Dissensus, the Right to Education & A New Latin American Student Movement

by | 14 Dec 2011

Recently, there have been the rumblings of an emergent pan-Latin American student movement. Crucially, this potential movement coheres around the demand for a right to education. In Colombia and Chile a new front is being fought against the creation and maintenance of private education and the implicit commodification of learning. However, this emergent trans-continental rights-demand is not simply another traditional usage of rights. Very often, when we hear ‘human rights’ we think about them in the most legalistic of senses. They are fetishized as that which the state may guarantee for the subject. As noted by all sorts of critical theorists, such an identification leads to a thorough limitation of political agency. The political subject is figured simply as the individual in need of the state’s protection. I have recently argued, in Human Rights and Constituent Power, that we must begin to think about a different human rights, a differential human rights. This idea of rights would have, as its condition of existence, a fundamentally split nature. On one side is the closure implicit in the juridical form, but on the other is the radical political demand to reshape the world. I have suggested that we might term this second limb ‘right-ing’ – in that it is a potent and creative process rather than something which is always already given. Let me develop the idea a little more in the context of the radical demand for a right to education instantiated in Chile and Colombia.

As already noted on this blog: the ‘Chilean Winter’ has seen massive student demonstrations against one of the most privatized educational systems in the world. Joined by trade unions and other left organizations, the students have mobilized and manifested themselves in public space. They have fought for the re-establishment of public institutions which would be run on a not-for-profit basis. They have argued against the private universities and secondary schools that render education as a commodity.
In Colombia, in early October 2011, the Santos government introduced a complex law (Ley 30) which sought to privatize the remaining public universities and increase non-state control of academics under the guise of increasing funding. In a powerful response, students began to organize acts of public protest, culminating with a nationwide protest on November 10th. They combined with labour unions, their lecturers and secondary school students to demand a right to education. They looked to the Chilean and UK student protests, the Spanish Indignados and their own traditions and histories of resistance. In the face of such a massive protest from across Colombian society, the government – as in Chile and the UK – first threatened and then used ‘forcefully… the legal arm of state repression.’ However, on the 16th of November, in what should be seen as a victory for the global student movement, the government unconditionally withdrew Ley 30.

The use of the right to education in this context is important, as it demonstrates the poverty of limp legalism in human rights. The legalistic understanding would see the Colombian and Chilean human rights claims as a demand on the state to recognise certain interests. It would seek to structure a ‘proper’ human rights struggle, where: the students should demand, in a non-violent and productive negotiation, (further) recognition of a justiciable right to education in legislation or in a constitutional setting. If they were successful in this, they could then apply to the courts to find out what the correct balancing of interests would be. Such a monological approach, however, misses the nuance of the students’ demand for rights. It places the juridical above the political, and hollows out the possibility of rights-demands. Now, I think you would find very few human rights activists who would take such an absolute position – rejecting the student’s demands for rights because it does not ‘properly’ focus upon the juridical. However, in a much more subtle fashion, many human rights lawyers will practice precisely such an exclusion. All too often we see the hegemony of the juridical reperformed in both the research questions set by academics, in the classrooms where human rights are taught, or in activist strategy meetings. The hegemony of legalism operates by generating a ‘taken for granted’ role and content of human rights. My argument about a differential conception of human rights attempts to rupture this ‘taken for granted’, by denying any ‘proper’ human rights. Put into the language of the UDHR, it would reject the pacification implicit in Article 30. This is the article which seeks to establish human rights as a coherent and monological doctrine. It enshrines the idea that human rights must be balanced and measured, thus placing the juridical decision or political consensus at the heart of human rights. While there may be dissonance between rights in certain instances, this must be settled in a final decision or consensus.

What the Latin American student movement undertakes when it demands the radical reshaping of education, when it resists commodification of knowledge, and when it challenges the hegemony of the usual political actors, is ‘right-ing’. That is, the use of right as political weapon, a tool of dissensus. The right to education does not settle political conflict, but rather it generates a demand for a more just world, and raises hell in doing so. Dissensus, here, is an important term as Rancière explains. For him dissensus is the ‘essence of politics’. But it does not mean simple political antagonism:

‘Disagreement’ and ‘dissensus’ do not imply that politics is a struggle between camps; they imply that it is a struggle about what politics is, a struggle that is waged about such original issues as:… ‘who are we?’, ‘What makes us a we’, ‘what do we see and what can we say about it that makes us a we, having a world in common?’ Those paradoxical, unthinkable objects of thinking mark… the places where the question ‘How is this thinkable at all?’ points to the question: ‘who is qualified for thinking at all?’ (Rancière)

With this we get precisely to the point. What is at stake in the students’ struggle for the right to education is not simply some mysterious object that we call ‘education’. Rather, in struggling for the right, they are themselves thinking about the ‘we’ that struggles. In a beautiful irony, this sense of right-ing is revealed precisely by the various ministers who decry the lost classroom time for students. They demand that the students stop striking and stop protesting because they are missing their lessons on law, politics, literature and history. The irony is that in this process of occupying classrooms the young people are learning what school could never teach: that is, what it is to be a political subject, what it is to write and speak together, what it is to be the object of illegitimate police violence, and what it is to create dissensus. In the demand for the right to education, the students educate themselves, thereby opening the right itself to redefinition. In fact, we could go further and say that they open the rights-claim itself to redefinition. But that is for another day. For now, it is worth noting the radical use and significance of the right to education in this context.


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