Building Oppositional Consciousness: When it is Good to be Unruly
Resisting the democratization of 0ppression and the language of supremacy within a differential oppositional movement. (adapted from a research paper originally submitted for Media and Feminist Theory class, August 2012)
From February to early September 2012, the Québec student general strike galvanized an important segment of the province’s population into a popular movement that was historic in its duration, that was remarkable by its capacity for perennial mass mobilization and that was often surprising in the utter contempt it received from the status quo. The student conflict was also distinguished by the affective polarity within society that was probably not experienced in Québec since the 1995 independence referendum.
In her book, Methodology of the Oppressed1, Chela Sandoval examines the juncture that “connects the first world citizen-subject” with “a form of oppositional consciousness developed by subordinated, marginalized, or colonized Western citizen-subjects” (p8). The current dichotomy in Québec society that culminated from the student strike situates the oppositional student movement as third world citizen-subjects “who have been forced to experience the so-called aesthetics of ‘postmodern’ globalization as a precondition for survival” that is diametrically opposite to the dominant ideology of the first world citizen-subject “who longs for the postmodern cultural aesthetic of fragmentation as a key to a new sense of identity and redemption, or who longs for the solidity of identity possible only — if at all — under previous eras” (p8).
Below, I examine Québec’s colonized Western citizen-subject and its polarization as a result of the Québec student strike. A schism exists between the first world citizen-subject, or what Frederic Jameson calls the “good citizen-subject” and the third world citizen-subject — what I call the ‘unruly citizen-subject’. The former supports the status quo, while the latter recognizes its oppression by neoliberal advanced capitalism and consciously opposes it. I also reflect upon the interstice between the two polarities and the vacillation process that facilitates the passage into this space of inquiry in between the tension. From there, the first world citizen-subject is more open to oppositional consciousness and may appropriate oppositional consciousness formerly reserved for the third world citizen-subject.
Sandoval refers to Frederic Jameson, who argues that the first world citizen-subject is caught in a “postmodern entrapment” that prevents dissidence and condemns it to obsolescence and cannibalization by neocolonial culture’s predilection for novelty. Oppositional engagement (marching in the streets, attending general assemblies, debating political issues and writing articles, among other actions used by the student movement), when commodified, contorts active participation into material consumption under advanced capitalism, leaving “an ‘exhilaratory’ but superficial effect” depraved of genuine commitment (p18).
One among many examples of the commodification of opposition is the appropriation by québécois hip hop clothing and jewelry line, QC Shop2 of the protest movement’s rebellious aesthetic. Their “Hors la loi 78” t-shirt binds the numeric reference to Bill 78 — a repressive law aimed at dividing and weakening the student movement — to the generic term ‘outlaw’. The t-shirt’s message is a confused “decorative overlay”, devoid of political meaning, making it impossible to map the wearer’s position in social space, particularly since the t-shirt is sold alongside other t-shirts including one which asks the question “Ya tu d’la bière icitte?”. This can be translated as ‘Is there any beer here?’, a reference to a québécois iconic party song. Another adjacent t-shirt reads “Chu comme chu” (‘I am what I am’) as though the wearer is apologetic for his complacency and is not interested in change, which is precisely what the student movement is fighting for.
The schizophrenic cohabitation of both dissident and consumerist aesthetics, exemplified in QC Shop’s line of t-shirts, keeps the colonized first world citizen-subject trapped in “advanced capitalist social formations” and leaves him “caught in a strange, new, tragic, antinarrative, escape from which requires fresh forms of perceiving and acting” (p18). For Sandoval, Jameson’s postmodern world is filled with the longing for a past modernity when it was possible to know who you were and where you stood in the pecking order that defined social expectations. In modern times you could map your position in social space from which you could know who your opponents were to pursue political action. Sandoval writes that the postmodern pastiche, unlike Jameson’s depoliticized form of blank parody, is “an aesthetic form that is both empty and full at the same time, a site of active possibility […] of an empty form capable of constantly refilling” (p189). While the first world citizen-subject, who may wear QC Shop’s t-shirts, represents Jameson’s depoliticized parody of dissent, the third world citizen-subject within the student movement has shed the modern aesthetic and embraced postmodernity with an ability to embrace oppositional consciousness against advanced capitalism.
Ask any québécois whether or not he lives in the developed or developing world, and he may respond that Canada is within the G8, “a forum for the leaders of eight of the world’s most industrialized nations”3 and therefore within the first world. This is a first world that sits at the top of a global hierarchy, whose citizen subjects have everything at their disposal to succeed should they work hard enough.
This is a first world where opportunity is distributed equally and the citizen-subject is in command of its own destiny. This is a modern view of a postmodern world without nuance to which first world citizen-subjects tend to cling, regardless of their ethnicity, class, gender, etc.
This is the reason why, writes Sandoval, “political intellectuals lament the ending of the modern era, when it was possible to apprehend clearly who were the rulers and who the ruled and to look clearly into the face of one’s enemy.” The postmodern flattening of power distribution confused power relations, leaving the colonized first world citizen-subject disoriented. The provenance of abuses of power that oppress citizen-subjects becomes difficult to identify, lost in the opacity of postmodern neocolonial globalization. The flattening of social power relations identifies “no enemy to accuse, no new revolutionary subject of history to rise and support; there are only ‘faceless masters'”, themselves vassals of postmodernity (p23).
Québec’s postmodern first world citizen-subject, entrusts power to governments through the ballot box and relegates his societal role to maintaining the economy and benefiting from it. These reflect Jameson’s neocolonized yet depoliticized members of society that, mobilized by material accumulation, as is expected by capitalist norms, remain trapped within a cycle of consumption, underwritten by banks through debt. Enslaved in a system of neoliberal globalization where power is negotiated between governments and globalized capitalism, I argue, Québec’s first world citizen-subject continues to resist the psychic self-identification “formerly inhabited by the historically decentered citizen-subject: the colonized, the outsider” (p26): the marginalized. He has yet to become sufficiently disoriented to reach out for a realigning compass to recognize his enslavement to advanced capitalist social formations and re-situate himself on a landscape within oppositional consciousness. Québec’s first world citizen subject thinks he is still in control and tends to disdain the student movement in its upheaval and perceived unruliness.
The québecoise third world citizen-subject or ‘ unruly citizen-subject’
Québec’s student protester is a third world citizen-subject who no longer clings to modern views of a postmodern world. Although never fully oriented, she understands nuance and seeks it out as a weapon against abusive power relations. She recognizes her marginalization, has developed survival skills, theories, methods that are essential to her postmodern citizen-subjectivity in its adoption of an oppositional consciousness. She is part of a differential social movement that builds coalitions across marginalization inherited from 1968-1990 US third world feminism that acknowledges and is empowered “across difference comprised of skills, values, and ethics generated by a subordinated citizenry compelled to live within similar realms of marginality” (p52). She is part of a “differential coalitional consciousness” that seeks to end neoliberal economic domination by building coalitions of resistance.
Québec’s third world or ‘unruly’ citizen-subject seeks to divert away from the current social order that monetizes all facets of society by imposing user fees for public services on a population that is already highly taxed, while subsidizing corporate profits with public funds. She opposes the idea that private property and individual rights take a precedent over social well being and collective wealth. The colonized Western citizen-subject in an advanced capitalist world not only sells his labour for a living wage from which taxes are extracted to finance public needs, it is charged user fees to access those public services (like healthcare, education, daycare), while profit-making corporations receive subsidies to gain access to wage labour. This imbalance in power social relations is symptomatic of current neoliberal capitalist globalization and emphasized by the shift in tax revenue collected by governments from which services to the population and subsidies to corporations are financed. In 1963, québécois citizens provided 38% of government tax revenue while corporations provided 62%. In 2011, government revenue base is dramatically reversed whereby the citizens provided 89% to the corporate 11%4.
As third world citizen-subjects colonized by advanced capitalism, students awakened an oppositional consciousness on university campuses — the metaphoric “war zones” within which they relocate themselves on the social and political landscape in opposition to subordination by private interests. The student movement’s ability and willingness to discuss a multitude of ideas, consider a variety of strategies and tactics, and develop what Sandoval calls a “differential opposition consciousness”, is its strength and will determine its longevity as an oppositional movement beyond the student strike.
The ‘good’ vs the ‘unruly’: the divided citizen-subject
Sandoval defines a menace that results during the transition from a modern, vertical structure of power to a postmodern, horizontal structure. It creates “new forms of hostility and antagonism, and dangers become directed ‘horizontally’ between and within social classes” (p72). Within postmodern neoliberal capitalism, the corporate drive for profit and perpetual economic growth in a hyper-consumerist society, may be late capitalism’s motivation for the democratization of oppression. Its sharpest instrument of oppression may be individual debt because its reach has no hierarchical boundaries, no class divisions, no ethnic nor gender distinctions. Everyone has access to credit, whether from a bank, from a neighbour, from a local merchant or from a loan shark.
In Canada, household debt, defined by the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada as “the outstanding balance of household credit, including consumer credit and residential mortgage credit” reached $1.5 trillion or a debt-to-income ratio of 146%. Remarkably, the report highlighted that “consumption rather than asset accumulation remains the primary cause of the debt run up: 57 per cent of indebted respondents said day-to-day living expenses are the main cause for the increasing debt”5. The significance of day-to-day living expenses that are subsidized by debt may help explain the neoliberal rhetorical response to the student strike using a language of supremacy to effectively divide the citizen-subject and further marginalize oppositional consciousness.
Chela Sandoval draws upon Roland Barthes’ response to Frantz Fanon’s 1968 discussion of the various types of colonial consciousness cultivated in people of colour under white supremacist rule6. Barthes outlines seven rhetorical figures used to keep the ‘good citizen-subject’ in its place and discredit opposition: the inoculation, the privation of history, identification, tautology, neither-norism, the quantification of quality and the statement of fact. When applied to divert and control public discourse, these figures that make up the language of supremacy is “experienced as natural, normal, and neutral categories of being”. They set permissible boundaries of thought and behaviour that defines the ‘good citizen-subject’ who is comfortable living within the confines of nationalist ideology that draws out difference and either ignores it, changes it to resemble the status quo or annihilates it. The ‘good’ or colonized citizen-subject, I argue, relies on the status quo to hold on to its, albeit precarious position to avoid any risk that may drive debt’s pointed edge any deeper into its quotidian, which is why he denigrates oppositional consciousness.
The public discourse surrounding the student strike is dominated by the government’s language of supremacy whose objective is to push through the tuition increases with the support of the so-called “silent majority” despite important public contestation7. Unable to ignore the mass opposition, the government uses a language of supremacy as a tactic to divide the population by discrediting opposition as an unruly citizenry temporarily gone astray, while aligning itself with the ‘good citizen-subject’. This complex notion of “silent majority” combines several of Barthes’ rhetorical figures and places all citizen-subjects who do not actively protest in support of the students into a single unified ‘identification’ as agreeable partners of the government, while simultaneously minimizing difference by designating its minority as inconsequential. Unable to blind itself to the mass protests, nor ignore the ideological differences, the ‘silent majority’ label denies (or at least minimizes) difference. Although difference is outlined, its provisionality is emphasized to diminish its significance and to underline that it will eventually shed its differentiation and re-embrace status quo ideology.
Although the governing Liberal Party maintained a total breach with the student movement, the official opposition Parti québécois sought to dominate the movement and identify with it by pilfering one of the student leaders into its political party to transform difference into themselves, thereby removing the threat of otherness with an ‘inoculation’ “as a medium for controlling [difference’s] final impact, for through the figure of inoculation difference can be recognized, taken in, and domesticated” (p119).
The language of supremacy used within the context of the student strike borrows from the dominant neoliberal ideology to demonize oppositional consciousness in the eyes of the good citizen-subject and provide easy arguments for the latter to defend himself against change that may upset his first world status quo consciousness. Thorsen and Lie’s definition of neoliberalism borrows from David Harvey who write that neoliberalism is “characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade with the role of the state being to establish and protect this characterization” and to establish security and judicial structures “required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary” (Thorsen and Lie, 2007, p11).8
Early on, the government avoided the word ‘strike’ in its pubic statements, preferring the term ‘boycott’ to characterize student actions. To start, this represents Barthes’ “privation of history” rhetorical pose and deprives all past student strikes (1958, 1968, 1973, 1974, 1980, 1983, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1996 and 2005)9 of their meanings and denies the role that student oppositional consciousness has made to render current higher education what it is. This rhetorical pose “deprives (Western) consciousness of any responsibility of what has and will become” as though, in the context of the Québec university system, it has always been there in its current state without any previous student intervention, colonizing the good citizen-subject with ignorant estrangement from himself and his past (p119). A secondary effect of the use of ‘boycott’ is its signification of eduction as a commodity where students become clients, professors become employees and knowledge becomes the private property of funding corporations.
Within Western advanced capitalism, more equals better, whether it be translated as increased consumption, higher profits, more jobs [even if the jobs are low wage], etc. With higher education as a quantifiable commodity, then its value would be directly related to the quality of education received. In support of its position for raising tuition fees, the government used the sixth figure in Barthes’ language of supremacy — the quantification of quality — to weaken opposition. University rectors, via la Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) have reported on university underfunding and administrative deficits in Québec universities. They support tuition increases to maintain the quality of higher education in the province10. Despite student criticism of budgetary mismanagement, excessive severance packages to departing administrators, a growing percentage of university budgets funneled into administrative costs and other imbroglios rather than education expenses, the CREPUQ and the government maintained their claim — as a statement of fact — that university underfunding was the problem and a tuition increase was the only solution.
The claim is further supported by the aphorism that students should “pay their fair share”11, and expressed fully as a certainty with the maxim that student debt incurred to pay for a university degree (the government’s sole remedy for the tuition increase) is “an investment on future earnings”. This structured rhetorical approach maintains the dominant social order with authority and a certainty “as though they are the most innocuous, innocent, and straightforward containers for common sense [that] contain all the force of supremacism” (p124).
Increasing oppositional consciousness through osmosis
Although the good citizen-subject and the unruly citizen-subject are at odds with one another and are distinctly polarized, the space that divides them is not a lacuna. Between them are citizen-subjects who vacillate between the mores of the status quo and the allure of oppositional consciousness. From within this interstice, the assimilation into oppositional consciousness becomes possible by osmosis. The osmotic trigger may vary among citizen-subjects but in relation to Québec’s student movement, the introduction of Bill 78, the severe repression that preceded it during police enforcement of consecutive judicial injunctions, aroused an oppositional consciousness beyond the student movement that provoked a larger segment of the québécoise population to join the students in protest. The casserole movement emerged as a differential coalitional consciousness in solidarity with the striking students.
The casserole demonstrations assembled unruly citizen-subjects at busy street intersections near their homes prior to marching collectively through their respective neighbourhoods while clanging wooden spoons to metal saucepan. The now familiar sonic dissonance attracted others who emerged on their balconies to witness and join the spectacle. The evening ritual repeated itself daily at 8pm to the delight of many who joined the marchers. The spontaneous movement grew organically.
For many first world citizen-subjects, this may have been an initiation to public protest, an active dissent previously frowned upon but suddenly evocative of an internalized malaise that reorientated them away from their catatonic state into oppositional consciousness; from the good citizen-subject to one that is unruly. The casserole movement brought more first world citizen-subjects into the interstice and was its own osmotic trigger for others to reorient their modernist perception of a postmodern world, offering a neighbourly awakening, a convivial alignment, an oppositional consciousness to latch on to. The movement grew with an unfamiliar constituency that newly recognized its status as colonized ‘third world citizen-subjects’ in a postmodern world. The involvement of the first world citizen-subject within the casserole movement for the first time made it suddenly good to be unruly. It exhibits an acknowledgement of what Sandoval writes as the “double-reality and double consciousness of power” that confuses one’s perceived position within a hierarchy of class, race, gender, etc. (p74). This disorientation contributes to a vacillation between a modernist view of a postmodern world regimented by vertical structures of power, and postmodern’s horizontal organization of power relations, that opens a reorienting breach away from modernism and toward an oppositional consciousness that is better prepared to resist what Jameson names the “postmodern ‘democratization’ of oppression” (p72).
Although the student strike virtually ended aftr the September 4, provincial election, an oppositional consciousness has congealed within the student movement and has brought many into the interstice. Its differential approach of resistance and its capacity to oppose the language of supremacy facilitated the osmotic passage of the first world citizen-subject through the interstice and into an oppositional consciousness that is better able to defend itself against neocolonial advanced capitalism in a postmodern world.
1 Chela Sandoval (2000) Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
3 From the home page of the government of Canada’s G8 website, viewed July 26, 2012. http://www.canadainternational.gc.ca/g8/index.aspx?view=d
4 Statistques provided by the Québec Finance Ministry, taken from an article by Léo-Paul Lozon and published on May 22, 2012 on the Journal de Montréal blogue: http://blogues.journaldemontreal.com/lauzon/author/leopaullauzon/page/5/ (viewed Aug 1, 2012)
5 The Certified General Accountants Association of Canada, June 2011. A Driving force no more: Have Canadian consumers reached their limit? http://www.cga-canada.org/en-ca/ResearchReports/ca_rep_2011-06_debt-consumption.pdf (viewed Aug 1, 2012)
6 Frantz Fanon (1968) Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
7 After large-scale protests where approximately 200,000 people marched in the streets against tuition increases, the Charest government minimized that numbers by stating that they represent “the silent majority” of people not present in the protest. On August 1, 2012, when Premier Charest dissolved the National Assembly and called an election, he called on the same “silent majority” to express themselves in the election and support his Liberal Party. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2012/07/31/quebec-election-call.html
8 This is a quote taken from David Harvey (2005): A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, within Dag Einar Thorsen and Amund Lie (2007) What is Neoliberalism. Unpublished, University of Oslo. http://folk.uio.no/daget/What%20is%20Neo-Liberalism%20FINAL.pdf (viewed Aug 1, 2012)
9 From a statement by the Association des juristes progressistes http://mediaswap.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/student-strike-is-not-a-simple-boycott-history-and-perspectives/ (viewed Aug 1, 2012)
10 the CREPUC is the conference of Québec university rectors and principals. They published the report, Le système universitaire québécois : données et indicateurs (2006) Montreal: CREPUC. http://www.crepuq.qc.ca/IMG/pdf/indicateurs.pdf (viewed Aug, 1, 2012)
11 http://rabble.ca/news/2012/05/what-rest-canada-doesnt-understand-about-quebecs-student-movement (viewed Aug 1, 2012). During the announcement of the election on August 1, 2012, Premier Jean Charest reinvigorated the same statement that students should pay their fare share, which may indicate that his rhetorical strategy has been successful. http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Charest+clears+campaigning+throat+Sherbrooke/7020485/story.html (viewed Aug 1, 2012)