Monarcho-liberals versus Republicans

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Stéphane Baillargeon, Le Devoir

The student conflict has turned into a social crisis. At the heart of the matter: who is taking to the streets now more than ever in the history of Quebec, and why?

It comes down to elected officials versus the people in the street. Representing the elected officials, Jean Charest renewed his appeal for calm last Thursday. We will find out later today if his appeal was heeded on the street, where students, who have been striking for over one hundred days and some dozens of nights, are mobilizing for yet another demonstration.

Acknowledging the failed negotiations, the premier repeated that there will be an election within eighteen months and that "this will be the moment for people to express their disagreement democratically." He added that the most radical of the young negotiators had gone too far by threatening to disrupt the F1 Grand Prix which will take place in Montreal next weekend.

"What we said is that the Grand Prix would be, as are the other events [the festivals in particular], a forum to express ourselves and assert the students' demands," explained Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the CLASSE, reputedly the most militant of the student associations.

Thus, the line is drawn between elected officials and the people street—two options rooted in radically different concepts of politics, power, and legitimacy. Ultimately, it is a question of who should govern—the Quebec National Assembly or the sovereign people? And, furthermore, what should be done about the rioters who wreak havoc from time to time?

The Monarch and the People

Instead of the traditional opposition between the left and the right, political scientist Marc Chevrier of UQAM (Université de Québec à Montréal) proposes a tripartite model, which he describes as including a monarcho-liberal position (seen presently in both Québec and Ottawa) and two dissenting positions: one republican and the other anarcho-libertarian.

The first philosophy, which is defended by the government, with strong support from mainstream media commentators, stems from classical liberalism. In this system, voters delegate power to an elected elite, which then acquires the right to govern the people.

The political science professor went on to explain: "The government has the final say, hence the term monarcho-liberalism. Of course, we can dispute its decisions and demonstrate, but the real initiative comes from the government, and if the people are dissatisfied, they change governments in the next election."
This model limits the role of the citizen-voter. "The people are not valued in and of themselves,” professor Chevrier continued. “It is the individual holders of rights that count. The society remains very ordered and is defined by contractual rights, which everyone possesses. In this picture, public spaces are made for the circulation of cars, goods and persons, and any infringement on this circulation becomes an infringement on contractual rights.”
The tradition of republicanism goes back to the “patriotes” and, moreover, Professor Chevrier noted the presence of Rebellion flags in the crowds. "This view asserts that the people retain their right to be vigilant, to demonstrate, and to criticize. They can assemble and counterbalance the actions of elected representatives, or endorse them. I don’t know if people think of that when banging on their pots, but the link seems to me to be undeniable."
The third option, which is much more radical, denies the representativeness elected officials. The concepts of power and the people overlap in criticisms of traditional forms of representation. “Both positions can be found within the demonstrations,” said Mr. Chevrier.  “We also find this division within the student associations."
The Broken Social Ladder
Stephen Kelly, a sociologist at the Cégep de Saint-Jérôme, proposes his own tripartite model. The first two concepts correspond to Chevrier’s; however, Mr. Kelley refers to a "liberal-imperial" tradition (instead of liberal-monarchist one) and retains the idea of ​​a republican lineage. To this he adds a conservative option rather than an anarcho-libertarian one.
"There are three political cultures in Quebec,” Mr. Kelley explained.  “There is the liberal tradition of imperial, English-speaking Montréal, connected to the American empire, which adheres to liberalism and is dumbfounded by French-speaking Quebec. There is a deeply conservative Quebec, outside of Montreal. And third, there is the republican Quebec—the francophones of Greater Montreal—that considers that people may demonstrate. Oddly, when we look at which cégeps are still part of the movement, we find that they are in districts that supported Papineau in 1837. In my view, these three political cultures are re-crystallizing now."
This particular tri-polar model, however, is tied to particular conditions. The author of the essay À l’ombre du mur, trajectoires et destin de la generation X imagines a typical family of today to help make sense of what is taking place. In this portrait, a grandfather born in 1944 has a son in 1964 who in turn has children in 1994. While the first one retired with a comfortable pension at 56 years old, the second will be lucky if he can stop working at about 66 years and the grandson will probably give up his series of insecure jobs when he becomes too exhausted …
"The social ladder has been broken for thirty years,” noted Mr. Kelly. “During the “thirty glorious years” after World War II, a person could hope to rise one, two or three levels. Since the 1980s, there has been a reversal of fortunes, to the disadvantage of younger generations; the standard of living has either stagnated or declined. It is a dead end, a farewell to progress."
In Mr. Kelly’s view, the actions and choices of the student and protesters were motivated by a series of social declines. In sum, he said, "The strikers view solidarity as a survival instinct in an increasingly insecure world."
The first, and most obvious, decline is economic. "These declines affect social welfare, job security, home ownership, and access to vacations and to savings, as well as retirement"
The second decline concerns disciplines. The “humanities” students (social sciences, philosophy, arts, literature, etc.) tend to wear the red square, whereas students of more practical disciplines, those more closely tied to the labour market (the pure sciences, technical disciplines), participated in the strike very little or not at all.
"The strength of the protest movement can also be explained by the threat to these disciplines. The student leaders all have backgrounds in these areas, and have excellent academic records. We could say that many of these students are trained to think critically, whereas companies are looking for other types of qualities."
The third decline relates to the family. The sociologist noted that that many of the young people on strike, whose parents are from generation X, also come from “broken” families, which adds a level of emotional insecurity.  He went on to clarify, “I’m not judging: I myself am part of a blended family.”
Mr. Kelly added that he has remained neutral with his students concerning the conflict, and concludes, "But I believe this is a formative event in the history of Quebec.  We have never seen this scale of mobilization before, not even in 1942 during the fight over conscription.  Now, there are thousands of people in the streets, night after night after night, boldly opposing the establishment. It has never been done before, and we must be rather cautious when explaining a phenomenon such as this one … "