Last month’s student protests in Quebec have made it clear, yet again, that austerity policies cannot be imposed except by authoritarian methods. More than a third of the students in the province struck after Jean Charest’s liberal (centrist) government decided to increase student fees by 75% in five years; the National Assembly of Quebec, in a special session on 18 May, curtailed the rights of free association and demonstration. Thus, cutting off a democratic achievement (access to higher education) was logically followed by the suspension of a fundamental freedom.
This radical reaction can also be seen in France. When the conservative coalition was defeated after an election campaign during which it abundantly used far-right arguments, it did not turn to voters in the centre to regain their support. Instead, Sarkozy’s successors have chosen to take the most reactionary position on every issue — against immigrants and welfare “scroungers” — in the hope of winning over National Front voters whose self-image fits that of the “worker who doesn’t want the guy who does not work to make more that he does” (1).
US politics took a similar turn less than a month after Barack Obama entered the White House. Far from lamenting its losses, the Republican Party took its cue from the Tea Party, truculent, paranoid and obsessed with labelling its opponents as leftwing snobs and self-centred technocrats who hobbled wealth producers and squandered money on “folk on public assistance”. As a Tea Party manifesto put it: “Many of us had a neighbour or heard about someone who had been living too high on the hog for too long and were wondering why we were supposed to pay for it” (2). After Obama’s 2008 landslide, the Republican right showed no interest in recovering the centre ground where, according to the pundits, elections are won. It abandoned the boring pragmatism ascribed to the defeated leaders and adopted the aspirations of the most radical militants.
This rightwing fantasy is a powerful force. It will not be overcome by marginally adjusting an economic and financial course that is bound to fail, causing further confusion, misery and panic, not to mention the damaging political effects of misplaced resentment. The collapse of the two leading Greek parties, jointly responsible for the financial ruin and suffering of their people, and the unexpected and spectacular rise of a leftwing coalition, Syriza, determined to challenge the repayment of a partly illegitimate debt (see Greece could begin again), show that there is a way out of the impasse. All that is needed is courage and imagination. The Quebec students demonstrate that too.