Escalate Collective on the anti-cuts movement that emerged following the storming of Millbank.
The delusional cries in the media that our protests are hijacked by trouble-makers are indicative of how complete our alienation is. The unspoken belief is that all disorder and disobedience must originate outside of normal society, as though trouble-makers are not themselves products of this same civilisation. We witness from within as the system blames its own gradual destruction on imagined external saboteurs.
Our seeds were sown well before November 10th and the timely destruction of 30 Millbank’s ground floor windows. We said at the time and we continue to say now: that was just the beginning. It was not where our genealogy stops, but where we begin to record it.
We are not a necessarily even a movement, as is so often put forward, but rather a manifestation of continuing acts of resistance. But what do we resist? If the recent renaissance in radicalism was not at root caused by deliberate, long-term alienation, then it was caused by nothing at all.
That radical agenda which the system of capital has forced us to learn is masked by the defensive nature of our fight. But let us be clear – this fight is but one grain of sand on the beach. We see clearly the blueprint for the whole array of attacks set in front of us. And how could we miss the signs? In protest virtually every publicly justifiable apparatus of the state is brought out to attack us. We are brutalised by police fists, truncheons, horses. Our ribs are broken to spare panes of glass. Our brains bleed to spare the lifeblood of the system – capital.
Meanwhile, our future is slain: public services abolished, prospects of subsistence decimated, and our friends, relatives and selves sold to the market completely, like packets of meat. On both fronts the media embeds itself with the troops of the market, rallying behind police lines, cheer-leading the violence against us. It is not about bad reporting. It is about a media which, by its very nature, serves to protect privilege.
We are fighting more than just the commodification and privatisation of education. Sure enough, the sound of doors slamming shut behind us reminds us of the doors which are being slammed shut in our faces: trapped while a privileged few pocket the keys and glue the locks. Trapped people get angry. Trapped people smash their way out. Anyone who isn’t smashing yet doesn’t yet realise how trapped they are.
We have been kidnapped by the privileged few. To re-appropriate the post-Millbank lexicon, it is society that has been hijacked by a violent minority. Recently we have simply lashing out, but the real way forward is to look for escape routes.
We will not sit in place while we are beaten. Crises do not follow scripts, orders, or statute books. We hence begin to fulfil the role that is created for us by the very system: we are the crisis.
Rather than being judged on its own merits and flaws, it is more common for our resistance to be understood by previous ideas and clichés. More often than not, these are constructed by ideas dominant in society. Such misrepresentations are not only inaccurate, but also dangerous for the ongoing vitality of that resistance itself.
Binary oppositions dominate: social media and horizontality, youth and insurrection on the one hand, are opposed to leadership, bureaucracy, unity and revolution on the other. We reject such misrepresentations.
1.1 One generation against the other
Of all the students who have taken part in the protests, very few will personally feel the effects of the fee policy they oppose. Our objection is political. We are less concerned with remuneration than the future of education in our society.
The press has insisted that this is a battle of the young, of a generation beating back structures that oppress them. Such an analysis portrays our struggle as individualistic monetary self-interest. Our arguments for free education are reduced to arguments for our so-called success, as if our aim is to live cheaply rather than to transform the means by which we are allowed to live.
We reject the terms “young”, “generation”, and take up the cause of collective politicization. We fight because we see our society being taken apart. We defend the collective for the collective, not as a generation for a generation or as an individual for herself. Many of “our generation” are not on our side and many from older generations are. Our enemy is class – a political enemy – not those who we will be forced to compete with in the job market.
1.2 Social media as panacea
The praise Twitter and Facebook have received is matched only by the compliments showered on a mythical young generation who have supposedly expropriated the potentials within this technology for radical means. We are made to believe that new technology is somehow linked to new life, despite clear signposts in the other direction: the prevalence over two decades of the internet in co-ordinating alter-globalisation struggles; the prominence of middle-aged men in the computing industry; the age diversity of those using web-based media.
For the press, youth is regarded as containing inevitable rebellion, with an inevitable shelf-life. Associating the student movement with social media is the same as associating the 1968-1974 movement with tie-dye t-shirts: the only victory can be further consumption, this time of web-based goods. For the press, an ambivalent success – for the movement: resounding failure.
Political organisations, which so often revert to centrism whether intentionally or not, frequently laud web-based media as embodying a non-hierarchical spirit. However, such supposedly non-hierarchical media turns out to have centres. Many organisations enjoy the perceived leaderlessness of Twitter and Facebook because of how clearly this myth masks the mechanisms of privilege and capital power which allow leadership to emerge when any network is left unchecked. Software corporations and PR agencies have entire departments devoted to astro-turfing and the countering of malevolent online publicity. Professional journalists and salaried unionists have the advantage of time and often resources to invest in their Twitterfeeds and Facebook friends.
All this is to say that the movement is not leaderless in the way that these proponents of web-based media would like to suggest. Those championing these apparent tools of horizontality are often, intentionally or otherwise, obstacles to creating a horizontal politics.
1.3 Illegitimate protesters
Time and again we hear pundits and activists question the motivations and backgrounds of those involved in the movement not to ascertain its direction, but to judge the participants’ legitimacy. Non-students are the most frequent pariahs of the journalistic fervour. While it is true that different social backgrounds and situations alter motivations, this does not preclude participation. Any attempt to divide the movement on this basis is a tactic of our opponents.
Asked how we deal with those who turn up to ’cause trouble’ at the demonstrations, the non-students, our unequivocal answer is: we are those troublemakers. We do not attend protests as students, but as parts of a politicised collective. For all the attention in recent years to identity politics, the identity that is most often overlooked is that of the activist, the protester, the politicised being. When we consider ourselves as such, it is not to create a clique or an underground, but to confess that legitimacy stems from shared forms of dissent, and not from a common economic or cultural ancestry, including that of studentship.
1.4 Reclaiming the Big Society
Much has been said about reclaiming the big society. That we really are “all in this together.” We reject these terms. We are not proud to work together for free in protest, and this is not a form of good volunteering; instead it is a fight for us to live with dignity in the future, to be paid for future work, and to stop current workers being undermined by people being forced to work for free. We know we are not all in it together. The financial crisis and the politics of austerity are not abstract and transcendent forces, but rather the concrete results of the politics of people within our society. For them to say “we are in this together” makes us all complicit. Our reaction is to say, “we, as a political collective, are against them.”
It is this act of collective politicisation which transforms the nature of those who go through such experiences. An individual may make a conscious decision, spurred on by the horrific betrayals of liberal democracy, to join a protest – but soon that gesture drives beyond mere reaction. What once seemed a conscious political choice becomes narrativised, and arguments for legitimacy fade into nothing short of the living act of democracy.
The common perception that our movement is legitimated by youth, young technology, self-interest or a form of radical lobbying is deeply misrepresentative. Rather, it is this process of continuous aspiration to become more than ourselves not in ‘real capital terms’, but through a process of emancipation from domination. In other words, it is a process of education beyond the boundaries which lies at the heart of occupation as a tactic, and the movement as a whole.
2. This is Actually Happening
Boundaries are permeable. We reach out beyond the police containment zone, our attempt to escape is our attempt to spread the movement into society at large. Journalists are let out just before they hold us for two hours on Westminster Bridge. We are reminded of the futility of tweeting from our smartphones when all the professional reporters have gone home. But instead of silence, we listen to our own chants.
In protest our biggest opposition is the boundary. We reject the boundaries of the lecture theatre, the separation of students from society, the institutions of privilege, the binding of subjects to disciplines, the lines on the timetables that tell us where to be and when. Boundaries are how we are controlled, and in occupying we aim to take control of them and to negate them. The metaphors abound, and our movement is attracted to them: we engage in modes of protest that lend themselves to poetic interpretation.
Virtual boundaries manifest themselves in the physical world. Receiving the legal notice of a possession order against an occupation, we find ourselves presented with deeds and blueprints. The perimeters of the occupied rooms are outlined in coloured felt-tip. The symbolism of the boundaries marked on these documents at that moment becomes a spectre of physical violence: the threat of removal by bailiffs.
This mutation from virtual to physical does not only go in one direction. The police line in front of Parliament or the Treasury becomes an integral part of a whole architecture worthy of destruction. The line becomes a boundary of the spectacle, and then itself becomes subsumed into the spectacle. We form our own line and so the process continues back and forth, between the spectacle of the boundary and the boundary of the spectacle.
The mass incarceration of protesters in Parliament is counter-posed by the fences put up to stop people getting in. Boundaries become confused. Are they to pen us in, or keep us out? It is not the particular boundary against which we rebel, but the idea of boundary itself.
For while it might seem that the police containment zone and the occupation are separated fundamentally – by the first being an act of unwanted incarceration and the latter an actively willed space of liberation – this divide is superficial. The spaces are different, but the boundaries remain the same. In essence, both rely on a dynamic of authority and protest. Our practice of disruption physically manifests the continuing assault of daily life upon free-thinking and the practice of resistance.
We are constantly questioned as to why we do not use the democratic ‘methods’ already in place to ‘cope’ and ‘deal’ with dissent in a ‘democracy’. The question is ridiculous. We do not want our dissent coped with. We know the futility of letter writing to MPs, of marches from A to B, of lobbying politicians who all think the same thing; we want our dissent to smash through all this. We want to express our political selves, not be co-opted into a spectacle of protest designed to dim and blunt our free thinking. The state authorities are fully aware of this – this is why they seek to suppress us so forcefully.
Insofar as we express ourselves politically, the police are our enemy. As we seek a new society, they preserve the status quo. Antagonism is inevitable. In the English language, the verb ‘to police’ originally meant to develop land by cultivation. The police do not ‘police’ our protests: they do not nurture or facilitate our democratic expression. The police are there on our marches to suppress us.
Violence is of course their coarsest and most visible weapon, and on recent demonstrations it has been used with abandon. More subtly, however, the police attempt to suppress us through simple data collection: pictures of our faces, our names, our location and our political acts. When, via the police, the state collects the data of politically active citizens, treating them in the process as criminals-in-waiting, it expresses its preference for weak citizenship. The range of discretionary powers possessed by our state bureaucracies mean that the collection and use of this data is completely sovereign: we have no say or influence over what our data is used for, nor where it is stored. In this respect we are dominated.
The question most commonly asked of those who object to all this is, “if you’ve done nothing wrong, what have you got to hide?” The question attempts to make us deviant and suspicious. We are not to be trusted because we do not acquiesce to the state’s suffocation of our political thinking. The question could be “what are you scared of?” To that question the answer is, “we can’t know”. We can’t know because of the arbitrary and discretionary powers the state has over the collection and use of our data. For expressing our politics, we are monitored, “noted”, catalogued.
When the Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) aggressively film us, when we are only let out of kettles on condition we have our faces filmed, when we are arrested en masse in Trafalgar Square for breach of the peace just so our personal details can be taken, when police cameramen turn up to community meetings of environmentalists or to student occupations – when any of these occur, the message is clear: we control your data, and we control you. By protecting what is ours, we deny the state control.
The sovereign power that the police gain through ownership of our personal data is used to isolate us. It is used to divide us, to individualise our fears, to alienate us from our political allies. The purpose is to deter us from continuing to express ourselves; to incite us to become again what we were always meant to be, weak citizens, safe and obedient participants in a moribund service economy. Data collection attempts to coerce us into self-censorship; to make us think twice about attending demonstrations, to make us hesitate when we make the choice between obedience and freedom.
The police will, as they’ve stated, pursue an increasingly aggressive surveillance approach in its suppression of students in 2011. They will seek to isolate us and dominate us by knowing us personally. As they escalate against us we will escalate our defence. The more the police contain us, the more determinedly we will break their containment zones. The more they target the wearing of masks at demonstrations, the more we will wear masks. They’ve stated their case and their aims, here’s ours: we will continue choosing freedom over obedience. Our only personal relationship is with each other. We become free as a collective; we control our personal data. Anonymity brings us unity and strength.
Cover your face: today, we can do nothing as somebody or something as nobody.
2.3 Solidarity & Anxiety
We should not tolerate a version of solidarity more suited to hashes than clashes. Protesters ejected from open air incarceration often return to the prison. A thousand protesters break the police line on Whitehall; strangely they come crashing back into the contained area. The only tactical advantage is an expression of solidarity. The experience of that solidarity cannot be digitised.
Those students who remained on the outside of the occupations, and those of us within who constantly fretted about every decision and movement, share a state of anxiety. While the first group concerned itself with the potential repercussions of illegitimacy, ours, the second group, was anxious not to allow the legitimacy it had gained to slip away.
Such anxiety feels specific to every individual; but it is a collective emotion, and binding. It stems not from an individual situation, but a collective subjection to power. Alienation, apathy, depression, fear – these have always been the names of the mental states prior to politicisation. Anxiety is the next phase – it propels people into new spaces of containment.
The Situationists were already noting in 1967 that the majority of students were destined to become low-level functionaries. For them this was a novelty. For us it is an overwhelming and indisputable fact. The atomisation of the campus, the way in which our universities come increasingly to resemble the service industry – these are not accidents or metaphors, but active correlations between the world of work and the institutions in which we are prepared for it.
What were once seminars are now merely miscategorised lectures, ‘contact’ hours have diminished into minutes and academics have been ‘incentivised’ to prioritise their research over their pastoral obligations. Some staff are complicit in this process, while many others resent their transformation from teachers to tick-box service providers.
At the same time costs to students have been inexorably pushed up. Successive UK governments have gradually flattened the appetite among students for intellectual and political opposition. Humanities and Social Science degrees are now a mirage: they continue to offer their image of education for a life critical and vigorous long after they have become in effect training camps for ‘flexible’ work.
The crisis encourages the state to accelerate its programme of immiseration.
2.4 What the Big Society really means
This ongoing process, which only now acccelerates, has also already received responses. The demand from below has been against the language of business, and the romanticisation of management. The Big Society is this demand returned in distorted form: the bread is festering, the circuses are spinning out of control. Voluntarism is presented as an excuse for unemployment, tax breaks for the rich as liberty, and freedom from the welfare state as autonomy – but greater real state oppression. Less universities, more batons.
In the face of these changes, the state encourages us to placate one another, as we move slowly back towards the so-called horizon of steady growth under conditions of intensified social depredation. It calls the collective acquiescence to depredation community.
The universities are a test-case in the falsity of this rhetoric. ‘University’ is now a misnomer. Its two connotations, as a community and as something universal, have been rendered archaic and misleading. We compete against each other for grades and then for jobs. What we learn is now specific rather than general, particular rather than universal. The division of education into separate disciplines is identical to the division of labour in the workplace. We are trained to play a small part within the total reproduction of capital. Those courses that try to go beyond the particular, that try to understand the universal, to take the student beyond herself – the arts and humanities, interdisciplinary studies – have been challenged.
Education, once a by-word for transformation and liberation, submitted to the paradigm of post-modern work, is now merely a replica of those characteristics of contemporary capital which have become all too familiar: networked transience and homogeneous precarity. In the 1950s, ivory towers became concrete towers as universities were finally pulled from the seventeenth century into the world of capitalism, unleashing parallel possibilities of revolution and domination. Ivory towers became kitsch: even for those who study within their walls they signify history no more than a postcard.
Now concrete has been replaced by plate glass windows. The inviting ‘openness’ of those windows is a stylistic homage to the glass façades of banks and consultancies; in truth they signify openness to the customer, which, as ever, means those with the resources to pay.
Domination won out.
In practical terms, left liberalism has made of itself a spectacular farce. In theoretical terms it continues to flourish. The wave of occupations at the end of 2010 left us up to our throats in the discursive debris of left liberal slogans. Education, we were told, is a ‘right’. The arts and humanities are profit-generating ‘sectors’ of a knowledge-economy whose growth is vital for the national interest.
For the financier MP of the front-bench, this is divine music. In response he offers a sincere apology: he regrets what he does, but if any Higher Education whatsoever is to be sustained, he must do it anyway.
We remember 2003, when our protest against a war of imperialist mass slaughter was conscripted by the state as justification for that war. In the future, we were informed, the families of the slaughtered would be able to protest also. We are now subjected to a new round of rhetorical recuperation. Our “right” to education is suspended in the name of its “sustainability.”
No more conceptual games. The tactic of occupation is more advanced than the politics of the occupiers who, in their (and in our) efforts at self-justification, have too often yearningly invoked the ‘rights’ which, in Higher Education as elsewhere, have always been the rights of those with power and wealth to exploit and suppress the excluded.
The danger of our occupations is therefore not just their immediate impact. Those who have mobilised in the last months have no intention of contributing to an economy whose growth in ‘real terms’ is nothing but growth in voluntary servitude, more flexible and less remunerated. When the occupations ended, we marched out onto the streets. The process of forgetting began in that instant: but the effects on the subjects who were once within those walls remain. The occupations became past tense. The sense of liberation through rule-breaking, the sleeplessness and camaraderie, was transformed into something else.
Occupation has re-entered the political vocabulary. But for us it is also a new political philology. The tactic supersedes the empty verbiage of ‘rights’. In occupation, we seize a space and then hold open its doors. The space is in itself a valuable resource; and our occupation of it demonstrates that we intend to make those resources the possession of all.
Be under no illusions: this scares the management. If the university managers do not exercise control, they have no remaining function. The courts are on their side, the police are on their side. They are desperate less for us to leave as for the status of the space to revert to the sanitised, clockwork order of before.
It is well known that the proposed fees in higher education will change the “conditions of access” to higher education institutions. Once translated out of the bureaucratese of neutralised public policy discourse, what this means – what everyone knows – is that under the new fee-regime less of the poorest will go to university. Large numbers of young working class people think that the state is trampling their opportunities in its eager search for ‘savings’. In response, the state announces that it will be ‘listening to’ and ‘working with’ young people to find out how best to explain to them that they are wrong. For the government, this is democratic participation in a nutshell: the door which slams shut is pasted with welcome signs.
The state argues that fees are ‘fair’ on the basis that a university system financed by general taxation is not. When the state makes this argument, it does not mention (which is to say, it conceals) that low-income working people have always paid for HE, and that doing so has involved paying not just for teaching, but also for a decades-long programme of investment in Higher Education infrastructure: in research libraries, lecture theatres, seminar rooms, sports halls, residences. In the publicly financed Higher Education Funding Council for England’s 2010-2011 budget, £562 million was set aside for ‘Capital Investment’. The new fees will in effect exclude the poor from accessing this material wealth.
In occupations, the status of that wealth is contested. The process is quite simple. When we occupy a teaching space, we realise it is possible to participate in the composition of our syllabus without making a £9,000 per annum ‘personal investment’. When we occupy a research library, we realise we can determine who is kept out and who comes in. For the middle class students who resist fees on principle (and, let’s face it, there are many), occupation is an education in the material reality of property relations. We learn how the spaces we occupy are policed under usual conditions: but we also begin to learn at what cost.
In the occupations, we struggled to convince our peers that our tactics were right, that escalation was not “extremism”, or “radicalism for the sake of radicalism”, that we were not “going too far”, or “too soon”, or “too late”, or “in the wrong place”. The resistances we encountered from fellow students were, often enough, the index of middle-class anxiety in the face of real political antagonism. This anxiety is one of the collective inheritances of two decades of enormous capital expansionism. During those decades the relentless brutalisation of the majority of those who produce value was magicked away – by the outsourcing of production, by the ghettoisation of the resultant surplus populations, by the distribution of some marginal benefits of asset inflation to the middle classes. Aversion to antagonism has a social history.
If occupation failed to include more of the student body, that “failure” taught us how much work still needs to be done if students are to possess a political culture that is prepared for antagonism. It also did some essential work towards that preparation. The new open spaces of the occupation offer new modes of understanding. Democracy is experienced by many in ways they had never imagined. Working groups co-operate for a greater good beyond the meaningless and arbitrary production of commodities or predetermined social goods of the welfare state.
Dumbfounded by the cogs of our society’s machinery, we break things to participate: the rules, the law, windows, property rights, norms, the officially determined uses of public spaces. Breaking away from our timetables, from our work/play divides, we came together not as producers or consumers, but as friends, in real places, with real tales to tell. The university became both a target and a home.
We create our own bounded space when we occupy, but we create boundaries only in order to explode them. Where movement was previously prohibited to students we invite others in, disrupting the popular view of our ‘legitimacy’ as students. Nothing can be locked up at night. We feel like we own a space in occupation, but truly we understand the occupation to be a process we create. We don’t want just another classroom, or another police containment zone: rather we want people to join us and we want to join them. We risk the space becoming a fetish, and all too often it does. But when the occupation ends we continue our process on the streets and in the classrooms. We continue pointing to the boundaries we wish to destroy. All too often those boundaries follow us wherever we go.