What can we expect from the discontent brewing in the universities?

26 June, 2020 · News> Europe

Yesterday, a PhD in History posted on her twitter account: “How can you recommend someone to devote half their life to research if at 31 years of age I earn 800 euros and have gone back to live with my family?” The message quickly gained thousands of supporters because it conveyed a a general mood that abounds in universities. Yet another generation of students has been let down. But what exactly are they denouncing? Where is this denunciation pointing to? Are they looking forward or backwards?

To understand the character of what can be expected from the University -and its recent graduates- after the pandemic, we need to understand whether the general mood is against precarization or against proletarianization. In 2019 we witnessed in France a promising movement of students against precarization, but the dominant element at the global level was the very opposite. And it’s a completely different story. The student who sees a precarious future ahead of him as a worker shares everything with the struggles that are going on all over the world. On the other hand, the one rebelling against proletarianization will do everything in his power to try to preserve even the “illusion” of a “status”.

This is nothing new in history. The proletariat was born out of the imposition of the factory both on the peasant expelled from the countryside, who had lived until then mostly on communal lands under subsistence agriculture , and out of the parallel imposition of new productive relations suffered by the guild craftsman within his own workshop. Part of the craftsmen embraced the interests of what they were becoming -proletarians- and formed the origin of the first political expressions of the working class: Icarian communism and the League of the Just, later the League of the Communists. But another section of craftsmen defended itself by clinging to feudal privileges. And when this was no longer possible, it created trade unions of qualified workers which did not allow the “lazy”, that is, the unqualified workers, to join them.

This backward, reactionary movement, which sought equal status with the petty bourgeoisie and recognition as a “special” layer halfway between the “unskilled” workers and the petty owners, had its political reflection in Lassalleanism – which was very important both in Germany and in the US. And in general it fed the tendencies towards corporatism and the search for state “protection” for the industries employing them. Another late element of this response were the first movements that redefined the proletariat from consumption rather than from its position in the social organization of labor. Thus, consumption cooperativism was born. In fact, the foundation 125 years ago of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), which was soon joined by the yellow (church) unions, was presented as an “apolitical”, “neutralist”, “civic”, “fabian” alternative to the International. In the end, this could be a tool, although limited, against the precarization of working conditions, but not against the proletarianization which, in general and especially under the conditions promoted by the International, it accentuated.

Spanish university and para-university student movements

The Spanish university was not definitively opened to the petty bourgeoisie until the beginning of the 20th century. The time was the creation of the Ciudad Universitaria in 1928 by the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. The regime was a catalyst of the evolution towards state capitalism that the first world war had promoted in Spain. And it saw in the growth of the bureaucracy within the state an opportunity to ease tensions with a petty bourgeoisie that throughout the previous century had had little room in the policies of the liberal bourgeoisie. With Primo was born “the promise” of the university as a trainer of cadres for the civil service and the middle management of companies and banks that were being concentrated at a fast pace as financial capital became the real director of industrial organization. But Spanish capital was not at its best in 1928 either. And the students of “la Central” – today’s Complutense University – immediately understood that allowing the Jesuits of Deusto and the Augustinians of El Escorial to issue university degrees increased competition for jobs that were already scarce and would become even scarcer in the future. This is how the first great student movement of the 20th century emerged, from which many of the young politicians of the Second Republic would emerge.

And it was not very different either in origin or in effect in 1956, when the “anti-Franco” university movement began. From there, the “elders” of the Transition – Enrique Múgica, Javier Pradera, Ramón Tamames, Ruíz Gallardón – would come out. The mobilizations of “penenes” in the 70s – roughly equivalent to the precarious “researchers” of today – would produce “the young” ministers of the PSOE Narcís Serra, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba and Javier Solana.

It would be this generation of politicians, the generation of the ” youth employment plans” and the industrial reconversion, who would massify the universities and would propitiate the appearance of dozens of new campuses distributed all over Spain. Like Primo and Franco before them, they understood that the “promise” of a job as a cadre or a bureaucrat after university would work better than ever under the new “social pact” with the peripheral petty bourgeoisie, which materialized in the emergence and multiplication of peripheral political apparatuses and regional bureaucracies.

However, the famous “democratization” of the University was always extremely relative. In 2015, only 26% of university degrees were obtained by young working class students. And that is taking into account the degrees – new and old – that were designed from the outset to train workers rather than cadres (Teaching, Nursing, etc.).

This explains quite well the class bias of the 2011 15M movement -a sort of Occupy-, basically a movement of recently graduated university students well dotted with PhD students. The crisis was beginning to sweep away the traditional cadre-placement sectors. Public contracting stopped in its tracks and only banking destroyed 100,000 jobs that never came back. The intellectual petty bourgeoisie suddenly found itself “without a future”. Much of today’s researchers and the inflation of doctors were born out of the flight to the academy of many of these people. It is very striking that among the famous demands of the Puerta del Sol, protesters the vague statement “improvement of working conditions”, ranked fourth and did not feed a single slogan of the many that were chanted. The 15M was not a revolt against unemployment in general, not even of “being unable to do what I studied”, it was, as it was repeated a thousand times then and during the following years, an expression of the absence of the type of jobs “for those who had studied at the university”. The motor of the movement was resistance to proletarianization, not to precarization.

What can we expect from the University… and its surroundings?

Proletarianized students in Lyon: “Precariousness kills”

The French working-student movement last year was on the opposite side of 15M and so we were taught two very important things: the part of the university discontent that expresses resistance to precarization rather than [[proletarianization], will neither be pampered by the media nor will it mobilize the majority of the student body:

Why doesn’t the press (barely) mention French students? These were not at all artistic or expressive mobilizations. They spoke of generic human needs – food, hygiene, work – that are brought into line with a class perspective, that are in direct conflict with the nation and that they want to see satisfied directly and immediately. [And furthermore] “They do not represent the totality of the student body”. Obviously, these mobilizations are born out of the 30% of students who work to support themselves and endure one precarious job after another, living in shared apartments where one room costs half the minimum wage. Those with scholarships barely receive more than 300 euros, which barely covers the cost of food.

Not all students are the same”, 27/11/2019

What can we expect from the majority of movements arising from the University and its environment? Above all, movements that dilute the existence of classes into all kinds of “identities” and which allow access to quotas for middle and top management through an increase in the “diversity” of power structures (feminism, environmentalism, racialism…). Also corporate movements “for science“, for mandatory “plans” for small and medium sized companies regarding ecological impact, gender equality or anything that requires transfer of funds to the university itself or generates recruitment pools for professionals in “new degrees”. In the cultural sphere, there may be a further reinvention of the old ideologies that deny the centrality of work in this social organization (consumption groups, “sharing economy”…). And even where struggles and strikes can no longer be hidden and obfuscated by the media, there will be no lack of doctors with the certified professional equipment offering to lead, represent or study these struggles. Everything but accepting that the system has not kept a place for small and medium cadres in the ever-smaller heaven of its bureaucrats, managers and cadres.

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