed. Québec has the highest public debt and unemployment and the lowest economic growth of the most populous Canadian provinces. Situated within national, continental, and international “market forces” (and cemented in corruption), with an aging, top-heavy population, the crisis of the Québec model is no closer to resolution than the crisis that is capitalism itself.
I had the misfortune to hear CBC radio’s six o’clock national news the other day, and the public broadcaster’s coverage of post-election Québec was straightup neoliberal, replete with interviews pegging high taxes and environmental regulation as choke holds on the economy. And some people think it’s my Facebook feed that’s unrelenting.
Part 3: Tarrying In The Interval
There’s no question we’ve entered a new historical period of heightened class conflict and ideological contest, carried out in the midst of a global economic slump and frightening climatic rupture. Our challenge is to push beyond a Keynesian reboot and fight for more radical transformation. To spend a few decades (yeah, decades) building the vision and apparatuses by which we fight for a future that doesn’t haunt us. For what it’s worth, in part three I’ll attempt to take up the questions raised above and give my sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the activist left today. I mentioned Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the top. Their new album is called Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! and includes a track dedicated to Québec’s Maple Spring (in French, “maple” sounds like “Arab,” incidentally; hence Printemps Érable). In their incredible interview at The Guardian, the band said this about their nineties output:
For us every tune started with the blues but pointed to heaven near the end, because how could you find heaven without acknowledging the current blues, right?
The new album seems to ascend uncharacteristically fast.