Spectacle, Emergency and Exception: Benjamin and Agamben on Trump and Neoliberal Configurations of Violence

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)[i]

It’s been a long twentieth century.

For twenty-three months, since the November 2015 Paris attacks, there has been a state of emergency in France. In times of acute crisis, the French president assumes pouvoirs exceptionnels—‘exceptional powers’—granting the ability to carry out house arrests, instate curfews, regulate public assembly and conduct investigations with nearly inexistent oversight. Since the dispersion of thousands of refugees from the Calais Jungle, these exceptional powers have given free reign for police to legally harass marginalized populations scattered throughout the heavily securitized banlieues. Critics comment that this is the new normal for police brutality in France.

A present-day Walter Benjamin might have given the situation its grim diagnosis. The state of emergency is increasingly becoming the norm; the exception is becoming the rule. The challenge Benjamin throws down to our “astonishment” at the normalization of state violence should strike us even deeper today than at the time the above lines were written, in the spring of 1940, shortly before the author’s death. Europe seems embroiled in an endless crisis, and politics on the international scene aren’t faring much better.

The twenty-four hour news cycle does much to dull our senses, and whatever reaches our imagination is already mediated by spectacle: of these critiques, Benjamin was amply aware. Yet it would take an unapologetically situationist spin to heed Benjamin’s anxieties for the hyperrealistic farce of global politics in the Trump era. Beyond the normalization of the exception, Benjamin was keenly aware of the aestheticization of politics—and, by contrast, the politicization of aesthetics.[ii] A decidedly futurist aesthetic firmly rooted in the past germinated in proto-fascist Italy, and the Nazis envisioned similarly folkloric futures, each infused with jingoistic elements ranging from subtle to overt. The sway that these aesthetics hold is undeniable. The unsurrendering presence of an all-encompassing spectacle tends to cause us to surrender our judgement rather than embolden our beliefs, as Hannah Arendt observed, and this is especially true in periods of extreme crisis. It is with this in mind that we should approach the analysis of Trump’s position in international politics today.

Precisely because “The Donald” is hyperreal, pure simulacrum, a transcendent ego, etc., one must attend to the ways in which the spectacle causes and helps to maintain the normalization of the exception. His cartoonish irresponsibility, his excesses of racism and misogyny, are magnified and mediated by deeply networked relations of power. Everything Donald Trump says or does is deeply infused with the spectacular, from his warmongering with North Korea to his delusional dealings with Mexico and Venezuela. The news cycle magnifies his apish buffoonery while Twitter users are forced to choke on the drivel of his digital spew. By the simple fact that the media at our fingertips expand and contract the reality of things and events in the worlds of our concern, we must treat Donald Trump as a floating signifier that points back towards the exclusion; that is, the exclusion of a zone or state of exception from the game of politics as normal. The question is, what do we not see, when all that we can see is Trump?

Because practically everything he says is deeply polarizing, Donald Trump creates the illusion of being the utmost exception. More and more, public opinion sways violently away from the majority of positions Trump takes. Meanwhile, international allies and more polished neoliberal agents carry out similar abuses unburdened of the inconvenience of drawing too much attention to themselves. As France and Turkey remain in states of emergency, while the threat level in the United Kingdom has been recently downgraded to ‘severe’, analysts opine that Europe is slipping into a permanent state of emergency. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has received plaudits for his successful transactions with Trump, continues to receive little criticism for exploitation by Canadian mining companies abroad, particularly in Latin America, while the patience of First Nations is running thin over the much touted process of reconciliation for cultural genocide and systematic neocolonial abuses. While there is no state of emergency to speak of in Canada, many reserve lands carve out geographies of exception where our vision of progress has meant the brutalization and neglect of those seen to be non-progressive.

Sophisticated neoliberal ‘progressives’ like Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau are seen as injecting some youthful vim into international relations and the management of the global economy by the world’s wealthiest nations. At the recent G7 Summit in May, Trump isolated himself over his negative stances towards the refugee crisis and climate change. Officially scorned by the other member countries, Trudeau and Macron (their “bromance” widely reported) came out strongly in favour of free trade and the Paris Climate Accord, clashing with Trump on either score. While Macron played “the good cop”, praising Trump’s “pragmatism,” Trudeau issued limp imputations of his American counterpart’s attitudes. Both profit from economic and environmental exploitation and political repression in their own countries.

One might contend that it is easier for Trudeau to govern with a certain gloss due to his country’s distance from direct terrorist threats; however, Canadian citizens in Quebec have been imprisoned for attempting to flee the country to join ISIS, and the quiet city of Edmonton, Alberta, was rocked by a terrorist attack as recently as last month. Alas, this contention somewhat misses the point. Zones of exception are indistinct in the abstract, as they are realized only in the concrete geographies of political landscapes. Such zones might be multiple and overlapping, but in any given landscape, some will be more pronounced than others.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben theorizes the exception beyond its normal limits. In a sense, Agamben’s entire work can be interpreted as an attempt to force the enclosure opened by Benjamin in the philosophy of history, and the history of philosophy. For Agamben, the paradigm of western politics in the era of modernity is the camp, meaning Nazi extermination camps or forced labour camps. The camp is a zone of indistinction, where sovereignties extend their power precisely by suspending the rule of law, treating citizens as non-citizens and erupting the continuity of any conception of ‘rights’. Sovereign power is constituted by the exclusion. It is no coincidence that Agamben’s critical currency swelled among American theorists following 9/11, in the search for a conceptual geography in which to think the explosion of rights and uses of exceptional violece against a targeted population of (non-)citizens guilty of being (or appearing) Muslim.

The banlieues in France, many First Nations reserves in Canada, exemplify states of exception. For Agamben, sovereign power is constituted by the power to proclaim the exception. He traces a shift in sovereign power, departing from Foucault, who held that the power of the sovereign consists in the capacity to let live or make die. Sovereign power for Agamben is characterized by the paradoxical status of Homo sacer—one who can be killed, but not sacrificed. Agamben’s point is that Homo sacer, “the sacred” or “the accursed man,” is held subject to the law by exclusion from it, thus having no legal protections from being put to death, but also constitutively lacking in the Spirit of a religion or a culture such that that man’s death could be ritualized. The camp is a zone of legal indistinction in which all are potentially Homines sacri. Crucially, as Agamben figures Homo sacer as the exact mirror image of the sovereign—that is, as paradoxically existing both inside and outside of the law—the figure of the accursed is the functional norm of sovereign power. to As the camp, or the state of exception, increasingly becomes the rule, all subjects of sovereign power, thinks Agamben, may potentially feel the force of sovereign power through the suspension of the law. The key point Agamben wants to emphasize is that those living in the state of exception lack legal citizenship in the eyes of the sovereign, and along with it, any right to claim a duty on the part of the state to protect them. They are literally stripped of their humanity, such that Agamben will also call Homo sacer, “bare life,” meaning brute animal living, excluded from any force or principle that could constitute a community.

First Nations in Canada have fought hard for the recognition of their stories by the federal government—an ongoing and incomplete process—while many communities continue to struggle for basic necessities. A suicide crisis plaguing many of Canada’s indigenous communities is a bitter testament to the logic of sovereignty Agamben describes. In France, police continue to carry out discriminatory raids and abusive searches in banlieues where thousands live below the poverty line with a complete lack of services, noted by critics and government agencies alike to be hotbeds of radicalization. Today Puerto Rico would be a further example of the state of exception, while the United States’ response to a terrorist act committed by a white man in Las Vegas merits attention insofar as it demonstrates the current limits of the rule of the exception—the insignificance of the shooter’s race (precisely what makes his race significant for philosophy) shows that the exception in the United States operates as a principle of racialized exclusion (although theory on this point would be infinitely less instructive than a drive through any of America’s inner city ghettos).

One could imagine innumerable examples, theorizing the ways in which neoliberal abstractions representing man as Homo economicus generate exclusions. But we must return, by way of a conclusion, to the subject of the spectacle. Agamben cites Guy Débord as a major influence. But even Benjamin, in his earlier engagement with the philosophy of the spectacle, offers a telling insight.

XI. The shooting of a film […] affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such extraneous accessories as camera equipment, lighting machinery, staff assistants, etc.[iii]

What is remarkable here is that Benjamin connects spectacle with exclusion, the spectacular image with the apparatus responsible for generating it. What does this entail for the spectacle of sovereign power? According to Agamben, sovereign power is constituted by the power to proclaim the state of exception. The power that produces the exception is thus masked by the spectacle, and the spectacle reproduces the empty proclamation of the exception as a pure affect. Benjamin will suggest that this is similar to how the viewer loses the ability to place his perspective in the shift from stage play to film. That the logic of exclusion is constitutive of the power of sovereignty disappears from our imaginative fascination with Trump’s profane excesses. Benjamin concludes this passage, evocatively stating, “the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.” Something tangible, even beautiful—because natural, pre-modern or pre-technological—is dissolved by the force of total mediation.

Politics in the Trump era play by the rules of the aestheticization of politics as much as they do the rule of the state of exception. The former point is crucial for understanding how Trump’s image has become the idol of the alt-right imaginary, but without holding this up as against the normalization of the exception, it is impossible to place Trump in the broader context of political power in the age of neoliberal globalization. Trump fits into the broader context of these power relations by performing what is problematic about the logic of sovereignty in an absurdly excessive manner, creating the impression that only he is the problem; this, while providing a cover for the actual routine excesses of neoliberal violence.

Is there any way to break this spell? Agamben, following Benjamin, entertain the possibility of a “divine” or “pure violence,” one which shatters the cycle of mythical violence that operates as a normal function of sovereignty, politics, the rule of law, etc. This violence would be violence as “pure means,” rather than a “means to an end”. Benjamin draws the comparison between a political general strike, in which workers stop work in order to force their employers to make certain concessions, and a proletarian general strike, which amounts to an absolute refusal, a refusal to employ violence as a means and to break with the cycle of mythical violence by exploding the continuities of law and sovereign power. The practical output of these elements of their theories remain unthought. But perhaps there is something to the outrageous spectacle of “The Donald” that will tend to peel his image away from the cycle of violence and lay the latter bare before all our naked indignation.

[i] While the exact time of writing is uncertain, Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt have surmised that Benjamin must have written the Theses in spring of 1940, months before his death in September of the same year. They were first published in German in 1942.

[ii] The former corresponds to a conservative reaction to liberal narratives of progress under the conditions of socioeconomic degeneration and destitution, while the latter points towards possible strategies of resistance, the spirit of which Benjamin saw in French Surrealism.

[iii] From Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). My emphasis.

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When talking politics with your barber: two postmortem reflections of mid-November.

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In the post-election political situation, you talk politics and political economy, the dynamics of globalization and the dejection of its discontents, with friends at bars and burger joints; with your barber at a morning haircut; with your parents over an innocuous cup of coffee. Shit is hitting the fan and people are beginning to realize that it is everywhere, flying into every corner of the room.

Trump is an utter reactionary. [This much is obvious – what does it mean?] What this means is that, while he represents the definite political form of the existing class society, he has managed to engineer – or rather capture, or buy – the political will of an inherently progressive force, the disenfranchised masses of the exploited and oppressed heaving in its Herculean effort to outgrow, to unburden itself of the bondage imposed on it by: neoliberalism, free-trade and globalization, Reaganomics, Clintonomics, Trumpanomics – shit, whatever contrived degenerate form of crony capitalism we can coin new discourses about in its present forms. Trump wants to rewind the manifest reality of globalization, like all of the other reactionaries. This is what is now called, “protectionism.” It stinks. What it is is basically the late neoliberal equivalent of populism in the so-called “first world”, the socioeconomically developed and “progressive” west.

[When I say “reactionary”, I also mean a tendency that verbalizes itself in much more pernicious and violent ways, which all are familiar with: misogyny, racism, xenophobia, etc. That this exists in all its dangers as a part of the reactionary tendency calls us urgently to attention; it is also orthogonal to the point I endeavor briefly here to make. Hence I mean “reactionary” here primarily in the narrower economic sense, and hopefully allow the reader to draw out any further conclusions.]

Justin Trudeau delivered an address – aired on the coattails of Obama’s first public election postmortem – where he detailed [“detailed” may be a strong word – “alluded to”] Canada’s plans following a meeting with a forum of international investors positioned to speculate on Canadian stability through infrastructure spending. Trudeau is advertising Canada as open to the world, rather than closed to it. “Privatize everything” – the natural pairing to deficit spending – co-definitive of Keynesianism and the neoliberal project. Neoliberalism failed, and everywhere in today’s reaction is its death knell. The IMF has declared that neoliberalism was a failure as a set of economic policies. At a summit of G20 leaders, Trudeau was practically laughed off stage for presenting Keynesian economic policies as an alternative to brutal austerity plus Keynesian economic policies: the two go hand-in-hand, the former alone a naive delusion in the global political and economic climate we live. So, Trudeau is nearly as stuck in the past as Trump. In terms of economic and foreign policy and trade relations, Justin is simply rehashing the role of his papa Pierre, while Trump and Theresa May may yet play the parts of Ronald Reagan and Margaret “the Iron Woman” Thatcher. We’ve seen this movie before. It’s not a happy ending.

[So we have a series of arbitrary, spectacular divisions erupting within the forces of reaction, where today’s progressives will likely tend towards the more palatable or clandestine form of reaction of a Trudeau, distancing themselves further from any progressive elements in the support of the disenfranchised masses swept away by populism. This lets the rot of reaction under the existing political system fester.]

The reason that this class is utterly unable to find a solution to today’s crisis is ultimately that that article which most upholds their power – that is, the political and economic principle of private property – is exactly the stricture which prevents the new society from outgrowing the old. All conditions of alienation in the presently existing system are conditions of the growth of the embryo of the new within the old (to recall some tried but true revolutionary imagery).

Power & Politics pundits pipe up over why the federal government should have to court and cajole private investors into investing. The market is wiser than the politik – bookies have been reported as having given better odds on a Trump win than the pollsters. Humanity is hopelessly lost-in-the-woods, an honest to God real fable of the Grimms, in navigating the management of financial markets, because the existing market society attempts to harness indeterminacy as an axiomatic reification [empty abstractions: a self-fulfilling prophecy, a matter taken as given by the economists and thus turned into economic reality]; that is, as an alternative to rational planning, the auto-correcting value of the dollar, which squares up omnisciently against commodity and labour markets alike. Capitalism, the existence of capitalist markets, means not knowing how markets work – not entirely, some degrees of knowing being better than others, which is why finance capital exists and speculation is profitable – while there is so much stuffy talk about its management, the “stuff” only of the propertied and privileged strata of society protected from the smog where outside we are suffocating, crushed, clamoring for the comfort of their abundantly overvalued houses.

Radical redistribution is the best we can aim for: free education for all and a guaranteed universal basic income. Otherwise we can continue to stalk political talk like reapers smoking cigarettes to mock death on the bosses’ time.

[The seizure of political and economic power notwithstanding.]

Leonard Cohen is dead and I pray for another poet. I pray, being an atheist, and mourn that poetry is nothing.

My Canada would soar into tomorrow like it tears through the sorrow of a dead poet. It would find poetry in the now and not neglect the reality that we live where the kingdom of death and nihilism encompasses all around.

#Ghomeshi: or, Justice, God of the Godless

Canadians have had their gaze fixed on the sexual assault trial of Jian Ghomeshi since it began last February. A Toronto court today found Ghomeshi not guilty on four counts of sexual assault and one count of forced choking. (It’s important to note that Ghomeshi has a second sexual assault trial pending for June, this time with only a single complainant).

Justice Horkins’ 26-page verdict on the Ghomeshi trial is available here. I’ve personally had a lot of difficulty thinking any clear thoughts about the verdict, besides just anger, frustration and sadness. This is what most stood out to me in the judge’s verdict…

“There is no other evidence to look to determine the truth. There is no tangible evidence. There is no DNA. There is no ‘smoking gun’. There is only the sworn evidence of each complainant, standing on its own, to be measured against a very exacting standard of proof.” ([131] p. 23).

“The standard of proof in a criminal case requires sufficient clarity in the evidence to allow a confident acceptance of the essential facts. In these proceedings the bedrock foundation of the Crown’s case is tainted and incapable of supporting any clear determination of the truth.” ([140] p. 25).

My thoughts: we need to seriously consider our standards of “truth” and “truth-acceptance” in the science of jurisprudence, especially in criminal trials of this nature. The very thought that there is a concrete, determinate and independently real “truth” to the matter seems, to me, fundamentally misguided. The presumption of innocence – widely considered a crucial aspect of a fair criminal justice system – appears to have failed to actualize the goal of justice in this case. This, because this presumption not only places the burden of proof on the Crown and Ghomeshi’s alleged victims – more importantly, it puts survivors, rather than their assailants, on trial.

Our justice system is as pervasively Christianized in this respect as countless other liberal occidental institutions. Failing to speak the truth, in full knowledge of it, when called upon as a witness, is already called a sin, in Leviticus. Obviously the implication is that the notion of absolute truth, metaphysically, is as distant from us as knowers as God is.

I do not know what is to be done. I only know that I am made sick by the godless, who create themselves in the image of gods, in the name of a god called, “Justice”.

The “smoking gun” Justice Horkins is looking for, as I see it, is the justice system itself. And the DNA he is looking for is only its own genealogy.

When radical therapies are not at all rad.

A class action lawsuit has been filed by a Toronto law firm over allegations that psychiatric treatments administered at a former Ontario treatment facility, involving radical therapeutic theories and practices, constituted a rare form of psychological torture for many patients. Patients exhibiting psychopathological tendencies actually showed higher rates of violent recidivism as a result of receiving treatment than psychopaths incarcerated in federal prisons.

Interestingly, the Toronto law firm that’s filed the class action suit has claimed that the methods used at the Ontario psychiatric facility had “no basis in science”, while a former research director and her colleagues hold that “[t]here is no doubt that the therapeutic community … was based on sound clinical experience and a solid theoretical understanding of the contemporary literature on the treatment of criminal offenders” (Harris et al., 1994). We can be critical of science in more fruitful ways, without maintaining such stringent demarcation criteria.

The methods used at Oak Ridge were based in part on radical psychiatric theories, not unscientific ones. However, after reading some of the former institution’s publications, I can say that the higher rates of comorbidity of certain types of mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia) with psychopathological behaviour does not seem to have factored into the rates of violent recidivism considered in their outcomes data. Moreover, the thought that massive doses of LSD and other psychotropics, extended periods in isolation and sleep deprivation could easily induce schizophrenic breaks in patients, deemed “glib” (op. cit), and resistant to coercion. Furthermore, Harris et al., fail to realize that the comorbidity of schizophrenia and psychopathy is also higher among violent patients, compared to nonviolent ones (Nolan et al., 1999).

Now, let’s just remember that the matter of ‘having a scientific basis’ is importantly different from the matter of consent, and the violent and coercive implementation of measures established in accordance with scientific beliefs on subjects who, by and large, are not in a position to give consent…

  1. Harris, Grant; Rice, Marnie; Cormier, Catherine, “Psychopaths: Is a Therapeutic Community Therapeutic?” in Therapeutic Communities (1994) 15(4), 283-299.
  2. Nolan, Karen; Volavka, Jan; Mohr, Pavel; Czobor, Pál, “Psychopathy and Violent Behavior Among Patients With Schizophrenia or Schizoaffective Disorder” in Psychiatric Services (1999) 50(6), 787-792.

“How many of them?”: Thoughts on Quantification and the Political Economy of Refugee Populations

Canada is currently preparing to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees from UN camps in the region, with over 500 staff working in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, helping them – swiftly and securely – to find sanctuary.  If our compassion is quantifiable, we should note that 25,000 marks a higher pledge from our newly elected Liberal government than an earlier commitment, less than half as kind; and also, that our 500 staff in the region has been noted (in a recent broadcast of CBC’s The National) as the largest team ever assembled to take on such a task.

If compassion is quantifiable, so too is crisis.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the numbers accompanying international efforts to provide assistance to Syrian refugees.  More than half of Syria’s population is currently displayed.  Around 220,000 people have been killed, and nearly 13 million are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside of Syria.  So far, only just under 105,000 resettlement places have been offered globally since the start of the crisis (numbers are available here from Amnesty International).  More than 4 million refugees await resettlement in just five neighbouring countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt; countries still dearly near the beating heart of conflict in the East, of a war waged between the Assad regime in Syria and the myriad cells of anti-Assad rebels (including Daesh) with all of their puppet strings extending directly back to Western imperialists.

I do not wish to address, which has already been addressed many times, the destabilizing role Western imperialist powers have played, and continue to play as an extension of their economic games, in strategically situated regions of the East.  The advanced stage of technocratic security-state capitalism that we see in many Western countries is characterised by this identification and elimination of both local and foreign security threats (called threats of terrorism) through and by the great weapons of mass surveillance, data collection and secretive foreign intelligence collaborations.  In this sense, the war that the West wages on terror is almost mimetic of the late capitalist game: a war waged through sheer numeracy, intelligence and quantification.  Neoliberal modes of management in technocratic capitalist nations tend towards quantification (we see this not only in the administration of government and social services, but also in the public sector and education); and this evaluative policy, of bare numbers and abstract utility, is profoundly alienating.  For the most part, we are able to circulate in our day-to-day without feeling too much this sense of alienation, but refugees – whom some suggest are being circulated and commodified by Western powers as any other economic “good” – have the abstraction of this sheer numeracy driven in to them by the lived reality of their circulation.

I have heard humanitarian resettlement workers make the claim that stability and opportunity are significant determinants in health outcomes for recently immigrated refugees struggling to cope with PTSD, depression, and other mental health disorders, given the traumatic experiences they have endured.  Perhaps this provides some evidence for the former claim.  Through free self-determination in a just Liberal society, we ought to be able to shed the alienation of abstract numeracy that might be felt when we regard ourselves as only a commodity, a “good” exchanged and for exchange.  We can, for now, suspend judgement on the ideological nature of this reality; if freedom under neoliberal capitalism is only an illusion (concealing the reality of freedom for the ruling class at the expense of the emancipatory freedom of the oppressed), we must all the same recognize it as a convincing illusion to explain the dull ideological force held by Western neoliberalism over its consumer class.  It seems then possible to conceive phenomenologically an alienation admitting of degree felt by those whom we seek to integrate into our society.  It seems to me a philosophical dishonesty to deflect efforts to engage this topic only to push the platform of a revolutionary cause that seeks to overcome completely the alienation that is a necessity under the current global economic system, however worthy that cause is.

We can immediately engage with the effects of this overwhelming numeracy of refugee assistance.  And, to an extent, I believe that Canada already has.  Earlier, we posited as premises the quantification of compassion and crisis.  I would like to suggest now that we are forced to negate these premises, recognizing them as something to be overcome.  Quantification is a given in the technological society, inextricable from its modes of management.  At the same time, my lived experience of myself as only an abstract number is profoundly alienating; I add as a corollary that alienation exists as something to be overcome, as part of an ethical responsibility to self.  ‘Alienation’ also has the sense of dispossession (Latin alienare, “to make another’s”); as such, alienating integration seems inauthentic, a resigned acceptance that is simultaneously a creation of difference (“to make an other”).  This othering amounts to a failure to recognize in the refugee population their authenticity of being.  Abstract numbers cannot suffer.  They are not like ‘I’, who is an individual and who can suffer.  Neither are they thereby the ‘we’, which is just an extension of the sufferable ‘I’.

These hard boundaries between beings ought to be broken down.  The sheer numeracy of the refugee crisis is a quantificative codification of their abstract history, some general notion of a history existing through and dissolved into each individual’s history, taken up as an object and translated into the language of a neoliberal mode of management.  The way to overcome this is by way of a face-to-face recognition of the other.  The codification of an abstract history is essentially an exercise of technocratic power, preserving over the immigrant population an alienation that constricts their existence to the being of a dispossessed abstraction.

Levinas remarks, “The human only lends itself to a relation that is not a power”.  In Totality and Infinity, Levinas explains the subject’s relation to the other in terms of the disabling of the subject’s power, a kind of power not to be able to exercise power over the other: “The expression the face introduces into the world does not defy the feebleness of my powers, but my ability for power [mon pouvoir de pouvoir].”  The face signifies an undoing of the very powers of the subject, the powers of representation and comprehension.  In this context, the ethical comes to mean then a disabling of power and an opening of a relation that does not lend itself to power.[1]

From the Canadian perspective, it seems as if there are genuine efforts to welcome refugees into our communities in such a way that discloses to each the face of the other.  Private citizens’ groups are sponsoring many families, providing assistance with everything from school registration for children to Social Insurance Number applications.  It is true that many such groups are affiliated either with members of refugees’ families who have already immigrated to Canada, or with Churches; however, I do not think that this defies the claim that our efforts to welcome refugees have aimed, in a partial but genuine way, at the undoing of the alienation of abstraction under the exercise of the powers that both displaced and now welcome the refugee population.  For Levinas, the face-to-face relation transcends the historical and factical situatedness in which being finds itself in recognition of what is other to it.  Perhaps our recognition of the face of the other has the capacity to undo (to the extent that is possible given our greater state of alienation under late capitalist society) some of the deleterious effects on the exercise of state power, as a matter of perceived necessity, on a population of the traumatized and needy.  And perhaps this is something to be proud of.

Our history of integrating refugees in Canada has been far from perfect in the past.  But as a country that makes efforts to embrace its multiculturalism, in spite of a checkered past, we can find cause for optimism in the response of Canadians to the Syrian refugee crisis, if only as the site of a face-to-face with the abstract and (can we say?) dehumanizing quantification of entire populations under the rules of the game of post-imperialist Western political economy.  The question of what Canadian culture itself is, is bound to become more stark in periods where the mass integration of a population becomes inevitable; inauthentic appropriation is as harmful, as alienating, perhaps even more so, than inclusion only as an abstraction of “otherness”.  As the question will arise in the current state of crisis, perhaps we can answer that, rather than one that sees its responsibility in the other in their circulation as mere “goods” in need of shelter and organic subsistence, we are one that recognizes its responsibility in the face of the other.  And this, if only so that we may play our small part in undoing the very powers which hold us all in an alienating subjection.

[1] Krzysztof Ziarek, “Which Other, Whose Alterity? The Human after Humanism” in Between Heidegger and Levinas (New York: State University of New York Press, 2014), 230.  Excerpts are from Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings; and also his Totality and Infinity.

A Crook against the “Evidence for Technocracy”

I’d like to blow some hot air on the kindling of what may become the hot new election issue in Canada. In a recent CBC debate hosted by The 180, Katie Gibbs – a biologist from the University of Ottawa, and executive director of (the science-lobbyist group) “Evidence for Democracy” – discusses the efforts of her organization to have specific science-policy questions addressed as a part of the current federal leaders’ debates. Clive Crook, Bloomberg View columnist (and author of such enlightened articles as “The Meaning of Donald Trump” and “Are You Rich? No Need to Apologize”), argues that science and policy ought not to mix. Let’s review.

There is a dialectic at play here, between the old economists and a microcosm rising within the bourgeoisie. We are in the epoch of the 21st century technocratic ‘Knowledge Society’. Intellectual property, shifts from a public (military-industrial) to a private (anarchic free-market) funding model for universities, and the overextended farce of patent law, all point to sites of conflict over the ownership of knowledge capital. In Harper’s Canada, declining funding for and the muzzling of government scientists have driven two spears into Galileo’s sides, in what has been called a war on science.

It is important to realize that science as a social institution has been structured on a neoliberal model[1]. Most of us are consumers in the marketplace of facts, while this debate falls between the owners/managers and the producers, whom are a modern technical intelligentsia. Gibbs claims that scientific research is an important element of all political decision-making. It is not clear to me why environmental assessments, ecological impact statements and psychological indices of cross-cultural conflict are important elements, for example, in decisions about whether to build unwanted and potentially damaging oil pipelines through the traditional and oft sacred lands of indigenous communities, except for on the basis of such a model.

Of course, scientists are also citizens, and like any other they will be predisposed to making value judgements based on the evidence that confronts them. There is a question as to whether (or to which extent) the facts discovered by scientific researchers have any value-content. Crook defends a dated view of objective neutrality in the sciences; in his view, the facts discovered by scientists are bereft of value-content. The role of scientists is to present the bare facts to politicians, who then attend to the ethics and make value judgements.

Gibbs’ view puts value-content not into the facts discovered by scientists, but into science itself. Usually scientists and philosophers of this persuasion appraise whichever their notion of the scientific method: used to arrive at facts by way of the testing of hypotheses against empirical observations, through the fuse of several degrees of abstraction. The facts themselves do not have any value-content, but the scientific method does. Her view envisions greater autonomy for researchers and rings of class individualism and elitism, affording value to an epistemic culture in-demand rather than their specific product. Crook’s view, on the other hand, is conservative against the progressive element contained in the rising intellectual microcosm within the capitalist class.

Neither view seems quite correct to me. Facts have value-content, both inwardly and outwardly. Consider the fact, “75% of all casualties in World War II were civilians”. If you’re interested, that’s nearly 50 million people. Value-content comes into this fact through the productive means which birthed it. For example, does a person who succumbs to a lingering lung infection from having inspired a modicum of Mustard Gas several years after the end of the war count as a casualty? What about the countless infants in the following generation that would die simply for having been born into crushing war-torn poverty?

Outwardly, the fact is harrowing to hear. It makes me unhappy. It makes me dislike war. No doubt my reaction upon hearing this fact is socially and culturally conditioned, but this does not rob it of its value-content. If anything, it correlates value-content with shared evaluative practices and norms. It seems that we are inclined to make use of facts when we reason, and that we evaluate facts according to our own worldviews and against our own experiences.

Methods, such as experimental practices and statistical models of inference, do not have value-content, but are value relevant in their factive manifestations. Value judgements are made even in ostensibly minute methodological details. But ‘science’ (supposing a group of spuriously connected methodologies) has no intrinsic value. Science is the dominant epistemic culture living in a postcolonial and multicultural society. Public uptake of the scientific worldview is as much a role for the scientist-as-citizen as it is a role for science journalism. The understanding of and receptivity to scientific facts is a function of the ideological outgrowth of the institution, whose expansion under the neoliberal model is fueled by market forces.

Crook’s view consigns science merely to be the scullion of capitalism. I am inclined to agree with Gibbs, that scientists must strive to be engaged citizens. The question is how we, as a critical and engaged public, should react to their involvement. Though bound by the strictures of neoliberal management, and displaying some of the class characteristics of the liberal bourgeoisie, there exists a progressive element relative to the current balance of power in the Canadian political context. In my view, we should even encourage scientists – beyond what Gibbs suggests – to make specific policy recommendations, rather than merely advocating for the value of science in general.

Hypothetical science policy directive for a new Canadian socialist party: fully decentralize knowledge production. In the interim, leading up to the revolutionary stage, foster a program of epistemic revolt against the neoliberal scientific institution. The revolution in the means of production made possible on the condition of capitalism, when transitioning to a socialist stage of history, could evenly redistribute the sublime bourgeois luxury of leisure time, ushering in a new post-scientific Enlightenment. The scientific institution assumes the role of the church: the crumbling tradition against which new progressive elements are tested.

In fact, this is happening even now, with insurrectionary pockets papering from within the intelligentsia to resist the neoliberalization of academia. Of course, even if science policy is successfully introduced into the arena of federal leaders’ debates, the Canadian political spectrum runs only from just-left-of-center to far right; only a radical left party could be expected to take this tone. But many parties to the far left accept the sciences of the day uncritically, as many others do. ‘Scientific’ socialists should be careful not to unwittingly adopt neoliberal predilections based on their aspirations to the status of a science.

A discussion of the sort which Gibbs envisions should not be seen as a truly progressive shift. It is a horizontal shift in hands between powers, primarily centred on the question of ownership. Since the first Canadian federal leaders’ debate in 1968, a total of zero science policy questions have been asked of the candidates. Surely it is time to discuss these matters inside of our official political infrastructure. I suspect that parties to the left are weakly positioned to take a stance on the science policy question, with perhaps only the Lysenko affair as an embarrassing lesson from history. Efforts should be made to bring the culture of epistemic revolt out from their dark corners in the universities, into the public whose uptake of scientific facts is considered to be such an important metric.

[1] This is the current suasion from within the social studies of science (STS). A 2010 Issue of Social Studies of Science (40/5) was focused on the impacts of neoliberalism as “a regime for scientific management”. (Lave and Mirowski, “Introduction: STS and Neoliberal Science” (2010), in the aforementioned issue.

An Open Letter to Thomas Mulcair

The following letter was sent to the office of opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, on the evening of May 18th, 2015. 

Dear Thomas Mulcair,

You do not know who I am in particular, although you may recognize my face. You would recognize it from among the faces of supporters whose hands you shook at a rally for the New Democratic Party in Victoria on Thursday. I heard an ex-producer of the recently passed B.B. King interviewed on the CBC earlier this week, who proclaimed that anyone who shook the blues guitar legend’s hand would right then become a friend to him for life, as a testament to the King’s good character. As I plan to support the New Democratic Party in the upcoming election, and as I encourage other young voters like myself to do the same, I find myself inclined to test the character of its leader, in a way hopefully distanced to some degree from the often purely performative spectacle of parliamentary politics. My name is Anthony James Gavin. Having extended your hand to me as an invitation to amicable support, so too do I hope that you will now accept my invitation into a political discourse.

I would like to discuss the question of the middle class, a cornerstone of your party’s platform: “New Democrats are committed to strengthening the middle class and raising up all those who have fallen out of the middle class due to the economic policies of both the Liberals and the Conservatives.” The problem, Mr. Mulcair, is that the ‘middle class’ is a myth. It is a myth of political utility and convenience. My hope is that we might dispel this myth, to reawaken a more realistic class view of society among the countless disenfranchised voters in Canada – particularly the youth – so that we might speak openly about the daily struggles that they face.

If I may briefly introduce a different, but related myth: that increasing numbers of young Canadians are failing to vote because they are either not interested in, or have never had sufficient educational opportunities in order to become actively engaged in politics and civic life (see, for example, a 2010 article in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, “Why Youth Do Note Vote?”) There may be some truth to this attitude, but we miss the mark on a much greater issue by stopping here. Rising numbers of overeducated and underemployed young Canadians are of a prevailing attitude which says (forgive my candor) that politics is bullshit. It is not that this layer of the youth are disengaged with civic life – quite the opposite. Many are activists operating on the fringes, or otherwise completely outside of provincial or federal political infrastructure (you are no doubt aware of the presence of this section of the youth from your time in Quebec.) Many others are actively engaged in the discourse of Canadian politics, but see that parliamentary democracy utterly and systematically fails to serve them. It fails to serve them, because it fails to recognize them. They do not see themselves as middle class. And despite facing record levels of debt, and the rapidly rising costs of housing in urban centers where most of them live (Vancouver is close to my heart, with housing costs skyrocketing in a foreign ownership inflation scandal, but also in Toronto), they do not aspire to ascend to the level of the elusive middle class citizen, with all of his traditional trappings. We are daily faced with the sheer inconceivability of ever purchasing something like a house, a new car, or of the possibility of working in a job that gives us anything beyond purely economic fulfilment – even then granting us only basic subsistence if we’re lucky – leaving us alienated by our labor.

This is a basic portrait of the young Canadian social progressive – an economic underclass. I speak now as an ‘us,’ rather than a ‘they.’ While Ottawa seems doomed constantly to fail to sing our tune, nonetheless you will find that we strike upon harmonious chords, Mr. Mulcair. No doubt the New Democrats are aware of this and have consciously crafted their platform to speak to these ideals, even if the Party fails to completely grasp the young Canadians who take them most to heart. The Party’s policy to repeal Bill C-51 speaks especially to this demographic, with many young Liberals having denounced Justin Trudeau for his complicity in buckling to the anti-terror legislation of the Conservatives. From a recent call to action from Youth Vote Canada,

A growing number of youth choose to take part in more “radical” actions, such as blockades, occupations, hacktivism, and intense ideological debate. Bill C-51 targets these actions, taking away our freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and conscience. If we continue to stigmatize actions like this, we are stigmatizing the democratic coming of age of an entire generation.

The expressed attitude of the Party over the freedom of Omar Khadr strikes the same chord again with these young social progressives, who have fervently denounced Stephen Harper’s disfiguration of Canada under a politics of fear. Finally, the mandate of the New Democrats to introduce a federal minimum wage of $15/hour is perhaps most directly, albeit least significantly, targeted at this group. I say ‘least significantly’ only because real political significance is married to ideology, and the social ideologies of these young progressives are less likely to ride on the coattails of economic gains than their parents were when change in Ottawa is on the docket, for just the reasons described above.

I reiterate; so that we may speak more directly to this group, let us dispel of, or at least suspend all that which leaves them feeling disillusioned. The ‘middle class’ is a myth which does not serve us. Our social dislocation is the result of a different class reality, the reality of class antagonism. We have realized this idea and manifested under it time and again, from the Western to the Eastern world, from the Occupy Movement to the Egyptian revolution in 2011 alone. The ‘middle class’ is an ideal of Western liberalism: a fictitious type of citizen who parasitizes the social neither from the top-down – as the ultra-capitalists that earn almost all of the wealth off of the backs of those whose labor creates the value of the goods that they sell – nor from the bottom-up, as those favourite social scapegoats of the upper-class bourgeoisie, those whose circumstance is such that they are forced into stigmatization and consequent indignity under the crumbling architecture of social services and welfare. The ‘middle class’ represents a theoretical point between exploiter and the exploited, between oppressor and the oppressed. A point nebulously based on income and the combined economic value of all of our property, introduced as an excluded middle between mutually antagonistic extremes, each deriding the other as parasite. The ‘middle class’ is a pernicious myth that disguises class antagonisms in society for those who find themselves defined by it.

Which takes me to my next point, Mr. Mulcair. For these ideological reasons, everyone is climbing over each other to identify themselves as middle class Canadians. This demonstrates the political utility of the myth. Up to 90% of our nearby American neighbours self-identify as middle class citizens. The number of Canadians is more respectable, down from a peak of nearly 70% prior to the global economic collapse that led to the 2008 recession, to 47% last year. In just one year since, the number has climbed again up to 52%. Interestingly, these numbers are based solely on income figures; when asked to consider both their financial and social place in society, 73% of Canadians self-identify as middle class. While we’re at it, I will point out that 36% identify as working class, rather than middle class[1]. Does this year’s being an election year help to explain the 5% jump in middle class self-identification, owing to broad sweeping political rhetoric? – after all, each party in Ottawa (save perhaps for the Greens) have made it their mandate to appeal to just this demographic. It makes sense. Present an image of the values of the ideal Canadian citizen, broadcasting one’s political platform as widely as possible among the many who wish only to be good, honest people, rather than parasites. The figures on numbers of Canadians who self-identify as middle class are endlessly more telling than any of the many types of median income calculations or other vectors of social standing which try to describe who the middle class citizens really are. The most conservative estimates of these sorts depict the middle 20% or so of Canadians as bona fide middle class. Could such a calculation ever serve parliamentary politics?

There is no room in the calculations of the 99% for solidarity with a wavering middle 50%-ish. The ideals presented in Ottawa fail to capture the minds of this youthful demographic which I have primarily been speaking of – although if we are being truthful, the demographic also includes that 36% slice of your ‘middle class’ who prefer to call themselves workers – because this demographic is crushed by its realities. Young Canadians are crushed by record highs in unemployment and student debt, but still only 38% voted in the last federal election. This is not because we are uneducated and unaware, but rather that none of the parties in Ottawa are speaking to us. Indeed, we are over-educated and hyper-aware, too educated for our wage-slavery, bright young minds from undergraduates to PhDs to the many excluded from the outset by the financial burden presented by university or college, working as baristas and paint shop clerks and under the banners of corrupt telecommunications brands in cramped shopping mall kiosks, or not working at all. We may not be a portrait of the old proletarians, but we are their closest comrades in ideology, in every sense an economic underclass faced with age-gaps and wage-gaps and drowning in unpaid internships. Our reality is the reality of class antagonisms in society, of capitalism in decay and breaking down all around us, and the rhetoric of the old ideals doesn’t sing our tune. We like our leaders like our B.B. Kings, somehow always echoing their influence through the music of the youth. Speak to us, and we will hear you.

This demographic, whose support you try to speak to through your policies, is not ultimately hearing you. Some are like me, who will invite you into a political discourse directly, and who will not hesitate to involve themselves in political activity both inside and outside of our traditional political infrastructure. But many are not, because many do not feel that they have been invited into the conversation in the first place. To speak figuratively, Mr. Mulcair – you have not given many of us a handshake. I implore you to do so, and to begin by engaging us in the discourse which I have opened up here. We are leaking into your ranks on all sides, from the young student MPs in Quebec to those in Rachel Notley’s provincial government in Alberta. Let us in, and we will happily engage you in discussions, lending you our support while maturing the radical politics of our generation on the outside. Because, as a tactical measure, it makes sense to launch our attack on all sides whenever we are able, both from within and without.

I hope that you will deliver a thoughtful reply to my letter, Mr. Mulcair. Because I find you to be a respectable man, and because we young people deserve it.

Sincerely yours,

Anthony J. Gavin

[1] These numbers published in Hennessy’s Indices by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Illegals.

They call us ‘illegal’ demonstrators from the very first step. Bylaw P-6, passed in Quebec during the massive student demonstrations of 2012, requires any organized form of protest to provide police with an itinerary. Students on the streets in 2015 have made the point most clear – a protest with an itinerary is called a parade.

The question of legality is not just so much empty rhetoric – it is a stratagem of war waging ideologues. Bodies pour into the streets by the thousands, and we are a loud voice. We are at once a spectacle of opposition (a manifestation of counter-ideology), and a material force. Calling a movement ‘illegal’ does not rob it of its material force, any more than bearing the mantle of Capitalo-parliamentary state-approved ‘legality’ adds to this force. All rhetoric attached to the question of legality amounts to a form of ideological oppression and attempted subordination by the state of the movement; it is first and foremost an ideological assault.

We are a parade if we are ‘legal’ – what is a parade but pure spectacle? As revolutionaries are made into court jesters, sanitized by the official histories, so too are mass movements transformed into parades. Material surrender is ideological suicide. Acquiescence to this safe ‘legalized’ form of opposition would make us all no more than a tolerable nuisance – an empty symbolic bourgeois gesture; a controlled burn; an illusory apparition of the ruling class as being open to receiving criticism from the oppressed layers of society. A jester is never a revolutionary, for he accepts the provisions offered to him by the King, and thus accepts the mythology of the divine right to rule. We cannot – we must not – be legalized. If at first we surrender the streets, we shall thereby surrender the stories of our struggle to sanitization by the official histories.

Keep it illegal to keep it strong. Like alcohol during prohibition, we’re dirty but desired. But we are attacked on all sides, beset by oppressive forces bursting over the bulwarks we built, like the ones in the middle of rue Rene Levesque built with toppled trash dumpsters and police barricades and steel fencing torn off the faces of roadside construction sites. The question of legality is ideological assault. The matter of illegality serves as justification for direct material oppression. We are illegals: subhuman, starving for punishment, breaking our teeth on nightsticks for social justice. The loudspeakers of the SPVM squad cars are harbingers of dystopian noise:

You are committing an offense – and we are ordering you to disperse and leave. Otherwise, we will have to intervene.

This marquee has been etched on our minds – who was there on Friday night who does not still feel the rattling of this robotic voice? If we are legal, we surrender the streets; materially we surrender. Conversely, illegality is an abject refusal. Materially, we refuse to disperse, and are met with brute physical force. Nobody needs reminding about the specific armaments deployed in the name of ‘keeping the peace’ (‘peace’ for whom? – for the bourgeois, naturally.)

As long as we are kept illegal, the ideological assault will be allowed to continue only at the periphery of the movement. Layers of society not yet sympathetic to our cause will be treated to empty rhetoric and reactionary narratives from bourgeois media outlets, placated by their societally reinforced ignorance. But many are sympathetic, and more are becoming so. We are not only students, but workers – even the police themselves, though the hour has not yet come when they awaken to this immediately obvious fact (nous avons tous vu l’image, le carré rouge qui pointe son arme à un carré rouge). Many layers in society are just beginning to awaken, or awaken anew to the reality of their own oppression. We are storytellers, poets of revolution and counterculture. Our best weapon against ideological assault is to guard and grow our material strength, always to strengthen for another day and never to surrender.

Printemps 2015

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.