The challenges facing student radicals

Joel Cosgrove, former VUWSA president and Workers Party member, will be presenting on The University as Factory for Socialism 2012.

While Auckland University Students’ Association has been voluntary since 1999, this is the first year for most other universities under this new context. The experience of money-grabbing which occurred at Auckland is being repeated around the country, as institutions use the law change to rack up peripheral fees, with relative impunity.

In an effort to bypass the 5% fee maxima cap on tuition fees, student levies on peripheral services i.e. student health, gym, student services etc have been raised (often doubled) over the past few years. At Victoria University the Student Services Levies for a full-time student (including the VUWSA levy) has risen from $407.50 in 2009 to $650 in 2012 (excluding the VUWSA levy, the SSL was $275.60 in 2009). Speaking bluntly at a student forum in 2009 then Chancellor Tim Beaglehole said “There is no other income that we have control of.” When the University was questioned under the official information act on the amount of effort spent lobbying the government about the ever increasing level of fees (something that raises much hang-wringing each year at council, while they simultaneously raise said fees) between 2005-2007, their efforts had consisted of three letters to the Minister of Tertiary Education. It is unlikely that the situation has changed.

Yet while the money side of the discussion of VSM is important, it is the politics of VSM which are primary in the discussion. Politically the situation has changed very little in the transition, because to a large extent that political sovereignty has been ceded willingly. The only change is a technical one in that now that voluntary relinquishment of autonomy has now been legally recognized. The students’ association can now not back out, where hypothetically it could when it was willingly ceding its independence.

The mentality therefore is unchanged. At VUW, the Student Union (a confusing name which covers the university’s recreational and non-academic service provision) is angling to take over clubs funding, and has just released an “independent” review which confirms it. This is a side issue within a minor department of the university and one of resource control and small castle building. Whether the Students’ Association controls club funding or not the university calls the shots.

In 2008, the Auckland Students Association (AUSA) President placed a $5000 bounty for the citizen’s arrest of Condoleezza Rice. They were threatened with the withdrawal of some of their university grant in tandem with a backlash from their Young Labour dominated executive, fearful of controversy. Biting the hand that feeds is always a difficult proposition.

So what does that mean for the Students’ Association? At Polytech’s they are generally more exposed, have less of a tradition and a higher turnover rate, compounded with a lack of built up assets. There is generally a greater expectation of the existence of at students’ association at a University.

As described in an earlier article Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) – A socialist perspective[1] I outlined the material conditions that lead the modern Student Association to break with democratic oversight and engagement. It benefits them to not engage with their student membership. By negating democratic structures and processes or treating with lip-service the life of a Student Association office holder is easier, less troubled and more predictable. It is in their interest to do this, it is not purely about good or bad, corrupt and uncorrupted, the social structure of the Student Association is predisposed to this outcome. This is something to keep in mind when students look at engaging within these pre-existing structures. Another factor to keep in mind is that now the Students Association receives no money from students directly. While in the past, much like the compulsory unions of a pre-neoliberal time, the Students’ Association bypassed the student and collected its levies from the University. The money relationship was between Students’ Association and University, the student played little or no role. The situation has changed, but the context is unchanged. The student still plays little real role in the democratic operation of the Student Association, little more than in the University. The Students’ Association is now not spending “our” money, the money it spends is either gained from university operational contracts or from the dividends gained from the operation of businesses paid for from the capital gained from past students. The relation beyond anything token is indirect at best.

We need to ask ourselves then what we as radicals want and how to achieve it. Eduard Bernstein in his battle within the German Social Democratic Party in the 1880’s argued for reform against revolution famously stating that “the socialist movement is everything to me while what people commonly call the goal of Socialism is nothing.” We need to keep our strategic goals as primary and the day-to-day or year-to-year tactics of how to get there as secondary. You cannot have one without the other, but one is principled and is able to be referential, evaluated and pragmatic, the other leads ultimately to a rapprochement with the status quo.

We need to step back and decide on our strategic goals and then discuss how to get there. Wipe the slate clean so to speak. The problem here is that the pre-existing structures are hard to ignore at this stage, but we cannot take that for granted. If we start from the future and trace back we have a much different view than starting with the present (what we have) and the future (what we want), it is too easy to see the pre-existing structures and feel the need to use them if we cannot see past them and place them within a wider strategy. This wider perspective is what must guide us in our discussion of whether to become involved in the Students’ Association.

That is not to say that we pretend they do not exist, or that we never become involved in them. At time our goals/objectives intersect, but for a number of reasons our trajectories are different. We need to look at our time, what is available and what is required of us in anything we do.

We need to break with seeing things in isolation or as individual, alienated things. We need to look at the structures that exist around us, the material conditions they exist in and the social forces that push them in particular directions. It is not about good or bad, or whether we are better than anyone else in terms of running them, but what this means in a structural sense. This involves analyzing the place of the Students’ Association in the University and what that means, how it changes and yet how it stays the same.

We need to break with the status quo as being the given for how things exist. Things were different in the past and they will change in the future. Things do not stand still, they are always in motion. We need to see that motion, even though sometimes it is very slow.

The effects of capitalist hegemony in its current ideological incarnation of neoliberalism are important to know and study. We act as a counter-hegemonic force with this, an alternative to the way things run. There is a circular logic to this, things operate the way they do because they do. In posing an alternative to this we are in the minority, it is pretty obvious to see around us currently.

Some discussions within the New Zealand We Are The University movement are an example of this. Do we really claim to represent everyone, if so shouldn’t we put forward a wide variety of views, invite Labour Party people to speak, even if we do not personally agree with them, in order to reach the broadest layer of people to fit under our broad-front umbrella. Clearly I disagree with this point. I see the university radicals as being a political pole within the university as a political sphere. By opposing the status quo we polarize and we should not be afraid of that. We are in the minority, so the majority either disagree with us or are passive, we should not be afraid of that.

We need to analyse who are the advanced (in agreement with our politics), intermediate (open to our politics) the mass (passive/unaware in regards to our politics) and the reactionary (those opposed to our politics). We need to hold a critical reflection back to the university sphere; we cannot just reflect it back at itself. We are trying to break with the status quo, not reinforce it. Cognition has a role in creating the material world, not just crudely reflecting it back.

When two opposing political lines face each other, force decides. Force both physically and abstractly. Force in words, force in actions, force in ideas and force in numbers and resources, as the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said “War is the continuation of Politik by other means.” So it is important to think beyond the confines of the dialogue framed by those who are opposed to what we are attempting to do, we need to fight on our ground not theirs and when we fight on theirs we need to be smart, agile and prepared. Force is the whole gamut of spheres in which ideas clash. In challenging capitalist relations, neoliberalism et al we are engaging with force.

However we need to place ourselves within a wider social structure, a social structure that has been heavily defeated and passivised mentally and physically. We are part of the process of challenging this context, but we are not the process. We cannot pretend to be the mass of students/society, we are only an active vanguard, aware ahead of most others of the political need for fundamental change in the way things run. We need to run ahead of the mass of students/society, but we cannot run too far ahead and become disconnected from them. We need to stay engaged with each other, we cannot lose sight of each other. Even if it is only we who are aware of this. We need to be like fish in the sea, part of a wider space, a big pond so to speak, once we become isolated from that wider mass, like the fish, we find life very difficult, if not impossible.

We need to grapple with the reality of the Students’ Association as being a hindrance to the actual practice of democracy. It is against the interests of the students association to support democratic activity. If they come with us, it against their material interests. The conditions of that need to change. We need to make that environmental/structural change before we attempt to participate in that political change. One follows the other, not the other way around. Or at least there is a progression that makes our work easier and one that makes it harder. We need to change the environment that the Students’ Association is place within, before the Students’ Association itself is changed. If we try to change the Students’ Association before we change the environment, we are battling against the tide, we are forced into a fixed position, without the experience or resources to engage in that context, when our strength currently rests on our outsider status, our ability to move quickly and with tactical flexibility. The Students’ Association is politically a fixed space, it cannot move with us, which constrains our ability to react quickly and to re-orientate as we need to. The Students’ Association holds us in place, when at this point in time it doesn’t suit us to stay still, we need to keep moving.

Our political tasks need to involve developing our ideas, which are our strongest weapon, we need to reclaim democracy, even if we lose from time to time, we are still engaging on neutral ground at least. We operate much easier in that environment than the University and the Students’ Association. We need our own voice; we cannot expect anyone to gain clear understanding of our perspectives if they are communicated by those who are opposed to them.

We need to engage on at least two levels, namely with propaganda and agitation. Propaganda conveys many ideas to a single person or to a few people, whereas agitation conveys only one or a few ideas to a whole mass of people. There are many levels of political consciousness within this construct and we need to know them. Engaging with society at large we meet all sorts of situations and contexts, we need to able to grapple with both high and low levels of consciousness at once. They exist side-by-side, we cannot privilege one of the other, for that involves ignoring one and prioritising another. This might work in theory, for a moment in time, in practice the world is a much less ordered and neat place than our initial abstracted ideas and theories might have us believe. Reality needs to lead abstraction not the other way around. We need to understand the political tasks involved in simultaneously engaging with the advanced, intermediate, mass and reactionary layers within the university. They are all present and fluid in their composition. They are intermeshed in their existence, related to each in practice, we cannot pull one section out and deal with it independently we need to grapple with the part within the whole and the whole within the part. Yet we need to be aware which is which, for having an unclear perspective only muddies the water and confuses our strategy/tactics.

Fundamentally challenging the status quo is no easy task. There are many examples of successes and successful failures that we can learn from. The anti-vietnam war and anti-apartheid movements, the radical upsurge of the 60’s, the struggles of oppressed peoples throughout the world and throughout history. The example of the 1917 revolution in Russia. We need to place ourselves within the past, present and future.

[1] Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) A Socialist Perspective

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