Something's happening here. From New York, to Chile, to the United Kingdom. Have you noticed?
In Chile "Commander Camila" and student (Camila Vallejo) is leading a populist uprising (aka Chilean winter) calling for better and more affordable education, and for the end of a two-tier system that supports a few wealthy, elite colleges amidst a sea of underfunded public ones. Older generations are joining the fight, railing against the results of the privatisation of education that occurred under dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Now up to New York, where since 17 September a mass of young people –again joined by older generations - have been "Occupying Wall Street" in a campaign that is described as a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colours, genders and political persuasions. They are no longer prepared to tolerate the greed and corruption of what they call "the 1%".
Zip across to the United Kingdom, look beyond the rioting in London and elsewhere, and see a young and impressive Mark Bergfeld, a member of the National Executive Council of the National Union of Students, mobilising people across the generations against all sorts of social injustices, including Britain's austerity measures.
These events support Ralph Nader's observation in 2004:
In the 1960s I was impressed by the sporadic, scattered efforts of students in the environment, anti-war and civil rights area. They've really contributed a lot more than history has given them credit for. Students have unique characteristics that other people don't have and would like to have. They have a high risk taking ability. They're willing to march, to demonstrate, to engage in civil disobedience for their conscience, for their convictions and for what they think is best for the future of the country. As a result they enlighten and illuminate broader horizons of public concern on the part of people older than they around the country. They are at the peak of their idealism. That's when they should take advantage of asking themselves questions like what kind of life do we want to lead?
Protests almost invariably require a single burning issue to unite people. The fundamental common thread in each of these overseas cases seems to be popular rejection of the neoliberal economic model, sold globally under the guise of individual liberty, privatisation, deregulation and the freedom of the markets, but for the majority resulting in tax burdens shifting from the rich to the general populace, a collaborationist media engineering a general distaste for all collective social efforts and - the pièce de résistance - young people and the working classes being disempowered by the prestidigitating invisible hand.
Although young leaders rising from the ranks may be out on a limb with their own experiences not squaring with their levels of optimism, their enthusiasm drives an enormous intellectual and spiritual freedom. With technological advances and the importation of culture (Che Guevara t-shirts are a case in point) it's only a matter of time before their words and actions generate change in other people, in other places. Hopefully, like in this country.
The late, great Studs Terkel said "....in all epochs, there were at first doubts and the fear of stepping forth and speaking out, but the attribute that spurred the warriors on was hope. And the act. Seldom was there despair or a sense of hopelessness. Some of those on the sidelines, the spectators, feeling helpless and impotent, had by the very nature of the passionate act of others become imbued with hope themselves..."
The young student leaders rising up are articulate, charismatic and well-informed, but perhaps more importantly, people find them desirable to follow. No wonder John Howard said in 2005, in the process of outlawing compulsory student unionism, "We don't believe anyone should be forced to contribute to organisations which among other things spend their money on blatantly political activities." Students historically were and still are powerful agents of new thinking and of political change.
Earlier this year the The Nation published 'The Top 14 Student Activism Stories of The Year' "to highlight the frequent but often overlooked instances of student and youth engagement with critical political, economic and cultural questions". In October last year Crikey very kindly published a list of MPs who were involved in student politics; the entry for Nick Xenophon is a personal favourite!
It's unfortunately probably accurate to say that there has been a decline in large scale student activism from the early 1980s onwards, whether because of a lack of consciousness of unifying issues, or perhaps because of cultural diversity among students, and perhaps contributed to by the abolition of compulsory student unions cutting out the financial wherewithal. But that doesn't make student activism dead, it's merely dormant.
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