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REPORT: Convergence for the Rentrée

This is a report on the convergence in Montréal from August 13 to August 17. The TL;DR version is that it failed. Readers from Montréal may want to skip to the conclusion for the aftergame analysis.

SOME CONTEXT.

In late May, the Liberal government of Québec abruptly cancelled classes at striking universities and cégeps across the province, ending the already extended semesters and stipulating that classes would be completed during a special semester in August and September. With a few exceptions, notably the weekend that the law was passed and the weekend of the Canadian Grand Prix in early June, the government decree was generally effective at ending confrontation and economic disruption in the streets of Montréal for the summer.

The strike was at its most powerful in April, when manif-actions, demonstrations, and acts of sabotage were at their most frequent. These actions seriously interfered with the normal functioning of the capitalist economy in Montréal, but the reason they were able to happen is because many schools were shut down entirely. If some students were simply boycotting classes without blocking other students’ access to class, those who chose to participate in actions that improve the movement’s rapport de force with the government would have been at greater personal risk in terms of their financial situation, their immigration status, and numerous other factors. For the movement to again become a large and confrontational force in August, it would be imperative to effectively block classes. In fact, there was a lot of reason to think that the police would try to kill this second phase of the movement in its cradle by preventing any sort of blockade at the schools.

In early July, it was decided at a meeting organized by the Comité Grève Sociale (Social Strike Committee) that, for the week starting on Monday, August 13, there should be an international convergence to block the return to classes at cégeps in the Montréal area. Fatefully, it was decided that action would only be taken to block classes if a particular school’s student association voted to renew the strike. People immediately began putting energy into external promotion of the convergence, organizing meet-up centres, building websites, writing flyers, arranging housing and transportation, and making more specific plans for the week of August 13 with their neighbourhood assemblies.

In the absence of a strong and coherent strategic direction from CLASSE, and without yet any initiatives from the neighbourhood assemblies that the movement as a whole could plug into, the convergence strategy became the only strategy around which Montréal’s militants could collectively get excited and start organizing.

PRIOR EVENTS.

The night demonstration on August 1, marking both the hundredth such demonstration since the first round of negotiations between the student federations and the government broke down in April, and also responding to the general election that the premier had called that morning, boded well. The crowd was confrontational for the first time in well over a month. There were clashes with police. Jean Charest’s offices on avenue McGill College were attacked. It looked like the movement had just been kickstarted.

On August 8, an afternoon manif-action called by CLASSE didn’t go nearly as well. There were too few people, and riot cops very effectively prevented the crowd from blockading Hydro-Québec’s headquarters. Some employees were temporarily locked out of the building after returning from their lunch break, but nothing critical.

By the weekend, some schools had already voted to return to classes without incident, Cégep de Saint-Jérôme and Cégep André-Laurendeau among them; only Cégep de Saint-Laurent had voted to continue the strike, and it had only done so on the condition that the number of striking students would total 20,000 or more.

MONDAY, AUGUST 13.

Three cégeps voted to end the strike on Monday: Cégep Marie-Victorin, Collège de Maisonneuve, and Collège Édouard-Montpetit in Longueuil. On the other hand, Cégep du Vieux Montréal voted in favour of the strike—reiterating their association’s commitment, in fact, to the continuation of the strike until the realization of free education in the province of Québec.

A lot of effort had been put into organizing a morning solidarity demonstration at Marie-Vic; the cégep is difficult to reach from downtown neighbourhoods via public transportation. The hope was that students voting in the general assembly would see that there would be outside support if they decided to continue the strike—and, in fact, if the strike had gone favourably, all of those people would have been useful for the immediate task of building barricades and shutting down classes. That it went the way it did was disappointing, but ultimately not surprising. Along with Édouard-Montpetit and the other schools that had already voted to cancel the strike, Marie-Vic’s militant culture is less developed than other schools, and even during the strike, the margins of votes to continue the strike were sometimes pretty slim.

Maisonneuve, however, was shocking. During the spring, this school—located in Hochelaga, a very proletarian neighbourhood in the east of the city with a large anarchist population, some of whom are students at the cégep—had one of the most militant student associations of all, organizing actions like port blockades and constantly engaged to keep the school shut down. During the weekend, a representative from that student association had informed the CLASSE congress that, if riot cops were brought onto the campus at any point, the professors would immediately resign en masse. There was a solidarity demonstration organized by the Hochelaga APAQ (assemblée populaire et autonome du quartier, “popular and autonomous neighbourhood assembly”), but in comparison to Marie-Vic, people felt that the vote was a pretty safe bet in favour of continuing the strike. They were wrong.

The administrations at both Marie-Vic and Maisonneuve had canceled classes on Monday, not as a sign of solidarity with the process of student democracy, but in an effort to make sure that anti-strike students—who might otherwise have been attending classes—could go to the assemblies in large numbers. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t the definitively anti-strike and pro-hike students who decided things, certainly not at militant Maisonneuve where they are a rather insignificant minority. Most students have chosen the strategic direction that Pauline Marois and Léo Bureau-Blouin have been advocating: trêve électorale (election-time truce) instead of grève générale (general strike).

The general assembly at Cégep du Vieux started later, and it was still going on when crowds started assembling nearby at Berri Square for the first night demonstration of the rentrée. This was a militant and angry crowd. It marched to, and through, the cégep, and then it returned to the streets—launching fireworks at police, breaking four bank windows in total, painting graffiti, ransacking a construction site for barricade materials, the usual. Some people actually threw things from their apartment windows at the demonstrators, which enraged people a good bit.

Although the crowd wasn’t particularly big, the SPVM was hesitant to break it up too forcefully, presumably because the force didn’t want to influence the ongoing assembly’s vote against the interests of social peace. Around 10:00pm, it was determined by less than twenty votes that Vieux would remain on strike. Only after everything was done at the cégep did the police move in to disperse the crowd more forcefully around 11:00pm.

Monday proved to be the most exciting day of the convergence.

TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, THURSDAY.

On Tuesday and Wednesday respectively, there were two morning manif-actions—so described not because they were promoted as such, but because what else starts before 8:00am? The one on Tuesday started downtown, and it is unclear what happened; there probably weren’t enough people to pull off anything worth writing about. The other, Wednesday’s, met up at the eastern end of southwest Montréal’s proletarian Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood. For as long as possible, which wasn’t actually very long, the small crowd hung around the intersection of rues Bridge and Wellington, impeding the movement of early morning rush-hour traffic coming off the Victoria Bridge. This was organized by the Pointe’s APAQ.

On the front of student democracy, things continued to worsen. The loss of most individual cégeps was neither surprising nor particularly painful, but collectively, it looked like a huge problem. After Collège Ahuntsic, the last “radical” school that had yet to vote, canceled its strike, Saint-Laurent and Cégep du Vieux were the only schools with effective strike mandates. This changed, however, as students at both schools collected signatures on petitions and forced new votes on Friday.

Meanwhile, night demonstrations kept happening, and they were sometimes loud and spirited, but they didn’t disrupt anything more than traffic.

FRIDAY, AUGUST 17.

There’s not much to say. The votes started in the morning at both Saint-Laurent and Cégep du Vieux, and solidarity demonstrations were already in place to meet people as they came in the doors of the schools. They didn’t have the desired effect. The assemblies dragged on for several excruciating hours, emotions ran high, people yelled at each other, the continuation of the strike was voted down at both schools, and awful liberals said some bullshit about how “our movement isn’t over, it will emerge even more powerful after September 4…”

The administrations at both school had, of course, lied to the students and told them that, if the strike continued, they would all fail their semesters and there would be no hope for anyone’s academic record.

For the anarchists who sat through the whole process, it was emotionally debilitating. People were sad. Alcohol was consumed.

CONCLUSION: crisis, democracy, and mistakes.

To be sad right now is understandable. The idea that the spirit of April might be recreated in August, a hope to which many militants have clung since the movement progressively lost its momentum in May and June, is now understood to be false. The spring is over. It will never happen again. This is the essence of tragedy: the total and irrevocable loss of something that once was. All we have left is riot porn and good stories.

Québec’s crisis isn’t over, though. In fact, it has only just begun, because while the austerity measures that the provincial government is implementing right now are being decried as drastic and sudden by the left in this province, the federal government’s plans will be much faster and have a much greater impact on the lives of people who live here. The federal equalization arrangement, which transfers money from “have” provinces like Alberta to “have not” provinces like Québec, must be renegotiated by 2014. The Conservative government in Ottawa, no longer constrained by a minority status, will finally be able to change things to its liking. In one way or another, the relatively functional Québécois welfare state is going to end, but this will simply increase the popular rage that was the engine of the springtime strike.

Whichever government comes to power on September 4, it is inheriting a powder keg that is about to explode. Anarchists in Montréal should be excited—but there is no doubt that, at this very moment, the situation isn’t very attractive.

One problem is that we’re taking things personally. The movement has turned to politicians who cynically wore the red square in a ploy to win power, thereby rejecting us, the anarchists who have been a passionate and risk-taking part of this movement from before the strike started! But the simple fact is that anarchist ideas in general, and the anti-electoral ideas that we specifically share with certain types of party communists, remain marginal within the student movement. Democratic ideology and mythology, on the other hand, remain very influential.

It is important for anarchists to recognize that, when Emma Goldman said that the ruling class would make voting illegal if it actually changed anything, she was making her comments in a very different political context than the one in which we are struggling in Québec. To say that the outcome of the election will have no effect here is absurd on the face of it. No politician is offering any alternative to the misery of a capitalist society, that much is clear, but there are some very distinct ideological differences between the political parties vying for power in this province, not least of which is their position on Québec’s status within Canada—which, if changed, would have vast consequences for this society at large and those of us fighting the good fight in the social war. Every anarchist’s favourite anti-voting maxim can probably still describe accurately the situation in the vast majority of the world’s representative democracies, but because of the sovereignty question and several other reasons, there are probably few places in the world where those words are less true than they are here.

Another thing: for all of the talk of a larger social struggle against austerity and global neoliberalism or whatever, the raison d’être for the strike was to stop Charest’s tuition hikes. Tuition became an election issue as a result of the strike, and now the Parti Québécois says it is going to cancel the hikes if it gets elected—a promise that many think, rightly or wrongly, it would be hard for the PQ to break. What anarchists are recommending, don’t vote, doesn’t communicate anything to many militants because what those militants want is a postsecondary education system that will remain geared towards the creation of workers for a capitalist economy, but which will be free and funded by the government. The logic and aspirations behind not voting is significantly different. When anarchists recommend economic disruption, it’s even more alien, because they think (perhaps rightly) that chaos in the streets will simply help Charest get re-elected.

Finally, an election in a time of political crisis is one of the best weapons against confrontational and uncompromising social movements. The best example is probably de Gaulle calling an election after May ’68. It knocks movements out, sucking away their energy and diverting it into the electoral sphere. Along with threats of expulsion, threats of fines, and more, that’s what’s happening right now. But if we can get ourselves together again after September 4, it will be awhile, at least, before this particular weapon can be used against us again.

Of course, it’s worth noting that there were still several thousand militants—maybe more—who were not dissuaded by the idea of an electoral truce nor any of the other tactics employed by the state to destroy the movement. They were ready to fight, and yet it didn’t happen. Why? It’s not because direct democracy proved itself a loyal defender of representative democracy this week, although that is true. It is because militants, by and large, accepted these directly democratic votes as legitimate and final. They accepted the authority of a vote instead of taking action that they knew was sensible and necessary to maintain the collective power of the strike. Democracy, which is always authoritarian, is in direct opposition to both individual and collective self-determination.

So we are also to blame for this situation, which is unambiguously a failure and a setback. And to be clear, we fucked up a while ago. After the Special Law was passed, we weren’t organized or clever enough to keep the struggle going strong into the summer. When the movement as a whole hesitated, we chose to wait for it rather than making a quick return to the affinity-based organizing that we used before the strike. If CLASSE becomes an engine for a strike once again, then great; we can capitalize on the momentum it creates like we did in the spring. If it doesn’t, we make momentum of our own—even if that means a retreat into smaller-scale organizing, where we’re probably more effective anyway.

If some of these critiques hit home, think about them and talk to your friends about them. It’s time to keep fighting. And next time a call for an international convergence gets circulated, let’s make sure that we have our shit together.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Meanwhile, away from London… | Cautiously pessimistic on Friday, August 24, 2012 at 08:52

    [...] coverage, Cindy Milstein’s staggeringly extensive blog and particularly her latest post, and this critical report from Infinite Strike. As ever, there’s no guarantee that any of these sources are flawless, but a decent sampling of [...]

  2. [...] pots and pans), which I’d only seen presented in a positive light before. Finally, there’s also this report on Infinite Strike, which is slightly more up-to-date. Again, the analysis is heavily focused on proving that [...]

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