Reflections on the demonstrations and occupations at the University of Sussex, and the wider issue of privatisation and marketisation of the education sector.
Sussex University, 25 March: An afternoon of fireworks, flares, and a not-so-friendly police force. Finally, a demonstration that began to demonstrate something. But this wasn’t merely “fuck the police” (although that sentiment was central); it was in opposition of the 235 jobs being cut through outsourcing at the university, in clear opposition to creeping corporate control of education.
It is often said that the dearly departed Baroness Thatcher had great skill in making the police work overtime. That aspect of her dark legacy was evident at Sussex; although the protesters held off the police to occupy the administration building, Sussex House, the police returned with bailiffs and a High Court order on 2 April to evict the occupation, then into its eighth week.
25 March demonstrated, albeit momentarily, that the domination of space by private and managerial power is neither inevitable nor unchangeable. The relentless theme of “management get out, we know what you’re all about” hit dangerously close to what the anti-corporate education movement aspires to, to those ideas which the occupation of Sussex House was grappling with: a vision of services run by and for their participants, without barriers of governance.
Many find it easy to dismiss fighting with the police and to condemn the ‘violence’ against the few sq metres of glass at the entrance to Sussex House. But that dismissal is predicated on a refusal to acknowledge the violence on which the liberal state relies upon to perpetuate itself. The presence of riot vans on a university campus reflects the comfortable marriage of state power and private capital, the former a fallback whenever the latter’s opportunities are threatened. This is core to the contradictory logic of neoliberalism – advocating a non-interventionist state economically, while practicing physical intervention in order to actually execute economic strategy.
It is in part because of this that reclaiming space is important both politically and educationally. The initial act of occupying reveals the violent basis of private property and industry, while the administration and sustaining of a reappropriated space develops our capacity to defend and organise ourselves. It strikes me that the critics of occupations or demonstrations which use militant tactics have likely never been on or part of one, and so cannot appreciate the energy generated from a victory over the police, our most immediate oppressors. They similarly may not have experienced how urban politics and the contestation of public/private space expresses class allegiance, and the proven potential for this to radicalise the otherwise apathetic.
The act of exercising our political rights in a principled and determined way will compel a response. The following day, 26 March, Sussex University management took out an injunction effectively banning protest on campus until September. When similar repressive measures were introduced in Québec in the form of Bill 78, students responded defiantly in even greater numbers. Such moves aren’t in the interests of safety, but are in the interests of the privatisation agenda. The intention at their heart is to repress critical voices – a direct consequence of a powerful and explicitly radically political demonstrations.
Yet privatisation is not just a Sussex-specific issue. It is at the heart of the Coalition government’s project and is transforming higher education, the NHS, the administering of benefits and local services; the entire welfare state. But what is needed is to make the coercive basis of liberal politics explicit and through the recognition that progress demands physical struggle, the literal smashing of imposed barriers, and new forms of organisation like Sussex’s Pop-Up Union, or Classe in Québec.
Militant tactics have the potential to educate, inspire and radicalise. But this doesn’t mean we should all just go and smash up a shop; politics can be radical whilst advocating a meaningful, considered approach to action. So have sympathy for the glass injured on 25 March. But do not let this get in the way of a movement to reclaim public space and services.
Originally published by Newcastle Free Press.