Gary Younge is right when he says that the students won’t likely embody a deep rebellion against the government’s austerity cuts, but they sure could inspire one:
So while it’s true that others have it worse than students, it also entirely misses the point. Protesting against tuition fees is not a sectional interest. For most, student years mark a transition from youth to adulthood, which means the burden for these increases do not just fall on individuals but families – who will already be suffering from the crisis in others ways. Thatcher’s cuts blighted isolated communities, whether they were pit villages or northern cities. These attacks are not just deeper but broader. Clearly, how students’ resistance to these cuts pans out will have ramifications for successful opposition to the entire austerity programme. That is reason enough to deserve our support.
But while students can be the spark for the broader struggles ahead, history tells us that they are unlikely to be the flame itself. Students and the young might be the most likely to protest, but they are among the least likely to vote – if indeed they are even eligible to vote – and cannot withdraw their labour to any devastating effect. McCain’s stand gave courage to the sharecroppers and domestic workers; the French students in 1968 bolstered the confidence of factory workers. The threat British students pose – much like the financial crisis bringing them on to the streets – is of contagion. That their energy, enthusiasm, militancy, rage and raucousness might burn in us all.
As the video shows, the student rebellion is succeeding in drawing wider consciousness to the double standard the ConDem coalition doesn’t want you to know about. On the one hand they’re happy to more than triple the debt students are expected to carry merely to get themselves educated (whilst making it nigh impossible for much poorer students to do so at all), on the other they’re as indifferent as ever to tax avoidance by business magnates and corporations. If they can keep demonstrating how ideological the cuts agenda is across society – not just to their interests – Younge could turn out to be right.
These protests are labelled ‘fascist’ by some – a charge which makes no sense to me. Most of the country voted against this in May, and protest is an entirely legitimate (and protected) tactic available influence public opinion and government policy. Younge argues:
This is all too easy to dismiss and disparage as a toxic cocktail of naivety and privilege. Such sleights are flawed. First, in Britain at least, the notion of students as a wealthy strata on a three-year hiatus from real life is outdated. A third of students in higher education are from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, and work during term time to pay for basic needs and books and equipment. Just under one in five of those with jobs works more than 17 hours a week. One in five lives at home. Add further education and school students into the mix and you have a demographic that looks more like the characters in The Office than Brideshead Revisited.
Second, even if they were middle class, so what? Beating up on the middle-class does not help the working-class. Indeed, by eliminating the notion that education is a public good you eradicate the primary means by which working-class people can better themselves. They are not just an attack on finances, but on aspiration.
It can never be pointed out too often – if only because it is so frequently ignored – that this situation was not created by excessive public spending but by an international banking crisis brought about by an unregulated binge in the private sector. In a sordid redistribution of wealth from poor to rich, working-class kids will be denied the possibility of a university education because wealthy traders were in denial about economic reality.
I don’t think it’s just students who get this. Lib Dem ministers may toe the coalition line and refuse to talk about the bankers or debt, but the moment the equation gets embraced by the wider middle class (for it is they who determine election outcomes still) they have a serious problem. I do hope so.
The Metropolitan Police are making it abundantly clear that, as ever, the state’s will will be enforced by force. The violence at the entirely peaceful climate camp protest at the G20 demonstration last year was not an aberration, and they’re now no longer afraid of admitting it: rebel against the state and there’ll be a price to pay. Check out the police’s response to today’s peaceful #ukuncut protest against Top Shop’s Sir Philip Green:
Suzanne Moore criticises the media’s narrative about the student protests:
It is fantastic that these young people, who we have been told have been blinded by celebrity culture and are mainly Facebook narcissists, soon made contact with other causes. Students at UCL also campaigned for a living wage for their cleaning staff. When I was there union leaders were talking solidarity with them. These kids, unlike their elders, are not scared of the word “class”. Into this hub of activity come other, younger students wanting to see how its done: polite, well-spoken boys who want to stage occupations in their sixth forms about the removal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA).
The media of course has banged on about tuition fees as the children of media people go to university. Little has been said about EMA, a means-tested benefit, possibly because those who live on less than £20,000 a year are not in the middle-class bubble. To remove this in effect prohibits a whole sector of society even getting the qualifications they need to get university.
It baffles me when I’m told that the students don’t understand what they’re protesting about, equally so when students from middle class backgrounds, less likely to be adversely affected by the huge hike in tuition fees and (the dreaded word) the debt arising from them, are criticised for protesting on behalf of those less well off than them. Is it somehow a betrayal of their class to want the world to be less polarised and divided by wealth than it already is? And why is there not a national explosion of rebellion in response to the state’s treatment of these kids? The answer is clear: it’s not just an ideological battle which is being waged, but a generational one. We complain that children and young people are supine, uncritical and apathetic, yet the moment that’s proven wrong we respond with violence. We don’t want young people to actually take action against tax avoiders who, if they paid their fair share, could contribute to lowering the severity of key cuts in public services.
Laurie Penny elaborates on the students’ position, well, more than she already has:
What has been taken from them to make them so angry? Hope, that’s what. Hope, and the fragile bubble of social aspiration that sustained us through decades of mounting inequality; hope and the belief that if we worked hard and did as we were told and bought the right things, some of us at least would get the good jobs and safe places to live that we’d been promised.
Hope was the emotional engine of a decade of dizzying economic growth. Now it’s gone. Thatcher and Reagan knew you couldn’t take away hope altogther, which is why they replaced the politics of collective bargaining with a cynical, but seductive, politics of aspiration and individualism. The coalition has forgotten that it’s not enough for millionaire politicians to preach the politics of austerity when all they have to offer is more austerity.
Back on Oxford Street, as the police vans scream into view, the children’s crusade stands firm. “They want to marketise our education,” says Ben, 21, his breath clouding in the bitter air. “So we’re going to educate their market.”
I don’t think it will, but this rebellion, and the state’s ruthlessness in trying to crush it, should bring down the ConDem coalition. Either way the student movement is only going to grow and grow, and we should all start supporting it. The next generation is taking the lead in aiming for the good society, not the Big Society – the media in turn should be celebrating their achievements.