Outlaw Universities
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Outlaw Universities

On the evening of November 10, 2011, over 100 riot police stormed McGill campus to force demonstrators against tuition hikes off campus. Demonstrators, supporters, standers-by, passers-by, adults and children alike, were brutally and indiscriminately attacked with pepper spray, tear gas, and physical force (beaten with batons and smashed with bicycles). On March 18, 2012, “Police launched at least a dozen stun grenades, many directly into the crowd of students. Shrapnel from one grenade struck a student in the right eye, severely injuring him. Police reportedly refused to help him when he asked for an ambulance to be called. An SPVM spokesperson said the intervention was necessary because students had not told the police the route of their march.”1 Bill 78, put into effect on May 18, 2012 as a ‘special law’ or ‘emergency law’ in response to student strikes and protests has further escalated the capacity of the police to use violence with impunity: “After Bill 78 brought out tens of thousands this past weekend, the police caused a scene of chaos in Montreal’s trendy St-Denis neighborhood, attacking not just strikers but standers-by as well. One cop pepper-sprayed diners on a terrace, while another threw a tear gas canister into a packed restaurant.”2

There are so many other shocking and outrageous instances of state violence in the context of the student movements in Quebec, but here I wish to show how the eruption of such militarist, fascist violence is continuous with a general logic of governance already operative on university campuses. This is my thesis: what passes for business as usual on university campuses is in fact a mode of governance that works through extralegal procedures to criminalize political action and expression in advance. In its attempt to redefine forms of political assembly, association, and expression as forms of misbehavior or obstruction that justify government response outside or beyond existing legal channels, the Charest government has, knowingly or not, adopted extralegal procedures that are already customary practice on university campuses. Consequently, even if we overturned Bill 78 today (and there are already signs that it cannot stand), the operative logic inherent in it would remain in effect in our institutions of higher learning.

This basic argument may appear rather unremarkable to those familiar with Giorgio Agamben’s account of sovereignty, yet despite the resonance with Agamben, my concerns and general trajectory are quite different. I am less interested in a general (metaphysical) theory of sovereignty than in understanding how universities specifically have become pivotal in struggles against neoliberal capitalism, and have exposed its constitutive violence. It is only by looking at the specific university procedures, then, that we can gain a better sense of our potential, and of what freedoms are at stake. I propose to delineate this operative logic by looking at McGill University’s response to four recent events: (1) the non-academic workers union strike in the fall of 2011, (2) the student protests against tuition hikes of November 10, 2011, (3) the student occupation of the administration building beginning on February 7, 2012, and (4) the use of hard pickets in March 2012 by student associations who supported the general student strike. I am using McGill University as an example because it is the context that I know best. But, insofar as McGill alone among the major universities in Montreal sustained “business as usual” during the student strikes and protests, successfully completing its academic year, it might be considered as a paradigmatic example of the operative logic that harnesses the university’s exceptional status to the benefit of the few.3 My immediate concern is that, as the student strikes promise to extend into social strikes later this summer and fall, the bulk of McGill students, teachers, and administrators will again hold back from progressive action, thus again providing an extralegal position that may serve as a model for the Quebec government’s response.

On September 1, 2011, MUNACA (the non-academic workers union at McGill) went on strike, demanding salary parity with employees at other universities in Montreal and seeking protection for their pensions. MUNACA pursued a “soft picket” strategy at the...