The following is an excerpted chapter from Generation Rising: The Time of the Québec Student Spring

(Fernwood Publishing, 2015. Photos by Mario Jean. All rights reserved.)

View the complete Table of Contents here.


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The Corporate Coup d’État and the Rise of the Resistance


“To the youth, I say: Look around you. You will find the themes that justify your indignation.”

— Stéphane Hessel, Indignez-Vous! (2011)


The tightening alliance between business and political élites has borne enormous consequences for our institutions. Across the democratic world, declining political party memberships and voter participation rates have laid bare an “increasingly obvious chasm” between citizens and their representatives.[1] It’s a problem that’s generally acknowledged across the political spectrum, and yet the adherents of marketization who feign concern also neglect a most inconvenient fact: that this democratic crisis has risen in tandem with the neoliberal revolution that’s empowered economic élites, and that its role in causing the democratic decline grows ever more undeniable. In truth it’s little wonder citizens have grown increasingly weary of their representatives. They witness before them political establishments that ritually bemoan the symptoms of failing democracies precisely as they fuel the sources, either incapable or unwilling to name the crisis staring us in the face: Democracy everywhere is in retreat, and all signs point to a worsening trend as our institutions grow increasingly permeable to the powers of money.

Usurpers: The post-democracy of the ruling class

The baby boomers were inculcated with the Cold War-era myth that capitalism and democracy are natural allies, and yet the concentration of wealth that results from the former can only have its direct corollary in the concentration of power. In simpler words: The economic oligarchy produced by deregulated capitalism is completely inconsistent with democracy, as the rich will buy their state’s attentions when they can. To those who never knew the Berlin Wall, the establishment’s desperation to cling to that myth is therefore brushed aside with ease in the face of the overwhelming evidence they grew up with. It is no accident that the shift in global consciousness at the root of the latest uprisings is being piloted by this rising generation, though they have been greatly aided by the seeds lain in recent years by authors, activists and academics in many countries. In his 2004 “landmark publication”[2] Post-Democracy, for instance, British sociologist and political scientist Colin Crouch traced the contours of this crisis afflicting democracies in the advanced stages of neoliberal capitalism.

While elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professional experts in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to the signals given them. Behind the spectacle of the electoral game, politics is really shaped in private by interaction between elected governments and elites that overwhelmingly represent business interests.[3]

Red tie, blue tie, they’re all the same suits. Anyone who has approached abstainers to discuss why they don’t vote has doubtless come across such responses too many times to count. But they are not taken seriously. The hollow pleas of politicians and get-out-the-vote campaigns directed at youth contain within them a dismissive paternalism that insults their intelligence and fails to acknowledge the serious and systemic sources of citizen disengagement. Crouch places his finger rather adroitly on the wound when he describes the Potemkin democracy that contemporary capitalism has produced.[4] And he is far from alone in his camp.

French philosopher Alain Badiou has decried a world “everywhere in the hands of extremely tightly knit financial and media oligarchs,” whose power is enabled by systems of “capitalo-parliamentarism” that breed intimate ties between governments and business élites.[5] “Not even elections offer any true political alternative,” says Badiou.[6] But it was not always like this. Decades of policies aimed at whittling away the size and scope of the state have eroded the capacities of governments to improve the lots of their citizens, ceding ever wider areas to the rivalling greed of market actors. Yet as the state shrinks, so too does the sphere under the control of those who may hold it accountable. This gradual “hollowing out of the public domain of citizenship,”[7] in the phrase of the University of Manchester’s Erik Swyngedouw, has seen countries’ democratic space increasingly constrained in tune with the growing force of multinational business entities that have pushed to widen the market’s domain. Echoing Crouch and Badiou, Swyngedouw’s explanation of “post-democratization” captures the enormity of the power grab, as this “depoliticization of the economy” has removed the issues that most affect people’s lives from the range of options offered to citizens.[8] And as the areas under the influence of the voter wane and retreat, the reasons to get engaged in the political process fade ever further from view.

We’ve entered an era described by philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek as “postpolitics,” where government has been “re-conceived as a managerial function deprived of its proper political dimension.”[9] Under the cover of globalization-era economic “imperatives” — defined, most naturally, by the moneyed interests that stand to gain — governments of all stripes have accepted the rigid curtailing of the policy spectrum dictated by business élites. And most unconscionably, they then fastened the straitjacket tight with secretive (and often long-term) trade deals enforced by the unelected corporate guard-dogs of the World Trade Organization. Without so much as a fight, our representatives have thereby surrendered our democratic and social rights to unaccountable (and often foreign) business actors and legitimated this surrender with a manipulated framing of the public good that simply confuses their narrow interests with those of the collective.[10]

Thatcher’s mantra “There is no alternative” was effective at convincing people of the urgency of the neoliberal reforms in her day — though today, the phrase has become more apt at capturing the options available to voters as a result. Year upon year, our ballots appear less as tools for change and increasingly as tools for the legitimation of a skin-deep façade, while behind the curtain the corporate puppeteers are holding all the strings. In the final picture, citizens may be forgiven for wondering whether even the most minimal engagement of a periodic vote still has any significant impact on their lives. And they may even be forgiven for wondering whether at the end of the day, we can meaningfully claim to live in a democracy at all — or whether it’s by sheer force of habit that we continue defining ourselves by such weighty words, long after they’ve been hollowed of all their sense.

Revolution 2.0: The generation that toppled dictators

On December 17, 2010, a poor Tunisian street vendor by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after authorities had repeatedly prevented him from selling his vegetables and thus earning his livelihood.[11] With economic discontent soaring after food prices in the import-dependent region spiked in 2008, the flames that ended Bouazizi’s life instantly engulfed the whole country.[12] Massive upheaval erupted that killed hundreds across Tunisia and ended in January when President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile after twenty-four years in power. The impact of the dictator’s fall reverberated across borders. Throughout the region, the Arab street rose up against the pharaonically rich élites whose systems of oppression and corruption kept their people starved, in the words of Egyptian protesters, of “bread, freedom and dignity.”[13]

In Mubarak-era Egypt, the chasm between the globalized ruling class and the people had long hit “critical levels.”[14] With impending upheaval at a low boil below the surface, food prices were sent skyrocketing by 37 percent between 2008 and 2010.[15] Bouazizi’s self-immolation and the Tunisian revolution that followed lit the spark of insurrection, and the social media generation quickly took up the torch. Facebook use soared across the Arab world in the first few months of 2011, as the overwhelmingly young and urban core of the pro-democracy movement flooded social media to launch what became the Arab Spring.[16] In Egypt, Internet use in the preceding decade had exploded by 3,691 percent to attain 17 million users.[17] With four million of them on Facebook, the social media sharing site became the country’s third most visited Web address by 2009 — and in 2011, joined with Twitter to become the organizational and informational hub from which a historic revolution would be born and fought.[18]

Representatives from six youth movements gathered throughout January to plot the revolution and mobilize the population online.[19] Their Twitter hashtag #jan25, used 1.2 million times, announced the date that the Egyptian revolutionaries stormed and occupied the operational and iconic heart of Cairo.[20] There, in the “republic of Tahrir Square,”[21] they built a leaderless, independent and grassroots encampment from which they rallied the masses of society to their revolution, stared down the brutal forces of dictatorship, and brought an abrupt end to the thirty-year rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Indignez-vous!: The sparks of a global resistance

In parallel to the eruption of protests in Tunisia in December of 2010, Stéphane Hessel, a now-deceased French Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor, published a three-euro tract entitled Indignez-vous! (later published in English as Time for Outrage!). The German-born Hessel, who became a French citizen in 1939, had helped craft the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Aged ninety-three and knowing his end was “not far off,”[22] the cri du cœur he signed was to be his final plea to the generation on the rise. Hessel took pen to paper to recall the values of economic and social democracy on which France’s Fifth Republic was founded after the Second World War — values, markedly, that were echoed by the nation-builders of Québec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. In the new republic, moneyed interests were to be “evicted” from the management of the economy so that the good of the many could prevail over the good of the few.[23] But this post-war pact, he warned, has been betrayed. In one trenchant passage, Hessel writes:

They have the nerve to tell us that the state can no longer cover the costs of these social programs. Yet how can the money needed to continue and extend these achievements be lacking today, when the creation of wealth has grown so enormously since the Liberation [of France], a time when Europe lay in ruins? It can only be because the power of money, which the Resistance fought against so hard, has never been as great and selfish and shameless as it is now, with its servants in the very highest circles of government.[24]

Hessel urged resistance in the faceEducation of
“the current dictatorship of global financial markets that threatens democracy and peace” and issued a call for a “peaceful insurrection” against a world of mass consumption and collective amnesia.[25] Released to little fanfare with a small publishing house from Montpellier, the thirty-two page manifesto — of which only 8,000 copies were initially printed — exploded unexpectedly into a global phenomenon, selling four million copies and being translated into thirty-four languages.[26] The impact was undeniable. Propelled by the three-euro cost and the unique stature of the author, Hessel’s perfectly timed polemic crowned the rising crescendo of scholarly alarm, which travelled from the ivory towers down to the streets to ignite a populist phenomenon. Hessel’s cries had ruptured a vein.

The 2008 financial collapse and resulting global recession, sparked largely by the irresponsible practices of banks that had been deregulated in the late 1970s, pummelled Europe’s economies, with youth often hit especially hard.[27] In Portugal, where half of the country’s unemployed were under thirty-five, a pop group called Deolinda sparked a spontaneous awakening with the release of a hit entitled “Que parva sou eu” (“How Stupid I Am”), whose lyrics condemned a “stupid world where you have to study first to become a slave.”[28] Moved to action by the song’s channelling of their frustrations, four young professionals launched a call over social media for a “Protest for the Generation in Trouble.” Within days, the Facebook page had garnered tens of thousands of “likes,” and on March 12, 2011, hundreds of thousands marched nationwide in the largest protests since the Carnation Revolution that toppled the dictatorship in 1974.[29] Inspired by Hessel, the protesters called themselves the Indignados and defined their movement as non-partisan, nonviolent and bottom-up.[30]

No one expects the #spanishrevolution:

Spain’s youth and the fight for real democracy

In Spain, where the situation known simply as “the crisis” put a brutal stop to decades of prosperity, similar conditions were manifested in what was termed the “ni-ni” generation — neither working, nor studying, in a country where nearly half of those under twenty-four were unemployed. The massive housing bubble had burst and left over a fifth of the population out of work, as eleven million people were at risk of falling into poverty, and hundreds of thousands of families had been evicted from their homes.[31] Panicked at the thought of following Greece’s 2008 collapse and subsequent vassalage to international lending institutions, the Socialist government of José Luis Zapatero, ceding to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), abruptly reversed longstanding party policies and enacted wide-ranging austerity measures to stem the rising debt. With the imposed surrender of the governing left as backdrop, the legitimacy of the system then took its final hit: Amidst the belt-tightening and the worst economic crisis in decades, Spain’s bankers made off with princely bonuses after the government issued bank bailouts to the tune of $70 billion U.S.[32]

Soon, an independent and decentralized coalition of over two hundred civil society organizations arose under the banner of Democracia Real Ya (“Real Democracy Now”). Fronted by the slogan “We are not goods in the hands of bankers and politicians,” the organization’s online campaign mobilized 130,000 citizens into the streets on May 15, 2011, giving birth to the movement known in Spain as “15-M,” or the Spanish Indignados. Inspired by the power of leaderless and social media-driven protests both in Portugal and in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a few dozen protesters occupied Madrid’s Puerta del Sol that evening and summoned reinforcements over Twitter. The hashtag they launched then, #spanishrevolution, went viral as the “Acampada Sol” grew to 150 members. As young eyes were turning to Sol, a heavy-handed police crackdown dislodged the protesters at dawn on May 17, inciting a fateful transmission that would echo out across text messages and social media to announce the protesters’ return in force: toma la plaza, take the square. And so that evening, they did.

The days that followed witnessed the eruption of a truly historic popular uprising and the laying of seeds that the winds would transport to fertile soil at the four corners of the globe. Tens of thousands of citizens occupied squares in 166 cities across Spain, with protesters seen cloaked in the Guy Fawkes masks popularized by the 2006 film version of the revolutionary V for Vendetta. Image, however, was only the surface: The occupiers dug in their heels, as they set to crafting assembly-based models of participative and horizontal democracy that drew on decades-long Spanish traditions of autogestión (leaderless self-management) — and that, after spreading eastward to Athens, later travelled across the Atlantic to be carefully recreated in New York’s Zucotti Park.[33]

At a conference held in June 2011 at Birkbeck, University of London, Spanish sociologist Carlos Frade summed up the underlying sentiment of the 15-M movement with the popular rallying cry, ¡No nos representan! (“They don’t represent us!”).[34] And indeed, a canvassing of the slogans recited at Spain’s protests revealed a strikingly recurrent theme: “This is not a crisis. It’s fraud”; “We are not anti-system, the system is anti-us”; “Democracy is our fight”; “We will not pay for this crisis”; “Democracy is a two-party dictatorship”; and on it went. Spanish journalist Elena García Quevedo explains the rage of Spanish youth by saying that “Spain’s democracy does not seem real to them…. They are more prepared than the generation that preceded theirs; they are better educated, speak more languages, are more well-rounded. They have so much to offer, but their country has nothing to offer them.”[35] And indeed the refrain being echoed by other protesters in Spain will likely come as little surprise to youth in Western democracies. “We have alternation [of political parties] without alternatives,” was the succinct conclusion of twenty-six-year-old Olga Arnaiz. One journalism student, Sabina Ortega, channelled the same sentiment: “You name it. Nothing works…. It’s against a two-party system. And my goal is to feel represented. I want politicians to know they are not listening.”[36]

The list of demands adopted at the nightly assemblies fit neatly within the narrative. Of the broad array of youth concerns raised by the participants, The Nation’s Andy Robinson reported that the most widely supported were the ones centred on democratic reform.[37] The movement’s manifesto, written, debated and voted on by the general assembly and diffused via the 15-M website, is abundantly clear on this. It asserts that the economic troubles plaguing Spain are primarily due to the corruption of the system — of the “government, bankers, and businessmen alike.”[38] Other observers readily noted as much in the discourse of 15-M. New York University professor Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Spanish sociologist Ernesto Ganuza have written that “Although [Democracia Real Ya] targeted unemployment and mortgage reforms, the main message was not about the economic crisis but about the breakdown of political accountability and representation.”[39] In short, while the economic crisis was the catalyst to the protests, it served largely to unleash a wider generational anger directed at the hijacking of Spain’s democracy.[40]

Only part of 15-M’s messageCasseroles- 1.6 MB was contained within its opposition, however. The rest, and most telling component, was embedded within its innovations that channelled the maturing world view of a generation that is today entering into mounting conflict with prevailing structures and values. On this, the 15-M manifesto left no room for ambiguity: “We’re organising around assemblies, reaching decisions openly, democratically and horizontally. We have no leaders or hierarchy.” Significantly for 15-M, horizontality meant not only no leaders, but a rejection of the very principle of representative democracy. Remaining fiercely independent of all organized groups and parties, Spain’s young protesters sought to bring people together “as equal citizens, not as representatives of particular interests or bearers of particular identities.”[41] This radical egalitarianism clashed head on with the top-down structures and competing interest groups against which they sought to define their new civic society. And it was a dream, diffused far and wide through the media networks of their generation, that soon resonated across cultures and continents.[42]

Athens is burning: Outrage in the cradle of democracy

The economic situation in Greece was even more dire than in Spain, and the intensity and duration of protests there attested to the fact. Populist unrest had been simmering in Greece since at least December of 2008, when the country exploded into large-scale rioting after a police officer shot and killed fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos. Almost immediately, the media and political parties were speaking of the “students’ revolt” or “childrens’ democracy,” as Greece’s young protesters channelled the rage of a generation beset by a debilitating sense of political disenfranchisement.[43] Spurred suddenly to rebellion, they demanded nothing less, writes Greek youth sociologist Yannis Pechtelidis, than the immediate “democratization of the state and society.”[44] Through Pechtelidis’ lens, we see the striking similarities with Spain immediately rise to the surface: “Young people’s protest wasn’t solely about the financial crisis or the bleak forecast for the near future,” he writes; “it also concerned the violation of social, individual and political rights. It was a democratic struggle around citizen’s rights and citizenship.”[45] The Greeks’ protest in fact seemed to foreshadow the orientation of Spain’s Indignados two years later, evoking a maturing system-wide critique that evolved in tandem with their peers in other countries. Much as elsewhere, writes Pechtidilis, “Young people in Greece criticised both neoliberal capitalism and the hierarchical organisation of the traditional Left.” The scale of the contestation was historic and amounted to nothing short of a wholesale rejection of the current political order.[46]

The December 2008 revolt marked the onset of a troubling and often violent phase of upheaval in the country.[47] On May 5, 2010, as hundreds of thousands of furious citizens massed outside the parliament, Greek legislators approved drastic spending cuts in exchange for accepting the eurozone’s first IMF bailout to the tune of 110 billion euros.[48] In the wake of Spain’s 15-M movement a year later, Greek protesters rebranded themselves in the guise of the Indignados, pushing the violent protests to the side as they adopted the Hellenized moniker of the Aganaktismenoi (“The Outraged”) and launched a website called Real Democracy ([49] Yet as each subsequent round of the draconian austerity measures cut deeper into Greek society, the democratic crisis grew ever more grave. In an op-ed piece published in The Guardian, renowned Greek legal scholar and director of the University of London’s Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities Costas Douzinas was scathing in his assessment:

In the Greek case, manifesto promises of the government before the last elections were comprehensively broken. No consent has been sought or given to the various measures that are destroying the post-war social bond. These measures have led to the surrender of national sovereignty to a motley crew of international bankers and deluded Eurocrats and the demotion of parliament to the position of a multinational company’s local branch executing the orders of the headquarters. In all these senses, Greece is in a state of emergency ruled by the diktat of foreign powers.[50]

With the same target but decidedly more rage than the Spaniards, the crowds at Syntagma Square hurled anathema at the Royal Palace that houses their legislature, with the favoured chants of “Thieves!” and “Burn this brothel of a parliament!” routinely erupting from the angry citizenry.[51] The Greek protesters laid the blame squarely at the feet of the corrupt political élites who have ruled the country for the last thirty years.[52]

Following in the footsteps of 15-M, the Aganaktismenoi therefore embodied the same horizontalist ethos as articulated at Acampada Sol, bearing neither hierarchies nor leaders and remaining rigorously unaffiliated with any organization or party. At #Syntagma, the occupiers constructed an elaborate and autonomous city-within-a-city that channelled the thirst for a new republic for the twenty-first century. And inspired by their ancestors who inhabited Athens millennia ago, they erected the contemporary vision of a direct democracy that may rise from the ashes of the one they saw smouldering in ruins beneath their feet.[53]

Revolt at the heart of empire: #OccupyWallStreet

Government responses to the 2008 economic crisis in the United States laid the grounds for a similar narrative to take root west of the Atlantic. Fearing a collapse of its financial sector in the wake of a housing market crash, Washington poured trillions of dollars into rescuing America’s “too big to fail” banks, as citizens struggling to make ends meet were being routinely evicted from their homes. America was poised for a Spanish-style awakening, and beneath the eyes of the media, the frantic sowing of networks was already under way.

Kalle Lasn and Micah White, editors of the popular Canadian anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters, began sending out emails to subscribers in early June 2011 to respond to the anger they felt bubbling up among their American base. Inspired by events in Spain and Egypt, the two sensed a unique moment at hand and wrote to their followers to plant the seed of a thought: “America needs its own Tahrir.” The missive marked the onset of preparations, and the website ( was also floated, but rejected by the duo) was registered by Vancouver-based Lasn on June ninth.[54] Invoking the “worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics” embodied by the horizontal, decentralized, and networked structures of the young Egyptian and Spanish protesters, the Adbusters website published a call on July 13 in the form of a brazen question: “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?” Adbusters demanded the ouster of the American “corporatocracy” and evoked the “radical democracy of the future” as their ultimate objective: “On Sept 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades.” Together they would storm the “financial Gomorrah of America,” because it was time, they proclaimed, to “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET.”

With the glossy zine’s characteristic flair of hyper-aestheticism, the graphic artists at “Culture Jammers HQ” produced posters that cast the image of a ballerina rising serenely from out of a tear-gas-choked mob, balanced effortlessly on the back of the Wall Street bull. Instantly, groups from across society (Anonymous perhaps being the most well-known) seized on the call as it snowballed out across activist networks and social media.[55] The Debordian sign subverters at Adbusters had tapped into something far deeper than they had ever imagined. Overwhelmed by the massive response, their website soon pumped out excited updates addressed to all the “rebels, radicals, and utopian dreamers out there,” along with more of their signature culture-jamming imagery to tempt the thirst for revolt as the fateful day approached. One potent meme showed the New York Stock Exchange in the background with the façade’s monumental American flag spangled with corporate logos in the place of stars (a recurrent Adbusters meme), while in the foreground, shoes were held high in revolt from an angry Arab mob. Along the bottom ran the trigger line: “September 17th. Is America ripe for a Tahrir moment?” The response, as we know, arrived to Wall Street with a thunder on that clear fall day and rippled out across the world in the weeks that followed to reignite the Indignados encampments across Europe. The revolt, said Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy in The Guardian, had attained “the heart of empire.”[56]

The linkages between 15-M and Occupy were more than simply ideational. They were organizational in a most explicit sense. Following outreach in July by Adbusters’ White, activists from New York and around the world met in the city throughout August to lay the grounds for the September actions.[57] Among the crowds, reported journalist Andy Kroll, were Egyptians, Spaniards, Japanese and Greeks, many of whom had been actively involved in the protests across Europe and in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.[58] The nightly assemblies, working groups, voting procedures and other components of OWS’s internal organization energetically mirrored the structures built by the Indignados and which were laid out in step-by-step manuals translated into different languages and published in English on one of 15-M’s websites, In a section of the website later renamed “How to #Occupy” — an explicit sign of the synergy that emerged between 15-M and OWS once the latter had formed in late 2011 — the areas covered included communication strategies, group dynamics, facilitating assembly debates, health and safety procedures, and even organizational charts and tables for those wishing to set up their own encampments.[59]

The occupiers of Wall Street thus benefitted immensely from the months of experience gained by their Spanish peers, which facilitated the swift professionalization of the North American camps. When the protest movement arrived in the U.S., Americans, like the Greeks before them, adopted the modes and model of the Spanish Indignados. In the words of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Foreign Affairs, Occupy Wall Street “sprung up from outside and from beneath the political establishment” and mirrored the populist and anti-system messaging of its European cousins. Both were linked through a “defining affect” of indignation that was aimed not only at the panoply of social and economic troubles, but more fundamentally at the underlying failure of a “political system incapable of addressing these issues.”[60]

Building on the successes of 15-M, OWS brilliantly distilled an expansive critique of the United States’ political and economic structures into one potent mantra: “We are the 99%.” Their famous rallying cry — and the attendant epithet it created of the loathed “One Percent” — succeeded in sharply delineating a democratic crisis that has seen an ”unelected dictatorship of money” seize control of “both the nation’s major political parties and so much more.”[61] Rising up from the grassroots that the system had tried to shut out, OWS’s attack on the foundations of the corporatized establishment took the fight against austerity out from the stale confines of left versus right and exposed a deeper crisis of representation produced by a subversion of the country’s democratic institutions by the economic élite. Indeed, despite efforts at co-optation from Democratic Party officials, OWS vigorously defended its orientation as an independent, nonpartisan, and leaderless movement beyond the control of the political establishment.[62] In the image of the Spanish and the Greeks, OWS steadfastly refused to endorse candidates from either party, condemning both as agents and symptoms of the same virus that has corrupted American democracy.

The mirroring by OWS of the forms adopted by protests overseas was profoundly significant and bespoke a shared set of political values emerging among the globalized network generation that launched them. For this youth, the perennial disconnect between citizens and their democratic institutions seems an endemic and even essential component of the concentrated and top-down nature of representative power — less a system felled by corruption than a system that is the corruption itself. In his aptly entitled article “Occupy Wall Street: From Representation to Post-Representation,” political theorist Simon Tormey engages incisively with this central premise of Occupy’s message:

OWS…offers further evidence that the paradigm of representative politics, the politics of political parties, elections and voting is on the wane…. It tells us that no form of representative politics, no political party, can change the basic coordinates of the liberal-democratic capitalist system…. “Not in my Name” is an emblematic expression of this winding back of the representative paradigm. It says that I will not be annexed for a larger purpose. I must myself speak to and embody the changes we need in order to address inequality.[63]

With Tormey’s observations, the abstention of youth from traditional modes of political interaction (voting, political party membership, etc.) emerges in a new light, as the recent explosion of youth activism across continents becomes reconciled with the supposed apathy ascribed to them by others. Indeed, the bewilderment with which establishments greeted the eruptions of revolt perhaps spoke only to the political assumptions of those it caught off guard. The tea leaves, however, were there for all to read: The same generation that has increasingly rejected the political structures bestowed on them by their parents is now taking to the streets and online, where they are slowly crafting new models that aim to rebuild democracy from the ground up. And far from being a contradiction, the question engenders its own response.[64]

Sap rising in the trees: The CLASSE takes up the torch

The year 2011 was a veritable watershed for popular resistance movements that arose around the world to condemn the subversion of political establishments by market powers. Spreading to over one thousand cities in more than eighty countries, the protests reached Montréal on October 15 when the Occupy encampent arrived in the heart of the city’s Quartier International business district.[65]

Much of the American and UQAM occupation - 1.5 MBEnglish-Canadian media establishments paid scant attention to Occupy’s global antecedents. The networking linkages between activists in different countries thus likely remained unknown to many North Americans. Yet for Quebecers, who share a linguistic and cultural sphere with France, both Hessel’s call to action and the movements that it sparked across Europe, including France, were well known. A significant number of Quebecers keep one finger on the pulse of political happenings in that country, aided by the mainstream media’s interest in French affairs and the free-flow of the Internet, as well as the massive influx of French expatriates to Montréal in recent years. It was telling that Québec’s French-language press often preferred the French designation “les Indignés” to refer to the hundreds camped out in Square Victoria, which was renamed “Place du Peuple” by the Occupiers. Likewise for the French press, “Occupy” was simply the North American designation for the movement of the Indignés, as confirmed by the “Global Day of Indignation” that marked Occupy’s expansion across the world on October 15. In sum, Québec’s cultural location at the crossroads of Europe and North America placed it at the locus of two waves of a timely and potent tide: that of Occupy Wall Street travelling from six hours south, and that of the Indignés, which lapped faintly at our shores from across the Atlantic.

There were no bailouts or fears of financial collapse in Canada’s more regulated banking sector, and when held up against the crises afflicting its American and European counterparts, Québec indeed seemed an island of relative calm amidst the storm. Yet the distinction, ultimately, was one of degree (which I’ll discuss at length in Chapter 4). For now though, it’s important to know that years of corporate and income tax cuts by both governing parties in Québec — including the governing Liberals’ 2007 abolition of the 0.7 percent capital tax on business and financial transactions — had emptied the public purse of nearly $10 billion since 2000 alone; yet in 2010, the Liberals imposed $3.5 billion in flat user fees on health care and other essential services by arguing that the state was too poor to fund them.[66] Not poor enough, it seemed, for the Liberals soon uncovered up to $70 billion in state largesse to flaunt to foreign mining giants in a bid at spurring massive resource exploitation under the twenty-five-year Plan Nord[67] — and at the same time, they turned to debt-strapped students, whose interest fees directly profit the banks, and demanded they dig deeper to pay their “fair share.”[68]

That share, estimated by the government at $265 million, could have been wholly funded by reinstating less than one third of the capital tax; reinstating it all could abolish tuition entirely.[69] But this, to the Liberals, was beside the point. The Charest government, its legitimacy already tarnished by a flood of corruption allegations (discussed in Chapter 4), refused to negotiate the issue with students. In the March 2011 budget, Charest simply decreed an increase of 75 percent over five years. With Finance Minister Raymond Bachand boldly proclaiming the launch of a “cultural revolution” to definitively do away with Québec’s collectivist mentalities, students didn’t take long to connect the proverbial dots. It was time, they felt, for a little indignation.

In Québec, the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), one of the three provincial student associations, was the actor best placed to channel the mounting challenge to the One Percent. Indeed, while the broader agenda and interests at play in Charest’s tuition increase in 2012 were ignored entirely by the two establishment federations, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ), the CLASSE stood alone in linking its challenge to the wider crisis of representation.

In many ways, the youngest student association was actually one of the world’s numerous precursors to the Indignados and Occupy movements.[70] We’ll recall that both the ASSÉ and the World Social Forum were founded in 2001, only two years after the alter-globalization movement had broken into the mainstream with the Battle in Seattle around the WTO summit. Both enunciated a bottom-up counter vision to corporate-led globalization that was structured around decentralized networks and based on principles of direct democracy, pluralism, and social justice. This distinctively twenty-first-century paradigm of horizontalism became the model for the social movements of 2011 and 2012 (and after).

For the ASSÉ, the explosion of Occupy Wall Street six hours south of Montréal thus landed as an untold gift from out of the blue, or a four-star general come late to the battle bearing an army of reinforcements. Seeing the impressive percolation of OWS’s narrative among the student base, the ASSÉ moved swiftly to seize on the historic moment. Its manifesto, released in the summer of 2012, tied together the arguments and ideals that motivated their struggle throughout the spring. In Nous sommes avenir (suggesting both “We are future” and “We are to come”), the CLASSE lauds the young marchers for awakening what they term “a far deeper malaise” in society that extends far beyond the issue of tuition fees, or even the domain of education. The “collective political problem” that motivated the mobilization, they write, is at root a problem of democracy. The CLASSE drew the battle lines sharply:

Our vision is one of a direct democracy that is experienced in every instant of every day. It is one of a “We” that expresses itself in the assemblies: at school, at work and in our neighbourhoods. Our vision is one of a permanent appropriation of politics by the population — the foundation of political legitimacy. It’s the possibility of heeding those whose voices are never heard.[71]

The CLASSE’s diagnosis of a grave democratic crisis echoed the rejection of representative politics embodied by OWS and the Indignados and joined with the voices of their global cousins in moving beyond a conventional left-right critique to challenge the legitimacy of the system at its roots. The CLASSE accuses:

Their vision, their democracy, they call it representative: we ask exactly whom it represents. It lives but once every four years and serves too often to merely change faces. Election after election, the decisions remain the same and serve the same interests, preferring the soft murmurs of lobbies to the chorus of the casseroles.[72]

Much as elsewhere, youth anger in Québec was directed at an old guard that embodied the twentieth century’s closed and top-down structures of élite power: here, the Liberal-Péquiste establishment, which has controlled the province since the sixties and has since the 1980s grown increasingly homogenous in its embrace of marketizing policies. Yet in Québec, the genesis and core of the revolt within the student population, and the messaging cohesion lent by the CLASSE, served to bind together the vast indignation that inspired the movement’s precedents and to crystallize the generational challenge to the structures and values of the ruling class.

From post-politics to post-representation: A new world beckons

Whether in the streets of Madrid, Athens, New York, or Montréal, one can no longer ignore the stunning convergence of voices that are rising to declare their democracies in peril. The young chorus betrays no confusion as to the culprits in their crosshairs. The globalized financial and economic oligarchy has for decades deployed its unprecedented hegemony to manipulate our public debate, commandeer our institutions, and divert our common resources to serve their private ends. But now they are facing an historic challenge from the generation whose media are eluding their grip. From the protest cries of “They don’t represent us!” heard in the streets of Spain, to the iconic “We are the 99%” of Occupy, their timely and incisive refusal has raised the contours of this moment into sharp relief and triumphed in tracing an arc that ran from Europe to America to around the world, and finally found echo in Montréal.

From the squares of the Middle East, to Europe and North America, each movement’s models became the next segment of a planetary conversation taking place among those now readying to inherit the world. Indeed, in an age where the daunting litany of crises before us has never required a more global response, the next generation of leaders, raised in the decentralized, participatory, and horizontal currents of the Web, are slowly forging new systems that may rise to the unprecedented challenges ahead. Parallel to the establishment’s pillars of media, cultural, political and economic control, new instruments and practices are emerging to circumvent the dominant structures and begin to turn the tide. If on the surface the façade of inertia remains unfazed, signs from ground level — and from the online underground — hint at a fresh breeze blowing in. And beyond premature judgments over the short-term gains of these movements are the outlines, now coming into focus, of a new generation’s dream of democracy on the rise.

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[1] Downey 2007: 108.

[2] Swyngedouw 2011: 371.

[3] Crouch 2004: 4.

[4] Deriving from tsarist Russia, Merriam-Webster defines a “Potemkin village” as an “impressive façade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition.”

[5] Badiou and Finkielkraut 2010: 35 (my translation).

[6] Badiou 2012: esp. 15–17.

[7] Swyngedouw 2011: 371.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Žižek 2002: 303.

[10] For more on the impact of neoliberal reforms on our democracies, see Purcell 2008 and Giroux 2004.

[11] The Economist 2012.

[12] Ibid.; Popiden 2012.

[13] Popiden 2012.

[14] Stepanova 2011: 1.

[15] Ibid.; The Economist 2012.

[16] Huang 2011; Stepanova 2011: 2.

[17] Stepanova 2011: 1–2.

[18] Ibid.; Shapiro 2009; Huang 2011.

[19] Levinson and Coker 2011.

[20] Huang 2011.

[21] Sadiki 2012.

[22] Hessel 2010: 9 (my translation).

[23] Ibid.: 10–11.

[24] Hessel 2011: 16.

[25] Hessel 2010: 12 (my translation).

[26] Le Monde 2013.

[27] Kotz 2009: 305–8; Crotty 2009: 563–5.

[28] Marques 2011.

[29] Ibid.

[30] See Silva 2011: 58–61.

[31] Oikonomakis and Roos 2013: 8.

[32] See Silva 2011: 60–61.

[33] For more on the Indignados, see Castells 2012: 110–55 and Gerbaudo 2012: 76–101.

[34] Silva 2011: 61. See also Castells 2012: 110–55 and Gerbaudo 2012: 76–101.

[35] Carrión 2011: 32.

[36] Cala 2011; Robinson 2011: 8

[37] Robinson 2011: 8.

[38] Silva 2011: 62.

[39] Baiocchi and Ganuza 2012: 43.

[40] Silva 2011: 61; Robinson 2011: 8; Carrión 2011: 30; Cala 2011: 3.

[41] Baiocchi and Ganuza 2012: 42.

[42] For more on the Indignados, see Castells 2012: 110–55 and Gerbaudo 2012: 76–101.

[43] Pechtelidis 2011: 449.

[44] Ibid.: 459.

[45] Ibid.: 461.

[46] Ibid.: 452.

[47] Silva 2011: 63.

[48] Vradis and Dalakoglou 2011: 336.

[49] Silva 2011: 63; Gourgouris 2011.

[50] Douzinas 2011.

[51] Gourgouris 2011.

[52] Douzinas 2011.

[53] Gourguris (2011) relates the Greek protesters’ demand for “immediate democracy” — deliberately articulated to retain a double meaning of both “democracy now” and of a democracy that is direct and without mediation.

[54] Schwartz 2011.

[55] Eifling 2011.

[56] Roy 2011.

[57] Schwartz 2011.

[58] Kroll 2011.

[59] See, specifically <>.

[60] Hardt and Negri 2011.

[61] DiMaggio and Street 2011: 11.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Tormey 2012: 134.

[64] For more on Occupy Wall Street’s discourse and development, see Castells 2012: 156–217; Gerbaudo 2012: 102–33.

[65] Oikonomakis and Roos 2013: 1.

[66] Hurteau, Hébert and Fortier 2010: 37; Martin and Tremblay-Pépin 2011: 17.

[67] Schepper and Handal 2012: 1.

[68] Finances Québec 2011: 23.

[69] Martin and Pépin-Trembay 2011: 17.

[70] The Argentine revolt that erupted in 2001 in response to the collapse of the banking sector in the Latin American nation was another crucial precursor to ows and the Indignados. The protest cries of the Argentine street at the time, captured in the mantra “Que no quede ni uno solo! (“Not one should remain!”) in retrospect rang as a prescient warning to governments the world over who might surrender their country — and with it, their democratic legitimacy — to the power of global financial and corporate élites. See Sitrin 2011: 9.

[71] Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale (classe) 2012 (my translation).

[72] Ibid.


© Copyright 2018 - Shawn Katz