Protesting students express their rightful outrage; a broken system requires a complete overhaul

Throughout 2013 and 2014, students across Australia, Britain and other countries have been protesting against the introduction of full-fees tuition, and opposing the onrush towards the full privatisation of education in their respective countries. Their protests have been raucous, enthusiastic and captured the attention of the corporate media. The students have marched in the streets, venting their opposition to the current Federal government of Australia. They have marched in Britain, occupying the offices of the Conservative party in one town, marching on the parliament in that country.

In October 2013, students targeted the Australian federal treasurer, disrupting his speaking engagement, opposing not just the privatisation of education, but the entire direction of the federal budget that punishes the poor and disadvantaged, while rewarding the wealthy.

In Hong Kong, students have led a poltically diverse protest movement against the reigning politicians in that statelet. A mass movement of civil disobedience and political resistance has brought the Hong Kong authorities to a standstill.

In Mexico, thousands of students have led the way in revitalising a political opposition to the corrupt and decrepit Mexican political system. The immediate catalyst for the current uprising against the Mexican authorities was the premeditated murder of 43 student teachers in the town of Iguala, in southern Mexico. The student teachers were going to protest against the mayor of that town; on his orders, the police arrested them and handed them over to a drug-trafficking cartel which proceeded to kill the student teachers. This was the spark that lit the fuse of constant and organised protests against the endemic corruption and inequality in Mexico. These protests, ranging from peaceful vigils to attacks on government buildings, have created the most serious political crisis for the Mexican regime in recent history.

In the United States, increasing numbers of university students have joined the country-wide protests in solidarity with the African American community of Ferguson. Mike Brown, a student from that suburb, was unarmed when he was shot down by a St Louis police officer. A grand jury decided that no criminal charges would be laid against the officer in question, sparking nation-wide protests against the racist violence of the police and the failure of the legal system to prosecute a white man for the hate crime.

Across the world, we have witnessed the resurgence of student activism, not just against the proposed introduction of full-fee paying tuition at universities, but opposition to the neoliberal direction of privatisation and corporatisation of education that has been ongoing for the last three decades. Education policy has increasingly adopted the mechanisms of the market, the perspective of education as a commodity to be sold to fee-paying customers, the students who are seen as the consumers. Since the economic meltdown of 2008, the advocates of privatisation have continued to push their free-market ideological fanaticism onto the education system, turning the latter into a market.

The marketisation of education could not happen without the active support of the political establishment, in league with the hierarchy of the elite universities, who are pushing this transformation of higher education into a marketplace. In England, the Browne review, a governmental panel of experts commissioned by the UK government, released a report in 2010 detailing recommendations about the future of higher education. The chair of the committee, Lord Browne, is a former CEO of British Petroleum, a long-term corporate functionary best suited to turn education over the tender mercies of the market. The Browne Review, whose recommendations are being adopted by the Cameron government, effectively remove any limits on the amount of fees the universities can charge, and that universities have to compete for customers, much like mega-education-corporations.

Student debt becomes an enormous burden under the proposed changes, and the Browne review engineers a kind of mass indebtedness that will saddle future students for years to come. For instance, the British Medical Association, commenting on the Browne review, stated that medical students would be shackled with a crippling debt, 90 000 pounds being the projected figure, thus making a medical career all but out-of-reach for poorer students. More details about the Browne Review can be found here.

Professor David Graeber, an anthropologist and lecturer at the London School of Economics, wrote a thoughtful article called “Students are right to march against the markets. Why can’t education be free?”. He makes a number of strong points about the ongoing privatisation of education and the legitimate grievances of the students. However, let us focus on a wider and more important point that Professor Graeber makes, a point that is directly relevant to an Australian audience.

The protesting students are routinely and consistently portrayed in the media as a selfish, privileged layer, complaining about the supposed loss of their advantageous status under the proposed changes to education. Upset that their previously comfortable lifestyle will be over, they resort to anti-social and barbaric tactics, like smashing property and street hooliganism. Typical of this type of commentary is a column by Annabel Crabb, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald. Her whole screeching rant can be accessed here. It is not intended to provide a point-by-point rebuttal of her article, because that is a waste of time and energy. However, the general charge that the students are vandals merits a certain response.

As Professor Graeber points out in his article;

But if you think about it, who are the barbarians here? We don’t call Goths and Huns barbarians because they broke things. Romans broke things too. We call them barbarians because they had no interest for the art, science, philosophy, music or poetry of the civilisations they conquered. They didn’t see them as values in themselves. They just cared about wealth and power. What the students were doing in 2010, and what they’re doing today, is defending art, science and philosophy against a regime that believes none of these things are of any value except as a means to wealth and power. They are quite literally defending the values of civilisation from those who have abandoned them.

Education is not simply a conveyor belt to a higher paying job, or a career mechanism to maximise income earning potential. Education is about the way the world works, and our place in it. The current crop of psychopaths that are in charge of the Australian government measure every aspect of a society purely in terms of profitability. The vandals in suits are intent on destroying the value and purpose of public education. The students are concerned not just with income and lifestyle, but with the future of science, art, education and philosophy – in short, those things that make human society a civilisation.

The next generation of students is telling us adults that we need to worry not just about the marketisation of education, but the overwhelming corporatisation of every aspect of human society. We should be listening to the student protesters and taking heed of their demands for a complete overhaul of education.

We should be joining them.

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The ultra-right UKIP surges, and British politics undergoes UKIP-ization

UKIP is exploiting anti-establishment, (and opposition to EU) sentiment to channel discontent into its pro-business, xenophobic platform.

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The title comes from an article written by expert commentator on British politics and culture Richard Seymour. In his article ‘The UKIP-ization of English politics’, he examines the emergence of the racist, ultra-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as a major third electoral force on the English political landscape. Seymour deconstructs their populistic phrases, disguising a hard-right anti-immigrant bigotry. It is well worth reading Seymour’s incisive analysis in its entirety.

Previously, the current author has examined the rise of the ultra-right xenophobic parties in Europe. The surge of UKIP in recent months gives us reason to evaluate the ongoing threat of the ultra-right party, the crisis in the British ruling establishment, and how working class anger at years of austerity and cutbacks is being channeled into creating a mass, racist and right-wing populist party as a respectable alternative.

UKIP is pushing politics in Britain to the ultra-right. The traditional parliamentary alternatives, the two main bourgeois parties, are undergoing a crisis of legitimacy. They are strongly associated with the unpopular policies of austerity and the corresponding impoverishment that they have caused. UKIP is exploiting this breech in the parliamentary walls and gaining support from its anti-EU and populist rhetoric.

UKIP speaks for those sections of the English ruling class who are Euro-sceptic, a strong undercurrent in the existing Tory party. Withdrawal from the European Union, it is contended, would be more advantageous for the English establishment in the view of the Euro-sceptics. Basing themselves on anti-immigrant hostility and British national chauvinism, these ruling class circles regard abandoning the European Union as a viable measure, intending to further pursue the exploitation of the working class through more privatisation and deregulation.

Rochester and Strood seat is the second parliamentary victory for UKIP, after the defection of a second Conservative MP to that party. The Conservatives lost the seat of Clacton earlier this year when another Tory MP defected to UKIP. These defections reflect widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling Tory-LibDem coalition government.

This is a strong blow to the Tories, but Labour cannot take any consolation from this situation. While Labour hung on to win the by-election in the seat of Heywood and Middleton earlier this year, it was a narrow victory, with Labour hemorrhaging votes and disaffected Tory voters supporting UKIP.

This situation is not just another turn in the inevitable fluctuations of bourgeois politics. There is deepening concern at the pervasive economic and social problems of capitalism, and electoral protests like this are symptomatic of deep-seated hostility to the Westminster establishment.

UKIP is posing as a defender of the average working person, expressing populist hostility to the Westminster elites. This is a perverse claim, given that UKIP originates from that very Westminster elite. The supporters and backers of UKIP originate in the highest echelons of the British financial oligarchy. The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, is a wealthy stockbroker and former Conservative party member. The treasurer of the UKIP party, Stuart Wheeler, is himself an Eton-educated businessman. The list of the party’s influential bankrollers goes on. UKIP is most definitely a party lead by a section of the ultra-wealthy aristocratic elite. But make no mistake – UKIP has been able to attract disaffected voters from all classes of society, including working class people.

Owen Jones, columnist in The Guardian and expert commentator on British politics, elaborates that while UKIP originates from the elite part of town, the beliefs and sentiments that propel its supporters are often those that are advocated by the Left. The leaders of UKIP are unashamedly ultra-Thatcherite in their politics, their voting base, polled on several occasions, support traditional left-wing demands such renationalisation of railways and banks, higher taxes on the rich, and an increase in the minimum wage. While UKIP portrays itself as a people’s revolt against the establishment, it is basing itself on the very real grievances that the working class has against the policies and programme of the British financial elite.

The Tory party is facing a terminal crisis, and the Labour party is not in much better shape. UKIP has appealed to disaffected Tory voters, pushing its anti-immigrant and anti-EU message in the short term to pick up seats. But is electoral success, while worrying, is only part of the larger picture. After years of austerity, preceded by economic policies that have seen industries shut down, communities abandoned because of closing factories and lack of employment, the privatisation of education and the closing of educational opportunities for the poor, people are hurting economically. Disillusioned with the main parties that have delivered variations of the same free-market fundamentalist ideology, people are looking for a political alternative.

Jo Cardwell, writing for the Socialist Review magazine, writes that UKIP is dragging British politics to the Right, having successfully exploited the convergence of three political factors; anti-austerity, anger at the British establishment, and anti-immigrant and anti-refugee racism. Working class communities throughout Britain have been decimated over decades of relentless ruling class attacks on their jobs and living conditions. As Owen Jones writes in his Guardian article:

Over the last generation or so, working class identity, culture and community have faced a relentless battering. Many of the old skilled jobs – back-breaking and male-dominated as they could be –gave people a sense of pride, but were stripped from the economy. Industries that were once the focal point of communities disintegrated. A sense of solidarity, sometimes cemented by a strong trade union movement, was eroded.

In some working class communities, a sense of Englishness filled the vacuum. I grew up near the centre of Stockport: publicly displayed English flags were not uncommon.

English nationalism has indeed been a social cement, bringing together once-thriving communities now afflicted by the combined problems of immiseration and unemployment. Flying the English flag is just one outward symbol of a people discarded by an economic system that treats them as disposable commodities, reaching as they are for some sense of belonging. The outsider is the migrant, the refugee, the alleged ‘threat’ that they pose not just to ‘Englishness’, but now transformed into an economic menace. The Labour Party, basically dancing to UKIP’s tune, has lost much of its traditional working class base as its has implemented the capitalist programme of cutbacks and privatisation, policies that have undermined working class solidarity.

However, economic crisis does not inevitably mean the rise of anti-immigrant UKIP-style parties. Owen Jones, writing in The Guardian, provides an elaborate description of a successful, politically powerful and left-wing alternative that has emerged out of economic chaos – Podemos in Spain. There is no doubt that Spain has experienced an unmitigated economic disaster, with high unemployment and declining living standards. Yet the Podemos political party, capitalising on the anti-establishment and anti-politics sentiment of the people, has surged ahead as a strong political alternative offering the politics of hope for the disaffected. It is an unfolding and burgeoning Green Left political alternative.

Go read Owen Jones’ article the Guardian here.