Student movements highlight the illiberal turn of Western liberalism

8 de Mayo de 2024, 07:00

With over 40 campuses around the US seeing student occupations; police raids with over 600 people arrested; and rabid attacks coming from most of the news media and the police branding protestors as “terrorists”. What are we to make of the largest wave of student protests since the 1970s? What does it tell us about our society and the historical moment we are living in? Amid a huge thunderstorm of public attention, there is no scarcity of either apologetic or demonising narratives of these events, but very little in terms of accounts that can put the current mobilisation in a broader context. We see pictures comparing the occupation of Columbia in 1968 and now, with very similar scenes, and the element of protest the war seems to be an evident trait d’union; but what really do these events share, and most importantly what is different now compared to over 56 years ago? 

Protest movements are rarely taken seriously, especially by their detractors. But as the current social movement theory led by French sociologist Alain Touraine argued they should be seen as decisive places in which the new conflicts of society are revealed and the new values are forged. For Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci, who was a pupil of Touraine and closely followed his method of “sociological intervention” listening from activists and social movement participants, social movements were “prophets of the future”. What he meant by that is the fact that social movements could – as the etymology of prophecy entails – “see before” the rest of society. It was in protest movements that the emerging conflicts and dilemmas of society were first revealed. 

This thesis has in fact been vindicated time and again. Think about ecological movements in the 1970s predating many issues that have now become part of the mainstream and of common sense, for example the recognition of environmental imbalance or the need for society to change technologies in order not to destroy the planet. Think about how feminism in its three historical waves, anticipated many views that have now become widely taken for granted in large sections of society or how workers’ rights that are now enshrined in law, took over a century of struggles to be fully recognised. Social movements come before anyone else, and for this reason they have to be taken very seriously by those who want to understand where society is going. 

Besides the prophetic function of social movements, we could also postulate the existence of an “epiphanic” function, namely a function of revelation, where social movements are able to show in stark light, social structures, power systems, and forms of domination that are otherwise very difficult to see. This is most evident in the course of confrontation with police, where, by suspending the normality of obedience and leading the security forces to use brute force they ultimately show how many social institutions are ultimately based on the use of violence, should persuasion fail. 

This is a reality that may be taken for granted by many, in line with Max Weber’s definition of the state as the agent that has the monopoly of legitimate violence. But it is a reality that raises many contradictions, especially in allegedly democratic countries, where one would assume that citizens are not subject to compulsion and coercion. Furthermore, this reality of state violence is even more problematic when, as in the case of campus protests, protestors are voicing an opinion which is held by most citizens, and a majority of voters of both the Democrats and the Republicans. This raises serious questions about the way in which government works and the extent to which it can really be described as “democratic”, namely as an expression of the will of the people. 

Hence, what these protest movements are fundamentally revealing first and foremost is the dire state of democracy in Western liberal-democracies, and the risk that in the near future what is left of liberalism will turn ever more into illiberalism or into an “illiberal liberalism”. Illiberalism was an accusation used by political scientists against populist strongmen such as Putin or Orbán, to express the way in which their governments did not respect the rule of law, the separation of power etc. Furthermore, the view of a conflict between democratic and authoritarian states has become central to the narrative of a West under attack, to give ideological support to the support of Ukrainians against Putin’s attack, but according to some politicians also to Israel against Hamas. Yet, this narrative is fraught with serious contradictions, when, as the repression of student movements shows, within liberal democracies the voice of the people is not respected. 

In this context of growing illiberalism these student movements also reveal something important about the role of universities in society and the way in which they risk becoming the target of authoritarianism, given that the freedom of expression they champion becomes ever more a contentious issue in a world gripped by geopolitical conflict and outright warIn the immediate aftermath of the 1968 protest movements Alain Touraine published a famous book The Post-industrial society where he tried to make sense of why students had become such an important actor and centre of contestation. For Touraine in each historical era there is a central conflict in society, which defines society's values. For example in the industrial era which was the object of much of Touraine's work, both capitalists and workers share belief in industry, though they disagree on distribution. 

In a post-industrial society instead knowledge production acquires salience. Thus, the universities become a central site of conflict; one which pits knowledge producers against the technocratic system of a "programmed society. Universities are needed by an advanced capitalist system, because they are the sites of research, which is necessary for advanced products and services. Yet, they are also a site of rebellion and confrontation.

For Touraine this societal shift redefines dominant/dominated classes and centers of resistance. The implication is that struggles are now led not by marginalised elements of society, but by people who, like students, possess social centrality thanks to their scientific skills. Touraine argues that “the struggle is not led by marginal social elements who can only rise up for brief periods or support action with their mass, but by central social elements who, in their opposition to those who hold power, use the instruments of production, which their opponents claim to control. This used to be the role of the skilled workers, today it is the role of those who possess scientific and technical competence”.  

Touraine highlighted a reality that has become ever more evident in different aspects of advanced technological society, in which rebellion is often guided by people with high levels of scientific knowledge:  think. about whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden. But this is also the potential Achille's heel of post-industrial society theories and student movements. The risk is that the campus turns from a necessary site of initial gathering and cultural conflict into a trap where protestors can be easily corralled in and repressed (see what is happening in the US). Touraine makes this point clearly at the end of the chapter on student movements. 

In the 1960s the slogan of many movements underlined the importance of "alliance between students and workers”. This remains an important strategic challenge now. If student movements are to withstand the dangerous sliding of liberal-democratic societies into authoritarianism, and the metamorphosis of contemporary Western liberalism into illiberalism, they will have to devise to quote Touraine a “social and political action that transcends the university and assures the convergence of students and other groups of the opposition”. Only by doing that they will be able to show that their opinion is not the opinion of a privileged and spoiled middle class, as their opponents argue, but a close approximation of the voice of the people, one which no democratic government worth of the name can legitimately repress. 
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