This sunny Sunday ‘morning’, around 12:00 p.m., I decided to take a look at the occupation of the Maagdenhuis. At the front door there was a sleepy guy with a cup of coffee and a cigarette who gave me a friendly welcome. He already warned me that most people had only just woken up. First, I passed through the automatic doors with, among other things, a very interesting and substantive planning of the day, democratic slogans, and expressions of support from other universities. Besides the sleepyheads I was warned for, I saw people who started their day barefooted with a peaceful dance on beautiful sixties music, e.g. The Doors. Lucky me, I arrived just on time for breakfast! Eating a slice of fresh bread with peanut butter and drinking a warm cup of coffee (totally free of charge by the way), I was walking through the hallway, reading big banners with slogans such as ‘knowledge over profit’ or ‘direct democracy’, yet also with really inconceivable lines (so inconceivable that I can’t even remember what they said). Just like most critics of this occupation, I found it hard to discover a clear point of view by the occupiers. So what is the reason for absence of any specific stance? There are various similarities between the occupation of 1969 and the current one, but what actually are the main differences? And why is the impact of this occupation not as big as the one in the sixties?
Who’s out there?
As a student, I can imagine the discontent about the organisation and quality of the university. My personal displeasure arises in lecture rooms with some 450 fellow students, tutorials in groups of 50 students (classes that are meant for interaction and personal guidance), and second-class lecturers who failed to make it in the business world. I know I am not the only one within my course with these dissatisfactions, but I also know that nobody around me is really joining the occupy movement at the Maagdenhuis. For sure, I can imagine that this is partly to do with the fact that people studying economics are generally not the most exciting and adventurous types, but besides this, most people I know simply don’t have the time to join lengthy programmes with speeches on the democratisation of the university, and to spend their nights in a sleeping bag on a cold floor days and days on end. They are busy studying, joining a committee, or getting jobs to earn some money. So which kind of people do join this organisation?
Well, none of the people I spoke at the Maagdenhuis were directly linked to the occupation. From what I saw, these people were a group of professional activists, who have all the time in the world to happily demonstrate. I think this is the main difference between now and the occupation of 1969. In the sixties there was an attitude of optimism among young people. They really thought they could change the world. They were not only demonstrating for more democracy in the organisation of the university, but also protesting against violence and war in Vietnam. There was a universal (and perhaps naive) dream of improving the world, and hundreds of people were involved in the actions of the occupation. The difference in impact between then and now is not to do with the difference in the amounts of people that are ‘joining’. It is not because in the sixties they had a more functional implementation of the day; I see plenty of interesting speeches and lectures starting at 10:00 in the morning and ending at 10:00 in the evening these days. It is also not because there were more impressive slogans in 1969; you could see the exact same slogans 50 years ago.
Not quite as genuine
I think the main difference is that the prevailing optimism and idealism of those days has turned into the current prevalent pessimism and realism. An important consequence of this altered spirit of age is less readiness to actively join the movement and fully spend time in it. Just the fact that our generation tolerates the zero-hour contracts and the ridiculously low minimum wage, when previous generations fought for an appropriate minimum wage and better labour conditions, says enough about the passive attitude at this time. Besides a couple of dreamers dancing on sixties music, I think the belief in possibilities of changing the world for the better turned into the more pessimistic view of today. The view that we cannot improve society or stop wars and fighting. I believe this pessimistic view is a result of the individualistic Facebook generation we live in. Do we actually think and care about injustices in the world nowadays? Or do we only care about our own success in life, our own health, and our own happiness? Most people I know are eating healthily, actively do sports, get good grades in school, and are already busy building up a good resume by joining committees or studying abroad. But these are all things for their own good, and not for society as a whole.
All in all, I do think that the organisation and quality of the university really need to change, and I think democratisation is an important part of this process. But I don’t think that occupying a building is the way to solve problems nowadays. It doesn’t fit the view of the current generation. Because of the prevailing individualism, the occupation doesn’t appear to be genuine. I believe there is a strong relationship between optimism and idealism on the one hand, and the effect of an occupation on the other. If the belief in changing the world for the better is a far cry, then I think the movement will, unfortunately, bleed to death, and we will never hear about it again. Once, in 1969, there was a spring in Amsterdam, but sadly enough there probably won’t be another one.