Crisis in Quebec society: Which way forward for Quebec solidaire?

Joel Bergman from La Riposte, the journal of the Tendance Marxiste Internationale, an official collective within Quebec solidaire, has written this article analyzing the current state of crisis that exists within Quebec society, and the need for a workers' party to emerge in Quebec.  The situation is very favourable for Quebec solidaire (QS) to become that party. The Quebec Marxists will be participating at the QS congress at the end of March and we wish them the greatest success.

There is immense turmoil in Quebec society. This has clearly manifested itself in the deep political crisis the province currently finds itself in. Dissatisfaction with the hated Liberal government has reached an all-time high, yet none of the opposition parties have been clearly able to capitalize on this massive discontent. Recent polls consistently show that dissatisfaction with the Quebec government is nearing 80%. Jean Charest is Quebec’s most unpopular premier on record. This obviously poses great opportunities for Quebec solidaire, the only party who opposes the government’s austerity measures and the only party that proposes an alternate vision.

A November study by Leger Marketing shows that dissatisfaction with the current government is at 78%, with only 2% of Quebeckers being totally satisfied with the government. The study also shows that only 16% of the population think Charest would make the best premier, but only 22% agreed that PQ leader Pauline Marois would be the best option. 43% either didn't know or openly refused to answer the question. What does this tell us other than confirm that there is enormous turbulence in society?

In the face of the global recession, the austerity measures that have been proposed to tackle the record debt and deficit have been met with complete hostility by the working class. The working class is 100% opposed to the agenda of austerity pursued by the Liberal government, and supported by the PQ and the ADQ. Quebec solidaire, however, has been unable to capitalize on this massive discontent, either. Why is this? What can Quebec solidaire—as the only party who opposes the attacks to our standard of living—do to crystallize this discontent into political support? The workers are clearly looking for a political alternative to the cuts being proposed but don't see any viable alternative.

The Liberal Party: teetering at the top

The discontent with the government and their program of cuts isn’t something new. Ever since the Liberals were elected, they have faced massive opposition. Charest was first elected in 2003 on a program to reform health care, cut taxes, reduce spending, and reduce the size of government. His government defeated the PQ not because workers were in favour of cuts or because they specifically rejected separatism, but because they were sick of the cuts that the PQ had been pushing through under the guise of “national unity.” The Liberals had vast plans to gut the labour code, reduce corporate taxes, and trim government regulations on industries—all in order to make Quebec more competitive on the increasingly competitive global market. Halfway through their first term, they already found themselves more unpopular than any Quebec government on record. Faced with this massive discontent from labour and student demonstrations and strikes, the election in 2007 saw shocking results. Capitalizing on this discontent, the right-wing populist ADQ went from five seats to 41, making them the official opposition, a mere seven seats short of the ruling Liberals.

The forced election in 2008 again produced equally shocking results. The Liberals again held on to power, but their victory was based not on popularity, but on apathy; the 2008 election witnessed the lowest voter turnout since 1927. Having gotten a taste of the right-wing solution to the problems facing Quebec society, hundreds of thousands of working class voters abandoned the ADQ in disgust, decimating them down to only seven seats. These voters, however, did not find a home in either of the traditional parties as both the PQ and the Liberals lost votes, as well. Meanwhile, Quebec solidaire captured their first electoral victory with the election of Amir Khadir in the riding of Mercier in Montreal.

The general picture for the past seven or eight years has been one of turmoil, and the last few elections reflect this mood. Through almost this entire time, the Liberals have clung on to power through apathy, the inability of the opposition to capitalize on the situation, and the lack of a genuine alternative to lead us out of this blind alley.

Parti Quebecois, Parti Bourgeois!

The PQ, the traditional opposition to the Liberals, have been handed incredibly favourable conditions but have been incapable of capitalizing on the massive opposition to the government. How can this be explained? The reason for this is the same reason why people hate the Liberals. Quebec workers hate the Liberals because they are pursuing a program of cuts to their standard of living. The PQ is only barely more popular because fundamentally, the PQ pursues that same program.

While the bosses have been pushing for cuts, the workers have been looking for an alternative. The pressure in society is huge and has been forcing the normally tepid situation into political crisis. The record discontent with the Liberal government has obviously created a very favourable situation for the PQ. The bosses have obviously come to the realization that the Liberal government is not tenable and needs to be replaced, preferably with a party that can entertain some sort of support amongst the population. They need a strong government that can successfully break the working class resistance and push through an even harsher program of austerity. The PQ wishes to fill this role and has been grovelling at the feet of the Quebec capitalists in order to do so.

The PQ clearly renounced their social democratic heritage in March when they proclaimed that they believed in the individual creation of wealth and not the collective creation of wealth. The situation has even ripped apart the “national unity” of the PQ, forcing the party’s leadership to abolish the trade unionist faction SPQ-Libre after it harshly criticized Pauline Marois and her stance towards the public sector Common Front. It is class pressure that has forced this situation on the PQ. In many respects, they have been forced to shoot themselves in the foot. The only way to appease the ruling class is for the PQ to distance itself from organized labour, but the only way to be popular is for the PQ to fuse with the unions and lead the counter attack against these vicious cuts. The class question has cleaved the PQ apart, clearly revealing who the PQ actually represents: the francophone bosses.

The bosses unite for austerity, the working class resists

The Liberal Party's agenda of cuts has been less successful than the bosses had been hoping for. The Liberals have been balancing between what capitalism needs and what the working class will allow. Even the most recent budget, as draconian as it is, is just a drop in the bucket compared to what capitalism requires and what will come if one of the capitalist parties still hold power. The Liberals were forced to back down on their attempt to move $103-million from bursaries into loans in 2005 by a student general strike. They were forced to back down on their attempt to implement healthcare fees. Through many defensive struggles, workers and students have fought back against many of the attacks to their standard of living. The massive power of the working class, even though it is politically blunted because it has no party to represent them, is shown to be a huge force in Quebec society. But because the working class lacks their own party, apathy is at an all time high and all major political parties are very unpopular. This is how the general cynical mood towards politics and political parties in general is expressed. This situation can lead to all sorts of strange formations filling the gap, from the left or from the right.

The ruling class is also struggling to find a viable alternative that will replace the tarnished Liberals. They need a party that can get elected, have at least a semblance of support from the masses, and push through the ruthless cuts that they need. This is so drastically needed that capitalists, from both sides of the national divide, have been openly talking about ending the status quo national question debate to tackle the “real challenges” facing Quebec society.

This is the reason for the right-wing populism we've seen lately with the RLQ and the ADQ in the past few years. The RLQ is a group of right-wingers from the ADQ, the federal Conservative Party, the Manning Centre, and the Fraser Institute. They stand for putting the national question aside and dividing politics between left and right, with them on the right of course. However, it isn’t just federalist capitalists that have been moving towards putting class politics (i.e. attacking the working class) as the main priority. The effects of the “great recession” have even caused PQ leader Pauline Marois to state, “In these times of economic crisis, it is not the right time to talk about sovereignty.” Significant sections of the ruling class (both federalist and nationalist) are contemplating uniting to tackle the “real problems” they feel exist in Quebec society. This was clearly the meaning behind “Pour une Quebec Lucide,” a manifesto issued by Lucien Bouchard and his allies in 2005, which stated, “Some members of our group are in favour of sovereignty, others believe that Québec’s future will be better ensured within Canada. Despite these different points of view, we are all certain that whatever choice Quebeckers make, the challenges facing us remain the same.” The ADQ is clearly also part of this trend. Most recently, ex-PQ minister François Legault mused about the creation of a new right-wing party that puts aside the national question in Quebec. What all of these examples show is that at the end of the day, the bosses have much more in common among themselves than they do with the workers of their respective nationalities.

The power of the unions

All of these developments pose great opportunities for Quebec solidaire. A recent Leger poll revealed that all politicians in Quebec have been dropping in popularity—all except for Amir Khadir, who was rated as the most popular politician in Quebec. The unfortunate thing is that this support is clearly uneven because QS’ support still only hovers at around 8-10% in most polls. Why has Amir Khadir’s popularity not transferred into a similar increase of support for the party as a whole?

Quebec solidaire is a very small, very new party. They have no connections to organized labour and no real deep roots in the movement. Their resources are therefore extremely limited, both in terms of money and mobilizing ability. When they do mobilize for elections, they focus mainly on a few key ridings that they have a chance at winning, such as in the last election when Amir Khadir won in the riding of Mercier, or in their first contested by-election Manon Masse received 22% of the vote. The main question is a question of mobilizing power. All of the best politics in the world are mostly useless if that message cannot be carried forward to the millions of voters in the province who find themselves being squeezed by both the capitalist and the government and find no political alternative.

Workers are clearly sick and tired of the sterile federalist vs. nationalist debate when, at the end of the day, both the Liberals and the PQ both stand for cuts to their standard of living. Quebec solidaire must clearly not be dragged into this swamp; in essence, it only undercuts their support by making them appear to simply be the left rump of the PQ. The only way to undermine the PQ is to expose them by standing for clear policies that benefit the working class, which the capitalist PQ, especially under the current economic conditions, will be forced to oppose. Therefore, QS must clearly place the focus of their campaigning and messaging on clear working class politics to fight back against the three main capitalist parties and propose socialist solutions to the economic crisis.

The current climate is incredibly ripe for the creation of a workers’ party in Quebec, and the conditions are very favourable for Quebec solidaire to become that party. If the PQ gets elected in the next election (a very likely possibility), they will be detested by the unions because a PQ government will be forced to implement all sorts of cuts and austerity. The rank-and-file in the unions have already turned away from the PQ and are looking for a political alternative.

The trade unions in Quebec represent a massive force. They represent 40% of all workers in the province, a number that even Marx believed would be impossible for workers to obtain under capitalism. If Quebec solidaire united with the unions, this would create ready-made mobilization committees in every part of the province. The internal democracy would also be much richer and livelier. Each union, electing delegates to every QS meeting to shape the policies of the party, would provide a very stable base with a vested interested in fighting back against the system in order to protect their standard of living.

2010 saw its fair share of big demonstrations in Quebec, the biggest of which were, by far, the demos organized by the trade unions. The 75,000 workers marching for the Common Front in March, the 25,000 on May Day, or the 10,000 that marched in support of the locked out Journal de Montreal workers all showed the ability of the unions to mobilize the masses. This, combined with Quebec solidaire, could create a real alternative for workers who are being squeezed by the crisis and looking for a way out. This should be a rather simple act, as the main unions and Quebec solidaire actually fight for the same things and have many campaigns that mirror each other. By creating a real labour party in Quebec, for the first time, and organically tied to the unions would mean that the party would have the mobilization muscle behind it to carry its message all over Quebec.

Source: Fightback (Canada)