The new Levellers

Can the student protesters of the 2010s surpass those of the 1960s, or will they be quelled by the r

At the start of John le Carré's novel Our Kind of Traitor, published in September this year, the 30-year-old hero, educated at a state school and now lecturing in Oxford, suffers a crisis: "Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009? Receiving no response from the blank student faces staring up at him, he had supplied it for himself: no. Orwell would emphatically not have believed it. Or if he had, he would have taken to the streets. He would have smashed some serious glass."

It can't be often that an autumn novel so catches a national mood that its fictional projection becomes reality even before it has achieved its Christmas sales. Student faces are blank no longer and the image of a young man, hooded, aiming a balletic kick into the serious glass front of the lobby of the Tory party's headquarters in Millbank on 10 November, was on all the front pages the next day.

Whatever the media might prefer, most voters did not see the students and their supporters as either troublemakers or privileged beneficiaries demanding special treatment from the taxpayer.

The students seem to be learning fast, too. On the day of the third big demonstration, on 30 November, a "19-year-old student" told the BBC: "Smashing up windows was necessary in the beginning to get the demonstrations on the front pages, but now any violence would be counterproductive."

Across Britain there has been a swell of student activism, occupations and demands, with a focus on higher education but reaching out for public support against cuts. Only once before has there been anything like this level of student action - at the end of the Sixties, starting in 1968. Will this decade succeed where the Sixties failed?

The Sixties changed our society and our culture. But here in Britain, unlike the rest of western Europe, the student rebellion of the left was politically marginalised; it arrived late, and was narrow by comparison with its counterparts on the Continent. The true political impact of the Sixties in Britain took another course. In October 1968, a then unknown Margaret Thatcher gave a speech at a fringe meeting of the Conservative party conference. She caught the anti-statism of the new zeitgeist, and it was the political right that eventually captured the legacy of Sixties anti-authoritarianism.

Neoliberalism and the free market were the main beneficiaries of the movement against state power and paternalism. Ironically, it is Thatcher's successors against whom the students are now mobilising.

David Cameron told this year's Conservative conference that the general election meant that "statism lost . . . society won . . . it's a revolution . . . We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer for power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society." He was taking the words of the student activists of the Sixties and stuffing them into the mouths of today's.

Understandably, the students are refusing to swallow. It is not just the huge hike in fees they are being asked to absorb, but the simultaneous withdrawal of four-fifths of all direct grants to universities. As the government will back the loans that are supposed to replace this, there will be no immediate difference to the deficit. The coalition is using the fiscal emergency as an excuse to abolish support for all humanities research and scholarship. Apparently, students will be expected to pay for this (at a time when, as the blogger and businessman Chris Goodall has calculated, they get at most £4,500 worth of teaching a year). No other advanced country has abandoned public support for the heart of its intellectual civilisation in this way. The very idea of a university is being guillotined.

While student resistance to this fate combines self-interest with a fight for the country's future as a whole, it is also being driven by a new generational divide. Once more, though this time thanks to "digitalisation", protest is underpinned by an epochal shift.

The Sixties announced the start of the great cycle of capitalist expansion. It was the opposite of now: jobs were plentiful, rent was cheap. We had our own music; there were miniskirts and Mini cars. It was "Americanisation", but we, too, influenced the States as London swung. Accompanying this heady sense of emancipation was the belief that our parents were from a different planet. They had grown up without TV, sex before marriage, drugs and rock'n'roll; and often without university education, as we were part of the first expansion of mass higher education. It was a generation gulf, not a gap. Ridiculous rules, hypocrisy and authoritarian teaching methods became a target for students, as did secrecy. (Students demanded that universities "open the files", and a number of occupations broke into the administration offices to do just that.)

While the student movement was strongly international, in each country it had its own national characteristics. The revolution in France was against the culture of "Oui, Papa", the formality of which was much stiffer than here. In Germany, which had much the deepest and best Sixties, the "anti-authoritarian movement" involved a generation that had to deal with the fact that their parents had been Nazis.

Then there was Vietnam. The Sixties were a time of violence as well as joy, and Americans expressed both. Hundreds of thousands of their troops were occupying another country, thousands of Vietnamese were dying each month, and torture by the Americans was routine: this was the deadly backdrop to the arrival of drugs, which then fed its stream of victims into the maelstrom.

This atmosphere of violence fed into the students' responses - extremist terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and, in Britain, the Angry Brigade, mistook fantasy for strategy. Pauline Melville's Dionysian novel Eating Air, which draws directly on events of the period, the pitch-perfect archaeology of Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions and le Carré's Absolute Friends all catch the earnest and well-meaning initial impulse of the '68 movement - hippie, ultra-tolerant and impatient. And all three recall how the sectarians, the authorities and their agents were waiting in the wings.

Class conscious

Today it feels to me, as it did 40 years ago, that the protests connect to something larger. Perhaps they are now heralding the end of a long consumer boom, as opposed to its beginning.

I am not saying today's students are a repetition or mere followers. On the contrary, all that today's students need to learn from the Sixties is how not to become marginalised and defeated.

The differences between now and then may make this possible. We are a much more equal and open society. But the new generation faces debt and insecurity, and economic injustice in Britain has increased astronomically. After the crash of 2008 exposed bankers as robbers who skim off unearned capital, we discovered that we have to pay for their disaster. Belief in the fun­damental legitimacy of the system has been shaken, in a way that did not happen under Harold Wilson.

This means that, in contrast to the late Sixties, when student protest was ridiculed and pilloried, today it can make a credible claim to voice the anger and concerns of a wider public. And it is significant that the demonstrations have been joined by children protesting about the abolition of the Education Maintenance Assistance (EMA), which pays those from hard-up families to stay in school or further education.

Another important difference between then and now is that the student militancy of 1968 in Britain was largely confined to universities and art schools. There was a dramatic confrontation at Hornsey College of Art in north London in May 1968. But very few of what were then called "polytechnics" were involved. University students were mostly middle-class people on three-year courses on campuses away from home.

olytechnic students were mostly local and working-class. In 2010, the social composition of what were polytechnics and are now universities remains local and working-class, but many student occupations are taking place in them. Today "students" connotes a much broader, less privileged sector.

The web reinforces this cross-class generational relationship. Young people today communicate with and relate to each other in ways which mean that their lives, decisions and networks are much more spontaneous and flexible. Many who would otherwise not be involved will follow and, in a certain way, experience the new levels of activism. They may be stirred from passivity. Their capacity to learn what is really happening is much less mediated by the mainstream media, whose regular readership and viewing has collapsed among the under-25s.

The web reshapes, but is not a substitute for, power and organisation. Life remains, happily, a face-to-face affair. Nonetheless, the kind of society the new generation looks forward to will be unlike any that has gone before. It is easy to exaggerate this and then puncture the inflated projection. It's a generation gap, not a gulf as humanly painful as that experienced by their Sixties predecessors. Yet, in the short term, the new technology is sure to increase mobilisation sharply; and in the long term, the resources the internet provides may help this generation to succeed in its challenge to hierarchy with direct democracy, deliberation and openness - and to create a political culture that is not disabled by the routines of "representation" now largely expropriated by corporate influence.

The roles of race and gender are also different this time round. Back then, there weren't significant numbers of black and ethnic-minority students to make their participation an issue. But as I watched videos of the current protests, it struck me that there seem to be many more black pupils among the school protesters than among the university students.

The student occupations of the late Sixties preceded the feminist movement. The basic attitude to women was set by the Rolling Stones. Women were "chicks": attachments with closed mouths and short skirts. This was not seen as being imposed, however; individual women could insist on being treated as equals, and then they were. It was a culture of experimentation for everyone, of both sexes (and as with drugs, experiments can go badly wrong).

But the energy also fed into the feminist movement, which is the greatest political legacy of the Sixties. Today, after the heyday of that movement has passed, women's participation in the student movement, as in the economy and politics, is no longer in itself regarded as an "issue". However, the boys have yet to learn to desire equality as a mutual benefit. It is unspoken, but there is a casual "Of course you can be equal if you want to be" attitude, which somehow leaves open the possibility of benefiting from inequality, "if that's what they want". It is disappointing to me that this is still the culture among young men in the movement. Perhaps this time one of its effects will be to make feminism mainstream.

Tough choices all round

Besides feminism, the other great political legacy of the Sixties was the idea that protesting is a right. This belief clearly animates the student protests today. But the movement is still trying to establish what kinds of protest are acceptable: quiet, peaceful, non-violent demonstrations, or civil disobedience, or property damage? Violence against people seems to be wholly rejected, as shown by the spontaneous revulsion of the demonstrators against the protester who threw a fire extinguisher from the roof at Millbank tower - a welcome change.

The Sixties, too, started with the slogan "Love and peace". It wasn't serious and there seems a better understanding now of the need for no willed violence against people. Doubtless, provocateurs will try to undo this. But today's students are unlikely to go on to spawn bands of terrorists, not least because they have been preceded by a decade of fundamentalist terrorism. And everyone can see how that kind of "propaganda of the deed" simply feeds reaction and empowers the security state.

One of the reasons that the student movement in Britain in the Sixties, unlike those in France and Germany, was marginalised was the influence of the Labour Party, which was in office and played its role as pillar of the establishment. It was a smart move on Ed Miliband's part, therefore, to say that he had thought of going to talk to the students protesting outside parliament. He was never going to come out in support of the demonstrators, as his father, Ralph, did in 1968, but he must see that the country needs a politics built outside conventional party, parliamentary and careerist routines. Should he and his party colleagues fail to grasp this, one clear lesson from the Sixties is that, somehow or other, the Tories will.

In 1968, the occupations and protests in British universities were an attempt to catch up with Paris, Berlin and campuses across America; 2010 feels very different. Perhaps the principal contrast between this decade and the Sixties is the sense that, this time around, the students are ahead of the game.

In the general election campaign in May, the party that pitched most energetically for student votes against the two old party machines was the Liberal Democrats. The National Union of Students got the Lib Dem candidates to pledge in writing that they would, individually and jointly, oppose any extension of university tuition fees. The meaning of the gesture was clear: in any deals that might be forthcoming in the event of a hung parliament - which was the whole point of voting Lib Dem - they might compromise on other policies, but not on this.

In an editorial comment written after the Millbank riot, the Mail on Sunday declared:

Nowhere on earth can a young man or woman lead such a privileged life as that available in the colleges of our ancient universities. Surrounded by the glories of English architecture, tended by obsequious servants, feasted in shadowed, candlelit halls, taught face-to-face by the greatest minds of their generation, Oxbridge undergraduates are introduced at an early age to a way of life that most cannot begin to dream of.

Nobody in Britain has any justification for rioting. This is a free country with the rule of law and democratic government - rare possessions in a world of corrupt and authoritarian slums.

This neatly illustrates the difficulty for those who oppose the students. It is an absurdly idealised caricature of Oxbridge, where many may search for great minds but few are found. The 50,000 students who marched last month experience quite different educational conditions. The giveaway in the Mail's argument is the leap from its mouth-watering description of the good life enjoyed by a few to the claim that "nobody in Britain has any justification for rioting". What? Not even against the existence of such privilege?

Who's radical now?

Apparently not, because we have the rule of law and democratic government, unlike benighted lands elsewhere. But the failure of our democracy is symbolised by the Lib Dems' betrayal of their special pledge, while there seems to be no law for the bankers. Could it be that it is the Mail on Sunday which is still living in 1968?

Banners saying "F**k fees" play its game, however. They repel people, in a way that demands for higher education to be open to all who strive for it do not. So it is entirely possible that today's student protesters will be marginalised, like their predecessors in the Sixties.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose that this might not happen. First, the ghastly consequences of terrorism and indiscriminate violence against other human beings are widely understood. Second, thanks to the internet, the capacity of students to organise themselves, to network and to stay informed is by several magnitudes greater than it was four decades ago, creating the possibility of a politics that is open-minded, not fundamentalist. Third, the young are less repressed and healthier people. And fourth, what is on offer from the political system today seems exhausted, its institutions corrupted, its constitution a shambles and reinvention essential.

On the economy, should the coalition's approach succeed, who thinks it will deliver the "fairness" that the government insists is its lodestone? And if it fails? The Prime Minister boasts that he is leading a revolution and that he and his government are the radicals now. It is a claim he may come to regret.

Anthony Barnett was the first co-ordinator of Charter 88 and founder editor of openDemocracy. His most recent book, with Peter Carty, is "The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords" (Imprint Academic, £25). Thanks to Our Kingdom, UCL Occupation and Oxford Left Review