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The Quebec Student Protest Movement and the Power of the Radical Imagination

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Posted on Aug 28, 2012
Andrew Morrell Photography (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece originally appeared at Truthout.

“This isn’t a student strike, it’s the awakening of society.”
—Quebec protest banner

In many countries throughout the world, young people are speaking out. They are using their voices and bodies to redefine the boundaries of the possible and to protest the crushing currents of neoliberal regimes that ruthlessly assert their power and policies through appeals to destiny, political theology, and the unabashed certainty bred of fundamentalist faith. From Paris, Athens, and London to Montreal and New York City, young people are challenging the current repressive historical conjuncture by rejecting its dominant premises and practices. They are fighting to create a future inclusive of their dreams and the principles of justice and equality become key elements of a radicalized democratic and social project. At stake in their efforts is not only a protest against tuition hikes, austerity measures, joblessness, and deep cuts in public spending, but also the awakening of a revolutionary ideal in the service of a new society. In short, youth have dared to call for a different world and, in doing so, have exhibited great courage in taking up a wager about the future made from the standpoint of an embattled present. To understand the shared concerns of the youthful protesters and the global nature of the forces they are fighting, it is crucial to situate these diverse student protests within a broader analysis of global capital and the changing nature of its assaults on young people. 

The Tyranny of Neoliberalism

Unapologetic in its implementation of austerity measures that cause massive amounts of human hardship and suffering, neoliberal capitalism consolidates class power on the backs of young people, workers, and others marginalized by class, race, and ethnicity.[2]  Neoliberal capitalism appears to no longer need the legitimacy garnered through its false claim to democratic ideals such as free speech, individual liberty, or justice—however tepid these appeals have always been. In the absence of alternative social visions to market-driven values and the increasing separation of global corporate power from national politics, neoliberalism has wrested itself free of any regulatory controls while at the same time removing economics from any consideration of social costs, ethics, or social responsibility. Such a disposition is evident in the fact that neoliberalism’s only imperatives are profits and growing investments in global power structures unmoored from any form of accountable, democratic governance.


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The devastating fallout of neoliberal capitalism’s reorganization of society—the destruction of communities and impoverishment of individuals and families—now becomes its most embraced mode of expression as it is championed, ironically, as the only viable route to economic stability. In this widely accepted, yet dystopian world view, collective misfortune is no longer interpreted as a sign of failing governance or the tawdry willingness of politicians to serve corporate interests, but attributed to the character flaws of individuals and defined chiefly as a matter of personal responsibility. In fact, government-provided social protections are viewed as pathological. Matters of life and death are removed from traditional modes of democratic governance and made subject to the sovereignty of the market. In this new age of biocapital, or what Eric Cazdyn calls “bioeconomics,” “all ideals are at the mercy of a larger economic logic”[2]—one that unapologetically generates policies that “trample over millions of people if necessary.”[3] Neoliberalism’s defining ideologies, values, and policies harness all institutions, social practices, and modes of thought to the demands of corporations and the needs of the warfare state. They are as narrowly self-serving as they are destructive. 

As collective responsibility is privatized, politics loses its social and democratic character, and the formative culture necessary for the production of engaged critical agents is gravely undermined. An utterly reduced form of agency is now embodied in the figure of the isolated automaton, who is driven by self-interest and eschews any responsibility for the other. As Stuart J. Murray points out, neoliberalism’s totalizing discourse of privatization, commodification, deregulation, and hyper-individualism “co-opts and eviscerates the language of the common good.”[4] The ascendancy of neoliberal ideology also manifests in an ongoing assault on democratic public spheres, public goods, and any viable notion of equality and social justice. As corporate power is consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, ideological and structural reforms are implemented to transfer wealth and income into the hands of a ruling financial and corporate elite. This concentration of power is all the more alarming since both Canada and the United States have experienced unprecedented growth in wealth concentration and income inequality since the 1970s.

In Canada, as Bruce Campbell notes, “The richest Canadian 1% has almost doubled its share of the national income pie—from 7% to almost 14%—over the last three decades. The average top 100 CEOs’ compensation was $6.6 million in 2009, 155 times the average worker’s wage [while] 61 Canadian billionaires have a combined wealth of $162 billion, twice as much as the bottom 17 million Canadians.”[5] The United States holds the shameful honor of being “perched at the very top of the global premier league of inequality,”[6] with 1 percent of Americans holding 40 percent of all wealth and 24 percent of all income.[7] Fraud and corruption now run rampant through the financial sectors of many advanced industrial countries, burning everything in their path.[8] As Charles Ferguson points out, “major U.S. and European banks have been caught assisting corporate malfeasance by Enron and others, laundering money for drug cartels and the Iranian military, aiding tax evasion, hiding the assets of corrupt dictators, colluding in order to fix prices, and committing many forms of financial fraud.”[9]  In light of the recent scandals exposing the predatory practices and criminal acts of financial institutions such as HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, and the banking giant Barclays, it is clear that the financial sector has devolved into a financial oligarchy and a global criminal enterprise.[11]

A dire consequence of growing inequality is that more and more people are facing joblessness and poverty and being written out of a future that might offer them a decent and dignified life. What many have learned the hard way in North America and across the globe is that the impacts of inequality cannot be adequately captured with empirical measures based in the Gross National Product or median incomes. Inequality has a lived quality in which there is “a fatal attraction between poverty and vulnerability, corruption and the accumulation of dangers, as well as humiliation and the denial of dignity.”[11] Young people, particularly those transitioning to independent adulthood, have certainly felt the brunt of the intensification of neoliberal policies and are increasingly unemployed, deprived of the most basic social provisions, denied access to decent health care and affordable housing, and are faced increasingly with diminished educational opportunities. Zygmunt Bauman argues that today’s youth have become “outcasts and outlaws of a novel kind, cast in a condition of liminal drift, with no way of knowing whether it is transitory or permanent.”[12]  That is, the current generation of youth has no way of grasping if they will ever “be free from the gnawing sense of the transience, indefiniteness, and provisional nature of any settlement.”[13] And those young people further marginalized by race and class now inhabit a social landscape in which they are increasingly disparaged as flawed consumers, with no adequate role to play and so considered disposable, while forced to inhabit “zones of social abandonment” extending from bad schools to bulging detention centers and prisons.[14]

With so many young people globally facing a present whose future promises only to preserve and expand those spaces that have become sites of “terminal exclusion,”[15] youth in North America and Europe have exhibited a growing recognition that the real marker of their generation is an ever-expanding mode of precarity. Increasingly stripped of their dignity as students and workers, student protesters in both the United States and Canada have recognized that “the current mode of production and reproduction has become a mode of production for elimination, a reproduction of populations that are not likely to be productively used or exploited but are always already superfluous.”[16] By some estimates, “Nearly 75 million young people around the world are out of work, an increase of four million since the economic crisis of 2008.”[17] Youth unemployment rates in Europe are staggering, reaching as high as 50 percent in both Spain and Greece and over 35 percent in Ireland. In the United States, 53 percent of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed.[18] Regardless of its diminished promise of social and economic mobility, higher education now subsidizes institutional budgets with exorbitant tuition rate hikes that effectively prevent working-class and many middle-class youth from even getting an education.

The security that once came with access to public and higher education, the prospect of a decent job, and a state that provided social protections against unexpected and horrible misfortunes has vanished. In a world marked by what Bauman calls “liquid modernity,” social structures that depend on long-term planning and investment have disappeared, just as social problems have been individualized along with the task of resolving them.[19] The era of “fixed addresses,” stable communities, and social stability is over. Youth are now condemned to unskilled or temporary jobs, commodified social bonds, transient living conditions, and personal commitments that carry a short expiration date.  Identities are now temporary, shifting endlessly amid a glut of consumer choices fed by celebrity culture and the corporate evisceration of all significant cultural institutions. Matters of social and personal security are left to the embattled devices of each individual, even as the means for providing genuine safety are largely monopolized by the rich and powerful.[20] As Bauman points out, casino capitalism’s “order of egoism” and obsession with privatization “shifts the task of fighting against and (hopefully) resolving socially produced problems onto the shoulders of individual men and women, in most cases much too weak for the purpose, depending on their mostly inadequate skills and insufficient resources.”[21]

Nowhere is the precarity that defines the current state of young people more obvious than in the consequences they face daily as the social state is being dismantled, individual rights are effaced, political freedoms are criminalized, and collective rights are all but obliterated.  Young people are now told that freedom is about doing what you want without any impediments, especially from the government.  What they are not told is that individualized notions of freedom do not address or provide the social, economic, and political conditions necessary to insure access to a meaningful job, quality education, decent health care, clean air, and living a life of dignity in a just society. Individual freedom removes any sense of community, social responsibility, and solidarity from the discourse of freedom. Individual freedom has to take a detour through collective endeavors of freedom in order to become meaningful. Individual freedom without robust communities is simply code for a stripped-down notion of humanity as a pool of self-interested automatons, lacking any sense of moral accountability, social responsibility, or civic courage.  Within the vocabulary of neoliberalism, too many young people are removed from the discourse of community and collective freedom, pushed to the margins of society and forced to inhabit zones of terminal uncertainty, despair, and exclusion.

Increasingly unemployed, pushed into poverty, politically disenfranchised, and subject to the discipline of a growing punishing state,[22]  young people across the globe face a bleak future marked by uncertainty, vulnerability, insecurity, and the burden of mounting debt.[23] Instead of being viewed as a crucial social investment, many youth—especially protesting students and minorities of race and class—are now the objects of law and order, caught in an expanding web of surveillance, criminalization, and governing-through-crime modes of social control.[24]

Tuition Hikes in the Age of Mounting Debt

It is precisely against this background of expanding policies of neoliberal austerity, precarity, despair, diminishing expectations, and state violence that young people in Quebec have organized a protest movement that may be one of the most “powerful challenges to neoliberalism on the continent.”[25] Thousands of students have raised their voices in unprecedented opposition to the ideology, modes of governance, and policies of the neoliberal state.  The initial cause of the protest movement began in response to an increase in tuition fees announced by the Quebec provincial government in March 2011. The tuition hike was “part of the government’s effort to advance neoliberalism in Quebec by introducing new fees for public services and raising existing ones.”[26] The government’s proposal included raising tuition by $325 per year over five years with the increased fees going into effect in September 2012. The hike amounted to a 75% increase over five years, rising from $2,319 to $3,793 by 2017. In February 2012, after the government refused to negotiate with organizations representing student interests, the student leaders called for a strike. Tens of thousands of students responded immediately by boycotting their classes. Many of the province’s colleges and universities were shut down as a result.

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