The Quebec Student Protest Movement and the Power of the Radical Imagination

"This isn't a student strike, it's the awakening of society." -Quebec protest banner

Across the globe, young people are speaking out. They are using their voices and bodies to redefine the boundaries of the possible and to protest the crushing currents of neoliberal regimes that ruthlessly assert their power and policies through appeals to destiny, political theology and unabashed certainty. From Paris, Athens and London to Montreal and New York City, young people are challenging the current repressive historical conjuncture by rejecting its dominant premises and practices. They are fighting to create a future in which their voices are heard and the principles of justice and equality become key elements of a radicalized democratic and social project. At stake in their efforts is not only a protest against tuition hikes, austerity measures, joblessness and cuts in public spending, but also the awakening of a revolutionary ideal in the service of a new society. In short, youth have dared to call for a different world and, in doing so, have exhibited great courage in taking up a wager about the future made from the standpoint of an embattled present. To understand the shared concerns of the youthful protesters and the global nature of the forces they are fighting, it is crucial to situate these diverse student protests within a broader analysis of global capital and the changing nature of its assaults on young people.

The Tyranny of Neoliberalism

Unapologetic in its implementation of austerity measures that cause massive amounts of hardship and human suffering, neoliberal capitalism consolidates class power on the backs of young people, workers and others marginalized by class, race and ethnicity.(1) Neoliberal capitalism appears to no longer need the legitimacy garnered through its false claim to democratic ideals such as free speech, individual liberty, or justice – however tepid these appeals have always been. In the absence of alternative social visions to market-driven values and the increasing separation of global corporate power from national politics, neoliberal capitalism has wrested itself free of any regulatory controls while at the same time removing economics from any consideration of social costs, ethics, or social responsibility. Such a disposition is evident in the fact that neoliberalism's only imperatives are profits and growing investments in global power structures unmoored from any form of accountable, democratic governance.

The devastating fallout of neoliberal capitalism's reorganization of society – the destruction of communities and impoverishment of individuals and families – now becomes its most embraced mode of legitimation as it is championed, ironically, as the only safe route to economic stability. Collective misfortune is no longer interpreted as a sign of failing governance or politicians too willing to empower corporate interests, but attributed to the character flaws of individuals and defined chiefly as a matter of personal responsibility. Within this now widely accepted ideological framework, government-provided social protections are viewed as pathological. Matters of life and death are removed from traditional modes of democratic governance and made subject to the sovereignty of the market. In this new age of biocapital, or what Eric Cazdyn calls "bioeconomics," "all ideals are at the mercy of a larger economic logic"(2) – one that unapologetically generates policies that "trample over millions of people if necessary."(3) Neoliberalism's defining ideologies, values and policies harness all institutions, social practices and modes of thought to the demands of corporations and the needs of the warfare state. They are as narrowly self-serving as they are destructive.

As collective responsibility is privatized, politics loses its social and democratic character and the formative culture necessary for the production of engaged critical agents is gravely undermined. An utterly reduced form of agency is now embodied in the figure of the isolated automaton, driven by self-interest and eschewing any responsibility for the other. As Stuart J. Murray pointed out, neoliberalism's totalizing discourse of privatization, commodification, deregulation and hyper-individualism "co-opts and eviscerates the language of the common good."(4) The ascendancy of neoliberal ideology also manifests in an ongoing assault on democratic public spheres, public goods and any viable notion of equality and social justice. As corporate power is consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, ideological and structural reforms are implemented to transfer wealth and income into the hands of a ruling financial and corporate elite. This concentration of power is all the more alarming since both Canada and the United States have experienced unprecedented growth in wealth concentration and income inequality since the 1970s.

In Canada, as Bruce Campbell noted, "The richest Canadian 1% has almost doubled its share of the national income pie – from 7% to almost 14% – over the last three decades. The average top 100 CEOs' compensation was $6.6 million in 2009, 155 times the average worker's wage [while] 61 Canadian billionaires have a combined wealth of $162 billion, twice as much as the bottom 17 million Canadians."(5) The United States holds the shameful honor of being "perched at the very top of the global premier league of inequality,"