March of the Millennials

A leader of Quebec’s Maple Spring outlines his program for change.

The children of neoliberalism are in revolt. Millennials, as pundits and pollsters prefer to call them, are no longer behaving like good neoliberal subjects: disengaged, individualistic, model consumers with little time for the demands of democratic citizenship and life in the public sphere. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the world has witnessed a resurgence of youth activism; millennials, it appears, are finding their political voice.

While in parts of the world, including English Canada, pockets of political quiescence endure, in continental Europe, young people back upstart anti-austerity parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. In the United Kingdom, they rally to a 60-something socialist who draws the ire of the political establishment. Across the Arab world and in Hong Kong, millennials have called for freedom and democracy. In the United States, they have occupied public spaces to denounce corporate greed and rising inequality, and led demonstrations against police brutality and institutionalized racism. And in Chile, Puerto Rico, Quebec and, most recently, South Africa, they take to the streets to demand post-secondary education as a social right.

In this global rebellion, millennials are playing against type. As student activist Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois writes in In Defiance, his riveting memoir of the 2012 student protests that rocked Quebec and brought down the Charest government, millennials are said to be “the generation of comfort and indifference, the generation of cash and iPods; that we are individualists, egotists; that we don’t care about anything, except our navels and our gadgets.”

Born at least a decade after the transformation of socialist Chile into a Petri dish for neoliberal ideas under Augusto Pinochet, the eldest among them were in diapers when Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney inaugurated neoliberal rule in the developed world. Millennials have known nothing but life under an economic and social order that sacrifices democracy and the natural environment on the altar of corporate profits, elevates individualism at the expense of the collective good and promotes free markets while disciplining those—students, workers, activists, indigenous peoples—whose desires and dispositions do not jibe with the accumulation of capital.

So what is driving the upsurge in millennial activism—the transformation of a generation said to be more interested in the products created by Steve Jobs than the ideas propagated by Che Guevara? While its causes are multiple and its contexts diverse, perhaps more than any other segment of society, young people have paid the price for the global politics of austerity. As governments focus on reducing debts and deficits, youth unemployment and underemployment stands at record highs. The International Labour Organization has cited youth joblessness as a major cause of civil unrest, from the Arab Spring to the streets of Europe.

In Canada and Quebec, despite being told that investment in that neoliberal keyword “human capital” is the ticket to success, provincial governments have doubled down on austerity, cutting funding for post-secondary education, and making it increasingly difficult for students of moderate economic means to obtain a university or college degree. For those who do, their experiences upon graduation are that of crushing student debt, limited job prospects and financial insecurity.

Their parents had it better. The social contract that defined post-war life guaranteed a degree of security, stability and fairness denied today’s youth. As Nadeau-Dubois points out, in Quebec, this guarantee was founded in the Quiet Revolution: the secularization and nationalization of education and health, the creation of a number of state-owned companies, the emergence of a welfare state, the passage of laws protecting the French language and progress on women’s rights. By the late 1960s, the arrival of the modern sovereigntist movement with a European-style social democratic politics was expressed in a new political party, the Parti Québécois. Accessible post-secondary education—formerly a preserve of the Anglo elite—and Quebec’s robust public university system is a legacy of this period.

Nadeau-Dubois notes how Quebec’s destiny and culture are inextricably tied to the public institutions, including the universities, birthed by the Quiet Revolution. With its drive to privatize even the most sacred of public goods and services, neoliberalism represents an existential threat not only to the principles of egalitarianism and social solidarity, but also to francophone culture and the independence project more broadly.

With its own brand of austerity politics, the governing Parti Libéral du Québec of Premier Jean Charest aimed to carry out a “cultural revolution,” designed to dismantle Quebec’s unique social model and with it the legacies of the Quiet Revolution. As Nadeau-Dubois makes clear, the 2012 student uprising against the government’s proposed tuition hike of 75 percent can only be understood against this broader historical and cultural context.

At the peak of the Maple Spring, 300,000 students were out on strike. Quebec’s most militant province-wide student association, CLASSE—of which Nadeau-Dubois was a spokesperson—led the strike. Unlike the two more moderate student organizations, CLASSE was fiercely independent of Quebec’s political establishment, drawing on models of direct democracy popularized by the anti-globalization movement. What began as a student strike turned into a popular mobilization against the Charest government and neoliberal austerity, drawing in the province’s public sector unions.

With his media-savvy charisma and telegenic good looks, Nadeau-Dubois was latched onto by the public as the “leader” of the student movement. Yet millennial movements such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter and the Quebec students emphasize direct democracy and spokespeople, not leaders, who are held accountable to the broader movement. Showing little sign of interest in his new celebrity status, Nadeau-Dubois personified this new spirit of activism, while enduring the police harassment, death threats and criticism that came with being the public face of a highly divisive strike.

The 2012 mobilization was the tenth major student strike in Quebec since the 1960s, each bringing with it a complete or partial victory. It is for this reason that Charest so desperately sought to defeat the students. Yet against the neoliberal thrust of the Charest government, the Maple Spring, Nadeau-Dubois writes, “succeeded in safeguarding Quebec’s unique approach toward access to education. Today, higher education remains more accessible in Quebec than anywhere else in North America.” The movement led to the defeat of the Liberals and the return of the PQ to power. The government of Pauline Marois promptly paid its debt to the students, cancelling the Liberals’ tuition increase and repealing the hated Bill 78.

What might be the lessons of the Maple Spring for broader struggles against neoliberal rule? When social movements trade the street-fighting politics of disruption—sit-ins, strikes, boycotts, traffic tie-ups—for the niceties of electoral politics, they fail to realize the source of their own power: the power to disrupt. It is a lesson that the labour movement, in particular, seems to have forgotten. Working class gains made in the 1930s and ’40s resulted not from polite negotiations with the bosses, but through sit-down strikes, factory occupations and general civil disobedience. Although there is no guarantee that disruptive movements will win, without disruption, movements most surely lose.

And it is millennials who now seem to be leading the way, reminding an older generation of activists of what it takes to win. For all the talk of short attention spans, the narcissism of social media, and a generalized disengagement from public life, the spread of the rebellion against the neoliberalization of higher education—from Chile to Quebec, the United Kingdom to South Africa—shows that whatever their alleged generational deficits, millennials are quick ­learners.