The Quebec student protests are the next wave and resurgence of the movement that began with the Arab Spring, surged into the Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Zuccotti Park in New York City, and crested in early October with the occupation of more than a thousand cities around the world. The tides of change may seem to have receded a bit over the past few months, but this is simply a lull, at best, and I’d remind that this movement is global, and rises anew in one place each time it appears to ebb in another.
We need to support the Quebec students not only because their cause is valid, but because it is another manifestation of the cause we all need to join amidst this teetering system of inequality, austerity, and environmental collapse.
But first, here’s another point of view. Writing in The National Post on May 22, Kelly McParland, amidst a buffet of ignorant and offensive remarks, had the gall to dismiss an entire generation:
“Their goal: free tuition for everyone. The entitlement generation has found its cause: People of Canada, it’s your duty to educate us, gratis. And after that, maybe you could throw in a few jobs too. If we feel like working.”
It seems hardly worth responding to this sort of thing, but it does allow a clarifying contrast. The generation currently struggling under increasing tuition fees and vanishing public support for education is asking for just one “entitlement,” really: a clean start, without the burden of a five-figure student loan debt. Even at the most lukewarm, liberal level, you could say that all that is being asked for by young people today is to start from a similar place that their parents’ generation did. It is no solution for an older generation to simply say, “well, times have changed—you don’t have that luxury anymore.” That is one generation self-satisfactorily washing its hands of any responsibility for the conditions inherited by the next.
At a more radical level, however, the Quebec student protests are a resistance to the crippling debt that the capitalist system has enshrined at its core—as well as the inequality and environmental degradation that debt continues to produce. To help explain, I will quote, at length, from Charles Eisenstein:
“Inequality and environmental degradation are written into the rules of our financial system on a level so deep they are nearly invisible…. The answer [as to how this is so] has to do with how money is created: as interest-bearing debt. At any moment, because of interest, the amount of money in existence is always less than the amount of debt. The only way to avoid defaults, unemployment and concentration of wealth is for new money to be constantly created through further lending. Lending can only happen and loans can only be repaid when there are profitable investment opportunities: the creation of new goods and services. That is, it can only happen in the presence of economic growth. When the economy stops growing, debt rises faster than income, defaults rise, employment falls, and the concentration of wealth intensifies.
“To prevent this, politicians across the political spectrum seek economic growth. Ideally, if the economy grows fast enough, the owners of wealth can keep getting richer by lending money at interest – and the borrowers can get richer too, by increasing their revenues faster than the rate of interest. That plan worked pretty well in the 1950s and 1960s, but today it is becoming increasingly apparent that the planet cannot accommodate much more economic growth. As the growth rate has slowed, economic inequality has increased. For a time the developed world “imported growth” by stripping natural resources and social capital from nations that still had a lot of it. Today, though, these sources of growth are running out as well. We are left with the dregs of the barrel: for example, the Alberta Tar Sands.”
Essentially, whether it is financial debt or the burden of an exhausted, depleted, and polluted natural environment, we are asking future generations to pay for what we are doing today. This is, in part, what mystifies pundits and apologists like Kelly McParland: these kids are already privileged, he wants to say—lucky to be born in a country like Canada, lucky to even have the opportunity to go to university and get an education. How dare they ask for more than that!
But insurrections signal more than what appears on their surface (street marches, protest signs, the rhetoric of chants and media sound-bites), and what is happening in Quebec right now has to do with a lot more than a tuition hike. What’s being signaled, today, is less about present conditions (though they are often terrible, and definitely worsening) than about the prospect of future conditions. The students demonstrating in Quebec are resisting a future of chronic indebtedness, and of course, in an economy increasingly dependent upon people’s indebtedness, such a revolt seems a rending of the entire social fabric, and the student revolutionaries appear as nothing less than selfish ingrates daring to refuse their destined future of debt servitude. Shame indeed!
No, in Quebec we see a shining light of hope, a brilliant red square. Against an arrogant government defying hundreds of thousands in its streets, against nightly displays of police brutality (here is the violence, McParland, if you want to see it)—tear gas, pepper spray, and crushing baton blows—against waves of austerity intended to make those who can least afford it pay for the maintenance of outrageous corporate profits, people, young but some of them old too, are taking to the streets once again to sound their resounding ENOUGH!
The future is at stake in our “public” education system—and the future is exactly what has been at stake throughout the past sixteen months of global protest and unrest. The question: who is going to pay for all this debt and environmental degradation? That’s a good start. But we are beginning to ask another question too, a question about what, exactly, that future is going to look like: a future of ever expanding production in a futile scramble to outrace ever expanding debt, or a future of mutual aid and stewardship of the commons. This is where the Quebec situation leads: not back into the classroom, but out into a world whose future we are making, or depleting, today.
So here’s to the student movement in Quebec. I hope it pulls all of us into the streets, to address the particular ways the crisis of debt and ecocide is unfolding in all our town squares. It’s time to rise up and struggle for all our tomorrows. It’s time to end the cycle of debt and ecocide.