:: Article

Rites of Spring

By Christopher Madden.


Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri (eds), Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, Verso, 2011.

As I was preparing for this review, the coalition government published its White Paper on the future of higher education in the United Kingdom. But before I waded in, the subtitle struck me as particularly mendacious: ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, it says, as if recent events carried out autonomously by the erstwhile apathetic students happened in the blink of the eye or not at all. Reading this drubbed-up document couldn’t make the book under consideration more urgently relevant or truthful. What the White Paper confirms is something along the lines of what my sister believes to be the case with the coalition’s reforms: that higher education will cease to be accessible to the working class. Whereas in my sister’s day going to university was rare for the working classes because of class barriers rather than funding issues, the opposite is the case today: it’s all about money. And if you speak to Ed Miliband, this will extend to more than what used to be called the working class, with the ‘squeezed middle’ becoming more so as they contemplate the £9K-a-year tuition fees of their child’s redbrick education.

Springtime: The New Student Rebellions is under no illusions that capitalism is effectively re-socialising the question of higher education to embrace all of humanity as engineers of profit and not much else. The book is a critical firebrand of a rebuke to clichéd right-wing reaction to student activists’ ‘uncivilised’ rioting, exposing the fact that the real violence lies at the heart of the system and not with them. Clare Solomon’s and Tania Palmieri’s role as editors is as democratic as recent events have been: beyond brief but incisive introductions, they stand back and allow a rich diversity of voices – young and old, historical and contemporary, non-academic and tenured academics – the space to determine the record of their own history. Solomon and Palmieri place the struggles of their contemporary counterparts in historical context through a number of excerpts from the left-wing archive, named ‘flashbacks’, demonstrating that last November’s and subsequent explosions across the UK are part of a longer trajectory in the fight against capitalism as much as higher education and, given the book’s contributions from teenagers, the entire education system.

Contributions are of varying quality and there is much repetition, but their length is perfectly judged to give the book real momentum. What repetition there is across the entries is positive proof of consistency of critique within the movement. Springtime’s internationalism reinforces this and highlights the extent to which globalisation has engineered a higher education system inseparable from capital. In this way, Solomon and Palmieri have prudently chosen to organise the book in national terms in order to compare and contrast forms of resistance, beginning with the UK and moving on to Italy, California, France, Greece, and concluding with Tunisia. Although recent events in Tunisia were not student rebellions, the youthful demography of the revolution allows the editors to gesture to the Arab Spring and place the student rebellions in that context (something which no doubt influenced the flavour of the title). What this means is that Springtime’s critique of higher education dovetails with anti-capitalist critique, a point which is made in the editors’ introductions and is the book’s major through-line.

Underlying the book’s analyses is an implied commentary on the shifting value of a university education in the minds of the rulers and to a large extent the upper echelons of the universities themselves. Once deemed essential to the proper functioning of a healthy society (whatever this means anymore), this value has been recalibrated to service the demands of capital. Hence the devaluation and increased threat to those subjects – mainly within the humanities – that fail to power the dynamics of accumulation. The instrumental nature of higher education is a point articulated a number of times in the book: that is, if a degree doesn’t fit industry, it has no place either in the university faculties or society. Thus goes the idea of a humane education, a process that for centuries has fed the soul as much as the mind, creating citizens with personal identities rather than human adjuncts to capital.

It is little wonder that the piece that focalises these issues best comes from a contributor whose country accelerated the neoliberalisation of higher education, otherwise known as the ‘Bologna Process’, which emerged in Italy during the late 1990s. Giulio Calella’s ‘The Factory of Precarious Workers’ is in agreement with George Caffentzis’ recent article for Mute on the university struggles by forensically highlighting the issue of precarity facing the current generation: namely, that their university education is preparing them for lives as precarious workers in which stable employment is unlikely ever to be guaranteed. The hike in tuition fees is yet another hit by the missile of neoliberalism, as a result of which uncertain futures will be paid for by the very subjects who have little choice but to step into line with precarity if they are to live their lives at all. With the White Paper, the Bologna Process has finally reached British shores, whereas the coalition government is playing catch-up with its European counterparts. But as the Bologna Process spreads, the more international the student movement becomes. Even a cursory consideration of Bologna’s reconfiguration of the structural relation between subject and capital should stoke the fires of discontent in all students. Although the tuition fees rise pulled through Westminster with little problem, the UK struggles have not been in vain. Because the Bologna Process intstrumentalises university education, making institutions compete with each other aggressively and through which degrees become commodities, the Student Rebellions should seize the opportunity to broaden out to other groups to form a mega-resistance to the neoliberal consensus. Such resistance against what Calella calls the ‘factory of precarious workers’ of the university means fighting the workers’ conversion into the neoliberal dream of the ‘precariat’, what Guy Standing otherwise describes as ‘the new dangerous class’ currently enveloping society.

Along with Calella, Sebastian Budgen’s account of recent youth rebellions in France offers the most informed paradigm for future strategy against neoliberal reform. As unemployment figures continue to rise and graduates across the entire spectrum face the prospect of increasingly longer fallow periods in which job applications go unanswered and opportunities recede like the tide, anti-capitalists the world over are rightly unshakeable in their critique that capitalism cannot – never could, in fact – guarantee full employment. The austerity measures spreading across the globe like a neoliberal contagion confirm Calella’s argument that capitalism does an excellent job of ‘privatising profit and socialising losses’. The question is therefore not why the students kicked off like they did, but why more failed to join them.

Not so in France. The strategic force of unity across sectors of society was demonstrated there as students took the message to the factories and invited the workers into the struggle. Think of the protests in 2006 against the ‘Contrat Première Embauche’ or CPE (First Job Contract), legislation that would have allowed employers to sack their workers within the first two years of employment without accounting for the decision. Budgen is keen to set the record straight by drawing attention to the way in which recent youth rebellions operated under a set of questions which embraced ‘the nature of work affected by all salariés’. As ever, unity is strength, and however much they have been energised by the 1968 generation, contemporary French youth have largely avoided the mistakes of previous eras by understanding the problem across age and social boundaries.

Though never didactic, Springtime makes its educative case subtly through the juxtapositions of contemporary accounts and its historical flashbacks. The subtlest example of this follows Budgen’s essay, in a piece André Glucksmann wrote in 1968 for the New Left Review. Given that it follows examples of successful French monster demonstrations, it seems to be directed more at readers from other countries with much less of an insurrectionary impulse. Referring to Lenin’s analysis of revolutionary action, Glucksmann anticipates the ways in which the May 1968 movement fizzled out because it lacked method and organisation. Is this a warning bell ringing out the pitfalls of spontaneous action? Perhaps it is, although it would be short-sighted to view the relation between former generations and the present one on the strict basis of the latter avoiding the former’s mistakes. Above all else, the ’68 legacy rests on what the Invisible Committee describes in The Coming Insurrection as the process of insurrections spreading by resonance. With direct citations of 1968 on placards and its Situationist fervour, the visual record of the Student Rebellion leaves little doubt that the ’68 moment lives on aesthetically if not always strategically. Of course, in Situationist terms, we should never underestimate the strategic potential of aesthetic operations. But whereas Debord et al rebelled against the spectacular society, in a sense the student rebels are working the other way round, reviving collective consciousness from its torpor whilst luring them away from a secondary lapse into a recrudescent spectacular reality.

Given the brutality of the police during recent events, Springtime delves into the machinations of the state apparatus with as much zeal as it attends to the economics of higher education. Another flashback proves vital in this regard. Fritz Teufel’s report on police tactics during the Shah of Iran’s visit in 1967 to Berlin is included to tempt parallels with kettling in London. Introducing the section on California, Evan Calder Williams alerts readers to the immediacy with which the Californian authorities violently eject students from occupations. Reference to barricading is therefore not romantic, redolent of passionate revolt on the streets; it is in fact unavoidably practical for a North American student population hamstrung by relentless police surveillance. Regional knowledge such as this can only strengthen the student body’s future preparedness in light of changes to the strategies deployed by the state apparatus. The tactics of the Book Bloc, on the other hand, avail themselves of a Situationist theatricality to reveal police brutality on the streets in the very midst of revolt. Armed with shields of larger-than-life models of books with carefully chosen titles from Derrida’s Specters of Marx and Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, brutality takes on an altogether different aspect when police are seen smashing the covers of these mocked-up works of literature with their batons. The Book Bloc’s strategy is simple: to expose the ways in which the state apparatus and the authorities are committing violence against culture. The logic goes that by destroying literature and culture in this symbolic way, neoliberal reform of the education system is committing violence against society. This is made all the more shocking when the force of those batons breaches the cardboard books to batter the activists on the other side.

Springtime is not a book that wishes to rest on its – or anyone’s – laurels. In the true sense of the word, it is at the vanguard of the movement it depicts and analyses by offering some sort of activist’s primer, a compendium of theory and testimony. Its invitation to reflect on reality comes with the proviso to spring into action. This is a book waiting to be expanded by things to come as shaped by its own readers.

Christopher Madden recently completed his doctoral thesis on W.G. Sebald at the University of Sheffield.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 27th, 2011.