At the weekend I spoke at the student occupations at UCL and Cambridge University. I was incredibly impressed by the levels of organization and the commitment to collective decision-making. The students are learning very rapidly how to coordinate their activities, how to decide on objectives, and how to pursue their objectives. They are also avoiding most of the pitfalls that have beset similar movements in the past. There are no attempts to impose conformity or to insist on one doctrinal orthodoxy or another. There is something steady and sceptical about most of the students I spoke with. Yet they already have far more practical experience of civil disobedience and self-organization than all but a handful of previous student activists in this country. And this from a generation that was supposed to be dosed up on celebrity and self-interest.
Though some of the coverage has suggested that the students are narrowly concerned with the rise in fees, my sense is that there is a much wider unease about the way that society is going. The slogan ‘they marketize our eduation, we educate their markets’, coined for an occupation of Top Shop in protest at the company’s ‘tax efficient’ approach to its social obligations, suggests that the students have more on their minds than increases that won’t affect many of them directly.
The events of the last few weeks far exceed the student demonstrations in Britain in 1968, in terms of their scale and arguably their significance. The students now have the potential to develop and popularise, in partnership with other groups, a program to tackle Britain’s many economic and social problems. Their insistence that education is a public good opens the way to a wider campaign against the commodification of healthcare in particular. There are already signs that the students are connecting their campaign with the union movement – students have joined striking workers st pickets and several unions expressed their support for the occupation before the National Union of Students got round to doing so. Today London Transport workers will join the students in London, I believe. Once the reality behind the government’s plans to mutualise the NHS become apparent – once people realise that the Coalition intend to transform our healthcare system into a gigantic profit centre for private investors – the student movement could turn into something much larger.
I have no idea if the Coalition will be able to force through its plans before Christmas. I do know that the students are developing the networks and the organizing ability to resist an unpopular government’s wider agenda, and to promote a humane alternative. I hope that the students will use their networks and the contacts they are building in the wider world to issue an agreed statement of principles, that makes explicit their commitment to the notion of the public good, broadly defined. Collective decision-making makes collaborative writing of this kind extremely difficult to coordinate – but a simple statement of principles, perhaps linked to a number of more expansive articles, would resonate widely and would make it more difficult to dismiss the students as self-indulgent and self-interested. The leader of the Labour Party has recently said that he is not embarrassed to call himself a socialist. In the months ahead you can help him (ie make him) set out a substantive account of what that means.
As a publisher by trade I cannot overstate the communicative power the students have right now, and the potential they have to change the political landscape. As I write the Liberal Democrats are talking of abstaining from the education bill. That looks to me to be an index of their success so far. It is only a marker on a much longer road, but it is worth noting and celebrating nonetheless.
When the Coalition won it looked as though marketization and financialization would have a new lease of life. The neoliberal policies of the last 30 years would be repackaged under cover of talk of a Big Society. We are perhaps seeing the emergence of a big society – not a pseudo-Platonic daydream in which an aristocracy of virtue presides over a population happy to pick up litter and ‘share the pain’ of austerity. The big society that is now being formed looks like a movement of people who want to live in a world safe for the ordinary excellences – kindness, equality and truth.
I wish the students well. And I have high hopes that they will become part of something bigger, something perhaps unstoppable.