By Martin Breaugh, André Corten, Charles Deslandes, José Antonio Giménez Micó, Catherine Huart, Vanessa Molina and Ricardo Peñafiel*
Violence is frightening. For many it is enough to cause nightmares. The world is increasingly violent. For mass media, it is the violent “news” which grabs the most attention. Yes, the media magnify violence, but violence is nonetheless there. Since 2001, violence has become terrorism. Since 2001, violence has become evil itself: an evil whose very existence (or designation) triggers a self-protective reaction from the established order. But identifying violence is not so straightforward. It is also a way of interpreting reality: it’s legal yet violent, it’s illegal yet not necessarily violent! The student strike in Quebec this spring, its ensuing repression, and the pressure it generates — whether at the Palais des congrès in Montreal during the Premier’s speech to Plan Nord investors, in downtown Montreal during evening demonstrations, or in Victoriaville at the Liberal Party Congress — forces us to reassess what violence tells us.
Before discussing the so-called “fake” semantic debates surrounding the word “violence,” let’s take a look at the street-driven transformations that have taken place in Latin America since 2000. In the 1990s, Latin America entered its period of “democratic transition.” Legality and elections replaced dictatorships, summary arrests, torture and forced disappearances. But soon afterward the population began to realize that legality was the Trojan horse of neo-liberalism. Perhaps the most emblematic sign of this new awareness was the Bolivian “water war.” In the year 2000, Bolivia’s constitutionally elected president privatized the water supply. The street protests that erupted against it lasted four months. In the same constitutional context there followed two gas wars. Despite violent repression in the guise of legality, the street imposed another voice. The indigenous peoples no longer had to wear ties or be elected in order to be heard. The landless spoke up, blockading and occupying the cities. Violent repression was justified in the name of legality, whereas street violence questioned this very legality. The mobilization on the streets exposed the limits of representative democracy. But who exactly was calling all this into question and seeking to paralyze and outflank the established order that had replaced the dictatorships? None other than the plebs**, a mass movement, though not a monolithic one, one that cannot be interpreted as representing a class, lobby, or of any other special interest group. It was a heterogeneous movement whose unifying characteristic was its persistent exclusion from the social order, or, at the very least, its exclusion from the institutional structures and official channels where “decision-making takes place.”
In Quebec, as elsewhere in the modern industrialized West, we are not in a period of “democratic transition,” and any comparison with Latin America would be on shaky ground. Representative democracy is relatively well established here, especially in terms of electoral practices and civil rights. A certain kind of right to dissent has managed to make headway thanks to the on-going struggles of union, civic, and grass-roots groups and has led to domestic legislation and international treaties legalizing and enshrining the freedom of assembly and of speech. And yet, these “rights” — which have been granted in order to prevent the escalation of conflict that is part and parcel of any hierarchical society from getting beyond its control — are now being called into question by a government that refuses to give any legitimacy to extra-parliamentary forms of public expression. By stigmatizing acts of civil disobedience and peaceful protests as being violent, and by ignoring the protestors’ demands and trying to obstruct them by means of the violence of conservative legality, as if they were acts of sedition, the current government has endeavoured to render the students (as well as the broader group that supports them) in a plebeian position — sans titres, voiceless, without the legal right to speak out on the validity of the law or its procedures.
What is currently happening in Quebec can be seen as the beginning of a plebeian challenge to the legitimacy of the elected government’s decisions and of the State power that carries them out. Within the student movement and its numerous supporters one can see the characteristics of a heterogeneous popular movement that is attempting to overwhelm the established order, within which it has no place, neither in terms of its values or the structural rigidity which it attempts to impose. This Québécois movement calls into question the fact that the representative democracy with which it is familiar is being transformed input from outside, a transformation that can be characterized as the passage from the universal social welfare state to a system based on pay-as-you-go user fees. This phenomenon is not new, but has become generalized in tandem with an increasingly inflexibility in the workings of representative democracy. The public in general is addressed as if it were separated into market segments.
In the street, ideas of legality and violence are currently being redefined. New sans titres are springing up. Students are not workers, it is said, and therefore don’t have the right to strike. It’s true they don’t negotiate the way unions do; instead, they put pressure on hierarchies, including those within their own organizations. The tribune of the plebs is contested: it is the street that speaks. In Bolivia, the “unofficial voices” have been identified as the indigenous peoples, just as in Quebec they are the students, but the issue has gone beyond immediate group interests and has become a questioning of the entire system. Beyond the issue of tuition fees, the students are gradually proving to be a secessionist force that refuses to be marginalized. They are challenging the monopoly on the definition of violence that the State accords itself. The violence which the CLASSE refuses to condemn — that which is carried out against symbols of the economic, structural, symbolic and repressive violence that they endure — now becomes a legitimate posture. At the very least, there is a struggle to establish its legitimacy. Such is the nature of a living political struggle, which is not pre-planned and which does not operate according to the pre-conceived parameters of conventional politics, limited to the negotiation of private interests according to predefined procedures.
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* The signatories are researchers of GRIPAL (Research Group on Political Imaginaries in Latin America), research team which has just published a collective book on popular uprisings and spontaneous direct actions in Latin America: L’interpellation plébéienne en Amérique latine. Violence, actions directes et virage à gauche, Paris/Montréal, Karthala/PUQ, 2012.
** The name « plebs » refers to an experience, that of achieving political agency and assuming the dignity and responsibility of political action. Plebs is not the name of a social category or of an identity, but refers rather a political event of the highest order: the passage from a sub-political status to that of a full-fledged political subject. » Source: Martin Breaugh, The Plebeian Experience, New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming.