Hope Against Hope: a necessary betrayal - Nic Beuret

Millbank

Comments on some of the contradictions within the 2010 UK student movement and its claims for a 'right to education'.

What has been taken from them to make them so angry? Hope, that's what. Hope, and the fragile bubble of social aspiration that sustained us through decades of mounting inequality; hope and the belief that if we worked hard and did as we were told and bought the right things, some of us at least would get the good jobs and safe places to live that we'd been promised.
- Laurie Penny, New Statesman, 3rd Dec 2010

A single image from a day of movement marks out competing visions of hope. A boot through a Millbank window fed the dreams of resistance that many in the Left have been craving since talk of austerity started. The same boot posed a question that plays out in the university occupations that preceded it and have since blossomed in its wake: what is it exactly that we are hoping for?

The question of how students have inspired people to act, engage and organize to combat the Government’s austerity plans is an important one. It is one that also potentially contrasts with some of the views of students themselves. For let’s be clear – it is not necessarily (or even principally) the University or its defence that mobilizes people’s desires and dreams outside the student movement. Defending the ‘right to education’ may be what sparked student revolts, but those of us who are not students have been drawn in because we want, more than anything, to resist and fight. And to resist and fight you need to know that resistance is possible, that you will not be alone, and that you can win. For the most part the resistance so far to the regime of austerity has been rote and uninspiring – a betrayed strike here, a sacked workforce there.

Minor victories and thousands of words spoken of an inevitable uprising, of an insurgency against the restructuring. The boot through the window took us beyond the rhetoric and yearnings. It showed rage and the will to fight. It showed cops overwhelmed and underprepared, Tory offices ransacked and the beautiful excess of an insurrectionary moment. It inspired because it was truly magical, and people saw for themselves that battles could be waged, people would fight, and winning was possible.

But beyond this what support is there for the ‘right to education’? For this was the starting point for the riot and the thread that binds the demonstrations, the walkouts and the occupations. Cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance, shedding whole university departments and countless staff, and raising fees. The restructuring is an attack on ‘education’ as it exists in the University; a wholesale revision of who can access what. It is perhaps taken for granted that ‘we’ all support the right to education, and that we are all united in our defence of the University. But what if we are not?

What if it is our rage and not our hopes that are united? What if we are together only for the fight, but not the victory?

Laurie Penny nails the motivation behind the riot – hope. Or rather, the restructuring of hope and its coming scarcity. A restructuring and scarcity because hope is not something eternal or ephemeral. Hope is a material thing, produced and distributed through social channels and institutions. Institutions like the University.

What do we mean by a socially produced hope? Different societies produce different kinds of hopes. In fact, every single society produces different kinds of hopes. Hope is a mobilizing and organizing force that structures the direction and possibilities of our lives. As memory shapes our understanding of the past and how we understand what we are now, hope shapes our understanding of the future – what there will be, what there could be, who and how we will become something more than we are today. Both hope and memory give form and purpose to our actions; they give our lives meaning.

There are competing versions of hope in a given society, but there is also a hegemonic form to hope. For us, living in a becoming-neoliberal world, that hegemonic form is aspiration. Not aspiration in the sense to aspire to greatness in some heroic Greek sense, or something romantic and colourful. No, for us aspiration has a particular hue and tint – it means social mobility. It means a better job, more money, more things and a higher rung on the career ladder. Hope is individual in our world, never collective – the hope of entrepreneurs dreaming of making it big. Not just climbing the ladder but also winning out over all others. We hope for social mobility. Which is exactly how Penny frames it, as do most of the placards on the streets. Hope, the dominant form of hope, is to do better than your parents.

Hope is not evenly distributed – what hopes there are and who has access to them depend on where you are located (be you poor, or black, disabled, a women, young, living in the regions, etc). Neoliberal hope – aspiration – is increasingly restricted to an ever-smaller circle of people: those people doing well through the current crisis; those people above the buffer of the ‘squeezed middle’. For the rest, there’s the lottery. (To be clear, there have been ‘no hopers’ for quite some time – an underclass living a kind of social death of meaningless, pointless lives, hidden away behind ASBOS on estates[1]. But this is to become the norm for many, many more people).

This in turn leads to a scarcity of hope and an increasing number of people subject to a social death – a life defined as without future and therefore without meaning. A life trapped with nowhere to go. This generates a crisis of hope that can manifest in a number of ways. The most obvious is resentment against those seem to still have hope. It is also visible in the desperate attempts to salvage some hope – through the memories of privileges of nationality, race and gender (such as mobilized by the BNP).

The current crisis marks a turn from a mixed economy of hope – where neoliberal policies and subjectivities press up against older forms of entitlement and ideals of fairness and social mobility. We are living through the birth pangs of a truly neoliberal age where meaning, hope and the future itself are scarce and out of reach for most of us.

It is here, at the juncture of a new social order and the collapse of the remaining entitlements of the welfare state, that the restructuring of hope comes to be generally seen as a crisis of hope. We are entering an age of scarcity of the future.

It’s clear that the students are revolting against the loss of this hope and future. Social mobility (as such actually exists) is under attack. The ‘squeezed middle’ and their children will become, like the existing underclass, a footnote to the bigger and brighter stories of the well-to-do professionals. The student revolt speaks to us all as the first open revolt against the expansion of social death and the collapse of the more general circulation of aspiration.

So the loss of entitlement is real, and the revolt is too. But we should stop here and ask if that is the end of the tale told by the boot. Did that kid kicking in the window really just want to be better off than his parents? Did he really want to keep the University as it stands?

Let’s go back to the idea behind neoliberal aspiration – social mobility. Social mobility means getting ahead, doing better than your parents and your peers: it means that while you move other people have to stand still. Social mobility requires both winners and losers. Hope – or aspiration – confirms the unequal world in which we live. And education – that formal process of differentiation, where some end up with degrees and contacts and others jobs without a future – is essential to the creation and maintenance of that inequity. It reinforces the role of the University in unequally distributing meaning, possibilities, wages and other forms of social wealth. Put this way, the right to education means the freedom to be unequal. The right to education works to underpin the myth of meritocracy – the myth that it’s through hard work and ability and not connections, class and privilege, that people get to where they are. The right to an education means that if you perform well in standardized tests (helped by being well off, going to the right school and having a stable family life) then you deserve to go to University and cement your place up near the top of the social hierarchy (as long as you make it into a relatively decent university, though how many ‘bad’ ones will remain after the cuts is an open question). The betrayal of the right to education – by either there not being enough jobs for graduates (as is the case for a third of existing graduates), or by the rising costs of ‘earning’ a degree, putting it out of reach for all but the very wealthy – is the betrayal of the right to not being working class.

Looking at it this way, through the broken glass, we can see that the riot went beyond mere aspiration. Just as the university occupations have gone beyond the simple question of the ‘right to education’. The joy to be found in revolt overflows the boundaries of a pedestrian desire to get ahead.

But here both we (both we who are students and we who are not) find ourselves in a double bind. We need to defend mobility in the world as it stands – its defence is the defence of actual existing lives and the real possibility to have a meaningful social existence. And we need to defend the funding of education as it stands. To resist paying more for education is to defend the social gains made by previous generations and to defend the social wage. And defending it is exactly what many students (and many of their supporters) are doing. But in merely defending it we are in fact defending the most sacred of neoliberal freedoms – the freedom to be unequal. Defending this freedom means
defending the University as a filtering device set up to segregate us into educated and not; those with access to a ‘professional career’ and those who do not. Those with meaningful lives and those without.

So we must go beyond mere defence. The riot is as much about dreams that have yet to become possible as they are over the loss of existing entitlements. There are hopes that lie dormant or hidden that speak of different ways of being; of different kinds of dreams and futures. The crisis of hope and the coming scarcity of the future for many people is a betrayal that makes possible a different kind of hope – a hope against hope, violently against aspiration and cold conformity.

The student revolts then are the fracture in the facade. Students sense that not only are their lives changing, but that the myth of mobility that has underpinned the University in recent years is coming undone. These protests are the first protests in Britain to contest the changing meaning of hope, and the austerity of dreams that is the coming neoliberal future.

But to be honest and faithful to the riot and the promise of a different kind of hope, an act of betrayal is needed. A betrayal of the University and education as it stands. For here we come full circle.

For if the protests and occupations speak only of the importance of education, and the necessity to defend the University, people will quickly fall away. People can see clearly what the University is now.

The window is broken. We can see clearly that the University is a machine that creates social death.

Eventually the inspiration of the initial fight and victory will fade, and the content of the revolt will have to stand on its own. If the content of that struggle is only to restore that machine, to defend the freedom to be unequal, failure is all we can hope for.

But if the struggle calls into question the very existence of such a machine, and reopens the question of learning as opposed to education – to self-development, the exploration of interest and inclination, and to allow for the navigation of curiosity and desire; in short, learning as a way of creating new possibilities and meaning – then the window may stay broken for a long time to come.

Nic Beuret, Dec 2010

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FOOTNOTES
[1] I am talking of the hegemonic form of hope here. Those devoid of hope in the conventional normative sense often resist through the production of alternative visionings and dreams; other kinds of hopes and socialities, often rejecting outright the binds to convention and the ethics-of-aspiration.

Comments

futility index
Dec 15 2010 20:55

Nice article.

Samotnaf
Dec 16 2010 07:52

This article deserves greater prominence (admin please note).

It's the first text I've seen (there may well be others I'm not aware of) that clearly pushes things further, a text that could make a difference.

Vaneigem said "Hope is the leash of submission"- or maybe the carrot in front of the donkey, but clearly there are subversive hopes - and one of mine is that this text becomes one of the theoretical starting points for carrying this movement further in its practice - both in the discussions and in the more obviously consequential forms of subversive activity.

Free Voice Network
Dec 16 2010 22:59

I love this article!!!

chebba
Dec 17 2010 02:42

Hope. Yes, the right word for it – direct actions symbolise hope, or rather the loss of it – but at the same time it seems paradoxical to use the word hope. If commodity fetishism is what impelled the recent protests, it is the same reason why I wasn't a participant in them. I, the man who never smiles, the grasping kulak that I am, would not desist from gambling in order to join the protestors ('...there is no moral which it would be of any use for you to read to me. At the present moment nothing could well be more incongruous than a moral. Oh, you self-satisfied persons who, in your unctuous pride, are forever ready to mouth your maxims – if only you knew how fully I myself comprehend the sordidness of my present state, you would not trouble to wag your tongues at me! What could you say to me that I do not already know? Well, wherein lies my difficulty? It lies in the fact that by a single turn of a roulette wheel everything for me, has become changed. Yet, had things befallen otherwise, these moralists would have been among the first (yes, I feel persuaded of it) to approach me with friendly jests and congratulations. Yes, they would never have turned from me as they are doing now! A fig for all of them! What am I? I am zero – nothing. What shall I be tomorrow? I may be risen from the dead, and have begun life anew. For still, I may discover the man in myself, if only my manhood has not become utterly shattered.'). That ideas do not make a movement, I think, needs to be seriously addressed, for 'the continuously reproduced divorce of labour from her means' – the continuity of primitive accumulation – and how it occurs, is a matter inseparable from 'the different parts into which surplus value is decomposed', of which credit money is, for me at any rate, a particular concern. Yes, ideas do not make a movement; however, they are indispensable. The strictly provisional lives that the surplus population are compelled to live, immured in their open prisons, seem a world apart from the students' cares. What I witness in their struggle seems to me a rearguard action (those already forsaken have a comparatively diminished capacity to fight rearguard actions). Do they (students) demand an end to commodity production (production for accumulation's sake)? An end to inheritance? The indissoluble problem, in short, silent revolution or violent revolution? Forcible expropriation or none?

Rum Lad
Dec 17 2010 10:30

Excellent article.

chebba, are you even aware as to what the class composition of the student demonstrations has been like? I dont know anybody outside of the well-read activist mileau demanding an end to commodity production, anywhere, of any class.

Baderneiro Miseravel
Dec 17 2010 12:30

The discussion of the student movement and the role of the education in this article is very, very interesting. I'm translating it (fully) and distributing it to my friends, if there isn't any problem.

Here's the transcript if you want to check the trans to portuguese: http://sinaldanegacao.blogspot.com/2010/12/esperanca-contra-esperanca-uma-quebra.html

Solidarity! Hopefully this will create some discussion in the current movement and contribute to a deepening of it's radical tendencies. It certainly will help understand and handle the "student movement" here.

Samotnaf
Dec 18 2010 12:07

chebba:

Quote:
Do they (students) demand an end to commodity production (production for accumulation's sake)?

Dismissing (at least, that's what you appear to do) this movement on the basis of its explicit demands is like dismissing the Paris Commune for its (initial) nationalism or the Hungarian revolution of '56 on the basis of its illusions in the United Nations. ffs - what radical social contestation has ever had as its slogan the abolition of commodity production, at oeast by the vast majority of those who contributed to it? This is a typical intellectual way of judging movements only on the basis of their explicit consciousness, which leaves you with just a contempt for all social movements.

Quote:
If commodity fetishism is what impelled the recent protests, it is the same reason why I wasn't a participant in them. I, the man who never smiles

I'd guess even you'd begin to smile if you had participated in the book block's attacks on the cops - eg "Negatve Dialectics - Adorno" or "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick", written on large thick polystyrene "books" hung round the necks of demonstrators used as shields against the cops.

In fact, I'm only posting this because I want this text to be as much as possible on the top of the libcom hit parade. It's a good change from your more objective style, Red - great to see how a breath of fresh class struggle brings air to suffocated subjectivity. Along with the more standard style of the wine and cheese party's "Education is a duty", this deserves to be read more and acted on.

chebba
Dec 18 2010 12:09

Rum Lad: No, I don't know -- that's the point. I can't afford the cost of travel, have not the material means, nor the wit to familiarize myself, so unless I read that certain symbolic demands are made how am I to know? The double bind for superfluous folk like myself: we want to show solidarity; yet we either come up against a more radical than thou attitude of seasoned activists, because we don't often participate in direct actions, or against state persecution (I am aware that i have a "persecution complex" thank you very much). Maybe there are lots of students who don't regard themselves as being of superior intellect or work ethic, and recognise that university education is for a privileged few. I don't doubt it. However, what I observe is what has been said in the article – the history of the world is the history of class struggle. Is there anything more radical than the refusal to work? Even then one feeds off others. There has to be some sort of synthesis at the local level between production and consumption before there can arise a revolutionary situation, else, fetishists that we are (rich man, poor man, beggar man (labourer), thief (usurer)), we will as individuals be wont to take the bribe (co-option, “welfare state”, “free” but not genuinely universal education, which reproduces class divisions, etc.). Excuse me for talking nonsense.

chebba
Dec 18 2010 12:54

Samotnaf: I am not dismissing the movement at all. I am simply saying that the article, as against several others that appear to depict the student struggle as something romantic, gives a realistic picture of what motivates them. And what motivates people in my situation. As one who wants to loosen the yoke of the dept.1 capitalists, banks and landlords, who cannot but contribute to their prosperity without the amenity of credit unions, housing co-ops, etc., I nonetheless ask myself whether a reconstitution of the relations of social production by other means can foster “class consciousness” (by “class consciousness” I mean political consciousness, or what is the same thing, debtor-creditor relations under conditions of commodity production – a prerequisite I conjecture, since whether one is rich or poor, one is irrevocably under present conditions a fetishist.). Alas, I know not what will foment the rebellious spirit of the masses. But I don't suppose that the students, taken in a lump, will in the long run show themselves to be any more anarchist than their parents. Of course, it is easy for me to ask why there were not uprisings at the time of the announcement that the banks were to be bailed out; or before I was born for that matter. I have no hope, neither in the sense of aspirational hope, nor hope of a better tomorrow. I, too, can break glass. But if I am caught expressing my anger thus... No, till such time as I see examples of my fellow slum dwellers combining to alleviate the stress of their provisional existences I cannot but despair.
'Attacks on the cops' – don't make me cry. Let's talk instead of durable attacks on the cops. Come to the slum, take down the cameras, stop the daily helicopter patrols, destroy the local cop shop, end the cacophony of sirens and screams. You may defeat the pigs today, but what about tomorrow, and the day after, when you have to go back to the estate? All is ultimately reducible to one's attitude to property – that's the yardstick. We have to show the pigs why we hate them, in order to diminish the numbers that they can continually recruit; but first we have to stop hating each other (and ourselves). That's the hard part for those forsaken at birth.
thanks for the link, btw

Red Marriott
Dec 18 2010 12:55
Quote:
It's a good change from your more objective style, Red - great to see how a breath of fresh class struggle brings air to suffocated subjectivity.

If your comment is at me, read more closely, it's signed 'N' - I only posted it here.

As for "subjectivity" - how do you want me to fake that when reporting "objectively" the remote events in Bangladesh I haven't participated in? Are we to assume you're a model of "unsuffocated subjectivity"? eek

Samotnaf
Dec 18 2010 16:25

Touchy.
I wasn't criticising your texts on Bangladesh etc.; I'd just assumed that suddenly you had started to write and express yourself differently. Fresh class struggle in the part of the world you live in gives air to suffocated subjectivity in everybody who contributes to it - certainly wasn't saying I remain outside this advance and retreat of subjectivity. And never intend to become a model - I'd trip over on the wildcatwalk.

And, no - hadn't seen the "N", obviously.

Red Marriott
Dec 18 2010 17:06
Quote:
I wasn't criticising your texts on Bangladesh etc.; I'd just assumed that suddenly you had started to write and express yourself differently. Fresh class struggle in the part of the world you live in gives air to suffocated subjectivity in everybody who contributes to it - certainly wasn't saying I remain outside this advance and retreat of subjectivity.

But writing style is neither entirely a matter of choice nor of determinist fluctuations in class conflict; it's also determined by subject matter and the writer's relation to it. Eg, the class struggle has improved for the moment here but that's unlikely to have much immediate influence in how I write about the bare facts of events in Bangladesh. Similarly, a Bangladeshi account of UK student struggles would be unlikely to carry the subjectivity you perceive in the above article. In fact the thing that has most affected my "subjectivity" and (lack of) writing style recently is a bad dose of flu.

Caiman del Barrio
Dec 19 2010 12:48
Quote:
Let’s go back to the idea behind neoliberal aspiration – social mobility. Social mobility means getting ahead, doing better than your parents and your peers: it means that while you move other people have to stand still. Social mobility requires both winners and losers. Hope – or aspiration – confirms the unequal world in which we live. And education – that formal process of differentiation, where some end up with degrees and contacts and others jobs without a future – is essential to the creation and maintenance of that inequity. It reinforces the role of the University in unequally distributing meaning, possibilities, wages and other forms of social wealth. Put this way, the right to education means the freedom to be unequal. The right to education works to underpin the myth of meritocracy – the myth that it’s through hard work and ability and not connections, class and privilege, that people get to where they are. The right to an education means that if you perform well in standardized tests (helped by being well off, going to the right school and having a stable family life) then you deserve to go to University and cement your place up near the top of the social hierarchy (as long as you make it into a relatively decent university, though how many ‘bad’ ones will remain after the cuts is an open question). The betrayal of the right to education – by either there not being enough jobs for graduates (as is the case for a third of existing graduates), or by the rising costs of ‘earning’ a degree, putting it out of reach for all but the very wealthy – is the betrayal of the right to not being working class.

I generally agree with the content of this article, but I question the logic of this point. Surely what students are (were?) fighting against was the further extension of inequality vis a vis higher/further ed? The fees cap and EMA both served to (somewhat, inadequately, etc) offset the class divisions within HE and FE. Most of the dead horses the bourgeois apologists have been flogging include reference to the (erronenous) figure of 50% of young people going through university, the implict agenda being to close the door of accessibility to would be students from working class backgrounds (other than a select group of over-acheivers who will be plucked from the chaff via bursary and expected to adapt to the newly elitist environment).

You're right to identify their rage as going well beyond the specific issues being debated in Parliament, but I don't see how fighting for the maintenace of these reforms equates to defending inequality in itself, although I accept that the slant of some of the prop and discourse from some occupations has implied a defence of universities as they stand.

nic o
Dec 21 2010 11:04

sorry, when i sent this out over email i only had my initial attached. It's up on The Commune with my name (so the author is Nic).

I agree that the struggle is in many ways against an increase in inequity, but that doesn't mean its necessarily against inequity at the level of aspiration. I think there are a whole set of implicit assumptions that are being called into question as the struggle develops, but insofar as part of the struggle is for the University as it exists, it is for inequity as it exists. Another interesting 'ideal' that is being defended, perhaps unintentionally, is 'policing by consent' - something well worth examining along with violence...

nic

mons
Dec 21 2010 11:20

Interesting article. I'm going to get it discussed at one of our local education campaign's meetings hopefully.

I've asked this before but got not much response; to what extent do people involved in various local campaigns feel that the mood of the people involved is to defend education as it currently exists? In Oxford this is definitely not the case. But maybe that's because the minority who turn up to meetings are radical already unfortunately, but that's still a load of us - 50-100+. And I see 'free universities' as partly a consequence of that. Again, 'policing by consent' is also not at all accepted in our local group - when discussing whether we're opposed to all cuts, someone said they're not opposed to e.g. cuts to police, and it seemed like pretty much everyone cheered.
There are a lot of anarchy types involved though, with a range of politics, so maybe it is the politico's. I don't know because I didn't know any of them really before the campaign.
Is this a common experience?

Blasto
Dec 21 2010 14:19

Very good article. Very helpful.

I'd question how many students are actually at university based on some hope for the future. Surveys (for what they are worth) suggest that many students have low expectations of university and what follows. I've never been to university myself, but know many who have as well as some academics, and there is another story going on. British universities are bulging with students with very pragmatic reasons for being there...

Staying on at school for A-levels or going to college is now the norm for youngsters of all classes - a huge change from even 15 years ago. For most 16 years olds, its simply because there is no other choice - it's education or nothing. Either way, its another few claustrophobic years spent living at home.

Having A levels from school or equivalents from college makes university accessible to a huge number of young people who would never even have considered it 20 years ago. One comment above states that the reported 50% of young people in HE is erroneous. That's true - it is actually slightly higher.

So what are all these young people doing at University (and art colleges, etc). For many, its business as usual - family expectations, career choice, etc (the hope of a bright future), but for huge numbers university holds a much more immediate and urgent opportunity - easy, cheap credit. And credit equals escape.

Escape from families, home towns, tired school friendships, first lovers, boredom, a premature end to 'youth' and the start of a steady low paid job. And university offers the promise of youth unfulfilled so long as you are living at home - sex, drink, drugs, staying in bed, living in glorious squalor and unquestioned laziness.

A real, tangible scarcity that young people face isn't just hope of a bright future but an immediate means of escape. And perhaps, along side 'hope', that is what young people are also fighting for?

mons
Dec 21 2010 21:04

That's a really good comment Blasto.

Wellclose Square
Dec 21 2010 21:43
mons wrote:
That's a really good comment Blasto.

You know, that comment rings a lot of bells for me - university was a possible lifeline to escape a shit job and a stifling home life in the early '80s, but it wasn't to be... 'An escape to what?' would be a logical question, but who cares, as long as you keep running? The phrase 'better to travel in hope than to arrive' could some up this perspective, the feeling that you've got some options (not necessarity 'career-aspirational' ones at that, but 'career' gets thrown in there as an aspiration to escape the misery).