An acute cost of living crisis marked by soaring food and fuel prices has hit working class households across Europe. In Belgium, students have been standing alongside workers at the forefront of protests demanding effective measures from the government to tackle the crisis.
Peoples Dispatch spoke to Sander Claessens, president of the Comac student movement in Belgium, about their involvement in the protests against the cost of living crisis, political interventions in campuses and society, and the policies of the government towards education, among other issues. Comac is affiliated to the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA). The name Comac is an abbreviation of the goals of the movement itself: Change, Optimism, Marxism, Activism and Creativity.
Peoples Dispatch: How has Comac been organizing amid the cross of living crisis? What demands have brought the students and youth of Belgium to the streets?
Sander Claessens: Students feel the consequences of the crisis in many aspects. The prices of student housing have been going up rapidly. Student restaurants increased the prices to levels that discourage people from eating there. Students are taking extra jobs to finance their studies. People have lost their student rooms and have to travel to universities everyday. All this increases the inequality in Belgian higher education. Children of working class background are finding it even more difficult to enter universities and colleges.
Last month, we organized an action in Brussels in front of the office of the Flemish Minister of Education. We put up tents as a symbol of the despair of students with financial troubles: we would rather live in a tent than continue to pay rent. We demand that energy prices are blocked, like in France, and that the extra profits of energy companies are being taxed seriously to pay for it. We demand that student meals be offered at €2, that tuition fees are suspended, and that the government builds more affordable public student housing while blocking prices of private student housing.
The student union of French speaking students (FEF—Fédération des étudiants francophones) organized a protest march together with a platform of local student unions on November 17. We supported this mobilization and see it as an important moment to fight for real measures to help students through this crisis.
PD: What have been the implications of the COVID-19 crisis on schools and universities in Belgium? What was the government’s response to it and what were the actions taken by Comac in highlighting the issues faced by students during this period?
SC: During these two years, there were several lockdowns during which universities and colleges shut down campuses and shifted towards online classes. Some students lost their student jobs to pay for their costs. Like the energy crisis now, inequality has increased in higher education. But also on a psychological level, we saw how the isolation of people caused a surge in mental illnesses and problems.
With Comac, we thought that the best remedy for social isolation and loneliness was solidarity among students and with working people in need. So we organized distribution of food and basic goods in Liège and Louvain-La-Neuve where we served hundreds of students. Other chapters sent medicine students to Medicine For The People (the medical action centers of the Workers’ Party of Belgium that treat patients for free). Every chapter did something creative to serve the people: soup distribution, group walks for mental health, helping refugees without shelter. Solidarity was the answer to the crisis.
We also wanted to channel the discontent and despair into a positive struggle to change our situation. Many students launched initiatives in all senses. People even sent messages to our social media pages about how angry they were and we received hundreds of stories through our website about the problems students were facing. So we decided to use this force and energy and campaigned in both linguistic sides of the country so that students would be able to get back their credits when failing an exam due to COVID-19 as a force majeure. In our petition, we gathered more than 10,000 signatures in French and 10,000 in Dutch. We organized actions to put force behind our demands and won it on both sides of the country.
PD: What is your take on the policies of the Belgian government toward general education and universities in the country?
SC: Education is split between the two linguistic communities. The government of the French community has their own minister of Higher Education for all the institutions in Wallonia (south of Belgium) and French-speaking parts of Brussels. The Flemish government has a minister of Education for Flanders and Dutch-speaking institutions in Brussels. This makes campaigning sometimes difficult, but both policies are very similar to each other.
On the one hand, we see how there is an underfinancing of higher education. While the number of students is rising, funding for student facilities, tutoring, classrooms, enough professors and assistants, and so on is not adequate. And during this crisis, universities are even shutting down facilities in certain places, turning off heating and announcing cuts in funding. While our government can decide to invest an extra 10 billion euros in defense spending or leave the extra profits of energy companies almost untouched, there is supposedly not enough money for higher education.
On the other hand, our governments actively push for ‘elitization’ of higher education. We see a rise in measures like selecting people at the gates of the university in the form of non-binding calibration tests and tougher study progress measures. For example, Flemish minister of Education Ben Weyts (N-VA) prohibits people who take longer than two years to succeed a course in the first bachelor year to continue in their third bachelor year. The Minister of Higher Education in the French community Valérie Glatigny (MR) decided a similar thing. The result is that children of low-income families, of working class background, of parents without a higher education degree, are denied access to study. The amount of people in higher education with a background of parents without a college or university diploma has declined last decade.
We need refinancing of higher education to pursue policies that put students first. We need to invest 2% of our GDP in higher education, like Belgium did in the seventies.
PD: Are students in Belgium active in mobilizations demanding measures to tackle the climate crisis? What initiatives has Comac carried out on that front?
SC: Every year, the Belgian climate movement gathers tens of thousands of people to protest for climate measures. Next to the unions, it is the largest mass movement we have seen in our country in recent years.
Last year, we went with a delegation of 200 students and activists to Glasgow with Comac to protest in front of the COP26 and participate in the demonstrations with almost 100,000 people. We also blocked the seat of the Union of Belgian Enterprises (VBO-FEB), the largest capitalist lobby group in our country, representing most of the big polluting companies in Belgium.
In Belgium, five multinational companies emit as much carbon dioxide as all households combined. Yet our governments take fake climate measures that affect working class people by taxing them and prohibiting them things, while giving millions in subsidies to big polluters, who already make huge profits, to encourage them to transition to a green production. Not only do carbon emissions continue to go up in Belgium, but also a lot of people become hostile to the climate movement. We think it is important to show solidarity with the working class, who are not the cause of climate change but are the first to feel the consequences. The south of Belgium was hit by severe flooding which killed dozens of people. We organized, together with the PVDA-PTB, solidarity brigades to help these people and convinced some activists to join us. The place of climate activists should be with the people.
We fight for climate measures that attack big polluters. We want fixed pollution norms that oblige companies to reduce carbon emissions severely each year. They need to fund this with their own profits. This way, we can free the money needed to nationalize the energy sector to produce green electricity, to invest in public transport, to isolate buildings and houses, and so on. This requires us to break with capitalist market policies and introduce massive public investments in which no one is left behind. There can be no climate justice without social justice.
PD: Can you talk about Comac’s campaign ‘Perpetrator we see you, Victim we believe you’ against the increase in sexual violence in Belgian universities?
SC: It is not that suddenly there is a spike in sexual violence. This has been the case for years already, but only recently has there finally been public outcry against it. During festivities, in student bars and so on, women increasingly report being sexually assaulted. In the academic ranks, students, doctoral students and research assistants are being harassed by professors who abuse their powerful position. Institutions aren’t doing enough to prevent these things from happening. When people file a complaint, they more often than not protect the perpetrator than the victim.
The problem is twofold. On the one hand, funding for higher education depends in large part on the number of students studying at the institution and the amount of publications researchers and professors publish. So professors who bring in prestige and publish a lot, maintain a position of power they can easily abuse. On the other hand, a culture of sexism is being normalized more and more on campuses. We see how right-wing student organizations take in more space: they invite sexist, racist and reactionary speakers to give conferences in university buildings, they go further and further in their reactionary discourse and actions. Indirectly, this helps normalize sexism and fosters an environment where we are less and less surprised when a scandal breaks out.
A comrade of Comac, together with other female organizers, managed to mobilize 2,000 students on the streets of Brussels within 48 hours when a scandal broke loose in November last year. We used the slogan ‘Perpetrator we see you, victim we believe you’. Starting February this year up until now, the problem of professors abusing their power has also become a major debate. We demand that complaints be treated by a contact point external and independent from the institutions, so that it is not the professors themselves who protect each other by judging these cases. These contact points should also provide psychological, medical and juridical aid. In addition, we should reinvest in funding for public education and tackle sexist ideology under students with campaigns about consent.
PD: What are the challenges your organization and others face in organizing students and youth in the country?
SC: The global pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, the energy crisis: these are all problems young people and students face and are deeply connected to each other. They are the consequence of capitalism, which puts profits of monopoly capital over the people and the planet.
There is simultaneously a feeling among young people that the situation is hopeless and a feeling that we need to fight for a better world. There is pessimism and optimism at the same time. The deeper this crisis becomes, the more obvious the need for an organization like Comac becomes. The extreme right-wing is trying to channel this defeatism and despair among youngsters and provide them with a reactionary worldview in organizations like Schild & Vrienden, Vlaams Belang Jongeren, and so on. They put on a face of anti-establishment, but defend the rich who are the cause of these crises.
We channel the energy of the youth and turn it into a positive force for good. We defend a democratic and emancipatory worldview that provides actual solutions to problems. We defend a socialist society where people and the planet come first. We see more and more young people being radicalized into this direction. We notice how our youth movement RedFox has been growing extensively in recent years. We work to increase the size of our student movement, Comac, as well. One of our mottos is the phrase of Angela Davis: “We no longer accept the things we cannot change, we change the things we cannot accept.”
PD: What was your experience at the ManiFiesta festival this year in Belgium? What was the participation of the youth?
SC: The stormy weather made the festival hang on a thin thread, but thanks to the work of the more than 1,000 volunteers, we again succeeded in welcoming more than 15,000 guests to ManiFiesta. The festival is really such an amazing experience that I can recommend it to anybody coming to Belgium. Each year, we gather the whole of the progressive left in Belgium together to discuss our current struggles, give conferences, network, have cultural events, listen to music, and so on.
In the struggle for ideas, developing a progressive culture against reactionary and irrational cultural forces is so important. But it also shows the society we want to build: working class people, people of color, people of different genders, people from all over the country coming together to build a festival entirely run on volunteers.
With Comac and RedFox, we have our own place among the youth and we see more and more young people being attracted to the festival. Among our guests this year were Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi, Filipino climate activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Scottish trade union organizer and cleaning worker Chris Mitchell, and Indian Marxist feminist Mariam Dhawale. We also had concerts with rap groups, attracting thousands of young people. We see the festival succeeds in attracting the youth every year.
PD: Recently, a delegation of Comac visited India and met with representatives of progressive labor, women, and students’ movement. As a political activist and organizer of students, how beneficial was your visit to India and what are the major takeaways from the visit?
SC: The visit was quite amazing. We met with Students’ Federation of India (SFI), All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), among others. What was so inspiring to me, was how all these organizations have millions of members and organize them in the struggle. We were able to discuss how students organize in an increasingly repressive environment under the Modi government, how the peasants fought their struggle against the neoliberal agricultural reforms for more than a year and won, how the youth organizations organize solidarity initiatives among the poor, how workers resist exploitation and fight for better working conditions in multinational companies, how women organize in neighborhoods against sexual violence and for better living conditions in the slums, and so on.
In the global North, a vision is propagated that global South countries like India are poor and miserable, and that their population passively undergoes this situation. But the truth is, everywhere there are class contradictions, there is class struggle. This is especially true in countries like India, who carry the burden of centuries of colonization and Western imperialism. Nowhere in the world people remain silent when they are being oppressed. We do not learn about this in school or in Western media. This serves a purpose: if we do not know that millions of people in the world struggle and fight for a better world, we cannot be inspired by others in doing the same.
We also met the Communist Party of India (Marxist). My respect for the CPI(M) is enormous. They built a Marxist party fighting for socialism in their own Indian conditions. Our party, the PVDA-PTB, can learn a lot about how they apply Marxism in their context and how we should do the same in our own context.
I really look forward to meeting the comrades we made during his journey again. We will certainly tell their story in Belgium. Long live international solidarity!