Archive | November, 2010

>It was twenty two years ago today…

>That student demonstration in London against the Tory government that turned violent?

I was there. Quite close to where it all kicked off, in fact, although by accident and I missed the more dramatic bits that got on the telly.

But don’t worry,  I wasn’t bloke with the fire extinguisher. And actually,  I didn’t leven leave the house today. And did nothing more violent that scrawl some red lines on a draft of someone’s PhD.  You see it, was all more than 20 years ago…

On 24 November 1988 along with with several coach loads of Leeds University students went down to London for the biggest student protest of the decade. It was  a nationwide National Union of Students demonstration to protest against (shock horror) the abolition of student maintenance grants and their replacement with loans.  We were genuinely outraged and waves of mobilization – added to the prospect of a good day out with out mates- even reached the rather apolitical, but very friendly Russian Department. As I recall coach tickets were about £3 or £4. It was quite a warm day, as I remember, and we all got quick a kick out of marching through the streets and chanting – sense of empowerment or identify incentives, I guess I would call it today – and there was a real buzz to being in large, like-minded crowd of people just like us.
Then for some reason we ended up in a milling crowd in a dead end somewhere near the Houses of Parliament. We were by Westminster Bridge and we couldn’t go anywhere. We all got quite bored and fed up and the crowd probably thinned out slightly, giving it a slightly more militant and political composition. There were certainly an impressive variety of far-left and Trotskyist newspaper sellers, which – being interested in theories of state capitalism and the like in those days – I could probably have ticked off trainspotter style. I’m not quite sure what happened next. The mood was, I suppose, probably getting uglier. I remember a police inspector walking ineffectually through the milling crowd with a megaphone telling us to disperse and everyone conspicouously ignoring him, although I don’t think we had any very militant intentions. We just didn’t want to day to be over. In the end my friend, now I believe a successful lawyer in California although we lost touch year ago, suggested that call it a day and find a pub.
This was a pretty convincing argument even during the days of High Thatcherism. We didn’t find a pub and, with anti-Zellig like precision, we missed the “Battle of Westminster” A few minutes later mounted police  spectacularly charged through the milling crowd at the end of the bridge and brought the impasse to an end. The university’s more militant student revolutinaries, I was told, had cunningly taken the tube over the river, but been arrested. Back on the coach, we booed as the radio news reported that students had rained missiles down on police and cheered when we learned that the Queen Mother had been stuck in the traffic chaos we had caused.
‘Major conflict’: The young Dr Sean woz ‘ere (almost)

Back on our early morning Russian grammar class the next day – present participles, I think it was ( I was rather good at them) – we wondered what had happened. Clearly, we hadn’t been manipulated by sinister Trotskyists, although we couldn’t vouch that they hadn’t led the march somewhere it shouldn’t have gone by packing the front ranks. Perhaps we wouldn’t have cared if we had known. At least, we thought  they saved from being stuck in some park listening to some dull as ditchwater speech the then National Union of Students President, Maeve Sherlock (now Baroness Sherlock).

Like a lot (but not all) protest in the 1980s, it all came to nothing – and I suspect deep down  we inwardly knew that at the time –  and the system of student loans duly  came in in my final year. On graduation, having been pretty frugal, I owed the state-back Student Loans Company the princely sum of £300.

This is, of course, all history. The Battle of Westminster – or perhaps we should say, Brief But Somewhat Violent Police Charge of Westminster is now the subject of a much cited academic article about social identity and crowd psychology: it is  quite right that it was cock-up rather conspiracy han and that , yes, as Social Identity Analysis suggested we were slightly been radical and less law-abding after the event than before, but we didn’t all rush to join the Socialist Workers Party.

It was, of course, a different age then. No internet, no mobiles, no Twitter, no Facebook.  Approximately, half the student numbers of today (although the queues for the banks of photcopiers in hte Library were horrendous( None of us would have understood the ‘tuition fees’. And I would have no more believed that communism would collapse than that men from Mars would land outside Leeds Town Hall.

And in hindsight, it all seems rather than cosy and innocent, although after Mrs Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987, the papers were full of predictions that a Maoist-style free market Cultural Revolution was about the be unleashed. Perhaps it was and I never noticed.

So having a break for coffee I watch Guardian online footage of the London Day of Action with marchers trooping past UCL. How does it all compare? The atmosphere, placards and slogans seem curiously the same – has no one thought of a catchier slogan than “They Say Cutback, We Say Fightback” in two decades –  and the numbers (around 50,000) are similar too, although the current protest seem slightly bigger and to have a momentum missing im 1988. The Twitter feed of the demo – not something available in 1988 (my reporter friend from Leeds Student tasked to track Maeve Sherlock quickly lost his story in the unfolding chaos) – suggests today’s students are about as witty as we were when it comes to doing homemade placards, although the stakes today are (for some people, at least) bigger and humour blacker.  Organizational confusion and resulting breakawy leading to a headline-grabbing clash  around a symbolic centre of power (then Westminster, today Millbank), is spookily similar – as are the debates about whether it has done the student cause a favour by crashing onto the headlines and registering  anger or just played into the hands of a hostile media. There are also the predictable accusations that the whole thing was staged by extremists (then the Socialist Workers Party, this time round anarchists).

What seems different (at least judging by the Guardian footage) is that today’s marchers are a damn sight more socially and ethnically diverse – and younger , including FE and college students- than the crowd I was in 1988: the proposed changes of 2010 seem a much bigger deal than those of 1988 and also much more of a class issue, like to see some denied big opportunities and others.In truth, however, I suspect, what has happened is that proposals have thrown into sharp relief the already class-ridden  and unequal character of higher education.

My own feelings about  events are surprisingly mixed. I am fascinated by (what might be) an unfolding social movement, but a mixture of middle age and being one of the ‘Thatcher’s Children’ generation that saw most protest lead to naught leaves me with an engrained scepticism. I also doubt that the interests of university staff and students are as closely aligned as trade union and student union leaders would have us believe. 

The new movement is inevitably overhyped. A blog post written by one of the students occupying  UCL’s Jeremy Bentham Room – a nice, undisruptive target used mainly for social events and conferences- claims student protests are inventing a new organizational model.  Actually, he seems to be re-discover the idea of the social movement in the age of Facebook and blogging  and splashing about an awful political science jargon. There’s a pleasingly in-your-face quality to all this and if this is the beginning of a the kind of multiform ‘alliance of resistance’ some trade unionists have started to image – a sort of angry-as-hell Tea Party movement  of the public sector- capable of real national impact, rather than a replay of the damp squib student protest of 1980s, then I guess that’s OK and a few pieces of schlock political science analysis are a small price to pay.

After all, who knows, maybe we are all in it together?

>Tea parties Czech style?


 The rise of the US Tea Party party movement has held a weird fascination even for those who normally find US politics boring or incomprehensible: revolutionary but right-wing;  a citizens movement, but one making inroads into party-electoral politics; leaderless, but well organised and unstoppable; anti-establishment protest movement born of economic crisis, but one animated by pro-market populism that wants to fell Big Government, rather than shelter behind the protections it can give. None of this is, of course, that inexplicable: money talks, US politics is loosely stuctured and the boundaries between parties and movements are blurred by European standards and there are strong exisiting traditions of anti-state, anti-tax and pro-market populism, recently revivied by the hubble-bubble over the internet economy.

“Budgetary responsability, anyone?”

Still, after the ‘shallacking’ dealt to out Barrack Obama, Tea Parties are (at least until next week) the wave of the future and commentators across the globe have been looking for parallels elsewhere, especially in their own particular patch. Major TP backer the Heritage Foundation predictably sees the movement going international and manages to mention both the Czech and Slovak Republic as well (rather more implausibly) Sweden as recent examples (was it the Sweden Democrats they were thinking of?). The Economist  also noted the same parallel a while back in relations to the emergence pro-market anti-establishmenTOP09 and Public Affairs in the CR and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS)  in Slovakia.

So not surprisingly, Czech commentators have jumped with alacrity into looking for Čajové dýchánky or teapartismus in their own neck of the woods. That Tea Parties are  an anti-establishment  populist revolt from below against experts and the political class, as MFDnes columnist and blogger Zdeněk Muller concludes, seems a safe, if unenlightening first move. But hang on, who in the Czech Republic is the establishment and who are the whacko populists? For some, any Czech and Central/continental European populism is, by definition, of the statist, collective, redistributionist variety. Milla Lilla on The New York Review of Books, for example, argues that the current wave of social and industrial protest in France against retrenchmant of pensions is a Tea Party a la française: angry, unco-ordinated popular mobilization  ritualistically going through the motions of attacking familiar targets, but triggered by times of global uncertainty –  at once in a familiar idiom, but hollow, new, different and edgy,

So, as early as March, one Czech right-wing commenator was rather confusedly urging a responsible  but Tea Party-ish revolt against the populism of the Social Democrats for wild and irresponsible promises, which allegedly made them unfit to run for office.As Czech voters were not unduly impressed by such promises on polling day (when the Social Democrats flopped badly) that could perhaps have left it to the good sense of the electorate and am I the only person to remember Václav Klaus’s weasel words in 1993 that transformation was basically over, or saying that salaries would double during the run-in to the 1996 election? 

So perhaps Lukáš Hoder, writing in FinMag, is closely to the mark in speaking of a ‘new populism’ of fiscal responsibility  which marries populist animus against elites with pro-market, or rather anti-statist, politics. Viewed through the prism of Czech politics, Public Affairs (VV) has a Tea Party-ish flavour to it in its crusade against political dinosaurs and support for market reforms in healthcare. On the other hand, VV’s cutting edge appeal seem to a more a mix of novelty and anti-corruption and its voters and legislators turned out to be a mixed and, in some ways, rather centrist bunch. Like Ivan Krastev, Mr Hoder fingers globalization, detached technocratic elites and top-down European integration as likely suspect for the new populism. But Krastev’s once fresh analysis of a couple of years ago now looks oddly dated in its characterisation of populismtmovements in Europe as being defined by cultrual illiberalism, economic egalitarianisn and xenophobically tinged nationalism. To borrow Benjamin Barber’s terminology from a seminal article which holds up surprisingly well despite being almost 20 years old (and very stereotypical on the post-communist world), these days angry populist can rally to either ‘Jihad’ (nativist fundamentalism of all types) or ‘McWorld ‘(citizens reduced to taxpayer-consumers in a world more about markets than states or societies).

Being more savvy than the aveage journalist, political scientists have, of course, picked up on this. Kevin Deegan Krause at Pozorblog , for example,  speaks of the rise of in CEE in recent years of  a new type of anti-establishment party ‘culturally liberal … attractive to younger, educated voters making extensive use of social networking software:’ with similar (10-15%) vote shares

 ‘…not exactly a new party family (though in their cultural liberalism and anti-corruption emphases they share significant elements) and not exactly a new party type (though their methods and organization do not fit fully with any of the currently hypothesized [organiszational] models, even cartel and firm models), but with strong and intersecting elements of both.’

including the Czech Republic’s TOP and Public Affairs, Slovakia’s Freedom and Solidarity, the Green-ish youth-oriented Politics Can Be Different (LMP) in Hungary as well as  new pro-market parties that crashed onto the political stage in the Baltic states in over the past decade, such as  the People’s Party and New Era in Latvia or Res Publica. And, of course, as new youth driven protest parties go, we should not forget the region’s most successful one, the definitely not culturally or economically liberal, extreme -right Jobbik,  ‘a far-right for the Facebook Generation’ as an excellent analysis in EUobserver put it, although as one of my PhD student noted at a seminar last week Jobbik activists has a penchant for social activism and community politics(and marching around in paramilitary uniforms).

It’s hard to separate out the diverse elements of shifting kaleidescope: anger, youth, disenchament, anti- politics and anti-poltiicians, newnness, globalization, the web as a low cost means of mobilization.  Is the story one of organization, ideology or just raw indignation? And which of these is bringing something new?

The Czech Communists, for example, also see a parallel between Public Affairs (VV) and the Tea Parties, but for them it is old wine in new bottles: all are creatures of powerful business interests plugging the same Neo-Liberal Economic Doctrine (capitals letters for Capital, comrades). Oddly, enough this is very close the analysis carried in one page commentary the Last Word column accompanying the business-oriented Fleet Sheet press summary, which has seen VV and TOP09 (especially) as insurance policies for various politically well-connected business lobbies with the most vested of vested interests. Meanwhile, a column for long established contrarian Czech net journal Britské listy a similar but slightly different angle:  Tea Parties (and by implication VV) it argued are  examples of ‘asro-turf,’orchestrated  but spontaneous (pseudo-)grass roots movements created and financed by business sponsors for self-interested reasons – the subject of a new anti-Tea Party documentary (although the US Democrats and New Labour have used the same strategy) This analysis kind of fits, although VV was more virtual astro-turf as popular moblisation (such as it was) took place in cyber space, rather than in the form of placard waving and whooping at conventions.

Tea for ten million on an artifical lawn?