- Student Mobilizations in Canada and the United StatesResistance to the Neoliberalization of Higher Education
Over the past several years, there has been an explosion of protest activity among young people around the globe demanding radical changes in the existing economic and political systems as they embrace a new vision of the future. They are in many ways embodying what John Pilger refers to as the “theater of the impossible”:1 challenging the neoliberal policies that have created the most recent global economic crisis and are jeopardizing their livelihoods. Taking the future into their own hands, youth, especially those in parts of Europe and Latin America (most notably, Chile), have organized against measures that attack the social welfare state with a key focus on funding for higher education. Following suit, in several locales across North America, youth have also begun to engage in contentious politics with similar fervor.
One of the resources that has helped fuel the latest rounds of protest is digital media. Media sources have always been critical to political discontent and to the ability to organize and carry out protest politics. Today, with the availability of new communication apparatuses provided by digital technology at activists’ disposal, social movement actors operate in an innovative political terrain [End Page 97] that can further foster discussion, debate, critical thinking, and contentious politics. More specifically, in this new communication landscape, they can efficiently, quickly, and cheaply share grievances, disseminate information through peer-to-peer networks (and therefore bypass state- or corporate-controlled and owned media), collectively make demands on authorities, and find new ways to create social ties and establish a sense of collective identity which, in turn, assists them in organizing and participating in street protest activity. Yet, as I argue throughout this analysis, new media is a tool that assists with organizing, and not a substitute for on-the-ground protest activism. What is most central to these struggles is face-to-face networking and integration, the occupation of public spaces, forms of civil disobedience, and attempts to create direct and participatory democracy through forms of collective behavior.
Much of the above is rooted in radical direct-action tactics, which entail the use of physical (typically urban) spaces to create a disruption of daily life, often through the use of symbolic forms of protest as well as forms of militant action.2 Direct action creates and fosters emotional connections and collective identity among activists, and allows for democratic expression, in that open spaces enhance efficient flows of communication in face-to-face settings, which facilitates the coordination of protest plans as ideas evolve organically out of dialogue. While the internet and social media indeed play a role in the organization of protest activity and help with the circulation of information in real time as events transpire on the ground, mass direct action allows people to become political agents by engaging in radical forms of collective behavior, on their own terms through the occupation of space.3
This article analyzes two recent student-led social movements that are challenging the skyrocketing cost of higher education as part and parcel of the neoliberal agenda and accompanying austerity measures and the radical tactics that they employ. Both focus on how students are engaging in popular resistance to increasing student debt and proposed tuition hikes that include a broader critique of the economic, social, and political conditions promoted by neoliberal ideology at universities across Canada and the United States. These case studies provide instructive examples of how young activists are making strategic decisions and carrying out acts of political dissent that combine digital forms of information sharing and organizing with traditional and more confrontational forms of protest such as direct action, in some [End Page 98] instances a shutdown of business as usual through a variety of tactics—a hybrid mix of online and offline strategizing and mass mobilization.
Though an anti-tuition-hike movement may not at face value seem like a radical student movement or sentiment, I argue that some of the tactics students have chosen constitute radical practices, especially within the context in which they are operating. Part of this includes how authorities respond to protest activities...