Pour un Québec lucide -- A warning to the working class Print E-mail
Written by Rob Lyon   
Tuesday, 01 November 2005 00:00
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Led by former Québec premier Lucien Bouchard, a group of “prominent personalities” in Québec issued a manifesto last week – to the horror of the PQ and the delight of the Liberals. Titled Pour un Québec lucide (in English, For a clear-eyed vision of Québec), the document is presented as a new constructive and collective vision for Québec. Hiding behind the fear of a profound demographic decline, globalization and increased economic competition from China and India, the document argues for sharp changes to the economics and politics of Québec.

The document is a crude attempt on the part of the authors to insert themselves into the intellectual history of Québec. Attempting to draw upon Québec’s history and using some of the strongest symbols from its past, it is nothing more than a manifesto of the bourgeoisie for the 21st century. More than that, Pour un Québec lucide is a stark warning to the working class that things are about to change.

Demagogy at its finest

The document exposes the alarmist fears of Québec’s bourgeois. This expresses the pessimism of the ruling class, who can see no way out of the present situation. The document begins, “With demographic decline and global competition threatening our future, Québec cannot allow itself to be the republic of the status quo. We are concerned. Concerned for the Québec we love. Concerned for our people, who have weathered many storms but who seem oblivious to the dangers that today threaten its future.”

Although the manifesto calls for one, it is in no way a clear-eyed vision of Québec. The authors ignore all distinctions of class, and speak of Québec as one homogenous mass. The interests of the bosses and of big business are presented as the interests of all Québeckers. Incredibly, the manifesto attacks union leaders for the “shortsighted protection of members interests” while the authors fail to mention that they themselves are a collection of CEOs, lawyers, former government ministers, university directors and professors, and that their document was also written exclusively to protect their own interests – or more correctly the interests of the ruling class, which many of them are part of. Obviously the interests of the working class are not only different, but diametrically opposed to the interests of the ruling class.

The manifesto does identify genuine problems in Québec. In terms of living standards, Québec falls amongst the bottom 25% of all provinces and US states. The province is massively in debt, its per capita debt being the highest in North America.

The manifesto also warns that Québec faces a catastrophic demographic decline, the most rapid of all industrialized countries save Japan. This will put pressure on social services, and will result in Québec being “engulfed by nearly 1.2 million people, most of them English and Spanish speakers”. Throughout the document there is the constant fear that Québec will cease to be – and this fear is supposed to convince Québeckers to swallow the hard pills that the bourgeois are about to hand out. This is nothing more than fear mongering, designed to scare the working class of Québec into complicity.

Québec’s economy has also been hit hard by increased economic competition from China and India. It is explained that manufacturing production in Asia has increased 50% since 2000, whereas Canada and the US have been stagnating. The number of jobs in Québec’s textile industries has fallen by 40%. And that is not all. Its not just low-paying jobs that are being lost to Asia, but jobs are also being lost in the IT sector. Furthermore, Québec’s real GDP growth will be cut in half within the next decade.

Seeing all of these problems on the horizon, the bourgeois can no longer afford to maintain the “Québec model” – the system of Keynesian deficit financing and the strong welfare state that Québec, more or less, still enjoys. Of course the manifesto vows to “espouse with conviction” the Québec model which is founded on “social solidarity”, but people are not that stupid – it is not possible to dismantle the Québec model, and maintain it at the same time. The Québec bourgeois have given us a warning – giving us time to prepare for the battles to come.

The Solutions

The Québec bourgeois are desperate to get out of the present situation. Québec’s economy has been in a long, slow, steady decline for years. The bosses would love to do what their counter-parts in the rest of Canada have been able to do. They would love to slash social services such as health care and unemployment benefits; they would love to attack wages and pensions and to privatize the public utility companies. In effect they want to dismantle the welfare state and plunder the province’s coffers. This means transferring the burden of the economic crisis squarely onto the shoulders of the working class.

But the working class of Québec will not stand for this. The class struggle has always burned hot in Québec. The militant traditions of the Québec working class have prevented the bosses from having their way. There have, of course, been slow and gradual cuts to social spending and attacks on wages and working conditions during both Liberal and PQ administrations. However, the bosses in Québec have been prevented from launching an all out attack (like in BC, Alberta, and Ontario for instance) out of fear of the response of the working class. Lucien Bouchard himself was the architect of many cutbacks and wage reductions in Québec – desperate to get the province’s debt under control, he slashed unemployment rates and went after nurses and healthcare spending. But at each and every turn, the attacks of the bosses were met with the strong, militant opposition of the working class and the trade unions. The bosses either had to back down entirely or settle on a compromise, never getting what they truly wanted.

The document laments that Québec is less productive than the rest of North America and complains that “[Québeckers] work less than other North Americans; they retire earlier, they benefit from more generous social programs …” This is nothing short of an announcement that all of this is about to end – the ruling class is about to mount an unprecedented assault on the rights and gains won by the working class. However, all of these gains were won by the working class in struggle, and they will not sit idly by as they are slowly eroded.

What does the manifesto recommend? The manifesto raises the alarm over the aging population and rising health care costs (read massive cuts to the health care budget). It explains that the debt must be paid (read cuts to all social services so that more money will be available for debt payments).

Incredibly, only 6 months after this year’s massive student strike in Québec, the manifesto calls for the cancellation of Québec’s university tuition freeze and for the introduction of a new student loan system. This is for the benefit of the students, it is explained, who face “the deteriorating quality of university teaching and research” as a result of a $375 million shortfall. The manifesto explains that over the last 10 years, the tuition freeze has squandered $3 billion that could have been made had tuition rates been allowed to rise at the same rate as the rest of Canada. The education system is not there to make a profit. Education is a right, and is a right that the students and workers of Québec are prepared to fight for. One only has to look at the above mentioned student strike earlier this year to see this.

The manifesto also explains that “since there will be fewer of us in the future, we will have to be more productive. In addition to a high-quality workforce, we will need a workplace environment that encourages performance and innovation… We must also be innovative in how we organize work, even it this means revisiting established ways of doing things. Global competition being what it is, it would be suicidal for us to refuse to eliminate the inflexibility that undermines our competitiveness.” Translation: the working class must accept the lowering of wages and deterioration of working conditions. If the working class does not accept this, these companies will simply pick up and move somewhere else.

The manifesto also calls for the restructuring of electricity rates. Hydro-Québec is a crown-corporation that provides cheap electricity to Québeckers. Unlike most public utilities in the rest of Canada, it has not been privatized and has not been forced to adjust its rates to suit the market. The bourgeois have had enough of this. The bourgeois of Québec have recognized that hydro-electricity could be just as valuable to them as oil is to the bosses in Alberta. The manifesto cynically argues that “Contrary to a widely held belief, low rates are more advantageous for people with higher incomes (who have the means to pay more) than for those who are less well off (who could be protected against rate hikes). Alban D’Amours, president of Mouvement Desjardins, has already proposed that hydro rates be increased and that a portion of Hydro-Québec’s profits be used to repay the Québec government’s debt. We endorse this proposal, with the proviso that the increase in electricity rates be both substantial and progressive.” It seems obvious to us that if these changes were made, it would hit the working class and poor hardest. At a certain stage, the provincial government will propose the selling off of Hydro-Québec. Utility rates will rise as they have all across the country, and it will be the working class and poor who shoulder the burden.

The document also calls for increased privatizations and a greater role for the private sector in the economy. “Another element that must be eliminated is the unhealthy suspicion of private business that has developed in some sectors… If a country as socially democratic as France turns to the private sector to build its infrastructures, we do not understand by what logic Québec would deny itself the same. Opening the door to the private sector in some areas does not mean abandoning the Québec model.” This is really not the time or the place for a discussion of the social democratic nature of the French state, but suffice it to say that in France, the bosses have launched an all-out assault on the working class. The 35-hour week is under threat, as are social services, and France has been rocked by a series of major strikes over the last few months. If France has maintained state ownership of certain industries (such as electricity), it is not for the benefit of the people of France, or out of some sort of universal social democratic principles that exist there, but to the benefit of the ruling class, desperate to protect resources and profits from the incursion of competitors from the UK and Germany.

The message is clear. The Québec bourgeois are desperate to sell off state industries and introduce widespread privatizations. The bourgeois are watering at the mouth over the potential profits that could be made in the plundering of provincial coffers.

The real meaning and message of Pour un Québec lucide is clear. Québec Liberal leader Jean Charest pounced on the document explaining that “it was music to my ears”. The Liberals even tabled it in the National Assembly and have announced that discussions will be opened up around the document. Pour un Québec lucide is the draft program of the bourgeois, and is exactly what Charest has been trying to achieve since coming to power. The problem is that his government has been too weak to push through these measures and have faced big strikes and massive protests, forcing them to back down. Lucien Bouchard has entered the ring to soften up public opinion, to demagogically appeal to nationalism, in an attempt to give strength and credibility to the Liberals – to encourage them to go ahead with their attacks.

The workers of Québec have only to look at the rest of Canada to see what is in store for them. There have been large and militant strikes in Newfoundland and British Columbia. These strikes have been for the protection of jobs, the defence of wages, and against privatizations and cuts to social services. The bosses in the rest of Canada have gone on the offensive (indeed they have been on the offensive for years), and the bourgeois in Québec are pushing for the same.

In the past the bosses in Québec could afford reforms. This was on the basis of the post-war boom. They reluctantly developed the welfare state and the “Québec model” in the face of large movements and struggles of the working class. But that is all finished now. The crisis of capitalism means that the bosses can no longer afford reforms – they can no longer afford to maintain the reforms gained over the last 50 years of struggle. Instead we now have counter-reforms and the dismantling of all that was won in the past. On the other hand, the working class cannot afford any more cuts. This is a recipe for an explosion of the class struggle, not only in Québec but everywhere.

The Trade Unions

As mentioned above the manifesto takes a good swipe at the trade unions. The trade unions are very strong in Québec, particularly in the public sector – precisely where the bosses are planning to attack. The manifesto contains a stark warning to the trade union leadership in Québec:

“If the joint action that characterizes our model is to be productive, it must be based on commonly accepted facts, genuine dialogue and a collective assuming of responsibility. Are we to understand by union leaders’ reactions to the Ménard Committee’s report on health care that it will be increasingly difficult to achieve consensus? We hope their reactions were simply due to the fact that public sector negotiations were under way and that they do not express a deeper culture. Furthermore, the Québec union movement must not move away from the cooperative and responsible model that characterized it in the past two decades. We all recall the openness and leadership shown by union leaders, when, in mutual agreement with the business and political communities, they threw their unwavering support behind the goal of a zero deficit in 1996. Today, as back then, all Québeckers are facing the same challenges. We will not deal with them successfully unless we work together.”

What this amounts to is a warning to the unions not to abandon the model of “consensus” and “social-peace” that has characterized the unions in Québec since the 1970s. It is simply not true that “all Québeckers are facing the same problems”. The problems facing the working class are radically different that the problems facing the bosses. The post-war boom paved the way for the success of reformism. The union tops were co-opted into assisting the state in building the Québec model. The interests of the working class were merged with those of the “nation” and the ruling class. But that is finished. “The Québec union movement must not move away from the cooperative and responsible model that characterized it in the past two decades,” is a warning to the union leaders that they must not interfere in the battles to come, that they must keep the rank-and-file workers in line, and that they must continue their policies of class collaboration.

“Social discourse in Québec today is dominated by pressure groups of all kinds, including the big unions, which have monopolized the label ‘progressive’ to better resist any changes imposed by the new order.” It is true that the union leadership in Québec has resisted change – change from both sides. They are not comfortable with the new situation. Over the past two years pressure has been building up amongst the rank and file of both the FTQ and the CSN for a general strike against the government, against the cuts, privatizations etc. But the union leadership has resisted this pressure, and has consistently shifted this movement into safe channels. The union tops long for the days of consensus and social partnership. They are forced by pressure from below to resist the attacks of the bosses, even if by half-measures and a lot of talk but no action. But they also fear a radicalized movement of the working class, and act to resist the pressure of the masses. The result has been compromise after compromise – pushing the big showdown further and further into the future. But the time will eventually come when those who stand in the middle of the road get run over. The working class of Québec expects that their leadership represent the interests of those who elected them – not the interests of business. Those who fail to do this will be ejected from the movement, and those prepared to fight will replace them.

A lesson in history

Pour un Québec lucide lacks a clear-eyed vision of Québec’s history. Those who control the past, control the future. The bourgeois of Québec has had the monopoly on the history of Québec, and it seems that the lies about Québec’s history have been told so many times that they now actually believe it!

References to the Grande Noirceur, Refus global, and the Quiet Revolution in the manifesto are not accidental. Bouchard and co. hope that their manifesto will be remembered as the first shot in a new Quiet (counter)Revolution. Uneducated journalists in English-speaking Canada try to tell us that Pour un Québec lucide is a new Refus global for the 21st century.

Lacking their own ideas and a clear vision, the ruling class is now forced to co-opt history, to twist it and use it for their own purposes. Nevermind that Refus global is a genuinely revolutionary text, widely regarded as one of the most important social documents in Québec history. Refus global was issued in 1948, by Paul-Émile Borduas and a group of revolutionary artists, the “Automatists”. Historically, it is seen as the first shot of the Quiet Revolution. It expressed the seething anger building up in Québec society and symbolized the revolutionary aspirations of the Québécois. Pour un Québec lucide, for its part, reflects the pessimism and lack of vision of the bourgeoisie. This lack of originality and vision on the part of Bouchard and co symbolizes the decadence and decline of the bourgeoisie in Québec. Whereas in the past, on the basis of the post-war boom, the bourgeoisie around the world was full of optimism, full of vision, and made plans in terms of decades, now, they can only see doom and gloom on the horizon, see only catastrophes in the future, and rather than plan for expansion and growth over decades, they are gearing up for the imminent battles of the class struggle.

Bouchard’s manifesto openly calls for a new Quiet Revolution: “The challenges of the 1960s brought about the Quiet Revolution, which transformed not only our institutions but also the way we see things and our culture. The same holds true today. This new spirit will embody a clear-eyed vision, responsibility and freedom. It will openly welcome original ideas, rather than immediately shunning those who propose them. Fuelled by this new spirit, Québeckers will confront their problems rather than blaming others and being satisfied with diversions… The more of us that try to rouse our fellow citizens, the better the chances that they heed our call. And like so many times since they first arrived in North America, Québeckers will take their destiny in hand and they will succeed.”

The bourgeois of Québec had best be careful what they wish for. The bourgeois prefer to only remember the “Quiet Revolution”, the relatively quiet years between 1960-1966 in what should otherwise be known as the The Québec Revolution. The rest they would prefer to forget, and indeed have created an entire myth hoping that no one will remember. They try to present the Quiet Revolution as a movement of all Québeckers, bosses, workers, farmers, and government ministers hand in hand fighting for common goals. Nothing could be further from the truth!

The Québec Revolution finds its roots in the publication of Refus global, the Asbestos Strike of 1949, the Louisville and Dupuis Frère strikes of 1952, the Maurice Richard riot of 1955, and the Murdochville strike of 1957. These strikes symbolized the awakening of the working class, were a sign of national awakening, and were beginning to challenge the rule of Duplessis, the dominance of the English-Canadian and US bosses, and the grip of imperialism.

Jean Lesage’s election victory in 1960 after the death of Duplessis took the momentum away from the working class and placed it into the hands of Québec’s rising petit bourgeois. The bourgeois were desperate to de-rail the developing working class movement, and were intent on co-opting the unions and the working class to prevent the movement from moving any further.

In a unique variant of the permanent revolution, the petit bourgeois of Québec were able to utilize the state and a series of nationalizations to develop a French bourgeois class. They struck out against the domination of English Canadian and US imperialism to create their own niche, but this only went so far. Unions were brought on board and a new project of national construction was begun. Québec society was rapidly secularized, the welfare state was constructed, the education system was completely overhauled and modernized, the civil service was unionized and unions grew in general. These were progressive and important reforms in Québec, but it was only a matter of time before the inherent class contradictions forced a split in the movement. It was inevitable that the nascent French bourgeois in Québec would only take these reforms so far, and that the working class would want them to go further.

Of course, academics and historians debate the exact end of the Quiet Revolution. Some say it was with the 1966 victory of the Union Nationale. Some prefer to end it either just before or at the October crisis of 1970. The victory of the Union Nationale represented the reaction to the revolution. The bourgeois and the imperialists, backed by the rural vote, felt that the reforms had gone far enough and wanted to go no further. The working class however, was compelled to push forward. By the mid-1960s the CSN (Confederation of National Unions) had formed out of the old Catholic Unions. The old reactionary unions, long the tool of the bosses and imperialists to control the working class, had quickly been transformed into one of the most powerful and radical trade unions in the history of the continent. The struggles of the working class developed an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist character, with the CSN leading the way. The official ideology of the CSN was anarcho-syndicalist, and the unions began seriously challenging the power of capitalism and imperialism.

From the mid-1960s on, the Québec Revolution was then characterized by individual terrorism and by a series of militant strikes including the La Palme boys strike, the taxi driver strike, and the La Presse strike. These all culminated in the near-insurrectionary general strike of 1972.

Unfortunately we don’t have the time or the space in this article to deal with Québec’s labour history, but suffice it to say that it was the defeat of the working class in the 1972 General Strike that paved the way for the rise of the Parti Québécois and the era of “social peace”, “social partnership”, and the consensus based Québec model. As the workers’ movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was the development on a higher level of the workers’ movement of the 1950s, so was the PQ victory a development on a higher level of the Quiet Revolution (or the Jean Lesage years). The PQ achieved what had been attempted by the Lesage government and bound the interests of the working class with those of the state and the ruling class through the leadership of the trade unions. Until the General Strike of 1972 the CSN had characterized the PQ as “a professional and technocratic petite bourgeoise, whose ambition is to replace the Anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie in Québec (notably through state institution),” – which is exactly what happened. During the stormy months in the build up to the strike, Michel Chartrand himself (the then CNS president) denounced the PQ saying, “These are the guys who want an institutionalized union movement, integrated into the capitalist system. We don't need bums like that to tell us what to do.”

Unfortunately, this is what happened. The petit bourgeois nationalist PQ came to power in 1976. The demoralized and defeated trade union movement (a result of the actions of the union leadership) was invited to join the PQ in a new project of national construction. The unions became institutionalized, and integrated into the capitalist system – into the Québec model. The interests and rights of the working class were sold down the river in the interests of the bosses and “the nation”. It was under the PQ, who have dominated Québec politics ever since, that the Anglo-Canadian bourgeois were replaced in Québec. It was the use of the state that paid for and funded the rise of Québec’s petit bourgeois and created Québec’s layer of new business and political elites.

Bouchard’s counter-revolution

What Bouchard is calling for in reality is for a Quiet (counter)revolution against all the gains of the past. He is calling for sharp changes to be made to the Québec model that was built over the period of the last 30 years. This is why the PQ was horrified by Pour un Québec lucide. The manifesto aims at undermining the lie that is “social solidarity” in Québec. But Bouchard and co. have only recognized the truth of the situation – that the status quo is no longer sustainable. The basis of reformism and the “social peace” that characterized the PQ and its relations with the unions is gone.

But they had best be careful. The traditions of the working class in Québec are vibrant and militant, and given the battles that the bourgeois are planning, Bouchard and co. will receive more than they are asking for. The workers of Québec will return to the traditions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, will re-learn the lessons of the past. On November 10th the first shots are being fired by the public sector unions who are organizing a series of strikes. To be successful the working class must reclaim the traditions of their revolutionary struggle from the hands of the PQ and the likes of Bouchard, and struggle for genuine social solidarity, for socialism. The unions must break with the PQ and the petit bourgeois of Québec, and must fight and struggle for the interests of the working class.

Again on the national question

Perhaps one of the most interesting points made in the manifesto was the one on sovereignty. “Another solution put forth is the sovereignty of Québec. Some members of our group are in favour of sovereignty, others believe that Québec’s future will be better ensured within Canada. Despite these different points of view, we are all certain that whatever choice Québeckers make, the challenges facing us remain the same.”

This is a devastating blow to the PQ and all those nationalists who for years have argued that all of Québec’s problems could be solved through sovereignty. This one little paragraph is very revealing. It shows that for these people the bonds of class are stronger than the bonds of nation. Time and time again the working class of Québec has been betrayed in the interests of “the nation”. It shows that the ruling class is prepared to put aside its differences to unite around a class policy. What this sentence means is that whatever Québeckers decide on the question of sovereignty, these problems will persist, and that from the point of view of the ruling class, the solution is the same – an all-out attack on the gains and rights of the working class.

This is an important lesson as well for the working class of Québec. The workers too must overcome their differences, not only of opinion, but also of language and ethnicity, and unify around a class policy. The Marxists have always argued that the best way forward for the working class of Québec is class unity – unity with workers in Québec and across Canada to struggle against the common enemy, the ruling class and the capitalist system. The working class and the trade unions must break any attachment to the Québec model. It is a thing of the past, and no amount of nostalgia will be able to bring it back. While the trade union leadership looks to days gone by, the bosses are moving forward and are preparing to launch an assault. It is as if there are two teams, one playing hockey and the other curling – it’s not hard to figure out which team will be smashed against the boards. The class collaboration and social peace is a thing of the past and the status quo is unsustainable. What is true in terms of labour strategy is also true in terms of political strategy. The unions must break with the petty-bourgeois PQ, and must form an independent party of labour, a party that will struggle in the interests of all the sections of the working class.

Lenin explained that at root the national question is a question of bread. Workers across Canada, from British Columbia to Québec to Newfoundland face the same problems. All Québeckers do not face the same problems – but the workers all across the continent do. They face cutbacks, downsizing, privatizations, unemployment, wage reductions, a deterioration of working conditions, and a lack of decent housing. This is what unites the working class. These class bonds run deep. The solutions to the problems in Québec are not to be found in Pour un Québec lucide, or in an independent capitalist republic. This would only isolate the workers of Québec further from the workers on the rest of the continent, and leave them more vulnerable to the type of “solutions” that the bourgeois know are required – whether Québec is independent or remains within Canada. It is on this basis that the class struggle will cut across the national struggle in Québec.

The solutions to the problems in Québec are to be found in the united struggle against capitalism, in the united struggle for socialism. The solutions to the problems facing the working class are to be found in the establishment of a Socialist Federation. We call for a society where resources are rationally and scientifically planned to meet the needs and wants of all, and where the people of Québec will be free to determine their future and build a living and vibrant culture. Instead of Bouchard’s bankrupt return to wage slavery, we call for the unity of all workers in the fight for socialism.

November, 2005

 

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