Schools of Revolt

Schools of Revolt
undercurrent 6

For the past two months, the greek educational system has been brought to an almost complete standstill. A vast number of schools has been occupied, followed by numerous universities. Technical schools have joined in, a situation which no longer resembled the traditional occupations which take place near the Christmas holidays every year. In the streets of Athens and other major towns of greece, militant demonstrations of vast numbers took place, not experienced for a long time. Also, big road blocks by pupils were witnessed all around greece. Their common basis: the fight against the new education law 2525, which aims at restructuring the education system towards the advanced needs of capitalism. The ruling classes have started to react with panic, while the media have joined in the propaganda of the State, constantly speaking of non-educational elements taking over the occupations to turn them into drug-trafficking places. At the time that this article is being written the situation has not changed. A first analysis of the events is attempted here, with the underlying purpose of shedding light on a struggle that seems to escape the limits of education and to extend its critique to the totality of contemporary society.

Being still the most backward country of the European Union, greek capital has realised the imminent need to speed up the process of modernisation of the social relations - something the right-wing governments were obviously not able to accomplish. The election of K. Simitis (a personality heavily favoured by his European counter-parts, as their remarks following his electoral victory clearly demonstrate) as prime minister of the social-democratic government indicated that greece was entering a new phase of drastic changes. The PaSoK government was dedicated to implement the needs of capital, but it was under serious pressure to speed up this process in order to meet the requirements of the Maastricht Treaty and to join the 'festival' of the Single Market. It adopted a Thatcherite attitude and showed from the very beginning that nothing opposing their plans would be tolerated. Starting from a gradual restructuring of the work relations, and moving on to decreasing the number of farmers, the road to structural modernisation (read: hell) was paved with the determination of the government, the collaboration of the unions and the occasional use of the riot police. But this road had to eventually go through the educational system. And, as the integrated unionists exclaim, since the educational system is the channel through which the labour force is allocated in the production, its re-organisation was inherently necessary in every step of the restructuring of greek capital. Yet, their plans for the educational system did not proceed according to their wishes.

The greek educational system in the past

The emergence of social democracy as the commonly accepted model of social organisation in the 60's and 70's indicated a major opening of what was formerly a highly selective, elite school system to the majority of the population. Under the ideological banner of 'equal opportunity', the new school system was created so as to adapt into the populist outlook of the state, but its democratic image could not balance the reality of a class based society. The new educational system, being responsible for the selection of the future labour force, suddenly found itself at the centre of the major social conflicts.

The gradual collapse of social democracy highlighted the anachronistic character of the social democratic educational system. Important changes started to be considered, and the right wing government of the late seventies and early eighties attempted the first reforms, focusing on the need of directly connecting the universities to the market and introducing the notion of specialisation. Although these plans did not succeed under the conservative governments, the election of PaSoK in 1981 managed to gradually implement these changes.

In the winter of 1990-1991, the second major attempt of the right wing government to adapt the educational system to the advanced needs of capital was introduced. A major conflict broke out, quickly turning into a political crisis, with the eventual resignation of the minister of education. Once again, it became obvious to the ruling classes that the necessary changes had to be implemented by the 'socialist' PaSoK. Thus, in 1997, PaSoK voted in parliament (during the summer holidays of course) for the educational law 2525.

The law 2525/97

The new super-law is obviously all embracing. Starting from the teachers in the schools, it is then extended to the pupils and it finally alters the university system. Its overall purpose? The creation of the education-market, functioning totally on terms of its laws and priorities.

Concerning the teachers, the law essentially abolishes the previous way of employment. Under the old system the teachers would enter their name in a year list and wait to be appointed by the state. Although this system had its faults, it basically forced the state to treat all applicants on an equal basis, and it guaranteed permanent employment for those who were appointed. With the new system, this is being replaced with a further exam which effectively introduces the notion of failure, and forces those who fail the exams to become flexible/temp workers in search of employment outside the education system. In essence: it decreases the number of teachers by rendering those who fail unemployed, and, more importantly, personally guilty for their unemployment. For those who manage to pass the exam, a destiny not much better awaits them: their permanent assessment by state officials, with the ultimate aim of making them totally obedient workers.

In relation to the pupils, the new law transforms the schools into race tracks of competition. It attempts to decrease the number of those going into higher education and it does so by altering the system of entrance. While in the past, those who finished school would have three chances to go through an exam system in order to get into university, this is now being replaced by a constant exam period during the final years at school, which, among others, means that pupils now only have one chance to get into University. Those who do manage to get the paper indicating that they have finished school will be allowed to enter university, but the fact is that even less people will actually be able to get hold of that paper.

Through constant assessment in the school, the workload will be severely intensified. The fragmenting and alienating competition among the pupils will be increased, since high achievements in school will now be determinant of the pupils' future, and the class divisions already existing within the schools will be enlarged. Under the new system, those who do not 'perform' as well as the others will be sent to the TEE (technical schools), thus ensuring that their labour force is not wasted but skilfully absorbed in the production. The distinctions between the 'good' obedient pupils and the 'bad' disobedient ones will become the everyday experience of the pupils and the hallmark of the 'new' innovated education system.

Regarding the university students, the new law contains a series of changes in the programme studies that essentially indicates a shift to more market-oriented programmes. The university degree will suddenly be measured in terms of the credits that the individual student has collected throughout the years of university/misery life, in contrast to the previous system where every degree carried the same value regardless of the grade, thus increasing individual competition. But even when the students have managed to get the degree, they will then be forced to follow the new "flexible" studies' programmes (PSE) which will 'upgrade' their degree (i.e. add credits to it), and render them more flexible to exploitation. The new system brings forward the concept of 'life-long training', which effectively means that the students will constantly try to equip themselves with the 'necessary' qualifications to find what in the end turns out to be a temporary job, since the employer will prefer the graduate with the more modern qualifications (i.e. the more credits). Unemployment then cleverly becomes a matter of personal failure: it is your fault that you can't get a job, because you are unable to follow the PSE in order for your degree to be upgraded to the level of advanced exploitation.

The State presents, the Media represent

Although resistance to this law seems a rather obvious reaction from all sides, it is quite important to stress the crucial role played by the government and media propaganda in determining the public opinion against any sort of resistance to the government's plans. By pointing at the previous nature of the education system, and specifically at certain parts of it that were commonly accepted as wrong, the government aimed at presenting its reforms as an attempt to rid the educational system from all these undesirable elements.

Thus, for the teachers, the negative aspects of the old system were severely emphasised (the fact that some teachers had to wait for a long time before being appointed was prioritised as a negative aspect in relation to the plans of getting rid of a large number of them), so as to present the exam system as providing a more direct and meritocratic way of employment (or should we say unemployment). Moreover, the exams were supposed to improve the level of teaching, an argument which worked in a twofold way: on the one hand it appealed to those (parents, etc) who were complaining about the low level of teaching experienced in the state schools (without however questioning the fact that taking a three hour exam does not improve anyone's level. It has to be noted that the official language of the State sometimes replaced the minimal ability of thought among its passive recipients.) On the other hand, it created a further fragmentation between the pupils and the teachers, since, apart from seeing their teachers as personally responsible for the oppression and alienation they experience, the pupils sometimes identify these problems as stemming from the low level of the teachers. Thus, some pupils were ready to accept the proposed reforms as a means of improving the situation in the schools. Yet, although it is unavoidable, and indeed healthy, for the pupils to direct their anger towards those who represent this alienation, one of the most promising things of this movement was the fact that the pupils refused to accept the propaganda of the State and did make minimal -but crucial- connections with those of the teachers' who refused to accept the law and who, in one way or another, continued the movement of June.

In terms of the pupils the propaganda was more skilfully disguised. The old system of entering university through an examination at the end of school was indeed appalling. Pupils were supposed to learn whole books by heart, and were assessed almost in relation to how many comas and words they forgot to add when memorising the texts in their exam paper. Thus, when the minister proclaimed that with the new system everyone with a paper saying that they have finished school would get in university, a lot of people fell for it. Moreover, even when the actual reality of the new law started to become known and understood, a lot of people were ready to accept it on the pathetic grounds that at least some changes were made in the education system.

As for the students, not much needed to be added to the already generalised feeling of competition and submission to the new needs of capitalism. The majority of the students in greece already accept the status quo, and even if a lot of them voted for the occupations, it seemed as if this decision was more influenced by their desire to extend the Christmas holidays by a few weeks, than any actual opposition to the law. Moreover, the fact that quite a lot of students' occupations started to collapse one after the other shortly before the official holidays, indicated at that time that the students were not prepared to lose their term. Needless to say that once again, the social role of the student was exposed for what it actually is: a passive and universally despised role.

The pupils' occupations

The first occupations of the schools started in late October. Soon they spread out, and by early December more than 1000 schools (there are about 3500 schools in greece) were occupied, followed by numerous university occupations, all with the same 'demand': the complete withdrawal of the new law 2525/97. However, the form that the struggle took was not always as promising as its numbers.

So far as schools are concerned, it is crucial to understand that they are very separated from each other, something which does not allow a direct and constant solidarity among them. Apart from the spatial distance and a lack of communication channels, the schools are separated from each other on the basis of a peculiar but strong factor: the pupils of one school tend to identify with 'their' school as being 'the best' in the area, and disregard all other schools. This self-imposed ghetoisation makes some pupils very reluctant to accept -or sometimes even consider- the attempts of students or teachers (or whoever else) to extend the struggle and make valuable connections with other sections of society, a fact which is worsened by the existence of a 'Communist' party-led 'Pupils' Committee' which pretends to be the only true representative of the pupils' movement.

Loyal only to its dogmatism, the 'Communist' party (KKE) calls for local road blocks instead big demonstrations, and tries to eradicate any radical expressions of the pupils, who in the midst of the revolutionary situations they create, start to develop a more rigid critique of contemporary society and of its lackeys.

However, the 'Communist' party is obviously not in control of the movement, and many pupils have reacted very reasonably when facing them -in many schools, representatives of KKE have been violently kicked out. Furthermore, autonomous committees have been created to counteract the KKE one and their actions and leaflets managed to overcome the dead end of KKE's ideology and to radicalise the content of the struggle.

The Students

The students' position is different from that of the pupils. The experience of the political students has led them into rejecting the dogmatism of KKE, but has not led into a critique of ideology as such. Hence they are massively drawn into splinter left wing groups whose only difference to KKE is proportionate. Unable to understand or analyse contemporary society in a revolutionary way, the militant ideology of students stops them from developing a critique of student life. As such they only relate to the struggles in a spectacular way.

The most striking example is that of NAR (New Left Trend), a splinter group which disassociated itself from KKE only a few years ago, and which enjoys a certain dominance in the student milieu, but which has not equally disassociated itself from the dogmatism of Stalinism. Although more populist than actually Stalinist, NAR has always tried to impose itself as the uncontested leading group of any student struggle, with the purpose of increasing its power base and improving its militant image.

The rest of the left wing groups have not so far managed to contest the dominant image of NAR. Even though they personally disagree with its practices, they have proved totally useless in confronting them at a collective level.

However, it needs to be pointed out that not all student groups are in the same pathetic position. Some anarchist or autonomous groups have appeared with a more rigid critique of university, and they have tried to point out that the struggle is not a merely educational problem, nor is the specific law only a problem of education. In their leaflets, they have pointed out that the struggle should not confine itself to a mere opposition to this specific law but should extend to a generalised critique of the society the ruling classes are trying to build.

Although much credit should be given to them, their correct understanding of the underlying purposes of the law does not always lead them into an understanding that even if the law in itself was withdrawn, this would represent an important victory since it would mean that state and capital would be abandoning one of their major tools of modernisation in greece. Thus it is quite common to read anarchist leaflets stressing that the law 2525 should not be considered a priority, an argument which sometimes gives the impression that the particular struggle does not interest them.

The struggle continues...

The hopes of the government and the minister that the situation would de-escalate after the Christmas vacations were not satisfied. The pupils increased the amount of occupied schools, and the militant demonstrations did not stop. Yet, some things had changed.

For the government, the continuation of the struggle transformed the educational problem into a major political crisis. The stubborn attitude of the minister now demanded the (unwilling sometimes) support of the rest of the government, whereas the majority of the newspapers started demanding a solution dictated by the prime minister himself. At the same time, the government initiated a 'crisis committee' (composed of the ministers of education, law and order, internal affairs and justice) with the purpose of resolving the problem. The result was a major 'campaign' of 'distressed' parents (read: members of the party of PaSoK) attacking the occupied schools with the aim of physically stopping them.

On the other hand, the students' occupations were also increased, indicating that the pupils and students were determined to continue the struggle until the law was totally abolished. The pupils' response to the 'distressed parents' only meant that even more pupils stayed in the occupied schools to protect them, and that their dedication to the struggle became more fierce.

At that point the opposition party of the right wing proposed a vote of no confidence against the minister of education in parliament. This was a decisive move. At first it was treated with contempt by the left, since it indicated that the whole of PaSoK would be forced to fully support the minister of education, and as such he could not resign in the near future. However, this move was cleverer than that. The subsequent support of the whole party meant that the education problem was now officially a government crisis that could no longer be resolved by positioning the minister as the scapegoat, followed by a resignation from his post. The proposal of the opposition party meant that either the prime minister would force the minister of education to resign (thus causing serious internal problems) or else that the whole government would have to resign.

The struggle now

The situation at this moment seems to be at a halt from both sides. The passing of the law 2525/97 remains an unavoidable necessity for the government and Capital, but the situation seems to indicate that the government will be forced to back down, since the pupils are in a position now that they have nothing to lose by continuing for a few more weeks (whereas the government has).

The situation at the moment is explosive. The government's last chances depend on terrorising the pupils (Arsenis declared that many schools have effectively lost the winter term and would thus have to repeat the whole school year), while the pupils strongly depend on whether connections will be made with other sections of the population.

At this point, the necessity for the continuation of the struggle poses itself historically; the fight against the law 2525 will either go beyond the limits that the various professionals (unionists, students, 'communists', etc) seek to impose on it, or it will collapse. For the outcome will not only determine the future of greek modernisation, but it will also prove to be the basis upon which further struggles will be fought.

February 1999

(Some ideas for this article have been ripped off from the greek magazine TPTG )

An account of the June events outside the exam centres of greece is available at the Collective Action Notes website

postscript: this article was written when the pupils' movement was still going on, and reflects all the hopes that we carried at that time. Unfortunately, the movement lost, the education law 2525 was passed and nothing remains today of the struggle (apart of the proletarian memory). This was a crucial development. Greece had not seen a major struggle kick off since the early 90's, and many people (including us) placed many hopes on the potentials of the movement of 1999. To have won that struggle would have meant that the proletarian experience would have had a - small but important - victory in its history, a fact that would have aided it to face the struggles to come. These hopes were never realised. The results of this can be felt today.

When a new law announcing major changes in the work relations (institutionalisation of flexibility, temp work and the rest of capitalism's modern inventions) was announced last summer, many people thought that a fierce resistance would emerge. Workers were openly coming out saying that blood would have to be spilled before such a law would pass, the union hacks seemed to be at a loss, and the government was desperately trying to find some leeway through which its changes would be accepted with the less reaction. But, and although the situation is still ongoing, it seems to be the case that no major reaction is on the table. The General Confederation of Greek Workers (the main union) did call for two one-day general strikes before christmas, but participation in these was all but promising... Nothing is lost permanently and so long as the class struggle exists all hopes are permitted, but we cannot fail to notice that, had the law 2525 been scrapped due to the class struggle, further struggles would have had a ground upon which to stand and unleash their terrible, but yet only potential, strength.