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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

(Page 4)

In Badiou’s terms, these documents demonstrate a strategy for changing a temporary event into a political organization capable of mobilizing a united idea in the service of an historical awakening.[60]

In both its ideas and actions, the Quebec protest movement is clearly channelling more than the defanged spirit of revolt that Slavoj Žižek warned might dilute the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Not only does the Quebec movement symbolize “the awakening of democratic values,” but it also signals the birth of a revolutionary idea grounded in the reality of burgeoning collective organizations and a “minimal positive program of socio-political change.”[61] Debates about rising tuition rates are now tied to debates about inequality, economic injustice, racial discrimination, the corporatization of education, the destruction of public spheres, and the expanding number of societies willing to wage war on their youth. At the same time, the transformation of the student movement in Montreal into a social movement has not been without challenges.

As the Quebec student movement gains in strength and develops into a broad popular uprising intent on transforming government policy and reconfiguring the lines of political and economic power, state-sanctioned law enforcement has resorted to more violence. Thousands of students have been arrested, one young person lost an eye, and there have been numerous reports of excessive force used on peaceful demonstrators. Such violence appears to replay the horrific attacks by the police on students occupying university campuses in the United States. In both instances, the emerging specter of a police state canceled out the fictive portrayal of young people as insignificant whiners and self-indulgent brats manufactured by the conservative media, pundits, and government officials.  Quite to the contrary, students are making themselves increasingly visible as the harbingers of a social movement willing and capable of challenging the neoliberal nightmare. And because they are more visible, they are more vulnerable to state violence.

Another distinctive characteristic of the Quebec movement is that it has clearly positioned young people as part of the 99%. In doing so, it has connected with and gone far beyond the limited tactic of mass mobilizations. Protesting students have opted instead for a permanent presence and media profile through ongoing demonstrations, study groups, media outreach, community engagement, policy interventions, and performance art.  Thinking otherwise in order to act beyond the boundaries of the given has been a characteristic of the Quebec student movement from its inception. These brave young students have not only appropriated the language of the dare by displaying their civic courage, but also provided a concrete expression of what can be called “educated hope”.

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The student protesters have given new meaning to what the philosopher Ernst Bloch once referred to as “something that is missing,” and, in so doing, have resurrected a claim on a future that does not imitate the present. And while the Quebec resistance movement shares the spirit of direct democracy evident in the Occupy movement, it has extended its critique of neoliberalism and its embrace of the principles of participatory democracy beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, singular political issues, and temporary political organizations. It has connected its democratic project to other student movements in Chile, England, and the United States as well as to a growing worldwide resistance to global capitalism. And it has discerningly provided an overarching discourse in which it can address a number of related political and economic issues that produce mass suffering and human hardships. 

In offering the public a new language through which to challenge neoliberal prerogatives, Quebec youth have made clear that the financial and corporate interests at work in the drive to raise tuition and push thousands of students into bankruptcy are also responsible for privatizing public services, raising and creating new user fees for health care, eliminating public sector jobs, closing factories, exploiting natural resources for financial gain, extending the retirement age, curbing the power of trade unions while slashing their benefits, promoting tax cuts that benefit the rich, and criminalizing social problems—and those who dare to protest such actions.  Moreover, the Quebec student movement has raised important questions about the role of the university in society and what relationships will exist in the future between corporate power and all aspects of public and political life.

What is unique about the Quebec movement is how organized it has been—a reflection of how the students prepared for the demonstrations before they actually took place by networking and mobilizing small groups to talk to peers, faculty, staff, union representatives, and workers. In addition, the students developed broad-based and powerful associations through which they could advocate for issues directly related to educational reform rather than outward-facing advocacy movements such as those organized by U.S. students, one example of which is the anti-sweatshop movement. By developing strong unions with demands rooted in knowledge gained from their own lived experiences and the plight of the university, it became easier for the protesters to retain a distinct identity while reaching outside of the university to create a broad-based movement. Moreover, the students organized around an idea—simply that tuition hikes need to be addressed within the suffering and injustices produced by neoliberal austerity measures—which proved revolutionary in its scope, flexible in its ability to connect to other forms of oppression, and decisive in mobilizing other students and the public at large. The Occupy movement began with a slogan about the 99%, but it lacked the student unions, organizational skills, and sustainable strategies employed by Quebec youth. Of course, the system of higher education in the United States is more complex given its mix of public and private universities, but this should not prevent the emergence of massive and shared organizational initiatives to develop student organizations at local, state, and national levels.

In addition, the Quebec students developed what Peter Hallward has called a culture of solidarity and confrontation.[62] This strategy was designed to win over students and public opinion while refusing to compromise with official power. For instance, when the major unions suggested that the students accept a government offer that would not have lowered tuition fees, the students refused what they thought was a compromising position taken by the unions. They also rejected as insignificant a government offer “to reduce the proposed tuition hike by $35.00 a year over seven years.”[63] At the same time, the ongoing strike and widening boycott confronted daily the oppressive power of the state. In doing so, the students made visible on a continuing basis their concerns and the need to extend the ideological and political parameters of their grievances against the state, and neoliberalism in general. Clearly, this is something the Occupy movement should be doing rather than focusing on largely disparate and isolated events.

Both the Occupy movement and the Quebec student resistance now face the ongoing challenge of developing a language and politics that begins with a meaningful consideration of public life and public values, and tells a story about the possibilities of an insurrectionist democracy not wedded to the dictates of global capitalism.[64] The key challenge for these groups will be to sustain this story in the public sphere through forms of political organization that are as coordinated as they are flexible and open to new ideas. In addition, there is the crucial need to develop alternative and sustainable educational institutions and public spaces in which matters of knowledge, desire, identity, and social responsibility become central to creating a democratic formative culture—understood as the very precondition for the modes of agency and engaged citizenship necessary for any just and inclusive society. This formative culture must make pedagogy central to its understanding of politics and work diligently to provide alternative narratives, stories, subjects, power relations, and values that point to a future when young people and all those others excluded from the savage politics of casino capitalism will create a society in which justice and dignity mutually inform each other.

The Quebec resistance movement has developed a series of strategies and tactics that signal the awakening of history to an ideal of both what a radical democracy might look like and how crucial free, accessible higher education will be to such a struggle. What the organizers have recognized is that being faithful to this ideal demands tactics that focus on more than temporary disruptions, occupations, and slogans. It necessitates a new kind of politics in which people become unified around both a collective sense of justice, freedom, and the hope of building a new society. It does not simply criticize the dominant order, but points to alternatives designed to overthrow it.  By engaging in a social strike, the Quebec protesters have reopened history, articulated a call for collective and shared struggles, and made visible those groups who are increasingly ignored or viewed as disposable—“people, who are present in the world but absent from its meaning and decisions about its future.”[65]

The Quebec student resistance faces a number of crucial challenges as the fall school semester begins in September. If the strike continues, many students will get failing grades and be forced in some cases to make up a semester of work. The Charest government is banking on the support of a public that seems to be getting weary of the strike. At the same time, if the demonstrations continue, there is sure to be more police violence and arrests, especially as state repression is now sanctioned by law. But regardless of how the Quebec movement turns out, the protesters have demonstrated a degree of courage, skill, organization, and solidarity that will not easily fade away. A revolutionary idea has been born and now waits for the conditions through which it can become a more powerful, inspiring political and moral force.


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