Friday, 26 November 2010

Kettled and Scuttled

Student protests in England were this week treated to the recent enthusiasm of democratic governments for what is called "kettling," that is, for the police practice of shepherding protestors into a designated public space, there to spend the chief of their anger in relative containment. Much shock and outrage has been expressed at the undemocratic nature of this procedure, seeming as it does to restrict the right to freedom of speech and movement that is supposed to be a founding principle of democracy. What goes unnoticed, however, and partly because of the outlet for outrage provided by the very marginal constitutionality of kettling, is the extent to which protest is, in a general way, kettled by liberal democracies whose tolerance for protest works to make protest effectively impossible. If one feels bemused at the manner in which the fervour of protests against the invasion of Iraq or, in this case, against the removal of the cap on student fees, is followed, as night follows day, by an almost total apathy, certainly by no further action or "protest," one might reflect on the fact that a political regime built on the toleration of different viewpoints is in this sense highly pernicious: it is impossible to criticise it without supporting it, impossible to protest against it without buttressing it. A politics of tolerance fulfils itself most completely, is justified most totally, in the performance of its tolerance towards opinions directed in protest against itself; the more powerful the criticism, the more jusified the regime; the louder the protest, the more secure the establishment. A more thorough kettling is impossible to imagine. What is interesting, however, is that in this context the small-scale kettling of students two days ago is the nearest we have come to real protest, in that it reifies the endemic kettling of a liberal democratic state in a way that no amount of free-ranging marching about Whitehall could achieve. In being kettled, the students' protest became effective in a manner that it never could have on its own. Which leads one to think that the practice of kettling will not longer be employed by liberal democratic governments, who will no doubt justify its relinquishment on the grounds of its removal of the right to protest...

...but we can turn to find that this very same equation regulates the matter that the students were protesting about: the future rise in student fees. Students are angry that, from now on, they will have to pay more for their education and that they will spend many years in more debt than they do now. Here again, the students are being kettled, herded into a small space and made to feel outrage at it, when there is a much graver herding, a much more general kettling, going on, unseen, all around. For the issue of what students pay for their education, the concern being felt that they will be made to pay too much, provides a useful defusing of what out to be outrage at the extent to which, irrespective of how much they pay, students in England are not being educated at all. Here is another exerpt from "The Browne Report":
Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On
graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy
higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to
move from one job to the next. Participation in higher education enables
individuals from low income backgrounds and then their families to enter higher
status jobs and increase their earnings. Graduates enjoy substantial health
benefits – a reduced likelihood of smoking, and lower instances of obesity and
depression. They are less likely to be involved in crime, more likely to be
actively engaged with their children’s education and more likely to be active in
their communities.

Again, the naivite of a Browne who gives not a nod to the fact that the socio-economic conditions that make people more likely to participate in higher education are also those that make them less likely to be obese or commit a crime, the fact that participation in higher education is an effect of money and class much more than it is of some simplistic notion of aspiration and choice, must be glossed over for the moment, in order that we give due attention to the manner in which what is termed "higher education" in this excerpt is defined implicitly as "higher education to..." realise certain goals, the goals of money, status, physical and mental stability, and children who will want money, status, and so on. The idea that education, real education, true education, "higher" education, ought to teach people to identify and pursue their own goals, to identify and pursue the guiding principles of their own lives, to work out what the good life is and to learn to live it and to justify it to others, evidently is not one that Browne understands, and, given that the government has announced that it is to take on board the recommendations of the Browne report, not one in which our government is interested either. No, in England at least, one is "educated" in order to fulfil the life to which one is assigned, in order to submit to the demands of capital, in order to be obedient, in order to get into debt and spend a lifetime repaying it, in order to contain one's mental life within the parameters of "normality" and one's girth to 34". In England, education is kettling on a grand scale; that it requires the intermittent apparently draconian measure as an outlet for the steam of a populace that would otherwise explode with containment is in the nature of things, and resultant in nothing more than the whistling of an orderly kettle, boiling away to make a pot of good English tea.

But, if "education" is kettling, it is a kettling far more serious than any other, for it kettles the very skills that we require to identify and to question our kettlings. It is, in fact, more like a scuttling than a kettling, for we are left, after an English "higher" "education", as emptier vessels than we were beforehand, with nothing much more than water between our ears.

There may be an interesting post script to this, however: if the rise in student fees really does have the effect of preventing quantities of people from attending university, the resulting diminishment in the government's effectiveness in thoroughly kettling its population may eventually produce a reversal of government policy so as to make "education" once more more affordable. If so, the reversal will no doubt be advertised as the government's acknowledgment that a "higher" "education" is something that none of its citizens should be made to do without...

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