Do you wanna marketise our education?

Do you wanna marketise our education? We will educate your market!
SOAS Occupation 2010

The first snows of winter have come early but it’s beginning to look like things are hotting up. The second mass student demonstration in a fortnight, and more to follow.  One student website declares: ‘We shall not stop until we break the government’s cuts programme or we break the government’ (NCAFC).

It seems a whole generation is learning very fast the meaning of political betrayal. A few months ago, Nick Clegg and the Lib-Dems promised to oppose any increase in university fees. ‘Hundreds of thousands of students, voting for the first time, took him at his word and “agreed with Nick” at the ballot box’, writes Nick Faulkner over on  Counterfire. On the 10 November demonstration, he says, ‘The sense of betrayal, and the consequent anger against Clegg, was visceral’. Now all Clegg can say is that he ‘massively regrets’ having to break his promise—you bet! May it yet prove his comeuppance.

A group of students had a meeting with Clegg. One of them reports on Solomon’s Minefield:

We demanded to know why the LibDems broke their manifesto promise of removing fees. Clegg said ‘you may live in a bubble but in the real world we have no alternative; what’s YOUR alternative then?’ he asked!! What a cheek. We told him to stop allowing companies like Vodaphone to dodge taxes, to halt the 55% pay increases for the bosses, to implement a progressive tax system across society, to stop funding war and Trident.’ Clegg’s response? ‘That is complete nonsense.

But wasn’t he the one who proposed not renewing Trident? As for progressive taxation, a Sunday Times opinion poll (reported by Socialist Worker) found that 77% of respondents supported increasing taxation on the very rich to reduce the gap in earnings between richest and poorest. Oh, and wasn’t it Clegg who warned in the pre-election TV debates that if the Tories got into power there would be social unrest?

It isn’t just the students who voted for the Lib-Dems who are protesting. Lead story in The Guardian on the morning after the second day of protest—’Day X’ (24 November): School’s out: children take to the streets.  Kids not old enough to have voted—some as young as 12 or 13—who feel they’re being robbed of their future, their tomorrow is being cancelled.

Perhaps it’s starting again, and not just in the UK. Histomat has a post with a headline echoing one of the street cries from 1968 with the place names updated: We Shall Fight, We Shall Win – Paris, London, Athens, Dublin. In Italy on the same day as Day X, a couple of thousand students besieged the Leaning Tower of Pisa and closed it down. A few months ago in Buenos Aires there were several weeks of protests, occupations and demonstrations, begun by school students protesting the neglect of their schools, who were soon joined by university students. (See my post and video The Buzz in Buenos Aires.) These occupations went virtually unreported beyond Argentina, but a few voices in the Argentine press began to wonder if 1968 was coming round again. As might anyone who was at university in that memorable year in many different countries around the world.

Not that it is 68 again, history doesn’t repeat itself etc., but the suspicion must be that some of the political classes on duty are very likely afraid that it might. Nina Power at Infinite Thought worries ‘that the current student protests simply get compared to 68 and found wanting by those who remember the earlier struggles with nostalgia’. As a 68-er myself, point taken, but it isn’t simply about nostalgia. Commentators like Counterfire’s Faulkner point out that in moments like May 68 in France, the students played the role of catalyst, when the harsh repression of students activists prompted trade unionists to demonstrate in solidarity, until the whole country was paralysed by a general strike.

The forces of law and order have been taken by surprise. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson thinks ‘the game has changed’ because ‘we’ve been going through a period where we’ve not seen that sort of violent disorder’. (Student protests: Met chief warns of new era of unrest) No matter that the violent disorder promoted to front-page infamy by the press was minimal and symbolic, while the police tactic of kettling the protestors in the freezing cold was widely deemed to be cruel and unnecessary. (If the State is trying to teach the kids a lesson, what they learn may be something else)

(Cartoon by Chris Bird)

He’s right, however, that the game has changed.  According to a report from the Occupation at UCL, ‘Hundreds of supportive tweets and emails poured in from well wishers across the globe, and links have been set up with some of the twenty-plus student bodies now in occupation across the UK, making this a truly networked student movement’. (Follow the UCL Occupation here.) If the police are upset because they couldn’t find the student leaders to liase with and didn’t know what they were up against, this would be a sign that the dynamic of mass protest has been shifted by mobile media and social networking, which now constitute a new extended dimension of politicking.

(Much of the time, the web only reproduces the contradictions already existing within society. As I wrote last April, there is no way of measuring whether it’s opinion-forming or only symptomatic, a space where people can share a range of attitudes ignored by the mainstream media—and be seen to be doing so. But the mobilising efficacy of mobile internet communication has been demonstrated several times over around the world, in Burma, Iran and elsewhere, in breaking news of political repression and mobilising both local and global solidarity. In the case of Spain after the Madrid rail bombings of 11 March 2004, text messaging was used to summon mass anti-government protests which changed the result of the general election three days later.)

The social media are contributing, first of all by making the protests appear like a sudden eruption, but they don’t come out of nothing (any more than in 68). As Faulkner says, the ‘noughties’ were punctuated by demonstrations and even occupations involving large numbers of young people, as a new kind of culture of anti-capitalist mass street protest began flexing its muscles. There was a lull after 9/11, pundits declared the new social movements to have been stymied, but now we know they weren’t.

The critical question is whether, like back then, something momentous is developing, or the protesters will be outmanoeuvred and the protests peter out. Histomat believes that ‘Just as the student revolt in 1968 detonated a wave of working class struggle, so the student revolt in Britain today is already making a political impact’. Is this too optimistic? There are reasons to wonder if it will really take off,  not least the weakening of trade unionism by the neoliberal counter-offensive of the 80s, followed by the emptying out of democratic left politics in the 90s by the New Labour usurpers, which has yet to be repaired by Labour’s new leadership.

On the other hand, these are the kind of events that Derrida, speaking of the ways we think about the future, called ‘unforeseen’, as opposed to ‘expectable’, because it’s only the unforeseen that brings about change—until then, everything remains the same. Ironically, we don’t have long to wait to find out. Since the government is calling for a vote in the Commons before the Christmas break, is it too much to imagine they could fail to win, and the coalition be reduced to tatters? Because in that case, the moment of the unforeseen would be upon us. As a friend remarks, ‘It is, I think, just a matter of time and if the students keep this up and others follow, it needn’t be much time.’

As they painted on the walls in 68, ‘All power to the imagination’.

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