Sometimes even a seemingly small struggle can have far-reaching social consequences. Under an apparently calm surface, a cauldron of discontent bubbles, and the four-month old student-led unrest in Quebec now threatens to become something much broader; a much more dangerous social movement, potentially posing alternative visions of a social order.
Across the globe, these bubbles have risen to the surface: the Arab Spring which toppled corrupt regimes across North Africa; the struggles against imposed austerity in Greece and in Spain; the Occupy movements across North America, and in numerous other revolts. It would be simplistic to try to group these struggles into a generalized revolt against capital, but they reveal deep cracks in the structure, at times paralyzing the rulers’ ability to govern.
Since February 13, 2012 post-secondary students at colleges and universities as well as apprenticeship programs in Quebec have boycotted classes. The issue? The proposal of the provincial government to raise tuition fees by almost 75% by 2017. Quebec has had for many years the lowest post-secondary fees in Canada, making education more affordable to a wider segment of the population. Now, as with many other social programs, that accessibility is under attack. The government in Quebec has put forward a variety of reasons for its plan: The deficit must be brought under control; Quebec’s tuition fees are below the national average; the rise in costs is necessary to improve education in the province; this program is no longer sustainable.
In response to the government’s proposal, the class boycott and the initial protests were organized by three student groups: the FECQ (the Quebec Federation of College students), FEUQ (the Quebec Federation of University Students) and CLASSE (The Broader Coalition of the Association for Student-Union Solidarity). Quickly, the government and its allies sought to paint the protesters as lazy students seeking something for nothing; cradle-to-grave entitlements no longer possible in the new reality.
But what might easily have passed with only a murmur of protest has become a lighting rod of discontent against the increasingly unpopular Liberal government. Quebec premier Jean Charest unwisely and unintentionally invoked the spirit of Marie Antoinette in April when he joked at a gathering surrounded by protesters demonstrating against his polices, “We could offer them a job … in the North, as far (north) as possible.” The audience laughed, but the protests continued to grow. And to spread, throughout the province and throughout the population
Several important features have characterized the struggle against the proposal: The involvement of broader sections of the population outside of students; increased numbers – crowds in the tens of thousands are common; a spontaneous character to many of the protests coupled with an ingenious evolution of tactics – the police have complained several times about protesters use of social media to outwit them. In addition, protesters have staged sit-ins in front of government buildings (at Loto-Quebec for example), blocked traffic in Brossard with concrete blocks and sought to go outside traditional protest channels; lastly, increased brutality by the police – broken bones, beatings and mass arrests have become the norm. The police have resorted to violence to try to curb a movement they cannot control.
On May 18, in response to demands from business that the government get tough with students, the provincial legislature introduced and passed Bill 78. The bill, entitled, “An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the post-secondary institutions they attend,” is a draconian effort to restrict public protests and to cow the students into submission. The law makes illegal any gathering or demonstration over 50 people which does not first seek permission from the authorities. In addition, protesters are required to provide the police with the date, times, routes and location of the actions. Permission may be refused and the police retain the right to change or deny any aspect of proposed demonstrations they do not like. The act called for fines beginning at $1000, but rising as high as $125,000 for leaders of student associations. At the same time, the city of Montreal quietly passed its own bylaw prohibiting the wearing of masks at demonstrations, and those accused of releasing smoke bombs in the Metro were charged with creating fear of a terrorist act – a crime which carries a five-year prison term.
Instead of cowing the demonstrators, the law met resistance. Demonstrations, now technically illegal, continued just as frequently, but with a growing carnival spirit. As with the Latin American cacerolaza protests, the sound of pots and pans banging in discontent is a common symphony. On May 22, 2012 the 100th day of the strike, in defiance of the authorities, crowds took to the street in record numbers. Conservative estimates place the number of participants at over 100,000 in Montreal, while the actual number may have been as high as a quarter of a million demonstrators. While the police initially stood back, eventually the arrests came: The day of the demonstration the police waited until the early hours before the arrests began. On the 23rd, over 400. The next day 100, and it continues. Daily and nightly actions accompanied by arrests.
And as the government tried to break the demonstrators’ spirit with repression, it also tried more subtle methods. On May 24, the government invited the three student groups to meet with them to discuss the situation, hoping perhaps that the students organizations might now be willing to ‘see reason,’ but even before the students had accepted the offer the government announced that neither the tuition fees nor Bill 78 would be on the table. Both sides initially issued positive releases, but within days talks fell apart.
It should be noted though that in addition to the government and the police, the Quebec unions despite their lip service to the struggle have sought to curtail the protests. On the May 22 demonstrations, the unions negotiated with the police for their participation in the demonstration. Also noteworthy, the FECQ and the FEUQ remained with the unions. Earlier in May, these same union federations pressured the student groups to accept a “compromise” position which essentially adopted the government’s demands but with the establishment of a committee including business groups, unions and students to implement the austerity program. In the face of hostility from protesters, the scheme collapsed. At the parliamentary level, the federal New Democrat Party, Canada’s official opposition, has said little about the students except to mutter that this is a provincial matter. This despite the fact that the majority of the NDP’s Members of Parliament are from Quebec; of course, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair was a former Charest government minister.
What is important then, is not the various student forces who would like to lead the struggle, but the way the struggle has unfolded. “A-A-Anti-capitaliste” has been a common chant as well as the French equivalent of “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” It is perhaps telling that while the media has tried to focus on the fleur-de-leys, the Quebeçois nationalist flag, the flag which has dominated the demonstrations has been a small red square. The red square has become a badge of honour, and the same weekend Bill 78 was passed against the students, Mick Jagger, perhaps for opportunistic reasons, and the Quebec rock band Arcade Fire wore the square on Saturday Night Live. Solidarity protests have occurred in other Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto, and internationally in New York and Brussels. There is an open militancy which shows no signs of dying away.
Yet, a word of clarification is necessary. For all the talk of anti-capitalism, the students of Quebec, whether consciously or otherwise, frame their struggle in terms of who will pay for the crisis of capitalism. For the capitalists, the answer is in balancing the books through cuts to social services and increased costs for the working class; for the left, which here includes the student leaders, the solution is higher and “fairer” taxes, and making the rich pay. Implicitly or explicitly, this demand will eventually lead to calls for the election of the Quebec nationalist Parti Quebeçois in its Social-Democratic guise (rather than its recessionary one – until it is elected of course). To ask, who shall pay for the crisis of capitalism is to suppose that it can be paid for.
The crisis of capitalism is a systemic crisis whose solution lies in its overthrow and replacement with a system where the law of value has been abolished. Without the abolition of capitalism, the attacks on the working class will continue to grow even if the forms change: unemployment, inflation, loss of healthcare or access to higher education will not disappear even if the students win this particular struggle. We support the refusal of students and workers to endure capital’s attacks, but these attacks will continue until production and exchange for money stops, until the overthrow of capitalism and the value-form.
The ‘Greeks of Canada,’ one media pundit called the student protesters and their allies in Quebec and beyond. Despite the racism of painting the students as the “lazy” Greeks in contrast to the hard-working Germans, was it the insult it was meant to be? Greece has seen massive social unrest as segments of the population have resisted attempts to impose austerity, have fought capital’s efforts to subdue their struggles. The Quebec student struggle can follow that road, but for the students and their allies ultimately to be successful, the protests must continue to spread. They have gone beyond the classroom and into the broader community, but they must go further still. The demonstrations, the occupations, the actions, must also become sites in which a discussion of capitalism and its core structures are the issue. Once that discussion begins, the real political issues begin to emerge.
Fischer / June 10, 2012