Dangerous alliances: class and the student movement

Recently, I have been asked several times by Italian friends and comrades to talk about the British student movement. I must confess that their questions always made me feel slightly embarrassed.
At first, I tried to forget about this uncomfortable feeling, talking about the rise of a new civic participation, which had been lacking in this country since the 1980s, with the brief exception of the anti-war movement of 2003. Then, in my heart of hearts, I tried to offer to my embarrassment the acknowledgment that in the UK, at the moment, there is not a ‘movement’ as such, rather a constellation of small groups and organizations.

But that feeling of discomfort would not be tricked away so easily. So I tried again, gathering all the hope I had and creating a narrative along the lines of ‘this-is-just-the-beginning’ and ‘let’s-give-it-some-time’. Still, no results. That feeling started turning from an intuition of a problem, into a medical premonition of a disease. Something is rotten within ‘the movement’, and it is not just the fact that there is no movement as such.

So I stepped back, took a deep breath, and decided to dive beyond the facade of slogans and banners that often, and foremost, confound those who carry them. Getting on the other side wasn’t difficult. What I found there wasn’t too surprising either. On the other side of political and pseudo-political labels and claims, I found only people. If Sartre was right in saying that ‘hell is other people’, I can say that I found a multitude of hells. Yet, if I still wanted to satisfy my desire to discover the origin of that feeling, I had to try to understand this multitude using simpler filters than the existential one. As a good Marxist would do, I decided to start with the class filter.

Of course, I was aware of the fact that class, today, has become an increasingly blurred demarcation of social differences. Despite its zombie-esque medieval system, not even the United Kingdom has resisted the neo-liberal reshuffling of the class system. A further adjustment of the filter was necessary, in the direction of moving beyond the embalmed definitions of expired classes. So, I started looking at the people that composed the ‘movement’ under the lens of their individual economic positions within their society of reference, that is, the UK.

The landscape that emerged before this lens was extremely varied, yet had some recurrent patterns. As Ernesto Laclau stressed in his ‘On Populist Reason’, it is in the nature of any successful political movement to gather under some ‘empty signifiers’ a mass of different demands, as well as of different people. This seemed very much to be the case in reference to the current student movement in the UK, which used its ‘anti-cuts’ and ‘anti-austerity’ claims as an umbrella under which gather members of very different social strata: from the hooded Peckham boys to Oxbridge graduates, from schoolchildren to university professors, from common people to professional politicians, and so on. However, there was something in this mixture that could not but impress in me a certain suspicion. Was this the origin of my feeling of embarrassment, that which had set me on this quest? Definitely, there was something in it that resembled that original sensation.

Looking at the socioeconomic composition of the ‘movement’, the differences were stunning. On the one hand, we have a proletariat or even sub-proletariat mass, represented mostly by youth coming from ethnic minority backgrounds. They are often present at demonstrations, where they seem to take the role of physically confronting police brutality, as well as the violent pleasure of the odd act of vandalism. Despite their role and the fact that they are those who will be hit the hardest by the measures of austerity, their involvement in the decision-making process of the ‘movement’ is almost none. You will never have seen them at the general assemblies, held in occupied universities, or in the various meetings and teach-ins promoted by the more ‘cultured’ side of the protest. Once the demonstration is over, they go back to their ghettos, back to their streets of pawn shops and churches. They will not look for the other parts of the ‘movement’, and the rest of the ‘movement’ will definitely not look for them.

Then, we have another mass that perceives itself as middle class. Clearly this is, at least numerically, the core of the ‘movement’. However, it would be inaccurate to consider it as one, solid group. Some of the differences within this mass have to do with the age of its components: for a large number of the younger people, economic future is much bleaker than it once was for the older generations. The middle class is on the path to extinction, slowly disappearing like an obsolete language. In fact, for the vast majority of young middle class people, the economic indicators (in terms of family wealth, welfare benefits, current income and potential future income) place them increasingly closer to the dispossessed proletariats than to the wealthier end of their class. However, notwithstanding their economic trend is clearly pointing downwards, the average feeling of the young middle class is, on the one hand, of innate belonging to the same cultural world of the upper classes (with which, despite their apparent hatred, they believe to share the same cultural values), alongside a deep, almost automatic, feeling of ‘being other’ from their proletariat and sub-proletariat comrades. This feeling of otherness is perfectly expressed, for example, by the dozens of websites listing brutal, classist jokes dedicated by the middle class (lefty or right wing alike) to the mass of sub-proletariats that they define as ‘chavs’. I invite the reader to take a break from this article and go and check for him/herself.

And finally, we have the upper classes. They might not be the children of those ‘super-rich’ condemned even by The Economist in a dossier of January 2011, but, nonetheless, they are the children of the British upper classes. Most of them are studying at Oxbridge, have a wealthy family background and have a bright future ahead, mainly thanks to their family connections and their university networks. They might be a minority in terms of numbers, but they seem to have elected themselves as the voice of the movement, holding the most part of the media power within the ‘movement’, which, in our age, means one of the most immediate forms of power. Oxbridge’s domination over all British media (from the Guardian to the BBC, to the Sun) and over the Parliament is infamous. In Italy we would call this mafia, in the United Kingdom it is normalized under the denomination of ‘ruling elite’, the main difference being that Italian mafia is usually class-neutral, while the British elite system is very much class-based, as well as, of course, race-specific. In December 2010 reports were published which showed that 89% of Oxford students and 87.6% of Cambridge students of that year came from the top two socioeconomic groups, and that only one Afro-Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford, none to Cambridge, in the year 2009.

Moving away from this lens, I could not help but ask myself how this was possible. How could activists be so willing to disregard such strong contradictions in the social composition of their protest? How could they, and in particular their, so to say, middle-class core, decide to accept as comrades people destined to occupy positions of power over them, while treating as ‘others’ those who increasingly share with them an underprivileged socioeconomic condition? Why did they never think to invite their natural class enemies to stay away from a movement intended to be in defense of the underclasses?

Maybe this had something to do with some other characteristics of recent and current student movements across Europe. It is a problem of mythology. Since the celebrated days of 1968, the collective imagination of the left has remained stuck in the assumption that students had to be the driving force at the forefront of any possible social revolution. Students, maybe because of their supposed purity, have ever since been believed to be the chosen vanguard that will lead the fight against oppression and towards a fairer future. We can easily spot some dangerous faults in this assumption. First of all, with the exception of the 1979 Iranian Revolution (in which the talabeh islamic students helped in creating a theocracy), no successful revolutions in the world have ever been initiated or lead by a student movement. From Makhno’s anarchist revolution in Ukraine to the Spanish Republic of the 1930s, from the Haitian slave revolution to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, from the Sandinistas to the Zapatistas, from the Paris Commune to the recent uprisings in North Africa, all successful revolutions have always been lead by a trans-generational platform of oppressed men and women coming from the underclasses.

Being a student is and always has been a very limited condition, both in terms of length of time and of social accessibility. The old cynical saying that ‘If you are not a revolutionary when you are 20 you have no heart, if you are still at 40 you have no brain,’ is extremely revealing of the usual development of most students in their post-education years. Especially so, if, as it is in the case of the UK, students seem not to be able, or willing, to distinguish those who share their imposed place in society, from those who determine social impositions altogether.

There is also another element of risk in giving students the role of leading the quest for a fairer society. Possibly because of the specific context in which they are inserted - school or university - they often seem to place an exaggerate emphasis on issues related to the education system. The current student movements across Europe show this quite clearly. Instead of challenging the structures of the societies they live in, student movements seem to be obsessively committed to the defense of a system of education that is, and has long been, designed specifically to maintain an oppressive, State-enforced, capitalist order. This is when the notion of ‘resistance’ loses any revolutionary potential, to become deeply conservative. But even if the school and university systems were utopian oases of social justice, what would be the reason to focus the movement’s energies on its defense, rather than on challenging the bigger structures that await every young person just outside his/her student years? In other words, it is great to be able to go to university and maybe even to spend a few years studying something like philosophy or arts, but what are you going to do when you leave university? If you are lucky, you will end up in an office job designed for monkeys, where you will work for someone else, producing useless goods in order to increase the shareholders’ profits. And, instead of spending a few years in that condition, as it is the case with school and university, you will spend the rest of your life stuck in that alienating work environment, without even the hope of claiming safe pension in the end.

It was here, at the end of these considerations that I found again that feeling of embarrassment. It was much stronger now, penetrating like the screeching of nails on a blackboard. It was much closer now, to the point of revealing its true name. It was the unpleasant feeling of being swindled.

In the last few months, I have spent a huge amount of energy participating in the British ‘movement’. I was in the somehow privileged position of being both a student and a worker at the same time, as well as an anarchist, which allowed me the freedom to move in and out of any specific group or label. I can’t say that I have not enjoyed the wave of activism and enthusiasm that has animated countless demonstrations, meetings and occupations. However, I can’t deny this feeling of being cheated on, any time I saw the Oxbridge kids reporting on the news in their heated, romanticized accounts of what the ‘movement’ was about, or any time I saw young people from Peckham and Croydon being marginalized by a method of organization that privileged universities as the chosen place of decision-making and debate. I couldn’t help but feel defrauded of my energy by an approach to political struggle that verged more on a temporary craze than on serious revolutionary organizing.

However, it is true, this is just the beginning. We should give it more time.
Let us hope that this yet-to-come movement will have the clarity of mind to attempt a thorough self-critique and to redefine its class alliances. Let us hope that the temptations of glamour will give place to a deeper understanding of patterns of inequality. Let us start working today to expand the organizational base to those who are more exploited and endangered, and thus more entitled to lead the struggle. Let us move our meetings from central universities to marginal areas of the cities. Let us liberate our attack from the Parliament-vs.-University dichotomy, and move it to the heart of the exploitative system, to banks, offices, factories, churches and the media. And let us forget about second-hand mythologies, and reopen our imagination to a general, radical, even utopian vision of what kind of new society will be necessary.