Friday, January 14, 2005

The challenges facing the student movement (part one)

Note: This is a discussion document originally written during the 2004 mid-year Education Conference in Sydney. Its aim was to promote discussion within ALS. I have now decided to post it here. The second part, "Conclusion" will be posted sometime over the weekend. I think a lot of what I say here is applicable to general activism/ists and the left in Australia. I have made minor revisions and updates.

The student movement is suffering from an inability to adapt to the dominance of the neo-conservative forces in Australia. What does this mean? Student activists are in danger of being entirely left behind in the national education debate.

We need to recognise that Australia is substantially different now and many of the old arguments, which previously had credence and legitimacy have now fallen on the wayside after a decade of assault from neo-conservatism.

Recognising a changed debate
The student movement must realise that the terms of debate that define student activism have changed dramatically since the eighties and early nineties. Since then, there has been a dramatic and systematic de-legitimisation of activist and socialist principles. Reactionary conservative and neo-Liberal forces have successfully challenged leftist assumptions and values. This is something that has happened since the eighties and nineties, as a reaction to the militancy of the seventies, of a broad and organised student movement. Unfortunately, I argue that the student movement has not responded to this changed circumstance.

There are several features of neo-conservatism “authoritarian populism” which characterise the Howard Government and conservatism around the world.

1. reactionism couched in liberalism/moralism
2. extreme individualism
3. decline of moderate forces
4. rigid and effective organisation
5. persistent assaults on socialist/left values and groups

1. Reactionism and Liberalism/moralism
This trait of neo-conservatism means that it characterises itself and its policies in friendly, pro-humanist and moralist terms, while dismantling pro-community institutions and values. We can see this in the rhetoric of the Howard Government, with its “Backing Australia’s Future”, “Medicare-Plus”, and “Australia Says Yes to Refugees”, and Bush’s “No Child Left Behind”. Neo-conservatives use “soft” language to justify its policies. Underneath this veneer of liberalism are dangerous, reactionary policies which are intended to undermine social cohesion and dismantle any progressive institutions that remain, such as Medicare and open higher education.

Student activists need to realise that the neo-conservatives have managed to make their views “normative”, which has partly been aided by successful left lobbying on ethical and social issues. The Howard Government uses liberal-sound rhetoric and appeals to so-called “community values” and moralism to justify its actions.

In this context, we must recognise that we can no longer credibly label neo-conservative forces as such within the wider community. Terms such as “fascist” and similar appellations no longer resonate in the minds of students or the general community. Likewise, charges of conservatism and the like, as pejoratives, are no longer effective.

Our language and articulation needs to change to this circumstance. At the moment we are alienating ourselves from the student body by refusing to engage with the terms of debate. Our language is archaic and largely seen as relics of the true liberalism and progressive movements of the seventies. Furthermore, marxist/socialist language no longer strikes a chord. This doesn’t invalidate marxist or socialist theories or ideas, but they are no longer useful in communication with the general public, or in coherently explaining our positions.

1. Reactionary dismantling of progressive institutions and values (e.g. Medicare, abolition of ATSIC, tiered structure of education).
2. Using liberal, progressive language to justify reactionary policies.
3. Failure of traditional left-criticism and language to explain this new circumstance.

2. Extreme individualism
In today’s society, the normative notion of the sovereignty of the individual has replaced community or society values. Television and mass-media creates the cult of the individual, with the old game-shows of the eighties and nineties (family or team games) being replaced by shows where only individuals can win. This movement is strongest in the USA, and is only just emerging in Europe; in Asia and elsewhere, it is not present to any credible extent. Australia is rapidly embracing the idea of extreme individualism.

We should recognise of course that individualism is a result of corporatism and capitalism, and that it is a result of so-called “Free Market” values. In particular, it is a characteristic of the “divide and conquer” tactics used by big business to maintain its hegemony. By emphasising the individual, neo-conservatism alienates people from those with whom they have most in common: other students, workers, etc.

This alienation is both a product and a cause of rampant consumerism, and also on-campus apathy (one of the primary crises facing student activism). However, the dominance of neo-conservative rhetoric means that we cannot explain individualism in the above terms.

Extreme individualism has replaced the sense of community and common culture which is required for a vibrant student campus culture and for community activism. Extreme individualism, as the norm, attacks any sense of solidarity by its nature. It creates paranoia towards groups, and fear of losing “identity”, with the way of expression being consumption.

The left needs to find a way to explain the problems of this extreme individualism and develop ways to combat it, without resorting to staid, antique leftist language. We also need to find a way to re-legitimise community values without directly attacking this extreme individualism. The cult of the individual has gained supremacy. As above, we need to recognise a changed debate; attacking this individualism would be seen as an attack of individuals. If community/social values return, then it will necessarily allow for the replacement of individualism.

It is important that I state that individualism is not, in itself, dangerous or reactionary, but rather, the extreme form propagated by big business is, indeed, very destructive. People are social creatures and to live wholly, we must exist, live and belong within a community which values us as both unique persons, and also as valued members of the community. Within communities and groups, individuals are granted their true expression.

1. Individualism is created by emphasising the self in opposition and distinction too other individuals rather than identifying with other individuals.
2. The cult of the individual is a result of neo-conservative tactics to ensure that societies lose cohesion. This is aimed at creating a consumer culture and ensuring continued hegemony (divide and conquer).
3. The left needs to restore legitimacy to the group without attacking the idea of individualism (which is an exercise in futility); this could be done by emphasising common causes and interests.

3. Decline of moderate forces
This refers specifically to the decline of “small l” liberals as an effective counterweight to the “dries” within the Howard Government (and elsewhere). The result of this is that the Liberal Party has unrestrained extreme neo-conservatism, epitomised by the Howard front-bench. In the past, extreme neo-conservatives were held partly in check in Australia by “wets”, who recognised the validity of community, of social values. Menzies and Fraser were both forces of this moderate right wing (despite how much they were hated by the left in their day). These moderate forces have largely been purged in the Liberal Party, and while there are still “wets” on the front bench, it is abundantly clear that in all their actions, they are entirely “dry”.

This situation is one that we need to try to exploit, as it is one of the few areas that we can drive a wedge into the Liberals. As I will discuss below, the right-wing forces are well-organised, while the left is largely disorganised and fragmented.

The left has an advantage as it is still (correctly) seen as moral and progressive. We need to use this high ground to directly confront the concrete instances of immoral/amoral actions of the right (as opposed to a general critique). We must point out instances of specific lies or betrayals of the right in order to put pressure on “wet” right wing forces to cease their tacit support of the neo-conservatives.

Furthermore, we should encourage moderate forces to confront extremist right wingers within their own groupings, as well as try to make the hypocrisy of the right as public as possible (c.f. the Democrats “Keep the Bastards Honest” motto).

1. Howard has successfully purged the Liberals of “small l” liberals, leaving only neo-conservatives or “dries”.
2. We can use the reliance of the Liberals/neo-conservatives on moralistic/ethical justifications to “name and shame” moderate groups within the Liberals and right wing organisations.
3. The lies, betrayals and deceptions of the Liberal Party and neo-conservatives must be communicated to the wider community in an impartial, objective manner, emphasising their immorality.

4. Rigid and effective organisation
In the past, the left could rely on a disunified or fractured right wing, in particular a balance of power between “wets” and “dries”. Furthermore, in the past, the left was coherent, organised and disciplined (or at least moreso than now). The right has more than recovered its regimented and organised character. Even in the eighties, there were competing, inter-class conflicts within the ruling conservatives that allowed left groups and student activists to effectively campaign.

Today there is tremendous coordination between wider, national neo-conservative groups and local administrators; the Liberal Party communicates with peak corporate associations who synchronise the activities of their members. The recent emergence of Family First is also an example of cohering right-wing elements.

This is most pertinent to students with the links between the Howard Government and the governing bodies of Australia’s universities, the Vice Chancellors. The manner in which Australia’s Vice Chancellors have been complicit with the Howard Government’s policies demonstrates the frightening level of coordination between neo-conservatives in our education system, which goes beyond mere coinciding class interests. There is a deliberate program of coordination at every governmental level between right wing forces to perpetuate their hegemony.

This cohesion is the most difficult aspect of neo-conservatism to oppose or neutralise. Student activists are disempowered and disorganised and face one of the most steadfast, vicious and coordinated attacks in a generation. Our only option is to re-empower ourselves through organisation.

1. The right has organised itself across governing and structural bodies and has effective lines of communication between many sympathetic neo-conservative bodies.
2. This is demonstrated by the coordinated assault on student activism and equitable education in Australia by the Howard Government and the Vice Chancellors.
3. Since we cannot dismantle their organisation, we must counter it by effectively organising ourselves. Specifically, this deals with building relationships and networks with other left activist groups and community groups, such as environmentalists, anti-war groups, animal rights, human rights, and even middle class parent lobby groups. Movements are built through alliances of many disparate groups who come together with a common goal.

5. Persistent assaults on socialist/left values and groups
By this stage, it should be obvious that one of the chief accomplishments of neo-conservatives forces has been their successful de-legitimisation of left and progressive ideas. They have done this by appropriating the language of the left and using it to obfuscate their own reactionary agenda.

Demonisation of and unrestrained ideological assaults against opponents is a defining characteristic of “authoritarian populism”. It is important to understand because it has been so successful in undermining left and progressive groups.

In particular, the left has been characterised as irresponsible, extremist, radical, idealistic, utopian, etc. The reality is, of course, the reverse.

Left groups and student activists must counter this again by presenting well considered, objective accounts of its own successes and of course (as above) the failure of neo-conservative governments and groups.

The sacred cows of the labour movement and the Labor Party, such as the socialist objective, Keynesian economics, common weal over private profit, public ownership of institutions and amenities, amongst other things, have been almost completely discredited. Profit-motive is replacing notions of sharing, community, and humanity.

We must not take for granted a common acceptance in the community or amongst students that these things will be seen as good, achievable or desirable. This does not mean we should cease to work towards them, but rather that we must work to restore them to the public consciousness while altering our language to fit the new circumstances of neo-conservative ideological dominance.

We should also recognise the acquiessence of Howard in the recent Federal Election to the demand for social services and welfare. Howard was required to pledge millions to progammes that in the past would have been labelled as hopelessly “big government”. Of course, he succeded in his bait-n-switch tactics, since the progammes will never be implements in a way that will provide real benefit to those that need it. This necessity by Howard indicates that there is still an undercurrent in Australian's “common-sense” which demands community-based government.

Moralist objections against attacking the right are fruitless and self-destructive. We need to ruthlessly point out the failings and dishonesty of neo-conservatism and do our utmost to behave in an honest, ethical and transparent manner.

In the past a failure by the left to systematically attack neo-conservatism (particularly on campus), in the interest of “not being as bad as them” or holding onto a false sense of “moral cleanliness”, has resulted in nothing more than a deterioration of the left’s credibility in the face of an utterly amoral assault by the right.

1. Demonisation of rival groups is a key characteristic of neo-conservative tactics (e.g. attacks by Howard against gays, Aborigines, refugees, Muslims, people on welfare, etc.).
2. Neo-conservatism chief success has been the de-legitimising of the left.
3. They have painted the left as radical, financially irresponsible, infantile, utopian, etc.
4. We need to discard fabricated and conservative notions of morality which prevents us from “returning fire” (e.g. Michael Moore’s media-legal contingency in the wake of Fahrenheit 911 and being “armed with the truth”).


  • At January 14, 2005 10:27 pm, Blogger Cameron T. Chen said…

    Thanks for posting this comprehensive treatise. Interesting to see that there seems to be a move towards conservatism around the world, for example in most of continental Europe.

    We need to throw away the self-defeatist notion of apparently "poor fiscal management" that the Tories consistently pour on us with manipulated contrivances. It's no good watering down our agenda under the guise of resonating with the electorate. If people can only choose between Howard and Howard Lite, they'll probably choose the former. We have to control our internal wrangling, start concentrating on REAL Labor issues (like Lambros) and differentiate ourselves as a legitimate, compassionate alternative unashamedly exposing the lies, deceit and serpentine nature of the present regime.

    I need to read more philosophy and Marx and Mao. Lack of expertise and background is hampering my ability to contribute. Look forward to reading your conclusion.

  • At January 15, 2005 2:54 pm, Blogger Alex said…

    I'd skip the Mao.

  • At January 15, 2005 4:42 pm, Blogger Cameron T. Chen said…

    My mother talks of free interstate trips to see Mao relics and the Great Leader's birthplace in 1966, including lazing by the beach and sleeping on luggage racks on crowded trains. My daddy actually walked from Shanghai to Beijing just about, and got to see Mao's wife.

    What an adventure! They also got forced to do menial labour in the country for five or six years, but that's a different story.

  • At January 15, 2005 6:31 pm, Blogger JP said…

    It might also help if they provided quality services, rather than rip offs like their Dental Service.


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