eipcp News
10 2012

The Québec Maple Spring, the Red Square and After

Marc James Léger

Marc James Léger


We’ll need to turn back and re-begin all over again.  So that our kids aren’t educated by the middle class, so that our homes aren’t constructed by the middle class, so that our souls aren’t tempted by the middle class.  So that if our culture couldn’t and shouldn’t any longer be the culture of poverty, it might be transformed into a communist culture.
– Pier Paolo Pasolini

In August of 2012 the Québec Liberal Party under Jean Charest announced a provincial election that would take place just after Labour Day and before the resumption of Fall classes.  The premier had presented the election as a sort of referendum in which the province was asked to vote on the student strike, which at its peak had mobilized nearly 300,000 students and which since the passing of the unconstitutional anti-strike and anti-demonstration Law 78 had brought into the struggle broad swathes of civil society.  Student groups insisted that even if Charest lost the election, the struggle for a social strike and for free university access would continue.  As it turns out the Liberals lost to the Parti Québécois, whose leader Pauline Marois announced on September 7 that she would abolish the special law and would put off tuition fee hikes for at least two years – time enough to review the matter at a future summit on postsecondary education.[1]  Starting in the month of March students had held mass demonstrations on the 22nd of each month.  Among many other forms of direct action, they also held nightly marches that began at 8:00 pm at Parc Émilie-Gamelin and continued late into the evening.  After the passing of the special law, the nightly marches intensified, leading to the 8:00 pm cazarolas that saw neighbours and neighbourhoods coming out to raise the stakes of the strike.  On September 22, however, at the first major march planned for after the election, the turnout was minimal.  After less than one hour, Montreal city police dispersed the few thousand people assembled.  The social strike, it would seem, was only a shadow of the more tangible struggle for affordable tuition fees.  While now is the time to draw some immediate lessons, it is possible to also look to past lessons as we think ahead and also as we quite rightfully celebrate a real victory.

Writing in the late 1960s and early 70s, the Italian poet, theorist and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini warned the students of the New Left that their – our – insistent indignation was, in the context of a “homologizing” consumer culture, not a form of engagement, but a means to live with a clear conscience.  Its features, he thought, were best expressed by the civil rights and student resistance movements that had developed in the United States.  Its “negative characteristic,” he argued, was its lack of class consciousness.[2]  In the country of democratic radicalism, vindication of the exploited needed the mediation of idealism; it filled the vacuum of communism with moralism rather than realism, with spiritualism rather than revolt.  Yet, for all that, the “anti-community” of Students for a Democratic Society and of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee reminded Pasolini of the wartime Resistance movement. 

Today, as the crises of capitalism are once again generating indignation, the amorphous forms of a faceless global Power continue to blur the distinctions between the intelligentsia, the technocratic class, the ruling class and the working majority.[3]  The symptom of such “democratic materialism,” as Alain Badiou refers to it, is not only democracy, but more pragmatically, empowerment.[4]  The radical struggle against neoliberal capitalism today no longer calls for class conscious political organization, but for forms of empowerment that are often not a threat to the productive goals of global bicapitalism.  In his interpretation of Badiou, Bruno Bosteels writes:

“Politics as a procedure of truth, however, cannot be reduced to the typically youthtful protest against the eternally oppressive and corrupt nature of the state apparatus. (…) a militant subject emerges only when the particular terms of the various memberships that define society are put down and abolished in favor of a generic concept of truth as universally the same for all.  Politics, in other words, has nothing to do with respect for difference or for the other, not even the absolute other, and everything to do with equality and sameness. (…) By traversing and deposing the different representations of identity with which the excess of state power maintains itself in its very errancy, a political procedure gradually begins to revolve around the notion of a generic set, that is, a set without determining attributes or qualities.”[5]

A democratic empowerment is certainly the vision that one draws from the July manifesto of the CLASSE (La Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), the student coalition that along with the FECQ (Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec) and FEUQ (Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec) spearheaded the printemps érable, the québécois version of the popular demonstrations, assemblies and occupations that have given expression to recent leftist struggles, from the revolutions of the Arab Spring, to the Greek and Spanish encampments, to the Wisconsin uprising and the Occupy movements that first erupted in New York City.[6]  To refer to only this one tract by what is considered to be the most radical of the student groups is perhaps not at all representative of a situation that brings together anarchists, social democrats, left liberals, socialists and communists alike.  A more pragmatic description of “associated institutions,” and certainly one that would come closer to the CLASSE’s general “social movements” outlook, could correspond instead to David Harvey’s list of non-governmental organizations, anarchist and autonomous grassroots organizations, traditional left political parties and unions, social movements guided by the pragmatic need to resist displacement and dispossession, and lastly, minority and identitarian movements.  He considers communist anyone who understands and struggles against the destructive tendencies of capitalism.[7] 

Given all of this one wonders why it is that the students have chosen the red square as their symbol.  Having first emerged as a symbol of Québec student politics in 2005 (previously associated with struggles against poverty within the Québec National Assembly), the red square could be compared to the cardboard signs of Occupy Wall Street, promissory notes that Gregory Sholette has described as “an obligation to a future reader from a place already dislocated in time”.[8]  However, if the cardboard signs, the wired downtown encampments and the general assemblies somehow seem novel, the symbolism of the red square makes it such that it is we today who are this “future reader” whose obligation, it seems to me, refers to a distinctly communist trajectory.  The red square and the manifesto: are these dehistoricized postmodern signs, avatars of a collective amnesia, or something more like the objects of a Situationist détournement, richer in constructive possibilities than presumed by the myth of progress?  If the latter is closer to the truth, this usage of the red square nevertheless considers the Situationist moment as one that is to be repeated, since, in no way is it possible to confirm that today’s revolutionaries have effectively condemned “all the ado of the lecture halls and classrooms as mere noise, verbal pollution.”[9]            

Amidst all of this academic noise is certainly the belief that we have not finished with postmodernism and its hasty obituary on the end of ideological meta-narratives.  The denial that postmodernism has been eclipsed by neoliberal globalization affects both the realms of culture and politics.  If it makes little sense for us today to ponder the forms of culture that correspond to globalization, it would make equally little sense for us to be overly concerned with the forms of culture that are specific to anti-capitalist protest movements.  The point, as the saying goes, is to change the world.  When one talks about the disappearance of art’s reified status in terms of bourgeois autonomy, however, about the sublation of art and life, one usually thinks of the Russian avant-gardes.  In particular, on thinks of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square of 1913, hung like an icon in his Last Futurist Exhibition and defined by him as the “zero of form,” a transitional image whose shift from white ground to black figure represented the passage from the individual bourgeois self to that of a new collectivity.  When Malevich was invited by Chagall to the Art Institute in Vitebsk, his lessons in Suprematist radical abstraction were quickly adopted by a group of communist artists who assembled under the name of UNOVIS.  The leader of the group, El Lissitzky, adopted Malevich’s use of geometric shapes and incorporated these into his designs for posters, books, buildings and exhibitions.  Unlike Malevich, Lissitzky’s “Prouns” were shapes that led from 2D to 3D, with multiple perspectives and shifting axes.  The Proun work by Lissitzky that most dramatically incorporates the red square is his 1920-21 New Man, a graphic design for a remake of the Futurist play Victory Over the Sun.  The ideal of UNOVIS was to organize and collectivize work, rather than embellish art.  While working as a cultural ambassador to the Republic of Weimar, Lissitzky made use of the new printing techniques of a Hanover firm.  The colour palette for his New Man was red and black, the same colours that are emblazoned in his well-known pieces Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) and Monument to Rosa Luxemburg (1919-21).

El Lissitzky’s work lent symbolic support to the communist “reds” during a protracted civil war against the monarchists, conservatives, liberals and socialists alike.  This association of communism with violence is prevalent today as one of the most heightened ideological features of liberal political blackmail.  As Bosteels recently put it, “from all sides we are bombarded with calls to live up to our duty to remember the past disasters of humanity, lest history repeat itself.”  More often than not, he adds, “this inflation of memory comes at the cost of postponing a genuinely critical history of ourselves from the point of view of the present.”[10]  Consider as an example of such a postponement Grant Kester’s essays on the similarities between vanguard intellectuals and avant-garde artists.[11]  In both cases, Kester argues, the radical seeks to reveal “the ‘true’ nature of domination” through its “exemplary consciousness.”  It does this, he says, by exaggerating the suffering of the working class or multitude and provoking the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois state.  The ensuing conflict and further suffering of the working class is justified, he says, by the utopian belief that this will lead to “total emancipation.”  The upshot for Kester, who writes this in relation to contemporary collaborative art practices, is that the vanguard conforms to a “dyadic structure” in which it is supposed to bring unenlightened viewers (both the bourgeois and the working class) to a higher level of consciousness.  Notwithstanding the fact that Kester considers class to be a matter of identity, an understanding that dismisses Marx’s theory of contradiction, does his description not perfectly describe the situation that has erupted in relation to the student strike?  Did the mass demonstrations, the nightly demonstrations, the bridge obstructions, metro smoke bomb scares, the office raids and broken bank windows not lead to the imposition of the draconian Law 78?  Did the Québec Liberal Party not repeatedly denounced the student movement, and was the students’ chosen symbol, the red square, not associated with “violence and intimidation.”[12]  The fact that Kester proposes no radical solutions to the effects of capitalism should give us some pause as to the political consequences of the fear that is evoked by the repressive power of the state.[13]  Today’s radicalism has indeed been conditioned by a hegemonic shift of power.  If, as Pasolini asserts, the working class once knew itself to be different from and opposed to the bourgeois class, today’s leftists know themselves as mostly different from communists – which is to suggest that to a great extent they do not know themselves.  

Bosteels tells us that in today’s context in which everything is fodder for historicization and in which capitalist ideology emphasizes difference, multiplicity and perpetual change, we should refuse to mourn communism.  Communism remains untimely, he says, dialectically historical and nonhistorical.  Bosteels’ idea of the actuality of communism fits nicely with Slavoj Žižek’s four reasons to preserve the idea of communism: because this tradition remains the tradition of authentic popular struggles for emancipation; because today’s problems are problems of the commons; because other terms, like democracy, socialism and justice are easily appropriated by the Right; and lastly, because we are approaching dangerous times in which we may have to do things on a mass scale, perhaps even violent things, while avoiding both principled opportunism and the totalitarian temptation.[14]  The red square, unlike the cardboard signs, has so far had the advantage of being associated with the power of organized structures.  Here is a social form that is not about empowerment based on identity, but based on universal, emancipatory organization.  Against the abstract background of debt and the threat of crippling fines for those who dared to pursue the strike, the red felt square has not only had a symbolic but an iconic value, one that promised and will continue to promise a revolutionary transformation of society.

[1] See “Droits de scolarité: Marois annule la hausse et une partie de la loi 78,” Le Devoir (September 20, 2012), available online at http://www.ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/359624/droits-de-scolarite-marois-annule-la-hause-mais-maintient-la-bonification-des-prets-et-bourses.

[2] Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Civil War,” in Jack Hirschman, ed. In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010) 21.

[3] See most notably, Stéphane Hessel’s Time for Outrage! (New York and Boston: Twelve, [2010] 2011).

[4] For a comparison of democratic versus dialectical materialism, see Bruno Bosteels, Badiou and Politics (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011). 

[5] Bosteels, Badiou and Politics, 30-1.

[6] See “Nous sommes avenir: Manifeste de la CLASSE,” July 2012, available at http://issuu.com/asse.solidarite/docs/manifeste_classe/3.  Also available in English as “The CLASSE Manifesto: Share our future,” rabble.ca (July 12, 2012) http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/campus-notes/2012/07/classe-manifesto-share-our-future. That the struggle against neoliberal capitalism is understood by the CLASSE in liberal democratic terms, involving a diversity of struggles is confirmed by the press conferences given by spokespersons Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Jeanne Reynolds.  See for instance “La CLASSE veut se débarasser des néolibéraux,” Le Devoir (July 13, 2012), available at http://www.ledevoir.com/societe/actualites-en-societe/354508/la-classe-veut-se-debarrasser-des-neoliberaux.  

[7] See David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 253-9.   

[8] Gregory Sholette, “Occupology, Swarmology, Whateverology: The city of (dis)order versus the people’s archive,” Art Journal web-only (Winter 2011), available at http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=2395.

[9] Situationist International and students of Strasbourg, “On the Poverty of Student Life (1966),” in Ken Knabb, ed. Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981) 321.

[10] Bruno Bosteels, The Actuality of Communism (London and New York : Verso, 2011) 5-6.

[11] Grant Kester, “The Sound of Breaking Glass, Part I: Spontaneity and Consciousness in Revolutionary Theory,” Journal #30 (December 2011), available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-sound-of-breaking-glass-part-i-spontaneity-and-consciousness-in-revolutionary-theory/, and “The Sound of Breaking Glass, Part II: Agonism and the Taming of Dissent,” Journal #31 (January 2012), available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-sound-of-breaking-glass-part-ii-agonism-and-the-taming-of-dissent/.  

[12] See “Violence et carré rouge: Christine St-Pierre s’excuse,” Radio-Canada.ca (June 13, 2012), available at http://www.radio-canada.ca/nouvelles/Politique/2012/06/13/002-st-pierre-excuse-carre-violence.shtml.

[13] On this subject see Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy (London and New York: Verso [2007] 2008).

[14] Slavoj Žižek, “Less Than Nothing: Slavoj Žižek in Conversation with Jonathan Derbyshire,” lecture at Central Saint Martin’s, King’s Cross, June 12, 2012, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hvWkWYHmMxg.