Tag Archives: Inequality

Student Solidarity

On Saturday 4 August, riots erupted in Tottenham, North London.  It started after a peaceful protest against the killing of Mark Duggan, a local young black man, by the police.  The rioting then spread, not only across London, but across England.

Tragically, many people have lost their homes and livelihoods in the riots.  Just because we realise there are socio-economic and political causes to these riots, doesn’t mean we cannot recognise the pain and suffering of those who have been directly affected and express our solidarity with them.  The riots are desperately sad because of the suffering they’ve caused and because they have exposed deep underlying problems in our society.  We need to think about why this happened and how to stop it from happening again.

Many explanations have been cited for the rioting – poverty, inequality, hopelessness, public service cuts, social networking.  But as student activists, there are two causes that we must highlight and actively campaign to change.

The first is education.  The education system has failed a generation of young people.  Not because teachers are doing a bad job and not because parents are failing to instill discipline at home.  The education system is failing young people because there is minimal funding for schools that aren’t in “good areas”.  Because schooling in 21st century Britain, may as well be called “examining”.  School students are only taught to learn something because it will help them pass an exam and get them a job, not because learning is valuable in its own right.  All of the fun, joy, creativity, imagination and passion has been stripped out.  No wonder poor kids are under-performing; school’s shit.

All the while, of course, the rich kids down the road in the neighbouring borough attend school for £30,000 per year, with sparkling new facilities, PhD educated teachers and training in how to get into Oxbridge.  They are prepped to be the lawyers, doctors, politicians and Prime Ministers of the future.  The unfairness is painful, it’s outrageous, it’s vile.

And now, students from working class backgrounds have little hope of going to university.   The opportunity they thought they might have, to pull themselves out of poverty, to achieve some elusive social mobility, has been cruelly ripped from beneath them.  No matter what Nick Clegg says (that it is now easier to go to university because you don’t pay any money back until you earn £21,000), everyone else knows that if you’re poor and facing £27,000 grand of debt for a degree, you’re not going to do it.  Why would you?  There are no jobs for graduates anyway!

As university students we are in a privileged position.  We are the last generation to benefit from a (reasonably) affordable university education.  It is up to us to continue to assert the value of learning, not because it will get us jobs, but because we love it.  Because we know an education shouldn’t be a “privilege”.  Because we believe that education should be accessible to all people in a society, not just those who can afford it.  Because we understand that educating citizens is the responsibility of the government, not bailing out banks that gambled with and lost our money.  Because we know giving all children opportunities and a future is the only way to create a peaceful, caring society.

We have to continue our fight, for university education for all, for EMA, for equal opportunities, for a future.

The second cause of the riots that we are collectively familiar with, is police brutality.  Many students experienced heavy-handed policing for the first time this year.  The student protestors were charged with horses, kettled for hours on end, beaten with batons and arrested arbitrarily.  Police brutality is something poor communities, particularly young black men, have been familiar with for decades.

The police murdered Mark Duggan.   333 people have died in police custody since 1998.  And yet, the general public is calling for more police powers, for more robust and tougher policing.

We have to stand up and recount our experiences of police brutality: to remind people that the police, given half the chance, will attack all sectors of society.  We must stand in solidarity with those facing absurdly disproportionate prison sentences, like the student imprisoned for six months for stealing a £3.50 bottle of water.  We have to show our solidarity with the young men who are stopped-and-searched everyday just because of their age and the colour of their skin.

There is a protest in London tomorrow to ‘Give our Kids a Future’.  If you’re in London, please attend.  If you live in other parts of the UK, organize similar demos in your area.

When the next academic year starts, we need to re-energize, re-mobilize and keep education on the agenda.

Solidarity.

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Filed under Education, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests

When Peter Singer was right: why we should give to the East Africa appeal

“As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care.  The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable…”

“At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the situation in any significant way.  Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed towards providing the refugees with the means to satisfy their essential needs.”

History repeating itself – a sad but true cliché.  As Britain is embroiled in a media scandal, thousands of people are slowly starving to death in East Africa, largely unnoticed.

Peter Singer has lost a few fans in the UK following the New College for Humanities scandal.   He did, however, write one of the most significant articles in contemporary political philosophy, “Famine, Affluence and Morality” .  His argument is worth re-stating here to remind us of why we should all be donating to the East African crisis appeal .

Singer begins with the assumption that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.”  He argues, “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

This principle seems obvious, but in reality, it fundamentally challenges the way we live our lives in consumer societies.  To prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we would have to give up almost everything we own until the level of marginal utility; that is, until the level where we have the most basic standard of living necessary to survive.

Singer argues that this is morally correct.  He admits, however, that the demanding nature means that most people will not adopt such a principle.  He suggests instead that, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought morally to do it.”

For example, if you walk past a shallow pond where a child is drowning, you ought to go into the pond and save the child.  All you are sacrificing are wet, muddy clothes and a loss of time; these are not as morally significant as the death of a child.

What does this mean for individuals in developed countries?  Singer suggests, it means not buying new clothes, or a new car, or whatever consumer item you feel you need, but giving that money to famine relief.  If what you already own is acceptable, owning these items is not of comparable moral significance to the death of an individual due to famine.  It would not be good of you to give that money to famine relief, it would not be an act of charity; it is a moral obligation.

If you can prevent something bad from happening (death through starvation) without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (clothes, booze, electronics), you ought morally to do it.

What’s wrong with this argument?  Well, it is an argument about individual morality.  We know that the causes of poverty and famine are structural.  So simply appealing to individual morality is inadequate.  We need to rethink and transform the political and economic structures that allow chronic poverty and famine to occur.  Individual morality, however, is a good place to start.

If you are still not convinced, let me suggest a further reason why you should donate.  Famine is not a natural disaster; it is man-made.  As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy.  While the years of drought that have precipitated the crisis in East Africa are natural phenomena, the ability to cope with this is not.  A functioning government, which can fairly distribute food and resources, can prevent disaster.

Why doesn’t that exist in these countries?  Bad governance?  Partly, yes.  But also as a result of IMF policies that prevented them from developing viable public sectors.  In the 90s, the IMF demanded developing countries open their markets to foreign direct investment (FDI) if they wanted to keep receiving loans.

Foreign multinational corporations and governments have bought up the most fertile land in these countries, leaving wasteland for those who live there.  This neo-colonial land grab, designed to keep Western countries functioning at their current levels of consumption, has also gone largely unnoticed.

Have you lobbied British companies that are involved?  Have you checked if you pension fund or bank is involved?  Have you written to your MP condemning this heinous practice?  No?  We are all complicit in this – this famine, and the next one, and the next one.  It’s time, at the very least, to mitigate some of its effects.

So instead of going to the pub tonight and spending £50 on booze and partying, give it to the DEC.  As Singer has shown us this isn’t a matter of choice, it’s a moral imperative.

Quotes from Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, reprinted in Thom Brooks ed., The Global Justice Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008

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Filed under Democracy, Human Rights, Uncategorized