Are the student demonstrators really demanding higher education for everyone?
A great deal of ink has been spilt in the last couple of months over student protest – marches, occupations, invading Tory HQ, police cavalry charges, and police detaining thousands of people under armed guard for hours in the freezing cold and using exposure to the elements as a deterrent to protest (sorry, kettling). Notably, a sharp distinction was drawn between peaceful, well scrubbed demonstrators, and the ugly head of the anarchist unwashed. Notably also, the children of privilege were represented on both sides, as interns in Tory HQ: the fresh and inexperienced Oxbridge faces of both the Tory/Liberal front bench and those latter-day Gracchi, the Milibands of New-new Labour; and the liberal elite having a day on the wild side, most notably Charlie Gilmour swinging from a lamppost.
All this should be ironic – coverage of a protest dedicated in principle to the universal provision of an important resource being reduced to an elite discourse in the media by which most people in the country will learn about it and try to make sense of it. However, university education is an elite issue: less than 20 percent of the UK population had a degree in the 2001 census.
In our society education is the means whereby status and earning potential are transferred from parents to children: extending this privilege increases the pool of technically trained workers such as scientists and engineers, and increases social stability by giving at least the illusion of participation to these same technical workers. The simple fact is that education structures expectations in society as well as providing the tools for participation – if you want an unequal but stable society you follow Mao’s dictum and “keep the peasants poor and blank”. University education buys in a section of the working class and coopts them to the status quo: the same state that subsidises their training then gives many of them employment directly in the civil service or other state projects, stable and defined pensions, in short an internment from the class struggle; others find, if they are fortunate, professional roles which may use their training directly but just as often are intereswted in their three year training in writing reports.
It is this section of the working class, trained and co-opted, that is often referred to as the “middle class”. Economically the working class is defined by its universal dispossession from the means of production and thus its need to work for an employer to survive: but sociologically there are fracture points, and the classically defined “workers” – blue overall, spanner in hand – continue to dwindle in numbers in the industrial West. We are paid for the value of our labour, or rather the cost of reproducing it: those workers who have received this training investment receive better reimbursement in the private sector, and protected benefits in the public sector. This and other institutionalised divisions in our class are the bane of socialist organisation: as in the ancient world, and the antebellum South to a lesser extent, there are two kinds of slaves, house and field, and the twain tend to loathe each other more than they do their masters. And yet all seem to admire models and footballers who rise from our ranks on the strength of natural advantage, charging extra rent for their services much as a landlord charging quadruple for fertile land than for swamp.For most of us, the only route out of wage slavery, if not the lottery, is the lottery of birth.
Heaping irony on irony, then, the Tories have the better of this argument. New Labour draws support from and now consciously seeks to represent this educated, “middle”, class: they have come to calculate that political power lies in these “chattering” – i.e. politically engaged – classes, not the great unwashed. They are defending not a universal franchise but its extension to their power base, which means that a moderate income bar is quite acceptable – the state should fund their constituents, who can and are prepared to leap this bar, to compete to attend Oxbridge or other prestigious institutions without further financial impediment. The Tories have no such scruples: in lieu of political necessity, money and influence should buy future earning potential and status, in strict measure, and that means withdrawing state subsidy. If wealth buys education then wealth buys citizenship.
When we say that we live in a democracy we tend to assume that, in addition to there being a formal vote mechanism regulating the state, additional benefits automatically accrue such as a guaranteed minimal standard of living. In short, we think of it as social democracy, where the state supposedly works for us. In particular, the state reproduces democracy, by fashioning its subjects into citizens and making sufficient provision that they can function as citizens – even to the extent of taking a mass stroll to Trafalgar Square on a Sunday afternoon without being killed by the state’s armed force or the hired gangs of the wealthy, and having the time off and the health to participate in meaningful debate. But this does not have to be the case: the state is, as they say, the executive committee of the ruling class, and dispensation of favours or participation to other orders is a matter of occasional largesse or, more commonly, buying off unrest. It is no accident that universal suffrage was granted across Europe in 1918, as the survivors of mass butchery returned to the states that had sent them.
An exact parallel can be found in the “forty shilling freeholders” of medieval England. Whilst in previous centuries the decisive force in war was the knights themselves, political power mailed and armed, now the English longbowman was the backbone of military victory, and had to be given a place at the foot of the table: it cost forty shillings to support such a combatant, so forty shillings became the property qualification. They were needed: they had power: they were involved. The post-WW2 Labour government, that great reforming force, was no happy liberal accident but again a similar calculation of expanding access to the state to a large returning military until they were both militarily and socially demobilised.
Changes in these provisions are very painful and difficult: once the ruling class has invited us as house guests it is hard for them to get us to leave and graciously resume our lower places. But hard times bring hard calculations – the fiction that education and other social provision is universal will soon be over. The “heroes” that the welfare provisions were made for are all but dead, and the concessions that brought them and a ruined economy back into a stable state have died with them. Education, in that it provides the tools of citizenship, will be based on a property qualification: in that it provides trained professionals for industry, the industry will pay for them just as they would pay for any other piece of equipment, either with compensatory higher wages or with bursaries.
Education under capitalism is not a right: nor is it a privilege. It is a weapon, and a careful state only arms its friends and its carefully disciplined house slaves. It is a costly tool to be placed in the hands of a grateful journeyman. It is an essential precondition of political action, which the unions have long recognised in sponsoring the education of their own members and officials. For revolutionaries of our, properly democratic creed – that revolution is the work of the working class itself which we make as equals, house and field slaves together – it is more fundamental than the democratic process itself: that process is only open to the powerful, and in a complex society without understanding there can be no power.
Does this mean that all of our class must have a university education? Of course not, any more than all of us must be able to program computers, make cars, fly planes, nurse the ill and care for the young. Intellectual labour is just that, labour. But collectively, our class needs to be able to perform all of these roles and in principle our class members have to have universal access to all of these roles, not segregated in feudal producer castes on the basis of parentage as we have in effect been in the past and still are, though to a lesser extent than previous centuries. Regardless of their birth or history, all of our class members should have universal access to the same education. This allows us to make a democratic revolution on the basis of class solidarity, rather than being in the laughable situation once articulated by the SWP of forcing technical workers to labour, if necessary, “with guns to their heads”. It is our boast that we already run society from top to bottom: that boast becomes hollow if our class is lobotomised, with higher state posts and the associated training being reserved to a minority of the elite and their coopted trusties.
In short, we should have no illusions about what we are owed. This is the language of that section of our class who expect to be co-opted and are merely discussing the terms of their future co-option. The state rules for the rulers: for the rest of us access to it is based on either necessity or force. Demonstrations are displays of necessity, in that the state is reminded that it needs the support of those who are demonstrating, and are thus by and large well-regarded by the co-opted section of our class. The way to demand a universal provision would be to identify a provision that the state has to make and then universalise it: this means class solidarity. Talk of “middle classes” is corrosive, and so-called revolutionaries that use this language – the same found on these marches – are working against us all. As a subject class we do not have rights or privileges, but we do have demands, and we must stand together if we are to make them. Education is not a moral issue: it is a class issue.