We must give no oxygen to the idea of ‘neutrality’ in the politics of our student union. Such calls to depoliticise the union originate from a tiny minority of right-wing agitators who mislead students. The hinterland of this so-called movement is conservative ideology presented via populist rhetoric aimed to kill the union’s progressive policies and impede its ability to campaign for our rights. Ultimately, it is a demand for us to put our heads in the sand and refuse to live in the real world.
The vision for a neutral union is as follows. The crux is that it is forbidden from engaging in politics. The term politics is an artificial creation in this instance. It refers to a prohibition on adopting stances that may alienate a portion of the student body. This is two-fold. Firstly, national and international affairs deemed controversial according to conservative standards. Secondly, expressing opinions on political parties, systems and ideologies. Both of these should be consigned to the sacred space of personal opinion which the union has no right to violate.
This is the paradigm. Within it, the vision of the union has been narrowed. Its scope pruned. Immediately, we lose representation for our solidarity with Palestine as a student body because of a trickle of Zionist students. The representative arm of the union is reduced, serving to transform its holistic properties to piecemeal inputs in pre-existing institutional channels. Without a doubt, we are still represented in issues that directly impact us. The union continues to raise issues of housing, fees and transport. However, they have been stripped of their political context. Within College, our worries are raised via various committees, while in national matters, the union submits to government consultations, attends town halls and emails officials. The work done by the union will be immaculate, gathering feedback, producing policy papers and posing with College and state authorities at various consultative sessions on social media. The union is now embedded within the appendages of official structures.
Although the social capital built through this method of engagement with authorities is solid and incentivizes friendliness, the union is ultimately not restricted in its tactics and strategy. Should issues arise where students stand to lose massively, there is no prohibition on organizing protest. Being apolitical should not be confused with a lack of protest. It should not be confused precisely because it is so much more malign, being an ideological imposition that restricts the union at its singularity. This is reflected through the embrace of jargon firmly situated in the linguistic framework of the status quo. “Student representation” is being done, the “student voice” communicated to improve the “student experience”. Ultimately, it is a substitution of the substance for the illusion.
This approach, desired by those who support the status quo, underlines nothing more than the flawed ideals of liberal democracies. The community, and its interest group, is taking part in an exchange of views with the authorities to come to a higher synthesis. So, it follows, that societal issues arise because authorities are not aware, do not have the correct policies or fluked the implementation of correct policies. In this world, the system is flawless, but the policy is adjustable via administrative means. Neoliberal capitalism and its bourgeois democratic form presents itself not merely as flawless, but as the irreversible logic of social reality. By appearing as logic itself, it dissolves ideology, system and history, which cease to exist. In its place appears the one-dimensional obsession with authority-citizenry feedback. As such, we cannot speak of structural forces, such as the role of the profit motive in decision-making under capitalist economies, the vested interests of the haves to exploit the have-nots, nor can we speak of ideologies that drive these tendencies. In other words, the university and the state are mistaken in their ill-treatment of students and staff. There are no fundamental antagonisms at play and all that is needed is to engage with processes and convince the authorities of the righteousness of our requests. Thus, the call for neutrality in politics is a call for the status quo. It seeks to undermine the union by stripping it of its ability to understand and work against oppressive structures in capitalist societies, trapping them in an eternal cycle of dead-end dialogue with authorities.
The demand for neutrality is an ignorance of the need for structural change at best and a weapon for right-wingers to criticise radical organisations at worst. Through substituting what is logical for the exploiting class for what is logical for society as a whole, those in power effectuate an attack on critical thinking. There are tens of thousands of homeless people in Ireland, yet more than 200,000 vacant properties as investors speculate on the housing market, enabled by law and funded by state coffers. Our society is built on constant growth and the accumulation of resources in the hands of the few. A union that embraces neutrality is left without understanding the class, and thus power, relations underpinning each interaction with the authorities. If it stays friendly with the authorities, it never understands why, despite the plethora of stakeholder structures, change is not coming with regards to housing, fees and transport. If it protests, it does so with nil understanding of historical, political and ideological context. Its actions turn kafkaesque.
This is because campaigning without a theoretical understanding of society is like steering a ship unaware of where one is going and coming from. For example, Ireland is a class society, with a capitalist economic system and a parliamentary coalition that embodies laissez-faire market ideology. As a result, universities, stripped of state funding, are privatized and act like businesses. Unions thus have to fight fee and rent increases from senior management because of opposing class interests. Without correctly diagnosing the logic behind these adverse proposals and connecting it to the bigger picture, a union is unable to explain why the trend is occurring, let alone muster up forces to challenge the system responsible. Instead of attacking the objective compulsion of capital to expand, and in its profound ignorance of everything political, it will be inarticulate in its opposition. Within committees and at protests, it will appeal to the university president citing value for money, thus reinforcing consumerist attitudes to education. Rather than confronting the conditions of our existence with sober senses, vegetative deference to the consumerist milieu takes place.
There is in fact not a single aspect of the ‘neutral’ dogma which is not designed to force the closure of the political horizon. The prohibition on dissecting ideology compels us to not think too hard about the existence of alternatives. Similarly, encouraging students to vote against right-wing parties who hate students and staff risks opening pandora’s box of political analysis, so it is forbidden under the pretext of representing all students. International affairs, such as solidarity with Palestine, might put students at risk of charting a systemic critique connecting the Irish housing crisis, the colonial nature of our curriculum and imperialist domination of the third world. This goes hand-in-hand with the accusation of political bias on the part of activists that use a class analysis to connect struggles. Those that make this accusation are merely indignant that we have shone light on how the society whose resources they control truly functions. To analyse the world as it is is now decreed profane under this regime of neutrality; only praise for the powers that be is sacred.
This is why self-appointed voices of reason call out for neutrality whenever the union dares to think too much about questions of oppression. The push for neutrality is thus a reactionary position that seeks to entomb us within the narrow confines of the status quo. In the ‘90s, it was those opposed to contraception; in the 2010s those opposed to womens’ right to choose; today, it is Zionist voices supporting the genocidal regime of Israel, as well as opposition to trade unions, the decolonization of the curriculum, and support for the current government. Instead of their wish for us to be ignorant, we students must march to take our place in history as part of a rising global movement of anti-capitalist resistance, the harbingers of a new world to come.