An assessment of the 2010 UK student movement and proposal for a disruption of financial services.
In three months we’ve seen an explosion of street activity that took us all by surprise. Whereas there’s always been a core of far-left activity in Britain that has, in rhetoric if not in action, stood as a public opposition to capital, it would be fair to say that for many years even the most effective action has been on a local scale, where hard-working activists have played King Canute to the tide of neo-liberalism. However, in an autumn, we have seen an afternoon of smashed windows turn into an almost hyperactive atmosphere where an attitude of social cynicism and apathy seems to have turned to anger. Whilst we can (probably) all agree that this offers an opportunity to challenge the logic of parliamentary-democracy and, in turn, capital, if the struggle can be spread from students to the wider social body. However, we must be honest with ourselves, both on the current parameters of the social crisis, and the fact that a social crisis does not amount to a crisis in capitalism.
Whilst “the movement” made a significant impact on the mainstream media, and raised direct action and extra-parliamentary politics as a spectre at the least, it’s important not to get too carried away. Even over the short Christmas break, issues around unity and sectarianism, carried over from earlier, pre-existing arguments, but also from new tactical and organisational divisions, have started to spread, ironically exacerbated by the social media which has proved such a vital organisational tool. Significant actions need to be taken in order to return to an atmosphere of class antagonism, if only on a media stage, in order to stimulate a sense of momentum and confidence in class antagonism proper.
The manifestations of the student “movement” have been two-fold, firstly, a wave of occupations that spread across university campuses towards the end of the year, and four major national demonstrations of increasing anger, intensity and violence that pushed the issue to the front of the national press, ending with a sight almost unthinkable just weeks before: major civil disorder by youths in Parliament Square whilst the coalition pushed through proposals on tuition fees with a much diminished majority. If you had predicted such a scenario just a month and a half before to even the most committed ultra-leftist activist you’d have been swatted away from conversation as a fantasist. Such a swift turn-around is what created such a hyperactive buzz, on parts of campuses and in the online student opinion press and personal blogs. It was also this rapid change, and the new potentials it seemed to offer, that precipitated the series of occupations.
The principles behind an occupation, especially at a university, are well laid out. It is the principle of direct action- to interrupt the functioning of the university, not as a symbolic protest but in an attempt to disrupt or halt the operations of the university as an economic entity. A sit-in is simply occupying a space in protest, or to provide that space as a resource, for education or debate, but an occupation is an attack on the functioning of the institution itself. To varying extents the 40+ occupations across the country succeeded in this, whether by occupying lecture halls, administration buildings or libraries. These occupations were really a huge political eye-opener to many of the participants. Unlike in many European countries, British universities are relative strangers to the occupation model, and reports have varied as to reactions and decisions made within different academic institutions. Whilst some operated effectively, others suffered from divisions. Whilst some managed to hold on to spaces for long periods, others were quickly evicted by management, often with the help of bailiffs and the police.
The occupation of the library at Goldsmiths College in South East London seemed to be an interesting case study with wider ramifications. Goldsmiths (both the management and the student body) sees itself as a radical institution- indeed, ironically, this radicality is a key recruitment tool for the university. The College went into occupation quite late in comparison to others, and pretty soon fractious divisions arose amongst occupying students regarding the nature of the action. Whilst many students and staff felt that a full closure of the library was the only action that could push beyond a symbolic protest, others felt that such a move, especially in the month leading up to key dissertation deadlines, would only turn the majority of the student body against the nascent “movement”. This division seems indicative of a wider divide within the student “movement”- the divide between those who were already politically active, and those who have been induced into action, or wider political awareness, by the implementation of massive cuts to public services as part of the “package of austerity measures”. Whilst certain arguments are well-rehearsed within political currents, their foundations and implications might not be so obvious to people new to direct action. And that’s not to suggest a hierarchy, that they’re necessarily right– certainly there is no bigger enemy of programmatism than fresh eyes, picking holes in often dry and tired dogmatism taken for granted by operating politicos. It was this division that was played out dramatically at Goldsmiths College.
There can be no denying that tensions in the space ran extremely high; meetings became tortured and laborious without offering many real tactical gains, and often a sense of personal antagonism poisoned the air. Whilst there was no doubt a kernel of difference which was the base of this atmosphere, it is important we do not overweight the significance of it- there was much agreement, discussion, solidarity and friendship within the room, even some sexy-time if management are to be believed. Small problems were exacerbated by fatigue and stress as well as procedural difficulties. However, we should not flinch from being self-critical here, but we should put the division into perspective. There was no fundamental schism, but rather a lack of communication between political positions, and a lack of understanding of others politics.
This highlighted a fundamental problem, however. How effective is occupation of an educational resource as a weapon? An occupation seems like a logical step for an educational institution, but is it the most effective use of our time, energy and resources? In the end at Goldsmiths there was not an occupation, but a sit in, but would an occupation have been any more effective, or would it have been counterproductive to the achievement at a time when the majority of the student body do not necessarily identify themselves with the student movement? Those engaged in occupations really must ask themselves, we feel, the degree of economic frustration caused by shutting down occupations.
It would seem to us that, whilst we shouldn’t write off occupation of the university as a tactic, it is not the most effective use of our time, and politically (with a small p) they often prove unnecessarily contentious and counter-productive. Much of this is an issue of political fluency- the occupation is not currently part of the political language in our country, whereas it might be better understood in other areas of the world. Whilst we hold a responsibility to change that misunderstanding, we can not act as immediatists, and blame others for not understanding the political and tactical objectives of the occupation. And once we hold directly-democratic student assemblies, we cannot then override that process because it starts slipping into reformism. In such a situation our task as radicals should be agitation, not cutting ourselves off.
This raises a more pertinent issue- what is the most effective extra-parliamentary direct action the student movement could take right now? Whilst we acknowledge the tactic of occupation on our campuses, and reserve the right to take that action which we deem necessary, perhaps we could push our energy into a more effective form of economic (and class) warfare.
The focus of the previous few month’s action has been squarely upon parliament. That action has been radical, often violent, but it betrays a fundamental falsehood– that the key to social change lies within Westminster, within the centralised power-structures of parliamentary democracy. The protests, whilst rejecting the slightly tragic leadership of the National Union of Students, has still focused it attentions on the same arena– by lobbying those in power, we might, somehow, persuade, threaten or guilt-trip them into doing the right thing. What that is, we’re not sure. Not implementing tuition fees, no doubt, but the analysis ends their; the popular accusation of “spoilt students defending their free education” might not be so far from the truth, if that were the case. As long as capital operates outside Parliament, we must operate outside Parliament. Politics is not a limited sphere of negotiations around lawmaking that exists solely within the limits of Westminster, politics is our everyday interaction.
Any more radical approach must focus not on the machinations of Parliament, but on the economic system Parliament is sworn to protect– the system of deregulated financial capital that created the social crisis in the first place, with it’s reckless gambling on markets and subsequent transference of the results of that failure onto the public pocket, in the form of public ownership of the banks. By refocusing the dissent against the financial industry, the struggle against austerity can start to seriously undermine the dominant “argument” for the massive attack on the working-class– that is, the language of “inevitablism”, that the cause of the social crisis is a deficit caused by reckless public spending. This, so far, has been a real problem with the student “movement” when it comes to engaging in dialogue with the wider public, a public so far relatively disengaged from the idea of opposing cuts.
The point of the economic blockade is two-fold, direct and political; firstly, to shut down the financial industry whose continued operation works against the interests of ordinary people, and secondly; to draw attention to the fact the students cause is not the protection of a mollycoddled middle-class elite but an attack on the financial scam that has put us all in this situation.
There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning. -Warren Buffett
We don’t perceive this to necessarily be a radical agenda in itself, but the start of a process of offering an alternative, intelligent and practical criticism of capitalism. It’s the start of asserting that the problem isn’t Labour’s sloppiness in book-keeping (as the coalition claims) or general Tory nastiness (as much of the student movement seems to be asserting). It’s to raise the role and effects of the financial system as the originator of the current austerity measures.
When it comes to direct action, every struggle must use the weight of their enemy against them, must take advantage of every weakness. In Greece, the sanctuary of the university and historical position of the students enables us to push against the state directly in the streets. In Britain, we learnt for the first time that the one weapon we can use most effectively in the face of police repression is improvisation- to turn quickly on our heels and bolt before the monolith of a militarised police line can react. Like that police line, the industrialisation of our education system, teamed with a paranoiac fear of bad publicity damaging their market stake, has turned our universities into a bureaucratic behemoth. If we take advantage of that, we can use the resources a campus offers to the best of our advantages. To hold a physical space for a week in London, a convergence space to be freely utilised to fight against austerity, to meet fellow students, to practice tactics and prepare tools, a place to come to rest together after an action- this is a massive practical achievement that is more than possible today.
Therefore, a proposal; we take what we learned from a hectic two months and dozens of nationwide university occupations and work together to step up the fight against austerity. In the week approaching the next national demonstration against fees and cuts we take control of physical space within our universities not with the aim of shutting down the education system, but with the aim of shutting down the financial sector which has engineered this crisis. We use those spaces, and social media, to launch a week of flash-mobs, sit-ins and shut-downs of the infrastructure that support the city- train stations, tube lines, city-boy pubs. Each action planned on the hoof, with hundreds of students throughout the week improvising take-overs of Canary Wharf, creative actions inside the Bank of England, a close-down of the stock-exchange, if only for an hour. A week where the students take the fight to those who started it- the financiers who are still in the clover as the public sector is closed down. A week of economic warfare.
Originally posted: January 17, 2011 at Deterritorial Support Group