What Future for Occupy Wall Street and the Quebec Student Protests?

Political parties and social movements rarely make good bedfellows, the former more likely to co-opt than cooperate with the latter. From the Arab Spring to the Quebec student strikes, and the Occupy movement's fraught relationship with the Democratic Party, it's time to start asking whether the competing motives of parties and movements can ever be reconciled.

August 29, 2012

Drew Nelles is a producer on the podcast Crimetown and a freelance writer living in New York.

It was advertised as “the largest demonstration in Quebec history,” but it was really more of a death march. On August 22, crowds of protesters swarmed downtown Montreal, something they’ve done on the twenty-second day of every month since the spring, when hundreds of thousands of post-secondary students first went on strike against a 75 percent tuition increase to be implemented over the next several years. In the past, these monthly protests have been huge, jubilant, ecstatic—May’s, for example, really was one for the record books, with something like 300,000 in attendance. But on August 22, the air was sombre, the chants subdued. There were maybe 30,000 people there—staggering by most measures, but a far cry from the strike’s glory days. Not long ago, the movement had seized the consciousness of Quebec, generating support and disdain in equal measure, creating its own heroes and villains and stupid memes. Now, it was limping along.

What happened? For one, people are tired. In addition to the big monthly demos, there have been smaller manifs almost every night in Montreal since April, not to mention regular casseroles—the pots-and-pans protests that temporarily swamped the city’s entire sonic spectrum—and neighbourhood popular assemblies. As well, back in May, the Liberal government of Jean Charest passed a law essentially outlawing unauthorized demonstrations, which put the fear of God into many otherwise steadfast protesters. And, over the last several weeks, more and more student unions have been calling off their strikes. They’re worried about getting arrested, the students say; they want to go back to school. But these are all side effects. There’s only one thing that really killed Quebec’s massive, momentous student strike: the provincial election, which will take place on September 4.

Most polls indicate that Charest, who has been in power for nine years and whose party is tainted by corruption allegations, will lose to the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, with a new, ideologically chimerical party called Coalition Avenir Québec playing the role of spoiler and kingmaker. If elected, the PQ has promised to reverse Charest’s tuition hikes and implement much more modest increases, pegged to inflation. That would represent a victory for the student movement—but the PQ’s alliance with the strikers has been fickle. The party’s leader, Pauline Marois, once sported the movement’s iconic red square on the lapel of her pantsuit, and then, in June, quietly took it off. One of the PQ’s so-called star candidates is Léo Bureau-Blouin, a young, attractive former president of the student group FECQ. Bringing Bureau-Blouin on board was a smart, token move, designed to absorb popular support for the strike while cooling its strength in the street; FECQ and its university counterpart FEUQ have long-standing ties to the PQ. Bureau-Blouin has even pleaded for a “truce” on the strike so that the PQ can focus on winning.

At general-assembly meetings, where student unions decide whether to continue striking or not, some students have said that they’re simply counting on the Liberals to lose. Why protest when Charest could be gone in a matter of weeks? For the PQ, the strike was useful as a demonstration of Charest’s intransigence and aloofness, but, now that the party is within spitting distance of victory, students have outstayed their welcome.

“Social movements die at the ballot boxes,” said Jérémie Bédard-Wien. He is an interim spokesperson for CLASSE, which is Quebec’s largest and most radical student group—both a rival and bedfellow of the more moderate FECQ and FEUQ. “They compromise themselves by aligning with political parties. The student movement in general holds many different positions. We don’t condemn voting per se—many of our members will be voting. But, at the same time, compromising your political position in order to facilitate the election of a party is not a position we want to be in.”

From the Arab Spring to Occupy to the Quebec student strike, the past year and a half has drawn a line in the sand between popular movements and the political parties that seek to co-opt them. Despite CLASSE’s ambivalence, electioneering was everywhere during the march in August. Most visible was Québec Solidaire, a small left-wing party that has ridden the coattails of the strike to greater public prominence. FEUQ and FECQ were handing out placards of their own, which read, “Je vote pour,” with an empty space underneath designed for demonstrators to fill in their own answers. Many wrote warm, happy things like “l’éducation” or “l’avenir.” Some wrote the names of political parties. Others mocked the exercise entirely. One sign read “ta mère”; another sported the anarchy symbol. The students seemed to understand the uncomfortable position they were in: although the election was poised to bring a friendlier party to power and end the tuition crisis, it also sounded the death knell of their movement. Over the last seven months, students have survived endless marches, harsh police abuse and constant public scolding—and for what? To flip a coin?

The fraught relationship between social movements and political parties is nothing new. Karl Marx believed that workers should band with “petty-bourgeois democrats” to oust the ruling class, though he also cautioned that liberal parties would “seek to consolidate their position in their own interests.” Indeed, the dissolution of the influential First International was largely due to disagreements between Marx and his anarchist rival Mikhail Bakunin, who eschewed parliamentary politics in favour of popular agitation. Almost a century and a half later, the left still faces the same squabbles over whether to support progressive candidates or organize outside the electoral system altogether.

Here’s the fundamental tension between civil society and liberal politics: although it’s much easier to get the right laws passed if the politicians are on your side, parties themselves are black holes. When they aren’t busy ignoring your movement or selling you down the river wholesale, they absorb your best organizers, putting them to work knocking on doors or managing media relations. Instead of heeding the demands of a broader polity, the party itself becomes an endgame. Georges Sorel, an underappreciated if complicated thinker (he started out a syndicalist and died an anti-Semite), called this the “democratic ocean”—the sea in which militant social action drowned. “Whole pages could be filled with the bare outlines of the contradictory, comical, and quack arguments which form the substance of the harangues of our great men; nothing embarrasses them,” Sorel wrote, “and they know how to combine, in pompous, impetuous, and nebulous speeches, the most absolute irreconcilability with the most supple opportunism.”

This push-and-pull takes on particular urgency in the current moment—a time when electoral politics is poised to sap the momentum of recent popular uprisings. When dealing with social movements, powerful outside groups nearly always pull off a combination of appropriation and selective distancing. Quebec is a prime example; so is Egypt, where the June presidential victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi sucked the wind from the Arab Spring’s most important success story. Although the Brotherhood is now the most powerful non-military force in the country, Morsi was seen as anti-establishment enough to beat the old regime’s candidates, thus giving the process a veneer of credibility. (The Brotherhood had previously promised not to run a candidate.)

But there’s no better illustration of the struggle between the party and the street than the one currently playing out in the US. The 2012 presidential election is churning ahead in the wake of Occupy, a decentralized, disorganized movement that, however briefly, put class division and economic exploitation on the public radar. From the beginning, Occupy faced a serious concern: how to keep its independence from more mainstream left-wing institutions—especially the Democratic Party, which has a uniquely Borg-like ability to subsume all US progressive politics into its vast superstructure. For example, ThinkProgress, the blogosphere arm of the liberal Center for American Progress, has tried to rebrand Occupy as “the 99% Movement”; last year, President Barack Obama gave a high-profile speech on income inequality that most observers interpreted as an overture to the encampments. 

So what should Occupy make of the election? Chris Hedges, a controversial lion of American liberalism, has a few suggestions. “We have to turn our backs for good on the Democrats,” he writes in his new book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a collaboration with the graphic journalist Joe Sacco. “All the public disputes between candidates in the election cycle are a carnival act. On the issues that matter, there is no disagreement among the Republicans and Democrats. We have to defy all formal systems of power.” Obama and Romney might not agree on cultural issues like gay marriage, but their substantive differences on the economy, foreign policy, civil liberties and campaign financing are arguably minimal. Mitt Romney is, well, Mitt Romney, while Obama’s signature achievements are a massive expansion of the US’s targeted-assassination program and the enactment of a conservative health-care policy tailored after his opponent’s own plan.

Occupy activists themselves say much the same thing. “The amount of money that sloshes around in our political system certainly sloshes around both of the parties,” said Bill Dobbs, an Occupy Wall Street press liaison. The 2012 election is on track to be the most expensive in history—and the majority of that funding comes from the wealthy. In August, Politico reported that 2,100 people have contributed a combined total of $200 million to the Obama and Romney campaigns and their respective Super PACs. By contrast, 2.5 million small donors gave just $148 million. “In an election purportedly being driven by the economic concerns of the middle class,” Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel writes, “the top 0.07 percent of donors are more valuable than the bottom 86 percent.”

It’s this asymmetry of access that provides the neatest delineation between parties and movements: you can buy your way into the former. Not everyone involved in Occupy was always so cynical about the political process. Laurel Green, an activist with Occupy Charlotte in North Carolina, has met many people in the movement who first became involved with politics by volunteering for the Obama campaign in 2008. “A lot of those people have an even greater sense of despair because they feel like they were betrayed,” she says. “They worked so hard, they believed, and it didn’t work out as expected.”

From September 4 to 6, Charlotte will host the Democratic National Convention, a largely symbolic gathering at which delegates will affirm Obama and Joe Biden as the party’s nominees for president and vice-president. Occupy Charlotte has joined forces with a number of other organizations to create the Coalition to March on Wall Street South, a group inflected by Occupy’s concerns about class disparities. It calls on the movement to “occupy the DNC.” “People don’t feel like the political process is theirs anymore,” Green said. “So I think the occupation of the convention is an effort to try to reclaim that.”

But what does it mean to occupy the DNC? Protests are a regular feature of conventions, with the 1968 riots outside the Chicago DNC being the most famous example. An occupation, though, implies something different: an element of permanence, a new level of engagement. It says: We’re not leaving. It’s a recognition of the site of occupation, not necessarily an outright rejection. The Democrats’ efforts to co-opt Occupy prove that there are at least some people in the party who recognize the movement’s value. And the presence of disgruntled Democrats within Occupy indicates that the wall between the two is more porous than it might appear. However difficult the relationship is between parties and movements, it isn’t always necessarily antagonistic. Sometimes, they run parallel races toward loosely linked goals.


In Astra Taylor's documentary Examined Life, the philosopher Michael Hardt discusses how, as a young Marxist in the ’80s, he travelled to El Salvador to support a guerrilla war against the US-backed military dictatorship. A fighter there thanked him for coming, but told him that El Salvador would be better served if Hardt started a revolution in the US; the fighter said this was as easy as taking some guns up to the mountains. Hardt realized that an El Salvadorian conception of revolution did not correspond with his own. We are stuck between two equally clichéd ideas: one posits revolution as the replacement of one ruling elite with another; the other simply sees it as the removal of coercive structures. “The key to rethinking revolution,” Hardt says, “is to recognize that revolution is not just about a transformation for democracy. Revolution really requires a transformation of human nature so that people are capable of democracy.” To succeed in reshaping human nature—organically, from the bottom up, as opposed to the top-down totalitarianism of previous efforts—revolution demands everyday acts of participatory, rather than electoral, democracy. This is an attitude reflected in the general assemblies of Occupy and the Quebec student strike.

Parties and social movements offer two competing conceptions of politics: one is passive and the other is participatory. Whatever happens on September 4, Bédard-Wien insists that the student strike has changed Quebec’s political landscape. “The structures that the strike has prompted, such as the neighbourhood assemblies and groups like Profs Contre la Hausse—these structures are things we can rely on in the future,” he said. “This firepower, this leverage remains. We’ve legitimized striking and direct democracy in a way that no other social movement has done in the history of Quebec.”

Electoral politics offers us choices, but it forces us to pinch our noses. It infantilizes us. We can only hem and haw, nod sagely, agree to disagree. The Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi called the 2012 presidential campaign a “meaningless sideshow,” a dig no less true of the Quebec election, in which voters are given a choice between a corrupt old order and opportunistic new one. The vision of democracy offered by Occupy and the student strike is messy—anyone who has ever been to a general assembly will tell you that they’re alternately infuriating and boring—but it’s a vision nonetheless, more absurd and yet more compelling than the crassness of the campaign trail or the sleaze of the legislature floor. 

The most moving moments of the Quebec student strike have been those that saw politics become something tangible, something not monopolized by a class of representatives—politics as a presence in day-to-day life, as with the aural sprawl of the casseroles or the semiotic ubiquity of the red square. The most startling thing, in turn, about the Quebec election has been how quickly politics reverted to its previous state: an idea discussed at some remove, a matter of wins and losses. Like elections, social movements are marred by pageantry and spectacle. They’re easy to romanticize. They’re also easy to write off. But, as the uprisings of the past year have shown, they are forces unto themselves, sometimes enemies of political parties, sometimes awkward allies, and very frequently altogether independent—creatures that beat their own flawed paths into the future.

Drew Nelles is a producer on the podcast Crimetown and a freelance writer living in New York.