Whatever happened to student protest? This is the question asked in the latest edition of the University of Otago Magazine (‘A magazine for alumni and friends of the University of Otago’). Although there’s still occasional protest on campus, the article points out that these only tend to be about ‘student issues’ by ‘groups interested purely in their bank balances or banned substances’ and wider political issues are no longer up for challenge or championing. The last big ‘wider issue’ protests on campus were back in 1981 against the Springbok tour. It seems that while university students used to be in the forefront of demanding radical social change, they appear to be are increasingly conservative or apathetic. This blog post gives further details of the Otago Magazine article, and draws on a previous blog post on The rise of the young fogies to argue that amongst explanations for the depoliticisation of students, the dire state of the New Zealand left should play a big part. Any reluctance by students to be swept up in any cause should be situated in the general death of radical and anti-establishment politics. So while it might seem that the problem of student apathy and conservatism is partly due to an increase in selfishness and shallowness in youth, the left really need to take some of the blame for killing of the political passion of youth. [Read more below]
‘Dare to be disobedient’, is part of an interesting series of Otago Magazine articles entitled ‘Whatever happened to…?’ Written by Rebecca Tansley, the article can be downloaded in a PDF of the whole magazine here. The article details past movements for change on the Otago (and wider New Zealand) campus.
By contrast, modern campus protest is somewhat more self-interested:
A few past Otago University Student Association (OUSA) student presidents are interviewed for the article. Ross Blanch (president in 1986/7) says that the modern pressures of student life are to blame:
internal assessment has negatively affected Otago students’ protest capability because today’s students have less free time. Coupled with this, he says, is the increased pressure – when the costs are so high – to pass, as well as an often vital need to work part-time during term time to supplement income. The overall effect is less time available for other pursuits, whether that be protesting or partying.
Wider changes in the modern political environment are also picked up upon by another past president:
Leaving aside the objection that New Zealand’s foreign policy is in reality hardly more neutral and that under the last Labour Government there were more foreign military interventions than ever before (including as part of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan), Brooking’s general point is probably true: the changing wider political and social environment has probably had a bigger impact.
Where students are still political, in terms of strategy and tactics they seem to have followed nearly every other dissident, oppressed, or protest group in New Zealand – including Maori nationalists – into a less overtly political and more judicial route for social change. They are trying to change things from the inside and using legal channels for ‘progress’. Ross Blanch comments on this in the article:
Some of us are rather skeptical about this new way of ‘doing politics’, believing it has little to do with radical change and more to do with integrating with the elite and finding compromise with the status quo.
Furthermore, where politics on campus – or wider New Zealand society – does still exist, increasingly it takes the form of lifestyle ‘activism’ such as environmentalism, consumer boycotts, trendy religions or simply hedonism. Living by the slogan ‘The Personal is Political’ has meant that those youth with a political interest can easily avoid involving themselves in actual collective political action.
Part of the explanation for the strange state of student politics lies in the fact that to be on the ‘left’ today is often to be conservative. As I wrote back in 1999, more and more, the old left is associated with being backward, attempting to prevent change, and with being boring, moralistic, and restrictive. Rather than being about anything liberating, today’s left is more often than not about dictating to the public what we must not read, watch, smoke, drink, participate in etc.
The late Bruce Jesson often pleaded for the left to rethink its conservatism. He argued that the left had lost its role of being at the forefront of new ideas and of change and been transformed into a passive creature of resistance and the past:
And so those students who are optimistic about their aspirations and the health of the economy, are also naturally inclined to provide support for perceived economic stability. So the left’s overwhelming pessimism and dreariness is also its Achilles heel for attracting these types. For youth seeking a belief system that is optimistic or confident, the rightwing seem to have more to offer.
And where there are actually serious issues to fight against (such as New Zealand involvement in imperialistic wars or the continuing neoliberal economic framework) the ‘organised left’ is hopefully disorganised and disoriented by its nationalism and its congenital pro-Labour politics.
Today’s students – who have grown up in post-1984 New Zealand – the vast political and economic changes are obviously well bedded in and accepted – they have never known anything else. They have not experienced anything but slump capitalism. As Chris Trotter has pointed out, ‘X-ers, for the first time in two centuries, must anticipate a lower standard of living than their parents.’ While this might be expected to radicalise them, the opposite is the case. First, the new economic situation encourages a desire amongst youth for stable and status-quo economic policies. Second, the pressure to pay student fees, survive on low incomes, get good jobs, pay off student debts and so on all combine to take the attention away from anything like politics or philosophy.
Furthermore, the current demise of the working class as a political force means that there just does not seem to be a mass agent for social change any longer, so the possibility of radical change appears to be off the agenda and not worth the effort. The social and economic malaise of slump capitalism therefore only seems to add to the deradicalising process for youth. It produces a cynicism that is not conducive to leftwing politics but, instead, to anti-politics and lifestyle ‘activism’.