Neoliberalism conquers Québec at last

| March 29, 2007
The old politics and certainties of the Québec left have now been pronounced dead. Monday's election sealed what has become apparent in recent months: Quebec has reached its “Mike Harris moment,” the victory of neoliberalism in the political and ideological spheres. The three main parties — the Liberals, Action démocratique du Québec, and Parti Québécois — split the vote almost evenly, with the ADQ and the PQ leading among francophone voters. But the numbers do not tell the decisiveness of the result.

In recent years, the left in the PQ had gradually lost control to the technocratic, managerialist wing of the party: a younger generation of sovereignists who are economically satisfied and less passionately committed to sovereignty.

In André Boisclair, the PQ chose a leader who is attractive and ambitious, but lacking in substance, and neoliberal to the core. This superficial choice reflects the state of the party. Despite a makeover of sorts, rebranding him as a defender of Quebec's traditional social democracy, Boisclair could not speak credibly to class issues, alienating the left wing of the party and the working class vote in the regions.

Repeating a pattern often seen elsewhere, when deprived of an expression of convincing class-based resistance to élites, many voters channeled their disaffection to right-wing populism, in the form of the ADQ. The ADQ also benefited from xenophobia and homophobia, which it subtly stoked.

These are expressions at the electoral level of the deeper changes that have taken place in Québec. Polls have tracked a slow rightward shift in popular attitudes in Québec during the last decade. All three major parties had been neoliberalized for some time. But outside the party system, the persistent hold of a social democratic ideology tied to nationalist aspirations, and the ability of the social left to mobilize opposition, as in the student strike of 2005, kept the neoliberal revolution in check. Now, however, there is a palpable change in mood, as in the days of Mike Harris in Ontario.

Despite four years of intensive mobilization against Jean Charest, after this election, the social left has less leverage on the political process than before. Already in February, Charest defied the student movement that beat him in 2005, by introducing more ambitious tuition reform. The labour movement is demobilized and beset by bitter conflict. Both the Liberals and the ADQ campaigned on anti-labour measures.

The media have marginalized the social movements, and a critical mass among media élites has become convinced of neoliberal arguments put forth by Lucien Bouchard, among others, that Québec labour is unproductive and requires major structural reform to cure what ails it. The consensus around social solidarity and the national bargain between labour and Québec Inc. have been broken.

At the same time, opposition to neoliberalism has hollowed out from the inside, and the social left has failed to present compelling new alternatives. In its first province-wide election campaign, the new left-wing party, Québec Solidaire, which calls itself “a party of the ballot box and of the street,” offered an old-style social democratic program, not a sense of the radical revisioning we need to challenge neoliberalism.

The loss of traction of the ideal of the social state, and the lack of expression of an effective oppositional politics of class, have resulted in a broader loss of ideological control, with the political initiative now firmly entrenched on the right. Québec joins holdouts Sweden and France, where, whatever the economic manifestations of neoliberalism on the ground, there has been until this year intense resistance to the ideas of neoliberalism at the social and political levels. In different ways, in all three places that resistance has dramatically weakened.

The national question is not dead. But left-wing sovereignists may have to choose whether they can continue to support a neoliberal sovereignty movement. The old formula that “the social and the national move together,” which was the ideological glue binding an alliance of labour, left-wing, petty bourgeois, and reactionary nationalist forces together, was always a fiction — the structural alignment of forces in Quebec has always tilted to the right, but the need to construct a nationalist alliance has amplified the power of the left in Quebec, and paradoxically, therefore, in Canada as well.

Federalists have conceded ground on social questions to undercut the national-social linkage; this has also given leverage to the left in Canada. This formula has been decisively refuted: an organic political alignment has been exposed that underlay the sovereignty movement and threatened to emerge once the persistent dynamic of sovereignist-federalist politics had somehow been broken through a sovereignist victory, or a decisive sovereignist defeat.

Sovereignty is not defeated, but neoliberalism has, for now, cut any “natural” tie between nationalism and a progressive social agenda. The nationalist Québec left may greet this claim with scepticism as the usual tactic of the Canadian left to argue against nationalism in the name of broader unity against capital. But this time, changes within Québec itself have forced the question, even as neoliberalism has become the only space in which to bargain inside federalism.

When financial markets crash, traders look for a crescendo of selling they call “capitulation” — the last surrender of bullish holdouts which signals the end of the crash. In this sense, perhaps, we can find reason for hope in Québec's capitulation to neoliberalism this week. Seeing the bottom coming up, perhaps the Québec left will learn from these events and begin to reinvent itself.

Now is the time to convene this dialogue, while viable infrastructures of coordination still exist on Québec's social left, before Québec sees a near-total demobilization as in Ontario during the Harris years. The task goes far beyond which electoral party to support, although electoral politics remains vital, and, to be sure, only a die-hard can still see the PQ as a vehicle for progressive politics.

But no party can assume that it will derive strength from the social movements if these same social movements are themselves marginalized by neoliberalism triumphant, and by their own inability to think beyond neoliberalism or the now disintegrating social democratic consensus. Early reports from Québec Solidaire suggest that the attention of party organizers has already turned to the next election: the trap of pure electoralism. If Québec Solidaire is to live up to its aspirations of going beyond the ballot box, now is the time to do so.

One specific challenge for the Québec left will be in creating new alliances within Québec and with the Canadian left. (This is not at all to absolve the Canadian left of its responsibility to come to grips with the national question, which it has yet to do.) Neoliberalism does not respect jurisdiction and needs to be countered not only in Québec, but at the level of the Canadian state and beyond.

The broader task is not unique to Québec: issues such as the climate crisis are forcing us to look at deep structural questions that are not being raised at the political level and to which no one, including the old left, has compelling answers.

The decline of the best-organized left in North America also offers lessons for those who think the Canadian left needs only more or better organization. The social left in Québec, as in Canada and around the world, will no doubt continue to engage in specific struggles, but must also begin to envision the politics of a real alternative to neoliberalism. This involves questions of theory, organization and strategy, all interacting with the experience of political organization and resistance.

We need to actively forge new collectivities and new forms of organization which can wage ideological battle against neoliberalism by developing compelling alternatives to it that go beyond social democracy, beyond the old socialism, beyond isolated struggles. The sooner this starts to happen, the sooner we can mark this “capitulation” as the beginning of the end of neoliberalism.

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