The lesson of our movement: neoliberalism is not invincible

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Although largely shunned by the European media, the student strike movement in Québec was one of the most remarkable campaigns of mobilisation we have seen in the West during 2012, with campuses shut down for months on end. In this analysis, Nancy Turgeon, a participant in the struggle, reflects upon the causes, lessons and the future. 

On 4th June, the front page of the widely-read Canadian conservative journal Macleans started a countrywide controversy: ‘Québec’s new ruling class. How a group of entitled students went at war and shut down the province. For 325$’. Had we really won? Was it really just for a 325$ tuition fees increase? How could a mere student struggle over tuition fees have become a wide assault against neoliberalism?

Québec’s student strike started in January, reaching at its peek 75% of college and universities students, and gave way to relentless protests during the half-year it lasted. But today, in the aftermath of the election, Montréal looks strangely quiet. The party who stood against the power of the street is now relegated to the opposition (Québec’s representation system being roughly the same as England’s). Students are back in school. But, surely this is not the end of the struggle against neoliberalism?

The political background of this social crisis, and what made it possible in the first place, need to be explained. In North America, Québec could be considered a ‘socialist’ heaven[1]. However, during the last nine years of the Liberals reign led by Jean Charest, a self-proclaimed ‘cultural revolution’ was established, going well beyond the austerity consensus. A new philosophy now governs the relationship of citizens towards the state: specifically, the welfare state has been dismantled, making citizens pay on an individual level for services provided by the state. Such neoliberal policies range from a new tax on health services to the increase of fees for education, from state-sponsored kindergardens to universities. While the list is long, and the left wing tradition here is real, the government plainly still underestimated the social discontent these policies would produce.

The student strike provided an opportunity for this social discontent to manifest itself. On its own, the student movement was already a major force due to its massive capacity for mobilization. In Québec, student representation is systematic but decentralized and has historically won a status close to that of unions – a situation that differs significantly from the UK. Yet, in 2008, students lost an important battle after launching a strike comparable to this year’s. And in 2005, they had to settle for making the same Liberal government back up on its proposition to transform scholarships into loans. In other words, the structural organization of the movement is not a strong enough factor to explain the success of the most recent social struggle.

However, what did prove more successful this time round was the widening of the mobilization to workers, unions, community groups, feminist organizations, etc., as testified by the pots and pans banging, the financing of the student strike by worker’s unions, and of course the massive attendance to regular protests scheduled on the 22nd of each month.

From the start, the CLASSE, an alliance of the most radical student unions around the student federation ASSÉ, made it clear that the struggle was not only (or even mainly) about preserving ‘privileges’ for students. No one can say now that the student movement is a ‘new social movement’ disconnected from material reality: this movement is firmly embedded in the social struggle against the widening of the capitalist encroachment on social life. For the first time, it seemed that the traditional issue of Québec independence was not overshadowing the left/right debate.

All seemed in place to finally impede the progress of neoliberalism in Québec. Indeed, none of the usual government’s strategies to destabilize social movements worked during the struggle: neither the strategy of ‘divide and conquer’, neither the use of legal and police repression, neither the ‘lock-out’ imposed by the government (the shut down of schools on strike, postponing the academic term to August). Student federations remained united and the emergency law attacking the right to protest simply widened popular support for the movement. However, the emergency law did reach its goal by impeding the autonomy of the student associations. Thankfully, the constitutional legitimacy of the emergency law has been contested from its inception, and even by Québec’s Human Rights Commission.

In August, Prime Minister Jean Charest resorted to the last strategy available to control the social turmoil: he called for elections[2]. Charest let the student movement unfold in the hope that the CLASSE would repel the population and more centrist student federations (as was the case in 2005). This strategy failed, showing the magnitude of the social discontent.

As was clearly demonstrated, the CLASSE is not afraid to state and act upon its commitments to anti-capitalism, radical feminism and acceptance of violence if not directed against individuals. At the same time, it kept its position and legitimacy at the bargaining table and in front of the general public.

However, regardless of this front, Charest eventually reached his goals in consolidating his electoral basis. He asked the population to choose between ‘stability’ and ‘referendum and the street’. Charest lost his bet. The alternative ‘natural governing party’, the Parti Québécois (PQ) is now at the head of the government. The referendum and the street? No, the PQ agenda and what we have now is way beyond this.

Since its foundation in 1976 in the hope of achieving the national independence of Québec, the PQ has been perceived as a social-democratic party. Its support of unions and social movements has been, from the start, at best sporadic. From the late 80s onward, its leadership was as economically right-wing as the Liberal Party, though this was not expressed in their speeches. It is to the PQ that we owe the first austerity measures in 1995. Its trajectory is similar to that of the Labour Party in England, with the more singular addition of its nationalism, something that would be difficult to find in Europe in an overtly leftish party[3].

During the strike, this party openly supported the student cause; well, at least part of it. Traditionally, the two centrist student federations are tied to this Party (to illustrate this, the leader of one of these student federations stepped into the electoral game as a candidate for the PQ). The PQ asked for a ‘truce’ during the campaign, and got this proposal accepted by these student federations. In exchange, the PQ backed up the centrist student federations’ request of abolishing the tuition hike without giving a thought to the increasingly spreading demand of the CLASSE for free education.

One party did back the CLASSEs demand for free education: Québec solidaire (QS). QS is a fusion of many parties and groups, from communities’ and women’s groups to former left-wing official parties including the Communist party and the sovereigntist Union des Forces Progressistes. QS presents itself as a ‘party of the ballot box and of the street’ and until now has lived up to these standards (as an example, the co-leader Amir Khadir got arrested in a student protest).

Founded in 2006, it came as a surprise to many that a party so openly feminist, ecologist, ‘altermondialist’ (antiglobalisation), and left-wing could manage to get as far despite the ‘single plurality’ voting system imported from England. Indeed, their second MP even got elected after the latest campaign. But the people supporting the students nevertheless mostly voted for the PQ, so as to prevent the Liberals winning another election.

So, what is next?

First of all, it must be noted that the PQ is at the head of a minority government, that is, it does not have the majority of districts. In effect, we could go back into an election as soon as the other two parties, who have the balance of power, refuse to back up the PQ government. This situation is new for Québec; moreover, we are slowly beginning to accept that bipartism might not be the only option. The third party benefiting from this (Coalition Avenir Québec) is however as neoliberal as the two main ones, if not more so.

Fortunately, the PQ does not need the support of these parties to abrogate the emergency law. However, it might need their support to abolish the tuition hike. The PQ promise on education during the electoral campaign was to transform the tuition fees increase into indexation and to hold a summit about education. For Quebecese student activists, this literally is a joke: the current PQ leader, Pauline Marois, already held such a summit in 1996, when back then she stood as the Minister for Education. The results of the summit were disastrous. It took no account of student propositions and it attempted to increase tuition fees.

In other words, nothing is yet settled. And this is most likely for the worse rather than for the best, especially if the street does not return to fight. We must be aware though that winning popular support will not be as easy against a PQ government, given its social-democratic aura. Already, the two main student federations have said that they had achieved their goal through the election of the PQ.

However, on a more positive note, the ASSÉ gained significant membership during the student conflict, with student unions previously affiliated to the other two centrist federations switching their allegiance. Moreover, even the centrist federations radicalized their own bases during the strike, leading us to expect strong opposition during the summit on education.

Nevertheless, contrarily to all expectations generated by our Maple spring, the electoral campaign that followed slipped back into old habits. Returning to the issues of corruption and Québec’s independence, and relegating education and social welfare to their usual place, has served to appease social discontent. Still, this situation can only be momentary.

Looking towards the future, only unity in opposing neoliberalism at all levels of society and a refusal to accept PQ’s waving of the identity flag can ensure the Maple spring’s enduring legacy.

* The author would like to thank Maïa Pal for her comments and editing.



[1] This qualification also applies within Canada, as public services such as education are prerogatives of the provinces and not of the federal government.

[2] It has to be noted that in Québec, it is the prerogative of the governing party to choose the date of the election. Charest was afraid of something else besides the student movement: the Charbonneau commission, whose mandate was to investigate the corruption in the construction sector and whose results will be communicated in October. Only relentless pressure from the Parliament and the street forced Charest to create this commission, and no one thinks that both traditional parties would step out of it without major stains.

[3] For example, during the latest electoral campaign, the PQ leader proposed to restrict Quebeceese citizenship to people with an ‘acceptable’ mastering of French, and to ban the Anglophones, autochtones and Allophones who couldn’t prove their language skills from being candidates in elections, and even from financing political parties (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/quebecvotes2012/story/2012/08/21/parti-quebecois-non-french-speakers.html). This revives the eternal linguistic divide in Québec, where xenophobia against non-francophones is a recurrent problem.

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4 Comments

  1. September 27, 2012 at 2:26 pm · Reply

    The Quebec experience is to a certain extent unintelligible to American student organizers I think in part because we imagine student unions/federations to be something like trade unions for students.

    Here, we have student governments that are elected to administer various aspects of campus life but left groups almost never run for office.

    Are the student federations just a network of campus-based student governments?

  2. Nancy Turgeon
    October 2, 2012 at 4:32 pm · Reply

    Thanks for your comment! It’s difficult for me to compare with American student organizations, since I don’t know that much about them, but I can try to explain a bit more the situation here in Quebec.

    To begin with, students are organized in their department, according to their discipline of studies (what we call ‘departmental association’). Secondly, the departments that make up a school hold general assemblies (‘school associations’). Departmental and/or school associations can choose which larger student federation they want to be part of. These are the ones you hear about in the news (foremost the radical ASSÉ, under the ad hoc name CLASSE so as to include for this current struggle non-affiliated departmental associations in a bigger alliance). In other words, when you’re a Quebecese student in a national strike, there is a lot of voting going on!

    But even in ‘peaceful’ times, there are enough attendance and political issues to deal with to justify 1, 2 or 3 general assemblies by term in departmental and school associations. These associations are well-funded as the universities take ‘association fees’ for them from each student tuition payment and all students are automatically members of their departmental and school associations.

    Furthermore, each of the student federations follows different democratic procedures, the ASSÉ being the more decentralised, and whose leaders are mere ‘spokesmen/women’ bound to the vote of their members for every decision in a strike. This explains why it seems so difficult to grasp student organization in Quebec. Their roles can also be different: for example, the ASSÉ is committed to promote larger anti-neoliberal issues than the mainstream federations (FECQ, FEUQ and TaCEQ) who deal mainly with student rights. So the departmental associations tend to deal primarily with local department life, whereas struggles within a university can see all the school associations brought together on a specific political issue (like the privatization of services or a more neoliberal direction implemented by the university board). Obviously, some departmental and school associations (and, more generally, universities) are more political than others…

    I think the main specificity about student organization in Quebec is that it is strongly organized at the local level. So a lot of people show up in national or university-wide strikes, since they’re socialized by student democracy in everyday matters. The 2012 strike has been prepared for months in every departmental and school association. I don’t know much about different student organizations, but I haven’t seen anything even close to this in my current British university, even though it is one with a relatively left-wing reputation.

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘left group running for office’; individuals get elected as representatives in all levels of associations, and ‘wearing two hats’ is not well perceived.

    I’m eager to learn more about American universities if you have some time to spare; it seems to me like a very fruitful discussion!

    • October 2, 2012 at 9:49 pm · Reply

      Thanks for the detailed reply. There is very little discussion on the American left here about what student organizing looks like on the grassroots level or how your experience could be applied here in some varied form.

      We in the U.S. have nothing remotely resembling the department associations you describe. At most, there are faculty and staff unions.

      Every, most colleges and universities have what is known as “student government” which is elected by the student body. It is generally apolitical, responsible for bringing music acts to campus, organizing club day when all the school’s clubs have tables at a fair-like event, and making minor administrative decisions on behalf of students. Student government activities and student clubs are funded from fees that are included in student tuition. And, like the rest of America, there is very little voting and even less political debate/discussion.

      Left groups: many socialist and left groups have campus-based branches where they have public meetings and paper sales. Typically these are not student-only groups or even primarily groups of students but a mix of on and off-campus people. Their campus activism might consist of Palestine solidarity work, setting up an anti-war coalition, or an ad hoc alliance to fight a new round of budget cuts, but very rarely do they put together slates of leftists/allies for student government elections. As a result, the left in the U.S. has a very hard time fighting cuts and privatization since their roots on campus are weak in part because they eschew the institutional power of things like student government (not to mention fraternities and sororities — but that’s another issue altogether). Instead, left groups will spearhead some spirited marches and maybe a sit in or two before the administration proceeds with its plans. Coordinated resistance between campuses, especially campus-wide resistance, in the same state or city university system (like SUNY in New York State or CUNY in New York City) is extremely rare. The cuts come down and the protests are small and unsuccessful for the most part. In some cases student government might spend money on a bus to talk to the state capitol to protest the budget cuts, but it’s pretty rare.

      During the Viet Nam era, the student strikes that erupted were called by student anti-war groups but there never was an attempt to build on this to create a general or non-issue-based network or association of students across campuses to coordinate actions. So as the unions have been crushed and the working class atomized in the past four decades, the student population has had a hard time resisting in part because they are probably even more atomized and unorganized than workers. We are sort of starting from square zero, not even square one.

      • October 2, 2012 at 9:51 pm · Reply

        “There is very little discussion on the American left here about what student organizing looks” should say “There is very little discussion on the American left here about what YOUR student organizing looks”

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