Almost a week ago, Cambridge Defend Education activists disrupted a lecture by the Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, on ‘The Idea of the University.’ In doing so they provoked a wave of liberal hand-wringing and opprobrium from academics, all sections of campus establishment politics and their own student union.
I admit that I was surprised by the myopically misplaced direction of energy towards condemning fellow students at a time when Willetts’s White Paper poses such an existential threat to Higher Education as we know it. I know now that perhaps I shouldn’t have been. The reaction provoked a lot of fundamental questions for me about the nature of the student movement as a political force; about ‘the student’ as a social category; and about the relationship between these two related phenomena and wider society. The lay of the land has been thrown into sharp relief and that is immeasurably valuable.
One thing which struck me was the banal uniformity of the response from detractors. It was almost as if everyone had internalised the bland Aaron Porter-style condemnation-speak which is itself a regular feature of political life. The culture of condemnation is deeply-rooted; we saw it at Millbank and during last summer’s London riots, to give only two recent examples. It is a form of collective ritual through which liberal bourgeois society attempts to reinforce its normative values, and seek assurance that its hegemony over public discourse remains in place. By doing so it marginalises dissent through self-righteous hectoring and vapid moralizing, both of which were in large supply in Cambridge throughout the past week. When that doesn’t work, out come the plastic bullets.
Not only was much of the criticism predictable but it lacked any self-awareness of the terms in which it conducted itself. Rare were discursive and critical analyses of terms such as ‘free speech’ or any attempts to contextualise Cambridge Defend Education’s actions within the broader power-relations of the society we live in. The basic equation was thus: a man was speaking, he was interrupted, ergo his right of free speech was transgressed. Orwell once quipped that ‘there are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them’ and no more so than in this case.
To explain we must first situate the arena of speech and the speaker himself in a social-historical context. A lecture, in the University of Cambridge, by a government minister, on the ‘Idea of the University.’ Once upon a time this would have been undoubtedly an impeccably progressive arena and there could be little justification for interfering with the free exchange of ideas within it. One can almost imagine the priggish dons reaching for their copies of Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and using it to eulogise about the merits of the University as a space for free and critical debate. This romanticised vision typical of the period bourgeois ascendancy is implicit in many of the wasted column inches from the student epigones of broadsheet opinion-formers. Sadly, these hopeful ink-slingers for the ruling class have only imbibed the opening chapters of Habermas’s paradigmatic tome. They can’t deal with the rest.
Willetts, as a government minister in charge of Higher Education, backed with the state’s coercive and ideological apparatus, with immeasurable influence on and access to the print and visual media, is not just one of many voices striving to be heard on the idealised level playing field of the public sphere. Behind him stood the lines of riot police who so brutally attempted to cow the student protests of the past year. From his mouth spoke the legions of professional propagandists in the Conservative Party press department who are in no small part responsible for the euphemistic and dishonest defences of the Higher Education White Paper to be found in the Tory Press.
This is because what capitalist society built up in promoting purely formal conceptions of individual rights and citizenship against the ramshackle privileges of the ancien régime, it undermined through the creation and reproduction of a new division of labour, wealth and power, denying in practice much of what it promised in theory. Thus, the liberal political sphere, theoretically status-blind and inclusive, has in reality become a question of access to print media and the appeasement of advertisers; of the exercise of public or private power. The debate on the future of education, so effectively closed down by a government which has consistently ignored the voices of students, academics and the several universities who have passed votes of no confidence in the minister in charge, has been replaced by a false substitute, a crude caricature, a laughably inadequate simulacrum; a university lecture series open only to a privileged few. To argue that its disruption was a grievous transgression of free speech, tantamount to spitting on intercepted samizdat, is almost offensive. We did not disrupt free speech; we smashed the representational phantom which was posing as the real thing.
This leads me to the issue of the student as a social category. Having seen the waves of solidarity messages from students, workers and well-wishers outside Cambridge which followed the Willetts disruption last Tuesday, and having heard of the impact of the action on student activists at other universities, has reinforced the conclusion that to speak of ‘students’ as anything approaching a unified social and political constituency is dangerously misleading. Erik Olin Wright, for instance, defines the student as a transitional category, to be defined in relation to student’s class trajectories; that is to say, his or her background and the bearing that it plus education is going to have on the student’s eventual position in the class hierarchy. This I largely agree with, recognising the temporary specificities of the student experience (with spaces for socialisation, access to resources, relative abundance of leisure time etc but no real leverage over production in any meaningful way), as well as the impact these have on the forms of political activism.
Two main things flow from this. One immediate conclusion is that the disruption of the Willetts talk should not be seen as a tactical error when seen as part of a totality. When the focus is restricted to Cambridge, it may certainly seem that way, but it has helped inspire a further wave of occupations and emboldened activists and workers ahead of November 30th. In other words, Cambridge is not a microcosm of anything besides itself so we must resist the urge to generalise purely from local experiences or be discouraged that liberals got upset. That the barricades have been thrown up is a good thing; it shows who is serious about challenging the government and who is not.
(Admittedly I have used a tactical division to explain a social and political divergence and there will be some people who genuinely and in good faith have problems with the specific action. That I completely understand, whilst still disagreeing with. However, I would contend that a sizeable constituency of those condemning the action are in fact acting in bad faith, hiding behind the convenient ‘defence of free speech’ to justify their own passivity in the face of the assault on Higher Education. The test will be who is able to set aside tactical disagreements in the spirit of unity going forward and who, on the other hand, has no interest in this at all.)
On a wider level, this analysis calls for a transcendence of the mere rhetoric of student and worker unity into realising that many students are in fact workers or are imminently going to become dependent on the wage-system. November 30th must not, therefore, become only a show of solidarity between disparate forces but part of the process to inculcate the idea that there is an essential sociological unity between large sections of Britain’s increasingly socially representative student body and the wider working-class. The picket lines, therefore, are not only the first line of defence against education but take on an educative role themselves in a dialectical process.
It follows that there will class antagonisms within the student body as the fight against the government intensifies. We should not flinch from the “centrifugal tendencies of the class struggle” because we have a higher goal than the mere sectional defence of student interests. We are engaged not only in a defensive struggle; we believe that we can unlock the potential within this movement to create a new and better society. We shouldn’t let misplaced and myopic hysteria stand in our way.