A new Printemps 2015: the title of an ominous promise, from labour leaders in Quebec to the provincial Liberal Government. Demonstrations against a policy of austerity, bringing down $2.35-billion in cuts to social services, healthcare, and municipal workers – whose pension funds the government has stolen from in order to pay off its own debts, while refusing to negotiate – have drawn workers into the streets en masse, with the largest mobilization bringing together more than 100,000 workers, marching in solidarity against the cuts. The promise of a new spring is a reference to the 2012 student movement – Printemps érable – which, at the peak of its life of seven months, saw over 150,000 students striking against a major tuition increase, again forced down by the Liberal Government: this time under Premier Jean Charest. Daily protests shook the streets of Montreal, serving as a rallying cry for many of the oppressed layers in society, including workers disenfranchised and frustrated with the daily state of affairs; the largest of the 2012 protests saw more than 200,000 students and workers flood the old cobblestone streets. Police brutality was a commonplace. The Liberal Government passed the hated Bill 78, illegalizing the mass mobilizations – which in effect only fuelled them. The promise of a new Printemps today is not made lightly.
I was not here in 2012. At that time, I was completing my undergraduate studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Anglophone media has a way of leaving most of the country largely unaware of the sheer magnitude and intensity of Quebec’s struggles. Much like the French language itself, the politics of La belle province remain a somewhat mysterious part of us, only dimly felt in the cultural constitutions of most Canadians. We cannot imagine that this is accidental. The possibility of an awakened class consciousness in spontaneity and solidarity with worker and student movements in Quebec spreading throughout Canada threatens the mythology of capitalo-parliamentarian legitimacy. The national question in Canada tells a familiar story, of the division of the working class along nationalistic and cultural lines. Hence, Anglophone media typically distorts the Quebecois realpolitik, through both systematic under-, and misrepresentation.
Just so, I was caught off guard by the alacrity when I moved here, to Montreal, in the fall of 2014. Mosaics of stickers decorate each and every emergency response vehicle, every city bus and metro car, bearing slogans like, “LE GouverneMENT!” (a play on words: the government lies!); “On n’a rien volé!” (we didn’t steal anything, referring to money stolen from municipal workers’ pensions); and “Libre Négo!” (a cry for an unaccountable provincial government to allow negotiations). Police officers wear non-uniform pants as a continuous form of passive protest. And three times, in one quarter of one year, these workers have poured into the streets, in the tens – and reaching the hundreds – of thousands. Meanwhile, the same Austerity Measures Act has imposed hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to education at all levels. Independent student associations in solidarity under organizers such as ASSÉ (Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante) have been putting pressure on university administrations to refuse the cuts. Ultimately proving to be ineffective, dozens upon dozens of these student associations have voted – and presently continue to vote – on strike mandates, in opposition to the cuts, recognizing austerity measures as a fundamental attack on our right to an education. As of today’s date, nearly 48,000 students in Quebec have voted in favour of some sort of strike action, with some 130,000 passing votes in the coming weeks.
Of utmost significance, the majority of the strike mandates being passed by these student associations reflect an acute awareness of the workers’ movement. Student strike action is largely strategized around solidarity with already planned marches and disruptive episodes against austerity from the working class. Labour leaders have taken the student movement of 2012 as paragon, threatening an unwavering commitment in their opposition to the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ issued by the Liberal Government. And students are strategizing their own mobilizations around the demands of the workers. There exists a critical symbiosis in this building Quebec movement, between these two so often disparate pockets of society. Most recall 2012 as the historical precedent for this Printemps 2015. But in truth, the current movement bears more of a resemblance to the Français (de la France) May 1968. Students at the Sorbonne mobilized in solidarity under the national student union (UNEF, Union Nationale des Étudiants de France) against the closure and threatened expulsion of some students from Nanterre, were thrown into a revolutionary fervour after major clashes with police, resulting in a police occupation on the schools on May 6th. After a heavy-handed reactionary government under de Gaulle unintentionally created a wave of sympathy for the student demonstrators, millions marched through the streets, and the students ended up occupying the schools – the Sorbonne was thus declared an autonomous people’s university. This wave of sympathy resulted in hundreds of thousands of workers joining the students in strike action. Those following the movement today will notice many common points between our still snowy present spring, and that momentous spring of 47 years ago: a discourse of student occupation of the university, effected today by the hard-picketing of staff and soft-picketing of students; the adoption of spontaneous wildcat strike tactics; an unshakeable solidarity between students and workers, and reactionary governments atop advanced capitalist economies scrambling amid the vicissitudes of revolutionary vigour.
In May 1968, the question of power was asked. By the end of May, President de Gaulle had fled the country. The state was effectively suspended, if not abolished in this singular moment. The factories were occupied and being run by the workers – the academies, by the students. We all know how this episode in history ends. De Gaulle returns, refusing to resign, ordering the workers back to work. The Communist and Socialist electoral alliance agreed to an election with the Gaullists, and the last ember of revolutionary flame was put out. No vanguard party was true enough to seize the day. Many social reforms were conceded and taken as victories from the movement; the bourgeoisie will concede everything at the bargaining table, save the foundation of their power – their so-called right to private property, which can never be taken but by force – when that foundation is threatened.
In countries with relative socioeconomic stability, like Canada and the United States, a radical left opposition will never exist within traditional parliamentary channels. Stability is an ideological curse – it destroys all spectacle of opposition. Moreover, stability is a myth. Even here in Quebec, some argue that austerity cuts are merely ‘ideological’ – in truth, the economy is suffering. Here we are another partner in the ongoing death dance of a globalized capitalist economy, and the music has been all but cacophony since the financial collapse of 2008. But there are lessons of Quebec. A unique symbiosis between students and workers is evolving here, precisely for lack of any traditional political organization which could resemble a vanguard party. Student associations assist greatly in the mobilization of workers, and student mobilizations in turn adopt the demands of the working class. But the crucial element that is provided this unique symbiosis is ideological. Student layers provide a coherent narrative for the movement, in conversation with the workers and the lessons of history. On the cobblestone streets of Montreal, students will engage workers in dialogues about theoretical frameworks to explain austerity measures and their resolutions. We need not worry about petty sectarianism – the mobility of the workers is paramount and provides the lifeblood of any mass movement. We might suggest the following; a first, broad-sweeping principle of a manifesto for student led radicalization, especially relevant today in North America: in sufficiently advanced and relatively stable capitalist economies, where there is as such no truly left political party, student organizations must realize themselves and constitute themselves as a revolutionary vanguard party.
Alain Badiou tells us that the condition of a genuine politics is a discourse of emancipation – the emancipation of the working class out from under the wage-slavery imposed upon them by the means of production controlled by the bourgeoisie. The millions of disenfranchised workers and youth, non-voters, burners, and other embittered pockets of society alike anticipate our conclusion. Phenomenologically, parliamentary politics is sheer spectacle. It is the inherent contradictions of a broken system, manifesting itself as performative bureaucracy. In these so-called ‘stable’ capitalist democracies, there is no real politics. This signals the historical necessity of the revolutionary vanguard student organization. It is no secret that, under the existing modes of production in society, funding in academic institutions is invested overwhelmingly in favour of the more ‘productive’ departments: engineering, business, select natural sciences, etc. Students in the arts and human sciences tend further towards radicalization. Curiously, much of this divide is equally manufactured by the current economic system and North American political reality – it is only in the English language, and in institutions that are dominantly English-speaking, where the divide between the natural and the human sciences exists to this extent. The bourgeoisie cannot be expected to fund its own counterculture; only court jesters are paid to criticize those in power. Ideological subordination exists as material reality even in our academic institutions. But student leftismo will never be extinct, and it must never become inert. Students are told that they ought to study in one of the more productive faculties in order to thrive in today’s economy, to get a well-paying job and the right to accumulate countless commodities and gadgets. Even in periods of relative economic stability in advanced capitalist nations, funding will not be equal between kinds of departments for just these reasons. The formal and material reality of student leftismo is thus permanently suppressed as a logical condition of capitalist means of production. Here again, there is inherent contradiction. In sufficiently advanced and relatively stable capitalist economies, where there is as such no truly left political party, student organizations must realize themselves and constitute themselves as a revolutionary vanguard party, to move towards a genuine politics and as a precondition for political reality.
The building movement in Quebec must continue in this pattern of symbiotic solidarity. Traditionally, mass student movements are not a threat to Capitalo-parliamentary democracy. Since students are not directly involved in the means of production, their strike mandates do little on their own to hit the capitalists where it hurts. By contrast, the construction workers’ strike in Quebec in 2013 cost bosses over $15-million per day. While all must meet to fill the streets in the march against austerity measures, and ultimately against capitalism itself, there is a sense in which the workers comprise the material – and the students, the formal – reality of the revolutionary movement in at least one sense. The workers hold the true material power in society. As the old saying goes –not a light bulb shines, not a wheel turns without the permission of the working class. But matter is only hypothetical necessity, so says Aristotle. The formal reality is the ideological narrative of the movement, and this gets provided by the student layers, in conversation with the workers. Form imposes necessity on matter. Aristotle also believes that the question of what-something-is always demands form as its answer. What will be the form of Printemps 2015? – the answer is not simply bodies in streets, factory and university closures. The answer is in the narrative. And the narrative in-forms reality.