Why they now only fight for the right to party

June 1, 2007

Material wealth is effectively stifling the urge for mass political protest among students, argues Gerard DeGroot

"Our butter stinketh!" militant Harvard undergraduates complained in the autumn of 1766. While their fathers challenged the British Crown over liberty and law, students at America's most prestigious university rioted over rancid dairy products.

Fast-forward to 1999, when students at St Andrews University took to the streets in mass protest. The issue was not Palestine or East Timor, nor the latest manifestation of G8 neo-imperialism. The subject that inspired agitation was the students' "right" to hold "bops" in the Union past 1am. They marched so that they could dance.

The political (or apolitical) behaviour of St Andrews students has long been the butt of jokes. When London saw the Grosvenor Square riots during the 1960s, St Andrews gave the world the Adam Smith Institute.JIn truth, however, the stereotype is unfair. First, the hard right has always been a minority in Fife. Second, the actual incidence of student radicalism, anywhere and at any time, tends to be exaggerated. Student protesters are always a tiny minority, and those who agitate usually do so for mundane reasons.

That said, these are quiet times on campus. Pimply-faced first-years who listen to Maggie's Farm on their iPods buy their coffee from Starbucks.

Some students still put posters of Che on their walls but are more likely to eat Cherry Guevara ice cream. While a monstrous war rages in Iraq, at home nothing disturbs the sounds of silence.

Old radicals look nostalgically to the 1960s. Memory acts like a filter, sifting out uncomfortable fact. We forget that most students back then never protested, and those who did usually revolted over substandard residence halls, appalling food or, yes, the right to dance past midnight.

We remember instead the New Left, those earnest challengers of hypocrisy, conformity, greed and war.

The New Left sold themselves as radicals but they were really conservatives - activists who campaigned for a liberal revival. "Only true believers in the promise of America could have felt so anti-American," wrote Todd Gitlin, stalwart of the Students for a Democratic Society. His colleague Carl Oglesby mourned the passing of "that mysterious social desire for human equity that from time to time has given us genuine moral drive". Some people, he admitted, would conclude that he sounded revolutionary. "To them I say... blame those who mouthed my liberal values and broke my American heart."

Student radicals in continental Europe were slightly more left-wing, but they focused their attack on the same evil, namely capitalist conformity.

Their hero, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, warned that "a comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilisation, a token of technological progress". Marcuse feared that capitalism's ability to provide a steadily rising living standard was fostering the emergence of a society composed of satisfied drones more concerned with material comfort than liberty. Freedom came to be confused with the ability to choose from 20 different brands of deodorant.

The New Left tried to resist Marcusean unfreedom. "There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious," the Berkeley radical Mario Savio remarked, "that you can't take part... and you've got to put your bodies on the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop."

In 1968, Zbigniew Brzezinski, then a professor at Columbia University, described the protests of such radicals as the death rattle of a group left behind by "technetronic society", which he defined as one where technology provides steady improvement in the quality of life. Painful as it is, he was probably right.

No wonder, then, that campuses are quiet today. Material affluence has, as Marcuse warned, made assaults on freedom tolerable. Most students feel that identity cards, CCTV cameras and even torture are necessary to the preservation of the Western way of life. Few have noticed, or mourned, the death of liberalism. In a world of materialist presumption, comfort silences dissent.

As the Blair years have demonstrated, a people who believe in nothing and do not cherish their freedom are easy to govern. Blair was the technetronic Prime Minister. His term in office brought iPods, Bluetooth and reality TV - all those lovely illusions of freedom.JIn the land of milk and honey students now inhabit, butter is not only plentiful, it no longer stinketh.

Gerard J. DeGroot is professor of modern history at St Andrews University.

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