Last Tuesday night, students at the University of Sussex staged an occupation for the third time on campus this year. Under the banner of ‘Occupy Sussex’, they are calling for the mobilisation of students against austerity measures and privatisation on campus.
With stories of clashes with the police, arrests and destruction of university property, you’d have thought student politics was alive and kicking in Sussex. Unfortunately, this is an illusion. Indeed, the campaign itself has so far failed to galvanise a particularly large proportion of the university’s student body. The protest held on Sussex campus on 25 March relied on bus loads of students brought in from other universities. After the demonstration, they merely jumped on the bus back home, apologising for not being able to stay for any discussion afterwards.
The reason for Occupy Sussex’s inability to radicalise its own student body is simple: there is no politics left in student politics; the student movement is dead. The vast majority of students across the UK are not demoralised or beaten down, but middle class and decidedly disinterested. And why should they care? Students don’t even have real unions anymore. They were all turned into charities in 2011, leaving behind obsequious student-elected ‘officers’ whose main job seems to be tweeting about the fair-trade Ubuntu Cola stocked in the new vending machines.
This does not mean that students should stop thinking about politics, talking about changing the world and fighting against the erosion of educational standards. The problem is that this new breed of student ‘radical’ seems uninterested in creating a proper political movement through debate, discussion and planned action. Instead, the protesters at Occupy Sussex seem content to express their pious outrage in a chaotic and uncoordinated fashion: chasing vice-chancellor Michael Farthing around campus, waving their middle fingers in the air; super-gluing locks on university buildings; and, when the constabulary were inevitably called in to quell the protests in April, crowing about police brutality.
This is a call to stop the bullshit. Nothing will come of any of the action taking place on university campuses today because, like so many of their elders on the supposedly radical left, the student protesters think politics is all about how you feel, not what you think. Individual, small acts of direct action, as seen on Sussex campus this year, are expressions of narcissism and petulance, not political commitment. They allow protesters to give themselves a pat on the back for ‘fighting the system’, without having to come up with any real plan to change it.