Sunday, May 20, 2012

Quebec Student Strike

Almost never do I blog about current events, but I'm having difficulty understanding why some, otherwise progressive, people I include amongst my friends are reacting so negatively to the Quebec student strike. As nearly anyone living in Canada and even casually exposed to the news is aware, the strike, now having gone on for several weeks, is immediately aimed at preventing a rise in the cost of tuition for Quebec universities. Demonstrations accompanying the strike have certainly inconvenienced many people and have been the occasion for some vandalism; vandalism which has not been directly linked with students themselves; even the police have observed that it has mainly been the work of disenfranchised street kids, who have clashed on an annual basis with the police, specifically around the issue of police brutality. Mired as they are in corruption, neither the provincial nor the municipal
governments are particularly well placed to counsel a path of more considerate, socially responsible actions.

Being inconvenienced, which is understandably objectionable, is not an adequate reason in itself to oppose the student strike. Any public manifestation either for the sake of political expression or as festival or celebration regularly results in inconvenience; inconvenience that is the price of living in dynamic, diverse, democratic society. Such inconvenience, however, when it continues over a period of time, feeds a negativity toward those demonstrating that, in turn, leads irritated folks to reach for other reasons to put an end to them; reasons that sound more compelling than being late for work. It is those other reasons for negatively viewing the student protests, rather than their association with violence or inconvenience, that are most often expressed by my erstwhile progressive friends in their conversations and Facebook postings. Interestingly, although said friends are usually quite independent in their opinions, in this circumstance, they repeat the same criticisms of the student movement trumpeted by nearly the entirety of the Canadian news media, even those usually sympathetic to progressive causes, such as the CBC.

Perhaps, my difficulty in understanding such negativity stems from the fact that I expect my progressive friends to be sympathetic with the concept of the social democratic state. In the context of the social democratic state, education is viewed as a social right and, as such, all citizens are encouraged to pursue an education consistent with their abilities and desires. The provision of a free education is seen as an important social investment. Education as a social right is viewed as comparable to health care; all citizens in a progressive society have a right to publicly provided health services, both preventative and those specialized to their particular needs. The same societies which provide universal access to health care, characteristically, also provide access to all levels of education at no cost to students. They include the Scandinavian countries, Germany (to a large extent) and various other, more progressive, countries spread around the globe.

Quebec has in the past maintained a lower tuition rate than the rest of Canada as a social choice; reflecting the reality that Quebec is the province most inclined toward a social democratic perspective. Alberta, on the other hand, has amongst the highest tuition rates, not because they can't afford to offer a free education to all their citizens, but because their prevailing ideology favors private enterprise and individualism; leading to their being more likely to make the choice to subsidize oil companies than to facilitate free access to eduction.

Why is education seen as a social right and provided at no cost in progressive countries? There are several reasons: those societies value social mobility, though which all citizens are encouraged to achieve a level of material and social reward equal to any other citizen and consonant with their abilities and drive; they value a society in which economic disparities are limited, in which gaps between the rich and the poor do not characterize the distribution of wealth. Those countries which provide both a high level of social mobility and restrain a disparity in wealth through government action tend to score the highest in measures of social welfare in factors such as health, longevity, lower levels of incarceration and life-satisfaction. Contrary to the dire predictions of right wing economists related to government imposed restrictions on the excesses of unrestrained capitalism, they also score highest on levels of productivity. Denmark, for example, is usually at the top of indices of social welfare and, also, is at the top of productivity levels amongst industrialized countries. On the other hand, the United States scores consistently at the bottom of such indices. Canada, under the guidance of Harper's Conservatives, is quickly catching up to its southern neighbour in the race to the bottom of social health and welfare.

Although the immediate goal of the student movement in Quebec is the maintenance of the freeze on tuition rates, which has been in place for several years, the long term goal is the total elimination of tuition. It is evident that behind the student strike is the same, anti-corporatist, social democratic ideology that inspired the Occupy movement. It is presently the youths who provide both the most vociferous, dramatic leadership toward a more progressive and just social organization and the most striking opposition to the failed social and economic policies incarnated in the United States and the policies of Harper's Conservatives.

The negative response to the student strike, at least in the English media, has not been expressed through reasoned discussion, but mainly through name-calling; the students are described as naive, unrealistic, spoiled, uncompromising and acting from a standpoint of entitlement. Those negative labels simply do not stand up to a logical appraisal. For example, one of the most frequently voiced labels flung as the students is that they are spoiled. The presumed logic behind that claim takes the form of "so, you think you have it bad" or "you don't know how good you have it"; a form of argument through which Quebec students are told they should consider themselves lucky because they pay the lowest tuition rates in Canada. Trump that with the observation I heard recently on the CBC that Canadian students, who complain about the tuition rates they pay, should stop and consider the much higher rates usually charged for higher education in America.

Following the "so, you think you have it bad" logic, it could be claimed that North American students should consider themselves lucky not to be living in Chile, where presently, under a right-wing government, families are expected to pay for any education beyond elementary school. If you consider the parallel between the social right to education and health care, the same logic would stipulate that you shouldn't complain about an eleven hour waiting time for medical care in hospital emergency wards, because in other jurisdictions people wait hours longer; furthermore, in some societies emergency medical care wouldn't be available at all. Clearly, employing such logic implies that working towards improvements is only justified when one has arrived at the bottom of whatever scale is under consideration; when you have it so bad that there's no where to go but up.

Consider another oft repeated assertion: students are naive and don't know how the world really works. In fact, as I have indicated, what the students are striking for, a freeze in tuition as a step towards no tuition, is a reality in several of the most socially advanced countries of the world. It is not some utopian objective. Then, there's the accusation that the students are acting from a sense of entitlement. Well, yes, it seems they do believe they're entitled to free access to an education that corresponds to their abilities and motivation; an entitlement that is seen as a right in social democratic countries, just as there is a right to free, quality health care.

Another critique: students are likely to make more money as a result of their education and they're selfish in expecting society at large to foot the bill for that education. That critique revolves around an individualistic, privatized view of education. It views educational accomplishment as mainly a personal, monetary advancement and ignores the social and economic value of an educated populace in the form of increased productivity and an expanded tax base. The reality is that the whole of society benefits from its populace having higher educational levels, not just, or even primarily, individuals themselves.

The government insists that it has compromised by increasing student loans and grants, thus assuring an equal access to education for all classes. Firstly, a programme of loans and grants simply enshrines an individualistic perception of education, while attempting to soften its inevitable impact of restricting access to higher education. The reality is that adequate grants are available almost exclusively to students from poor backgrounds, from the same socially and economically deprived backgrounds that militate against most of them even graduating from high school. Loans, on the other hand, are mainly what is available to students from middle class families. In most cases it is the students and their families that must make up the difference between the loan and the actual costs of education. It is the students who graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, severely limiting their subsequent job mobility and delaying their entrance into a financially productive participation in the economy. The middle class bears most of the burden of the loans and grants programme; a burden which augments the economic pressure contributing to their being squeezed between the very rich and the poor; moving society as a whole toward an economic polarization that is growing at its fastest rate in history in both the United States and Canada.

The students are accused of being intransigent, but it is the government that refused for weeks to even sit down and talk with them. When negotiations finally took place, the government offered a proposal that made no sense to almost anyone, cynically implying that it would never work in reducing tuition costs, even were it implemented. The students, in a gesture of good faith, nevertheless, agreed to submit the proposal to a vote, believing further discussion would accompany its probable rejection. Following an overwhelming rejection by the students, the government, instead of resuming negotiations, hardened its stand; ultimately producing a piece of legislation that is draconian in its approach to the rights of free association and demonstration; leaving it up to the police to decide exactly where, when and how any demonstration can take place. The entire process has shown that the government of Jean Charest is just as willing to play the law and order card as is that of Stephen Harper.

I think that it behooves anyone who sees themselves as progressive, anyone who is sympathetic with a social democratic organization of society, to be supportive of the Quebec student movement. If your schedule permits, demonstrate on Tuesday. And, wear a mask. The faces of Gerald Tremblay, Jean Charest, or Stephen Harper are all equally appropriate.

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