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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

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

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How the United Nations should respond in the age of global dissent

Three former UN insiders on the future of the world's most ambitious organisation. 

US President Donald Trump is ardently embracing a toxic form of messianic nationalism, while demeaning those who oppose him as corrupt, and dishonest enemies. His "America First" chant is creating severe international tension, promoting extremism - within and outside the US - and undermining the homeland security that he has so insistently pledged to enhance.

Trump seems determined to implement policies and practices that could signal the weakening of democracy, and possibly even herald the onset of fascism. His programme to deport undocumented immigrants and to exclude all visitors from six designated Muslim majority countries is illustrative of a regressive and Islamophobic outlook.

The groundswell of popular dissent is vibrant and worldwide, from Romania to South Korea, Gambia to Brazil, from the UK to the Ukraine. Trump is dangerously exploiting the frustration of citizens with the political establishment, which is unprecedented in its depth and breadth. The umbilical cord that connects those governing with those governed is becoming dangerously stressed. The digital revolution is endowing governments with horrifying capabilities for oppression and control but it is also enhancing the ability of the citizenry to mount resistance and mobilize opposition forces.

UN charter law and power politics

As UN veterans, we recall and affirm the preamble to the UN Charter that reads “we the peoples” - not we the governments! The trust of people in their governments to work for social and economic progress and to prevent war has dramatically weakened, if not disappeared.

The prediction made by the Mexican delegate at the founding of the UN in 1945 that “we have created an institution which controls the mice but the tigers will roam around freely” seems truer today than at the moment of its utterance. The UN Security Council’s permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – indeed "roam around freely" lacking respect for international law or the authority of the UN, once more pursuing their respective nationalist agendas without any pretence of accountability. These countries are also the major consumers and exporters of military hardware, facilitating both militarism and "merchants of death".

The international war supposedly being waged against political extremism and terrorism has predictably deteriorated into a series of horrific wildfires and slaughter. Wars that should never have happened, neither the overt ones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria nor the partially covert ones in Yemen, Somalia, and a range of other countries in Africa and Asia have brought peace or stability, but a series of unspeakable ordeals of human suffering. Old struggles have been magnified while new ones have been created.

The US tiger, aged as it is, displays the most serious signs of political amnesia. Unilateralism and exceptionalism have just been reaffirmed as cornerstones of the current US worldview. The announced $54bn increase of the US defence budget is justified by Trump with the argument that "we must win wars again".

In contrast, the great majority of the other 192 UN member states have given notice that they clearly prefer a multilateral model premised on the equality of states and international co-operation. President Xi of China at the last Davos meeting of the global neoliberal elite gave voice to this more benign vision of world order.

The so-called "West" - the US, Canada, the EU including the UK -  is made up of 800m people, or a mere 12 per cent of the global population. These Westerners need to come to terms with growing de-Westernisation, a natural outgrowth of globalisation in all sectors of life.

Wise global leaders would respond by seeking an immediate realignment of international relations with a commitment to the promotion of principles of convergence, cooperation, and compromise. The objective would be a new world order based on mutual benefit, sustainability, prudence as well as a demilitarizing ethos.

The UN Security Council is the most important venue for making such an undertaking happen. It is here that bilateral and multilateral diplomacy takes place in a global setting. The primary goal remains to prevent the emergence of a world in which drones replace diplomats and inequality continues to undermine wellbeing.

The UN and civil society

The peoples of the world are confronted by a series of challenging global developments. Tectonic political changes are taking place in the US, Europe, and Asia, along with unresolved crises in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, and the formidable speed and effects of easternisation. Prospects for a politically effective UN, and most especially a robust UN Security Council, seem bleak - but hardly impossible. Globalisation potentially supports innovative expressions of multilateralism that are more oriented than in the past towards the global and human interest. The 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change is illustrative of such a hopeful turn.

The UN and Trumpism

It is our hope that Trumpism will not succeed in relegating the United Nations to a fringe role. The Mexicans refuse to pay for the wall that the US President insists on building, the UN will bear the costs of the invisible wall Trump and a subservient Republican Congress seems determined to construct between the US and the UN. If Washington goes ahead with its threats to reduce drastically UN funding and end cooperation with and participation in various UN organs, it should certainly be viewed as a significant setback for both the UN and its current US adversary. While we are confident that the UN as an institution would survive these financial and political setbacks, we are not so sure that Trumpism will long endure.

"Alternative facts" are set forth to demonstrate that the US is making sacrificial and disproportionate contributions to keep the UN alive. Real facts show a different picture: In 2016 the US Federal budget amounted to $3.2trn. The US assessed share of the UN budget of $2.7bn was $594m or 0.0019 per cent of the US federal budget!

At no time have US/UN relations been smooth. During the more than 70 years that they have travelled the same road, there have been many potholes along the way. The US often has been heavy-handed in a manner by which it exerted its influence on the UN’s agenda. It has often used its political leverage to weaken the organisation’s independence. Over the years it has manipulated the selection processes used to fill UN leadership positions. Washington has frequently flexed its muscles by delaying the annual payment of mandatory contributions to the UN budget. The US government has set some terrible examples by repeatedly violating the most fundamental provisions of the UN Charter governing the use of force. It has continuously defied international law in all parts of the world, including wars in Vietnam (1963), former Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011). It has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to shield its allies from justifiable UN censure, while doing its best to punish its enemies with the threat of force.

West-centrism, alliances and UN multilateralism

Polarisation, alliance formation and West-centrism were central to the transformation of NATO from a Cold War arrangement intended to defend Europe from a Soviet attack to an American led global domination project with Europe as the junior partner. In this wider geographic setting the expanding eastern Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) can be understood as a geopolitical countermove led by China, which also has its own disturbing implications. In the face of these geopolitical initiatives, it becomes clear that the United Nations is being pushed to the outer margins of world politics in precisely those areas of peacekeeping and global security that were regarded as its primary mission when established in 1945.

The new US administration seems likely to fulfill another of President Trump’s ill-considered campaign promises to make a series of moves to weaken multilateral problem-solving even beyond damaging the UN. These dangerous and irresponsible manoeuvres may fail, as many governments around the world fully understand that multilateral diplomacy has become indispensable, and indeed needs to be strengthened to meet the global challenges facing humanity. It is our fervent hope that these governments will mobilise sufficient energy to rescue the UN in this hour of need. Dutch and Belgian authorities give us some slender hope that this might happen. The Netherlands goverment has already agreed to replenish funds if withdrawn by the US from certain international population programmes. Yet this is only a small and suggestive gesture of what must become a groundswell of support for the UN that will be needed to overcome the damage expected to be inflicted by this anti-UN activism of the US.

The politics of populism

What now appears to be a wave of resurgent nationalism around the world contains the potential to become a new internationalism. We have served in many parts of the world under UN auspices and therefore are keenly aware of the widespread anger and sharp demands for justice present among the peoples spread around the entire planet. These discontented multitudes share many of the same goals: peace, equity, an end to corruption, freedom from fear and want, the rule of law, accountability, and above all, a life of individual and collective dignity. In February 2017, during a meeting of the EU heads of government held in Malta, profound anxieties associated with political changes taking place in Washington were addressed. European leaders strongly reaffirmed their joint commitment to common principles and values as the continuing basis for interacting with the United States and the world, and in this way respond to the challenges being mounted by this ultra-nationalist thinking.

We believe that recent developments in Europe, the Middle East, and especially in the United States are reaching a boiling point. Many citizens are outraged and ready to challenge intolerable aspects of the global status quo. More than ever, Immanuel Kant’s wisdom is relevant and needed, especially his admonition to have the courage to use our brain for the construction of a benevolent public reality. In a similar spirit, we are encouraged by Hannah Arendt’s unforgettable reminder that “thinking gives people that rare ability to act when the chips are down!” And act we must.

The urgency of UN reforms and the incoming UN Secretary-General

For the political organs of the United Nations (the Security Council and the General Assembly) to play an influential role in conflict resolution in the 21st century, governments will have to act with resolve to overcome some formidable challenges. Such a resolve must include the renewed political determination by member governments to look afresh at some major UN reform proposals that are now collecting dust on the shelves of the UN Dag Hammarskjold Library in New York.

Let us also not forget that the UN is the most inclusive global institutional body that has ever existed. It is the only place on earth where there are, and can be, no foreigners. The UN therefore is the obvious venue at which to reflect upon how the increasing number of people throughout the world who have become forgotten could be given new and alternative perspectives.

The recently elected UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, if he acts to fulfil his role as the guardian of charter norms and values, including respect for international law, will face a daunting challenge. He will have to be prepared to remind the US administration and other political leaders of major UN members that peace can only be achieved when unilateralism gives way to genuine multilateralism, when monologues are replaced by dialogues, when convergence, cooperation, and compromise prevail, when civil society is respected and allowed to participate within the organisation, when root causes, not just symptoms, are recognised and understood and most importantly, when governmental decision makers, whether from large or small Member states, show respect for international law and are held accountable for their acts.

The peoples of the world need the United Nations more than at any time since 1945, the year the organisation was established “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". Only a strengthened, respected, and sufficiently funded UN can provide mechanisms for upholding global and human interest. It must not allow itself to serve any longer mainly as a vehicle for the aggregation of national interests, or worse, as an instrument of power to be deployed by the geopolitical giants, and especially by the United States.

The multiple challenges associated with climate change, nuclear weapons, sustaining biodiversity, and lessening global inequality put the future of civilization at great risk, and even endanger the survival of the human species. At such a time, we can only hope that enough political leaders are alert to this menacing situation, are emboldened by their citizens, and act with resolve and courage to create an alternative future for humanity that is responsive to the claims of peace, justice, sustainability, and community.

More than ever before in human history the peoples of the world are being severely challenged by problems of global danger that can only be solved globally. The best hope of humanity to meet these challenges is to abandon unilateralism and isolationism and instead empower the United Nations to become at last an effective mechanism for the protection of “fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

Hans-C. von Sponeck served in the UN from 1968 to 2000, from 1998 to 2000 as the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq and UN Assistant Secretary-General. Richard Falk is Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University and served as UN Special Rapporteur between 2008 and 2014. Denis Halliday served in the UN from 1964 to 1998, from 1994 to 1998 he held the position of UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.