What Can Quebec Teach Us? A Preliminary Analysis of the University as a Site of Struggle

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Though the basic course of events in Quebec over the past several months has been widely reported, I want to address two questions that might be of greater interest to those struggling in and around universities elsewhere.

First, I want to look at how the Quebec student strike articulates, on the one hand, the conflict and interplay between the socialist aspirations and corporatist realities of a public university system, and on the other, the pressures put on that system by the dreams of dollar bills floating through the heads of administrators and the “austerian” belt-tightening of governments. These are not simple realities; university administrators hoping to open the floodgates of tuition and donor dollars are contingently allied with government ministers convinced by fear that fiscal austerity is the only way forward. I believe that a Marxist analysis of the university’s place in the capitalist economy will clarify the stakes of the students’ struggle against this contingent alliance of hope and fear within the administrative apparatus.

Second, I want to ask, very briefly, whether this analysis has any traction outside of Quebec. What conditions have produced these 100 days of increasingly widespread and increasingly ambitious clamor? Can these conditions be replicated by others elsewhere?

The analysis of the university must begin by acknowledging that students are not, as such, directly exploited wage-laborers. The students-as-workers analogy – suggested above all by the student strike itself – is, as of yet, only an analogy. However, this acknowledgment does not preclude us from recognizing that students can be usefully thought of as unwaged workers: (a) performing affective and intellectual labor within the university, and (b) producing their own labor-power.

No comprehensive treatment of the affective and intellectual labor performed by students yet exists. Dissecting this part of the question, it seems to me, would require a careful examination of the “imaginary subsumption” of education under the commodity form and capital; prices have been slapped on things that nonetheless have no real value, much as in Marx’s discussion of the “imaginary price” that can be set on honor or conscience.1 It is noteworthy that, despite the rhetoric flying around about the capitalization and commodification of education, the university is not yet a formally subsumed capitalist enterprise, and does not yet produce standard commodities (goods or services that can be enjoyed upon purchase). Buying a degree or paying for research – the way you might buy a house or pay for a massage – would be an example of corruption, not a normal practice. Even the handful of for-profit universities in the US apparently operate solely by and for the capture of federally guaranteed student loan money, soaking up an indirect subsidy without which no one would be willing to “buy” their “product.” It seems that no one has figured out how to regularly and reliably produce educational services in a profitable manner and on an open market.

Nonetheless, much of what the university does is increasingly thought of by analogy to the capitalist production of commodities. And much of what the university does is also increasingly organized and carried out as if it were the production of commodities. This is a remarkable fact about the current world, that imaginary subsumption leads directly to real subsumption, even in the absence of formal subsumption. Capitalists don’t have to control a branch of human activity in order for those who do control it to try to rationalize production along what are thought to be capitalist lines. This seems to be the tendency in the university: managers are answerable to donors and legislators, not investors, but everyone still tries to import capitalist management techniques and organizational practices. The profit motive is not effective, but everyone is supposed to act as if it were. I think this goes some distance to explaining both the ubiquity of the critical mantra of neoliberalism and the occasionally heard counter-claim that what is hitting universities looks more like market socialism. A model of the market is being consciously applied by administrators, but in the absence of any actual exchange of commodities.

More immediate progress can be made on the second aspect of the question, the university as a site of the production and reproduction of labor-power. From the standpoint of the capitalist firm, higher education fulfills a training and a credentialing function. Universities train workers in the general skills that individual firms have no incentive to provide themselves, lest their carefully and expensively trained workforce be poached by their competitors. The degrees and credentials attested by transcripts and diplomas also sort the labor force into standardized segments, which reduces information asymmetries in hiring. What consequences does this functional operation have for the students?

From the standpoint of the student, insofar as that standpoint is dominated by economic incentives, a seat in a university classroom is an opportunity to access the higher wages that come with the training and credentialing, while expending as little effort as possible. Many proponents of raising tuition here in Quebec seem to take this standpoint at face value, and therefore think of spots in the university as commodities that are best allocated by a market free of price controls. But this elides the difference between the spot in the university and the outcome that is supposed to be a benefit to the student. Paying the fees and having a seat in the class doesn’t get you anything of economic value. Only by doing the work called for by instructors can a student actually obtain the training and credentials that might lead to higher wages. The economic costs borne by students would have to include not only the fees paid, but also the wages foregone by the choice to attend university and, most crucially, the time and effort necessary to do well enough in one’s courses to access the benefits of the credentials. This indicates the degree to which imaginary subsumption has been taking place in higher education. It seems as if tuition fees must be the price of some commodity. But just what this commodity is turns out to be quite hard to pin down, since the fees don’t actually finalize a transaction.2

Moreover, by asking students to pay up front for a benefit that they will only receive, if at all, in the form of future higher wages, the university turns students into speculators on their own labor-power. What will be the likely future returns on present investments in my labor-power? Is debt accrued now a good investment, or a foolish gamble? When tuition is thought of as an investment in human capital, this introduces incentives about which the student movement is extremely wary. As Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one of the spokespeople for the student union CLASSE, put it: “We are going to inherit very big problems in the next decade, economic, political and environmental. We have to be able to learn freely without the pressure of being indebted. That’s the reason why we’re fighting.”

The red square that is the symbol of the anti-hike movement was adopted in 2005 because students feel that they are “squarely in the red.” While Quebec students shoulder less debt than their counterparts in the US, it seems to be spread around just as widely. In Quebec, as in the US, two-thirds of college seniors graduate with student debts, but in Quebec the average debt load is about $15,000, as compared to the US average of $25,000. Debt is certainly a means of disciplining labor, and, at the same time, a way of blunting social antagonisms. The slogan for ScotiaBank – one of the larger Canadian banks – is “You’re richer than you think,” and social peace seems to rest right now on convincing people that this slogan is actually true. The student strikers here remain unconvinced.

Hence, while the student strikers generally frame the issue in terms of the accessibility of education – as if it were only a quantitative issue of more or less accessible universities – I think it would be better to see the struggle as one over the terms and form of accessibility. Tuition hikes, if they were combined with a robust-enough program of offsets, grants, and loan guarantees, might actually increase accessibility, if this is measured by graduation rates.  But this would also cement the imaginary subsumption of higher education and encourage the model according to which tuition fees are an investment in future earning potential. Rejecting this model need not imply a romanticized depiction of education as “humanization” or the like. Let’s be frank: much of what happens in the university is not worthy of any romance. It is not the inherent dignity of education that is diminished by rising tuition fees and rising student debt. Rather, the high fees and high debt serve to obscure the university’s actual function within the capitalist economy, and to diminish the propensity for revolt amongst its students. The imaginary subsumption of education, supported by higher tuition and increased reliance upon student debt financing, just makes students think they’re actually supposed to be getting something for their money.

This being said, what are the prospects for the current unrest among Quebec’s students to spread? It is undeniable that the protests here are deeply rooted in the specificity of Quebec’s history. This aspect has been intelligently discussed by others, of diverse political persuasions. I will mention only that the interplay between the student movement and Quebec nationalism is undeniable. Especially since the massive march on March 22, Quebec patriotes and souverainistes have been a more visible part of the protests, and references to Quebec’s special system of social welfare protections, and its interest in sustaining a special culture, have been recurrent themes in commentary. This nationalism is an enabling constraint of the movement itself, in the sense that the belief that Quebec is different from the rest of Canada both fuels the protests and keeps them resolutely local in focus. A student movement unencumbered by this nationalism might not attain the breadth and energy of the present movement, either here or elsewhere. But the nationalist elements have an undeniably ugly edge, and they both limit the aspirations of the movement to the welfare of the in-group and reduce the potential for the movement to spread to other parts of Canada.

It is also worth mentioning that the student movement was inestimably buoyed by the stupidity and overreach of the Charest government, which, reacting to the darkest days of the struggle, when the violence was surging and the popularity of the movement plummeting, passed a “special law” – Bill 78 – clamping down on the right to protest and threatening massive fines to student organizations and individuals who encouraged further disruption. Bill 78 galvanized the movement, and gave it a breadth of appeal and a fresh energy that transformed the dynamic overnight. Of course, a movement cannot count upon the stupidity of its opponents.

Nonetheless, the central issues of the student struggle itself – debt and the disciplining of labor – are hardly unique to Quebec. The strength of the movement here has been based in the organizing work done at the ground level, and in the participatory activism of the student associations. One of the student organizers from McGill has written an important text, summarizing some of the lessons of the strike from an organizing perspective. Perhaps the most important reminder contained therein is this: “What’s important is that movements are both internally democratic, and committed to expanding to wider and wider sectors of society. This takes time and doesn’t happen automatically, and you will receive no help from the media or police. Don’t count on receiving it.”


William Clare Roberts teaches political theory at McGill University.


1. I take the notion of “imaginary subsumption” from Patrick Murray’s two-part essay on “Marx’s ‘Truly Social’ Labor Theory of Value,” in Historical Materialism, volumes 6 and 7 (2000). Marx’s discussion of imaginary prices is on p. 197 of the Fowkes translation of Capital (Ch. 3.1).

2. In this case, money seems to be a transaction cost on the side, not the medium of exchange; like the walk to the store, it doesn’t get you anything except the opportunity to do the real business that concerns you.

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teaches political theory at McGill University.