#FeesMustFall critiques neoliberalism

Is free education possible? Within a capitalist economy this depends on available government funds and the time and conditions needed for economic growth. But it could be this very system that is at the heart of the problem.

Politics PhD candidate from Rhodes University, Mike Muvura, says: “At face value, #FeesMustFall is a struggle about free education.  But whether the participants are conscious of it or not – it is a movement that questions, critiques and resists a particular form of neo-liberalism.”

In case you were wondering, neoliberalism is the form of capitalism that dominates the global economy. It encourages the free exchange of goods and services, and discourages government intervention in the free market. Instead of services being a public good, private ownership of them is encouraged, and it calls for reduced government spending. This is all for the bottom line: maximising profit and economic growth.

This is significant in terms of #FeesMustFall because protesters are fighting to make higher education a public good instead of it merely being a commodity to be bought and sold. Many have criticised the corporatisation, and commodification, of higher education. Students are doing the same. They want education to be free and universal.

“Are rights that have to be paid for by individuals still rights or they are services?”

In Chapter 2 Section 29 of the South African Bill of Rights, it states that: “(1) Everyone has the right— (a) to a basic education, including adult basic education; and (b) to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.”

One of the questions driving the debate around Fees Must Fall is whether education is a right or a privilege. As articulated by Muvura, students have arguably brought this question to the table: “Are rights that have to be paid for by individuals still rights or they are services?”

Students have also stood against the exploitative tendencies of capitalism by aligning with workers against outsourcing at the University of Cape Town. Outsourcing is possible because of “labour brokering”, one of the features of neoliberalism in South Africa. In this system, companies do not hire labourers directly but through a labour broker. In this system,  labourers are more vulnerable to exploitation.

Mavuru points out how students have also criticized the police and their explicit concern with protecting ‘private’ property in opposition to protecting human life. Neoliberal capitalism protects private property but arguably violates the dignity of people through exasperating poverty and inequality.

“Free education is a matter of political will, not funds.”

Perhaps the most interesting way in which protesters have critiqued capitalism is in their attention to the system as a whole. According to author Leonhard Praeg, in his piece “This Impossible Politics II”, the #MustFall movement not only critiques particular injustices such as gender inequality, institutional racism, and fees, but connects the dots between them.

After all, as echoed by Steven J Klees, “Neoliberal capitalism is also racialist capitalism, patriarchal capitalism, plutocratic and monopoly capitalism.” The links between these different elements serve to protect them, and the system is more powerful because its entirety is obscured.

Praeg outlines author Andre Drainville’s claim that ‘neo-liberal governance’ in South Africa functions through a “divide and rule” logic. There are different structures, like ‘Task-Teams’ or ‘Commissions of Enquiry’, set up for different issues. Issues such as gender equality, institutional culture, and racism on campus fall into separate conversations. This ensures that any change takes place within the neo-liberal framework.

This practice is, according to Praeg, well demonstrated by the ministerial ‘Task Team’ on the higher education crisis which consists mostly of ministers from the security cluster and not the Minister of Finance.

“The #MustFall movement not only critiques particular injustices such as gender inequality, institutional racism, and fees, but it connects the dots between them.”

Students are putting the pieces together and are critiquing a failing social order. But this totalizing aspect of #FeesMustFall has seldom made it into mainstream media. “Such kind of introspection does not make for catchy headline news bulletins mainly concerned with the spectacle around the movement,” says Muvura.

But is there an alternative to neoliberalism? Rhodes University economics lecturer, David Fryer, has tried to illuminate the social democratic ‘solution’, which sees social services like education as rights. A social democracy is a political, social, and economic model which supports economic and social intervention to achieve social justice in society.

Some argue that social democracies can only succeed in rich countries, such as the Nordic states. But this is not true. Fryer says those countries did not wait until they could afford free education; it was a part of their political culture. Free education is a matter of political will, not funds.

“The question should not be ‘Is free education possible?’, but rather ‘Is free education possible within this neo-liberal system?'”

Fryer says that the top tax bracket in South Africa for individual tax is 41 %. But corporate tax is relatively low, especially for the mining industry. Social democracy calls for a complete re-think of taxation and the priorities of capital investment.

As Patrick Bond has recently said in The Daily Maverick: “The public good is not served by Treasury over-funding damaging mega-projects, or providing massive loan guarantees to the likes of Molefe, or underfunding universities and the rest of society, or letting the corporates and ultra-rich escape paying their fair share of taxes.”

So far the call for free higher education has been answered only by neoliberal solutions. It is hardly surprising if this has gone unnoticed; they say the fish are the last to discover the sea. It is also hardly surprising that when the fish finally do make a discovery, as the students have, that there is a tidal  wave.

The greatest power of social movements is their ability to make the public pause and reflect. The question should not be “Is free education possible?”, but rather “Is free education possible within this neo-liberal system?” And perhaps more importantly, “If the system is a part of the problem, can it really provide a sustainable solution?”

Photo: Fees Must Fall protesters march in Pretoria. Photo source: Paul Saad, Flickr

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