The student demonstrations against the rise of tuition fees, the fourth of which took place yesterday, 9 December 2010 signals the return of King Mob to the streets of London.
King Mob was the name of a British Situationist splinter group formed in the early 1970s which took its name from the Gordon Riots of June 1780, in which rioters daubed the slogan "His Majesty King Mob"' on the walls of Newgate prison, after gutting the building, Wikipedia informs us. The significance is unmissable that in an episode of last nights running battles between protesters and police the car of the heir to the throne and his wife was attacked. The police tactic of kettling badly misfired as some of those who escaped the kettle vented their anger on shops in Oxford street and the car of the royals. There was even some rumour of some looting going on, reported by BBC news, but later not followed up. The attack on the royals, a remnant of a feudal order, entirely parasitic in its continued exploitation of land-ownership, could be as significant as the death of Lady Di in a car crash which was like an enactment of J.G.Ballard's novel Crash. As much as the princess 'killed' by the media was the emblematic image of the previous era, the prince and his wife haunted by fear of the hydra-like mob could become the emblematic image of the new one. As the youth of England discovers that it has been robbed of its future by a government nobody has voted for, implementing policies never discussed and not agreed by a majority of people, which is then called 'democratic' by the prime minister because a majority of the stooges of capitalism voted for it in a house called Parliament, students detect the pleasure of direct action and extra-parliamentary opposition. While only too predictably the focus of the media is on 'violence' - as if the cuts themselves were not violent, 80% cuts to the overall teaching budget, 100% cuts in the arts and humanities - it was a pleasure to hear those very clear voices of young people who defended their decision to protest undeterred from the BBC reporter's insistence on the question if they condoned violence or not. The 'violence' question has taken on a kind of ritualistic significance on TV. You are certainly not allowed to say 'yes, the violence is good, it helps our aims' as with all the anti-terror legislation now in place you could become victim of breaking certain laws against 'support of criminal activity'. The young people drawn into the spotlight of the camera nevertheless got their message through. Look, we are all working class people here, said the Asian schoolgirl. This is not just about cuts, however deemed necessary or not, but an ideologically driven reshuffle of the higher education system which is now becoming a market, as the income of universities - and departments - will directly depend on contingent decision making of 'customers' - their prospective students. While the government dares to call this system 'progressive' the Asian schoolkid was clear that maybe people coming from poorer backgrounds also wanted to study arts and humanities, where they could hardly expect to ever earn enough to pay back the huge loans soon necessary to study in the UK - this aside from the fact that current tuition fees, so called 'top up fees' are already scandalously high.
Studying now means eternal debt-bondage for people from working and lower middle class backgrounds. Very revealingly then that the Libdem leader Nick Clegg dared to refer to the fact that students were not the only ones the government asked to make sacrifices. The cuts on which this government has already decided are the most sweeping and brutal ones in any modern social democracy, entirely designed to hit the poor and those less well off, while protecting inherited wealth and newly acquired riches. As the students discover extra-parliamentary opposition it will soon become clear to them that the media are not their friends, not even the light-houses of liberal-leftism such as The Guardian newspaper. Throughout the afternoon and evening when watching events unfold via websites and online-tv, what was striking were not only the blows received by unsheltered student heads from police truncheons, but the difference of language between the political class and 'the people'. No matter which party, the representatives of the political system, 'their' journalists and also their experts and various members of quangos and lobby groups collectively live in the cloud-cuckoo-land of neoliberalism having themselves completely dissociated from reality. Theirs is a language of lies to gloss over the fundamental fact that deep down in their hearts they don't believe in democracy, that they stopped striving to represent the interests of 'all' and that they cater to a very narrow interest, that of the ruling classes and their own wretched life as servants of the new master, international financial capital. It was heartwarming on the other hand with which clarity many, not all, students defended their rights, upheld the values of a welfare state and, above all, argued in the name of education as a public good. Deprived of any big focal moments such as parliamentary votes in the future of this struggle, students will find it increasingly different to be heard, as politicians will believe that they can just sit it out. Thus, what the British student movement needs are two things, a better coordination of the many blogs and websites that have sprung up, with one site taking over the role of a central portal, as was demonstrated by the Austrian student movement last year with the unibrennt (uni burns) website http://unibrennt.at/. the #unibrennt hashtag became the wellspring of a boundless resistance which dispersed mob-like into many unpredictable activities and has so far served well to keep the movement alive, although unfortunately it also has not been successful in reaching any of its aims. Furthermore, it would be good to have more international coordination, because the issues are very similar everywhere. What about an EU uni-strike day?
The political class everywhere is retreating into their fortified castles trampling the values of 'the public good' while conceiving measures to force benefit receivers to moat digging and gardening works. A tendency, already observable in other student protests last year, is repeated now in Britain. While in 68 students wanted to burn down the university, protesters nowadays are defending the values of social democracy and of education as a public good. This reversal of roles goes hand in hand with the process of total corruption of the state, exposed not only but also by Wikileaks, triggering an expectable reaction of authoritarian instinct. As capitalism crashed in 2008, the state has now become the ultimate vehicle for the direct expropriation of the people. Neoliberalism takes of the gloves and generalises the system of debt-bondage. As all public services and public goods in the physical and material sense become privatised, the state-capital nexus reaches a new intensity which is inherently driven to become ever more authoritarian by the contradiction which it creates. As capitalism has subscribed to the notion of the knowledge economy (although I am not entirely sure what that means), the reshuffling of the university system is a) a critical task with a view on creating a subservient class of knowledge workers, b) has to be performed in such a way - see the idea of creating 'quick and cheap' two-year BAs - that it drives down the cost of intellectual labour and c) is a test for further reforms to be implemented where the system can flex its repressive muscles in tactical urban manoeuvers misleadingly called 'policing'.
Yet the students who with such a clear mind defend the value of education as a public good should take a clear and careful look at what it is that they are defending. The snobbish and frequent comments of members of the politic and academic establishment who refer to 'our world class universities' are not aware of what the students know all too well. That the standard of teaching and learning in most British universities is very low, that a lot of the teaching is outsourced to exploited and underpaid sessional lecturers, that part time staff often are made course leaders and solely responsible for a whole BA or MA course, that the number of 'contact hours' students are getting are few and decreasing, and that British universities have long been turned into a two- and three-tier class society. While some are indeed doing 'world class research' (a notion which itself needed to be contested if it means only to create new surveillance tools and biotechnology for the rich), most universities don't even know how to organise the most basic facilities. This system reproduces internally the class structure of society, where the show is run by non-teaching managers, while a few celebrity professors benefit and the majority are just intellectual wage workers adjusting to different levels of exploitation and alienation.If the students really care for education as a public good they would be well advised not only to defend the status quo but raise maximalist demands, and simultaneously, as already happens in the many occupations and self-teaching experiments, to seek to re-invent university from below, redefine what counts as knowledge and science, and to experiment with new learning and teaching techniques and devices which are more egalitarian and less tainted by the fetishisation of knowledge in the class structure of 'cognitive' informational capitalism. With such a grassroots reform agenda students could also stretch out the hand of solidarity to those whose labour for ideological reasons is not deemed worthy. The fetishisation of skilled intellectual labour is only the other side of the coin of the exploitation of 'unskilled' labour and the punishment that this government is dealing out to the different strata of the working classes. The success of the student movement will also depend on them achieving greater social solidarity across classes and income groups. Otherwise, the protest against a rise of tuition fees alone can easily be portrayed within the terms of economic self-interest which are 'their' terms. In the light of imaginative struggles to come, we look forward to the reaction of the political class and 'their' media who will continue to condemn all violence which is not theirs. Let King Mob Rule!