If we, as a society, were justly democratic, the emphasis would be on developing a system where no one would be denied food, water, shelter, clothing, rest, sexuality, leisure, a healthy environment or education on the basis of cost or discrimination. Instead democracy is shackled within the much narrower confines of one’s civic and political right to express opinions–to a point, as Bill 78 suggests–and then only through an elected-representative-as-mouthpiece.
Needs-based equality has been insidiously reworked (by banks, by leaders, by the elite writ large, and frighteningly, by the ‘average’ person) into a different rhetoric: ensuring we’re each equally forced to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. In other words, equality means nobody ought to have any more help at self-fulfillment than anyone else. To each their own. Self-creation and individual success have become our most admirable and sought after attributes. Unfortunately some of us have longer bootstraps than others. I find the marxist maxim more appealing: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.
At the May Day march and rally I attended in Hamilton I was approached by an older gentleman who asked what we were doing in front of McMaster’s downtown campus. I explained that my friends were giving a speech about the importance of the Quebec student strike. He scoffed and said, ‘oh, so you’re communists.’ ‘Maybe some of us are,’ I replied, ‘but not others.’ He went on to explain that he paid tuition by working for a year before he went to university. When I tried to respond he waved his hand in my face, turned around, and walked away. I hear this argument a lot, and I’m pretty used to people offering their soundbites and then plugging their ears rather than engaging in debate. His implication was that no one striking for the tuition freeze has tried to work to pay their fees.
But he’s wrong. Many students work before university, continue to work throughout university, and still have trouble making ends meet without incurring debt. (That’s me, by the way.) The problem is not usually our work ethic, but the fact that in both absolute and relative terms, we pay much higher tuition than our parents’ and our grandparents’ did. Moreover, jobs are increasingly scarce upon graduation, even for those in the so-called ‘productive’ sectors. (Productivity, like equality, is often divorced of any extra-economic considerations.)
When people like the aforementioned gentleman draw examples from wildly different historical times to argue that students just ought to work harder to pay their fees, they are naturalizing a very particular type of economic system (capitalism) at certain historical moments of the capitalist cycle (booms) for particular segments of the population (never the whole demographic).
Even when it is recognized that the capitalist economy is historical rather than natural, we’re told that right now we must live within our means for the betterment of the whole. We must all buckle down and embrace our best conservative selves to weather the economic storm. Good students are austere students who build ‘character’ by living below the poverty line. One problem with this argument is that those with the most are not bearing the brunt at all, and yet they call on students, among others, to suck it up. But the tuition increases in Ontario, for instance, began long before the current economic crisis. To suggest the latter has caused the former is to scapegoat.
Banks and corporations, their CEOs and upper management, the wealthy as a whole, have been largely rewarded for shirking responsibility through continued raises, bailouts, and slashed corporate taxes. (Of course, these individuals still have ‘character,’ though it’s not clear how. Perhaps it’s their longer bootstraps.)
I’m not trying to win some generational pissing contest, or suggest that everyone must attend university, or that no one should work hard. Working hard is an admirable quality when tempered by others, like thoughtfulness and compassion and sensuality, to name only a few. ‘To do good work’ captures my sentiments better, I think.
Each generation has certainly faced challenges. But if we’re aware of the sacrifices our ancestors have had to make to get an education and live well, why do we insist our children and our children’s children repeat these struggles?
Free tuition, a guaranteed living wage, access to healthy food: depriving ourselves of these sorts of things should not be character-building ‘rites of passage,’ but failures of which we’re ashamed. The economic crisis we’re facing provides us with an opportunity to radically rethink how our societies are organized and how we could otherwise provide for these rights.
Call this idealism, entitlement, or naïvete and get on with your day, but know that in doing so you’ll be reaffirming my point: conservatism, not imagination, holds sway, and that’s a damn shame. In solidarity with the striking students of Quebec!