Democracy’s Disquiet

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Watching the members of the Executive of the St. Antony’s College Graduate Common Room during its May 31st meeting was like seeing a meaner and more puissant version of good old Rip Van Winkle, struggling to come to terms with major and crucial changes after a prolonged intellectual torpidity.

On that day, three GCR members proposed a motion to express solidarity with the Quebec student movement, where CLASSE, a coalition of student unions in Quebec, has been organizing sustained strikes over the past 3 months to stop a 75 percent increase in provincial tuition fees. The Quebec Government responded by passing Bill 78 on 18 May 2012, which requires that any gathering of 50 or more people submit their route to the police eight hours ahead of time and agree to any changes that may be stipulated. Failure to comply will be met with a fine of up to $5,000 for every participant, $35,000 for someone in a ‘leadership’ position, and $125,000 if a student union is deemed to be in charge. According to Javier Zuniga, Special Advisor at Amnesty International, the Bill constitutes “an affront to basic freedoms that goes far beyond what is permissible under provincial, national or international human rights laws.” In defiance of the Bill, over 400,000 people took to the streets of Montreal on 22 May 2012 in one of the largest demonstrations in Canadian history. As a result of this and other protests, the Legal Committee of CLASSE is fighting 1047 ticket and penal charges on behalf of all people “regardless of their role in the organization of demonstration or their political affiliation.“ The proposers wanted the GCR to produce a letter of solidarity with this movement, and send a donation of £750 to the CLASSE Legal Committee.

So the meeting of May 31st began. It was clear the Executive and a few others were well prepared to erase this specific motion even before it was discussed or voted on. Aspects of charity law in the U.K – which seek to preclude donations to political entities by charities or instituions that are in the process of becoming so (such as the GCR) – were read out by the chair prior to the meeting’s commencement. Following this, a motion to have the CLASSE motion struck from the agenda was proposed by the VP Welfare and seconded by the GCR President. This maneuver of employing specious legalism in order to stifle democratic deliberation failed. The majority of the GCR membership voted against stirking the CLASSE motion from the agenda.

After completing a few procedural imperatives – such as electing a new chair, approving the minutes of the last meeting, and introducing the agenda – the meeting properly began. Following discussion and voting on motions related to a Ball, a picnic, and allocations for club funding, the CLASSE motion’s moment finally arrived. During the discussion that ensued, the executive tried to cut down the time that this obviously important motion was absorbing, again and again. That was countered by interventions from those who supported due deliberative process. These students interrogated the validity of the claim that the motion would have lethal legal ramifications and sought to counter, transform or manage them collectively, if the scarecrow comes alive. Finally, the motion was passed by a majority; a clear democratic verdict both for student solidarity and the taking of political positions by GCRs. The reaction to this was an array of fractious and melodramatic gestures by Executives and a few others, which in real terms translate into sharp retorts, walking out and other histrionics. In this atmosphere of visceral toxicity the meeting had to be adjourned, which diverted attention from a very significant political act.

This was the first move of oligarchic reaction in the face of a democratic groundswell in this college. Then, the Executive and a few other members of the GCR handed over the fate of a democratic decision to a body that deliberates on constitutional matters. And all of this happened without the entire student body being informed, despite ‘Annex 1: Responsibilities of  Elected Members’ of the GCR Constitution stipulating: ‘The President shall consult and inform Executive Officers and the GCR as a whole, on issues relevant to the student body’. Given that the GCR membership voted in favour of the motion, any process which is attempting to revoke it is clearly a relevant issue to the student body. Now the whole matter is well on the glorious path of procrastination, a costly delay as Quebec students come under greater attack.

But the real issue here is not about the little constitutional games we play. It is a struggle between a small number who are against substantive democracy while veiling their support of the status quo in the shroud of neturality, and a majority of students with a holistic understanding of their location in society and the world. In a world of crisis, tumult and inequality, the latter see status quo, law and economy as entities which are not immutable, but things that can be changed by political agency. Every instance of unfreedom and coercion is ominous for all of us, any conception of insulation is merely a delusion. Hence, the patterning of new solidarities. The passage of the motion points to the fact that students want a deepening of democracy in St Antony’s College and have a  desire to transcend the parochial and anti-political disposition of the GCR here and now.

Perhaps CLASSE will not receive the money from St Antony’s College, money that will be burned in barbecue or dissolved in high tea. But this motion and its small history has clearly put the legitimacy of the way representation works in this college into question. The students here clearly need and want a more democratic, transparent, decentralized, politically sensitized representative organ. This might very well be the beginning of a passage from the GCR to a student’s union in this college.

 

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