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Tag: syndicalisme

Austerity and Social Strike in Quebec

by on Mar.26, 2015, under Général

What is Austerity? Austerity is the new buzz word, mostly because it is used as a mobilization tool in the preparation of Quebec’s next student strike that is also calling for a larger social strike. What is happening now, where is this new crisis is coming from, and what can we expect from it? These are some questions I will try to briefly address in this presentation.

So really, what is Austerity?

The neoliberal ideology in Quebec’s state and public services was implanted in the early 1990s. Recently, the rate at which these transformations have been introduced has greatly accelerated : cuts in education, cuts in the health sector, cuts in public sector employees pensions (Bill 3), etc. The Government of Quebec presented austerity measures as inevitable for the collective good: everyone had to do their part and take responsibility. However, austerity can be better understood as a set of measures that are enacted locally according to neoliberal philosophy, as well as a political choice from a specific social class. Therefore, austerity will not affect everyone in the same way. Its objective can be understood as an attempt to sabotage social infrastructures in order to progressively privatize the state and its subsidiaries.

Neoliberalism is a widely discussed topic. However, I will just define it as a political philosophy that slowly imposed itself as a new hegemony, rooted in an economic and managerial rationality, in which everything is to be understood and managed as a private company or a market. While the thinkers of neoliberalism are calling for a more “responsabilized citizen”, Wendy Brown (2006) argues that it creates rather a “depoliticized citizen”, by transforming political problems into personal problems with market solutions and by producing a consumer-citizen available to a heavy degree of governance and authority. David Harvey (2010) also argued that we have entered a new phase of capital accumulation which he called “accumulation by depossession”. According to Harvey, this accumulation (gaining plus-value) does not come from lands or work force, but from the upper classes that take back what social movements had won in previous struggles, whether it be welfare, labour regulations or other social protection. Hence, “austerity” can’t be understood without a class struggle paradigm.
Student strike and social strike

Quebec has a long and very rich history of social movements organizing against government decisions, starting with the labour movements in the 19th century, and the organization of a student movement somewhere in between the end of the fifties. To understand the particularity of social movements in Quebec, one has to understand the concept of “syndicalisme de combat”, a term that has no official English translation. I will therefore use “combative unionism”, a term coined by Jean-Marc Piotte in 1977 (Piotte, 1977). Combative unionism is a mix between orthodox Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism and is in opposition to corporate unionism and business unionism. I will not enter into details, but the major differences are in the ideology, objectives and means used by those different kinds of unions. Whereas the corporate and business unions want to protect the corporate and individual rights of the worker and are organized in a top-down hierarchy, combative unionism inserts itself in a logic of class struggle and works towards the creation of a “power relation” against the bosses who exploit their workers. This kind of organization requires direct democracy and a bottom-up organization, and uses strikes and direct actions as legitimate political means to fight back.

However, in Quebec, the labour movement is not talking about combative unionism anymore. Only a certain fringe of the student and community worker’s movement does. This is largely due to the fact that since the 1980’s, there has been a major weakening of syndicalism. To survive, unions have had to transition towards a syndicalism of consultation, that works hand in hand with the government and the management (Rouillard, 2004). This transition was caused by the major economic recession of the 1980s, the creation of the Law on essential measures and the transformation of the Labour Code in 1999, which regulated the right to strike. Direct democracy doesn’t really exist anymore and struggles are bracketed by the cycle of collective labour agreements.

The stronger political movement is the student movement, because students have the power to organize political strikes in the realm of education, but also in solidarity with other struggles, based on a strong combative union structure. This is possible because the “right to strike” is not legislated in the student context. Students say they are legitimate to strike because they are intellectual workers (a concept that comes from May 68 in France) and are inside the society, not outside, so they can act in it. This spring, students organized a general strike against the government’s austerity measures, not only against cuts in education, but also against cuts in the health and public sector, and against hydrocarbure extraction projects. The momentum was chosen because the public sector workers’ collective labour agreements are ending on the 1st of April, which means a social strike is more possible than ever. A large coalition in favor of a one day social strike on May 1st (the traditional day against capitalism), has also been organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), gathering students, labour unions and community groups. Presently, the student movement is quite divided, because there is a wide variety of student federations. On the one side, there are the reformist and corporate student federations (FECQ and FEUQ). On the other, there is ASSÉ, a direct democracy national student union using combative unionism, and then there is the new Printemps 2015 group. Printemps 2015 started as an anti-austerity UQAM informal mobilization squad. The group was composed of, amongst others, former ASSÉ activists who didn’t recognized themselves in the post-strike 2012 ASSÉ, which became larger, more centralized and media oriented. It called for the creation of various autonomous and informal “printemps 2015 committees” everywhere, to start mobilizing for the strike autonomously.

What is happening at Concordia and in our department?

Francophones and anglophones have very different cultures and traditions of organization that have most of the time evolved separately because of the language barrier. While French associations developed a student unionism with a strong culture of general assemblies and direct democracy, anglophone student activism related less on their material conditions as students and more on identity struggles and affinity groups. For example, they have focused more on queer, intersectional, anti-oppression and anti-racist struggles. The structure of the student association in Concordia for example, is very similar to the Student Government in the United States. It is also historically situated and reflects the aftermath of the Netanyahou riots at Concordia in 2002 (see the movie Discordia for more info). There may be less of a strike or GA culture at Concordia, but it is not as if it was easy or taken for granted in francophone association either. In 2012, we started doing mobilization in favour of a strike 2 years before. It is a collective and transformative process.
Since a few years, we saw many exchanges happening (from both sides). In 2012, Concordia joined the student strike and multiple associations affiliated to ASSÉ. Since the fall, an inter-departmental group “Solidarity Concordia” joined to raise awareness against austerity measures and in favour of a strike. At this date, at least 5 student association voted for a strike (either March the 23rd and/or April 2nd), summing about 4000 students. Another 10 000 will be voting soon. In Québec so far, approximately 80 000 students will be on strike across the province, including renewable general strike mandates or punctual strikes.

Role of the student strike

This is what leads us to the impact or importance of a student strike in Quebec. Even if I believe that strikes and direct action are the only way that we can have any real impact in relation to government decisions, I don’t think that the major force of a strike lies in its potential “gain”. It is more about the opening of possibilities that it creates, the gathering of people that exchange on the world and politicize themselves. It changes how we relate to and behave in the world. This leads us to another important question that is whether or not we should have demands. The development of the rhetoric of “social rights” comes from 19th century social movements and is linked to the creation of a “civil society”, which is defined by the domain of social life organized independently from the state. That implies a definition of society as a functioning whole, but is that really the case? Eric Wolf (2001) warned us about this use of an all-encompassing concept. Society is not a functioning whole. It is rather crossed by structural and hierarchical relations of power. The function of “demands” are then to create a compromise and to obtain and stabilize our privileges given by the state and “social peace”. However, as multiple subaltern studies scholars such as Chakrabarty have shown, the “we are all born equal” liberal citizen concept doesn’t exist. Hence, recognition, as Povinelli puts it (2011), is bracketed inside the structure of “late liberalism” and its lines of (in) tolerance and its social division and hierarchies. That means that it is always linked to the liberal dynamics of making live, making die and letting die, which unfolds dynamics of endurance and survival. So what if we didn’t want to contribute to the liberal society anymore? Could there be other ways of imagining our role and responsibilities towards others and other ways of conceptualizing the dynamics of reproduction of power and solidarities? The idea of “the commons” (Federici, 2011) seems to be a very insightful way of rethinking our relations to each other and to the state, rather than the “social” whose role in the end is to contribute to the reproduction of the liberal capitalist system.

Role of the intellectual and the anthropologist

So what is the role of intellectuals, anthropologists and sociologists? Should we contribute to society? A common answer would be yes: we want to have an impact, and we believe that the production of knowledge could enlighten people and change the world for the better, even in small bits. In anthropology, we like to put an emphasis on what people do rather than what people say they do. So I would like to turn back the focus and to “objectify the objectivator”, as Bourdieu (1984) would put it.
We are not born scholars, we become scholars (in a very painful process) hence the scholar we are is rooted in who we were (and still are) and our social position in the field, but also desires, aspiration, fears, and angers. Our political rationality or scientific interest are not merely rational and individual choices. Some say; “I am a scholar, I do my job, I do scholarly things”. This might be true, but we are not outside the world, we never were. Hence, we are not just scholars or students. We are horrified by extractivism, work conditions, structural oppression like sexism, racism (name it!), and this is what brought us to school in the first place, to understand. And then what, what are we doing, what is our role? The problem is that whatever knowledge or critique we can produce as academics and scholars, it’s going to be used to make the system more efficient (Boltanski & Chiapello, 1999). Capitalism is well-known for absorbing critiques in an utilitarist way. Just as it is engaged in a process of endless and exponential accumulation, it is engaged in a process of continuous amelioration. The thing is that time is not linear nor evolutionary, and that resources are not unlimited.

Juliah Oparah (2014), a scholar and one of Angela Davis’s comrades, tells us that we have to materially help and engage with activists and insurgents, and not just build ourselves careers on the back of those who puts their bodies at risk. The spectacle of violence and conflict is another kind of exoticism. Let’s take the example of Alain Bertho (2009) , a French sociologist who studies riots around the world through the internet, from the comfort of his office. That fascination for the end of the world and riots, that other called “réalisme catastrophile”, has risen up with the augmentation of discontent and uprisings in the 90s, in reaction with the increase of neoliberal policies. Are we voyeurs? Which side are we on? Are we going to be taking part in the action or are we just going to write about it? Riots do convey a message though with their symbolism, but they are not performances, they are an appeal.

Then yes, academics have a specific role and there is a value to the production of knowledge, and this takes time and care. But in the end, who are we benefitting? Who are we useful to? Who are we relating to? My intent here is not to make a call for a programmatic activist anthropology. I do suggest that scholars will have to put their hands in the dirt, and not just when and how they choose it, with carefully framed relations inscribed in their research design. The field is never ending, there are no boundaries in reality. Both what we consider “going on the field” and our “day to day” life informs and shapes the way we understand reality and what’s out there. And we will probably be more useful in our own communities if we decide to take an active role in it. That requires going out there, meeting people, making friends, entering in difficult social processes and sometimes making mistakes, but this is what we would do in the field anyway. That’s fascinating, because I am part of two communities that are constantly worried about being “outside of the world” and to be invisible to the ‘common mortals’. When did you ever stop being a common mortal? There is a movement of back and forth between theory and practice and theory is not always symbolic violence, when it is embodied it can be emancipatory. That means making time for this, because it is an impossible task if we stay in the “budget-time” (Bourdieu, 1984) structure defined for young graduate scholar and students. This time can be liberated by striking, but on a day to day basis, it could also be obtained by “slowing down” or even by leaving academia. However, we don’t need super-activists: those people are often more damageable than helpful because it doesn’t contribute to the creation of inclusive spaces. While struggling against capitalism and its effects, we should also try to deconstruct the capitalist socialization that forces us to be always more performant selves.

Conclusion: What can we hope for? Why are we doing this?

Povinelli (2011) says that hope is dangerous, and instead of hoping for a better future, we should get into the material world, with care, and try to do something. This is not something that can be thought, it is something that has to be lived. Strikes are not always easy, nor fun. They can be pretty dangerous: there are physical, affective and legal consequences. However, there are those small moments where you understand that you are not just a ‘ressource’ or a number, and that when joining with others, you can have a real political power. Whether it’s when you spend hours deciding on a motion in a general assembly and that you make it happen by picketing the classes so that you can go to a demonstration, or when you successfully unarrest-bizarre- a comrade at a demo… You leave the discursive realm of ideas and you realize that collectively you have an impact in the material world. This experience is life-changing, and I invite you to take part in this process in the weeks to come.

For more infos:

– written by MT.


Bertho, A. (2009). Le temps des émeutes. Montrouge: Bayard.
Boltanski, L., & Chiapello, E. (1999). Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme. Paris: Gallimard.
Federici, S. (2011). Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. na. Retrieved from
Harvey, D. (2010). A companion to Marx’s Capital (Vol. 1). Verso Books.
Pierre Bourdieu. (1984). Homo Academicus. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.
Piotte, J.-M. (1977). Un syndicalisme de combat. Montréal: Editions A. St-Martin.
Piya Chatterjee, S. M. (Ed.). (2014). The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Povinelli, E. A. (2011). Economies of abandonment: social belonging and endurance in late liberalism. Duke University Press Durham, NC.
Rouillard, J. (2004). Le Syndicalisme Québécois. Montréal: Les Éditions du Boréal.
Wolf, E. R., & Silverman, S. (2001). Pathways of power building an anthropology of the modern world. Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved from

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