The quest for Basisdemokratie, that is, democracy from the base or grassroots, lives on in Austria, as students celebrated the one-year anniversary of the “Uni brennt” protest this past weekend in Vienna. Inspired partly by our own University of California walkout in September 2009, students at the University of Vienna took over their largest lecture hall, called the “Audimax” (short for “Auditorium Maximum”), on Oct. 22, 2009 and stayed there for two months.
The protesters voted to name their movement “Uni brennt,” which literally means “the university is burning.” Figuratively, it means something closer to “We’re shaking things up.” The new protest spirit spread quickly to neighboring Germany and created a scene of political intensity on university campuses in Central Europe that had not been seen in over 40 years.
The protests began in response to the neoliberal economic reforms being promoted by politicians and government bureaucrats. They subscribe to a consumer model of the world economy in which societal progress and the general welfare is measured mostly in monetary terms. For higher education, this means that universities should be tied in more closely with globalized financial circuits by promoting “partnerships” between universities and private-sector businesses. It also seeks to turn education into a commodity that is marketed more according to the laws of supply and demand, where admissions are limited and higher quality universities are able to attract students who are willing to pay higher tuition fees.
In short, the neoliberal worldview involves a shallow interpretation of human creativity. It supposes that the intellectual growth of humankind has its deepest roots in economic activity. History has shown, however, that while economics does play some sort of role (for example, in geometry having its beginnings in ancient Egyptian agriculture), the biggest leaps in human creativity, from Pythagoras to Newton to Einstein, were made by those who were motivated by more deeply embedded psychological forces – forces of the human spirit.
“Medicine, law, business, engineering – these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.” That’s how it was put in the movie Dead Poets Society. It doesn’t mean that doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and engineers can’t lead deeply creative and rewarding lives in their fields, but that they should do so by being motivated by the intangible sense of reward that practical achievement brings, not by being driven primarily by financial concerns.
The archived livestream videos of the Uni brennt protesters show intelligent and deeply engaged students debating some of these deeper issues of life and how they relate to current political concerns. While there was plenty of music and occasional dancing in the occupied lecture halls last year, those were side activities which did not detract from the serious workshops and plenum presentations that formed the political backbone of the protests.
Now, one year later, Austrian ministers and politicians have finally proposed modest increases in the governmental funding of universities. But just as is happening here in California, they are attempting to accomplish those increases, in part, by cutting aid to families.
This year, last Tuesday, the university rectors (chancellors) in Austria got in on the protest fever by announcing special general assemblies (“Vollversammlungen”) where students debated and voted on resolutions. While the rectors stopped short of supporting the idea of general student strikes, nevertheless the gesture of calling for the assemblies was supported and appreciated by the student protesters. Even the police seemed to indicate a willingness to tolerate further occupations, such as this year’s one-day Audimax occupation, so long as they are not intended to be of indefinite duration, like last year’s protest.
Protests of this sort serve the primary purpose of sending out a loud message, and the Uni brennt protesters surely achieved that goal. The press calls them the “Audimaxisten,” which, as a play on words, means “those who speak with loud voices.” Last year’s protests indeed proved highly effective in drawing attention to the plight of the universities there. This year’s anniversary protests are proving to be similarly effective. We can only hope that the protesters will eventually achieve their goal of making sure that the long-range plans of their universities are made democratically, in processes that include students, and are made by those who understand the true purpose of universities and how they should be run. Die Uni brennt!
If you’re borrowing to the hilt to pay for your education, let BRIAN RILEY know how you feel at firstname.lastname@example.org.