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It’s Pointless to Protest?

Posted on Friday, December 3, 2010 in anti-cuts resistance, civil liberties, ConDemNation, Politics, protest

Deborah Orr sure seems to think so:

It is sometimes suggested that there is littleĀ protest against the cuts, except from students and schoolchildren, because adults are too craven and apathetic to stand up and be counted. The truth is that they are too wise to waste their energy on something so silly. Protesting against the cuts is like protesting against water’s stubborn habit of flowing downwards. Pointless, unless you are a committed anarchist, in which case everything is worth protesting against.

Protesting education cuts and tuition fee rises is silly?! That commentary reminds me of BBC Question Time last night where noone but noone wanted to talk about the morality of subjecting university students with much higher levels of debt. Of course right wing talking head Nadine Dorries thought it was perfectly fine, indeed she believed her constituents were against funding higher education out of taxation, implying that students were lazy good-for-nothings who should be bullied into contributing more. What of the majority of students though who don’t fall into that convenient category? Should they just sit and take this attack on their futures, when the financial mess we’re in isn’t down to them, and there are so many other alternatives available? I think it’s bizarre to suggest that anyone fighting these cuts and others (Lewisham Town Hall was just the start) is an anarchist.

It is interesting how much the student protests have relied on exploiting the political weaknesses of the Coalition, rather than concentrating on promoting the sound intellectual arguments that can be mustered against the reform of higher education. A protest that started out insisting that it filled a vacuum left by the failure of politics has remained obsessed with the promises the Lib-Dems made in its manifesto for government, and the hypocrisy the party has shown in ditching them for coalition.

I think it’s a horribly flawed perspective on the demonstrations. True the students are angry at the unfairness of the Lib Dem betrayal, having pledged in public that they would not support rises in tuition fees. But their anger is clearly much greater than that. As Elgan John points out, this is fury at what Naomi Klein calls ‘Shock Doctrine’ or disaster capitalism being aimed at them in particular:

Today in the UK we are positioned between a Mary Louise Smith and a Rosa Parks; not of course in terms of civil rights but insomuch that the angry youth have put their bodies forward in disobedience, their skulls smashed by batons, their blood has speckled the snow. They have done this in protest against tuition fees that they would never pay. But more than that, it is far larger protest, one against this government of extremists and their shock doctrine. These students have readied the way for the dignified marched of those with impeccable character, the quiet and the well behaved, to truly shock those in power and to bring this illegitimate government crashing down.

Laurie Penny adds:

Britain’s new youth movement has evolved. The white-hot energy that exploded at Millbank three weeks ago has cooled into a hard-edged organising tool, making links with Trade Unions and anti-cuts groups up and down the country. What started as a riot has become a movement. At UCL, one of the movement’s strategic hubs, serious-faced teenagers take detailed notes and man the phones to liaise with the media whilst others are already at their laptops, getting the word out via Twitter and Facebook about what’s happening on the streets. These young people have been underestimated – by their parents, by their teachers and lecturers, and by successive neoliberal administrations -and that underestimation may yet shake this government to its core.

I only see informed, intellectual objections to the ConDem’s higher education reforms underpinning the ongoing student rebellion. And the fact is the protests have brought this issue up to the very top of the political agenda, and are already causing deep ruptures in the coalition. The students realise that, for reasons I’ve repeatedly cited, the attack on them is ideological and that the social values being put forward by the government for these reforms do not and will not lead to the social good. I too can’t agree that saddling the next generation with unbelievable levels of debt and letting the bankers get off scott free is just or necessary, when we have more than enough money to fight pointless wars and to contribute to bailing out whole countries. As other commentators have said, Atlee built the NHS at a time when he too had no money to hand because it was the right thing to do. Having dismissed students for too long as unable to critically evaluate the world, we should be championing them now for pointing us in the right direction this time.


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