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Judith Trudeau and Stéphane Chalifour June 27, 2012
Original French text: http://profscontrelahausse.org/billets/rouge-comme-un-printemps/
Reflections on the student movement
What was originally a low-intensity conflict destined to be resolved by the combined
effects of the test of time and fear of failure, has been slowly transformed into a real
crisis whose more acute magnitude poses the recurrent question of a new social contract. Clearly overwhelmed, but bolstered by polls, the Liberal government has underestimated this segment of the student youth whose determination has unfolded over time, with creativity and intelligence. The evasion and refusal to discuss a moratorium (an announcement of which would have sufficed to bypass the radicalization of students), ended up constituting - in essence - the improvised strategy of a government whose apparent firmness attests, ultimately, to its weakness and its decay in public affairs. Although this crisis is neither over nor opening up a radical option in the political scene, it leads to a reflection illuminating the contradictions that it seems to have exacerbated. Far from any claim to completeness, we wish to review here a few elements.
1) A political struggle
The importance of this movement lies immediately in the unity that has developed
between the questioning of the dominant rationality in tax matters and the nature of
knowledge. By basing their main demand on this premise, students posed at the outset the groundwork for in the first instance a principled fight in the political arena: the
accessibility to higher education is in their eyes, consubstantial with redistribution of
wealth inherent in the reform of taxation and a tighter control of university management. Throughout these fifteen weeks, the students occupied the political agenda by placing the issue of the debate in the broader context of a crisis in the mode of development, positioning itself irreversibly as a key player in the “university system.” Students of re-injected the political where the government only saw rebalancing of budgetary sources and budget balancing: education was a state responsibility for the former and, for the latter, a purely individual investment inherent in the dynamics of both competitive and cumulative human capital. As the incarnation of a complete conception of the managerial state, Jean Charest, imperturbable, put himself in the position of manager keenly pragmatic concerned with fiscal balances and the performance figures of academic institutions. To this end, the Liberal government’s attitude demonstrates a travesty of democracy and the role of the state. Formerly the representative body of the symbolic unity of the social bond and the synthesis of the general and the particular, the State has gradually transformed into integrated mechanisms regulating requests for groups and individuals whose management corresponds quite closely to an accounting that underlies the rules of the private market . In other words, the state has gutted its political horizon by setting the ultimate governance of development in the current economy without any economic purpose other than the reproduction of the existing order. But in its original principles, democracy refers to the existence of a community of citizens sharing a common living world, above and beyond the plurality of interests and conflicts it generates, from a desire to transcend the particularities in order to ensure the sustainability of the whole. By breaking with this original conception, the party of Jean Charest seems to present society as the result of a loose aggregation of individuals related only in the defense of their private interests: the head of government does not address citizens as such but rather as taxpayers whose moods are rendered to him by the echoes of surveys and the repeated outbursts of a lowest common denominator press. The litigation by students who interpret their individual sovereignty as the only legitimate horizon is, in this regard, indicative of a type of society where rights are inevitably called upon in such
2) A society divided by new cleavages
To understand the reaction to the demonstrations, as confirmed by opinion polls, there is a recurrent antagonism between regions and cities. More worrying however is the discord of elders opposed to the arising generation. Moreover, if it divided the students, the management of this lamentable conflict appears to have consolidated an ideological
divide that attests, we believe, to a real transformation of the morphology of Québec
society. Polarized for nearly four decades by the national question, Québec seems now
crossed by the same tensions as those afflicting the majority of democratic societies.
Carrier of sometimes violent debates, the question of identity, however, never prevented
the contradictions from being resolved, at least in part, in adherence to a consensual claim for a special status to our own minority condition. This indeed delicate balance, but real political precondition, engenders a whole series of laws that guarantee our collective survival. But what we designate as a Québécois Spring marks, symbolically perhaps, the end of the consensus and the marginalization of the battle for Québec independence. The determination of students and governmental intransigence are partly an expression that reveals a split in the resurgence of ideologies. This will cause the Left, by the affirmation of a plurality of tendencies, including a radical fringe at the margin, which is part of the global justice movement of the outraged. Breaking with the workers and union tradition of the nineteenth century, these protean movements are engaged primarily, since the late 1990s, in the fight against the deleterious effects of capitalism and the deteriorating climate. This revival of the Left occurs in a context where economic liberalism seems to have married the contours of the global society swallowing all dimensions constitutive of reality imposing itself as ideology fully functional and integral with the latter.
On the Right we see the return of a legitimating discourse both economic and populist which tends to consolidate itself in response to criticism from the Left and what it perceives, in its rejection, of an interventionist model declared bankrupt, as a threat to individual liberty. Uninhibited and self-assured, the Right has invested in the media, even in its most grossly forceful, a new receptivity, symptomatic of the emergence of a conservative majority. A surprising hypothesis, if there is one, the Québécois Spring has thus facilitated the delivery of a more structured right. The polarization of the Québécois into two camps ideologically antagonistic would be one of the avatars of integration into the North American continental space: the cult of security is only one of the visible aspects of a set of facts that significantly undermines certainties surrounding the distinctiveness of Québec. This phenomenon is also the corollary of the crisis of social democracies and the questioning the principle of solidarity on which has rested the welfare state. In favor of globalization, debt management, the budget deficit and competition have emerged as rational imperatives serving to fragment the collective imagination by undermining the mechanisms of redistribution of wealth and in the longer term, the very idea of society.
As a magnifying mirror of a figure of the self-referential individual, free contractor of his life and performance, the implacable refusal of Premier Charest reflects the decline in the political culture of the great ideas that the Québécois had delivered in the Quiet
Revolution. Clearly, contemporary Quebec is different from that which brought about the Quiet Revolution. The aging population has had distorting effects on the prism through which the average Québécois, passively consenting, is looking at the world. A society of taxpayers and apathetic consumers driven by the quest for comfort and their preservation of purchasing power, Québec gives the impression of being struck by a structural reluctance expressed in the conviction condemning disorder and a fear of civil disobedience. As the soft underbelly of democracy, the “silent majority” has its
equivalent in the mass of students of whom we know nothing because they do not vote,
do not attend meetings of their association and express no opinion. Neither green nor red, they are, since the conflict began, waiting, refusing for themselves, by risking their
session, the right to speak.
The Liberal government, while misreading events, has been able to recover, in exacerbating the fears of the average voter. Moreover, the use of a special law has literally created a climate of siege suited to galvanize rage and heighten fear. The gap between action of each one and the understanding one has of each other has made that inevitably widen, thereby confirming the impression of a sharp division between an active minority threatening social peace and a majority fueled by wisdom and individual responsibility upon which the police and a tutelary state ensure.
3) The new faces of individualism
The germination of the student movement has its origins in a world economy struck by a recurring growth crises and the systematic use of austerity measures. Curiously, this
situation is not favorable, objectively, for such a movement. In this regard, the period
called the thirty glorious years (1945 - 1975), because it opened the horizon of
possibilities, authorized, as a corollary, the projection of collective aspirations above and beyond stamped with the seal of progress. Upward mobility and the certainty of obtaining gains have set up a breeding ground for the mobilization of what the sociologist Alain Touraine called, in the 1960s, new social movements. But the peculiarity of this movement is precisely that it emerges and develops in a quiet erosion of social benefits and a downward spiral of wages and working conditions. The youth movement  is all the more surprising in that it arises at a time when the middle classes, haunted by the looming specter of a rolling, are steered and fold while the social groups most disadvantaged become more precarious. It is in this context that we must analyze the suspicions of many: the readability of a continuing Québécois Spring, also, in the figures of contemporary subjectivity. In this respect, the events that marked the news between February and June 2012 testify to the new meeting in the history of modern Québec between the individual and the collective. This is a challenge for the social sciences where individualism has been the keystone in the analysis of Western societies. This extensive study would have led, in its paroxysmal stage (1980 2000), a crisis of the great meta-narratives of collective action and concomitant decline in the labor movement. However, it was the unmistakable sign of liberation, individualism, in these “hypermodern” times is more so polymorphic and therefore also a bearer of confinement. As evidenced, a further report of the times sealed in performance which seems to be reviving a strong sense of urgency and alienation. The daily life of a vast majority of individuals would be made of discontinuities and often ephemeral relationships, without any further sustainable anchor other than a consumer binge that embodies, in the form of a tragic mirror, a less hostile world than the vacuum to which it refers. Moreover, the fragmentation of identities combined with the dispersion of causes, both inherent in the process of individualization, not only renders difficult the emergence of a unifying political project, but mobilization. But what has crystallized in this kind of spontaneous uprising, was the discovery, by the common experience of the street that assertiveness and the quest for recognition pass through investment in a collective movement whose dynamics provides an escape from intimate private space.
Behind the deceptive appearances of insurrection, the French May ‘68 finally combined
with ‘I’ logically enrolling in a historical process of radicalization of that individualism.
In contrast, the Québécois Spring is closer to a rediscovery of the virtues of the collective which offers a membership in a ‘WE’ whose fluid contours nonetheless reflect a desire to escape the constraints that would weigh on everyone’s freedom, whatever consciousness. The absence of any eschatology and the deligitimization of proselytism to the margins of the movement provide for an authentic sense of adhesion. In addition, the aesthetics of events demonstrates a commitment to the principle of autonomy at odds with the prevailing rules of operation previously. Against the vertical relationships based on respect for hierarchies, horizontality is sought out as the only legitimate modus operandi in any respect for diverse strategies and forms of expression. Like an anti-authoritarian society of individuals, the demonstrations that adopt the complex anatomy of the city for territory, are the reflection of an unstable mobility of subjectivities constantly negotiating their march in colorful tribes wandering during the day against the tuition increase, banging on pots the same evening, confronting, naked, the police the next day and then picketing in front of the campus the following day. The order of homogenous contingents together with their slogans, their flags and list of their targeted demands has given way to transversatility, which probably explains the resurgence of anarchism whose utopian ideal of an order without power is paradoxically consistent with contemporary individualism.
Thus the student strike and demonstrations allows for the formulation of community action that transcends the provisional nature inherent in the student condition. With its continuation, and not disappearing from the horizon, the cause for which young people have invested in the street has been supplanted by the mass mobilization that ends up feeding itself from its own capacity to reproduce, endure and expand its field of aspirations. More prosaically, the movement goes beyond the strict purpose for which it was set in motion, as if the experience of struggle, the gift of oneself that it requires and the energy and it brings together had transmuted into a specific target. By persisting, the crisis helped to delay divergent views and formed a sense of solidarity, in the determined clamor of pots, galvanizing social groups by the force of numbers and a shared impression of make history. In thus escaping anonymity, many have probably found a diffuse way of expression, but felt a response to the desire of belonging not found anywhere elsewhere.
Greater than oneself, the movement fosters a determination that makes sense, the effect of the protesting action is favourable to a creative lead, experiencing and to encourage participation rather than destroying. Driven by feelings more than a doctrine, less in the idea of revolution as rage, students and their allies are using the street they occupy as a megaphone for a desire they feel robbed of. Confined to social networks they control brilliantly, but absent from places of power, they make their vice heard by means of all the interstices of media space trying to adapt it as their instrument, in spite of the limitations that the transmission involves, the electronic media the images present in magnification tend to create the public’s eye. Beyond the transgression format underlying it, that word is the first statement of a more profound aversion with respect to what is felt for the past three decades, as a future crisis. Tuition fees were indeed the catalyst for a growing awareness that reflects, as we noted earlier, the perverse effects of a pacified society where consensus is built as an absolute. The legacy of the Québécois Spring is probably in this breach that has opened in the heart of the political culture, by way of the confrontation between the government and students. As opposed to the Quebec of “Lucids” for which progress is measured in terms of economic growth and debt repayment, the media makes us hear the echo of a concern. That concern being, first of all, a generation that grew up in a ceaseless fear of an ever-deteriorating ecosystem and the catastrophic effects that the runaway climate will have. To this we must add the larger impression that the economic system is primarily intended to save the banks from bankruptcy at any unscrupulous price of the anonymous masses, including unemployment and insecurity. The confusion added is caused by the sort of fate virgin territories are subject to looting, a distrust is superimposed on elites deemed as corrupt in one instance as any other. Tainted by scandals, the political class attempts in turn, to give another image of political power becomes the arena of incestuous alliances, arbitrariness and cynicism, which feeds the disappointment, mistrust and a civic phenomenon of desertion detrimental in the perspective of democratic institutions.
4) Limits and contradictions of the movement
In some respects, the Québécois Spring symbolizes a fear of disintegration, a sort of
global drift, we want to fight on the Left, then to the Right, vaguely pretending to ignore
its existence. A movement of refusal led by a more or less conscious intention to unlock
the social debate, it faces its own limitations as in the contradictions it generates. The
student movement thus has a paradoxical dimension. Even while presenting the issue of
its fundamental claim in political terms as both a demand of reinvestment then,
symbolically, as an issue of redistribution, its more radical ambitions, understood here as extending to putting into question governance as a whole, is lacking in the field of
representative democracy. There is no relationship to a convergence between the discursive nature of a “leftist” ideology to a fragile foundation and the institutionalization of the conflict through political machines: the discourse of rupture finds no other way than the sensational echo of demonstrations. Without a structured plan and without a formal vehicle, the student movement remains, at the time of these actions at least, a nebula with vague outlines, open to all forms of aggregation, but confined by its main claim, to reproduce the logic of the status quo. This apparent difficulty in projecting beyond a clearly defined policy is explained by the fact that the contents of the ideological divide leads to conceptions opposing democracy. In the metaphor of the street against the ballot, there is clearly a critique of a democratic deficit due to the exhaustion of a model.
Against the watered down representativeness of the parties and the erosion of the legitimacy itself of executive power, the Québécois Spring gives amplitude to a demand for participation that does not seem to want to go through the institutions of the parliamentary system: the disintegration of major projects affecting society, as a corollary, the pregnancy as to the plasticity of those vehicles of citizens’ aspirations that are political parties. For a culture of insubordination derived from the cause of freedom of expression of each, political parties are without doubt too restrictive to submit to them and serve their ambitions. Clearly, the conquest of power and its exercise dictate a form of indoctrination and loyalty which restrain and discipline. The disorderly harmony of demonstrations and the variety of complaints they to carry, seem ultimately at odds with the imperatives, including procedural, of representative democracy.
As we enter the summer of 2012, signs of a hopeless end thus appeared obvious while colleges and universities slavishly presented their calendars of ringing recovery, as they are to repeat, “the end of recreation.” Building on the impasse to become a party without a program and making it an issue for election, the government hopes, with the help of the provisions of Law 78, to break the last pockets of resistance. The bet of Premier Charest, however, seems risky. If the looming deadline of an election campaign could, eventually, remove the conflict by enclosing apologists and activists of the student cause in the rules that underpin the electoral contest, it would be premature to see a durable reversal marking the end of what was an epiphenomenon. The crisis does not risk exhausting itself in a kind of transfiguration of liberal democracy that would pass through the investment in one or more parties. A higher turnout on election day is probably a guarantee of a reconfiguration in parliament. It does not in itself imply however an inevitable change of culture and practice.
The crisis of spring 2012 is primarily a trigger event that we believe reflects the
culmination of a process of transformation of the relationship between the custodians of political power and society. What emerges from this pivotal moment in the history of
contemporary Québec, is primarily the rehabilitation of the idea that the centrality of
conflict is not the world of work, but the street. What we call the people on the Left does
not refer to an iconic figure as was the organized labour movement, the historical player
foreign today to the urban agitation. Beyond an organizational logic, without a party and without a leader, this movement is likely to respond again in the coming months, to the call of the students: the street, an updated symbol of popular sovereignty in action, gives the impression of having a real grip on power. Without an identity socially homogeneous, this amalgam of stratified social groups nevertheless relies on a shared commitment for the common good, which is inseparable from the participation of the greater proportion as to many of the decisions related to the collective destiny. This is clearly there indeed that is found the contribution of the artisans of a Red Spring. Without being a formally recognized political actor, this movement will have in the longer term a positive effect of sedimentation on democratic culture. Certainly it would be presumptuous to describe the form that the developments will take in a context marked by deeper divisions. That said, the student crisis has highlighted a demand for representativity that calls for, after forty years of dithering, a radical reform of an electoral system perfectly anachronistic. Although it is not the antechamber of a vast revolution, proportionality sets the stage, at the institutional level, to allow for more democracy thus permitting a certain resonance in debates that will be initiated in the street.
By Judith Trudeau and Stéphane Chalifour
Professors of sociology and political science
 - We are inspired by the thesis of Jean-Francois Thuot, The end of representation and the contemporary forms of democracy, Nota bene, 1998.
 - The demographic factor is to be considered. In the late 1960s, those less than the age of 25 accounted for over 40% of the population of Western countries. The baby-boomers had a critical mass that could mutate into a power struggle. However, the fall in fertility rates took effect. “Youth” is less than 25% of the population today. From the political point of view, this is a negligible fraction of the electorate.
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
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