Quebec: a troubling victory, or an inspiring defeat?

The student revolt in Quebec has been one of the most inspiring things to happen this year. Now that it seems to be very definitely over, it’s worth trying to draw out some lessons from the experience.
To start off with, for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the subject, a brief summary: Quebec’s right-wing government proposed raising tuition fees from $2,168 to $3,793 – a huge increase, but still nowhere near as high as current fees in the UK. Students responded with a stunningly successful strike that shut down huge parts of the education system, as well as a lot of rowdy street protests involving economic disruption, property damage, and all the other stuff that anarchists tend to find exciting. In response, the provincial government passed a new law cracking down on protests which hadn’t been specifically authorised by the cops, and this in turn provoked an extensive wave of nightly illegal demonstrations, and the formation of neighbourhood assemblies in many areas to take the struggle forward. The student strike inevitably lost a bit of momentum when the school year finished, but what really killed the movement off was the announcement of elections, which allowed the moderate wing of the student movement to start arguing for a truce in the hope that a more sympathetic government would be elected. That pretty much stopped the strike in its tracks, and on September 4th the election took place, bringing the left-nationalist Parti Quebecois to power. The new government have pledged to freeze tuition fees and repeal the hated special law.
So, what to make of all this? I’m not an expert on the situation, and don’t want to claim to have come up with the definitive analysis; I’d like to see a good post-mortem produced by people who’ve been involved, but so far I’ve yet to see one. Cindy Milstein’s blog was an amazingly detailed source of information and analysis while the strike was going on, but she doesn’t seem to have written anything since the strike was suspended in mid-August.
Crimethinc’s huge two-part report on the strike is worth a read, but again it only goes up to the start of August, and frankly I’m not that impressed by the focus: compared to the detailed attention given to street confrontation, it feels like the neighbourhood assemblies, along with other positive developments, have been a bit neglected. All the hospitalised coppers in the world are worth nothing if they’re not accompanied by experiments in living differently and finding new ways to take care of each other (just as experiments in living differently are doomed to run up against the limits of this society unless they also attack the repressive forces of the state); as Cindy Milstein makes clear, this revolt has been sweet and creative as much as it’s been violent and destructive, so it seems a shame to only focus on one side of the equation. And when the Crimethinc piece does go beyond just talking about street fighting and starts to develop a political analysis, it’s mainly about the critique of democracy, which I don’t find that interesting: yeah, it’s definitely important to oppose liberal representative democracy, since that specific form of democracy is a dangerous weapon that can be used against us, but when it comes to the broader point that “democratic ideals are inherently authoritarian and contrary to projects of liberation”, I’m not really sold. Yeah, I get there’s a tension between democracy and autonomy, but that doesn’t mean that democracy’s always wrong and autonomy’s always right; I’ll support a democratic majority of strikers against the autonomy of a strikebreaker just as I’ll support autonomous minorities of militants against a democratically elected government. I don’t think that, on balance, people who understand anarchism or communism as being an ideally democratic system tend to have worse politics than those who see them as the negation of democracy; the whole thing seems like a bit of a side-issue, which makes it annoying that Crimethinc make it one of the central points of their analysis. Still, having said all that, the Crimethinc piece does contain some interesting stuff that I hadn’t seen before: it’s the only place where I’ve seen any mention of the fact that Montreal has also brought in a local bylaw, P-6, which also makes protest illegal in the same way as the hated Special Law, but seems to have received almost no attention. It’s also interesting for its criticism of the casseroles (noise demos banging on pots and pans), which I’d only seen presented in a positive light before.
Finally, there’s also this report on Infinite Strike, which is slightly more up-to-date. Again, the analysis is heavily focused on proving that “Democracy, which is always authoritarian, is in direct opposition to both individual and collective self-determination”, which I still don’t find that interesting, but there’s also some interesting stuff about the way that local questions like sovereignty play into the elections, and a look at the future.
For my part, I find it hard to draw clear-cut lessons from what’s happened in Quebec. Back in August, things looked relatively simple, if depressing: it seemed like a re-run of Wisconsin, where a disruptive movement against austerity was channeled into the terrain of electoral politics, and then completely defeated. Miserable stuff, but relatively unchallenging for anarchists, just another reminder of the eternal lesson that direct action is good and electoral politics is bad. But the fact that the new government seem to be willing to grant the key demands of the movement make it a fair bit more complicated.
In general, I still stand strongly by the view that it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference who forms the government; for anyone whose memory goes back as far as the last Labour government, who happily gave contracts to Atos to throw disabled people off benefits, and closed down Remploy factories, while Nick Clegg swanned about in opposition promising to abolish tuition fees, the rhetoric of Her Majesty’s current Opposition, as they bleat on and on about all the bad things the nasty tories are doing, is laughable. But if it’s absurd to take politicians’ promises at face value, then we also run the risk of looking equally ridiculous if we try to deny the differences between a government that’s massively raising tuition fees and cracking down on protest and one that isn’t. Our arguments for direct action and against electoralism need to be based on reality, not abstract dogma. I don’t have a clear answer as to what an anti-electoral argument that doesn’t pretend all politicians are exactly the same would look like, but one obvious starting point is the fact that anti-austerity politicians who are worried about being held to account by a hugely disruptive, militant movement are a lot more likely to stick to their promises than ones who aren’t, so to abandon the streets for an electoral truce makes our position far weaker. That’s not a fully worked-out argument in itself, but it’s a starting point, and one that desperately needs to be built on in the struggles to come.
The movement in Quebec was important when it was strong and inspiring, and it’s just as important now that it seems to be over. In these grim times of near-constant defeats, it’s good to have a reminder of what things look like when we’re winning; but it’s also vital to study what happens when our enemies regain control of the situation. The strategy used to kill off the strike in Quebec is likely to be rolled out again whenever struggles against austerity start to achieve some success: first, massive repression to try and physically suppress any resistance; when that fails, electoralism is a good way to either totally demoralise people by getting them to direct their energies into a losing battle, as in Wisconsin, or to pacify them by bringing in a new, friendlier, more legitimate set of managers to take over the job of making us suffer for the economy. How we respond to that strategy is a question that has yet to be answered.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Anarchists, Protests, Repression, Strikes, Students, Stuff that I think is pretty awesome and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Quebec: a troubling victory, or an inspiring defeat?

  1. cbmilstein says:

    I keep meaning to write something about my abrupt halt to my “Dispatches from Maple Spring,” and hopefully I’ll have the energy and focus soon, but the short version is: both my parents got sick at the same time, but my dad profoundly so. My last post “Fragility & Heartbreak” hit home way too personally, I’m afraid.

    • Oh, wow, I’m really sorry to hear that, I thought it was just because the end of the strike understandably knocked the energy out of you a bit. I hope things get better for you and your family soon, and I’ll look forward to reading your next piece whenever it gets finished. Till then, take care.

  2. Pingback: Can’t we all just get along? Thoughts on class unity and anti-capitalist unity | Cautiously pessimistic

  3. Pingback: More notes on the social strike | Cautiously pessimistic

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