PEF Keynote: Neoliberalism in Quebec

The PEF marked our 15th anniversary at last weekend’s Canadian Economics Association conference in Montreal. Guillaume Hébert from the Institut de Recherche et d’Informations Socio-économiques (IRIS) delivered the following keynote address in French. Thanks very much to Mathieu Dufour for translating it into English.


Thank you very much for inviting me to give this keynote address. I am honoured. My work in a think tank generally leads me to speak to lay audiences or to the media – which is equivalent – and thus do popular economics or economic education. This address gives me the chance to further some of my thoughts and share with you varied ideas, some of them at an exploratory stage, including some doubts and hunches. I am grateful to the Progressive Economic Forum for giving me this opportunity and I hope I will be equal to the task.

This year, the Canadian Economics Association is held in Québec and I understood that the Progressive Economics Forum wanted to take this opportunity to explore Québec’s issues, especially after the year 2012 we had.

Neoliberalism is thus a common thread uniting the three parts of my speech. This is not surprising : Neoliberalism is one of the main reasons why IRIS was created in the first place and I suspect it preoccupies many people in this room as well.

I will thus endeavour to discuss various actions and accomplishments of the think tank to which I belong, the Institut de Recheche et d’Information Socio-économique (IRIS), first in relation to the recent social conflict that shook the province, the « Printemps Érable », and then in the general context of neoliberalism. In closing, I will outline the main theses of a book that IRIS plans to publish in 2014 – its first book ever – which will also revolve around the neoliberal logic of our era.

1st Part : IRIS and the « Printemps Érable »

Let’s first start with a very concrete story before discussing more theoretical questions in the second and third parts.

2010 : “Fee Revolution”
2011 : Tuition fee increase
2012 : Printemps érable

In the Québec 2011 provincial budget, a year after the beginning of the « fee revolution » of the liberal government, or what finance minister Raymond Bachand had labelled, using a Maoist formula, the « cultural revolution », the government announced a 75% increase in tuition fees over five years. This increase in tuition fees was happening in conjunction with increases in the provincial sales tax, the price of electricity, and the tax on gasoline, as well as the installement of a « health tax » which now totals 200$ per person in Québec. This « fee revolution » was supposedly necessary to fight the budget deficit and the economic elite was not going to waste such a nice opportunity to further the neo-liberal logic, in this case through a shift in favour of a regressive user-payer model of taxation.

The « fee revolution » generated some resistance from various quarters. On the left, there were the « coalition anti-tarification » (anti-fee coalition) (mainly made up of community organisations) and the « Alliance Sociale » (mainly made up of unions). On the right, there was a a vigourous reaction, especially in Quebec City, where a groupe called the « cols rouges » (red collar), came out to protest following a relatively libertarian call to action spread by local talk-radios. More people attended the right-wing protests, which heralded the polarisation in which the province would find itself two years later during the « printemps érable ».

The liberal government had left the tuition fee increase for the second of its « fee revolution », so for 2011. Perhaps the government figured that adding the students to the groups protesting would not be a great idea. In the past, opposing both PQ and liberal governments, the student movement had won important victories to insure that post-secondary education remained accessible, bloquing in particular repeated attempts to de-freeze tuition fees. The last big confrontation had been in 2005, when a student strike lasting over 7 weeks and, at its peak, encompassing between 70 000 and 80 000 stuudents, had led to the resignation of the Minister of education and the abandonment of the reform proposed by the government. It was the first time that students were wearing the red square in Québec. We thought we had seen it all back then, but the events of 2005 were quiet in comparison with what would happen in 2012.

So it is in 2011 that the government announced the extent of the increase in tuition fees : 75% over five years. IRIS had already worked a lot on issues related to education by that point ; it was our main research topic and we already had many publications in the public domain. In two of them we had even outlined how it was possible (and even relatively easy), from a public finance point of view, to have tuition-free post-secondary institutions. We decided to write a document in which we invalidated the eight main arguments brought forth by the government in favour of the tuition increase.

Our work as a think tank to bring together arguments against a tuition increase were all the more important at that stage because the public space in the province had been flooded by pro-increase interventions. Looking at all the articles published on this issue between 2005 and 2011, my colleague Simon Tremblay-Pépin showed that close to 90% of all columns and editorials published in the three main provincial newspapers were favourable to a tuition increase. If we add all the texts published together (so letters to the editors, articles, etc.), there are still about 50% of the texts for the increase, 33% against, and the rest is neutral or nuanced. This relentless push for a tuition increase had literally over-turned public opinion on the issue. From a majority of people opposing an increase in 2005, there is now a mjority supporting one.

Our think tank set to work and tens of thousands of copies of our publications were printed by student associations, which also distributed them. Rare occurence : Student associations from McGill even translated the publications and circulated them on anglophone campuses. We also produced eight two-minutes videos which had a wide audience, being viewed around 25 000 times each on average. We gave approximately 80 conferences around the province, sometimes during general assemblies where the issue of going to strike or not was being debated. We also had a strong presence in debates on the main radio or television outlets in Québec. We also used the videos to as a platform to start our blog, which in turn allowed us to reach yet another level of presence in the public sphere – much higher than the first ten years of the institute and also higher than any other left-leaning think tank in the province.

And we saw the result. IRIS played an important role during the first phase of tyhe debate, before it becase an outright political confrontation where our work was secondary. We focused on deconstructing the proposals put forward by the government whenever they were formulated. The government was even sending fiscal policy specialists to debate on our blogue. I must say that I am very proud of the work IRIS accomplished during this period.

The student movement thus started getting mobilised, with the more militant associations going on strike and starting a movement that pushed the more moderate associations, which usually employ lobbying strategies, to follow.

In addition to a remarkable communication strategy, the unity of the different students associations was a determining factor during the events of spring 2012. Historically, the students associations having more of an anarchist tendency oppose students federations that are close to the Parti Québécois (FEUQ and FECQ), sometimes very harshly. This time, there was a somewhat surprising cease-fire, which is one of the key factor in explaining the strength of the movement that opposed the government. That government unsuccessfully tried many times to divide the student movement to isolate the more militant factions. This is what the Charest government had managed to do in 2005, even though the students had won out in the end most of the battle.

I won’t spend much more time on the remake of the story. Let’s just identify quickly the highlights of what happened next :

1. In the spring, the student issue became a major social confrontation of a kind that I never experienced before.
2. The first protests were mostly (festifs) but more and more we advanced in the conflict, it was more en more tense and violent. The worst was probably the battle of Victoriaville, where a student almost died, another lost on eye, and a girl had all her teeths exploded by a plastic bullet.
3. To respond to that new level of crisis, the government adopted a special Law to prohibit most of the protests, the bill 78. It was an attack on a basic democratic right. As a result, many people got into the confrontation against government even if they were in favor of tuition increases. Among many examples, we saw a protest of lawyers against law 78.
4. The movement did’nt obey to the law and it finally didn’t really been applied. But the protest got transformed and became the “casseroles” protest, one of the most surreal things I’ve seen. Huge and sometimes very huge protest everywhere mostly in Montréal reproduce the Latin American tradition that came from Chile to hit “pan” in the street to protest. Now, it was family protest.
5. In the summer, after monts of strike, the activities into the college and universities have been suspended until august and the movement little by little got smaller and stoped. We knew that the issue was going to be settle with the elections that came precisely in that moment.
6. The Parti Québécois won the elections and canceled the tuition increase and the law 78. It was during the two week period that the new government was keeping it’s promesses. Later it imposed his own version of the increase (an indexation) and let the Montreal police use the P-6 law under wich almost 2000 demonstrators have been arrested in Québec since the 15th of March. That law makes illegal any protest that doesn’t give an itinerary first to the police.

Beyond ideological differences between different student associations, the demands put forward by each of them make it possible to situate each of them not only in terms of its critical stance vis-à-vis the government or institutions in general, or even on a left-right spectrum, but also in relation to the progression of neoliberal ideas in Québec.

The CLASSE was explicitly opposing the introduction of neoliberal practices in education. Its ancestor in 2005, the CASSÉE, had also put at the centre of its discourse a critique of the « linking of educational institutions to the needs of the market ». The CLASSE was asking in 2011 and 2012 that the debate go beyond numbers and questions such as the « fair share » that students should pay or what is the value of university studies, but rather be centred on the following questions : Why should one pay to go to university and why would the notion of tuition-free post-secondary education be publicly unacceptable? The CLASSE was thus taking the debate beyond an accounting or « economicist » logic.

On its end, the FEUQ was asking for a tuition freeze and focused many of its critique on a purported bad management of universities. It even found itself in a funny position when important figures such as the FTQ and Jacques Parizeau took a stance to its left, arguing in favour of tuition-free post-secondary education. The fact that the FEUQ targeted the management of universities was essentially conveying that a tuition increase was not necessarily bad in itself, but that cleaning up management practices in universities came first. A rather slippery slope.

The difference between those two approaches is not minor, as only one of them allows for a fundamental critique of neoliberalism.

In fact, this is what many students who were not really politicised experienced during the student crisis and the social crisis that followed it. They became involved in a student movement to block a tuition increase they found unacceptably high and came out of it with a comprenhensive critique of society, including the media, political institutions and, in many cases, neoliberalism. I once heard Sam Gindin say that « all people on strike are philosophers on a picket line ». It’s true, the conflict and the crisis were one of the best learning experience for the people who became involved.

Essentially, we could distinguish between 2 types of demands : Those that justify their pertinence by trying to demonstrate their usefulness for the good functioning of some economic objectives, and those which do not care about such objectives because education should not be valued in this way.

I would like to mention one last theme linked to student mobilisation and the profound significance of the different stance taken by student associations.

The concept of « quality-insurance » appeared in Québec during the student conflict. Early on, IRIS published a study on quality insurance processes in universities, processes which essentially come from Europe. I confess that for a while, I thought that my colleagues Éric Martin and Maxime Ouellet were talking about a relatively abstract concept when they were referring to this « quality insurance ». I thought it was a useful term to simply summarise various practices linked together.

My mistake. There is nothing abstract about quality insurance.

Universities in Québec started importing quality insurance mechanisms. This element was even mentioned during the meetings that preceded the education summit of 2013 organised by the PQ government to address the post-crisis situation (it was an electoral promise).

Quality insurance was also one of the proposals put forward by the CREPUQ, an organisation which includes all the university presidents in Québec, in order to make some kind of compromise with the students who were criticising the management of their institutions, a critisism they of course thought was baseless.

The FEUQ, the student association situated more to the right, did not object to quality insurance. Indeed, why should one oppose quality ?

All right, so was is quality insurance anyway ? It is a « permanent and continuous process designed to evaluate (estimate, control, insure, maintain, or improve) the quality of the system, of the institutions, or the programs of post-secondary education ».

In fact, it introduces notions from the business world designed to insure to a potential customer that it gets what it can rightfully require of a product and thus elicit the customer’s confidence.

More precisely, in education, quality insurance is a process of standardisation of the functioning of universities around the world, which have to abide by a specific framework (a little like an ISO 9000 criterion applied to nuniversities). This standardisation facilitates the marketing of education. International institutions work with states – thus with public sector – to develop the structure of an education market. This is pure neoliberalism, as I will argue in the second part of my presentation : The state works to reinforce and structure the market, which is precisely the role of the state in neoliberalism.

How does quality insurance work? Mainly in the three following ways :

1. A reform of the financing of education, tending towards a private and individual financing;

2. Program reforms : Programs must now be profitable and if there are not enough students (i.e. « clients »), they must be closed down, just like any money-losing division in a company. So long « experimental puppets » or even history departments in some British universities. It might be noted that student debt is useful here, since students will gravitate towards programs allowing them to find a job that generates enough income to repay their student loans. Consequently, it is the hand of the market that will guide the rational choice of individual students, as they themselves become the signals that firms and universities will have to heed to survive and thrive.

3. Finally, quality insurance implies a reform of the governance structures. Students and faculty are pushed aside to the benefit of outside administrators. These are supposedly better able to properly manage the institution, since they don’t depend on it and are thus not in a situation of conflict of interest. Furthermore, these outside administrators are assumed to be neutral and disinterested, although they mostly come from… the business world. This is not a joke. That,s the way its supporters promote quality insurance (and good governance in general). Incidentally, the same thing is happening in healthcare.

At first blush, it is hard to oppose reforms insurance higher « quality ». How to publicly oppose such a thing and remain credible? Still, these changes could have a much more fundamental impact on education than an increase in tuition fees.

This is the source of the dilemma : If people got mobilised on this question at the outset, i.e. intrusive neoliberal values, there would not have been a student movement. Only a few students in the more militant fringe would have resisted it.

It’s the numbers that lead a majority of the students to rise up : « 75% in 5 years, it is too much ! »

It should be said that many people became politicised during the protest. Nonetheless, numbers hit harder in the public sphere than principles or values. What should we do, then ? Use the complex argument around which it is impossible to mobilise or the easy one that corners us into a profitability framework within which our ideas will wane away in the medium to long run ?

It’s like arguing that public services are more economical or efficient to argue against privatisation. It is like artists from Québec who made a lot of noise during a federal electoral campaign a few years back arguing that it is stupid to cut arts because… every dollar invested in arts brings a return of 9$ for the economy.

Which brings us to the second part of this presentation :

2nd Part : IRIS and the new analysis of neoliberalism

The second topic which I would like to discuss today is linked to a contemporary preoccupation of IRIS, but for which it is too early to conclude whether our initiative is successful or not.

I like to describe this work as the spreading of a « new analysis » of neoliberalism. I would be very interested to know whether this way of understanding neoliberalism is surprising, self-evident, or something in between.

I must say that until recently, I was no longer a fan of using the concept of neoliberalism. I found it both over and misused in progressive circles, but also thought that it turned the analysis away from the capitalist system itself and in particular, financialised capitalism.

With the economic crisis of 2007-2008 and various radical reactions which made it to the mainstream (e.g. Occupy), it has once more become possible to refer to capitalism and to criticise it without automatically being branded as a Stalinist. I was enjoying having this option again, especially since I remain fascinated by the fact that capitalism managed to render suspect anybody who utter its real name. It is like the name of God in Judaism, which cannot be pronounced, since naming something is a way to begin having some control over it.

So I started again, along with our institute, to use the term neoliberalism, based in part on a recent book by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, « La Nouvelle Raison du Monde ». These authors come back to the sources of liberalism and show the extent to which apart from a few marginal thinkers, it has always given a central role to the state. They then show that neo-liberal thinkers themselves made important use of the state to further their ideals and their agenda. Libertarians are the only ones who are dead set against the state and, generally speaking, they don’t constitute much of a challenge.

Briefly put, what we are arguing is that neoliberalism does not constitute a retreat of the state, and certainly not an « economic laissez-faire ». Since the beginning of the neoliberal era, we have not deregulated society, nor have we « freed » a Market that is often represented as a natural order that would fill empty spaces.

On the contrary, the neo-liberal state is intervetionist and very involved, and it serves to stimulate and structure the market, the private sector and, more than anything else, competition at various levels. I don’t know if this remark will seem mundane to youor if it will appear revolutionary, but for me, it fundamentally altered my work. IRIS produced a series of videos on that issue, precisely to rectify things and make sure to give a proper view of what the state has become.

Dardot and Laval then warn against taking neoliberalism lightly, arguing that they see in that system a new rationality, endowed with a power never seen before, which penetrates all spheres of society and even the conscience of individuals. For thirty years, neoliberalism has dictated public policy and international economic relations, transformed society and reshaped its subjectivity. On this front, the authors themselves from Foucault, with whom they have allowed me to reconcile myself.

Neoliberalism won important victories ; it conquered political power, it led to the emergence of a bloated finance capital, it contributed to an individualisation of social interactions and a polarisation of rich and poor, while generating new subjects, new pathologies.

It is counterproductive, according to Dardot and Laval, to propagate the idea that neoliberalism is defined by a free market or laissez-faire ; « it makes us lose too much time », they claim.

They counter those who might have seen in the crisis of 2007-2008 an end to neo-liberalism, using as an example the call to action of French President Nicolas Sarkozy following the financial debacle : « that’s it, now we must accelerate the reforms ». Many saw in this call the end of neoliberalism, an understanding even by right wing governments that we must regulate the system. However, in wanting to accelerate reforms, what the elites wanted to do was to push even further the implementation of neo-liberalism. They asked and obtained from the States that they be much more aggressive in their work to replace a more or less social State by an enterprising State that stimulates and structures the market. The State does not wane away, its function simply changes, as it puts its resources elsewhere. It regulates a lot, but it does it to allow the market to exist and function.

As Naomi Klein writes : « The government (and it becomes evident when it outsources its services) does not act as « the administrator of a network of suppliers, but rather as an investor with a good pile of money, who distributes to the system the funds necessary to start up and then becomes the main client for its services. » »

Activity-based funding, a new mode of financing in health care by this State that strives to develop market structures, gives us an example that borders on the grotesque. What this mode of financing does is to replace the « historical » financing of hospitals, which was more or less adjusted to take inflation into account, by a complex system wherein there is an attempt to quantify the cost of every single medical intervention happening in hospitals and calculate the quantity the number of interventions in any given one of them. Hospitals will then be funded on the basis of that calculation and supposedly try to figure out profit margins for different interventions, trying to become more productive in the process. One of the numerous problems that this system has is that it leads to an explosion of the number of people needed to manage the system, of the number of bureaucrats, to help with this stimulation of the market on the part of the state. The market is introduced in the State by people who claim that they are maintaining the public nature of the institution.

When IRIS intervened on the topic of activity-based financing, using in particular the work of Marcy Cohen and Margaret McGregor in Vancouver, I remember encountering a dumbfounded television host. After the interview, off the air, he asked : « But why are right-wing think tanks in favour of activity-based funding if it is likely to lead to an increase in bureaucracy and it will cost more ? »Because supporters of neoliberalism see in it a progression of the ideal of competition and market dynamics. That’s the ultimate goal, which justifies even an increase in healthcare spending and the number of bureaucrats.

It’s not only the televison host that struggle with the idea that neoliberalism develop itself very well into the public sphere. The parties associated to social-democracy normaly miss the point or considered it too complicated to be put into the political arena. Just as I was questioning myself concerning if the student would have gain any momentum in Québec if they would have begun their mobilization with denouciation of neoliberalism. But the problem remain ; if we don’t get to this critic, to this level of critics, even what can be seen as a victory turn out to be on more step behind because the neoliberal cage gets tougher

Regarding neoliberal subjectivity, well, suicides at France Telecom or Canada Post are nice examples of an individualising management that projects feelings of failure on the employees when the quantitative targets of the firm are not met.

There is, however, an example coming from the world of films that I like a lot and which shows the contribution of artists to this developing neoliberal subjectivity. I am thinking of a scene in The Barbarian Invasions, by Denys Arcand, which is in my opinion the movie that best anticipates the coming of a neoliberal society and provides a caricature of it. In this movie, which is the only movie from Québec to ever win an Oscar, all thye characters are self-centered, especially younger ones – the new neoliberal generations that Arcand is perhaps heralding. Even love relationships, says the wife of one of the two main characters, is only a pragmatic contract that allows each side to reach his or her career goals and certainly has nothing to do with love. However, the most troubling scene is the one where three students come to meet their professor, who is dying from cancer, in his hospital room. The professor is very surprised to see them worry about the state of his health, as they never displayed any interest in him before. The students then leave the room and they meet the son of the professor, who offers them money, which two of them happily pocket. They were paid to be there. The third one, a young woman, refuses, clearly uncomfortable. What is more, she yells « keep fighting, you will survive !» to the professor. This character made quite an impression on me. This young woman represents the young utopists who refuse to cease to exist. Even though they have principles – in this case, the young woman refuses to be paid (the two others actually take her share) – they are mostly cute and harmless as they refuse to see the harsh and cold reality : The professor is dying. He is virtually dead, in some sense. It is already over. « There is no alternative » ?

For me, The Barbarian Invasions is the quintessential neoliberal movie and if some people are resistant to theory, have them watch it. They will understand what is meant by neoliberal subjectivity. However, make sure to sing them Bandera Rosa or the International afterwards, otherwise they’ll end up as cynical and defeatist as Denys Arcand.

3rd Part : IRIS and the new analysis of the Quiet Revolution

In the third and last part of my presentation, I would like to elaborate on the main thesis of the book IRIS will publish in 2014.

In this book, we reassess the economic history of Québec since the Quiet Revolution. The current working title is “Dispossession: A Contemporary History of Resources and Public Services in Québec.”

You have all probably heard of the Quiet Revolution in Québec, a central historical moment in the popular consciousness of Quebeckers. It is often argued to be the moment when the province freed itself from the shackles of tradition and joined modernity, which is a bit of an overstatement. Nevertheless, it is true that the election of Jean Lesage and the liberal party in 1960 changed many things.

A neoliberal version of the history of Québec recognises the importance of the Quiet Revolution. Its proponents view it as the moment when Quebeckers liberate themselves from a “great leader”, Maurice Duplessis, who was squandering the province’s natural resources, a little like it happened in many Latin American countries, in order to sustain a conservative order.

This liberation is considered positive by neoliberals, but according to them Quebeckers quickly replace the shackles of tradition by those of an extremely interventionist State with strong unions, which becomes a major handicap. This State generates:

1. Unemployment, inflation, low growth, stagflation, lack of flexibility, a slow choking off of over-regulated economic sectors; as well as

2. The construction of a “modèle Québecois” with sacred cows, such as a free and universal health care system, the Rand formula, low electricity tariff, relatively low tuition fees, etc.
All these luxuries are leading us to the apocalypse: The population is getting older, the level of public debt places the province in a situation similar to Greece (!!!), and taxpayers bear the highest tax burden in the known universe. (A myth that we have actually begun to undone this year, an initiative that have been received with an hysterical reaction from right-wing journalists)

Consequently, they recommend that the State move away from the sectors where it does not belong and leave them to private firms, who would in turn bill “citizens” – now viewed as “clients”. The Market would thus bring us back on the right path to prosperity and individual happiness.

By contrast, we view the recent history of Québec as one of dispossession. In what follows, I quote parts of the introduction to the book, which was written by my colleague Simon Tremblay-Pépin.

Preliminary consideration : This dispossession occurs against the backdrop of an original dispossession experienced by first nations. We don’t talk about this as much in Québec as in English Canada, at least on the left. In fact, our book does not sufficiently discuss this aspect either, partly because by the time of the Quiet Revolution, a large part of this original dispossession has already occurred. However, I believe it would be important to address this lacunae in the future.

The Quiet Revolution in Québec is, in our opinion, an important historical moment, but the term “revolution” is somewhat misleading since the revolution remained incomplete.

We must identify the precise loci of power created by this change. To replace the conservatives close to the church and at the service of American and English Canadian capitalists, a caste of young technocrats independent from the church took over the commanding positions in a nascent Québec State which was in need of their expertise and competence.

The greek roots of the term “technocrat” are power (cratos) and knowledge (teknes). In our historical narrative, the term is used both for top bureaucrats and politicians, who became known precisely for their technical competence (as economists, managers, engineers, etc.). We are therefore not talking about the bureaucracy as a whole, but rather of an upper stratum of the State apparatus closely linked to the political process. Indeed, these people easily move between the political sphere and the bureaucracy, and later to the management of private firms.

They coordinate the development of the Québec State, but it is important to remember that they are surfing on a democratic wave created from below by social movements that are very active and militant, in particular labour unions.

A social State is thus put in place and a national bourgeoisie made up of Quebeckers created. This is our version of “Fordism”, the “Modèle Québécois”, often compared to Scandinavian countries where there is a lot of concertation, etc.

However, the economic system is not based on concertation, a fact which was brought home by the globalisation of the 1980s and 1990s.

Mergers and acquisitions in various economic sectors create multinational corporate empires with vast and far-reaching powers. These corporations pressure governments around the world to liberalise trade and capital flows and privatise public services while increasing tax competitiveness and state subsidies. This part is well-known.

What many people don’t see is that these policy changes are supported by the same technocrats who, not that long ago, were supporting the national emancipation project.

The union movement, a source of labour market rigidities in the neo-liberal discourse, is weakened by the adoption of such treaties, blackmailed through the threat of offshoring. The social gains of the Quiet Revolution are eroding

In the end, while Quebeckers may have believed for a moment that they had gained control over their collective future, that control was in fact transferred to a new elite which quickly replaced the old one. The resistance of the union and social movements to this new elite of technocrats and francophone entrepreneurs was too weak to insure that the vast resources of Québec be primarily used for the benefit of the people who live in it. They succeeded in monopolising the loci of economic and political power and orienting profit financial flows to their own advantage.

There are other versions of the history of the Quiet Revolution which we don’t discuss, at least not directly. For example, social-democrats denounce the neoliberal takeover of a lost paradise, but do not mention the role and importance of the technocrats in that process.

There is also the conservative version, whose rising popularity is somewhat surprising, that the Quiet Revolution is a moment when we abandoned our French and Catholic identity. We lost our soul, essentially. It is a different debate entirely, but it must be kept in mind to properly categorise different tendencies on the right: Conservative (or fascist) and neoliberals (or libertarians).

In the book, we apply this theoretical framework to 7 sectors : agriculture, forestry, mining, healthcare, energy, universities, and water. We had also analysed finance with the Caisse de Dépôts et de Placements, a fascinating story, but various technical issues forced us to leave that chapter out.

And now a few words to conclude. In my presentation, I showed how IRIS works on the issue of neoliberalism in order to foster debate and reflection. I showed that we are trying to understand it well, delineating both what it is and what it is not. I also mentioned the recent history of Québec, as it is important not to leave it in hands of the neoliberals who are presenting the growth of the market as the only horizon for humanity. Finally, I also discussed at length our involvement in the debate around tuition fees, showing how we consciously tried to move the debate away from purely financial considerations. To remain stuck there would have been, or perhaps will be when we do a historical analysis, a victory against a “superficial” measure, but a major defeat against the progression of neoliberal ideas and policies in Québec.

But this is an economics conference. Let me thus conclude by laying out five short comments on what is to be done, following my reflections as a researcher in a think tank focused on socio-ecoinomic issues.

1. The first one would be that we should not put too much effort in capturing back economics departments. We don’t have time to engage in the guerrilla warfare that it necessitates; current events will require our full attention much before and anyway, a political movement has more chance of bringing us there than academic patience. The Queen has already berated British economists for failing to see the Crisis come. Imagine her reaction when she learns that austerity has been counter-productive…

2. Let’s put our energy everywhere else, including in think tanks. There is a thirst for progressive economic ideas. This includes other academic departments. As Marc-André Gagnon, now professor at Carleton, once said, “I prefer to be the economy guy into a social science department instead of being the sociology guy in an economics department”. And I don’t know for the rest of the country, but in Québec, the most interesting economic analysis takes place around a research group in sociology at UQAM, the CAFCA, led by Éric Pineault.

3. Let’s continue to show how mainstream economics is basically b****. It becomes increasingly evident as time passes. We must keep popularising issues of inequality, indebteness, financialisation, the regressive components of the tax system, etc.

4. However, let’s keep looking abroad where the discourse can go much further, like in Europe. When I give a talk, I often omit concepts such as social class, capitalism, bourgeoisie… Many years ago, Éric Pineault and my colleague Julia Posca that since an economist from citigroup had overtly been mentioning plutocracy, we should feel free to do the same.

5. One last image to end this talk. (voir en bas pour la suite) let’s be ready at every pitch. In baseball, a very slow sport, when you are on defense, regardless of your position, at every single pitch, for a split second, you have to be very intense. You have to get on the tip of your toes and expect the ball to be hit hard in your direction and be ready to make a play. Most of the time, like progressives in society, you won’t receive the ball. Most of the time, the ball won’t even be hit by the batter. But you still have to ready every single pitch because you know that it will finally get to you and you will have the occasion to make your play.

This metaphor often comes back from my memories as a baseball player when I think about current political circumstances. The ball will eventually get to us; we’ll have a shot at expressing ourselves for real.


  • Is there any way to get the original French version of this? It doesn’t seem to be linked on the IRIS website.

  • I have uploaded the French speaking notes above. Click on “in French.”

  • Chloe Hutchison

    Thanks for this research and refreshing clarity. I was fortunate to have stumbled on tour work through Dialogues a program broadcast through Canal Savoir. I have been ‘starved’ for intelligwnt discourse comparable to Russ Roberts on EconTalk, Bill Moyers, David Simon and many others in the States and concerned this debate is not occuring in English in Quebec as it might be in the rest of Canada through clear thinkers and do-ers such as Naomi Klein, David Suzuki and others. I have recently been introduced by the message of Laure Waridel also and find Quebec at a powerfully exciting junction. How do you see the next federal election playing out and how does one get these ideas addressed at the regional and municipal level? How do we ask for slogans to be replaced by concrete action? Do the elected still know what leadership and legacy mean?

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