One recent evening Insider watched the 1967 Jean-Luc Godard film La Chinoise in which a small group of French students sit around their apartment, located in what is described as a “workers’ district”, and engage in theatrical discussions about how they must overthrow the bourgeoise and, in particular, the hierarchal French university system which saw students as passive receivers of knowledge handed down by their god-like professors, rather than participants in a dialectical exchange in which both students and teachers learn from each other and grow as a result. No one, with the exception of chairman Mao, is radical enough for most of these students. The French Communist Party which, to draw an Irish parallel, would have been more or less the political equivalent of present day Sinn Féin, is condemned as hopelessly “revisionist”. The Soviet Union, in particular its then president, the now largely forgotten Mr Kosygin, is convicted by the students at their kitchen table discussions of failing to do enough to support the Vietnamese in their war against Lyndon Johnson. And the French working class, with whom said kitchen table debaters absolutely sympathise, are seen as hopelessly passive. In a mix of desperation, madness, and idealism, the students decide to mount a campaign of terrorism, which will involve them doing something they have singularly failed to do for most of the film; getting up from that kitchen table and going outside. They plan to kill the visiting Soviet minister for culture who has been invited by President de Gaulle’s own culture minister, the novelist and decayed Stalinist intellectual Andre Malraux, to open a new wing of the university. After that, they hope to bomb the Sorbonne in the belief that this will spark a revolution. Insider is against blowing up universities. Partly because he knows such actions more often provoke backlash than revolution. But also because Insider happens to teach at a university and coming out in favour of blowing up universities might lead to an awkward email from one’s department head.
On the subject of killing ministers for culture, Insider is, as the late Conor Cruise O’Brien might have put it, a little more ambivalent. Insider is involved in an arts organisation which receives regular funding from the Department of Arts and Culture, but that isn’t the main reason I’d be, on balance, against killing the minister. More problematic for me are the legal difficulties for any students involved in such an assassination attempt. In 1967 the kitchen table ravings of those French students must have seemed to most sensible people, the sort who were they around now would think Paschal Donohue is an intellectual, as certain to come to zero. And yet, a few months later, French students battled riot police on the streets of Paris, there was a general strike which even the weather forecasters joined, and de Gaulle seriously considered going into exile in West Germany.
Insider thinks it all but certain that there will be a youth revolt of a similar scale in Ireland in the next year or two. Our under 25-year-olds are one of the groups onto whom the burden of austerity was thrown to an entirely disproportionate extent in the years after 2008, partly because politicians think young people will not vote and believe their own propaganda about the inherent apathy of the young, with their endless video games and addiction to Spotify. Social Protection payments to those in that age group were slashed, and have not been restored. Young people’s lives have to a large extent been put on hold by the housing crisis, as successive governments containing Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour, the Greens, the bogman independents, and Shane Ross have pursued policies benefiting landlords, builders, and banks. Insider’s parents were 28-years-old when they owned their first house; and this was not at all exceptional at the time. There is no prospect of any self-supporting 28-year-old becoming a homeowner in Ireland now. The younger generation are forced to choose between paying robbery rents or moving back in with their parents, all in the great cause of recreating an Ireland in which those who gave us such dazzling successes as the Corrib Great Southern Hotel can continue their parasitic existence. The surprise success of Sinn Féin in February’s General Election was a warning to our overlords and ladies. It was in large part driven by young and working class voters, who saw voting Sinn Féin as a way of giving the establishment a good kicking over the housing crisis.
But in Insider’s view, it is the intersection of the neoliberal education system and the global pandemic that could push the temperature among our under 25-year-olds beyond boiling point. In recent years, all Irish universities have become money making machines of which Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand would be pretty proud. Students have been packed in like chickens awaiting chlorination. The joke is that if a spare cupboard is found at NUI Galway, then within five minutes some administrative genius has come up with an innovative, forward thinking way of filling said cupboard with students, many of whom are taught by lecturers who are on what are effectively zero hours contracts. A couple of things have conspired to keep students relatively quiet over the past few years. Semesterisation means they are forced to stumble from one deadline to the next. The days when students could live the life and then cram madly in the last few months to get the exams are as distant a memory as people knowing who Dick Spring is, or thinking that Fergal Sharkey is cool. And, until Covid, many students had part time jobs to help pay the rent. They were busy people. Since March a high percentage of those jobs have evaporated. So students have both less money and far more time to sit around kitchen tables discussing stuff. Insider suspects that young people having too much time to think about things will lead to them eventually leaving the house and doing things your average Sunday Independent columnist will not like.
The fact that Irish universities persuaded their students to book accommodation in Galway, Limerick, Cork, and Dublin when they knew full well nearly all teaching would be online may be the point at which our young people’s patience cracks. Now, they are effectively locked down in mostly shabby student accommodation, with no prospect of a social life for the foreseeable. And this lack of social interaction is an altogether more fundamental matter for people of that age than it is for ageing relics such as Insider. I have had my day. This was meant to be their day.
The reaction to events at the Spanish Arch recently show that, if they are perceived to have stepped out of line, our young people can expect to face the full force of the junk tabloids. On that occasion Galway’s supreme contribution to the theatre of the absurd, Senator Ollie Crowe of Bohermore, famously called on the Government to use the military against the students. The quiet truth of what happened at the Spanish Arch appears to be rather different from the fevered visions in his mind. Last week one of Insider’s students told him that she was at the Spanish Arch that evening and that people where initially “all apart in their little groups. But then a stupid fight broke out between two guys and the Guards turned up and pushed everyone together.” It was the picture of the crowds pushed together by the Guards which featured on the cover of all the newspapers. Of course said “newspapers” neglected to mention the role the Gardai played in creating those scenes. At this point, Insider recalls some words of Brendan Behan; “I have never seen a situation so bad that a policeman could not make it worse.” It is a crucial point in a thinking young person’s life when they realise that what the newspapers say, and what the nine o’clock news says, is not – on some pretty vital matters – anything like the truth.
It is a matter of time, Insider thinks, before such knowledge combines with the reality of their being locked up in dodgy apartments for the winter, to be liberated sometime next year into who knows what, creates a hurricane of anger which will hopefully blow the political fluff that is Micheal Martin, Leo Varadkar, and Eamon Ryan off the stage more permanently than any mere general election ever could.