Student protests, free assocation, and free market

November 19, 2013 – 2:10 pm by John

Aditya Chakrabortty writes a chilling column on the efforts by British universities and local police departments to crack down on student protests and other demonstrations. It's hard to imagine there's an advanced, Western society in which human beings' freedom to assemble and demonstrate—peacefully, by the way—is so readily and blatantly suppressed. And on university campuses, no less—places where freedom of thought, debate, protest, and all other forms of peaceful political activism are supposed to be valued.

Cambridge police are looking for spies to inform on undergraduate protests against spending cuts and other "student-union type stuff". Meanwhile, in London last Thursday, a student union leader, Michael Chessum, was arrested after a small and routine demo. Officers hauled him off to Holborn police station for not informing them of the precise route of the protest – even though it was on campus.

The 24-year-old has since been freed – on the strict condition that he doesn't "engage in protest on any University Campus and not within half a mile boundary of any university". ... But I suppose there's no telling just what threat to law and order might be posed by an over-articulate history graduate.

While we're trawling for the ridiculous, let us remember another incident this summer at the University of London, when a 25-year-old woman was arrested for the crime of chalking a slogan on a wall. That's right: dragged off by the police for writing in water-soluble chalk. ...

It all sounds farcical – it is farcical – until you delve into the details. Take the London demo that landed Chessum in such bother: university staff were filming their own students from a balcony of Senate House (the building that inspired the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, appropriately enough). Such surveillance is a recent tradition, the nice man in the University press office explains to me – and if the police wanted the footage that would be no problem.

That link with the police is becoming increasingly important across more and more of our universities. London students allege that officers and university security guards co-ordinate their attempts to rein in demonstrations while staff comment on the increased police presence around campus. At Sussex, student protests against outsourcing services were broken up this April, when the university called in the police – who duly turned up with riot vans and dogs. A similar thing happened at Royal Holloway university, Surrey in 2011: a small number of students occupied one measly corridor to demonstrate against course closures and redundancies; the management barely bothered to negotiate, but cited "health and safety" and called in the police to clear away the young people paying their salaries.
For the police, this is part of the age-old work of clamping down on possible sources of civil disobedience. But the motivation for the universities is much more complicated. Their historic role has been to foster intellectual inquiry and host debate. Yet in the brave new market of higher education, when universities are competing with each other to be both conveyor belts to the jobs market and vehicles for private investment, such dissent is not only awkward – it's dangerously uncommercial. As Andrew McGettigan, author of The Great University Gamble, puts it: "Anything too disruptive gets in the way of the business plan."

Besides the wholly socialist and market-insulated nature of colleges and universities across the world, there has been a clear tendency since the mid-20th century for Western universities to promote anti-free-market ideas and suppress their students' civil liberties. In other words, their very structure, their financial model, their funding sources, the worldviews they tend to foster, and their isolation from market forces make universities some of the most anti-individualist, anti-libertarian institutions in our society. Therefore, even if now more than ever "universities are competing with each other to be both conveyor belts to the jobs market and vehicles for private investment", this changes virtually nothing about their socialist, anti-free-market nature.

In this context, and especially when we consider the increasingly punitory, militaristic nature of law enforcement/criminal justice systems (in the U.S., at least), not to mention the genuinely Orwellian tactics of the NSA and GCHQ, in addition to the never-ending, obsequious apologies for the total security state by sycophants on the left and the right, the increasing police presence on campuses and the collaboration between university administrators and police departments is not surprising. It is a natural progression in each institution's pursuit of a common goal: to maintain power, order, wealth, and security, if necessary by oppressing the unwashed masses of ruffians who would disrupt their status quo.

Despite the unfortunate fact that workers' unions and trade unions of all kinds have historically been guilty of rent-seeking efforts to suppress competition and artificially bolster wages through the political process (not to mention much more nefarious activities by union bosses who cozy up to politicians), unionization per se is one of many ways in which free individuals, especially relatively weak and poor individuals, can voluntarily assemble to achieve a common goal. So are public protests and other demonstrations. These rights are absolutely vital civil liberties of the individualist, libertarian tradition. The right to peaceably assemble and protest the grievances of the government is enshrined right there in our First Amendment, though the U.K. doesn't have anything so specific and powerful. If there is any political philosophy in the modern English-speaking world that is closely associated with the Bill of Rights and the Americans who wrote it, it is individualism and libertarianism.

So what does Aditya Chakrabortty conclude is the root cause of this administration-backed police suppression of student demonstrations, and its bully tactics designed to intimidate students who dare protest the power and wealth imbalance that is inherent to universities (and seems to be getting worse)? He blames a free-market mentality:

Where universities were historically places of free expression, now they are having to sacrifice that role for the sake of the free market. For students, that comes in the form of a crackdown on dissent.

This is just incoherent. The single most basic idea underlying free-marketism is individualism—the supreme right of individual people to keep what they own, to trade what they want under the terms they want, and to freely associate with whomever they want in whatever way they want.

I haven't read anything else Aditya Chakrabortty has written, but I'd wager that the type of intellect that would associate suppression of individual rights and civil liberties with the "free market" is the same type of intellect that would oppose the individualist philosophy in general, would think the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and would think that modern society's obsession with selfishness and elevation of individualist over collectivist virtues is the primary cause of many of society's ills. Either way, millions if not billions of people think that way, and they would probably also swallow his tripe about police suppression of public demonstrations and intimidation (in some cases, outright abuse) of the demonstrators as being somehow connected to the "free market".

Let's try to get this straight: Aditya Chakrabortty and his ilk bemoan the hyper-individualism of libertarian/free-market ideology some of the time, but then when university administrators and police departments team up to suppress our individual rights, that's also the fault of the libertarian/free-market ideology? The free market is too individualist when we're talking about wealth, property rights, and regulation, but it's too anti-individualist when we're talking about civil liberties and peaceful demonstrations?

I'm sorry, but whatever "market" we're talking about in the context of police suppression of student assemblies and campus demonstrations, it is nothing approaching "free".

Maybe he's confusing "pro-business" with the "free market". He wouldn't be the first. I'm guessing Aditya Chakrabortty can name no more than five dead economists. I would also guess that the one historical figure he would most associate with the "free market" is Adam Smith. Even though Smith isn't as revered by modern free-marketeers as several economists who came after him, we accept him as our original ambassador. What did Smith think of businessmen and their relationship to the rest of civil society? In The Wealth of Nations, he wrote,

The interest of [businessmen] is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public ... The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ... ought never to be adopted, till after having been long and carefully examined ... with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men ... who have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.

This is standard dogma among libertarians and other free-marketeers today. It is all too obvious that the interests of businesses do not align with the interests of the individual, the masses of poor and middle-class people, or the free market. Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner seems to make half his living exposing the insidious cooperation between big businesses and the federal government. Radley Balko makes his living detailing the fundamental conflict between law enforcement agencies and both the rights and safety of the general public. To the people who hold individualist, libertarian, free-market views, it is very strange indeed to associate the free market with this partnership between wholly Statist universities and wholly Statist police departments.

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