Mark Bergfeld

Home » Education and Neoliberalism » You’re either a flower in a dustbin or that spark that lights a fire

You’re either a flower in a dustbin or that spark that lights a fire

sidi_bouzid_01I was asked to write “a populist piece” for some book that never appeared. I wrote it in May 2011 so it bears all the marks of a generation in revolt.  Forgive me! 

If I were to ask a call centre worker in Glasgow, a cab driver in Berlin and a bar worker in London what Johnny Rotten and Bruce Springsteen have in common they would probably give some half-hearted half-guessed answer containing the words punk and no future. Then all of them would rant about how shit The Boss is, and that they don’t understand what Springsteen finds so great about New Jersey.

If I were to ask a vegetable vendor in Tunis and a computer programming student in Alexandria the same question, they would light a cigarette, probably shrug their shoulders and continue to make ends meet.  

To be fair, Johnny Rotten’s and Bruce Springsteen’s common ground is probably not the most pressing question in an (unemployed) graduates’ life. With their university degree in their pockets they drive cabs, serve pints, sell vegetables and sit at a phone twelve hours a day six days a week. The rent doesn’t pay itself, the food on the table is not free, and their university degrees probably cost as much as The Boss’s car yet are worth as much as Johnny Rotten’s piss in a beer bottle.

Johnny Rotten’s despair and hopelessness of being young and on the dole and Bruce Springsteen’s reason to rebel are two sides of the same coin. And it is years after its release that Johnny’s one-liner in God Save the Queen still expresses a new lost generation’s anger with unemployment, and a system with booms and slumps: We’re the flowers in the dustbin. It is in the same vein that Bruce’s Dancing in the Dark hints to the role that graduates and young people in despair and on the dole recently have played: You can’t start a fire, you can’t start a fire without a spark.

The flowers in the dustbin

The total anarchy of the market means that millions of young flexible graduates with transferable skills are produced in universities in order to fill no longer existing roles in the public sector. Expanding the knowledge base and investing in skills have become catchphrases in order to adapt education to the needs of private business and the state. No longer are universities about cultivating flowers that will bloom in the so-called free world. It is about preparing us for reproduction; reproducing the labour power required by advanced capitalism.

The enormous expansion of education in the UK over the last quarter of the 20th century meant that in 1971 there were 1.7 million students in further education and 621,000 in higher education. In 2009 this had grown to 3.5 million and 2.5 million respectively. The massive expansion of higher education meant a move away from it being a preserve of the elite in society. The transformation of higher education reflected the system’s need for an increasingly educated workforce.

Undeniably it is still hard for working class children to go to university but hundreds of thousands of working class children do. Over 30 percent of students in higher education come from the lowest socio-economic classes and nearly 90 percent were educated at state schools. While in 1971 there were twice as many men in university as women, in 2006 there were more women than men in both further and higher education.

However, capitalism is rotting at its core and qualifications no longer meet what is out there. This year, one-in-five students will leave university without a job, and 200 000 successful school leavers will not get a university place. With the current economic crisis, the introduction of 9000 pounds tuition fees and the government’s austerity agenda the treadmill of low-paid administration or call-centre work has and will become the future of millions of young people. A recent study concluded that just over a quarter of workers in Scottish call centres have degree level or higher qualifications. Working in largely low-paid, inflexible and stressful jobs the system turns these graduates and young adults into flowers in the dustbin as Rotten so aptly describes.

Can’t start a fire without a spark

Whether the Arab Spring, the May Day riots in Berlin or the explosion of the British students’ movement which ritually had placards disappear into bonfires, Springsteen’s words recognize a vital lesson for the revolutionary movements however big or small they might be: You need a spark!

When a police officer confiscated a young man’s fruit and vegetable stand because he lacked a permit on December 17, 2010, the officer did not expect that the 26-year old unemployed college graduate would douse himself in petrol and set himself alight in front of a government building in central Tunisia. Even less so did the cop expect his self-immolation would spark nationwide unrest and the toppling of the Ben Ali regime.

When Khaled Said, a computer programming student, was arrested in a cybercafé and beaten to death at the hands of the police in a prison cell in Alexandria, Egypt on June 6, 2010 the police would have never thought that he would become the face that sparked the revolution. The cry We are all Khaled Said inspired millions of ordinary Egyptians to burn down police stations – the places in which they had been tortured and humiliated – and topple the Mubarak regime.

In Tunisia, a country the IMF continuously praised for its growth rates, foreign direct investment and most importantly foreign tourists, unemployment lay at 13.3 per cent (Sept 2010). In areas such as Sidi Bouzid, the epicenter of the protests 44 per cent of female university graduates and 25 per cent of male graduates are reportedly unemployed. In Egypt about one-fourth of Egyptian workers under 25 are unemployed. One might think that the problem of graduate unemployment is exacerbated in the Arab world and North Africa where more than half the population is less than 30 years old.

However, in Europe and the US the picture is not all too different. In Italy, Portugal and Spain, about one-fourth of college graduates under the age of 25 are unemployed. In the United States, the official unemployment rate for this group is 11.2 percent. And in Britain, graduate unemployment figures soared to its highest level for 17 years only fourteen days after thousands of students with no future besieged the Tory Party headquarters at Millbank.

While the ConDems are aiming to balance the budget in order to restore confidence in the market, they’re putting hundred thousands of graduates in a dustbin. In turn these graduates are losing confidence in the system and have sparked the fire through their walk-outs, occupations and mass demonstrations. The feeling of Man I ain’t going nowhere just sitting in a dump like this has meant that hundreds of thousands of students were the quickest to move into action over the ConDem cuts placing themselves at the centre of the resistance to austerity only six months into the ConDem government. In two months of struggle they learnt lessons about the state and police which trade unionists and older workers perhaps learned in their last twenty years.

In the context of mass protests against austerity and a crackdown on our right to protest – it is only a matter of time until Britain could have their own Khaled Said or Mohamed Bouazizi moment which could spur millions of workers into action and start the revolutionary fire in this country.

We’re the future – Your future

All the odds were stacked against the Class of 2010/2011. It is the one who had started their childhood with their parents watching Francis Fukuyama on TV declaring the end of history. Suddenly their childhood abruptly ended on 9/11 by watching two planes crash into the World Trade Centre. They are the ones whose teen years started with Bush’s War on Terror and continued into their early adult years – while at the same time they witnessed the collapse of Lehman Brothers, BearStearns and Fannie Mac and Freddie Mae. Yet all along they were being told that they would only have to work hard and succeed at education in order to attain a better future, a better life than their old folks.

But the only future for the Class of 2010/2011 is resistance to war, state violence and economic crisis. And that is why it’s kicking off everywhere! Whether its 3000 students walking-out of their university in Glasgow, 20 000 young people demonstrating against nuclear power in Berlin or 40 000 laying siege on Parliament in London on the day of the vote on tuition fees. On their protests, their marches, strikes and occupations they have tasted what another world could look like and how possible it is. The revolution in Egypt has proven their point.

Many graduates with no future might not know what Johnny Rotten and Bruce Springsteen have in common. Mohamed Bouazizi and Khalid Said though only knew too well; the students at Millbank knew too well; the occupiers at Fortnum & Masons knew too well; and the FE students who walked out of their schools and colleges knew too well: You’re either a flower in a dustbin or that spark that lights a fire – the fire this time!


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