By Way of Introduction
In many neighbourhoods and cities and towns across Quebec, there is a new phenomenon of people going into the streets every night and banging pots and pans together to signal their opposition to the government’s new repressive legislation, Law 78. This is in the context of an upsurge of mass struggle and rapidly escalating tactics within a student strike that has been going on here for months. It is an unprecedented situation, and the struggle here seems to be transforming itself at what seems like breakneck speed.
On one of the first of these “pots and pans” nights, i went wandering around Cote-des-Neiges, a mixed class immigrant neighbourhood, my little pot and my little spoon in hand, both curious to see where (indeed, whether) i would find some noise, and hoping to maybe join in.
i was not surprised that all of the clanging seemed to be between Isabella and Queen Mary, i.e. where the area is at its most Quebecois, and its least working-class. At 8pm i saw people opening their doors and starting to bang. Wandering around looking for people actually on the street, i could find none. Regardless: as a tactic, especially as a new tactic, it was dramatic. You can hear someone clanging on a pot for blocks, so even though there was less than 1 person per block doing this, the effect in the area was that you could hear noises all around you. This was really effective.
As i wandered up Fulton, an older man was sitting on his stoop. He looked at me and motioned around in the air, asking if i could hear what was happening. i nodded. “Terrorism,” he said in a thick European accent, “That’s terrorism.” Amused, and curious, i asked him if he was scared. He nodded. i asked what of, and he just repeated “They are terrorizing the city.” After a brief disagreement, i left with him saying “God bless you”, and then, under his breath but quite audibly, “you stupid terrorist.” For what it’s worth.
(Turns out i was lucky: speaking to a friend the next day, who recently moved to Cote-des-Neiges, he told me how he went out with his little pot and pan and … got punched in the face! Luckily, the way he put it, the puncher was an old guy who couldn’t pack much force, so his main worry was that his assailant would have a heart attack. But still.)
To be clear, i believe how this is playing out in this neighbourhood – and i would guess in Montreal North, Park Ex, St-Michel, all heavily immigrant – is different than in most neighborhoods affected by the casseroles. In Quebecois working-class neighborhoods i have no trouble believing this is happening in a more organic and broad way. Similarly, in Quebecois mixed-class neighborhoods and even in neighborhoods with sizeable student populations i don’t presume that participation will correlate to more middle-class streets. As such, however, this does underscore the national dimension to this surge, and hints at how this may relate to class.
The Labor Aristocracy
There is an argument, unpopular within the white left, that in North America and other settler societies, “the colonized peoples have been the proletariat, while the white working class has been a labor aristocracy.” ((As stated by J. Sakai in When Race Burns Class: Settlers Revisited.))
While this view is by no means marginal or beyond the pale amongst people living in oppressed nations, within the white left it is extremely rare; it finds its primary expression in a current of tiny groups known as Maoist-Third-Worldist, and is most familiar to white activists thanks to J. Sakai’s book Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat (available online at http://www.readsettlers.org). There are variations on this position, mainly regarding the degree to which workers in oppressed internal colonies (the Black Nation/New Afrika, Aztlan, Puerto Rico, Indigenous Nations, etc.) are also labor aristocratic, with the “maximal” version of this argument holding that there is in fact no proletariat within the First World, period. ((While the question of Quebec’s status is an interesting and important one, for the purposes of this discussion it is unambiguously NOT an internal colony, as regardless of its irregular State form, it is fully integrated into the First World/metropolitan core.))
While some might dismiss these as esoteric debates, occurring largely between internet activists with too much time on their hands, this would be deceptive. Within oppressed communities, in prisons, in immigrant neighbourhoods, and indeed throughout the Third World, these questions are accepted by many people as completely legitimate. Furthermore, while not necessarily expressed as such, the question of how class relates to nation is being addressed (albeit often in confused and confusing ways) every time someone asks “where was the color at [fill in the blank]”, during every discussion about whether some person was killed by police because they weren’t white or because they weren’t middle-class, every time people note how “white” a protest or group or campaign is. Or, conversely, whenever “identity politics” dovetails with middle-class politics, defying some people’s expectations.
This current surge in Quebec provides a nice field to discuss this, and different interpretations, conclusions, and political consequences of these positions. So i’m going to go somewhat out on a limb here and share some rough thoughts on what is happening, informed by my sympathy to the idea that the political behavior of the metropolitan (or First World) working class is determined by its position in the global division of labor, so that it will not act as if it “has nothing to lose but its chains”, but that its dominant sections (both in terms of numbers of political influence) will adhere more closely to the forms of activity and politics normally associated with the petit bourgeoisie.
The Student Strike
The situation in Quebec is inspiring. Very inspiring, in fact. For those of you unfamiliar with what is happening here, it will be impossible for me to do it justice in just a few sentences, so i would suggest reading this Report on Quebec’s Student Strike. But in an inadequate nutshell: students have been on strike for over 100 days against a tuition hike – a preeminently reformist casus belli. Yet faced with at-first-routine police harassment and court orders against their pickets, the students fought back – literally – and police were sent running from angry mobs – repeatedly. The street tactics have been escalating steadily, and the State has been relying primarily on police violence and repression in the form of new legislation – Law 78 – outlawing many traditionally accepted forms of protest here (demonstrations without a permit, pickets in front of schools, strikes by education workers, wearing masks, etc.).
Rather than isolate the movement, government repression led to an explosion of public support, the most obvious current example being the aforementioned “pots and pans demonstrations” where people go out in their neighbourhoods banging their kitchenware together every night at 8pm. There are hundreds of these nightly protests, involving tens of thousands of people every night. These supplement larger nightly downtown demonstrations which have turned into riots several times over the past month. Neighbourhood assemblies have also been organized, potentially creating an opening for the struggle to extend to new fronts.
Adding to this promising situation, current plans are to disrupt the various summertime festivals on which Montreal’s tourism industry depends – starting with the Grand Prix, set for early June. Meanwhile, the police and the right-wing Liberal government continue to make all of the best of mistakes, and indeed a few days ago for the third time the government simply broke off negotiations with the student representatives.
It is the most enjoyable thing i have seen in decades, if ever.
The Oppressor Nation
The movement, however, is not only First World/metropolitan, it is overwhelmingly white, and while class politics play an important part in how things are framed, this is very much from a perspective that sees whitelife – in this case, Quebecois whitelife – as the norm. Putting aside the ubiquitous complaints about people being pushed out of the middle class, and the various racist incidents that will often occur when masses of white people congregate, this also plays itself out also in terms of how the government’s counteroffensive is being framed. One person hit the nail on the head when they jokingly suggested as a slogan, “We’re Already Racially Profiled in Small Groups, We Don’t Need Law 78!”
Now, the clichéd stereotype about those of us who see the First World working class as largely compromised is that we would do nothing but shit on the student strike, that we would argue that revs should not be involved, period. Perhaps some folks might point to a certain reading of Settlers or a certain analysis of imperialism, arguing that this is mainly an uprising of white people in the metropole (i.e. the labor aristocracy), and as such that there is nothing to be gained by participating.
To be clear: i reject such a dismissive approach. It treats the privileged character of First World life as near-homogenous, with nobody experiencing privation or oppression outside of those actually producing the super-profits at the center of world capitalism. This flies in the face of lived experience, conflates the concepts of “working class” and “proletariat”, and reduces oppression (which is often determined by immediate context, and lived subjectively) to exploitation. Perhaps worst of all, it involves being closed to the possibility of the unexpected, as if we were guaranteed to have a theoretical grasp on any and all existing social contradictions.
There are divisions and differences in life-experience and suffering within the metropolitan working classes, privileged as many of them may be; if the dominant sections enjoy the profits and benefits of Canadian or Quebecois whitelife, with even many racialized sections enjoying First World privilege, there are numerous pockets whose situation is far more complicated. The problem is that to the degree that they identify with the oppressor nation, the political consciousness of these pockets remains tied to the labor aristocracy that holds sway over the class.
A dismissive approach grossly underestimates this question of consciousness, and the fact that even when we are literally fighting and challenging State power, we are still engaged in what Gramsci referred to as a “war of position”, i.e. a war to open up cultural and political space. Or as some German comrades argued, as they grappled with this very question some forty years ago, “to write off entire sections of the population as an impediment to anti-imperialist struggle, simply because they don’t fit into Marx’s analysis of capitalism, is as insane and sectarian as it is un-Marxist.” ((Red Army Faction, “The Black September Action in Munich:Regarding the Strategy for Anti-Imperialist Struggle”))
My view, and my reading of Settlers, is quite different from this cliché, even though i do consider that the global division of labor determines both what is possible and what is probable in our various struggles. What needs to be grasped is that what is happening in Quebec is a breakthrough, but it’s not the rev. While we have every reason to be overjoyed, identifying its limits will be key, not only to our ability to overcome them, but also to our survival as conditions change.
Thanks to the numbers involved, and the political crisis this has engendered for the State, the student strike of 2012 will likely go down in history as the defining event for a generation of Quebecois youth, the moment when, as Fanon put it, they found their mission. This is a major upheaval, not business-as-usual in the metropole. If it breaks out of its immediate limits, it will alter the very terrain upon which we will be struggling for years to come. If it is neutralized, it will represent a defeat that may weigh against us just as heavily.
True to metropolitan form, at the mobilization’s more swollen moments, radical sections become easy to miss in what becomes a humungous cross-class mass. Even while the pots-and-pans demonstrations represent a creative and promising turn, take note that the Liberal Finance Minister has also applauded the way in which this fits with the image of Montreal that he wants to project, and how they decrease the scope for property attacks during the big nightly marches. In fact, in some areas this “peaceful” mobilization has been spearheaded by the same forces that previously opposed the strike. Similarly, at the biggest demos (hundreds of thousands of people in the streets), some of the slogans may be proletarian but the foot-troops, and the money behind the buses, are middle-class or else labor-aristocratic.
In terms of neutralization, as already mentioned, the government has passed legislation (Law 78) which criminalizes various protest activities, with potential fines for organizations running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. On the municipal level, Montreal has changed its bylaws so that wearing a mask at demonstrations or participating in an “illegal assembly” will make one liable to heavy fines (up to $3000 for repeat offenders). Federally, the Conservative government is passing legislation to make wearing masks at demonstrations illegal, with maximum prison sentences of 5 or 10 years, depending on the circumstances.
While many protesters see this as unprecedented, and words like “dictatorship”, “police state”, and “fascism” are being bandied about, none of this surpasses the level of repression that has been directed against certain individuals and groups (most notably certain Muslim and foreign-based organizations) over the past years, the difference being one of scale not intensity. More important still, this does not come close to the level of repression that can be enacted by a State while still retaining its bourgeois democratic form, as the European experience in the 1970s and 80s bears out. Finally, we must bear in mind that non-State repression – i.e. the mobilization of “law abiding citizens” and far right forces to attack the students and the left – has so far remained relatively (though not completely) undeveloped.
People freaking out about repression does not necessarily serve us well, and may in fact prevent us/them from grasping the full scope of what can occur.
At the same time, for revolutionaries, repression will only ever be one part of how we get neutralized; isolation and demobilization through a process of integrating the bulk of protesters will be at least as important to the government’s strategy. The traditional means of doing this in metropolitan states is through social democracy, often tinged with nationalism. Indeed, in the context of Quebec, the only province where Canada’s francophone minority forms a clear majority, nationalism is likely to be more than just a “tinge”.
As such, one likely outcome is that the State channels this surge into a social-democratic project with a Quebecois nationalist dimension. Quebec Solidaire is clearly positioned to try and take advantage of this, though its small size and meager infrastructure will mean that this will be an uphill battle for it. (The New Democratic Party, Canada’s main social democratic political party, seems to have been fucked by the same national contradiction that prevented it from winning a foothold in Quebec prior to 2011: even though it is now the main federal party here it is unable to act like a social democratic party should for fear of now undercutting its potential for growth in english canada.) And of course, the PQ is feinting to the left, pretending to support the students, as there’s nothing to gain by any other position at the moment.
Any viable social democratic consolidation, regardless of the parliamentary form it takes, or even whether it manages to form a government, will sow confusion about Quebec’s actual status in the world (as an imperialist nation-without-a-state) and the actual nature of class and national oppression within Quebec. It will reduce any proletarian class consciousness and combativity. It might even unleash energies that will be instrumentalized against the most radical or the most oppressed, either within this society, or else oppressed Indigenous nations which survive within Quebec’s claimed territory. At the very least, these risk being marginalized as footnotes to the main drama at hand. All bad things, to be sure.
While recognizing these as serious limitations on the current arc of struggle, in no way do i mean to suggest that revs should sit this one out. Rather, we who live in this oppressor-nation should be involved, albeit without illusions. This does NOT mean being involved with hesitation – tactically, we should be in with both feet, no holds barred – but it does mean that we should be careful about how we think and talk about what is going on, and wary of what strategic alliances or perspectives we get integrated into. It also means that as we adapt to the new conditions we should make sure to not abandon areas of work where we have already developed a base.
While we should be all-in tactically, strategically we should keep our eye on the limited prize of winning as big a minority as possible for our politics, which go far beyond a tuition freeze or even free education for all. We should not be disappointed or feel betrayed when the movement reveals its social democratic complexion, any more than we should when the social democrats turn on us – and we should be preparing our allies (our real ones), so that they don’t feel disappointed or betrayed either.
Our aims and our methods should therefore be minoritiarian, in preparation for a reversal-of-fortune down the line. Doing so will help our comrades, as well as those new folks we are reaching out to, to experience this reversal-of-fortune as something unfortunate but to be expected, rather than as a defeat. It will also help prepare people to navigate the forms of long-term repression that are to come, i.e. not mass arrests, but political ostracism; not having an organization banned, but having it funded and promoted with a leadership inching to the right while verbally posturing to the left; or else targeted attacks on tiny groups of “troublemakers” or “terrorists” who will be easy to spot by their not cheering whatever the new “consensus” status quo will be.
In this regard, a not improbable worst-case-scenario would involve Law 78 staying on the books after the mass mobilization subsides, at which point police will not hold back from enforcing it each and every time we take to the streets.
This minoritarian approach is complicated by the fact that we may not be at the tail end of the surge, we may only be at the beginning. Things are likely to get a lot better before they get worse. This may end this summer, or this may simply be the beginning of the first year. (Obviously there is always the hope that global changes or political breakthroughs will occur that will permit this surge to break out of the limited model i am placing it in – comrades have pointed out that world capitalism is already in a crisis, and therefore has less room to maneuver than it did in the sixties – though to those who think that spells “rev”, i would suggest they read up on 77 as well as 68, taking special note of Italy and France.)
The surest way to fuck up in terms of winning more people to our positions would be to act as if this were not a breakthrough, or to act as if things were calming down when really they are heating up. So the (subjective) challenge is in maintaining a cheery disposition but reminding oneself of a long-term gloomy forecast, keeping an umbrella in your backpack despite the sunshine outside. Or to be more prosaic and precise: to fight to break out of this cycle (of metropolitan militancy being re-integrated by patriarchal colonialist capitalism) will leave us in a better position even if we do not succeed.
But we have to fight like we mean it – as hard as we can.
Rearguard Objectives and Avenues of Advance
At the same time, we should work to encourage elements in the mass struggle which highlight deeper problems, which will break people off from their patriarchal-capitalist-colonialist nations. Or, barring that, which will serve as obstacles to reactionary tendencies within their (our) communities. Rather than abandon the terrain and capacities we have developed prior to this upsurge, this is where we can build on them, making connections that will both aid the more radical and oppressed sections of the present mobilization, while also establishing some political barricades against our opponents. (That this is already being done, in at times brilliant form, can be seen from before March 15 to after May 1, with examples ranging from CLASSE reps’ statements about Indigenous sovereignty to the upcoming trans night-time demo…)
In his book The Defeat of Solidarity, ((David Ost The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe (Cornell University Press, 2005), 96-7.)) author David Ost describes the rightward turn of labor in Poland in the 1990s, making the point that anger at neoliberalism was unavoidable, but that because the left and liberals opted not to organize it, it took on a right-wing, racist, and sexist complexion: “In the end, workers turned to the right because only the right appealed to them as workers, because no one else offered a clear narrative validating the class experiences they were having.” This is similar to Sakai’s observation that to many leftists, “the white workers as a whole are either the revolutionary answer – which they aren’t unless your cause is snowmobiles and lawn tractors – or they’re like ignorant scum you wouldn’t waste your time on. Small wonder rebellious poor whites almost always seek out the Right rather than the left.” ((J. Sakai When Race Burns Class: Settlers Revisited. ))
With this worst-case-scenario in mind, we should never shy away from reaching out to people, hoping to win them over or at least create some space in which they can think outside of the patriarchal-capitalist-colonialist box. This is one way we can work to prevent the social energies that have been unleashed from being captured by the far right. We all have contradictions and doubts, and if we can sow doubts or hesitations in the minds of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people about the worst aspects of capitalism or national oppression or patriarchy, this might make it more difficult for our opponents to recruit them. It might also make it possible for us to win a few of them over to our side in the battles to come, even if they currently remain beyond our reach. As such, although at present we may only win a tiny minority over to clearly anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-patriarchal positions, that doesn’t mean we cannot influence much greater numbers in some more partial and long-term way.
In practical terms, there are a number of ways to do this, the most obvious being to properly contexualize repression: remembering and talking about the dozens of people killed by police in Montreal over the past decades when we discuss police violence at the ongoing protests, and placing the sexual harassment women are facing at the hands of police during these protests in the context of gendered violence being carried out by police – and other men – every day. In both these examples, our ultimate aim should be to frame these interventions in the context of opposing reactionary tendencies within the current mobilization itself, i.e. the fact that women and racialized people have been dealing with sexist and racist shit from both the State and also at times within the student-movement throughout the strike.
Theorizing and acting around this are two obvious ways of making connections, of extending the offensive both within the mobilization and in new ways outside of it. This is the liberatory potential that exists within the dialectic of oppression and revolt.
Of course, other possibilities abound: resisting the ongoing deportations, most glaringly perhaps the case of Dany Villanueva; solidarity with resistance elsewhere, for instance the ongoing prison hunger strikes and rebellions in the u.s., which can be related to prison-expansion plans here; protests and attacks around the anti-abortion bill that is about to be voted on federally in parliament; support for Indigenous resistance everywhere, including of course in regards to Plan Nord; what people do the next time tragedy strikes and police kill someone in this city (you have a plan, right?); mobilization around the new Employment Insurance changes … the list goes on and on …
One nice example of something comrades have been doing: there have been noise demonstrations held outside of area prisons where people arrested in the context of the current movement have been held, making connections between targeted political repression and the broader prison system, and building on previous more limited initiatives of this sort over the past years. This kind of action makes all the right things easier to see.
In the current situation, where militant tactics have provided so much of the fuel that has fired this surge forward, any disruptive resistance to any of these attacks will be seen as relating to the broader upheaval. Though this may not last long, for the moment the tactics themselves have become the symbol of the general politics at play. While tactics must always be tailored to what one’s base will support, with a minoritarian strategy it is important to remember that the base in question is not the general public at large or even your average protester. (By the same token, with a strategy of sowing doubts amongst our opponents in the long-term, actions that negate our politics will of course lead to defeats.)
The trick remains to engage in these more specific, sharper, conflicts in a way that does not instrumentalize them to buttress the “broader” mobilization, but which rather uses them to splinter people off or at least tug on people from the cross-class mass now in the streets.
Solidarity from the Oppressed?
As to our comrades who are not from this oppressor-nation and who do not focus their political activity within it, this article is not directed at them, as their decision on how or even whether to relate to this mobilization will have to be made with different criteria in mind. Group autonomy and self-determination do not mean that members of oppressed communities and nations should not join in this mobilization, they simply mean that this decision should be made without illusions, and with specific goals and factors in mind. Goals and factors different from what needs to be considered by those of us within the oppressor-nation.
Calls to “find the color” in any oppressor-nation mobilization, or to make everything “inclusive”, come from multiple, even hostile, class and political stands. Sometimes the oppressed are better off not lending their energies to mobilizations that do not serve their interests. We need to get used to the idea that if people from oppressed communities are not joining in some allegedly “broad” mobilization, maybe that’s because they have better things to do. Not necessarily a problem to be solved. Simply a choice that has to be made by people in (and not merely from) those communities, and it goes without saying that it needs to be made autonomously, not as the result of some call or demand or request from the settler left.
In terms of internationalism, the worst thing that the settler radical left can do is provide an excessively rosy picture of what the situation is. The second worst thing would be to provide an excessively gloomy one.
At the same time, when comrades criticize racist and sexist behavior and chauvinism, remedying this should be a priority. Not so that we can do a better job at recruiting more “color” to our events or because we are embarrassed by a lack of “diversity” or to hush up news that might damage our image – all reactions that have more to do with neocolonialism than antiracism. The main reason should not be to seduce allies (who might not benefit from such an alliance, after all), but simply because these forms of oppression are inimical to our politics and our principles, period. To the degree that this is a strategic priority, it is because racism, sexism, and national chauvinism are three of the strongest chains tying people to the labor aristocratic and middle-class elements that will try to drag this movement into the social democratic camp, and thereby instrumentalize it against the most oppressed. This is the ominous alternative to the aforementioned ways to extend the struggle; we can refer to it as the reactionary potential that exists within the dialectic of oppression and revolt.
In the here and now, the worst example of this kind of approach is summed up in the slogan “students and immigrants, same struggle” – a banner i saw at the monster demo on May 22. The conflation of interests implied by such “unite and fight” catchphrases is simply dishonest, and this despite the fact that the folks who say such things often mean well, and may even be comrades. These slogans cover up what we should be trying to expose. Indeed, the political content of such slogans is just as racist as the white students who wore blackface to a protest a few weeks back – if you think about it, they’re actually saying the same thing.
By Way of Conclusion
To get back to my little life in my little neighbourhood: a few of us got together last week, and by the end of the evening we were at times as many as fifteen walking through the streets, getting lots of smiles and occasionally having people lean out from their windows to chime in with their own kitchenware. Not everyone knew why we were banging pots and pans. Some people did not even know what we were talking about when we said “the student strike.” Personally, i hope if this continues in our neighbourhood, perhaps the focus can be something local folks can relate to more – i.e. against racism and/or against the police…
But i digress: it was a nice night – the most important thing is to be there, in the streets, alongside people – and better to try and fail than not to try at all.
For that reason, as well as all of the others outlined above, i don’t take the position that we should boycott these surges. Nor do i agree with the superficial antiracist approach that we should join them in order to add issues to some laundry list. However, i also reject the view that we should have a unitary response to them, or that we should blur the lines between the specific and the universal. Such an approach generally leads to privileged elements gaining political hegemony and leaves the radical – and, where they exist, proletarian – elements at their mercy.
for what it’s worth…