The teenagers and twenty-somethings who have come close to toppling the Greek government are not the marginalised: this is no replay of the riots that convulsed Paris in 2005. Many are sons and daughters of the middle classes, shocked at the killing of one of their own, disgusted with the government's incompetence and corruption, enraged by the broken promises of the education system, scared at the prospect of having to work still harder than their exhausted parents.Much of this commentary is specifically about Greece, but it also illustrates something much more generic. The economic model that has been the elite consensus for around thirty years is collapsing. The experiment in privatisation, marketisation and deregulation that had replaced the post-war social democratic settlement is in crisis.
The shock of the credit crunch has focused minds and the media on the nature of unregulated finance, but, arguably, the social consequences of the change in political economy have been felt for far longer. Of course it was the poorest who were the first to be hit.
In the developing world, public provision was drastically diminished by the effects of Structural Adjustment Packages in the wake of the world debt crisis. In this country, the loss of employment and the erosion of the welfare state had a devastating impact on communities locked in a downward spiral. Nick Davies wrote in Dark Heart, his 1997 book of social reportage, about the Hyde Park area in Leeds:
And yet, repeatedly, the people of Hyde Park told the City Council team that they wanted to improve themselves. Among the workless, 86.5 per cent said that the wanted to go back to school or college. Lone parents had the same message: 69.7 per cent of them wanted more education. But few of them obtained it. They had no one to look after their children, they lacked the essential qualifications, some of them could not read or write, many of them could not afford it or could not find college places. So, they were stuck. The welfare state that might once have helped them was no longer able to do so.I have always appreciated that passage as it gives the lie to the notion that the under-representation of working class people in education is due solely to their 'low aspirations' rather than the structural failings of our public services.
It had retreated like an exhausted mother, too tired to offer her children anything but indifference.
However, apparently these are middle class protests. How can a middle class that has prospered be discontented? Here the answer is generational. For the past few years there has been the unedifying sound of privileged people pulling ladders up behind them. For instance, in higher education, ministers who owe their position to full grants and, often, adult education, have been busy ensuring that those benefits are not extended to their children or grandchildren in order to avoid questioning their faith in low personal taxation.
There certainly is a belief that increased public provision is both desirable and possible, but also one that it is unaffordable unless partly funded through greater productivity (doing more with less) and that grim euphemism, efficiency gains. The result in higher education has been rising staff-student ratios and pressure on staff recruitment; it is now not just a middle class profession, but also a very middle aged one. Ally this to the costly introduction of managerial models throughout the public sector and the squeeze is on.
In post-school education, the result has been a mantra about transferring the costs of education directly to the beneficiaries through higher fees and a system of loans. This amounts to a poll tax on the student. Whatever the outcome of your degree - social worker or merchant banker - you pay the same. This has been justified by dubious theories, such as 'the knowledge economy', or by distinctly dodgy statistics about the average earnings premium a graduate can expect. The consequence of such thinking is that, at all levels, education is now being mainly seen in instrumental and economic terms.
So what if the expected benefit never emerges? What happens when people who have invested heavily in the degree that should be the passport to gainful employment end up out of work or in menial, low paid and temporary jobs? The other benefits of education hardly matter when all that it has been sold on is a passport to wealth rather than wisdom. And, of course, UK universities have been subsidising themselves with the higher fees of overseas students, many of them Greek, paying for degrees that may have little or no market value.
Yet this is not all. One of the drivers of neo-liberalism has been the effective marketing of a particular type of materialism. What if people stop wanting it? Say they want a different type of prosperity instead, one based on greater economic security and on collective goods. Margaronis again,
Instead of education, values and understanding, the young are being sold an aspirational "lifestyle" they can't afford, which many of them don't want.The market may be deciding against the market.
I have no doubt that the demand for clever, useful technology and nice clothes will continue, consumerism is not dead, nor do I think that there is any desire for a lessening of personal liberty. Instead, patterns of demand may change, and none more so than in political choice, the preferred ideas of political economy. To the incomprehension of mainstream leaders, popular solutions to the ongoing crisis may well be found in libertarian forms of social democracy or even, heaven forbid, democratic socialism. And, if so, we may see more than a struggle for the restoration of middle class privilege, instead this could be the starting point for the emergence of a more egalitarian polity.