While the perception of legitimacy isn’t by itself an effective means to create change, it is important in creating community. How can a student union or a student strike be viewed as legitimate beyond a tiny group of activists? One has to begin by making the distinction between two different levels of legitimacy : internal and external.
Internal legitimacy reflects how legitimate the movement is in the eyes of the participants. This element is crucial because it’s a major factor influencing cohesion, resilience in the face of opposition, and broadness of the movement.
External legitimacy is the opposite: how legitimate the movement is for non-students or the general public. Of course external legitimacy is also important, but as activists, we have a lot less sway over this factor.
By definition, the movement to block the hike was a countercurrent. The political class, economic elite and media pundits largely supported the tuition hike. At the start of the campaign, none of the mainstream political parties opposed the hike and the propaganda machine had already been hard at work to push the idea that students needed to pay more and more for the privilege of higher education. Students themselves were not immune to its effects, so we knew that it would be difficult to effectively counter the neoliberal myths.
In this context, we knew that only a vast, grassroots effort to reach out to students would be powerful enough to have some measure of success. This means direct, non-mediated discussion: in hallways, classrooms, cafeterias and other places where students congregate. Debates and assemblies were organized specifically to discuss the tuition hike, and student unions made their own research and publications that addressed the issue, and distributed them hand-to-hand as part of their efforts to reach out.
This also explains why external legitimacy is harder to build up: progressive movements don’t have the means to establish the same kind of large-scale, direct discussion with millions of people.