Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, December 09, 2010

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

'Mounted police are charging into the crowd. Other police are lashing out with truncheons to push protesters back into Parliament Square from Victoria Street. One demonstrator has been seriously injured. The police are endangering lives. This is what democracy under the coalition looks like—a deeply unpopular policy, which Lib Dems had pledged explicitly not to carry out, is voted on while police try to smash those who want to make their voice heard.'

Follow coverage of the student protests outside Parliament here

Whatever the outcome of today's vote in parliament, the events of today have once again showed how the hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats and the bloody tyranny of police violence and intimidation of student protesters - many under 18 who have no vote and so no other way of making their views heard other than to take to the streets - exposes the real nature of the liberal parliamentary system in British society. The contrast between the votes and debate in parliament and the democratic self-organisation which has been the hallmark of the 30 or so student occupations in Britain over the last few weeks could not be greater - and the mass student activism has shown a glimpse of what a real democratic society could be like.

Such a vision has never been more needed - not least since what the neo-liberal Con-Dem coalition are attempting to do by cutting away at public services and the principle of education as a social good is to bring out the systematic disenfranchisement and disempowerment of people as a collective force - to turn us into a fragmented multitude of atomised individuals who identify themselves only as consumers, objects of history rather than its subjects.

Yet the issue of tuition fees has created huge political and ideological turmoil at the top of society - not least threatening to split apart the Con-Dem coalition government itself - and the thin official media managed 'consensus' that exists about the necessity for cuts as well as fees has begun to unravel. As Gary Younge noted in an excellent article on the revolt of students and youth spreading across Europe,

'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.

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.

Younge concludes by noting that just as '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.' The dream of a repetition of France in May 1968 today - on which see
this excellent short article
by Ian Birchall - as well as this longer essay, with its slogans 'Students of the World Ignite!' and 'All Power to the Imagination!' (as well as slightly odder ones like 'Beware the Pedagogic Gerontocracy') has to be our dream. Yet as John Rose - who was at the LSE during 1968 pointed out at a teach-in organised by the Education Activist Network at the LSE last Sunday, there are important differences as well as as similarities between the student revolt now and then. As well as the Cold War structures which shaped the whole revolt and led to 1968 being about as much about an attempt to bring new understanding and new meaning to terms such as 'socialism' and 'communism' in the face of Stalinist state repression, above all in Czechoslovakia - the crushing of the Prague spring was the lowest point of 1968 - the student revolt in Western capitalist countries in 1968 came about as a crisis of expansion in higher education, while today we face a crisis of contraction.

Moreover, unlike then, the student revolt takes place amidst a very real crisis of capitalism itself. At times like this, and especially in Britain where the organised working class movement remains a kind of 'sleeping beauty' - the stakes are incredibly high for the student movement. It remains worth reiterating the potential that student's political action could help spark a wider 'economic' fightback. The critical importance of such a fightback taking place does not need to be elaborated upon here.

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