By Simon Orpana
In the May 19 issue of The Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente describes the students protesting tuition hikes in Quebec as the “Greeks of Canada.”1 Like the Greeks, this young generation of Quebecois dissidents has taken to the streets and received unusually strong public support for their critique of the decline of state funding and the “austerity” mantra used to justify it. Expressing rebuke for the aims and methods of the Quebec protesters, Wente asserts that being raised under the “Quebec model” of governance—a model that similar to the Greek counterpart seeks to make basic social goods (such as child care and higher education) equally available to everyone—has caused these students to believe that they are “entitled” to higher education. Such a mindset she denounces by arguing that this kind of government support for post-secondary students is neither necessary nor economically feasible.
In spite of Wente’s attack on the Quebec model, it is this form of governance that positions the province as a beacon within Canada of the social awareness that serves as a prime element of how we define ourselves as a country. This vision of social responsibility continues to inform our sense of national identity despite the concerted attacks on the post-World War II social pact that the last three decades of neoliberal restructuring have brought about. Within Canada, Quebec stands out as a province whose commitment to egalitarian values remains strong, where young people are offered quality post-secondary education at a cost that doesn’t saddle them with crippling debt, and where parents can enjoy state-subsidized daycare regardless of their income bracket. As Wente herself points out, a full third of the Quebec population sides with the students, whose protest is entering its third month and has been highly disruptive to both the machinery of higher education and the everyday life of the city of Montreal where the protests are centred.
With this kind of popular support, it is not surprising that the generation who came to power in the 1980s’ heydays of privatization feel the need to circumvent the possibility for actual political discussion enabled by the protests, and instead deploy the usual tropes that the neoliberal hegemon mobilizes in its attempt to effect ideological closure. At the centre of Wente’s strategy is the figure of the protesters as privileged, spoiled, First World kids who disavow the extent to which the goods they enjoy (like subsidized education) are funded by projects such as the Alberta tar sands development, which the protesters would also likely critique. Hypocritical, as well, for Wente are the tenured university professors who support the protests, but whose salaries are secured by the same dirty public funds. It is along this trajectory that the protesters are likened to the modern Greeks, who are characterized as irresponsibly perpetuating socially progressive policies, then asking the rest of Europe to bail them out when they can’t pay the bill.
Ideological strategies such as Wente’s are illustrative of what Eric Cazdyn sees as a shift in capitalism towards “bioeconomics.” In this new dispensation, lacking the critical pressure once supplied by alternative visions of viable social formation, capitalist societies justify inequality and oppression by accurately describing the processes of capital itself.3 Whereas older forms of capitalism had to conceal their inner workings behind a facade of ideology (the myths of equal opportunity, freedom of the individual, etc.), bioeconomic capitalism justifies itself by flatly describing how capitalism actually works. Under this model, public goods like health care, day child care or higher education can be drastically reduced or phased out, and the only excuse states need make is to invoke the profit incentive: we simply can’t afford to extend these services to the entire population and still maintain healthy economic growth. Yet, the last clause of this statement reveals that the bioeconomic turn, though accurately representing the mechanics of capital, remains ideological at its core, for it takes as a given the irrational imperative to constant growth that drives the capitalist machine.
In previous stages of capitalist development, the contradictions and instabilities that are the inescapable product of the system could be smoothed over by a dramatic “jumping of scale.” In the colonial period, for instance, the need for the constant expansion of profits could be met by the incorporation of people and resources that were previously beyond the pale. The advent of postmodern or global capital is characterized by the loss of spatial frontiers that would allow capitalism to geographically transcend its own internal limits. The contemporary near-total subsumption of global social relations under capital means that there is no longer an outside to which the system can repair. This running out of space requires capital to turn in on itself, seeking new “efficiencies” by which to meet the profit imperative: production is shifted to countries with cheaper labour costs and employment opportunities in leading nations become more precarious. Technology and medicine are held out as lucrative fields for investment, while the demand for ever greater profits simultaneously ensures that advances in these areas are not distributed equitably amongst the people who need them most. Areas of social production that were once defined by their distance from necessity—the arts, for instance—are now re-conceptualized as potent stimulants to development, as capital seeks to wring profit from what were formerly described as “externalities.” Even the social instability that necessarily ensues from a more impoverished and desperate population is recuperated in the expansion of prison systems, the building and maintaining of which becomes a strategy for exacting profit from the failures produced by the system itself.
The bioeconomic turn, then, is a new squeeze on the part of capital, one that justifies itself by making recourse to the hard, bare facts of economic “reality.” What is not allowed in the current mutation of ideology are questions about who gets to define this reality, which sets of social relations are permitted, and what alternatives are being swept under the carpet when all our political and social decisions take the constant generation and appropriation of surplus profit as their incontestable assumption. Therefore, in one sense, the bioeconomic turn offers a gleam of hope in that it betrays a new desperation on the part of capital: the leading nations of the globe no longer have the extra resources that would allow for maintaining the ideology of a “friendly” capitalism, and the system is left to justify itself by an unapologetic admission of the stark inequality, exclusion and destruction that it necessarily generates in its everyday operation.4 As the rhetoric of austerity mounts and policing and social control increase, it is important to remember that there are alternatives to the current mode of production, and that rather than sheepishly accepting these structures as given, we can, instead, question the precepts that have brought us to this impasse.
The questioning of what kinds of relations can or should constitute social reality is the real stuff of politics, and this is exactly what the Quebec student protesters and their supporters are doing. The contradiction between the students’ demand for affordable education and the critique of environmentally destructive forms of development like the Tar Sands is hypocritical only if the overarching parameters of social organization are seen as fixed and indisputable. In fact, capitalism is a system of social organization that has changed dramatically over time (while keeping certain central components, like the profit motive and private property, intact). Capitalism had a beginning, has progressed through historical phases of development, and will have an end as well. This kind of historical consciousness is exhibited by the Quebec students, and by thoughtful youth in general, who as a group tend to have a clearer vision regarding the malleability of social formations. What is often dismissed as the naiveté of youth is, in fact, a sharp awareness of the contradictions inherent in the society they have inherited from previous generations. In contrast, the dismissive charge of hypocrisy levelled at the student protesters is exactly the strategy adopted by those lackeys of the current system for whom exploitation, domination and ongoing injustice are simply accepted as the unavoidable by-product of modern global capitalism. Following Jacques Rancière, we can see that what these so called “realists” take as politics—the maintenance of the current social map of accelerating exclusion from the basic necessities of life—is really a form of policing, or struggling to maintain the circulation of power and goods within already delineated circuits. Actual politics, or the re-configuring of social reality through a refusal by a given segment to accept its allotted marginalization, is a struggle over representation and enfranchisement on the part of the excluded party. Importantly, for Rancière, the excluded, struggling faction has the potential to represent a universal principle of democratic equality over and against the particular interests of those in positions of power. A given cause, in appealing to the universal principle of equality, thus has the potential to reach beyond the limited sphere of a particular grievance towards a regenerating of the social totality.5
So, in response to critics such as Wente, whose argument against the protesters implies that the current system will be able to provide for all people if we only stop complaining and tighten our belts a little more, proponents of social change must adopt what Cazdyn calls a “courageous hypocrisy.”6 We are all subjects of capital, deeply implicated in the relations of injustice and exploitation that make the wheels of the machine go round. However, rather than letting a personalized guilt trip shut down all critique, discussion, and dissent, we must look past the individualist argument to question the system of exploitation itself. This means seeing beyond the moral failings of individuals in positions of power and influence (worthy of criticism as they might be), and letting both them and ourselves “off the hook” for a moment so that we can gain perspective on the systemic determinants that make exploitation and injustice possible in the first place. By eschewing critiques that lay blame for instances when the system goes spectacularly wrong, we can mobilize what Cazdyn and Szeman call a “non-moralizing critique” of the everyday injustices of capitalism, “one that addresses itself to the structures and strictures of its common sense and focuses on the success rather than the failure of the system.” 7
To this extent, we must keep Marx’s dialectical vision in the forefront of our minds, and admit that capitalism is a system of social reproduction that has provided some of the best and worst conditions that humanity has ever had the luck/misfortune to enjoy/bear.8 To think the good and bad of capitalism simultaneously, to keep these contradictions alive and unresolved in our thinking, imagining, and acting, is not to naturalize these conditions as some kind of ontological truth. It is not an excuse to stop imagining and striving toward a better world, or to be cowed into cynicism by an awareness of our own implication in the current system. Instead, to think dialectically is to imagine a world in which the immense advances in human knowledge, technology, and material conditions that modernity has brought about can be shared and enjoyed in a manner that does not also lead to war, environmental destruction, mounting inequality, discrimination, and violence. This means imagining forms of modernity that are open towards, rather than preemptively shutting down, modes of difference in our relationships to each other and the world around us. Such a dialectical mode of thought demands that we hold the door open towards an unknown and seemingly impossible future—but what citizen of seventeenth or eighteenth century Europe would have dreamed of a world in which information travels through the air via electric signals, in which encyclopedias of knowledge inhabit the same insubstantiality as the clouds themselves?
In the Mediterranean basin, some 2500 years ago, one such imagining of impossibility occurred when several small city states attempted to organize themselves according to a principle that would safeguard the public good from tyrannical appropriation by private individuals or factions. By inventing democracy, the citizens of Athens, Greece provided a model that the founders of Western modernity in the Enlightenment looked to as way of ordering society that might preserve an open political discourse regarding the constitution of the public good. In their refusal to accept what by the standards of the rest of the country might seem like an insignificant rise in university tuition costs, the Quebec students are challenging not simply the dispensation of goods within the system as given (Rancière’s definition of policing), but rather the system itself, which in its bioeconomic form unapologetically attempts to hoist deeper austerity measures on a population in the name of maintaining an exploitative status quo. Courageously hypocritical in Cazdyn’s sense of the term, these protesters are responding to the new temporality of capital which, having largely run out of space to colonize, is now intensifying its relationship to time by consuming the future itself in the form of irreplaceable ecosystems, social fabrics, and the conditions necessary for life.9
To this extent, we might summon an image that, like democracy, is Greek in origins. The titan-god Saturn (whose Greek name, Chronosmeans “time”) is depicted in a famous nineteenth century painting by Francisco Goya as horrifically devouring one of his own children. According to Greek myth, Chronos, a second-generation titan, overthrew his own father Uranus to become sovereign of the universe. Fearing that he will suffer a similar fate from his own children, Chronos devours them one by one in a string of infanticides that is halted only when Chronos’ wife, Rhea, substitutes a stone for the body of her sixth child, Zeus. Zeus then perpetuates the cycle of violence, living on to kill his father, Chronos, and become the third generation king of heaven. In Goya’s painting, Chronos appears naked, abject and wide-eyed as he consumes his own child. The horror of the work issues less from the act of incestuous cannibalism (as it does in Reuben’s version of the same scene), as from the crazed and helpless expression on the father’s face as he devours his own progeny. Caught up in a cycle of violence from which he is unable to extricate himself, Chronos appears a victim of his own horrible act, the painter’s skill revealing the psychological torment to which the monster is subject.
Do we not discover a similar helplessness behind Wente’s pat dismissal of the Quebec protesters? Rather than championing the younger generation’s demand for greater equality and self-determination, the establishment sees only a spoiled group of whiners in need of discipline. They see these youths as in need of a stern “reality check” that will effectively silence their voice of critique and shatter their vision of a society and future founded on principles other than exploitation and greed. But behind the self-satisfied assurance on the part of the baby boomers that they “know better” lies a mute, wild-eyed bewilderment as they attempt to consume the better part of themselves, the very assurance and promise of futurity, in the name of perpetuating a broken and already fading status quo.
This preemptive attack on the young generation has come to a head over the issue of tuition hikes in Quebec, but the debate over economics serves to conceal a deeper tension that concerns the very nature of education. Another recent column by Wente suggests that universities are guilty of perpetuating a myth regarding the market value of the degrees they offer, arguing that degrees in the “soft” disciplines, like the humanities, are hardly worth the trouble and expense accrued in pursuing them, as they will not lead to monetary returns in the post-university job market.10 A 2010 article in Macleans by Jeff Rybak goes further, blaming the students for making bad investment decisions and likening them to the sub-prime mortgage victims of 2008 who defaulted on loans that they should not have been issued in the first place.11 Regardless of whether the burden of blame is placed on the institutions or students, such arguments see higher education as merely a form of job training. These debates construct and respond to a field of discourse that has already foreclosed any discussion of the human value of education as something worthwhile in and of itself. A non-moralizing critique might sidestep the ideological constrictions these authors have internalized and open the way to an investigation of the nature and value of education itself. Are students merely paying to gain the credentials they might need to recoup their investment within the employment opportunities provided by a shrivelled labour market, itself produced by an increasingly precarious neoliberal dispensation? Or does education produce critically thinking individuals, informed about history, culture, economics, and science in a manner that will allow them to actively shape what our future cities, countries, and planet will look like?
In the United States, the management of student debt has become an engine of speculative profit generation that actually may bottom out in a manner similar to the sub-prime mortgage scandal of 2008. Neoliberal states such as the US, UK and Canada are literally mortgaging the next generation in an attempt to maintain profit growth in the here-and-now. Such a perversely inverted temporality was understood by the Greeks as a form of tyranny, and expressed in such mythic figures as Chronos devouring his own children. Democracy was born from the Greeks’ great awareness and fear of tyranny, and so from their desire to build a system that would protect their society from the cycles of tyrannical violence illustrated by the Chronos myth. That modern capitalism is a direct threat to rational, democratic change is a reality contemporary Greece and Iceland have come to understand, and one which the protesting students of Quebec may also feel in their very bones. At stake in this struggle is not simply the monetary cost of university schooling, but the quality, composition, and social value of education itself. To this extent, the Quebec protesters are situated at the heart of a struggle that has crucial implications for the whole of society. At this critical juncture, these students are the Greeks of Canada. Like the philosophers of old, concentrated in one of the generative matrixes of Western culture and thought, the Quebec students have opened a debate on the nature of knowledge, equality, and democracy.
Simon Orpana is a PhD Candidate and Vanier Canada scholar in McMaster University’s Department of English and Cultural Studies. His dissertation looks at the subculture of skateboarding and the role played by urban space in the formation of identity and community. He is an active member of the Hamilton Skateboarders’ Assembly and Hamilton’s not-for-profit artist-run centre, the Hamilton Artist’s Inc. He is also author of several illustrated ‘zines. Simon’s writing has appeared in the journals Topia, Specs and the online journal Psychogeographies. Simon wishes to thank Melissa Eberly, Danielle Martak and Grace Pollock for their editing assistance.
1 Wente, Margaret. “Quebec’s tuition protesters are the Greeks of Canada.” The Globe and Mail. 19 May 2012. Accessed May 22, 2012. Web.
3 See Cazdyn, Eric. “Bioeconomics, Culture, and Politics after Globalization.” Cultural Autonomy: Fictions and Connections. Eds. Petra Rethmann et.al. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 49-66. Print. pgs 58-61.; The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture and Illness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Print. p.154.
4 The normalizing and management of devastation produced by the system, not in moments of crisis, but when it simply works as it is structurally designed to work is what Cazdyn calls “the new chronic.” See, The Already Dead, pp. 1-6, Ch. 3.
5 Rancière, Jacques. Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy. Trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 28-31. Print. Rancière distinguishes his view of political subjectivization from identity-based politics in that the former requires the subject to make an “impossible identification…that cannot be embodied by he or she who utters it.” In this case, I am suggesting that calling the student protesters in Quebec “Greeks,” far from the slight intended by its original iteration, could be assumed as a powerful, politically enabling designation. See Rancière, Jacques. “Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization.” October. 61 (Summer 1992): 58-64. Print. p. 61.
6 “Bioecomonics,” p. 55.
7 For a more detailed explanation of what is meant by a “non-moralizing critique of capitalism,” see Cazdyn, Eric and Imre Szeman. After Globalization. Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print. pp. 140-142.
8 This dialectical vision of the wonders/horrors of capitalism is present in The Communist Manifesto when Marx and Engels ask “what earlier century has even a presentiment that such productive forces lumbered in the lap of social labour?” (New York: International Publishers, p. 14). It is developed and reiterated by Fredric Jameson, who asks us to “do the impossible” and engage in “a type of thinking that would be capable of grasping the demonstratably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously within a single thought, and without attenuating any of the force of either judgement.” (Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. p. 47).
9 For one examination of how our current neoliberal and biopolitical economy has shifted temporality from the exploitation of past-based reserves of resources to a pre-emptive and anticipatory exhaustion of the future, see Cooper, Melinda. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology & Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008. Print. p. 25.