In May, Melbourne saw the biggest and most electrifying student rally in nearly a decade. Thousands of university students from campuses all around Victoria, joined by university staff members and high school students, marched through the city to protest the ALP’s massive proposed cuts to tertiary education.
The march was a huge success for anyone who cares about defending our universities. It disproved a common myth: that students today are apathetic, disengaged, and self-obsessed. Thousands of us took to the streets in a spirit of joyful defiance and solidarity, under the slogan: “Education Is A Right, Not A Privilege”.
But we were not without our critics – and some of the harshest criticisms have come not from those supporting the cuts, but from self-identified progressives.
In the last edition of Lot’s Wife, James Grout argued that, in fact, the march does prove that the student body is apathetic and self-indulgent. Following the academic celebrity Slavoj Zizek, Grout argues that the rally was a symptom of “self-righteous psychosis” on the part of the protesters, and that the “true (unconscious) purpose” of the rally was to help students “save face” and feel good about themselves, thus “playing into the hands of those we oppose”. Protests of this kind, Grout argues, are “always already ineffective” and are in fact harmful, because they “reinforce existing power structures”. And it’s not just students who are targets of Grout’s scorn. Along with the thousands of us who marched on May 14th, Grout also diagnoses the hundreds of thousands of Australians who marched against the Iraq War with this same “self-righteous psychosis”.
Hundreds of Monash University students attended the student strike on May 14th. As members of the Monash Education Action Group, we feel obliged to defend the action and respond to Grout’s arguments.
To back his contempt for the rally and those who participated in it, Grout makes several arguments: that rallies are organised in an undemocratic and “elitist” way by cynical politicians; that instead of rallies, we should focus on experiments in participatory democracy, like the recent Monash Student General Meeting; and that this basic orientation led to the creation of a successful anti-fee-hike movement in Quebec.
We agree with James that students should be involved in democratically determining the direction of the campaign. That is why the Monash Education Action Group publicly advertises its meetings, and why we spend our days handing out leaflets to students encouraging them to get involved. The broadness of the EAG feeds into the success of the campaign; dozens of students attend our meetings and contribute their ideas and energy. This allowed us to mobilise hundreds from Monash alone to the rally.
The example of Quebec is instructive. The Québécois student movement, which ultimately mobilised hundreds of thousands of students and workers in the streets to fight for education, did involve democratic mass assemblies. But how did these assemblies grow, and gain the legitimacy to call mass actions? Through a years-long campaign of petitioning, calling rallies, and patient argument by the left-wing student union, Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante du Québec (ASSÉ). Australia should follow this model. It is thus encouraging that our National Union of Students has just voted at its annual Education Conference to endorse a continuing campaign of rallies against education cuts.
Somewhat incredibly, having just denounced the mass student rally as “self-righteous psychosis”, Grout then complains that the “prevailing cynicism of the student leadership” is preventing these democratic structures from taking form in Australia, presumably because the activists are organising too many rallies instead. Surely nobody could be as cynical as James, who argues that everyone who organised and attended the largest student rally for nearly a decade is just doing it to boost their own ego. But the relationship between mass mobilisations and new forms of democracy is important and must be seriously considered. How are they related?
Mass actions and more democracy are not counterposed; they feed into each other. As thousands of students fill the streets, their sense of their own power grows, political paralysis falls away, and new forms of democracy can appear. Mass protests and student assemblies, in Quebec and in Australia, support and reinforce each other’s legitimacy. A student assembly means little without the legitimacy of a movement to back it; through building the movement and showing that thousands of students care, we can build the political authority of the democratic decision making process that emerges from the movement.
So why take such a haughty attitude to protest? The core of James’ argument is that protests are “always already ineffective”. They exist merely to soothe the troubled conscience of protesters and reinforce the legitimacy of existing power structures. We’d like to list just 1% of the examples from history that disprove this claim, but there are far too many. Directly relevant to the current campaign is the case of the AUSTUDY payment, which Paul Keating wished to convert from a welfare payment into a loan -just as the current Labor government is proposing to transform the “startup scholarship”. Thousands of students turned out in a campaign of lively, energetic protests in defence of AUSTUDY. The government’s legitimacy was not bolstered, but undermined; it attempted to suppress the protests with legal persecution of activists, but ultimately failed, and the campaign won.
Sticking close to home, consider the Franklin River Dam protest. To prevent the construction of a major hydroelectric dam in Tasmania, the Wilderness Society organised a campaign culminating in the largest rally ever seen in Tasmania and an occupation of the proposed dam site; rather than soothing the conscience of the protesters while reinforcing the authority of the powers-that-be, the protests defeated the powers-that-be and the project was cancelled. As this protest led to the formation of the Australian Greens, we might expect James to recognise this example, being a grass-roots leftist campaigner.
Our campaign has already unnerved the Labor government. The universities have become a national election issue. The new education minister, Kim Carr, has suggested that he will reassess the proposed cuts. Now is the time to press home our advantage. James is correct that students are not as cynical about politics as many suggest: the fact that thousands of them turned out on May 14 -singing, chanting, marching, and vowing to fight for a fair education system – is evidence of that.
We encourage everyone who wants to continue the fight to join our Education Action Group and help us build for the next mass mobilisation, which the National Union of Students has called for August 20th. The more students we can draw in to active resistance, the more we will see the flowering of debate, discussion, and democracy that always accompanies mass movements. Don’t accept the cynical sneering of politicians who dismiss protest and resistance as childish self-indulgence. If we build the fight back, we can win again, as we have done so many times before.