A dimension of the Quebec student protests that goes unexamined, for all that it seems to me the most important issue, is the magical thinking about university degrees that dominates on all sides.
I speak, to be sure, of those– to pick a random example, Margaret Wente– who seem to think that job markets are perfectly elastic, as if arts majors could all stampede into something useful like electrical engineering without creating a vast oversupply of electrical engineers. It’s absurd to hold useless-degree-holders (which, to be realistic, must include pure math/science majors, and to be snide, also B.Coms.) responsible for what amounts to a large-scale labour allocation problem. Wente’s fond dream of erstwhile lit students taking up hard-skilled professions, if realised, would produce the very opposite of what she imagines: trained electrical engineers working as night-club singers, like the one I met in Cuba. Wente herself might even end up having to compete with people who are good at something.
But really I want to focus on the magical thinking that sustains the pro-strike side, because I think it’s deeper, more regrettable, but also to some extent ameliorable.
That the position of those opposed to tuition hikes, and indeed in favour of tuition cuts, rests principally on claims about social justice is the important clue. This connection makes sense as long as the economy is growing and the only significant limits on a person’s access to prosperity are social. In that world, the most important questions of public and ethical concern are those of distribution: everyone can get richer, so the chief challenge for the socially conscious is to ensure that everyone does.
As soon as the increase of material abundance begins to slow, let alone reverse, the limits on a person’s opportunity will be to a lesser degree social, and increasingly material. Hence a purely social symbol, such as the university diploma, will become less efficacious in any given respect, and distribution-oriented approaches to the public good will find their lever growing shorter. If any social improvement could be made, it would be outweighed by material diminution.
To put it more concretely, cheap broad-access university education and the good jobs it guaranteed to graduates flourished as a strategy while the world’s GDP was busy sextupling in the second half of the twentieth century. It is less likely to flourish– in fact, certain not to– as we run up against hard material limits to the economy. Austerity is a questionable and self-interested concept peddled by an elite that has spent thirty comfortable years quietly selling the furniture while the house falls apart. But a reality underlies it.
This is why, when I consider the student strike and the emotional and policy problems it raises, I find myself wanting to bracket off the ideological contention, and bracket off my strong feelings about jackbooted thugs attacking citizens and friends of mine. I find myself wanting to think outside the crisis entirely.
I can see why resistance is necessary for the student faction as an interest group, and I sympathise with the sentiment that education ought be freely available and undictated to, that corporate power is to be resisted wherever possible; and I can understand the sentiment that students should pay their share for a good that benefits them. I can empathise with those who find in the angry love-god of the barricades something to swell their hearts. Arjuna must fight, fare forward voyagers and all that.
But to me the ideological disputes look like the noisy, senseless, confused output of a system whose complexity is overtaxing the resources available to sustain it. People get hurt, things get broken, energies dissipate, to no good in particular. I’m confronted on all sides with a refusal to examine clearly what is being valued and what isn’t and what perhaps ought to be. What if the ethic that would best see us through darkening times, more than egalitarianism or class solidarity or free market principles, is one of uncompensated labour or civilisation or voluntary poverty? Where is room being made in this crisis for that possibility?
What does an Innu man on Montreal’s streets think of daily pitched battles that for him accomplish nothing but to disrupt the precarious urban ecology he makes his living in?
The fury on display, I suspect, has above all to do with a sense of mourning, incomprehension and rage at the demise-in-progress of the prosperous liberal middle-class lifeway. Nobody knows what to do about it except to take up their part in the Jacobin script, to fight for the right side in the wrong battle.
My strongest instincts tell me that the challenge now set before people of education and conscience is to decide what is good and necessary in the university, create resilient alternative means of preserving that wealth, and let the rest, the Faustian engine of economic privilege, decay. There will always be a route to riches that runs through the university. What must be relinquished, what we must try to step outside of for moments at least if we want to prepare for the future, is the dream that anyone might take it.
To give up the spectre of universal New World middle-class-hood– obscene wealth by any comparison in time or space– is to the clear the ground for a really radical question: where else might our treasures be?