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Brendan O'Neill latest piece on the problems with the student protests.

Brendan is editor of

Britain’s lively student protests against the government’s plans to raise university tuition fees show us one thing for sure: you can’t take young people, or institutions for that matter, for granted. Ours may be a politically anaemic era, in which daring, future-oriented movements are notable by their absence, but that doesn’t mean the Lib-Cons should automatically expect compliance with their cuts agenda. The demos, which culminate in a mass action in London today, confirm that both young people and higher education staff will not meekly play the political roles fashioned for them by Cameron and Clegg.

One of the most striking things about the demonstrations is their leaderlessness. At the protest in Trafalgar Square last week, I was amazed by the utter confusion that prevailed, the gathering in the square of various, seemingly unrelated pockets of protesters, some of whom were chanting about education cuts, others of whom were dismantling bus stops. There was no evidence that these groups were linked by anything other than a desire to let off steam. No speeches, no meeting point, not a megaphone in sight… it resembled a rowdy night out in the city more than a revolution ‘to bring down a government’. 

As one journalist who joined the protest put it: ‘I don’t know who is leading us, but we don’t stop running.’But the protests show us something else, too; something less edifying. They reveal the glaring absence of political vision and solidarity in contemporary protests against the cuts. They show the extent to which those agitating against the Lib-Cons’ response to the recession actually accept the idea that we need austerity, and are determined simply to shift the impact of that austerity away from themselves and on to others. Motivated more by sectionalism than solidarity, whatever positive elements exist in these student acts of defiance are likely to be exhausted by the lack of a progressive objective.

Of course, throughout history a great many protests started out leaderless, even shambolic, as people took to the streets to express instinctive fury. But normally, leadership eventually emerged: the most ambitious or clear-eyed individuals would come to the fore to organise and direct the public expression of grievance. In contrast, not only have the anti-fees demos remained leaderless throughout a series of eye-catching public actions, but their very leaderlessness is now celebrated as a virtue.

‘This is a leaderless protest with no agenda but justice’, gush sympathetic journalists. One reporter says the student occupations at colleges are creating ‘leaderless rooms’, which spring from ‘an embryonic coagulation of disparate groups’. No amount of journalistic effort to get into Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye can disguise the fact that what we’re witnessing here is the sexing up of political confusion as organisational experimentation. Onestudent writer says: ‘Unruly, leaderless and difficult to contain - this may well be the future of protest.’ Another, referring to thekids who have bunked off school to join the demos, says ‘it’s the children who are leading us’.

These are desperate attempts to make a virtue out of the political vacuum at the heart of the anti-fees protests. The truth is that the failure of any serious leadership to emerge really speaks to the absence of clear goals, of overarching political ideals, even of a common language of solidarity around which to cohere this ‘embryonic coagulation’. Questioning the absence of leadership is not to say that what these students really need is a charismatic leader or two to march them to glory (though there’s nothing wrong with charismatic leaders, of course); rather it is to point out that this culture of leaderlessness springs from the dearth of political goals and of a strategy for achieving them. Instead of these failures being discussed in an upfront fashion, they are repackaged as Glorious Leaderlessness, with spontaneity elevated as the supreme virtue of protest, over and above discussion, debate and direction. It’s an inability to address the incoherent nature of the protests dressed up as political freestyling; a lack of direction masquerading as anti-elitism.

Closely aligned with this cheering of leaderlessness is the celebration of the apparent spontaneity of the protests. They’re ‘just happening’, we’re told. Children are suddenly deciding to walk out of school and students are taking ‘spontaneous moves to occupy their university buildings’.

It is worth questioning just how spontaneous the protests really are, given the important dynamic of implicit adult approval and media cheerleading in much of the action that has been taken by student protesters in recent weeks (some adult observerspatronisingly refer to the protesters as ‘Harry Potter radicals’). Still, the widespread talking up of the alleged spontaneity of the protests, the celebration of it, is striking. Because spontaneity in politics represents the ascendancy of the unconscious over the conscious, of intuition over consideration. Bigging up the spontaneous nature really speaks to an unwillingness to elevate the conscious back above the unconscious, and to take a step back and ask what the protests are for and where they’re going. The fetishisation of their spontaneity is a way of avoiding addressing their intellectual disarray.

And looked at coolly, the political content of these demonstrations is not an unalloyed good. What the protests capture is the worrying flowering of sectionalism and self-interest in the prism of today’s austerity debate. Increasingly, to the extent that there have been protests against the cuts agenda, they have taken the form of one section of society defending itself against cuts at the expense of another. In the absence of any serious ideological challenge to the broader concept of austerity, even the radical response to the cuts agenda has largely accepted the fundamental need for limits to growth and progress. And thus protesting against cuts takes the form of merely trying to deflect the consequences of austerity away from oneself.

This can be seen in the way health workers suggest that the military should be cut, not them. Or the way arts bodies wonder why other public services aren’t being slashed. And the student protesters also argue that there are other areas of public life that should be trimmed before education, signalling their fundamental acceptance of the idea of austerity. Even when they defend their own positions, they do so in narrowly economic terms. The Free Education Campaign argues that the economy benefits by £2.60 for every £1 it spends on higher education, through the training of young people for future careers. Not only does this reveal a spectacularly philistine attitude towards education - it also shows the extent to which some student protesters accept the economic straitjacket, the ideas straitjacket, that the Lib-Cons are seeking to wriggle Britain into, and only want to make their place within that straitjacket a little less painful.

The broader failure to challenge the austerity aficionados who rule over us exacts a high price: an emptying out of political solidarity and the spread of sectional radicalism. The demo in London today may be big and even rowdy. But because this protest phenomenon is running mainly on self-interest, it has a sharply limited scope for solidarity and durability. In a sense, this means the student protests only reflect the broader political weakness of the radical, critically-minded political outlook today. But why should we patronise students by saying, ‘Well, they’re only expressing bigger trends’? They are adults (most of them anyway), and the disappearance of the old political language and ways is as much an opportunity for them as it is a challenge. If they put their minds to it, if they challenged that doubt-disguised-as-flattery which tells them that their spontaneity and leaderlessness are a wonder to behold, maybe they could put forward, and get behind, some striking new political ideas.


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