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Why the Students are Revolting

Why the Students are Revolting

Over the past two weeks as many as one thousand students at the University of Auckland and now throughout the country have risen up in protest against the continued deterioration of their financial situation and the ongoing commercialisation of higher education.

In his response to the first major protest the Minister of Finance taunted the already angry students, saying that ‘they need some Greeks to show them how to do it’. The Prime Minster also dismissed the students, advising them that while he was taking a reasonable approach, they needed to be ‘realistic’.

Such responses are indicative of the increasingly bellicose attitude of this government and a dismissive disdain for the suffering that is being inflicted by its policies. Moreover, these events draw us to the centre of what can be identified more broadly today in the politics of austerity.

At the heart of politics there has always been a tendency towards depoliticisation. Those seeking to preserve existing privileges depict those who imagine alternatives as ‘political’ while they themselves tread the middle road of good sense and acknowledged wisdom. The depoliticisation of politics has, however, taken a significant turn in recent years in the wake of the global financial crisis, and is visible in particular in the place in politics today of the notion of debt.

Debt has been taken up by the present government and those who benefit from the politics of austerity as the silver bullet with which it can slay any enemy. This bullet can be used again and again. Whether it is student fees and allowances, parental leave entitlements, environmental protection or the retirement age, the answer is simple: we would like to do more for people, but it would be irresponsible to allow the country to slip further into debt.

This is a form of argument that has been constantly recycled in attacks on investment in collective goods and measures that benefit the vast majority. Likewise, it is a form of argument that has been used to defend divesting collective goods and to justify avoidable suffering.

The problem with this silver bullet is that it only works so long as it is believed to be made of silver. Increasingly this is hard to believe, and the debt alibi is now wearing thin. The students protesting over the past two weeks and again today in Wellington have seen through this rather thin story, as have protestors and citizens from Athens to Montreal.

Increasingly it has become clear to those resisting the politics of austerity that the debt alibi is a cover-up that denies the actual agency involved in the politics of austerity which is currently being inflicted across the world. This cover-up typically seeks to make austerity appear as if it is not a political decision or not even a decision at all.

The politics of austerity advises us that we are living in hard times and must adjust ourselves to the necessity of mass suffering. The problem is that these are only hard times for the vast majority. The rich and the super-rich live, quite literally, in a different world, and in a world that is becoming more and more separate. In this country last year the rich enjoyed tax cuts amounting to nearly $2,000,000,000 and the 151 richest increased their wealth by $7,000,000,000.

To allow injurious suffering to be inflicted on the vast majority at a time of abundance is the result of a political decision. This country does not have a debt problem so much as a problem of distribution. And debt, it must be remembered, is also distributed unevenly.

What must also be understood is that most debt in New Zealand is private debt. And the measures introduced in the budget, which as with other measures are being justified as measures to avoid debt, will ultimately increase student debt. What is happening here is not a reduction in debt but a redistribution of debt.

It would take some gall to claim that the university students of New Zealand have it easy. Fees here are the seventh highest in the OECD. It will take some persuasion to draw them back to reality, when they are so brutally confronted with the realities of student life today.

Indeed, the students of today are teaching us a lesson. Maybe we shouldn’t have let them read the Greeks, who filled them with the passion for a democracy from which none are excluded.

This generation of students might seem unusual. This is not just because they have the smarts to see through the complacent politics of austerity that is being imposed upon on almost all of us, but because they are willing to take to the streets with the invitation that we all start to share in what they have learned.

Campbell Jones is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland

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