Springtime, the New Student Rebellions

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Book Review: Springtime, the New Student Rebellions (Edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri. Verso, March 2011.)

The autumn and winter of 2010 saw the sudden and dramatic re-emergence of radical student movements, with mass student uprisings taking place across Europe and the United States in opposition to both the austerity measures being levelled against ordinary people as a result of the crisis in capitalism, and the neoliberal restructuring of education to the needs of capital. Across the Western world, governments are introducing measures to transform universities into “factory of precarious workers” – institutions devoted to the production of graduates equipped with the skills and ideas desired by industries increasingly reliant on immaterial and mental labour, turning ideas into profits, and who are willing to work in increasingly precarious situations, either entirely unpaid, or for increasingly low wages on increasingly short-terms contracts – a transformation that is increasingly meeting resistance from both students and academic staff, and which has only accelerated since the present crisis began. Meanwhile, in the Arab world, students have played a key role in the mass uprisings to topple Western-backed thugs such as Zine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.

Springtime is a collection of writings from those at the forefront of the student resistance in the UK, Italy, France, California, Greece, and Tunisia (with brief mentions Algeria and Egypt) – a kind of scrapbook of resistance, from a diversity of perspectives and political backgrounds – featuring both first-hand accounts of the student protests, and more theoretical writings on the changing character of education, labour and student politics, as well as some historical flashbacks, in which, unsurprisingly, May 68 features heavily.

In each section we get a flavour of the peculiarities of the student movements in various countries. In the UK, we encounter the raw anger of a generation of young people betrayed by the political system – first by Labour and then by the Liberal Democrats – who suddenly find themselves faced with the trebling of tuition fees, the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance, and future of indebtedness and precarious work, if they’re lucky, and unemployment if they’re not. In France, on the other hand, the youth are well aware of their power as political actors, having defeated right-wing government reforms on several occasions; but we also encounter a working-class divided along racial lines, with occasional clashes between the immigrant population of the banliues and the proportionately more white/middle-class student movement. In the US, unlike most of Europe, student occupations of their campuses are met almost immediately with swift and brutal police repression: with beatings and mass arrests. In North Africa, then, we encounter student resistance against the crude and brutal face of capitalist imperialism: the Western-backed thugs and their repressive authoritarian regimes whose role is to maintain Western influence over some of the largest energy reserves in the world.

The Italian section, in particular, merits careful reading. In one particularly excellent piece, we are given quite an in-depth discussion of the Bologna process, which is changing the character of higher education across Europe: directing universities towards the production and normalisation of precarious labour (a process in which students are simultaneously treated as consumers of a product, and raw materials being transformed into commodities), devaluing degrees, turning universities into psuedo-corporations run by business elites, and pushing a greater and greater debt burden onto students and their families. In order to fulfil the dual tasks of producing more graduates for industry and maintaining the university’s role in sustaining class privilege, “diversified inclusion” mechanisms are employed to create a two-tier system,with the best opportunities being made available to the children of the wealthy.

The thread of Counterfire (a UK Trotskyist group that broke away from the Socialist Workers’ Party in 2010) politics runs throughout the book, which brings an unfortunate element of sectarianism into the mix. In the introduction, for example, “fashionable sections of the left” (i.e. anarchists and autonomists) are decried for denouncing the state, while a substantial part of the UK section is devoted to arguing that the successes of the spontaneous, leaderless and decentralised student movement will come to nothing if they fail to adopt Leninist forms of leadership and organisation. Additionally, too much space is devoted to historical contextualisations, which often amount to little more than nostalgia for May 68, Students for a Democratic Society et al., with very tenuous links to the modern day student rebellions, which are beautiful and inspiring entirely in their own right, and not as re-enactments of uprisings from over forty years ago.

But these are minor criticisms of what is ultimately a fascinating, stimulating and inspiring collection of texts. Where Springtime is most powerful is not in the complex theoretical and ideological discussions which the Left so loves to preoccupy itself with, nor in the rhetorical flourishes and analysis-poetry of some of the book’s more stylistically accomplished sections, but in the simple stuff: the individual experiences of betrayal, abandonment, despair, anger, radicalisation, and hope – of a generation abandoned by their supposed leaders both in mainstream politics and the supposed counter-power of the trade and student unions and the official left learning to stand up for themselves together. As one young British Further Education student put it:

I used to moan at people who said politicians were all liars and were all as bad as each other. I realise now how naive I was. Protesting against tuition fees has not only allowed me to express my opinion, it has allowed me to grow up.”

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