On Strike from Life as we Know it

17 May

The Quebec Government just announced a “special law” intended to bring an end to the 14-week student strike in that province. The law would postpone the rest of this semester and allow current students to finish it in August before starting school again in October.

The announcement came on the heels of a particularly contentious move by some strikers to “storm” Montreal classrooms in an attempt to disrupt classes where students had obtained a legal injunction to return to class. (The lesson might have been ‘Scabbing 101’.)

The questionable justness of this law aside, it reveals just how out of touch the Charest government is with the ‘nature’ of social movements as we know them. The messaging around the law, moreover, shows that governance, in Quebec as elsewhere, is so focused on the objective goal of hanging onto political power that it forgets how to work with subjective things like values.

The justification for the law – the public, official line anyway – is that “Access to education is a right. Nobody can pretend to defend access to education and then block the doors of a CEGEP or university.”

And yet, by raising tuition 82% over the next 7 years, the Charest government may as well be blocking the doors of every CEGEP or university in the province. Where the student strikers blocked access blindly and evenly, the government would filter it selectively, allowing those with the resources to enter freely and denying those without.

If education is a right, it can’t come with an exclusionary price tag. Charest can’t have it both ways.

This is what I mean by governance that forgets how to work with values. It’s clumsy. It contradicts itself. It survives on might, not right. It survives only because it has accumulated power by dispossessing others of it. But it only survives until the next election, and maybe, hopefully, not even that long.

Granted, Charest and the people surrounding and supporting him probably do not see the contradiction here, and would deny it if it was pointed out to them. The key word for them is “access”, and in the liberal and neoliberal view of things, access is something distributed evenly to every baby in utero. Right of access, therefore, is perfectly complementary to a user fee system.

Regardless of how the law is pitched and whether it’s eventually passed, it’s no panacea. It’s not going to “restore calm”, and if it does succeed in technically ending the strike (by removing that which the students are striking from), it can’t put an end to a social movement. That’s not how this stuff works.

As the students have pointed out for months, CLASSE and the movement around it are about far more than fighting a tuition hike. This thing is bigger than the strike. Students and supporters are no longer just refusing to go to class. They’re refusing to live as they’ve been accustomed to. They’re on strike from life as we know it.

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