Commentary | In the shadow of the strike

Against the power of ‘victory’

“This victory is ours (cette victoire est la nôtre),” wrote the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE) in preparation for the monthly 22nd demonstration. These triumphant messages began as a slow trickle on September 4. A month later, this description is questioned almost nowhere. The pressure to ‘win’ something, to claim that which is external and easily identifiable, has proven too great. Spectacular power creates and disseminates a dominant and useful narrative – now realized in the unified story of a social movement that blocked a tuition hike – filling Facebook, Twitter, news media, and blogs from Quebec to Chile.

Such a narrative suggests that the strike was just a fight over university accessibility. It makes the events of the previous months non-threatening; it removes the content and context from each act. According to this fiction, forming a new politics based on the negation of representation was just a side point. Autonomous organizing and direct, unmediated action were simply a means. Attacks on banks, government offices, and media were all just to put enough pressure on the government to listen to the primary demand of university accessibility. It is undeniable that CLASSE was necessary for the strike to occur. Yet, such a reversion eats away at what was exposed and opened through the strike, removing critiques of the barriers put into place by the very structures and ideologies propelling strike organizing.

The story, with which the reader is probably familiar, is supposed to go something like this: the student strike, the longest in Quebec’s history, created enough pressure to force an election. This election ended the PLQ and Charest’s rule, and the PQ, the victorious party, was forced to concede to student demands of a tuition freeze. Had the strike not generated a great enough rapport de force, the PQ would not have conceded.

It is a beautiful truth that much went right; much has been gained and learned. But the story that is now being told is a fantastical one. A strike that based itself on a rejection of representative democracy has betrayed itself to electoralism – a reliance on political parties and voting to achieve an end. Many have convinced themselves that this is not true, that claiming victory is purely an acknowledgment of successful pressure. But a simple fact cannot be avoided: in August, only a PQ win in the election would have achieved the student’s demands. Inescapably, this ‘victory’ could only have been achieved through a vote, through one of the same weapons that was used to defeat the strike. When the power of the strike is discussed, it is often treated as a single event with specific and constant characteristics. For example: “the Quebec student strike was powerful.” But, rapport de force is not a sum which accumulates and is saved over time, nor is it a single entity. It is a characteristic of specific situations. February, March, April, and early May saw many moments of great strength and intensity. That does not mean that those same features existed in August. The two months following the F1 Grand Prix – the last seriously confrontational event before the “lull” – saw an almost complete cessation of the tactics used throughout the previous four months. Marois’ actions in September were not a show of the strike’s force, but rather its lack of force heading into September. If the PLQ had excluded CLASSE from an education summit, they would have faced massive repercussions. In the wake of other such events during the strike, massive demonstrations and rioting followed. What was clear at the end of August was forgotten by September 5th – the strike collapsed. Students, en masse, voted to end the strike and no one was prepared to act against these votes. The threat of failed courses, a cancelled semester, Law 12 (Bill 78), a long summer break, and recuperation by electoral politics ended the strike. The cancellation was a savvy and duplicitous move by a populist party itching to climb back into power.

The state used force first and sleight of hand second. The indexation of tuition to “cost of living” employs the exact same logic as a tuition increase over five years. This indexation is, in and of itself, a promise of tuition increases, merely codified in different words than the original decree. The only item which is being changed in Law 12 is the section on manifs, which made demonstrations of over fifty people illegal without the permission of the police, in addition to barring any demonstration within fifty metres of a post-secondary institution. From the outset, this was the section that had the least bearing on reality, as breaking up demonstrations rarely needed legal justification and when it did there were other laws to do so (P6, Riot Act, et cetera). Police charging into crowds following the firing of sound grenades felt exactly the same before and after Law 12. A change in name does not correlate to a change in reality. But more importantly, focusing on Law 12 is absurd in itself. It locates the problem in a specific legislation, not the legal and criminal structures themselves. Even within the narrow focus of the past months’ resistance, Law 12 has nothing to do with the hundreds being charged and those exiled from the island.

The victory functionally reproduces the politics fought against throughout the strike. It allows those in positions of power to assert their narrative above all others – those that they will now attempt to control. Constructing such a narrative will serve to preserve existing modes and structures of student organizing and thought. Across Canada, attempts at replicating the Quebec strike are springing up. Surely the last few months have inspired, but not because of pretending to having overcome austerity. Serious critical reflection about limits of the strike, both organizational and theoretical, is swept aside. So too are examinations of both the actualized and newly apparent possibilities, which constitute the real gains of the strike. Already, there is a plan d’action being prepared for a coming escalation which resembles almost exactly the one that was crafted in entering this strike – the exact same form, nearly the exact same content.

The image of victory is only seen in a distorted mirror of another’s design. What if I do not look elsewhere to determine gains? How will I and others articulate what we are after, what is terribly wrong, and what we are capable of? Happily, the answers are less difficult once the frame is dismantled, the false-image shattered.

Micha Stettin can be reached at micha.stettin@gmail.com.

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