Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

How students turned on the working class – UnHerd

Posted by M. C. on November 26, 2022

And supporters argue that this change is driven by students themselves. But it’s less universally well-supported by ordinary Britons outside rarefied social and political circles. When, last week, Streatham MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy loudly applauded a Cambridge Union vote in favour of Britain paying reparations for past imperial depredations, the response from the general public was cynical. At the more polite end were accusations that “a prominent subset of the elite want to take money away from working Britons and give it to governments who openly hate us”. At the less polite end, responses were more along the lines of …

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

Every idealistic student dreams of changing the world. In 1848, they actually succeeded. In urban capitals across Europe, revolutions broke out that year — with students playing a key role in many uprisings. That year launched a political alliance that has held for many subsequent social transformations: between young, radical bourgeois intellectuals — whether still studying or recently-graduated — and the industrial working class.

But that alliance is now faltering, and the search is on for a new one between young radical intellectuals and the wider masses. And whatever form it takes, it’s far from clear that it will follow the progressive lines that have characterised youth politics for the last two centuries.

The politics of students, and of that ambiguous class of 20-somethings whose lifestyle remains studenty even after graduation, has been a meaningful force for change ever since young people began flocking to higher education. For a new wave of higher-education institutions was, as historian Sheldon Rothblatt argues, inseparable from the class politics that emerged with that era.

In France, for example, the grandes écoles were founded after the French Revolution, and sought to shape a post-revolutionary elite to govern the country according to Enlightenment principles. These were the youth whose presence on the streets in 1848 was so conspicuous. In Prussia, meanwhile, a newly-powerful industrial bourgeoisie saw education as a key means of constructing a widespread national identity, which would serve their interests against the entrenched Prussian aristocracy.

Such institutions served as crucibles of national identity, finishing schools for the bourgeoisie — and also as a stretch of time in which young, idealistic, middle-class youth absorb high-minded ideas while remaining relatively free of economic and political obligations. It should come as no surprise, then, that such young people have often used that time to develop utopian visions, which they then seek to realise in the wider world.

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