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Organize, Imagine, and Act: How a Student Movement Can Become a Revolution
And so it seems that the student strike in Quebec is slowing down and nearing an end, as the college – CEGEPs – in Quebec have voted to return to class, with roughly 10,000 students having voted to continue the strike, a far reduction from the 175,000 students that were on strike in late April and early May. The strike began in February of 2012 in opposition to a planned 75% increase in the cost of tuition. The students mobilized massive numbers, held mass protests, undertook picket lines at schools, expanded the issue into a wider social movement, and were consistently met with state violence in the form of riot police, pepper spray, tear gas, beatings with batons, being shot with rubber bullets, even being trampled by horses and driven into by police cars. The government enacted Bill 78, assaulting the rights to freely assemble and speak, and put a ‘pause’ on the school semester to end picket actions. Now that the school semester is starting back up again, and an election looms in the coming weeks, the students are being led away from the streets and into voting booths. The ‘Maple Spring’ has become the ‘Fall Election’.
Meanwhile, in Chile, where a student movement that began in May and June of 2011, mobilized against a highly privatized education system, is continuing with renewed energy. There had been ups and downs of actions and mobilizations within Chile over the past 15 months, but in mid-August of 2012, the resurgence was seen as students began occupying high schools, blocking streets, and undertaking mass protests. Students who took part in the occupations were threatened with having their scholarships removed. In over a year of protesting, the students have not seen any meaningful changes to their educational system, or even inclinations that those in power were listening to their demands with anything other than disdain and contempt. The students have long been met with state violence, from the oppressive apparatus of a former military dictatorship, fighting an educational system which was established near the end of the military dictatorship. Riot police would meet students with tear gas, water cannons, batons, mass arrests, and other forms of assault. Police have subsequently stormed the high schools and arrested over a hundred students participating in the occupations. This caused the university students to get more involved, and they occupied the Universidad de Chile, which had not been occupied since the beginning of the movement the previous year (often known as the Chilean Winter).
In Chile, as in Quebec, protests and marches and even the right to demonstrate are frequently declared to be illegal. In both Chile and Quebec, when protests erupted into violence (which is more often than not incited by the police themselves), these are called “riots,” and they are used in the media and public discourse to portray the movements as violent, extremist, trouble-makers, vandals, and criminals. This is designed to reduce public support for the protests (which was far more successful in Quebec than Chile), and to subsequently dismiss the demands of the students. There are, in fact, a wider variety of similarities and interesting comparisons between the Chilean Winter and the Maple Spring. Chilean students and academics have even expressed solidarity with the Quebec student movement.
We face an issue here. The student movements don’t seem to be getting anywhere substantial in terms of establishing some sort of meaningful change. This is not to say they have not achieved anything; quite the opposite, in fact. The student movements have been successful at mobilization large numbers of people, organizing protests and indeed, in politicizing a generation, which is their most sincere and important success to date. Students have suffered under propaganda campaigns, violent repression, legal intimidation, and, most of all, the determination of an elite who view any and every minor concession as the ultimate unthinkable sacrifice which would ruin all of society. In short, elites are more stubborn than students could ever seem to be, and they have the means to hold their position and tire the students out if they can’t simply scare them away or crush them down. So, while symbolic actions and political radicalization are necessary achievements, the will to continue taking actions and the hope to manifest radical ideas becomes worn down, demoralized, and sapped of its strength. This is incredibly challenging to revive if the circumstances and courses of action do not change.
So perhaps it is time for a new tactic. Instead of having radicalization follow mobilization, students could begin to have radicalization guide mobilization. For any social movement to advance, grow, and become something not simply demanding reforms, or demanding something from power, it needs to provide something to the students, to the communities, and the public at large; it needs to create. This is the difference between a reformist movement and a revolutionary movement. In this context, the word ‘revolutionary’ is not used to imply a usurping of state power and violent overthrow of authority, but rather to transform on a radical scale our conception and participation in specific or all sectors of society. Thus, it is essential to provide new ideas for action, rather than discussing and debating the new terms of capitulation. It can make all the difference between a question of how little students will get from their demands, to a question of how much we can get from a new educational structure itself. A discussion of new ideas must replace – or coincide with – the articulation of ignored demands.
How is this possible? What might this look like?
For students, the fundamental issue is education. For the student movements, growth came from expanding the issue into a wider social one, and linking up with other organizations and causes. This expands the scope, and thus, the base of support for a student movement. However, established unions played a large role in guiding (or attempting to guide), fund, and organize in cooperation with student movements. While the cause of workers is an issue that must be engaged with, the established unions that have survived to this point, roughly thirty years into the global neoliberal era, have survived only because they function on a basis of cooperating with the established powers of society, the state and corporations. They are corporatist institutions.
Over one hundred years ago, unions were extremely radical, organized, massive, and revolutionary. The actions and ideas of radically organized labour were the impetus for 8-hour work days, weekends, pensions, job security, benefits, an end to child labour, and much more. Unions subsequently faced roughly a century of battering, violence, co-optation, and destruction. Those which remain are not radical, but only slightly reformist. I say ‘slightly’ because they do not mobilize to fight for new ideas or issues, but only to protect and preserve the reforms previously implemented as a result of radical labour agitation. Thus, union representative serve as a buffer for the blunt force of the state and organized capital and corporate interests which consistently seek to undermine and exploit labour. The major unions typically serve to soften the blow against workers as the elite bring down the hammer. Under this system, all rights, benefits, security and protections are slowly and inevitably worn down and thrown away. When the established unions provide funds and direction for the student movements, they tend to steer them away from radical or revolutionary paths, and promote a highly reformist direction, and which can only be undertaken through negotiation with and capitulation to the state and corporate interests. This gets us to where we are.
When it comes to engagement and interaction, solidarity, and cooperation with labour, it should, in fact, be the more radical – and radically organized – students who lead the unions back to a more radical direction, to take them back to their origins when they achieved successes instead of softened failures. If they refuse to follow a radical direction, then students should encourage and attempt to find means of supporting the organization of new labour organizations: provide assistance, direction, ideas and physical and moral support. Students could be mobilized into the streets for workers’ rights as well as educational rights.
The main point here is that for a movement to radicalize and become revolutionary, it must cooperate with, support, and be supported by other radical and revolutionary organizations and movements. If the more dominant force is reformist, established, and corporatist (by which I mean its functioning ideology is accepting of the state and corporate dominated society), then these organizations will attempt to co-opt, direct, and steer your movement into an area ‘safe’ for the elites, if not altogether undermined and eliminated. It is not necessarily done out of an insidious desire to destroy your student movements, but rather the result of an insidious ideology embedded within the very functions of their organizations. Thus, integration, mutual support, dependency and interaction with other social movements must take place at a radical and revolutionary level if you are to sustain that potential and desire within your own movement. It’s unfortunate, because it’s more difficult; but it’s true, all the same.
Therefore, what is required are radical ideas of organization: for the student associations and other associations they interact with to be more accountable, directly, to their constituents. Instead of elected delegates or representatives making all the decisions (which is how our governments function), the decisions must be made by the constituents, and the representatives merely carry them out and organize accordingly. The student associations in Quebec and elsewhere function more along these radical lines, while labour and other groups typically do not. If student associations do not function in this manner, that is the first issue which must be addressed: either demand the associations to change, or create new ones and thereby make the unrepresentative ones obsolete. Thus, for a student movement to become revolutionary, the first step is the radicalization of organization.
Now onto something more interesting: how to radicalize ideas and actions in education itself. This next step is about the radicalization of action. While the first step, in many instances – the radicalization of organization – had been achieved in several of the student movements, the actions themselves lacked radicalization. The actions were largely confined to mass demonstrations, picket lines, school occupations, and youth rebellion against state violence and repression. These are all important actions on their own: establishing solidarity, power in numbers, a public presence, a demonstration of will and power, the development of ‘self-esteem’ for a social movement. These are necessary, but if the actions do not evolve, the movement itself cannot evolve. Thus, what is required at this point is a discussion of new ideas of action. Typically, as is the case at the moment in Quebec, students are being told to stay out of the streets and go to the voting booth, where “real” change can be made. This is illusory and useless. Unless there is a radical party, the best that can be hoped for is to delay the inevitable assault on education, or perhaps achieve a minor concession, which would likely be more of an insult than incentive.
New ideas of action must come from the students themselves, and there are a number of initiatives that could be discussed and undertaken. Fundamentally, instead of demanding from power, create something new. If education is what you want, begin to do it yourselves. In the case of a school occupations, why should the students not simply begin to have discussions on issues, share knowledge, invite professors, academics, and others who are supportive of the movement to come talk and share their knowledge?
This does not need to only take place in occupied schools, though that would be quite symbolic, but could essentially take place in any public space. It would function as a type of grassroots educational system, designed to share and expand knowledge, not to prepare you for the workforce. Job opportunities are already vanishing everywhere for youth, and they will continue to do so as the economic crisis gets worse. These types of educational forums could potentially be designed to educate and share knowledge on issues of relevance to the student movements themselves: the history of education, protest and social movement history, political power, repression, the economic system – Capitalism, neoliberalism, etc. This could – and should – expand into much larger issues and areas of knowledge, including arts, the sciences, philosophy, etc. There are already people within society who have gained their knowledge through educational institutions, and thus, there are already people from whom to draw this knowledge from in a new forum, and in a new way.
To give an example, imagine a ‘class’ (or forum) on the history of social struggles. First, a physical space is required, so to set up in a park, public venue, rent a space, or occupy a space (such as a school lecture hall). The students should have previously discussed – likely through social media networks – which intellectuals and individuals they would like to invite to come speak to them about the issue. The invited speakers would share their knowledge on the history of social struggles, promote discussion, debate one another, and engage directly with the students. For every invited outside speaker, a student should be invited to speak also, to share their own knowledge and engage on an equal basis. The notion that students are there only to learn and not teach is an incorrect one, and it’s a misnomer that should be addressed and acted upon.
The public at large should also be accepted into these educational forums. The point should be to expand knowledge and discussion among the general population, not merely the students. But the students are the ones capable of providing this forum for the population at large. To add to this: such forums should be broadcast through social media, filmed and recorded, watched online both live and archived. Students could organize ‘subject collectives’, perhaps having a group of students organized along the lines of the larger student associations (through direct democracy), who would oversee the organization of each subject or issue: history of social movements, political economy, media studies, etc. Each ‘collective’ could establish its own website, where the wider community would be encouraged to engage, support, recommend speakers and issues and venues, watch archived or live-feed forums, debate in online forums, be notified of events and speakers, and be provided with educational material, reading sources, etc. The students could write papers which would then be posted publicly on such sites, to promote discussion and to actually use the knowledge instead of writing papers for a grade, which is a rather absurd notion. These sites could have news sections, providing relevant news and developments from around the world related to their issue. The collective itself – both within the community and online – then becomes a forum for the development and extension of knowledge to a much larger sector of society, locally and globally.
This is where the actions become even more important. For a social movement to survive and expand into a revolutionary movement, it must not isolate itself, and must engage and interact directly with the wider population. The best way to do this, and one which has the added necessary effect of increasing the movement’s support among the population, is to provide a service or need. In the case of a student movement: that need is education. Merely ‘opening up’ forums to the public may not be enough. Students or ‘subject collectives’ could individually organize smaller meetings and discussions, in neighbourhoods and venues all over the city, region, or country, where students themselves speak with and to the public on issues in which they have been getting their education.
In Quebec, where students have been consistently framed by the media and elites as “entitled brats,” this tactic would be a means to share our so-called ‘entitlements’ with the wider population, and at no cost to them. Thus, as students gain knowledge, they share knowledge with others. For example, a couple history students could hold a small forum at a cafe or in a small public location which they had promoted within the neighbourhood and on social media for people to freely come to listen and engage in a discussion about a particular history topic. Of course, knowledge in such circumstances should not simply be abstract or obtuse, but relevant to those who are engaging with it. So if the discussion is on a ‘history of social movements,’ students should share knowledge on this, but make it relevant to the current social movement, to the social conditions of the wider population, and ask questions and engage with others in the venue: to promote discussion and debate. Thus, instead of the public viewing students as ‘entitled’, they may come to view students as ’empowering.’
This type of tactic would especially have to be employed within poor communities, and oppressed communities, where students would have to be willing to listen and learn more than they would be inclined to speak and teach. This is because many student movements, simply by their position as being students, generally come from a more privileged sector of society than the really poor, minority, immigrant, or otherwise oppressed communities. These sectors largely remain in the sidelines of the student movements themselves. This must change, and for a very fundamental reason: there is a great deal to learn from these communities. Oppressed peoples have experienced and known for a much longer period of time what the majority of students are only just starting to learn and experience: the true nature and interest of power, the violent and oppressive state apparatus, the underbelly of the economic system, the reality of social existence for a great many people. In short, it would be a means through which to educate the students on deeper issues of social strife, by listening and speaking directly to and with those who exist within oppressed social spheres.
But there cannot be any taking without giving. So while oppressed communities may perhaps be willing to share their own knowledge with students and engage in discussion and debate, the students must provide something back to these communities. There is a very simple way to get this started: ask them what they need most in their communities. For example, if one community cited the cost and quality of food as a central issue, students could then leave the first meeting with the community with the intent to organize and plan around this issue. The students could hold their own discussions, meetings, debates, and share ideas on how to help resolve this specific issue within that specific community, and then propose various ideas to those community leaders. The ideas would be subject to critique, dismissal, support, etc, to go back to the drawing board with new suggestions or to get to work, putting action to the ideas.
So with the issue of food, for example, students could perhaps organize around the idea of establishing a community food garden, proposing it to the community, and, if approved and critiqued, they could find an area of land, get the support and materials they need, and work with members of that community to plant and establish such a garden, to help move toward some form of food sustainability, provided either free or cheap to those within that area. Potentially, there could be a student educational association which specialized in sharing knowledge about nutrition, horticulture, etc., and they could be brought in to share their knowledge, help in the endeavour, or even make it a staple feature of their functioning: to go to different communities to help establish food sustainability.
These are, of course, just ideas of actions, there is no reason to follow this specific outline. This is meant to merely promote the discussion of this concept: the actions, organizations, and objectives which would result from a radicalization of action are likely to be far more varied, interesting, and effective than these mere suggestions. However, I used these examples of actions and ideas to show how a student movement protesting against something (such as a tuition increase), can become a revolutionary movement for something.
These actions are revolutionary because they force people to question and reconsider their conceptions of education, its manifestation, its purpose, its institutionalization, philosophy, etc. The actions themselves engage directly with people, drawing from and providing to the population as a whole. This increases support among the population, but also greatly strengthens the ideas and actions of the students themselves. At such a conceivable point, it could not be called a ‘student movement,’ but could only be identified as a much wider social movement, which would help radicalize the wider society itself, which would in turn provide new ideas and actions to the students; solidarity in both words and actions.
These actions are revolutionary because they attempt to maneuver around power structures instead of expending all of their energy on directly battling the power structure itself. By going around the power structure – around the state, the schools, the corporations, etc. – the students would create a parallel educational structure within society, making the existing one increasingly obsolete. As this is done, the bargaining power of the state and other structures is reduced, because the students no longer rely exclusively upon them for an education. The state would most certainly attempt to repress such a movement, or perhaps even to offer much larger incentives, concessions, or even meet the previous demands of students in order to get them back in the schools and within an educational system that power controls. The state is well-established to deal with direct confrontations: that’s what police, armies, guns, badges and lawyers are for. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’re demanding, or where you are demanding it, the state can simply tear gas you, scare you, disperse you, and wait you out. But to move around the power structure, and to create and establish something new, not under the control or direction of established institutions of power, the power structures become very nervous and insecure.
It would be foolish to think that the power structures would not respond with more state violence than they have up until present, they most certainly would. The primary difference, however, would be that the public support for the movement would have conceivably exploded, and in the case of increased violence, it would explode in anger and opposition to the state. In short, while the state would be likely to increase its tactics of intimidation and violence, the public response would likely be far more powerful than anything we have seen thus far. We saw an example of this in Quebec, when the government passed the repressive Bill 78 and a much larger segment of the population was mobilized in opposition to the government. However, this has now largely faded, and again, it’s about the difference between mobilizing against something and mobilizing for something. It’s the difference between opposition and proposition, demand and action.
The fundamental idea which I am arguing is that for a student movement to become a revolutionary movement, it must transform its demands of education into actions for education. If the issue is education, the answer is education. The inability of the student movements to have their demands met reveals a deeply-ingrained flaw in our society: that an institution does not reflect or respond to the demands of its supposed constituents. This fact makes that institution illegitimate. This flaw further manifests itself across the entire society. If the government itself, which is supposedly ‘representative’ of the people, does not reflect the intentions and interests of the population, then it is illegitimate. Most institutions do not even have a means for their constituents to have a say in who runs the institutions themselves. Some, such as governments or unions, may have elections in which people can choose candidates, but then all the other decisions are taken out of their hands. Other institutions, such as schools, corporations, banks, media, etc., do not even have a means for constituents to select leadership, let alone direction and action. University boards are populated with bankers, former government officials, corporate executives, foundation officials, and other established elites. Therefore, universities are geared toward meeting elite interests under their direction. This is flawed and wrong. Though, because most institutions function in this way across wider society, it tends to go unnoticed and is simply accepted as “the way it is.”
Students must now ask: Does it have to be this way? What other way could it be? What should change? How could that change? What is the intent of education? These questions lead to other, larger questions about the society as a whole, and, as a result, they make necessary the wider radicalization, organization, and revolution of society itself. It is a rather large idea, but I think it is also a logical one. As the economic and social circumstances for most people continue to deteriorate in the near future – and perhaps rapidly so as the global economic crisis accelerates – such ideas and actions will become all the more necessary and will generate much more support.
Since the beginning of the global economic crisis in 2007 and 2008, the world has seen a rapid acceleration of resistance movements, protests, and revolutionary struggles. The world is rumbling awake from a long lost slumber of consumption and consent as the situation of crisis reveals deep flaws in the structures, ideology, and actions of power. We are witnessing the rapid proliferation of global resistance movements, but it requires much more for them to become global revolutionary movements. It has only begun, but it requires new ideas and actions to move forward. It would potentially be very challenging to begin such actions now, but in the very least, student movements should begin to advance the discussion, to debate the direction, and to incite new ideas. These are, after all, the skills that an education is supposed to provide us with.
Perhaps it is time to put our education to use.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer living in Montreal, Canada. His website (www.andrewgavinmarshall.com) features a number of articles and essays focusing on an analysis of power and resistance in the political, social, and economic realms. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, and is currently writing a book on the global economic crisis and resistance movements emerging around the world. To help this book come to completion, please consider donating through the website or on Indiegogo.
Student Strikes, Debt Domination, and Class War in Canada: Class War and the College Crisis, Part 4
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
There is a process under way in Canada, led by the corporate and financial elite, and directed against the general population, the poor, and the young, intending to provide for the rich and powerful, to punish the poor and steal from the rest, to plunge into poverty, to repress, control, and dominate: this process is called ‘Class War’ and it’s waged by the super-rich against the supposedly superfluous rest. It’s objective is simple: to preserve, protect, and expand the control and domination of the wealthy over the majority.
In Quebec, where the class warfare has taken on a specific assault on the students and youth, there are finally growing signs and actions that the youth are starting to fight back. The provincial government of Quebec – the French-speaking province of Canada – has decided to double the costs of tuition over the next few years. These moves have prompted hundreds of thousands of students across Quebec to go on strike in protest of the increased fees. Since Quebec currently has the lowest tuition costs in Canada for residents, a great deal of the media and commentary on the issue is related to lambasting Quebecers for their concept of “entitlements” and for “complaining” that they have to pay what others pay. The debate is focused around the ‘need’ for the government of Quebec to reduce its debt – balance its budget – framing increased tuition costs as a necessity to be accepted, and when resisted, to dismiss the protesters as unrealistic and petty.
So is it true that Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in Canada? Yes. However, Quebec residents also pay the highest income taxes in all of Canada. One of the major claims by the Quebec government as to why tuition must be increased is the claim that Quebec’s universities are among the most “under-funded” in Canada, and therefore they need to increase their funding so as to increase their “competitiveness.” However, according to the Quebec government itself, total government spending on education (in 2008-2009) amounted to 1.94% of GDP, compared to 1.76% for Ontario, and 1.65% for Canada as a whole. At the same time, total university spending per student in Quebec was at $29,242, compared to $26,383 in Ontario, and $28,846 for Canada as a whole. Thus, Québec’s universities are funded to a greater degree than the rest of Canada, so that argument does not hold weight.
Quebec’s universities are funded more than other Canadian universities, while Quebec residents pay more in taxes than the rest of Canada, so why the increase in tuition? As tuition fees for universities increase, government spending on education decreases. As the Canadian Federation of Students notes:
In the past fifteen years, tuition fees in Canada have grown to become the single largest expense for most university and college students. The dramatic tuition fee increases during this period were the direct result of cuts to public funding for post-secondary education by the federal government and, to a somewhat lesser extent, provincial governments. Public funding currently accounts for an average of approximately 57% of university and college operating funding, down from 84% just two decades ago. During the same period tuition fees have grown from 14% of operating funding to over 34%.
This marks a move “away from a publicly funded model and towards a privatised user fee system,” which has caused “post-secondary education to become unaffordable for many low- and middle-income Canadians.” In the mid-1960s, nearly all of Canada’s university funding was provided by the federal and provincial governments, and tuition fees were either incredibly minimal or non-existent. This process began to change in the early 1980s, with the rise of neoliberalism in the global political economy, which saw moves toward cutting social spending by governments. As government funding decreased, tuition costs rose, and as a result, between the early 1980s and the early 1990s, tuition fees in Canada nearly doubled. In 1995, the Liberal federal government of Canada cut $7 billion in spending for the provinces, leading to “the largest tuition fee increases in Canadian history.” Quebec had, however, resisted the push toward making students pay more, which was taking place in all the other Canadian provinces. In the early 1990s, average undergraduate tuition fees in Canada were $1,464; today the average has more than tripled to $5,138.
So why is this process taking place? Why must government spending on education (and other social programs) be reduced, while personal costs for all of these services be increased? The answer is not in “efficiency” or “balancing budgets,” but rather, in class warfare.
In April of 2007, TD Bank (one of Canada’s ‘big five’ banks which dominate the economy) released a “plan for prosperity” for the province of Quebec, which recommended, among other things, raising the cost of tuition: “by raising tuition fees but focusing on increased financial assistance for those in need, post secondary education (PSE) institutions will be better-positioned to prosper and provide world-class education and research.” In one Canadian province, Nova Scotia, the government hired a former chief economist from the Bank of Montreal, Tim O’Neill, to assess higher education finances, and unsurprisingly, advocated higher tuition fees. Banks, of course, have a major interest in promoting increased tuition costs, because they provide student loans and profit off of the interest on student debt, like some malevolent ever-growing succubus draining the life force and potential of future generations which are doomed to debt slavery. So naturally, our governments take the advice of the banks, because they know whom their real masters are.
It should be noted, as well, that this is not merely a problem in Quebec or Canada. Tens of thousands of students in the United Kingdom are planning a walk out in protest of increasing tuition fees, which “are pricing students out of education.” The Occupy Movement in the United States is moving into universities, as campuses in California experienced demonstrations and protests against “state budget cuts to education and the resulting hikes in tuition.” In Spain, more than 30,000 students took to the streets of Barcelona protesting the ‘austerity cuts’ to education, and were then of course met with state repression. Perhaps most impressive is a mass student movement that has developed in Chile over the past year.
The College Crisis
What is the ‘college crisis’? It’s quite simple: our society is producing more educated, professionalized youths than ever before, who are then graduating into a jobless market, and what’s more, they are graduating with extensive debt. The professional education students receive, in combination with the heavy overbearing debt load and the immense dissatisfaction with the lack of opportunities for them, creates a large, mobile, educated, activated, and very pissed off group of people. This is what is referred to as a ‘poverty of expectations,’ whereby the inculcated expectations of a group or sector of society cannot be met by the society in which they live. In any society, in any period of history, this is a recipe for social unrest, resistance, rebellion, and, potentially, Revolution.
Naturally, the elites of any society fear such a scenario, so they always come up with various methods of managing these increasingly problematic conditions. The solutions, invariably, are always aimed at finding methods and means for undermining the ability and effectiveness of the target group to mobilize and organize for their cause; in this case, students. Cutting education budgets and increasing tuition fees is a very effective means to create more ‘desirable’ conditions for elites. How so? Any form of ‘austerity’ is essentially an act of class war, waged by the upper class against the rest. Austerity means that budgets will be cut and costs will be increased, whether through taxation, direct prices for services and necessities, or more often, both. The stated purpose of ‘austerity measures’ is to reduce debt (spending) and increase profitability (or revenue), with the purported aim of eliminating the debt over time. This is, however, not the true purpose of austerity, and appropriately so, it is never the result. The result is actually to increase debt, and impose a regimen of what amounts to ‘social genocide’: increasing the burden, costs, taxes, and hardships upon the wider population. For the poor, it means despair; for the middle class, it means poverty; and for the rich, it means prosperity and power.
The current crisis stems from developments that took place in the 1960s which saw an increase in activism and engagement among the general population, and especially the youth. Universities were breeding grounds for activism and movements which sought to create social uplift. The elite response to this scenario, in the United States specifically but also across the Western world as a whole, was to declare a “Crisis of Democracy” in which too many people were making too many demands upon the system, in which all forms of authority were under attack, and the legitimacy of those authorities were called into question. Elites of both the left and right saw this acceleration of democratic participation and activism as an assault upon their conception of what “democracy” should be – namely, a state that serves their interests alone. From the right, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – and from the liberal internationalists, the Trilateral Commission – launched a major national and global attack upon the surge of democratic activism in what the Trilateral Commission referred to as an “excess of democracy.” The result of this attack: neoliberalism and debt. The two documents that were most influential in this attack on democracy were the “Powell Memo” of 1971 sent to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which outlined a detailed program for how big business could reorganize society for its own interests, and the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 report, “The Crisis of Democracy,” which outlined an elite ideology which saw the problem of society being in an “excess of democracy” and that what is required is to correct the balance in favour of elites and increase apathy and passivity among the population. The Chamber of Commerce represents all the major business interests in the United States, while the Trilateral Commission (founded in 1973 by banker David Rockefeller), represents roughly 350 elites in the areas of academia, finance, business, government, foreign policy, media and foundations from North America, Western Europe, and Japan.
The result of this was to decrease government funding for education, increase tuition and other costs, increase debt for students and the general population as a whole (through credit cards, mortgages, loans, etc.), and to merge higher education and big business: the corporatization and privatization of universities.
As part of this process, knowledge was transformed into ‘capital’ – into ‘knowledge capitalism’ or a ‘knowledge economy.’ Reports from the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the 1990s transformed these ideas into a “policy template.” This was to establish “a new coalition between education and industry,” in which “education if reconfigured as a massively undervalued form of knowledge capital that will determine the future of work, the organization of knowledge institutions and the shape of society in the years to come.”
Knowledge was thus defined as an “economic resource” which would give growth to the economy. As such, in the neoliberal era, where all aspects of economic productivity and growth are privatized (purportedly to increase their efficiency and productive capacity as only the “free market” can do), education – or the “knowledge economy” – itself, was destined to be privatized.
Solving the ‘College Crisis’
In February of 2011, it was reported that the average debt for a Canadian family had reached over $100,000, spending 150% of their earnings. Thus, for every $1,000 in after-tax income, the average Canadian family then owes $1,500. The debt figures include mortgages, student loans, credit card debts, and lines of credit. In 1990, the average Canadian family was able to put roughly $8,000 into savings, in 2012, that number was at $2,500. So while the public is constantly told that the ‘recession’ is over, this is simply not true for the general population, though it may appear to be true in the quarterly reports of Canada’s multinational corporations and banks. A 2011 report indicated that, “17,400 households were behind in their mortgage payments by three or more months in 2010, up by 50 per cent since the recession began. Credit card delinquencies and bankruptcy rates also remain higher than before the recession.”
By February of 2012, this rate of income-to-debt had not only failed to improve, but even got slightly worse, hitting a new record. The state for Canadian families is indeed getting worse. More than half of the jobs created since the “end” of the “recession” went to those aged 55 and older, leaving the youth struggling to find jobs, while older workers have to either stay working longer, return from retirement because they can’t survive off of their pensions, and thus, young people are living at home longer and staying in school longer. The slight increases in hourly earnings has not kept up with inflation, and thus amounts to a loss of earnings, and income inequality continues to grow between the super-rich and everyone else.
Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of Canada (Canada’s central bank), is also Chairman of the Financial Stability Board, run out of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basel, Switzerland – the central bank to the world’s central banks – and which operates under the auspices of the G20. Carney had previously served as Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada, the Canadian Department of Finance, and spent thirteen years with Goldman Sachs prior to that.
The Bank of Canada, like all central banks, serves the dominant elite interests of the nation, but also of the international financial elite more broadly. The board of directors of the Bank of Canada includes William Black, former CEO of Maritime Life, who sits on the boards of Dalhousie University, the Shaw Group, Standard Life of Canada, and Nova Scotia Business, Inc.; Philip Deck, CEO of Extuple, Inc. (a technology finance corporation), former managing partner with merchant banking company HSD Partners, and is on the board of a major Canadian think tank, the C.D. Howe Institute; Bonnie DuPont, former Vice President at Enbridge Inc., former director of the Canadian Wheat Board, a current director of agribusiness firm Viterra Inc, UTS, on the board of governors of the University of Calgary, member of the Institute of Corporate Directors, and is past president of the Calgary Petroleum Club; Jock Finlayson, Vice President of the Business Council of British Columbia, former Vice President of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (an interest group made up of Canada’s top 150 CEOs), and a member of the Canada West Foundation; Daniel Johnson, a director of Bombardier, IGM Financial, Mackenzie Financial Corporation, Investors Group, and former Minister of Industry and Commerce in the Province of Quebec; David Laidley, Chairman Emeritus of Deloitte & Touche LLP, on the boards of Nautilus Indemnity Limited, ProSep Inc., EMCOR Group, Aviva Canada Inc., the Cole Foundation, and on several boards at McGill University. The rest of the directors of the Bank of Canada are almost exclusively businessmen or former government officials (two women in total), and all of them are white; so, naturally, they truly represent the struggling Canadian family.
In March of 2012, the Bank of Canada warned that household debt “remains the biggest domestic risk” to Canada’s economy. While part of the Bank’s role is to set interest rates, it has kept interest rates very low (at 1%) in order to encourage lending (and indeed, families have become more indebted as a result). Yet, the Bank says, interest rates will have to rise eventually. Economists at Canada’s major banks (CIBC, RBC, BMO, TD, and ScotiaBank) naturally support such an inevitability, as one BMO economist stated, “while rates are unlikely to increase in the near term, the next move is more likely to be up rather than down, and could well emerge sooner than we currently anticipate.” The chief economist at CIBC stated that, “markets will pick up on the slightly improved change in tone on the economy, and might move forward the implied date for the first rate hike.” This translates into: the economy is doing well for the big banks, therefore they will demand higher interest rates on debts, and plunge the Canadian population into poverty; the “invisible hand of the free market” in action. Increased interest rates mean increased payments on debts, which means increased suffering for the indebted, who make up the general population.
As the Bank of Canada warns that interest rates will increase, perhaps as soon as this year, the Canadian people – heavily indebted – will suffer immensely and will likely fail to meet their interest payments. Since such a large majority of the debt and interest is in mortgages, this would potentially cause a major housing crisis, which is already at bubble proportions (especially in Vancouver, now the most expensive city to live in within North America), and will drag the middle class and the rest of the Canadian economy down with it. Even TD Bank has said the housing market is over-valued (i.e., artificially inflated), and warned of a coming “correction” (i.e., economic crisis).
As the gap widens between the rich and everyone else in nearly every OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) country, Canada is no exception. The top 10% of Canadian earners make ten times as much as the bottom 10%. The top 1% in Canada saw their share of total income increase from 8.1% in 1980 to 13.3% in 2007, while the top 0.1% saw their share increase from 2% to 5.3%. Tax policies in Canada strengthen the wealth gap. In 1981, the tax rate for the top margin of earners was 43%, and in 2010, it was 29%. As the Secretary General of the OECD stated in December of 2011, “The social contract is starting to unravel in many countries… This study dispels the assumptions that the benefits of economic growth will automatically trickle down to the disadvantaged and that greater inequality fosters greater social mobility.” Thus, “inequality will continue to rise.”
In a 2008 OECD study, Canada was singled out as one of the countries with the worst rates of widening inequality, stating that, “In the last 10 years, the rich have been getting richer, leaving both middle and poorer income classes behind.” The top 3.8% of Canadian households controlled 66.6% of all financial wealth by 2009, with rates set to increase. As the Conservative government in Canada continues to implement corporate tax cuts, this disparity will increase, with the Harper government providing $60 billion in corporate tax breaks, while maintaining a $30 billion budget deficit (public debt). Despite all the tax cuts for corporations, the money that is not spent on taxes tends to go to shareholders and very little goes toward investments or job creation, meaning that the benefits do not “trickle down,” but rather, as to be expected, trickle up. For Prime Minister Harper’s tax policies and programs, “The higher the income, the bigger the tax break.” The senior economist at the International Trade Union Confederation stated that, “The growing gap between the rich and the rest of us has many causes, including higher remuneration for top earners, much higher profits as a share of the economy, less bargaining power for workers, and less progressive taxes… Conservative tax policies will clearly aggravate the problem.”
The Conference Board of Canada released a study in the fall of 2011 which stated that, “income inequality has been rising more rapidly in Canada than in the U.S. since the mid-1990s,” and on a global scale, “Canada has had the fourth-largest increase in income inequality among its peers.” The President of the Conference Board explained, “Even though the U.S. currently has the largest rich-poor income gap among these countries, the gap in Canada has been rising at a faster rate.”
Among the OECD countries, the one with the highest rates of inequality was none other than the Petri-dish experiment of neoliberalism, Chile, followed by Israel, Italy, Portugal, the U.K., and the United States. While the top 10% of Canadian earners had an average income of $103,500, the bottom 10% had an average annual income of $10,260.
While Canada is often hailed as the most promising nation to come out of the economic-financial crisis of 2008, since its banks were largely left out of the housing derivative market (and thus, were protected), the facts on the ground represent a different reality. As the Economist reported in 2010, of the 31 OECD nations, Canada ranked as the 22nd worst country in terms of child poverty, with one in ten Canadians (roughly 3 million) being poor, 610,000 of them being children. In November of 2010, it was reported that roughly 900,000 Canadians were dependent upon food handouts, a 9% increase from the previous year, with roughly 300,000 homeless people. The majority of the poor are single mothers, immigrants, aboriginal and disabled Canadians. Through the 1980s and 1990s (with the implementation of neolibral policies), welfare payments to these groups were slashed, with British Columbia as the most enthusiastic supporter of exacerbating child poverty, which stood at 10.4% by 2010.
The cost of poverty is quite extensive:
* By 2011, poverty was said to cost the government between $72-86 billion per year;
* In the city of Hamilton, Ontario, there is a 21 year-difference in life expectancy between those who live in high and low-income neighborhoods;
* In March of 2010, nearly 900,000 Canadians had to go to food banks for food, 38% of them being children, an increase of 28% since March of 2008, the “highest level of food bank use ever”;
* In 2010, there were between 150-300,000 “visible” homeless in Canada, with another 900,000 “hidden” homeless, and 1.5 million families in “core housing need” and 3.1 million families in unaffordable housing;
* In 2010, 59% of Canadians (over 20 million Canadians) lived from paycheck to paycheck, “saying they would be in financial difficulty if their paycheque was delayed by a week”;
* In 2009, the average annual income of Canada’s best paid CEOs was $6.6 million, “155 times higher than the average worker’s income ($42,988);
* A third of all income growth in Canada over the past two decades has gone to the richest one percent of Canadians.”
Canada’s Youth: A “Bankrupted Generation”
By January of 2009, Canadian students had a debt to the federal government of over $13 billion, with student loan debt increasing by $1.2 million every day. The Canadian Federation of Students said the obvious answer to this growing crisis was to make education “affordable.” Studies show the effects of student debt, reducing “the ability of new graduates to start families, work in public service careers, invest in other assets, volunteer, or even just take a lower paying job in their own field to get a foot in the door.” On top of the $13 billion owed to the Federal Government, Canadian students owed an additional $5 billion to provincial governments, and the figures do not include debt owed to banks, credit card companies or parents. In short, Canada’s student youth are a “lost generation.”
In September of 2010, the Canadian Council on Learning published a report which indicated that, “students who graduate from college and university with high debt loads are putting off buying a house, having children or investing for the future.” The average debt load of a Canadian university graduate in 2009 was $26,680, and the average debt for college graduates was $13,600. These figures, it should be noted, do not take into account mortgages, credit card debt, lines of credit, or car loans. This represented a doubling in the amount of student debt from 1990, and in 2005, the number of Canadian students needing loans to pay for their education had increased to 57%.
In October of 2011, it was reported that Canadian student debt (to the Federal Government) will surpass $15 billion by 2013, which is the current ceiling set by the government in student loans. Thus, if it reaches the ceiling, the government will no longer (in theory) be able to provide student loans. The solution, according to the Canadian Federation of Students, does not mean eliminating the debt ceiling, which will only make the problem worse, but rather, in reducing the costs of education itself. As the national chairperson of the CFS stated, “The reality is that the job market is grim and students are facing their first interviews with a mortgage-sized debt.” Thus, once they begin work, they do not contribute to the economic growth of the country, but rather merely have to focus on paying interest and repaying debts. The cost of university education in Canada is estimated to be at $60,000, and some studies suggest that this will rise to $140,000 for those born in 2011. The average yearly undergraduate tuition fees were a 4.3% increase from the previous year, reaching $5,366.
In 2011, almost two million Canadians had a student debt totaling $20 billion, and as the chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students stated, “We have an entire generation of people who now more than ever have to complete some form of post-secondary education just to get a job interview, with more than 70% of all new jobs requiring some degree or diploma. We are on the verge of bankrupting a generation before they even enter the workplace.” As job losses continue, and especially as the youth job market continues to decline, the number of full-time students tends to increase, and the availability of part-time work for students continues to decline. A post-secondary education no longer increases a “return on investment” through a lifetime, as it was once assumed. The overall student debt is not the most pressing immediate problem, but rather the “crippling interest rate attached to these government loans” which plunge youth into a deep crisis. So while interest rates are very low (in other lending, as set by the Bank of Canada at 1%), the government is charging 8% interest on student loans. Margaret Johnson, president of Solutions Credit Counselling Service Inc. in Vancouver stated that, “When the loan goes into default, the interest starts to compound. And then you have an absolute nightmare. The average debt I’m seeing is anywhere between $30,000 and $60,000. The payments are so high on some of these loans that the young person cannot live and make a payment. Instead of lowering the interest rate — or eliminating it, which I think is the best solution — the government extended the repayment term to 14 years. The fact that so many loans are in arrears proves this isn’t the answer.”
Some things are worth repeating: the average debt for every Canadian household is over $100,000 and the average debt for a university graduate in Canada is over $26,000; nearly one million Canadians depend upon food banks for their food, poverty and inequality are increasing, homelessness is increasing; the rich are getting richer and everyone else is getting poor or poorer, and there is a horrible job market with few jobs available, let alone available to youth. So the “solution” – we are told – to the supposed “problem” of “competitiveness” in our universities… is to increase the burden, the cost, and the debt of students, families, and the general population; to increase tuition and student debt, to increase interest rates on all debts, and to plunge the population into abject poverty. It seems then, that Canadians, and the Western world in general (as these policies are being pushed throughout the G8 nations on the whole) are about to get a hard lesson in what our countries of the industrialized and supposedly “democratic” north have been doing to the rest of the world (Africa, Asia, Latin America) for decades and, indeed, centuries. What has been done abroad is now coming home to roost.
The conditions, restrictions, programs and policies that our nations have imposed upon Africa, Asia, and Latin America for the past four decades have plunged those countries into poverty, allowed for the unhindered control and extraction of their resources for our corporations, put their nations into the debt of our banks, exploited their populations for cheap labour, and propped up ruthless dictators to repress the people if they ever get wise and want to change their society. While our nations of course continue in their raping and pillaging of the world, now they have also turned their attention – and absolute disregard for humanity – to their domestic populations. The same banks, international institutions, nations, organizations and even individuals who promoted the policies which led to the impoverishment and punishment of much of the world’s population are now telling us that these same policies are the “solutions” to our current crises, just as they told the populations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. If we listen to these same people, submit to the same policies, and accept the same ideologies which have caused so much destruction and devastation around the world, and expect different results at home, we deserve what we get. Naturally, then, we must stop accepting and consenting to the hegemony and power of our elites and their institutions and ideologies. This means that we have to actively create alternatives, not simply protest against their programs, or demand reforms, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The boat is sinking, it doesn’t matter how it looks on the way down. It’s time for a new system altogether. One cannot demand from others to create a new system, but must actively create it themselves.
In the next part of this series, “Class War and the College Crisis,” I will be discussing the coming economic crisis for Canada, which has thus far been hailed as the “safest” nation emerging from the 2008 “recession,” a myth that will soon be broken. As Canada, and much of the rest of the world, begin their rapid descent into an economic depression, the above-mentioned statistics regarding debt, poverty, and inequality will get worse. As the social and economic crisis deepens, our governments will continue to show in whose interests they truly rule: with batons, tear gas, beatings, mass arrests, detention camps, and the growth and development of a police state surveillance society, our governments will reveal that they rule for bankers, corporations, and oligarchs. The democratic façade will wash away. It is within these circumstances that Canadians, and the wider world in general, must seek to create a true democratic system. First, however, we must recognize and understand the system in which we live for what it is: a State-Capitalist society ruled by a power-mad oligarchy. The next part of this series will be taking a look at what this power-mad oligarchy is doing and will be doing to Canada’s economy and society in the coming years. Here’s a hint: it doesn’t benefit YOU!
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.
 CRA, What are the income tax rates in Canada for 2012? Canada Revenue Agency:
 Finances Québec, “A Fair and Balanced University Funding Plan: To Give Québec the Means to Fulfill its Ambitions,” The Government of Québec, 2011-2012 Budget, page 7.
 CFS, Tuition Fees, The Canadian Federation of Students:
 Press Release, “TD Economics outlines plan for prosperity in Quebec report,” Newswire, 10 April 2007:
 CNW, “Déjà Vu: O’Neill Report Recycles Dated, Discredited Tuition Fee Myths,” Newswire, 17 September 2010:
 Alison Kershaw, “Thousands of students to stage walkout protest,” The Independent, 12 March 2012:
 Carla Rivera and Larry Gordon, “Occupy protests bring small yet intense crowds to state campuses,” Los Angeles Times, 1 March 2012:
 Giles Tremlett, “Fighting breaks out in Barcelona as students protest over education cuts,” The Guardian, 29 February 2012:
 Mark Olssen and Michael A. Peters, “Neoliberalism, Higher Education and the Knowledge Economy: From the Free Market to Knowledge Capitalism,” Journal of Education Policy (Vol. 20, No. 3, May 2005), page 331.
 Ibid, pages 338-339.
 CTV News Staff, “Average Canadian family debt hits $100,000,” CTV News, 17 February 2011:
 Why are Canadian families falling further into debt?, The Globe and Mail, 14 February 2012:
 Tavia Grant, “Financial security ‘elusive’ for many Canadian families,” The Globe and Mail, 22 March 2012: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/economy-lab/daily-mix/financial-security-elusive-for-many-canadian-families/article2377592/
 Gordon Isfeld, “Bank of Canada says household debt ‘biggest risk’ to economy,” The Leader Post, 9 March 2012:
 John Morrissy, “Household debt a mounting concern as rates appear set to rise,” The Montreal Gazette, 23 March 2012:
 CBC, Wealth gap widens to 30-year high, CBC News, 5 December 2011:
 Les Whittington, “Tax policies may aggravate gap between rich and poor,” Toronto Star, 27 May 2011:
 Tavia Grant, “Income inequality rising quickly in Canada,” The Globe and Mail, 13 September 2011:
 CTV News Staff, “OECD report finds income inequality rising in Canada,” CTV News:
 Poverty in Canada: Mean Streets, The Economist, 25 November 2010:
 CTV News Staff, “Canada Student Loan debt tops $13B, figures show,” CTV News, 21 January 2009:
 CTV News Staff, “Canada Student Loan debt tops $13B, figures show,” CTV News, 21 January 2009:
 CBC, “Student debt limits post-grad options,” CBC News, 22 September 2010:
 QMI Agency, “Student debt doubled over 20 years: Study,” Toronto Sun, 22 September 2010:
 Sharon Singleton, “Action needed on student debt: CFS,” Toronto Sun, 17 October 2011:
 Mary Teresa Bitti, Student debt bankrupting a generation, The Financial Post, 4 June 2011: