Policing Universities by Neoliberal Governments in the UK And France

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The respective motivations, and their specific underlying conditions, are of course different in the UK and France, but both culminate in plans for universities to curb the expression of leftist points of view.

In the UK this gives a potential pulpit to “maverick” speakers on the right, such as Steve Bannon, who (facetiously?) approved the delivery of pipe bombs to critics of Trump, and who lost his book deal for having a favourable view of underage sex.

In France, the incoherent neologism “Islamo-leftism/ islamo-gauchisme” is applied to a fantasized political alliance between leftists and Islamists. The aim here of France’s centre-right (led by president Macron) is to steal the wind from its far-right (led by Marine Le Pen), by showing that Macron’s credentials on Islamophobia are just as impeccable as Le Pen’s.

The neoliberal governments in both countries are facing failures of their respective political agendas, and seek to deflect or distract from the ensuing short-term messes.

At the same time, these distractions and deflections have longer-term accompaniments, however vague and fantasy-imbued the latter may be.

The UK Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced he will introduce legislation that will enable academics, students or visiting speakers to sue universities for compensation if they believe they have suffered free speech infringements. Williamson also said he would appoint a “free speech czar” and place new conditions regarding speech on universities that depend on public funding.

The vast majority of UK universities are publicly funded— only 6 of its 130 universities are private, so Williamson’s threat to these universities is very real.

The Tory proposals add fuel to hot-air concerns in the pro-Conservative media that right-wing speakers are being denied the right to express their opinions on campuses.

“Right-wing” in this case is an umbrella term, encompassing homophobes, Christian zealots, Islamophobes, Zionists, peddlers of racism, climate-change deniers, and so forth.

Williamson, in his rush to get his proposals through, couldn’t even get his facts right.

He, and several other Tories, relied heavily on a 2019 “research” report by the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange for information regarding a free speech “crisis” on UK campuses.

An example cited in the report, and mentioned in the House of Commons, alleged that the highly-ranked Cardiff university allowed the feminist Germaine Greer to be denied a platform in 2015 on the grounds that she has a record of making “transphobic” comments. However, the Greer event went ahead.

The head of Cardiff university is now demanding that this falsehood be fully corrected for the parliamentary record.

Williamson is having to resort to confected culture wars to draw attention away from the battle he’s had with teachers ever since the serial Covid lockdowns were put in place. Rightwingers in his party want students and teachers to return to school without having adequate test, trace, and isolation procedures, and a fast-track programme for vaccinating teachers, in situ.

Teachers aside, the Tories view the vaccines as a silver bullet, but medical experts caution that this can’t be the case until satisfactory test, trace, and isolation procedures exist.

All schools in England will return on March 8, a “big bang” in contrast with the phased reopening of schools in devolved Scotland and Wales— teachers in England have insisted on having the more cautious phased reopenings enjoyed by their colleagues in Scotland and Wales.

Serious issues face UK higher education as a result of the pandemic. Hundreds of employees at universities are facing redundancy, after large numbers of “gig” academics had their jobs axed last year. Neoliberal restructuring, under the guise of “recovery packages”, is creating lay-offs and increasing the workloads of those with jobs.

Misled by ministers and vice chancellors (the UK equivalent of a university president) into assuming they were going to have a relatively normal university experience, students are now under the cosh as well: a recent survey found that 9% have used foodbanks during the pandemic. Students have also paid £1bn/$1.42bn rent for empty rooms over the past year.

There are allegations that students were lured back to campuses in order sign contracts for accommodation containing a non-refundable clause before being told that classes were going to be online—the hapless students might as well have stayed at home, accessed online classes there, and avoided signing their rip-off accommodation contracts.

Unlike the 1960s and 70s, when I studied at English universities, campus lodging is now almost completely outsourced to private companies. These companies donate handsomely to the Tory party, which therefore has no interest in overturning campus housing arrangements clearly detrimental to the majority of students.

But instead of dealing with these failings, the Tories have decided to place a smoke-screen around them by generating a new round of headlines for its opportunistic culture war.

On what grounds does a body politic tolerate its intolerables where speech is concerned?

When does a right to free speech start to curtail the rights of those who might be the targets of that speech?

Where do the margins between free speech and hate speech lie, and who should regulate them?

These are complex and recurrent questions that have persisted over the ages precisely because they are so difficult to resolve.

Where John Milton, Voltaire, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and others have struggled with these hugely complicated issues, a nincompoop like the UK secretary of education presumes that cut-and-dried solutions provided by right-wing think tanks are begging to be implemented.

The situation in France is somewhat different. The proposed Tory “free speech” laws are widely regarded as being impossible to enforce— if you are forced to give Steve Bannon a platform, then how can you justify banning a eugenicist flying under the flag of pseudo-science?

France proposes to target reputable left-wing scholars (among others), with their trails of publications and public speeches, and these will be much easier to corner than this or that crazily malevolent speaker sounding-off on a UK campus.

“Islamo-leftism” is intended to refer to a purported convergence between leftist academics who work on race, intersectionality or de-colonial/post-colonial studies, and fantasized “Islamic extremists” somehow bent on overthrowing an “Americo-Zionist” hegemony.

This kind of nonsense would normally be given short shrift, but for the fact that it is resonating in the upper echelons of French government.

To quote CounterPuncher Philippe Marlière:

“So why such a fuss about “Islamo-leftism”? Academics who work on intersectionality, race or decolonial issues take gender-related and race-related discriminations and inequalities seriously. Their research findings are therefore unpalatable to the government which upholds the view that there is no structural sexism and racism in France, or nothing to discuss about France’s colonial past. Hence the concerted attacks on “critical academics” to discredit their work and silence them”.

Both Macron in France and the Tories in the UK are riding the tigers of their respective right-wing populisms.

Their game is to do as much as possible to avoid having far-right opponents out-flank them, and splitting their right-wing voting blocs in the process. For now, centre-right politicians in France and the UK are more concerned about Marine Le Pen and Trump-fan Nigel Farage than they are about left-wing rivals.

This approach, combined with the absence of credible opposition to the left in both cases, has succeeded up to now.

Both Macron and the Tories have been disasters for their respective electorates. Which only renders imperative the emergence of a strong left in both countries.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.