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Dispatches from a Global Springtime

Max Kaiser

Springtime: The New Student Rebellions is an edited collection of pamphlets, articles, blog posts and tweets from and about the recent student and worker rebellions in the United Kingdom, Italy, the United States, France, Greece and Tunisia. It is a compendium of chronologies, analyses and reportage that gives a snapshot of and some insight into the revolts currently taking place.

That there are forty contributors to the volume with no central narrative or structure means that Springtime is not always an easy read. Some pieces, particularly in the UK section, make several assumptions about the reader’s prior knowledge. If you have closely followed the UK student protest movement that erupted in 2010 after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition announced billions of dollars’ worth of cuts to higher education and a trebling of student fees, then you can fit these pieces into your own knowledge. Otherwise expect to be doing a bit of background research.

The UK chapter does convey well the sense of excitement and momentum surrounding the student movement there, yet it is not so much an explanatory or analytical section as a collection of primary documents from the times. However, in some ways it is this mix of primary documents—chosen for the significance of where they were written and who they were written by—with deeper analysis that creates the biggest flaw in the book. The publication doesn’t seem to be entirely sure of what it is and its identity crisis gives it something of a messy tone. Is it meant to be movement media? If so, how does it carry the struggle forward? Is it preserving important statements for posterity? If so, a little bit more context is required for it to make sense in a book format.

Still, what could have been a misjudgement but is instead a highlight from the UK section are the pages of tweets from participants in protest rallies. These are a selection of excellent little vignettes that manage to capture the mood and excitement of the time. One of my favourites is illustrative of the protesters’ innovative methods of counter-acting the police tactic of ‘kettling’ students into a set space and holding them there for hours on end: ‘Reports of mass clothes swapping inside kettle [as police] try to identify “suspects”.’ Moments of solidarity like this are direct counterpoints to mainstream media efforts at creating false divisions between ‘non-violent protesters’ and ‘violent hoodlums’.

Student activists in Australia often compare the student political situation here to the one in the United Kingdom. In both, a National Union of Students (NUS), and student politics overall, are overwhelmingly dominated by Young Labo(u)r. Part of the excitement of the UK protests was the sudden ability of self-organised students to bypass the official Labour-dominated student power structures, making them effectively irrelevant. The UK NUS refused to call more student protests after the initial mass protest ended in an occupation of the Conservative Party Headquarters. However, through social media, students outside these official structures went on to organise further mass protests and university occupations across the country.

A welcome piece in this section is James Meadway’s analysis of the material basis for New Labour’s dominance in student politics under the previous Labour Government, which provides for the reader a historical context for the student protests. The conditions were that increases in tuition fees would be minimal, while the expansion of the higher education industry as a whole was prioritised and employment would be available upon graduation. When the Global Financial Crisis hit Britain, and the scale of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s cuts were announced, this material basis exploded.

Under the Labor government in Australia we have a similar situation. Fee rises are kept steady; one of Julia Gillard’s stated aims as part of the ‘Education Revolution’ is to increase the rate of participation in higher education, especially to bring more working class students into the system; students are kept happy through new student scholarships; and the economy continues to grow, creating more employment for recent graduates.

On the face of it these conditions seem to guarantee a pliable and divided student body led by ineffectual aspiring Labor politicians, yet cracks are starting to show. As the higher education system expands, tertiary qualifications will diminish in value; the fracturing state of the global economy means a continued slide into a two-speed Australian economy, with growth in mining but not much else. These factors combined mean that higher education graduates will find it increasingly hard to get jobs.

In contradistinction to the vignette and statement-based UK section of Springtime, the chapters on Italy delve deeper into an analysis of why higher education has become such an important battleground in the class struggle shaking Europe. Contributor Giulio Calella explains how universities are now tasked with the reproduction of the working class; that is, higher education under neo-liberalism is not premised on the creation of social mobility but it works through differential inclusion rather than exclusion. There is a proliferation of different degrees or courses one can undertake. Calella explains that this plethora of tertiary qualifications available at many different levels acts as a complex system of social sorting and class reproduction. Because of the shifting nature of the labour skills now required by capital, the task of universities is to produce an army of qualified yet malleable workers.

For Marco Bascetta and Benedetto Vecchi, the changing class composition of Italian students has led to increased possibilities for student resistance to take hold. Those with less stake in maintaining the status quo are far more likely to challenge it. This analysis, when applied to our local context, signals that a further massified system of higher education in Australia coupled with an increasingly difficult path to class mobility could potentially spell an end to Labor-dominated student politics and the emergence of new struggles.

As the Italian analysis suggests, if education is a ‘positional good’ that depends on its own scarcity for value, then the expansion of and increased intake into higher education leads necessarily to a downgrading in its value. In Italy this is manifested in the children of the upper class increasingly eschewing Italian public universities and attending private institutions and/or going overseas. The Australian answer looks something like Melbourne University’s controversial restructure, the ‘Melbourne Model’.

In the California section we learn how protests over cuts and fee increases became so much more. The writers of the ‘Communique from an Absent Future’ chapter ask what we are struggling for when we protest to save the university. ‘A free university in the midst of a capitalist society is like a reading room in a prison.’ This section raises important tactical questions. If student revolts worldwide are to be more than defensive battles against the latest onslaught of neo-liberalism, how do we transcend visions of social change that are little more than ‘social-democratic heel-clicking’?

The Californian anarchist answer to this is to ‘occupy everything, demand nothing’: fight for the immediate creation of microcosms of the new society without regard for building movements to force institutional reform. Some may judge this as adventurist and utopian, but these groups at least provide alternatives to a politics that reduces the moments of rupture contained in grassroots student revolts into policy questions to be resolved by government.

The message to be taken from this section is that we need to develop a structural understanding of global austerity measures as the implementation of further wealth and power grabs by the ruling classes. We can’t petition politicians to reverse neo-liberal reforms as if they were representing working people rather than the interests of capital. An analysis of neo-liberalism as such means we need to find ways of making our struggles revolutionary rather than reformist. The California section of Springtime is a useful exegesis of some experiments in this direction.

The last section in this volume regards Tunisia. The writings collected here are various incendiary commentaries calling for the downfall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the then Tunisian dictator. This is a tantalising preview of the subsequent political eruption that has taken place across the Arab—and indeed European—nations, defined by spontaneous and decentralised protests occupying public spaces, the creation of popular assemblies for decision making and the bringing down of governments. As I write, this phenomenon has spread as far as Israel, which has just seen the largest social justice protests in its history.

An unfortunate part of this book is its unwarranted inclusion of past writings from the revolts of the 1960s and 70s, containing everything from Eric Hobsbawm to Mick Jagger’s Street Fighting Man. There are obviously good intentions behind these inclusions—a desire to situate the current uprisings historically—but, if anything, they are politically flattening additions. One is reminded of Marx in the 18th Brumaire:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.

Marx compares this phenomenon to that of the beginner learning a new language, always translating it back into her mother tongue. ‘She assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses herself freely in it only when she moves in it without recalling the old and when she forgets her native tongue.’

As this volume suggests, we are becoming more comfortable with a new language of social upheaval, which certainly seems to be the case post Arab Spring. This new language is developed, though not fully embraced, in Springtime.

Max Kaiser is a review editor for Arena Magazine.

 

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