Austrian students are taking social media-trained organization to the ground

In Vienna, students have seized control of the university’s lecture hall to protest neoliberal reforms of the education system. What makes this student revolt so remarkable is that its participants use techniques they have learned on the web.

The protests erupted rather spontaneously after professors and students at the much smaller Academy of Fine Arts ended a press conference with the statement that from then on the auditorium was seized. Soon, students at the University of Vienna followed suit. Nicole Kernherr, who served as the protesters’ spokeswoman on the first eve, reports:

“We got news about something going on there via mobile phone through personal contacts. Those who are committed to such things know each other quite well here.”

But there were no groups involved in organizing the protest. In fact, the Austrian students’ council, which had been behind protest events in the past, still remains relatively silent about the coup. Instead, the protest is organized to be strictly non-hierarchical, Philipp Sonderegger writes:

“The protest is not organized hierarchically, but network-like flat, decentralized and with many nodes. Spokespeople are newly elected every day to prevent individuals from becoming to important. […] The six members of the organizing team are elected newly every day as well. Allegedly, decisions are prepared in 44 working groups, but have to be rubber-stamped by the plenum to prevent informal structures from taking hold.”

This is also empowered by a live video stream set up to let people follow the plenum online.

Officials of the university have complained about not having a distinct person to address. They were countered by an invitation to speak in front of the plenum. This is just the way the protesters communicate themselves: To the masses. Early-on they have used twitter not only to mobilize, but also to organize and coordinate.

If there is a lack of, let’s say, rice at the canteen, it’s just twittered. Many of the tweets by Unibrennt or those tagged #unibrennt (German for “university is burning”) are similar requests. And the network proves its ability to allocate resources effectively.

But as Jana Herwig remarks in an article entitled “from flash mob to #unibrennt: collective organization in real-time“, the outside world has difficulties to deal with this protest culture.

Herwig makes the point that there is actually a misunderstanding at work of what is political. She picks up criticism that the protesters were just “partysans”, that they were in fact non-political and did not have serious interest in their cause. A criticism that was partly fueled by said live video stream, showing people partying after discussion were over.

Herwig counters that in fact, protesters could never be dead serious 24/7. Previous generations of protesters did party just as this one does – but they were living in different media circumstances. When media was limited – only a few could produce media, and even those still had limited space to broadcast it – protesters could present themselves in placative events, narrowing the image the public would get of them.

“But today, protest is turned inside-out: mobile phone photos, Twitter news, Facebook groups, mobile coverage and of course the live stream from the lecture hall – all this provides opportunities to monitor the squatters at every turn,”

Herwig writes.

And she defends the protesters against accusations of having no program. In fact, she embraces the program being created collectively now that the sit-in has begun:

“This protest is different because one has not come up with elaborate pamphlets, but the program, starting from first demands yet, is evolving.”

Herwig bases her argument on the primary point of discussion at the plenum on Friday noon:

“Basis for the discussion: What was started with the sit-in? How shall it proceed? What do we want to achieve?

Officials struggle to counter this movement, yet it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The first squatters at the academy of arts started their protest demanding “re-democratization instead of neoliberal politics of leadership”. Now the protest’s level of democratization is disarming the old leadership.

There is just no way to decapitate a network, writes Sonderegger. Only if informal structures should finally take hold, providing the authorities with a handle to take on the now-liquid, young movement, it could face rapid marginalization. Meanwhile, the protest has spread to other universities, e.g. in Graz and Turin.

The Bologna process and other neoliberal reforms of the education system are affecting schools and universities in all of the European Union. It will be interesting to see whether these protests can gain further ground in their aim to promote “education, not formation” and a re-democratization of Europe’s universities.