Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Social Goodness & Abundance, Montreal, Night 108

Note: This piece was originally written on August 10, 2012, in the midst of my four months in Montreal as participant-observer-writer during the Quebec student strike. I’m reposting it both to direct readers backward to many of my writings during this time (under “Dispatches from Quebec Spring”) and because it still captures much of what I’m thinking about in relation to the project of social transformation: as a move(ment) toward increasingly better versions and practices of social goodness.

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I always seem to wander past the right piece of street art at the right moment here in Montreal, as if some pirate-propagandist were reading my mind, or better yet, engaging in a dialogue with me. So here’s yet another good fit: a single rose, growing out of the cracks of the capitalist landscape, or perhaps causing them. Or both.

In the context of the Quebec student strike this August, from my perch in Montreal, I’m savoring what beauty means when it’s not the top-down manufactured and warped ideal hammered into us from birth, as prelude to the commodification of body and soul. I’m lingering on the beauty of what we can, on occasion, create along the way — or gift anonymously in civic space — as we experiment with a more collectively generous world.

Perhaps it was the collaborative expansiveness of illegal evening demo 100 on August 1 that sent me spiraling into an appreciation of “the beautiful,” along with its two idealistic comrades, “the good” and “the true.” Or it could have been the aesthetically pleasing bounty of the Pique-Nique Rouge (“Red Picnic”) and its confederally powerful pan-Popular Autonomous Assembly on August 4. Maybe it was the public release/reading yesterday, August 6, in “l’Agoria” of UQAM (the hotbed of the student strike) of the moving and lawbreaking Professors/Teachers Manifesto signed by over two thousand educators so far, or the second Rêve Général Illimité creative intervention highlighting poetry this time around on August 8 followed later in the evening by our Mile-End Orchestrole joining up with some Outremont folks for marching musical outreach for both our neighborhood assemblies. It could also be the magnitude of the almost-organic interconnections that are happening between students, neighbors, parents, teachers, workers, and others to uphold the strike next week between August 13 and 17 in particular, or the tiny interactions like a red-square-wearing stranger yesterday telling me that she thinks this is already the start of a revolution, which may be delayed, but can’t be stopped.

Maybe, when all is said and done, it’s just how good people are being to each other now, here, within this infinite social dream — although that falls flat when I write it, because it’s not merely about being good; it’s about an attitude of goodness that permeates this social movement. That’s rare, and like this flower, likely won’t last. Yet for the time being, the Quebec student/social strike is like some fantastic bouquet of inspiration that people are sharing freely with each other — an example of plain old everyday beauty, or what should just be everyday.

Recently I wrote a piece called “Exile & Austerity” (http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/exile-austerity-montreal-night-86/). Here I offer a dialectical companion to it, “Social Goodness & Abundance,” with the notion that together, both might illuminate some of the promise but also generative tensions within what is, for me, the first actual social movement I’ve ever encountered face to face — and hence, a wholly different kind of beauty that isn’t about looking pretty at all but what it might mean to be fully human.

For its part, “Exile & Austerity” was also sparked by thoughts related to the Quebec student strike and another piece of street art, “EXIL,” by the Montreal street artist Harpy. But it also emerged from a deeply personal place — a complex sense of homesickness that I carry with me wherever I go within a world that I’ll never feel at home in, because as I know all too well, the present-day form of social organization we inhabit is largely inhospitable — materially and psychically — to any of the ethics I hold dear. That, in turn, makes it difficult for me, or indeed any of us, to enact those ethics, to qualitatively embody them in ways that can nurture us personally and socially over time.

So I sometimes — and sometimes too often — feel grave hopelessness at the human condition. I can try to take comfort by applying social theory to ever-better understand, for example, the structural basis for my individual alienation, or exile, from a world of our own making that continually gets stolen from us. Even now, as billions attempt to reappropriate what’s ours, we are met with a growing arsenal of state repression and brutality. Theory can aid in making structural sense of that too. Emotionally, though, the gap between those moments when I get to relish the felt experience, at least approximately, of a good society and those many other moments when we seem so far away is what elicits the melancholic space of exile and austerity.

I know that we humans are capable of so much more, and not only in theory. I’ve lived it, side by side with so many other people, in fits and starts like Occupy, in bits and pieces like most anarchist projects, and in the here and now of fledgling popular autonomous neighborhood assemblies and over 100 nights of ungovernable (in the province’s eyes) and empowering (in our eyes) street space here in Montreal, along with so much in this Quebec student strike.

Yet beyond the “outside forces” like riot cops that close off the possibilities we ourselves create, we exiled and austere humans can also serve as our own unsmiling border guards. The forms, cultures, and even contents of our resistance are too frequently reflections of the very phenomena we’re fighting, including the fact that they remain singularly “resistance” and not concurrently reconstruction. Until we change this society, we’re profoundly structured by it, almost beyond our ability to thoroughly grasp the depth of the socialization that puts up such an invisible but all-too-solid barrier to social transformation. For those of us who lived through the Occupy encampments, for example, we know intimately that much more than Homeland Security and pepper spray, it ended up being us, who we are as people in today’s world, that made it damned hard to go about shaping a new and especially better one.

That’s why radical thinkers like Guy Debord could theorize about a capitalism that had grown to commodify not just production and our work lives but also consumption and our leisure time, thereby estranging us even further — no longer simply as wageworkers but now as spectactors too — and yet only see workers’ councils as key to undoing that alienation. Or why Theodor W. Adorno could point to open thinking as a form of political engagement versus “resignation,” but be horrified when students tried to think and act for themselves. Or why Judith Butler can be so anarchistic in terms of “undoing gender” in her writing and still miss the lived need for “undoing hierarchy,” such as nation-states, so we can truly self-determine. If these and other critical theorists have trouble educing the innovative strategic moves toward social freedom that would complement — rather than work at cross-purposes to — their own brilliant intellectual leaps, is it possible for any of us to do so?

One could argue that it’s “ordinary” people, not these “extraordinary” ones, who through the reality of their lives within capitalism, say, can share the real wisdom of what’s wrong, and from that basis, devise context-appropriate and hence relevantly imaginative ways to try to right the world. Or as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri observed in Empire, to paraphrase: in our struggle to change society, we need to understand what’s actually going on now so that we’re not pushing against doors that are already open. Or conversely, I’d add, we have to beware of closing doors that might be opened up to us through a politically engaged analysis of the contemporary conditions.

Yet if Occupy is any barometer, it seems of late that we and so many other people on the ground (versus luminary theorists) are so enmeshed in the “thinking,” or hegemony, of a world that simultaneously ensures we are outsiders to its goodness and abundance (reserved for an ever-smaller few) that sometimes, like when I wrote “Exile & Austerity,” I despair personally of us humans — in harmony with the nonhuman world — ever making and doing home. I mean “home” not only as four walls, though that too is more necessary than ever, but also as loving, caring, sustaining communities aplenty. I feel doomed with most everyone else to a life where so much of what we need and desire is always in limited supply, and home becomes the stuff of IKEA-designed fairy tales. (As an aside, a friend here told me — probably drawing from the work of Mike Davis — that the very definition of home under neoliberal capitalism is basically something built by someone else that you have to buy [private property] and that various entities regulate [control] . . . or, a commodity. Everything else is slum, shantytown, squat, favela, illegal, criminalized . . . or, not home.)

At the same time, the exilic existence that most of humanity resides in now is precisely what mercilessly compels me personally toward always trying to collectively prefigure home. That means always, also, attempting to signpost it for others through writing about experiments in and visions of life beyond hierarchy. I want us all to be at home — the space of social goodness and abundance that we not only can imagine but also create for and with each other, and sustain. That’s the world I dream of, and in my small corner of it, the home I dream about and work toward too. That’s a fragile project. Meaning I hold to a funny kind of hopeful hopelessness, if that makes sense.

Alas, I fear that it doesn’t make sense, given the way hegemony fetters our very thinking.  So speaking of funny, there’s this funny (as in strange, or in this case, telling) way in which people read my public words, written and spoken: as “inspiring” (or versions of that, such as “posi” or “optimistic”).  What this in essence does is mangle my word-interventions into one side of an always-hostile pairing: “insurrection or prefiguration,” or the old anarchist either/or trope of “destroy or create.” Much more than being strange, however, this reading is actually telling about us as a fettered social body, like a Rorschach test of sorts. It illuminates how we get stuck in the trap of binary thinking — a thoroughly useful tool of the powerful few to maintain the status quo of this misery-inducing world. Binaries ultimately flatten out phenomena, so we can neither see them, struggle against them, or change them. “Hope” is reduced to delusions like believing that presidents will change the world for us; “hopelessness” is reduced to delusions that there’s no way out.

In the case of my words, either people perceive, wrongly, that I’m wholly celebrating a social movement, or they want to me wholly condemn it. I’ve noticed this same tendency whenever people, including those who are convinced that the current social structure can’t be reformed, like anarchists, get together to talk about difficult political questions. It’s far easier to complain about all that’s wrong, as if that’s somehow news, or settle on all the ways we want to protest those wrongs, whatever the strategies and tactics chosen, and the vast majority of what we then end up doing, especially in terms of framing it, is simply demanding the opposite — as opposed to demanding and then realizing the impossible. If we don’t like capitalism, then we are, obviously, anticapitalists. And yet that says little about capitalism itself, or what “beyond capitalism” would look like, or more pragmatically, how we move from here to there. If I appear “inspiring” in contrast, it’s only because I’m trying to gaze at the development logic of what’s possible within the impossible, because both are always there, impacting each other.

The truth of social movements is that there’s a whole lot of gray area on a wide-ranging spectrum stretching from the novel to the tired, the antiauthoritarian to the authoritarian, and more, with gradations and shifts in where different movements fall, at various moments in their life span, on such intertwining spectrums. The point, I think, is to try to peer into the developmental logic of social movements for all their dynamic promises and tensions, which themselves are never separate categories. In Maple Spring, for instance, students’ aspirations in Quebec have raised aspirations among others — say, sovereigntists, First Nations peoples, people in other provinces, and immigrants — while concurrently raising dilemmas among and between these struggles and people. That the Quebec student strike opened space for the Barriere Lake Algonquins to use Maple Spring to bring visibility to their far-older resistance, which likely many students and others had never heard of, even as the Algonquins, in turn, recently used this moment to extend solidarity by taking pictures of themselves with red squares, a symbolic that they knew little of before an ally brought red fabric to their rural community and explained the movement, only underscores how nonbinary thinking is a threat to those who want to smash both movements.

So I hope you’ll read this piece in dialectic relation to “Exile & Austerity,” not as binaries to each other, but rather a piece of our way out of this mess that goes by names like “capitalism” and “colonialism,” “racism” and “heteronormativity” (ah, but you know the names, oh so many of them). In fact, I hope you’ll trouble binaries that are both shaped and enforced by these names — say, “rich or poor,” “war or peace,” “white or black,” “male or female” — for they are part of the trouble that keeps us alienated from this world of our own making that keeps getting recuperated, commodified, stolen. None of those binaries — and so many others — make actual on-the-ground sense in terms of the complexity of life itself, and all are useful for structuring actual on-the-ground institutionalized domination and oppression.

What does all this have to do with the Quebec student strike, itself trying to edge toward a social strike, much less social goodness and abundance?

Everything.

As I touched on above, we who desperately want to transform this world fall into our own binary traps. They not only perpetuate power imbalances and “isms” in our own circles. They also don’t allow us to critically think about phenomena, because we’re not looking at the actual object of concern but instead getting distracted by straw-person arguments. Nor do they allow us to engage in a process of transformation that sees a relation between form and content, or means and ends — not an equivalence, mind you, but the developmental interplay between them. And if we can’t even see the nonbinary relation between form and content, means and ends, how the hell can we remotely begin to practice wholly new social relationships of the kind that would offer us the key to unlocking this privatized society and making it our commons, hopefully sans keys (which doesn’t mean sans privacy; because we all need a room of own at times)?

The binaries that particularly irk me, then, in this poignantly beautiful dance of social change include the tedious “violence or nonviolence” and “theory or practice” ones. Such thinking is often definitionally vague to the point of blurry, denies all context and specificity even if the definitions are sharper, and isn’t even a good starting point for strategic and tactical questions. We need to begin, I’d argue, from our goals and aspirations. Here, though, in interweaving “Exile & Austerity” and “Social Goodness & Abundance,” I want to try to shatter the binary that perhaps annoys me the most: “anti-” (read: protest, resistance, destruction, insurrection, rage, dystopian) or “pro-” (read: projects, reconstruction, creation, prefiguration, love, utopian), or the “against/for” binary.

What’s been called, well named or not, Maple Spring has been grouped into the global anti-austerity moment, and from one angle, the Quebec student strike is certainly a piece of that — maybe increasingly, in fact, as the Quebec and Canadian governments offer up ever-more-austere measures on other fronts, from arts to health care and more. The strike is contesting an austerity measure related to schools: a tuition increase. Yet it’s also been striving toward free education for all: no tuition. This seems a paradox, but in actually it’s been critical to thwarting binary thinking in this social movement, which in turn seems to have thwarted binary practices too. Not wanting a tuition increase and yet, thank you, actually wanting free education for all has meant that rather than a reaction against cutbacks, the student strike has set free a “social goodness” outlook that troubles any return to stasis. Sure, the students assert, after having done their homework on the subject and making it public, the government easily could afford not to cut tuition. But their research also uncovered that there’s plenty of social resources to make education free, thereby coupling of social goodness and abundance.

More profoundly, this signals a subtle yet deep attitudinal shift — seeing through the lens of social goodness — that allows this movement to transcend the either/or dilemma of resisting or creating, in order to do both and more, to want both and more. The students already, in other words, believe that something else is possible, done in a wholly different way, because simply returning to lower tuition, say, won’t bring about free education. And armed with the knowledge that social goodness and abundance are already possible to some degree, that underlying guiding principle then infuses everything, shaping how this movement engages in insurrectionary and prefigurative moments to the point that both are always present in the other. More profoundly still, people seem to get that there is no “pure” insurrection or prefiguration. So when you’re out on the street, facing riot cops and arrest, intentionally breaching the law and protesting it, resisting, you’re also part of this space of DIY carnival, sociality, commons, and more, reconstructing something that feels so extraordinary that, as one of my new friends put it, he’s not going to know what to do with himself when that space disappears again, which is probably why he’s one of the few that almost always still goes to the illegal evening demos. This could be said to hold true for all social movements; but in this case, people know that are doing both in a way that neither crowds out the other, but they somehow reinforce, shape, and enhance each other. That hint that abundance creates more abundance, and abundance, itself, becomes a social good that we can share in, freely and gladly.

I’ve had difficulty translating this movement from French to English at various points, or translating it from a Canadian or especially Quebec to a US or beyond context. Languages, nation-states, and cultural barriers are hard enough to transcend. Far harder, I’m finding, is translating this nonbinary interweaving of form and content, of social goodness and abundance. One almost has to experience it. But I want to emphasize it because it’s exactly why, I’d contend, this movement has lasted so long, has grown and spread and become, from the state’s perspective, more dangerous than ever to the top-down social order.

So try to take a leap of imagination with me here. Try to think, first, through the lens of abundant social goodness, and then apply it to your own acts of resistance and reconstruction, your own organizing efforts. Try hard, too, not to see insurrection and prefiguration as separate and distinct. (I’ve recommended this book numerous times in terms of its relating insurrection and prefiguration, dialectically, within another real-live movement, in Bolivia, such that neither would have been possible without the other, but it’s worth recommending again: Raúl Zibechi’s Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces.) Maybe it’s still second nature for many people to think this way in Quebec and other places where social democracy has arguably offered more social goodness more recently to more people than other hierarchical political forms, and as that’s being eroded, it’s far more apparent what’s being lost. Or one of the explanations I’ve heard many times about why people here rose up instantly to create vibrant social space when special law 78 was enacted — that same evening, in fact, a mere three hours after the law was passed — was that people here expect to be able to speak their minds with each other in their own public spaces, not so much by law, people tell me, but because of shared cultural norms. Dialogue, public space, being together, and free thought are social goods, not some “right” bestowed by a government.

Thus, I want to underscore of an attitude of social goodness as sort of a “naturalized” way of thinking (something that people almost don’t notice) in this movement, and what such a small thing means in terms of nurturing, growing, and sustaining a movement that’s both social and a social movement — and a relatively widespread one as social movements go. Banging a pot with a wooden spoon doesn’t start a social movement, nor does wearing a symbol like the red square, even if both are grand methods of showing solidarity from afar. There needs to be underlying senses of the “why” and “what else,” such that engaging in, say, an anti-austerity struggle already mindfully brings forth material displays of how we’d offer up abundance. Simply asking to stop foreclosures on homes doesn’t, sadly, get us all that much closer to what securing homes that are actually ours looks like. Take Back the Land is an instance of a contesting the austerity of stealing homes from people while also already suggesting what an abundance of housing might mean, but it, sadly again, isn’t a widespread social movement yet, and sadder still, this kind of thinking is still all too rare in organizing efforts. Mostly, it’s “stop the cuts,” “end debt,” “abolish prisons.” All necessary, but all far from sufficient. The struggles for those necessities are not already demonstrating their replacements in a way that neither diminishes the anger nor the caring, as an anarchist continental confederation of a couple decades ago used to capture in its very name: Love & Rage. So how do we move toward the “necessity and impossibility,” which I mentioned in my “Exile and Austerity” piece, of articulating social goodness and abundance even as we reside in a world of that makes us homeless and austere?

Maybe the best way to attempt to translate this conundrum — though likely I’ll need to try again in another piece of writing — is through a few examples, because the social goodness in the Quebec student strike isn’t mere rhetoric, written into the flowery words of a manifesto penned by a few friends and some wishful thinking.

And so my first quick illustration, because I’ve mentioned it in earlier posts, is a manifesto that was written as a reflection of what’s actually going on and has been created by this movement: “Share Our Future: The CLASSE Manifesto” (http://www.stopthehike.ca/manifesto/), or in its French original, “Nous sommes avenir: Le manifeste de la CLASSE” (http://www.bloquonslahausse.com/la-classe/manifeste/). I keep returning to this manifesto not simply because it’s a powerfully written document but exactly because it speaks through the voice of a social goodness rather than a stingy self-interest that has been, in fact, practiced in this movement. In one and the same breath, it explains that the strike as struggle has equally been about banishing cynicism, bringing people together, and allowing for the everyday experience of direct democracy. It contrasts a notion of the common good to privatization. It highlights a society of abundance that is already being articulated in various ways through the movement itself, and it abundantly, in turn, reflects that back in beautiful language (itself a social good, if one sees the social worth of the art of words and writing; no wonder authoritarian regimes try to wipe out beautiful words by banning or burning books). The manifesto is an outcome of a directly democratic process that made this strike possible in the first place, that decides or not to keep it going, and that then writes about it as a value in the present and future, because it’s already real.

Please take a moment to read this manifesto, and leap again into a thought experiment: What if other manifestos weren’t attempting to jump-start a movement, and usually by a small and accountable cadre, or basically a glorified ad campaign to get people to “buy” something that’s not really there, but instead an articulation of what we’ve already done that emerges from our movements, not forced or compelled, but because we really have something to be proud of and to say to the world, because we want to share the social goodness, even if and when the movement needs to critique itself in various ways and/or is ultimately crushed?

The only other comparable contemporary manifesto, not surprisingly, is the Zapatistas’ “Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona” (https://webspace.utexas.edu/hcleaver/www/SixthDeclaration.html). It too reflects on the actual thought processes and practices of a lived social movement that is already there, that has already achieved some of what’s it’s asking for, and is able to critically self-reflect in order to attempt to build on that social goodness. Both the Zapatistas and Quebec student strike were long in gestation, emerging out of the dialogic organizing of an assembly or “from below” structure, and both rose up in contestation to what was being taken away from them and yet what they wanted, themselves, to start putting in place instead. Many other comparisons between the two could be made, but in relation to manifestos, the two movements recognize that words — maybe because of the palpable politics around their respective languages — have ramifications, and are themselves a practice. Words are at once weapons, a way of transmitting the story of the lived movement, via the art of storytelling, which itself helps to bind community, and beauty as fuel and reason for these revolutions. Words are social goodness, defending us and allowing us to go on the collectively visionary offensive. And in the case of both these manifestos, their words came at a time when the logic of electoralism was threatening to hinder their movements, so these movements were making a public choice — a public promise — to try to go another way, using the process that was/is already working within their respective movements: self-governance.

Another document from this movement that embodies the lived resistance and reconstructive dialectic is the “Professors’ Manifesto” (original French version, http://manifestegreveetudiante.blogspot.ca/2012/08/Manifeste.html; English version, http://manifestegreveetudiante.blogspot.ca/2012/08/ManifestoInEnglish.html) released this past week in a lovely public reading that also served as a press conference. It too highlighted the social goodness that professors (and happily, teachers and educators who don’t necessarily work in a college or university) see as their role, but again, it wasn’t mere rhetoric. They put that role to good use in this manifesto, signing on to stand behind the student strike and, indeed, break the law by doing so, thereby also putting themselves at personal risk under the new special law 78, or what’s now bill 12. Within this manifesto, though, they emphasize both that they are not “agents of the reproduction of the social order” and that their job is instead “to open to our students critical horizons that question reality and offer different worldviews.” Those in attendance at Monday’s first public release of the manifesto’s signatories included many who had signed it, and after each person on the press conference spoke, the many educators of all types applauded for such a long time that defiance blended into celebration of the goodness, again, of education in society, because this moment was what was possible. Following the reading, professors met in an assembly to deliberate on and determine further tangible steps that they wanted to take in the coming weeks, again showing that the manifestos from this movement are part and parcel of the goodness of actually collaborating from below together.

Such manifestos also reflect the fact that striking students and their teachers, in all their freed-up time during the strike, are engaging in a variety of self-education projects, including writing such manifestos rather than penning term papers or grading those papers. Besides manifestos, however, a vibrant lived practice of strike-as-popular-education has flourished. Students in the design school of UQAM, for instance, formed themselves into the artist collaborative that they dubbed École de la Montagne Rouge (“Red Mountain School”). They basically took over their now-silent classrooms, pushed the desks aside, and opened them up to teach each other (and visitors) their various artistic crafts while also working with the action calls and political strategies coming out of the directly democratic, to a large degree, student movement to design pieces from and for the movement. Their work — posters, design, three-dimensional aesthetic pieces, and more — both follows, learns and grows from, contributes to, and reflects the ups and downs of the strike movement, even as it also serves as social goodness in its innovative brilliance, itself a mirror on the brilliant innovation of this movement.

But there’s a further social goodness in this collective (and others that have developed out of and within the student strike, such as the collective journal/poetry/writing experiments of Fermaille [http://fermaille.com/], the volunteer collective public translation work of Translating the printemps érable [http://www.quebecprotest.com/], not to mention a video collective, music collaborations, and more): it brings its work into the struggle, as part of the resistance and reconstruction, gifting and loaning and teaching its creations. The Red Mountain School folks can often be seen in their red overall during large unpermitted mobilizations, where they set up silk-screen stations so people by the thousands can bring their T-shirts to get imprinted with slogans and images of this movement, for example, or recently some of their work — an enormous silk screen of the “train” that was meant to signal the student strike moving forward and/or the forces of the government trying to run it over — was sent off without them to a neighborhood park for a “Red Picnic” that was both a red-festooned visual delight, bountiful sharing of free food and music, and unpermitted as well as highly illegal assembly of popular autonomous neighborhood assemblies to discuss in the sunny open air various direct actions to support the “reentry” to the strike/schools. Fermaille just collaborated in the second Rêve Général Illimité (http://howlarts.net/post/28804539084/reve-general-illimite) by offering poetry and their latest literary newspaper/poster combo during is both an illegal takeover of public space, resistance to the special law, show of solidarity for the strike, and creative intervention, or social goodness yet again, backed up by a sound-system collective that set up equipment to amplify it all.

That fact that art, aesthetics, and culture — like education — are seen as integral to a good society, and also themselves political actors, and integral to direct actions, capable of agitating, organizing, and educating, and equally essential to sustaining us as humans just as much as food and housing itself bespeaks the fronting of social goodness in this movement. The fact that cultural creation is also offered up generously, frequently, in heaping quantities, underscores that human creativity only grows in abundance by the collective sharing of it. Nearly every demonstration, direct action, temporary takeover, picket line, blockade, casserole, manifesto, organizing effort, and more seems to almost want to outdo the previous one in terms of its outpouring of imagination. Rather than becoming a commodity (there’s actually as astonishing lack of movement commodities even after all these months; for example, no one buys T-shirts, they make them, as noted above), or something that the makers want to hoard so as to take credit for or privatize it, each person’s or collective’s flight of fancy only further inspires others to new heights, with little signs of jealousy between the creators.

For instance, I met one of the folks who are part of a group that brings enormous red-square flags out — beginning with the grand demonstration of May 22. She explained that they realized their flags could serve multiple purposes by, say, marking special occasions in the movement (like illegal evening demos nights 75 and 100, where the crew of plain red-square flags were joined by one with that night’s number on it), helping people to follow where the illegal demo was going since the flags are highly visible, and serving as yet another affront to the forces of order (she mentioned that they’ve been the target numerous times of the police). The sheer joy that these subversive-artistic flags offer to crowds — the idea that there’s enough pleasure and camaraderie for us all — is hard to explain, especially when the flags are waved above us as we walk under the drab concrete of the overpass above Berri Street, which is often one of the main arteries of disobedient evening strolls. These flags are also willing to take a backseat of sorts at other folks’ creations, and so they’ve come to each of the two Rêve Général Illimité, but are far from the main attraction there. Indeed, another quiet project in the backdrop of the poetry being read at the second Rêve Général Illimité was a Maille à part (www.mailleapart.blogspot.com), a mesh-knit collective that asserts “the illegality of our facilities in the streets of Montreal reflects our main claim: the reappropriation of public space.” On the large grassy square being reappropriated by Rêve Général Illimité, next to the large public library, collective member-knitters circled up with others to turn red yarn into red squares as well as more street art and masks for street resistance — and later that evening, apparently, some of those creations found their way to transforming the city landscape.

Yet another example of words/art-in-action as carriers of social goodness during this Quebec student strike is somewhat tangential, although some, many, or maybe all of those involved in it are also engaged in various ways with Maple Spring: BixiPoésie, or bike poetry (http://bixipoesie.ca/). The “BIXI” is one of those city short-trip rental bikes, stationed around Montreal, and actually pretty affordable ($30/month, for unlimited trips under 45 minutes). The price of affordability — or just the price of “public” bikes in an age of capitalism — is ads on all sides of the BIXI. Hence, as those who added poetry to the BIXIs explained, “BixiPoésie is the work of a group of men and women. Students, workers, artists, activists … Men and women who dream of a world where art and culture flow freely in our streets. Where our minds are no longer stuck in the logic of might and economic reason. Where public space belongs to the citizens, rather than corporations.” As the student strike heats up again, the poetry has suddenly started reappearing on the BIXI here, there, and everywhere (a first round that covered all the bikes several months on one night was removed within a week). The reason I want to highlight the BIXI poetry is that these bikes have been culture-jammed in other cities, but it’s always, I think, been about protest of some sort. Here’s one example from London:

Here, in contrast, is an example of the poetry of the BIXI bikes, which nicely articulates in a nutshell pretty much what I’ve been saying in this whole piece: “a society without dreams is a society without a future.”

The BIXI poetry raises the bar, as it were, by both making it clear that ads aren’t wanted via fucking with them — protesting — but offering up a gorgeous gift to the cityscape and its inhabitants. There’s something delightful about stumbling across a literary line — because the BIXI bandits have printed up many poetry one-liner replacements for the ads, not just a few — in public urban space on what is a sublime form of transporting oneself through a city — a bicycle. It also becomes like a lovely game, to “find them all” and share favorites with friends, or try to snag a BIXI poetry bike instead of one with the advertisements. The first round of poems, as I’ve written in an early post, were such a huge hit that there was a near-riot when the BIXI bike operators decried the “vandalism,” clearly emphasizing how much people value beauty as a social good in their lives, especially when its shared in such varied abundance (the range of authors for the BIXI poetry is all over the map — or something to please everyone). The fact that the BIXI poetry and yarn street art are both seen as criminal offenses makes a mockery of law while also already constructing a part of a new society that would gladly embrace such self-initiative and collective creation. I’m a bit behind on uploading my BIXI poetry finds, but here’s a tumblr archive of some of them, with more to come soon: http://bike-poetry.tumblr.com/.

Lest you think that this sense of social goodness and abundance that so striking marks this movement — its heart and soul, really — is only in the realm of culture, I’ll offer two last examples. This essay could, unfortunately, go on and on with examples, but I’ve already delayed publishing it because I keep wanting to add more, so I’ll save other instances for another day, especially since the days ahead will likely involve so many as we head into the heat of the elections, striking schools voting on whether to continue striking or not, people all over Montreal starting to clearly take sides, and a week (next week especially) of attempts to hold those schools that want to stay on strike through all sorts of direct action that likely will come in all sorts of direct contact with the police. Yesterday, during a midday direct action as preview, the riot cops were back to being extra aggressive, and that held true, too, during our Mile-End weekly orchestrole yesterday evening, where for the first time ever, the police got out of their cars, confronted us, almost arrested someone, and basically declared us illegal while trying to disperse us (not a problem per se; only to mention that yesterday it became apparent the police, too, are gearing up for next week’s “return” or not to school).

And before I get to my two final offerings to back up by argument that that’s something distinct about leading from social goodness and abundance, as one’s very attitude, I want to step in with a reminder: none of this is meant to romanticize this social movement. Again, read it in light of “Exile & Austerity.” Understand it in light of the much more visible strains on the streets now, not only the cops again, but alas more people yelling at each other and “acting out,” as I explained in a hit-and-run incident in my post about night 100 (written on night 101; see the link below, when I talk about the casserole fusion on night 100). And there are real weaknesses within this movement. Even as I write, for instance, various striking school assemblies are meeting to vote on whether to continue the strike — and while some have said yes to holding firm, others are decided to end the strike.

OK, back to those two quick case studies. I’ve written several times of the Mile-End orchestrole, now in its fifth week as of last night. It merges instruments (an “orchestra”) into the casserole (pots and pans) form. On the one hand, it’s basically just a cheerful ragtag bunch of us, with a hodgepodge of musical instruments, cookware, noise makers, signs, red squares, and banners, choosing to march, dance, sing, walk, and make music together on the streets. The orchestrole could easily be mistaken for a part of one of the many festivals that mark each Montreal summer — many of which offer a variety of free entertainment. But it’s emblematic of the way that so much of this student strike, at its heart, is about demonstrating what the good society might look like even as it contests this despicable old society, and that’s what makes the orchestrole, for one, different. Without permission or hierarchy, without social democratic arts funding, and with a genuine collective exuberance that one only feels in these moments of self-generation, the orchestrole is meant as simultaneous resistance and disobedience, solidarity and outreach, and gift to ourselves and the neighborhood. (For the story of the first Mile-End orchestrole evening, see my http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/listen-you-can-hear-the-sound-of-direct-democracy-or-orchestroles-montreal-night-72/, and/or a second report, http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/pieces-from-orchestrole-4-montreal-night-93/).

But here’s what I want to stress in relation to abundance and social goodness. The orchestrole was an outgrowth of the Popular Assembly of the Mile-End Quarter. The assembly was, in turn, an outgrowth about five weeks ago of the casseroles, themselves a way of decentralizing and dispersing solidarity for the student strike and outrage against special law 78 into neighborhood, and even multiple intersections within neighborhoods. The casseroles were a wake-up call, in turn, that could be heard far beyond Montreal, into suburbs, villages, other cities, and across borders, and they emerged from the earlier impulse 108 nights ago to do consecutive illegal evening “reclaim the streets” in light of special law 78, which for its part was passed by a government already at a loss to govern. This crisis for the provincial government was, again in turn, thanks to a directly democratic and ethically charged student strike that began almost six months ago.

If this feels like opening up one of those enormous Russian nesting dolls, well, it is — much to the dismay of those who would maintain social control and austere conditions, but simultaneously much to the delight of a body politic stretching itself toward the good society in the here and now. While much of this is marked by spontaneity, it’s also no accident that, as I’ve written elsewhere, “possibility begets possibility” (or what George Katsiaficas has called the “eros effect”), and thus that all of the above autonomous social self-determination is spiraling out of the elites’ control, into where it should be: the people’s hands.

Amusingly, it’s almost spiraling out of the people’s hands too! As I wrote about in an earlier post, neighborhood assembles all got the same but separate idea that we should converge, fuse, and march downtown together to night 100 of the illegal demos, and then march onward from there. There was such an outburst of enthusiastic organizing, that we organized too many, and many conflicting, convergence points and times (see http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/popular-power-fuck-the-elections-montreal-night-101/)! We good-heartedly managed to figure it out, for one of the most beautiful and abundant evening demos of them all, and one of the most resistant, because we — students, workers, neighbors, teachers, friends, and on and on — showed that not only hadn’t we let up, on exactly the same night that the provincial government announced elections; we showed that self-organization was far and away more desirable, and far and away more fulfilling of what it felt to be in community with others.

The other example is the Pique-Nique Rouge (“Red Picnic”) that took place last weekend. Here I want to simply point to one aspect of it, much as it was one of the sweetest of events I’ve been to here: the pan-APAQ assembly. APAQ stands for Assemblées Populaires Autonomes de Quartiers, or Popular Autonomous Assembly for each neighborhood, or “quarter.” Some APAQs are as old as eight weeks; others as new as one week; and a whole lot in between. At some point soon, I want to write a more focused piece on the APAQs and their direct democracy, especially the one I’ve been going to in particular; that in itself is a prime example of the abundant goodness of this movement.

For now, though, let’s return to the Red Picnic. For the first time, on one of the most humid days of this politically hot August, people from various assemblies across Montreal came together to share food, music, workshops, and art, and in an hour or so pan-APAQ assembly, their political plans for the strike defense weeks ahead. None of us were representatives or even delegates; a lot of us didn’t know each other. We were instead participants from various assemblies who came to present what each of our assemblies had, autonomously, decided to do, and in turn, take plans from other assemblies back to our own. It was one of those non-decision-making but in essence decision-making assemblies, because by sharing information, it became clear what the assemblies would be doing and how, in bringing together the various pieces, we could create a further abundance of strategy and tactics. People were both scrupulous about not overstepping the decisions or plans of their home assemblies, and eager to meet folks from other APAQs in order to dive into coordination as soon as the assembly ended.

The pan-APAQ assembly at that Red Picnic included written out signs that explained the basis for APAQs, their principles, and what a social strike might be, but also quick parameters laid out in the beginning by a good facilitator. The facilitator quickly turned it over to a longtime intellectual/organizer/writer, who did a 10-minute overview of contemporary large-scale direct actions and blockades, what worked and didn’t work, and why, and how the police responded in various cases. It was comprehensive and wide-ranging, and created a shared sense of our history and the possibilities within it. Behind the some 200 of us circled on the grass in Parc  Molson under big shade trees, there were two police cadets, listening in. Someone suggested we ask them to leave, and suddenly everyone piped up with a chant designed to push cops away. It was completely confrontational and strong, but also, in this odd way, festive, sort of like bringing us together. They stood their ground; people keep chanting; a couple folks walked over to underscore our resolve; and then they sort of left, moving potentially out of hearing range (not that there weren’t other police in our midst). We returned, with good cheer, to our assembly, because organizing mutual aid for the student strikers seemed far more important than continuing to fight with police. Again, the lines were fuzzy between resistance and reconstruction as well as just enjoyment — all happily so.

Something crucial to note here is that most APAQs are not only fairly new; they are fairly small. Several have a dozen or fewer regulars; a couple may reach a hundred or so people; and most, like the one I go to in Mile-End, hovers around two to four dozen. The idea, at the start of this pan-APAQ, that we could somehow become a force in the coming weeks of blockading the opening of school seemed laughable. But as various APAQs stood up for a few minutes to explain their plan, it quickly became apparent we were each organizing something different, on different days and times, and that when stitched together, it just might be a big help.

Within the next few days after the Red Picnic, suddenly there were more Facebook invites than one had time to say “yes” to, much less “like” them all, popping up from various APAQs as well as various self-organized student associations and other directly democratic collectives, all honing in on this upcoming key couple of weeks, and somehow, miraculously, not especially conflicting with each other. There were also flurries of personal contacts, face to face, via phone and email, and meetings hastily arranged. Even when they seemed to be overlap between events or potential overload, folks instantly scrambled to make them complementary and to promote them together, encouraging people to go where more numbers were needed, say, or dividing up resources. So the Midnight Kitchen Collective was today busy preparing food for not only the “Into the Streets for Social Strike” event in Mile-End tomorrow — where we plan to take a block of a public street, and turn it into a free school filled with teach-ins on neoliberalism and the strike, popular education and indie media, along with offering free food, art, music, dance, song, and other festivities as protest and prefiguration, solidarity and our own show of neighborhood power (http://www.facebook.com/events/408559369180806/) — but also for several other “reclaim the streets” and teach-in events, with the help of some folks from our APAQ and I suspect other APAQs too. Yesterday, someone made a Facebook and other promotional materials for all the events happening tomorrow, dubbing it “Operation Friday, August 10″ (http://www.facebook.com/events/330572573699106/). A few days ago, from an idea floated around the time of the Red Picnic, our assembly pulled together most of the other APAQs for what, tomorrow, is going to be a pan-APAQs’ statement in solidarity with the student strike and highlighting our fledging direct democracies, similar to how the “Professors’ Manifesto” took a daring stance on the eve of what’s likely to be an intense week. And on Monday, August 13, many APAQs are likely to pick up on the call by one APAQ to form a “Manif de casseroles” (demo of casseroles) to help hold a strike at one school starting at 7:00 a.m. (http://www.apahochelaga.org).

All this intertwining has been happening in about the most congenial way possible, sans territorial disputes, and imbued with a spirit of respect for the various APAQs’ autonomy, sense of mutual aid toward each other, and eye on the overarching social good and expanding this social movement. People are scrambling around to be so good to and supportive of each other, there’s barely time to get from one event to the next, much less engage in all the sociable interactions that are emerging out of this every time you go to all those events.

Anarchopanda is a good example. His human form and panda form, and occasionally his half-human and half-panda form, have been making the rounds whenever requested, since his panda form in particular offers both a draw for numbers and some protection from the police. So even though he’s spread thin, he kindly agreed to help us kick of our “In the Streets for Social Strike” tomorrow. His donning of this panda form has, on its own, created this marvelous sense of goodness. Who can resist a cuddly panda? Maybe anarchism isn’t so bad after all? Shouldn’t there be playfulness in our resistance? And from what I hear, it was a dream of his long ago to create a mascot bloc during anticapitalist demos, but he and other low-income activists couldn’t afford the costumes; now that his human form teaches philosophy, he can fulfill his own irresistible dream.

All this burst of neighborhood organizing and direct democracy is dovetailing with a host of other autonomous organizing, such as an international call put out by a consulta and “Social Strike Committee” for a convergence (http://www.bloquonslarentree.com/) in Montreal from August 13 to 17 to support the Quebec student strike, and as of a day or two ago, suddenly, a Student Strike Welcome and Convergence Center for that week, hosted by QPIRG Concordia (http://www.qpirgconcordia.org/), which will also be organizing a Red Square Block Party later in the month. And the list goes on.

All to say, the nesting Russian doll is opening up into an interconnected, growing web of social support for the student strike and hinting at a social strike (at the pan-APAQ assembly, someone also reported on construction workers saying they want to block a particular construction site as part of this puzzle), offering up ways to resist neoliberalism and austerity even as it does so by demonstrating the power of an overflow of abundance and social goodness. There’s beauty, too, in watching it all unfold, into a greater and greater whole of popular power, all already starting to practice a different way of being and relating and organizing, premised on the notion that there’s already enough for everyone.

I fear I still haven’t got close to this problematic of translating the distinctiveness of how social goodness and abundance feel, really, when one lives them. Why leading with joy — a hopeful hopelessness — brings one to a qualitative different place — one of social power. One tiny little “p.s.” of an example may add something. I’ve noticed that in the US context, campaigns that purport to be movements — as well intentioned as they are, and as needed — lead with an aesthetically beautiful video of what they wish would happen — that wishful thinking by a few people again. Here, those aesthetically beautiful videos seem by and large to come after the fact, documenting the abundance and social goodness of what people seem to bring to each and every moment of struggle and resistance, no matter how hard it gets. Here’s one of those videos, just out, as reportage on and also beautiful social gift for the six months of the longest-running student strike in North American history, as it reaches a critical point this coming week:

Le Printemps québécois: Quand le peuple s’éveille… (http://vimeo.com/47205376).

* * *

(Photo credits: rose stencil, three red squares, red square on door, cardboard train, Montreal BIXI bike, and pan-APAQ assembly by Cindy Milstein; teachers’ press conference by Mathieu Breton; “fuck Barclays” BIXI by photographer unknown; and the remaining beauties by Thien V Qn, http://quelquesnotes.wordpress.com/).

If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, please excuse the typos/grammatical errors (it’s a blog, after all), and note that you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/. Share, enjoy, and repost–as long as it’s free, as in “free beer” and “freedom.

2 comments on “Social Goodness & Abundance, Montreal, Night 108

  1. Pingback: Quebec: a troubling victory, or an inspiring defeat? | Cautiously pessimistic

  2. Pingback: Organizing as If Social Relations Matter « Outside the Circle

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This entry was posted on March 16, 2014 by in Dispatches from Quebec Spring.
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