November 2011

Matt McGregor

nonfiction

Springtime: The New Student Rebellions edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri

In an early report on the recent occupation of Wall Street, Ginia Bellafante, writing for the New York Times, lamented its "intellectual vacuum" and the "apparent wish" of the protestors "to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably." After noting that the number of protestors was "dwindling," she quotes Adam Sarzen, a Wall Street trader, who cannot believe his eyes. "Look at these kids, sitting here with their Apple computers... It trades at $400 a share. Do they even know that?" 

When it comes to protests, it has always been easier to ridicule than to understand. The history of social movements is unavoidably a history of false assumptions, stale rhetoric, and condescending assholes. Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, a vibrant anthology on the recent student movements across Europe, California, and North Africa, will do nothing to shake this. A rough mix of polemic, analysis, theory, and reportage, Springtime attempts to document a generation's response to the resurgence of neoliberal reforms.  

This is clearly not for everyone. The Bellafantes of the world will find plenty here to feed their "progressivist" cynicism. The introduction, written by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri, the volume's editors, is plump with cliche, and gives a hopelessly caricatured picture of neoliberal capitalism (a "fear-based dogma" that hopes that students will "become so intellectually stunted that they will not realize what they are missing"). It is also oddly incurious: there are, apparently, "no mysteries attached to the Wall Street collapse of 2008." And then we have its politics, which are an awkward mix of revolutionary ardor -- they call for "an extra-parliamentary upheaval" -- and a defense of the "much-maligned state," which has been shortsightedly attacked by the "more fashionable sectors on the left." 

Never mind: this is, thankfully, the volume's weakest link. What follows is a series of brief and engaging accounts of the violent undoing of the welfare state. There are plenty of nightsticks, water canons, and tear gas. Despite a few rough edges, and a mess of errors in grammar and spelling, Springtime, with it impressionistic accounts of protests and occupations, compelling radicalism, and excellent historical backgrounds, is a success.     

One reason for this success is the range of writers. The editors of Springtime have pulled them from everywhere: undergraduate students, student politicians, professional activists, journalists, even old pieces from Eric Hobsbawm and Ernst Mandel. This wide net is obviously meant to embody the non-hierarchical rhetoric of the movements themselves, and it makes the book feel more like a series of clicked links than a typical academic anthology.  

So, the writers are diverse; yet their portrait of the enemy is remarkably consistent. The "flexploitation" Sebastian Budgen sees in France is essentially the same as the "endless flow of bollocks about 'human capital' and 'self-enterprise'" Bascetta and Vechi witness in Italy. These writers are tired of structuring their lives to meet the requirements of their resumes; they are tired of borrowing tens of thousands of euros for the privilege of waiting tables and serving coffee. Whatever you make of the rhetoric -- which generally borrows the concepts of social democracy, Marxism, and anarchism -- it appears undeniable that the lives of today's students, from Greece to California, will be more difficult, more insecure, and more precarious than the lives of their parents. 

The implicit argument of this book is that this is not a problem of culture; it is one of political economy. To put this another way, the fault lies not in our petit-bourgeois lifestyles, our consumption patterns, or the general malaise of Kids Today. We are not all to blame. As this book argues, there is a They and there are sides: worldwide, the strategies of the police, the rhetoric of the politicians, and the ideologies of the financiers are remarkably consistent. While it is a commonplace assertion of the digital world that everything has become "splintered," "fragmented," and "diverse," the overwhelming impression of Springtime is that the dominant institutions of Europe and North America are profoundly homogenous; and if we struggle to think of this in the stark binary terms of "class warfare," and if we are not quite ready to identify with the diverse political agendas of Springtime's "us," we should no longer have any doubts about "them" -- about their existence, their politics, and their profoundly dystopic vision of human society. 

This book will make you angry. Sometimes, you will hate the politicians, like the conservatives in Britain, who "cheered each cut as it was announced." More often, you will hate the police. A quick example: On December 9, 2010, in the midst of protests against the rise of tuition fees at British universities, four policemen pulled Jody McIntyre from his wheelchair. As he recounts, "my friends and younger brother struggled to pull me back, but were beaten away with batons." Later, Jody, back in his wheelchair, found himself in the path of police horses. He was ordered to move.  He refused. He was then approached by a policeman who, as Jody puts it, tipped over his wheelchair, pushed him to the concrete, before "grabbing my arms and dragging me across the road."  

Though it covers a range of protest movements, this book is primarily about the transformation of the university, and its relation to what is glibly known as "the job market." For those of us who spent a rather large amount of time in the humanities, the trends are Not Good. In stark terms, the book argues that the administration of the university has become almost completely divorced from actual education. More specifically, teachers are now asked to justify their existence using inane quantitative metrics and erroneous forms of standardized assessment. Departments are increasingly funded according to their capacity to attract investment or fill skills shortages in the private sector.    

In Europe, these reforms are justified by the problem of youth unemployment, which often tops thirty percent. The problem, though, is that the increase in university graduates does not actually produce more jobs; it merely produces an army of the desperate and indebted, facing a "postindustrial" economy that simply cannot provide them with meaningful work. This is why Guilio Calella calls the new universities, "public labor precarization agencies."  

For governments across the world, the problem has been located in the (too-generous) rights of workers. Their argument goes like this: if employers weren't obliged to pay the minimum wage to workers under twenty-six, to offer reasons for firing their workers, or to guarantee consistent hours of work, then the problem of unemployment would disappear. In one of the book's many success stories, these exact proposals, introduced in 1994 as the Contrat d'Insertion Professionnelle, then, later, as the 2006 First Jobs Bill or CPE, were twice defeated by organized strikes and protests on the streets of France.  

While it is too easy to mock the dreadlocks and drum circles of protest movements on the left, we should remember that there is no social movement that does not think it is legitimate. All social movements are traditional, one way or another; they defend not just affordable food prices, free education, or a living wage, but an entire way of life. The protests of Springtime are no different: that one might get a liberal education, take a professional job, own a home, work consistent hours, live without debt, have productive employment, these basic expectations of the educated Westerner have been violently unwound, producing what many writers in Springtime call "precarious lives."  

By all accounts, the last thirty years have seen a profound change in the way governments understand what it means to govern. It has become common on the left, since Trickle-Down Economics reshaped the form and function of government, to focus on inequality (the consolidation of wealth at the top, the stagnation at the bottom). But the pieces gathered in Springtime, while fiercely denouncing this trend, suggest that is not the monstrously large gap between the rich and the poor which is at issue, but the unconscionably slim gap between the wage-less and the waged. What drives students to the streets is not the distance to the top, but their proximity of the bottom; and the real outrage is not that the executives of Goldman Sachs are gross billionaires, but that middle class children might one day find themselves living in slums.                

This is a real movement, motivated by real fears. The rhetoric of political change is tiresome, unless political change is actually on the cards. This book is rife with the excited hyperbole of collective action, some of which you may have heard before. The difference, of course, is that hundreds of thousands of students actually took to the streets. The unity of the coalition government in Britain was shaken. North African governments have fallen. Silvio Berlusconi recently lost his majority. So, when we hear that "Britain's political landscape has been transformed," perhaps we should halt the upward eye roll. After all, who is to say that it hasn't?    

Springtime: The New Student Rebellions edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri
Verso
ISBN: 978-1844677405
296 pages