1968 the soundtrack…no thanks: On student politics and finding one’s place in one’s own time - Pascal Steven and John Archer

Pascal Steven and John Archer discuss the politics of "Reclaim the Uni" a university organisation organising in the years before the struggles around tuition fees. They also discuss the importance of rooted, localised organising. Originally published in September 2008.

You can hardly open The Guardian or turn on the television or radio this year without being reminded of the 40-year anniversary of the 1968 uprisings. The “spirit of ‘68” has been commodified, sold to us on t-shirts, mugs and through the bleary eyed nostalgia of ‘68ers” such as Tariq Ali cashing in on old war stories and bemoaning a lack of similar radical zeal in today’s students. 1968 is understood within both radical and liberal circles as a period of massive social conflict, in which students played a prominent role in struggling for greater freedom. Critics of this myth such as Slavoj Zizek, who argues that the main thing that 1968 produced was neo-liberal capitalism, have been silenced beneath the mountains of commemorative articles. You get the feeling that many commentators believe that 1968 can and should be recreated, and blame today’s apathetic students for it not doing so.

Those cashing in on the corpse of 1968 and all that it represents have forgotten that this is 2008 and history can never be repeated but can only be learnt from. It seems many expect that chanting the same slogans will produce the same results forty years later.

The deluge of flyers shoved into my hands this year by various socialist groups all offering the same unimaginative narrative and offering workshops on how to recreate the 1968 conditions are nothing more than a quaint anachronism. Whilst many on the left have their heads in the sand writing articles and dreaming of the “right social conditions”, they are ignoring the conditions within which student protest movements find themselves today.

In Britain students at the University of Sussex, Southampton and the University of Manchester have been very active in resisting the continuing marketisation of their education. With the signing of the Bologna accords in 1999 many European universities are beginning to undergo structural changes in accordance with the blueprint laid out by British universities. The Parisian student occupations earlier this year are one example of student protests against these changes, which have also been seen in Germany, Spain and Greece. Globally other students are also resisting structural changes to higher education in the USA, Canada, Chile, South Africa, Mexico, the Philippines and Thailand (for more information see http://fading-hope.blog-city.com/international_student_protests_2007.htm). An international day of action against the commercialisation of education is being planned for the 5th of November 2008.

This contemporary struggle should not be reduced to an analogue of the struggles experienced in Paris, Prague or Mexico in the 1960’s. We are now experiencing a new cycle of capital accumulation, a different geo-political situation and a whole range of new issues to deal with, in particular climate change. Iraq is not today’s Vietnam and Parisian student protests this year are not the same as those in 1968. Students today are facing a different set of issues within a different social context and are responding to them in different ways.

But what are the major points of tension within these movements, what are the limits and obstacles to their radical potential and how can other social movements best help them? The following insights have been gleaned from an active involvement in the “Reclaim the Uni” campaign that has been running in Manchester for the past four months.

Neo-liberal changes within the University of Manchester

The 2004 merger between the Victoria university of Manchester and UMIST left the newly founded University of Manchester heavily in debt. In July 2006 its operational deficit was £30 million pounds. At the end of 2007 a moratorium on job losses was removed allowing the university to begin the process of shedding 650 staff that were enjoying “abnormally high levels of pay inflation in the sector”.

Whilst the media have focused on the forced retirements of prominent Marxists Terry Eagleton and Sheila Rowbotham (who has just won her campaign to stay on) perhaps more significantly for most students and staff at the university has been cuts to the I.T. and library departments. I.T. clusters and faculty libraries have been removed and staff-student contact times have been halved over the last twenty years due to losses of staff.

At the same time the university is also attempting to promote itself as a top class research institution. Figurehead staff such as Martin Amis and Joseph Stiglitz are paid vast sums for little more than marketing rights whilst an investment of six hundred million pounds has seen buildings designed to divide staff and students, such as the Arthur Lewis building, being constructed with little student input. In order to supplement their income Manchester has been a vocal supporter of increasing top-up fee’s for Russell group universities – effectively calling for the creation of a two tier system – and has signed a variety of deals with companies such as Bp, Tesco and BAE.

At the same time market processes have been entering the academy in a variety of more subtle ways. Knowledge is becoming increasingly market oriented through venture capital intellectual property companies set up in our departments such as the University of Manchester Intellectual Property ltd (UMIP) and the University of Manchester Incubator Company (UMIC). Government initiatives such as the research assessment exercise (RAE) have produced mechanisms for quantifying and directing academic research towards profitable areas and making academics compete against each other.

The average student’s time at the University of Manchester is often alienating and uninspiring. Alongside concern with high levels of debt (which have increased with the introduction of top-up fee’s) many students we have spoken to have expressed their sense of feeling like an economic unit, of being given an education to perform an economic function in the future rather than as a valuable end in itself. Students are increasingly being viewed as consumers of a product rather than partners in the pursuit of knowledge.

It is important to stress that the changes experienced at Manchester are also being experienced throughout much of the world. The problems we face are the result of specific political and economic processes not mismanagement by individual university administrators.

Reclaim the uni and the problems of creating a truly anti-capitalist campaign on campus The reclaim the uni campaign is an outcome of these neo-liberal changes. We consciously wanted to reject the hierarchies that characterised most of the left on campus and provide a space for people to feel empowered and for often quite varied ideas to cross-pollinate with each other. We worked explicitly outside of official student union channels, although the union did offer support. We wanted to try and encourage autonomous action rather than a reliance on leadership – a reliance that the union executive members are usually all to keen to promote.

The group encompassed many people with a variety of perspectives all brought together by the negative changes we were experiencing in our daily lives. Although some were adamant that this was not a “political” group, but one merely focused on improving our student experience many of us involved wanted to highlight how capitalism affected our day-to-day lives as students. Whilst not neglecting the “big issues” we were keen to stress that capitalism has to be fought at a day-to-day level, at the level of lived experience. Capitalism is a system of social relationships, not an object that can be confronted through the spectacle of demonstration every three months in London. We wanted to avoid mobilising people through guilt (as is happening with lots of climate related movements), or through “militants” prepared to sacrifice time and energy for noble, yet distant causes such as Iraq or Palestine. Our poster campaign consciously focused on issues we could relate to as students at Manchester such as reduced contact time, library hours and lack of access to buildings whilst explaining that this was a political process, not just the result of some accidental bad decisions.

After a few months planning we had our first demo; over 300 students with a sound-system confronted police and occupied a university building where a list of demands was formulated through a difficult consensus process and sent to the vice-president. The demonstration was a starting point not an end goal. It demonstrated the deep dissatisfaction with the way things were going and showed students what we could do when we worked together.

The campaign, unsurprisingly, has its own internal tensions and we think they are worth reflecting upon. In many ways those of us involved weren’t expecting such a large turnout and were inexperienced with the practical issues of keeping the momentum of such a large group going. Perhaps the most interesting political tensions, however, came out during the formulation of the demands during the building occupation.

It was clear at this point that there were splits in opinion even between those that saw the problem as being caused by neo-liberal processes. During the discussions it became apparent that some SWP members were attempting to link this large autonomous movement with their own (much smaller) free education campaign. Without wishing to create a counter-clique of anarchist elders it was difficult trying to ignore the political posturing and comments that often felt like pre-planned speeches. By the end of the occupation, admittedly after many people had drifted off home, the major lines of tension that a group this large and varied had to internalise had become apparent.

A major difference was between those of us that saw capitalism as something that could, and should, be challenged here at the place we studied and those that believed that our best response to faceless global processes should be to simply demand better value for money here at Manchester. Although capable of winning minor concessions in the short term, as a long-term strategy it didn’t look particularly viable. So were we faced with the dichotomy between denying minor concessions and compromises in favour of the longer, more impossible seeming struggle?

Not really, though many thought so. For many, capitalism was something ‘out there’ and if we weren’t calling for the immediate withdrawal of the troops from Iraq, the independence of Palestine and the immediate end to all neo-liberal policies, then we were simply being reformist. Yet, we believe that our strategy does not have to be either of these rather unappealing choices.

By instantly aiming at the global level we ignore the mass of power relations we are entwined in. Protests are reduced to passive acts of consumption, which a small number produce, they become indulgent displays of who can sympathise the most. Demonstrations are reduced to little more than a spectacle of impotent fist shaking and chanting at a target so diffuse as to be invisible. For us effective struggle starts in the demands for improvement in our every day lives. By changing things at a tangible level, these little victories can inspire people and instil a sense of confidence in our collective abilities to create change rather than endlessly banging our heads against brick walls. This is the very basics of classical class struggle, workplace organisation – and it was surprising that so many on the left seemed unaware of it, being so scathing of the professed concerns of the workers and students of the university.

This difference in viewpoint was confirmed at a ‘reclaim the campus’ conference held in May in London – hours upon hours were spent discussing what the appropriate stance towards Hezbollah and the Iraqi insurgents should be, whether we demand immediate withdrawal of the troops from Iraq or whether a phased withdrawal would be better for the Iraqi labour movement. Not a minute was spent discussing how we practically organize on campus. Most of the criticisms about student lefties is true, they are often more interested in intellectual posturing and one-upmanship than actually doing anything. When we have a movement strong enough to force the governments hand over major features of its foreign policy, then that will be the time to start discussing the matter in depth. Until then, we have to deal with how we build a struggle from our everyday lives, without losing sight of the need for solidarity, and the fact that the Iraqi labour movement and anti-capitalists in the UK share elements of a common enemy.

Small steps before giant leaps?

We cannot hope to recreate the conditions of the 1960’s and in many ways we wouldn’t want to. As the debates in Manchester are repeated in universities all over the world it seems to us that a truly anti-capitalist politics can only be based upon struggling in the here and now against tangible issues. Campaigns based upon the premise of capitalism as something out there, as the plan of George Bush or the G8 lead us down the wrong road. Until our movements are large enough to influence (inter)national policy effective anti-capitalist actions must be locally situated. Although trans-national solidarity is important, if it becomes the focus of a campaign then it leads to symbolic sacrifices of energy that produce the mere spectacle of opposition. Effective movements must be aware of the tensions between situating a campaign locally whilst still being connected to struggles in different places and at different scales. In practical terms this is a very difficult thing to do and localised campaigns run the risk of falling into what David Harvey would term militant particularisms, movements that are defined by local interest only. An often forgotten part of 1968 was British workers marching for restrictions on migration whilst today hidden beneath the “We Are Everywhere” triumphalism of Seattle is the truth that many groups involved were campaigning for national protectionism. So, we must walk the tightrope of tensions between being rooted in the everyday whilst still being connected to wider struggles.

True resistance to capital is based upon movements with tangible and inspiring goals. We must be realistic and recognise that currently anti-capitalist movements are relatively small and this is in part down to poor choices in strategy. The free education campaign is a relatively small and SWP dominated group for very clear reasons, it fails to inspire or connect with people. On the other hand the reclaim the uni movement, whilst also being openly anti-capitalist, has attracted a large amount of support on the basis of its ability to clearly articulate tangible and desirable goals. Once our movements are large enough then we can begin the task of challenging capital at a larger and more abstract scale but until then we must continue movement building at a local level rooted in our everyday experience of capitalism.

"Pascal Steven is studying in Manchester and is involved with both the reclaim the uni group and Manchester No Borders. John Archer is from Manchester and has been closely involved with the ‘Reclaim the Uni’ campaign, and will continue to be so as long as he can keep his sanity in the company of liberals and Stalinist SWP members."