We must fight the government’s onslaught against students head on. Barnaby Raine on why you need to be there on the 2 November

student protestsNext Saturday 2 November, hundreds of students will meet in London under the banner of the Student Assembly, organised as an offshoot of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. The meeting will hear from speakers including student activists, Labour MPs, trade unionists and the leader of the Green Party, and, most importantly, will aim to provide a forum for students to debate how best to dent an austerity consensus emanating from Westminster. As such, it represents a set of strategic choices – to pursue practical unity among anti-austerity campaigners by bringing them under one roof, to value the assembly form as a democratic tool, etc – which ought to be examined.

Differences of opinion over questions of political strategy tend to rest on divergent analyses of the conditions we face. Such analyses might differ over objective questions like how many people are placed on each side of any given dispute or over the subjective question of how high the willingness to fight is on each side of that dispute. One-sided analyses which privilege the objective and marginalise the subjective or vice versa lead to strategic pitfalls – some of those who call optimistically for a general strike shut their eyes to a lack of the subjective militancy on the part of workers necessary to guarantee high turnout and the effectiveness of any strike, while others ignore the objective endurance of Labourism in their call for a new left party. The search for a left strategy to oppose austerity must therefore begin by posing twin analytical questions; about the objective balance of class forces and about the relative conditions of opposing subjectivities.

The left’s analysis of the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath is a case in point. The crash is often labelled a ‘crisis of capitalism’ by the left. It is of course true that finance was the God that failed in 2008. But crisis for an established order means the legitimacy and continued existence of that order coming under threat, and the ability of the political right to turn the crash into an excuse for austerity demonstrates how far capitalism really is from political crisis. The challenge of the left, then, is to marry the subjective to the objective and transform the right’s crash into its crisis. Activists in 2013 are tasked with finding both the arguments and the forms of organisation capable of meeting injustices with agencies sufficiently powerful to overturn them. The People’s Assembly marks a serious attempt to rise to this challenge, and the Student Assembly is thus important for three broad reasons:

The prime objective point; there are 2.5 million students in higher education in Britain, as well as millions more in schools and further education. Given the trebling of tuition fees and the recent spate of course closures, as well as the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and the significance of the fact that one of Michael Gove’s first decisions as Secretary of State for Education was to cancel the 735 school rebuilding programmes planned under the Building Schools for the Future scheme, students stand directly in the Coalition’s firing line. Their position as students ought to be seen as coupled with their position as young people, in which capacity they are subject to the closure of community centres and their demonisation and targeting by the media and the police in equal measure – especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Those last two challenges in particular are emblematic of a general dynamic in neoliberalism to replace spaces of collective self-identification with discourses of order and fear amidst a pattern of disruption to the social fabric. Moulded as neoliberalism’s generation, young people fall victim to the resultant pressures of marketisation in education and the parallel destruction of the social sphere in their everyday lives. The sheer number of students on the receiving end of these difficulties combines with the nature of their conditions to place them in a good position for resistance; against the atomising drive of the market, students live and work in a collective space where political mobilisation can spread more quickly than has tended to be the case in the bureaucratic structures of the trade unions.

The scale of the student protests of 2010 showed the lie to the claim that students’ radical agency had been entirely lost to history. The key subjective point justifying the People’s Assembly’s turn to students is therefore that students have shown a willingness to become involved in protest, and have demonstrated their ability to organise.

It was therefore with a great deal of disappointment that radical students came to bemoan the quick decline of that movement after parliament voted through the tuition fee hike in December 2010. Part of the solution to the problem of violent oscillation in the rate of student struggle must surely be to remove from student politics the extremities of a focus on the local and the immediate – the latest objectionable pay packet of a Vice-Chancellor, or university plans to punish students for starting an occupation – important though those things are. The Student Assembly posits the possibility of linking students’ issues at their schools, colleges and universities to a wider politics. Of course, the participation of socialists in the 2010 student movement meant that there was no shortage of activists seeking to join the political dots between apparently distinct issues and campaigns, but 2010’s movement was decisively a student movement consisting mainly of students talking to one another about the particular issues facing students.

By contrast, the building of student opposition to higher tuition fees, for instance, is likely to be more lasting if it is foregrounded practically as well as theoretically in opposition to the austerity programme of which fee rises are a part. By creating a space for students’ particular concerns within the general campaign of the People’s Assembly, the Student Assembly presents a foundational analysis – of a social state as more desirable than a market-oriented drive to slash the public sphere – and in doing so encourages students to regard their campaigns as part and parcel of a broader dividing line between warring conceptions of the good society. Such an analysis need not flounder at the passing of a single piece of legislation, as the student movement found itself doing in late 2010.

The first and most obvious principle postulated by the Assembly as the basis for opposition to the government is unity. It is this spirit that has led the People’s Assembly to seek to include students within its ambit, just as it has brought together Labour Party members with Greens, members of small socialist groups and those who are independent of any political party. The great strength of this approach is its willingness to address the reality of presently existing conditions. No single radical group can realistically claim to possess enough support to enable it to reverse austerity alone. Indeed, the fracturing of those opposed to austerity into different parties and organisations at war with one another has an effect similar to the fracturing of different groups into more or less single-issue campaigns – it serves to reduce rather than increase the effectiveness of anti-austerity campaigning by failing to provide a common narrative, sufficiently fundamental that all on the left can find common ground with it, around which individuals can coalesce. If Cameron wishes to pursue a strategy of divide and rule, the contemporary British left has been doing his work for him in that regard.

In the pursuit of unity, we need not present a false choice between unity and democracy. Assemblies as a tool of political mobilisation are exciting in large part because of their democratic potential; students are being asked not just to come along to a meeting to hear some speakers, but to play a role in determining the direction of the campaign. That brings with it the possibility of rejuvenating young people glad of the chance for active engagement with politics in place of passive consumption. As such, the Assembly is both ideologically and practically a rebellion against neoliberalism. Its democratic structure taps into a long history of the use of assemblies by political radicals in defiance of hollowed-out official structures for supposedly democratic representation. By consequence, the Assembly should provide a sphere for students to imagine a politics of agency in which we all shape the world around us, against the grim fatalism of contemporary neo-Thatcherism.

Some involved in the Assembly want to force the government to drop key policies, some seek to move the Labour Party leftwards to force it to abandon austerity if it wins the next election and still others hope to build an alternative party of the left. All of these things are made significantly more likely by the construction of a serious and concerted movement capable of bringing together large numbers in opposition to the current cuts consensus. Polling shows a third of the country is opposed to all the cuts; our failure to involve those millions in an active and determined campaign of opposition ought to be the collective shame of the left.

Starting with students, we have the chance to reverse that failure. Be there on 2 November.

  1. Students are in a good position to play a role in any coalition of resistance to austerity.
  2. The Student Assembly can reformulate the basis of student activism.
  3. The Assembly movement is an opportunity to galvanise the left.

Barnaby Raine

Barnaby Raine is a Stop the War activist and was one of the organisers of the Jewish Bloc on the huge demonstrations for Gaza in London on 19 and 26 July.