An Open Dialogue on Protest with Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, Michael Nardone and others
For over six months, tens of thousands of students across Québec have been on strike to protest the government’s plan to increase university and college tuition fees by 75%. During these months, the strike has been supported by a number of protest actions, including mass demonstrations that shut down Montreal’s downtown, bridge blockades, and “casserole protests” that brought entire neighborhoods out on the streets to bang pots and pans in defiance of the government’s emergency measures to quell the student uprising and limit protestors’ rights to assemble.
The following is an excerpted transcript of an open dialogue that took place at the Sense Lab in Montreal on June 24, 2012. The gathering brought a number of Montreal students and activists together with Bay Area poets and antagonists Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover to discuss student and social movements in Québec and California.
To initiate a dialogue, I asked Jasper and Joshua the following questions:
Recognizing a common ground against the restructuring of educational institutions according to the imperatives of the financial industry and the militarization of the university campus as a means to enforce these imperatives, what are ways to unite and fight these mutual struggles in California and Québec? What tactics might be enacted to further develop networks of dissent?
I have curated this excerpt of the exchange to focus in on the Québec and California student movements, their relationships to the Occupy movement, and, finally, the larger economic crisis in which they occur.
Joshua Clover: These movements and struggles tend to move in waves and rise and fall somewhat unevenly. It’s a bit of a moment, I think, of decomposition in the Bay Area after the high drama birthed on the campuses where Jasper and I have both recently found ourselves, but also at Occupy Oakland, which we were briefly proud to call the Oakland Commune. The fall, especially September and October, were times of great struggle and drama and seeming import there. And now it’s a little bit more of a decomposed moment. So, we were incredibly excited to go some place where it was more composed and to get a sense of what’s going on here, which frankly strikes me, I think strikes all of us, as self-evidently, fantastically important, but also something that’s not being covered particularly carefully in the US press, if covered at all.
So, we figured the way to know about it was to come here, which was a little hard to schedule, but we managed to pull it off and people here were very supportive and encouraging. Michael set up this event and we didn’t really know what it would be, and we still don’t really, but I can tell you a bit about it. I came up with the title and I sent it to Jasper to see if it was okay with him, and Jasper’s always—the French have this expression “breaking sugar across someone’s back,” and I don’t know if this is also a Québecois French expression—but Jasper’s always breaking sugar across my back, and he said: “It’s a pretty good title, but why is there a question mark? Of course struggle can be shared.”
We talked about this and I basically agree, but I didn’t want to have that be a closed question because I think for me really fundamental issues continue to present themselves in ways that struggle can and can’t be shared, both across space and different places—Oakland and Montreal to name just two—but also across various kinds of social boundaries, whether they be class structures, whether they be from inside the university to outside the university, to the space of work, to the space of non-work of the unemployed—and particularly the things that present themselves as possible places of unity, but also limits to unification, obviously things like demands. If you have a university-specific demand, say, does that open on to other struggles, or does that cordon you off from other struggles? These are issues that have been very aggressively debated or aggressively ignored in various spaces in which I found myself organizing for the last three years, and the optimistic answer is always: Well, yes, of course struggle can be shared, and for two obvious reasons. People want it to be shared. Nobody wants to struggle alone. And, then, the fact that people in quite different places or communities are subject to shared forces, most obviously a catastrophic global economic crisis and the ways it presents itself, albeit differentially, in various places.
So, that’s more or less sort of the framework or the set of puzzles that we see going forward: on the one hand saying, “Well, the movement in Québec has already grown extraordinarily larger than the movement in California has been in this recent passage,” and yet the question of what are its limits, and how do people here conceive of moving beyond them or how do people conceive of those limits, and how do people think of those questions here? I think there are specific flashpoints around these questions. I think the question of demands and how they work and what people’s relation is to them is important. I think the question of people’s relationship to the state and to police repression, and how people articulate their relationship to that, is a fundamental flashpoint. I think the relationship to labor, the relationship to organized unions—be they student unions or labor unions or so on—these become fundamental areas of debate, and so I want to offer these more as questions or as places of discussion and contention that have arisen.
Jasper Bernes: One of the things that’s interesting to me is that the struggle here in Québec, from what I can tell, abbreviates a transformation that happened in California. If you look at something like Occupy Oakland or the Oakland Commune, there are a couple of different streams that flow into it. One is a student movement that we had in 2009-2010, and the other is this anti-police movement that basically emerged around the murder of Oscar Grant by Bay Area police. When the student movement was happening in 2009-2010—and it wasn’t particularly large, but it was pretty intense—there were a lot of things happening that were interesting, at least from the perspective of the United States. There was a much greater degree of ferocity and new tactics and new ideas got put on the table.
One thing we talked a lot about during the student movement was how we wanted to link up that struggle with struggles in other places and sectors and to thereby escape the university. We realized that inasmuch as we remained confined to the university, things would die there. And that’s probably because none of us—at least the people who I was consorting with—really wanted to preserve the university as such. We had a pretty negative view of what the university does, its function in a capitalist society. We didn’t think of it as an engine of liberation. In fact, we saw it as this thing that reproduces class society. So, it really wasn’t as if we wanted to struggle to preserve the university. No, we wanted to generalize antagonisms toward society as it is currently constructed, and the university was the place where we could do that. Nonetheless, though we often talked about how we had to link up with struggles in other spheres, beyond the university, that never really happened, and we were not successful at getting off campus, as it were.
But what did happen was that, eventually, a year and a half or two years later, after the student movement had largely come and gone, Occupy Oakland emerged, and that strategy of occupation which we had pursued during the university protests found a much larger arena. Many of the same people who were involved in the first round of things at the university were also involved in Occupy Oakland, and a lot of the ideas that were put forward in the context of the student movement re-emerged in the context of Occupy Oakland. That’s only one of the streams that went into it, of course. Occupy Oakland had a very different class composition and social composition, which makes it more interesting in many ways than what happened in the universities. In any case, Occupy Oakland was, in many ways, the realization of a certain desire for generalization which we had during the student movement. I think we were happy about that. But here in Québec it seems that what has happened is that there’s a student movement and then partly through the passage of the special law there’s this moment of generalization in which it becomes a larger social uprising, one that’s no longer confined to students or student issues.
L (a philosophy graduate student): The first thing that strikes me is that there’s a continuity between Occupy and the student movement that’s taken for granted, and, with that, the theme of debt between the two. I want to ask this question to everyone, what they think about that connection, because I was part of the Occupy camp in Montreal, and that was, for me, very obviously mobilizing and radicalizing. Then when the student movement started to really snowball around the end of March, I saw a lot of my friends from Occupy not participating because it wasn’t their thing. They had some other struggle. So along the theme of “can struggle be shared,” does anyone see connection between the Occupy camps in the States and up here? Do we have maybe a separation between the two?
S (a Montreal activist and organizer): I think the effect of Occupy Montreal was negative on the student movement. In comparison to places in the States, with certain strategic tendencies and ideological dogmas—pacifism being a particular one—in Montreal, these tendencies and ideologies have been, at least historically, less prominent in terms of radical scenes. Certainly within the anarchist milieu in Montreal, the question of pacifism has largely been resolved, at least in terms of people who have been engaged continually for several years.
Basically what Occupy Montreal did to a certain degree was give pacifism a renewed life. I think it’s interesting that Montreal—a place that has a militant tradition of its own, Québec in general having a very militant tradition—imported this pacifistic model from the United States, which in a lot of ways, I think, did not make sense in the context here.
JC: One of the things that’s really striking with what’s happened in the Bay Area—and Jasper started to get at this—was, in fact, the order was reversed: it was not that there was this Occupy thing that broke out and then there was a student movement. There was this largely student or university movement in 2009—and then there’s the anti-police movement as well around the murder of Oscar Grant—which formulated, among other things, or didn’t formulate but chose occupation as a tactic.
But because there was a student movement before Occupy that did influence Occupy and really fed into it around particular axes. It did, indeed, change the tenor of Occupy Oakland, as far as I know, compared to all the other Occupies. Occupy Oakland was both a fairly militant movement and also a pointedly anti-police movement because of the murder of Oscar Grant. That really shaped Occupy Oakland and its initial principles: that there would be no politicians allowed there as politicians, and there were no police allowed, and there would be no negotiating. We actually never violated those principles, and that set up quite a different dynamic.
There was a different relationship to pacifism or to the police exactly because there had been these two movements including a student movement that fed into Occupy. Now, that said, things reversed. There was Occupy and there was sort of a revivification of these student movements or campus movements, and then it very much did go exactly as S said: there were the local Occupy movements, let’s say Occupy Davis, which is the town where I work, and then Occupy UC Davis, which is the university where I work in that town. These two Occupies had largely different politics and struggled around different specific concerns, and I wouldn’t say they supported each other so much as set up a complicated dynamic that led to disintegration fairly swiftly. It would have disintegrated entirely if people didn’t get pepper sprayed on global television, which managed to hold the movement together for a couple of months in shared misery, fame and lawsuits.
JB: Observing all of these movements over the last year, I think one thing you can say is that self-organization on its own is not enough. In Egypt, you see people self-organizing in order to protect businesses. You see neighbourhood assemblies that are self-organizing for the purpose of explicitly reactionary forms of politics. Similarly, the Occupy encampments had very different characteristics in different places. Some of them were actually quite sympathetic to a kind of libertarian, quasi-racist element, and some of them were completely antithetical to that. I think that’s probably what we’re going to have: these forms—like protest camps—which spread and are then filled with political content. Some of that content is not going to be good or pretty. You can’t just separate out the question of the content. The forms or tactics may be spreading, people may be occupying squares or they may be doing casseroles or whatever, but fascists can have casseroles. Fascists can occupy buildings. Fascists can have a black bloc. These things on their own are just a shell.
When I talk to people in Egypt and in Greece and Spain, in all places where there are neighbourhood assemblies—and I think this is actually a really powerful thing, I’m totally supportive of the neighbourhood assembly as a way to empower movements to take next steps. But they complain that some of these assemblies are liberal, some are kind of chauvinist, some are not doing anything, some are really conservative, some are pro-capitalist. And that’s what you’re going to get, these forms of ambiguity. Self-organization on its own isn’t necessarily going simply to produce emancipatory potentials.
I think Oakland was really interesting because there was a very explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-police and anti-statist content there. I think a lot of people wanted Oakland to be an intervention into the whole Occupy movement, which had these politics that were either ambiguous or, in some cases, unambiguously problematic. And you can see, looking back, that those principles central to Occupy Oakland ended up changing the character of the movement overall.
C (a Montreal musician and activist): I think it’s really a stretch to draw a connection between the student strike and Occupy here in Montreal. Of course people here are taking inspiration from what they saw in Oakland and in New York City in terms of the direct actions that took place, but the historical conditions in Québec are very different than the States and even than the rest of Canada in terms of having a very rooted and long-term struggle for free university education.
The student strike that happened in 1978 revolved around that demand. In 2007, there was a huge effort to make a strike also, and at that time it didn’t take root. In the fall of 2007, there were significant demonstrations that students were trying to build around. At that time the government of Québec was increasing the cost of tuition for students. There was a huge effort then and it didn’t work in terms of achieving significant popular support and organization.
There are a million ideas on why it has worked this time, but I think, to be honest, one of them is pretty straight up: persistence. There has been massive popular organizing on campuses and in communities for many years that went into this. And, of course, it speaks to one of the unanswered dreams of a very specific period in Québec: the demand for free education, which dates back more than a generation, and that’s something that a lot of people believe in quite deeply. So, it seems like Québec society collectively didn’t successfully address, or that victory didn’t happen around the “The Quiet Revolution,” which I think is not an accurate term. It was a very loud period. At that time one of the demands was for free university education.
Every place has its own history, and I think Québec’s history very much informs what’s going on. But, of course, in the global era, in the global moment, people are watching what happened in Egypt and watching what happened in New York City. I think we also can’t underestimate the fact that there’s long-term nuts-and-bolts organizing, and tons of under-attended meetings, cold days flyering, and demonstrations that were very small a few years back that went into building this. That’s the case anywhere of trying to build a movement. I think it’s important to not over-romanticize what’s happening in Québec, but more to just understand that it’s tied to very particular history and experience that speaks to political struggles in Québec that go back generations.
JC: There have been some really interesting, eloquent accounts about the vertical, by which I mean the long history of Québec, both before this moment and the long organizing that has gone into this moment, but there’s also this horizontal line, e.g., global economic crisis. I want to think about this situation, what it allows and what it necessitates. Capitalism produces two things in this crisis: one, it produces debt, which is why debt is an important thing to organize around, but if you just organize around debt, you get a debt jubilee so you can start from zero and start generating your debt again. The other thing capitalism produces in a crisis is unemployment.
I think a fundamental question for me is how student struggles meet in a mode of political engagement with a surplus population, with those who are not employed, with those who are excluded from the job market. I’m not saying that’s the only political front in any regard; I’m saying that the question of unemployment and the unemployed as political agents should present itself to us very strongly as we think about the horizon of the next five or ten or fifteen or twenty years. For me, that’s a vital question as we think about what can happen there.
JB: Even if the students manage to fight off this fee increase, what’s going to happen five years from now? We can see that there’s this process of austerity grinding away across the entire world, and one victory here or there isn’t going to alter that. We’re in a situation where society as it’s constructed is radically incapable of meeting people’s needs. Which means that, rather than simply fighting back against austerity measures, one thing we can do is learn to provide for each other. This is something we need to do, especially in the university, where even if you manage to get a degree, there are no jobs at the other end. So what if, instead of only trying to preserve access to the university, we tried to take over the university and use it for other purposes, for the purpose of meeting these immense forms of social need?
I think that this was what the Occupy movement was about, at its best. What’s striking about Occupy is that, contrary to the desires of a lot of organizers who were in it from the very beginning, it articulated no real demands. People wanted it to eventually. That was the vision which the organizers had for it: people would get together, they would have a general assembly, and they would figure out what their demands were. But that didn’t really come about. Instead, Occupy became about directly meeting people’s needs. It became about mutual aid. It became about homeless people feeding each other and figuring out how to survive. It became about figuring out how to take care of each other in a situation of social breakdown.
The local activists who participated in the dialogue chose not to identify themselves by name.
Michael Nardone is a frequent contributor to The Conversant.