The Quebec Strike and the Politics of a New Social Awakening


The only possible reawakening is the popular

initiative in which the power of an idea will take root.”

                                                                                                —Alain Badiou


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.

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.[2]  Such a disposition is evident in the fact that neoliberalism’s only imperatives are to increase the profits of a ruling elite and foster investment in global power structures unmoored from any form of accountable, democratic governance. The devastating fallout of neoliberal capitalism’s reorganization of society now becomes its most embraced mode of legitimation. Collective misfortune is no longer interpreted as a sign of failing governance, 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”[3]—one that unapologetically generates policies that “trample over millions of people if necessary.”[4]

Neoliberalism’s defining ideologies, values, and policies harness all institutions and social practices to the demands of corporations and the needs of the warfare state, while waging an ongoing assault on democratic public spheres, public goods, and any viable notion of equality and social justice. At the same time, fraud and corruption run rampant through the financial sectors of many advanced industrial countries, burning everything in their path.[5] As corporate power is consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, ideological and structural reforms are implemented to transfer more 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 notes, “The richest Canadian 1% has almost doubled its share of the national income pie—from 7% to almost 14%—over the last three decades.”[6] The United States holds the shameful honor of being “perched at the very top of the global premier league of inequality,”[7] with 1 percent of Americans holding 40 percent of all wealth and 24 percent of all income.[8] A dire consequence of growing equality is that more and more young people are facing joblessness and poverty and are being written out of a future that might offer them a decent life. What many young people have learned the hard way in both countries is that the impacts of inequality cannot be adequately captured with empirical measures based in the Gross National Product or median incomes. Inequality has a lived quality in which there is “a fatal attraction between poverty and vulnerability, corruption and the accumulation of dangers, as well as humiliation and the denial of dignity.”[9]

Nowhere is the precariousness that defines the current state of young people more obvious than in the consequences they face daily as the welfare state is being dismantled, individual rights effaced, political freedoms criminalized, and social rights all but obliterated.  Zygmunt Bauman argues that today’s youth have become “outcasts and outlaws of a novel kind, cast in a condition of liminal drift, with no way of knowing whether it is transitory or permanent.”[10] Increasingly unemployed, pushed into poverty, deprived of the most basic social provisions, denied access to decent health care, faced with diminished educational opportunities, and subject to the discipline of a growing punishing state, young people across the globe face a bleak future marked by uncertainty, vulnerability, insecurity, and the burden of mounting debt.[11]  Youth are now condemned to unskilled or temporary jobs, commodified social bonds, and personal commitments that carry a short expiration date.  Identities are now temporary, shifting endlessly amid a glut of information provided by celebrity culture and the corporate flattening of all major cultural apparatuses. Instead of being viewed as a crucial social investment, many youth, especially protesting students and minorities of race and class, have become the objects of law and order, caught in an expanding web of surveillance, criminalization, and a governing-through-crime mode of statecraft.[12]

Living out their youth in a present whose future promises only to preserve and expand those spaces that have become sites of “terminal exclusion”—extending from bad schools to bulging detention centers and prisons— young people in North America and Europe have exhibited a growing recognition that the real marker of their generation is an ever-expanding mode of precarity.[13] Increasingly relegated to such “zones of social abandonment” and stripped of their dignity as students and workers, student protesters in both the United States and Canada have recognized that “the current mode of production and reproduction has become a mode of production for elimination, a reproduction of populations that are not likely to be productively used or exploited but are always already superfluous.”[14] By some estimates, “Nearly 75 million young people around the world are out of work, an increase of four million since the economic crisis of 2008.”[15] Youth unemployment rates in Europe are staggering, reaching as high as 50 percent in both Spain and Greece and over 35 percent in Ireland. In the United States, 53 percent of college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed.[16] Regardless of its diminished promise of social and economic mobility, higher education now subsidizes institutional budgets with exorbitant tuition rate hikes that effectively prevent working-class and many middle-class youth from even getting an education.

It is precisely against this background of growing uncertainty, despair, diminishing expectations, and the crushing policies of neoliberal austerity that young people in the Canadian province of Quebec organized a protest movement that may  be one of the most “powerful challenges to neoliberalism on the continent.”[17] Thousands of university students raised their voices in unprecedented opposition against the ideology, modes of governance, and policies of the neoliberal state.  The initial cause of the protest movement began in response to an increase in tuition fees announced by the provincial government in March 2011. The tuition hike was “part of the government’s effort to advance neoliberalism in Quebec by introducing new fees for public services and raising existing ones.”[18] The government’s proposal included raising tuition by $325 per year over five years with the increased fees going into effect in September 2012. The hike amounted to a 75% increase over five years, rising from $2,319 to $3,793 by 2017. Many critics noted that, even with the increase, tuition fees in the province would be among the lowest in Canada. Regardless, in February 2012, after the government refused to negotiate with organizations representing student interests, the student leaders called for a strike. Thousands of students boycotted their classes, shutting down many of the province’s colleges and universities. Developing into a massive student strike— involving more than 300,000 students and rallying many additional supporters for a mass demonstration on March 22, 2012—the popular uprising transformed from its initial focus on tuition fee structures into a major broad-based movement with tens of thousands of supporters marching nightly in the streets of Quebec cities and in solidarity demonstrations across Canada.[19]  As the strike progressed and expanded its base of support, over a quarter of a million joined the demonstrations on a number of occasions and an estimated half million people marched in Montreal on May 25, 2012. By July 2012, the Quebec protest movement had emerged as not only “the longest and largest student strike in the history of North America,” but also “the biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.”[20]  Activating new forms of dissent and solidarity, the students had responded to neoliberal austerity measures by initiating an opposition movement that ranks as one of the most powerful collectively organized challenges to neoliberal ideology, policy, and governance that has occurred globally in some time.

The issues addressed in the early stage of the protests included a rejection of the province’s call for a tuition increase, a sustained critique of the under-funding of post-secondary education, a critical interrogation of the perils facing a generation forced to live on credit and tied to the servitude of debt, and the opening up of a new conversation about the meaning and purpose of an educational system—in particular, the kind of education that is free and removed from corporate influences and whose mission is defined around issues of  justice, equality, and support for the broader public good.  In developing their critique, the protesters resurrected “the ideal of free post-secondary education—recommended in the 1960s by a famous state-commissioned inquiry, but long since snuffed out among the economic elite.”[21] They made clear the political and moral fault lines between those who believe that education is a commodity purchased by “consumers” for self-advancement and those who would protect it as a right funded by the state for the collective good—and, in doing so, they “sparked a fundamental debate about the entire society’s future.”[22] As Martin Lukacs insists, one achievement of the Quebec protest movement has been “to clarify for a broad swath of society that a tuition hike is not a matter of isolated accounting, but the goal of a neoliberal austerity agenda the world over.”[23]  By expanding their critique to encompass a broader perspective on neoliberal austerity measures, students were then able to address the fee hikes as part of the growing burden of suffocating debt, government funding priorities that favor the financial and corporate elite, the ruinous transfer of public funds into the reserves of the military-industrial complex, and the imposition of corporate culture and modes of governance on all aspects of daily life.

In the case of Quebec, the hidden order of politics at the center of neoliberal austerity measures and the government’s misplaced priorities is difficult to miss. It helps explain why Quebec provincial is spending in 2006-2007 provided $437 million for funding private schools, especially when, as Erika Shaker points out, such funds “would pay for a fee freeze at Quebec universities and have money left over for bursaries for low-income students [while] the remainder could be redirected towards public schools.”[24] Shaker suggests that this transfer of funds “demonstrate[s] that when public money is used to facilitate private access, it’s the public infrastructure and the people accessing it who pay the price.”[25]  The defunding of the social state and higher education and the increasing attack on the social contract are also evident in the Canadian state’s willingness in the latter half of the 1990s “to reduce by 50% the federal transfers to the provinces for post-secondary education [which has amounted] to a loss of income of $800 million per year for Quebec.”[26] Federal funds that could be used for investing in higher education have instead been reallocated in keeping with the conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda and squandered on prison construction and an expanding Canadian military budget.  Commentators in the national newspapers bleat about the putative naiveté or selfishness of Quebec youth while remaining conspicuously mute about the increased militarization of the culture, even as Canada attempts to extricate itself from a disastrous and costly war in Afghanistan. The current neoliberal governments at the federal and provincial levels express little or no concern about providing students with quality higher education or supporting investment in universities, libraries, health care, and a jobs creation program for young people. Misplaced priorities that shut down economic, educational, and political opportunities suggest that Canada has become a society that is waging a war on its children, even as government policies increasingly reveal the savagery of a system that considers profits more important than the lives of its citizens.

Predictably, the Quebec government along with a number of high-profile mainstream journalists deployed a massive smear campaign against the students, labelling them as “self-seeking brats, whining about modest tuition increases and seeking mayhem for its own sake.”[27] It is impossible to determine if the bellicose assault against the protesters in the mainstream media along with the support of a large portion of the Quebec’s business community encouraged the Charest government to resort to repressive measures. However, it did just that by passing Bill 78 on May 18—and proceeding to implement anti-protest legislation that gave sweeping powers to the police and was designed to suppress peaceful protests and shut down student opposition, while violating the most basic principles of free speech, association, and assembly.[28] Representing the issues raised by the students “as a criminal rather than political issue,”[29] Law 12 was a desperate attempt to portray the protest movement as an act of criminality and students as figures of lawlessness, despite the general peacefulness of the student demonstrations. In the service of legitimating an alarmist set of regulations and substituting an emotional discourse for a reasoned and thoughtful attempt at dialogue, Law 12 provided a green light for police violence, making clear that the state would employ increasing levels of force against students and others in the face of its retreat from addressing major social and economic problems.

But the government’s decision to take up a defensive posture on behalf of rich elites and corporate power backfired. The passage of Bill 78 signified a major turning point for the Quebec protest movement. Rather than succeed in creating a climate of fear in order to intimidate students, faculty, and other sympathizers, the law outraged both civil libertarians and ordinary citizens and became a catalyst for attracting a much wider following of non-student supporters. Inspired by the pots and pans movement which developed in Chile the ’70s, the “casseroles” demonstrations in Montreal and other cities functioned as a mode of collective performance and a loud but peaceful way to express public outrage and anger at the Charest government. In addition, crowds of supporters embraced the red square as a symbol of resistance to a future of debt (being “squarely in the red”), pinning it on their clothing and waving red flags from their balconies, offering up a powerful symbolic image of defiance as a way to demonstrate their anger over a generation of young people trapped in a ruinous system of usurious credit and loans.

What began as a student strike, then, has morphed into a social strike in which the assault on education could be addressed as part of a wider attack on the social state, the environment, unemployed workers, the land rights of indigenous peoples, and young people.  The changing nature of both the debate and politics that informed it was evident in the writings of the movement.[30] The three-pronged action plan of CLASSÉ—the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, the largest student association and the most vocal in supporting direct action and rejecting the regime of neoliberal capitalism —and the “Manifesto for a Maple Spring” situated the Quebec movement in a broader historical context of social resistance, illuminating a shared opposition to “the laws of an unjust global economy that is mortgaging the future of all of us [and mortgaging] its youth as nothing more than an exploitable resource.”[31] In CLASSÉ’s Share Our Future Manifesto, the call for a social strike is presented passionately through a broad political narrative that is as imaginative as it is daring in its call to imagine new communal bonds, treat human beings with dignity, build democratic social relations, and construct a new vision of the future.  One gets a glimpse of this daring embrace of a revolutionary ideal in the following words from the Manifesto:

Our strike is not directed against the people. We are the people. Our strike goes beyond the $1625 tuition-fee hike. If, by throwing our educational institutions into the marketplace, our most basic rights are being taken from us, we can say the same for hospitals, Hydro-Québec, our forests, and the soil beneath our feet. …This is the meaning of our vision, and the essence of our strike:  it is a shared, collective action whose scope lies well beyond student interests. We are daring to call for a different world, one far removed from the blind submission our present commodity-based system requires. Individuals, nature, our public services, these are being seen as commodities:  the same tiny elite is busy selling everything that belongs to us. And yet we know that public services are not useless expenditures, nor are they consumer goods.[32]

In Alain Badiou’s terms, these documents demonstrate a strategy for changing a temporary event into a political organization capable of mobilizing a united idea in the service of an historical awakening.[33] The Quebec protest movement is clearly channelling more than the defanged spirit of revolt that Slavoj Žižek warned might dilute the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Not only does it symbolize “the awakening of democratic values,” but also the birth of a revolutionary idea grounded in the reality of burgeoning collective organizations and a “minimal positive program of socio-political change.”[34]

By connecting their specific grievances to a much broader set of social problems, student activists have been able to highlight the darker registers of finance capital that increasingly closes off any possibility for a better life for themselves and everyone else in the future.  In this instance, what is being implicated by the students calling for higher educational reforms, as Randy Boyagoda points out, is actually “a profound crisis of faith in the socioeconomic frameworks that have structured and advanced societies across North America and Europe since World War II [as well as] a rejection of the premise of the postwar liberal state: that large-scale institutions and elected leaders are capable of creating opportunities for individual citizens to flourish.”[35]  The Quebec movement has indeed extended a disquieting narrative about the future of young people entering adult life saddled with debt to include the troubling reality of a broader social system that increasingly places its political allegiances, social investments, and economic support in the service of rich and powerful financial institutions while eviscerating the social state and the public treasury.  In offering the public a new language through which to challenge neoliberal prerogatives, the Quebec movement has made clear that the financial and corporate interests at work in the drive to raise tuition and push thousands of students into bankruptcy are also responsible for growing inequality, privatizing public services, raising and creating new user fees for health care, corporatizing education and other public spheres, eliminating public sector jobs, closing factories, exploiting natural resources for financial gain, extending the retirement age, curbing the power of trade unions while slashing their benefits, promoting tax cuts that benefit the rich, and criminalizing social problems in a way that deepens economic injustice, racial discrimination, and the ongoing war being waged on youth.

As the Quebec student movement gains in strength and develops into a broad popular uprising intent on shutting down the government and reconfiguring the lines of political and economic power, the government has resorted to more violence. Thousands of students have been arrested, one young person lost an eye, and there have been numerous reports of excessive force used on peaceful demonstrators. Such violence appears as a replay of the attacks by the police on students occupying university campuses in the United States. In both instances, the emerging specter of a police state canceled out the fictive portrayal of young people as insignificant whiners and self-indulgent brats manufactured by the conservative media, pundits, and government officials.  Quite to the contrary, students are making themselves increasingly visible as the harbingers of a social movement willing and capable of challenging the neoliberal nightmare.  Protesting students in Quebec have gone far beyond the limited tactic of mass mobilizations, opting instead for a permanent presence and media profile through ongoing demonstrations, study groups, media outreach, community engagement, policy interventions, and performance art.  What is unique about the Quebec movement is how organized it has been—a reflection of how students prepared for the demonstrations before they actually took place by networking and mobilizing small groups to talk to students, faculty, staff, union representatives, and workers.

By engaging in a social strike, the Quebec protesters have reopened history, articulated a call for collective and shared struggles, and made visible those groups who are increasingly ignored or viewed as disposable—“people, who are present in the world but absent from its meaning and decisions about its future.”[36]  Thinking otherwise in order to act beyond the boundaries of the given has been a characteristic of the Quebec student movement from its inception. And while the Quebec resistance shares the spirit of direct democracy evident in the Occupy movement, it has extended its critique of neoliberalism and its embrace of the principles of participatory democracy beyond the boundaries of the nation state, singular political issues, and temporary political organizations. It has connected its democratic project to other student movements in Chile, England, and the United States as well as to a growing worldwide resistance to global capitalism. It has raised important questions about the role of the university in society and what relationship will exist in the future between corporate power and all aspects of public and political life. It has provided an overarching discourse in which it can discern and address a number of related political and economic issues that produce mass suffering and human hardships. Most importantly, the Quebec resistance movement has developed a series of strategies and tactics emerging from a revolutionary ideal that signals the awakening of history with an idea of both what a radical democracy might look like and how crucial free, accessible higher education will be to such a struggle. The organizers have recognized that being faithful to this ideal demands tactics that focus on more than temporary disruptions, isolated events, and slogans:  it necessitates a new kind of politics in which people become unified around both a collective sense of injustice and the hope of building a new society. It does not simply criticize the dominant order, but also points to alternatives designed to overthrow it.  With the Quebec movement, a revolutionary idea has been born and now waits for the conditions through which it can become a more powerful, inspiring political and moral force.



[1]. I want to thank Grace Pollock and David L. Clark for their excellent editing suggestions.

[2]. David Harvey, “Is This Really the End of Neoliberalism?” CounterPunch (March 13-15, 2009). Online:

[3]. Eric Cazdyn, “Bioeconomics, Culture, and Politics after Globalization,” in Cultural Autonomy: Frictions and Connections, ed. Petra Rethmann, Imre Szeman, and William D. Coleman (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), p. 64.

[4]. Alain Badiou, The Rebirth of History, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2012), p. 12.

[5]. Some recent and important literature on this issue includes: Charles Ferguson, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Highjacking of America (New York Random House, 2012); Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011); David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Paul Krugman, End This Depression Now! (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012); Jeff Madrick, Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Vintage, 2012); Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012); and Richard D. Wolff and David Barsamian, Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism (San Francisco: City Lights Open Media, 2012).

[6]. Bruce Campbell, “Rising Inequality, Declining Democracy,” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (December 12, 2011). Online:

[7]. Zygmunt Bauman, This Is Not a Diary (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), p. 103.

[8]. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality.

[9]. Zygmunt Bauman, Living on Borrowed Time: Conversations with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo (Cambridge: Polity, 2010), p. 68.

[10]. Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives (London: Polity, 2004), p. 76.

[11]. Report by National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA), The Student Loan “Debt Bomb”: America’s Next Mortgage-Style Economic Crisis (Feb. 7, 2012), online:; Andy Kroll, “Shut Out: How the Cost of Higher Education Is Dividing Our Country,” Truthout (April 2, 2012), online:; and Collin Harris, “The Student Debt Bubble: Interview with Alan Nasser,” ZSpace (December 18, 2011), online:

[12]. Jonathan Simon, Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). See also Henry A. Giroux, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[13]. Joäo Biehl, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p.14.

[14]. I have borrowed the term “zones of social abandonment” from Biehl, Vita. Etienne Balibar, We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 128.

[15]. Editorial, “Global Youth Jobless Rates Still High,” Hamilton Spectator (May 23, 2012), p. A17.

[16]. Jordan Weissmann, “53% of Recent College Grads Are Jobless or Underemployed–How?” The Atlantic (April 23, 2012). Online:

[17]. Martin Lukacs, “Quebec Student Protests Mark ‘Maple Spring’ in Canada,” The Guardian (May 2, 2012), online:

[18]. David Camfield, “Quebec’s “Red Square” Movement: The Story So Far,” The Socialist Project, No. 680, (August 13, 2012). Online:

[19]. Ibid.

[20]. Peter Hallward, “The Threat of Quebec’s Good Example,” Socialist Project, e-Bulletin No. 647 (June 6, 2012). Online:

[21]. Lukacs, “Quebec Student Protests Mark ‘Maple Spring.’”

[22]. Ibid.

[23]. Ibid.

[24]. Erika Shaker, “Don’t Kid Yourself: We All Pay for the Defunding of Higher Education,” CommonDreams (May 12, 2012).  Online:

[25]. Ibid.

[26]. Pierre Graveline, “The Strange Disappearance of the Canadian State from the Debate on the Student Strike,” Canadian Dimension (June 17, 2012). Online:

[27]. J.F. Conway, “Quebec: Making War on Our Children,” Socialist Project, e-Bulletin No. 651, (June 10, 2012). Online:

[28]. For a critique and summary of the bill, see Roger Annis, “Quebec Students Mobilize Against Draconian Law Aimed at Breaking Four-Month Strike,” Socialist Project, e-Bulletin No. 637 (May 19, 2012), online:  See also Roger Annis, “Update on Quebec Student Strike: Summer of Protest Ahead,” (June 4, 2012), online:; CommonDreams staff, “’Biggest Act of Civil Disobedience in Canadian History’ ” CommonDreams (May 23, 2012), online:; Linda Gyulai, “Bill 78 Contravenes Charter, Lawyer Says,” The Gazette (May 23, 2012), online:; Laurence Bherer and Pascale Dufour, “Our Not-So-Friendly Northern Neighbor,” New York Times (May 23, 2012), p. A31; and Ian Austen, “Emergency Law Broadens Canada’s Sympathy for Quebec Protests,” New York Times (June 5, 2012), p. A4.

[29]. Hallward, “The Threat of Quebec’s Good Example.”

[30]. See “Manifesto for a Maple Spring,” (April 26, 2012). Online: See also “The CLASSE Manifesto: Share Our Future,” (July 12, 2012). Online:

[31]. “Manifesto for a Maple Spring.”

[32]. “The CLASSE Manifesto: Share Our Future.”

[33]. Badiou, The Rebirth of History.

[34]. Slavoj Žižek, “Occupy Wall Street: What Is To Be Done Next?” The Guardian (April 24, 2012). Online:

[35]. Randy Boyagoda, “For Student Protesters in Quebec, It’s About More Than Tuition,” The Chronicle (June 3, 2012). Online:

[36]. Badiou, The Rebirth of History, p. 56.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1