From the Defence of the Present to the Control of the Future - Bertie Russell & Keir Milburn

Anti-cuts politics are entrenched in defending a problematic present rather than fighting for a better future. Originally published in January 2011.

The recent student unrest has massively expanded political possibilities in the UK and Europe. The game is afoot and the next move is to generalise the struggle beyond the education sector. For many an ‘anti-cuts’ message is the way to do this. There is a danger, however, that the logic of this position contains the mechanism of its own failure. We urgently need to foment a shift away from a politics that defends our own powerlessness, to one where we can become the collective authors of our own histories.

The last month has finally seen hope raise its head again. Spilling across liberated streets, universities, banks and politicians’ offices, the question can be heard echoing - ‘is this what making history feels like?’ Beginning with the tired press hysteria surrounding the ‘violence of Millbank’ on the 10th November, hundreds of thousands of school, college and university students have been in a state of permanent mobilisation. Over the following month, at least 27 universities experienced an ‘occupied space’ of some sort, each with its own distinct political and social relationships.

Beyond these ‘traditional’ but undoubtedly diverse campus occupations, the University of Strategic Optimism have conducted successful lectures in a branch of Lloyds TSB and a Tesco supermarket, the offices of Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming were briefly taken over, a Lib-Dem conference was forced to ‘re-schedule’ under the security threat posed by potential mass protests, the Really Open University conducted a three-day workshop series in Leeds beginning the Re-imagination of the University, and students occupied the Tate Britain gallery hours before the (once) prestigious Turner Prize ceremony was due to take place. Alongside the student mobilisations, the UK Uncut network has emerged, organising creative disruptions of ‘tax-dodging’ corporations such as Vodafone and Topshop. Then there was 9th December – a day when, after a high level of generalised disobedience culminating in the poking of the Duchess of Cornwall through the window of her Rolls-Royce, David Cameron was forced to concede that ‘the small minority’ could no longer be used to explain away social unrest.

So far, these diverse interventions, expressions and events seem to be resonating together. While the mechanisms of connection aren’t always totally clear, each occurrence seems to be amplifying, and being amplified by, the others. What is far from clear, however, is the ‘frequency’ on which this resonance is taking place. To put this differently we might ask, what is the shared politics that ties these events together?

Dissecting the defence of the present

“Why do men [sic] fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” Baruch Spinoza

The dominant political logic of the unfolding events appears blindingly obvious: ‘We are all against the education fees and cuts! That is why we act together!’ This is the official story portrayed in the press, whilst National Union of Students (NUS) President Aaron Porter is unequivocal in stating that ‘students have taken to the streets to protest against the government’s attacks on further and higher education’. Placards on marches across the country proclaim ‘Stop Education Cuts!’ with numerous variations thereof. Notably, school and college students have been brought to the streets and the occupations through the proposed scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). Some, not least the NUS, have attempted to add a party-political spin to all this through calls of hypocrisy towards the Liberal Democrats; a placard on a London march perhaps best summed this up – ‘Shame on you for turning blue’.

The Browne Report and the Comprehensive Spending Review have undoubtedly been a catalyst in getting a limited cohort of people, most of whom are students of some kind, to ‘take to the streets’. However, to cast the recent contestations within an ‘anti-cuts’ framework is to make an inherently political decision that places strict conditions and limitations on future events. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be against the government cutting EMA, or withdrawing funding for teaching and research for all non-STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – eds.] subjects. On the contrary, it is suggesting that making ‘anti-cuts’ demands the key form of expression for the movement could leave us tied to the very conditions against which we are so vocally opposed.

This appears paradoxical; how can you be complicit in the conditions which you are opposing? The problem lies in the reactive nature of the ‘anti-cuts’ position. To paraphrase Werner Bonefeld speaking at last year’s Anarchist Bookfair, ‘being ‘anti-cuts’ is not a political expression’ – it is an empty or vacated position that remains characterised by the conditions against which it resists. It is this unplaceable emptiness that characterises the reactionary form of expression; it is precisely ‘empty’ of any collectively articulated values, dreams or desires. As such, the ‘anti-cuts’ form of expression contains an inherently ‘conservative’ frequency. It is not a collective belief or feeling that there can be other futures, but a demand that the world must remain the same - united in the defence of a scenario in which nothing changes.

The political rationale of the ‘anti-cuts’ position is therefore not the collective creation of different conditions of existence, but rather a negotiation of the conditions of the present. Forgoing the collective potential for us to author our own histories, it unwittingly participates in negotiating the social conditions in which existing historical processes can continue – the exacerbation of social inequalities and the continued exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few. The danger in the anti-cuts expression is that it comes to represent social inertia, rather than social movement - a commitment to the conditions of the present.

And what of the conditions of the present? Do we really want to defend these moribund, anti-social and elitist institutions? In the case of the university, its role has historically been to reproduce a small elite - normally from highly privileged backgrounds - capable of filling social roles of ‘governance’, either as politicians or as bosses. Although this filtering process is still very much a feature of the highly variegated universities, the university as an institution increasingly operates as a machine to produce a new form of docile, precarious, yet highly trained worker appropriate for the ‘contemporary state of the economy’. The university now operates as a factory producing a steady supply of multi-faceted immaterial labourers capable of working effectively in the cultural and information industries.

Within the university itself, the imposition of numerous metric systems leads to the consistent degradation of both teaching and research. The sole purpose of teaching has increasingly become to ensure students ‘get a job’; all focus turns to the ‘employability factor’ of courses, as academic-managers increasingly pander to the demands of corporations in shaping course content. Working conditions become increasingly precarious, as part-time and sessional contracts proliferate and everyone from support staff to senior academics are expected to ‘unofficially’ extend their working days. Smart phones and wireless broadband means there is no longer an excuse to not be plugged into the edu-nexus 24/7 – the edu-product must be delivered at all costs. If you aren’t responding to an angry email from a disgruntled student whilst you are taking a shit on the toilet, then you aren’t working hard enough!

The imposition of an ‘anti-cuts’ expression serves to endorse what currently exists, to validate institutions that separate and compartmentalise society in the private interest. But it also mistakes the terrain upon which the current struggle is taking place. The primary purpose of the ‘cuts’ is not the reduction of a temporary deficit in the public finances. They are, rather, aimed at further entrenching a certain conception of the future. By altering the composition of society they seek to eliminate other possible futures. This means that any movement that emerges in response to the ‘cuts’ must also operate on the same terrain. We can’t do so, however, by agreeing upon a single alternative blueprint of the future, around which we would then unite. You fight the closing down of possibility by opening it up, by widening the field of potential historical actors – we are engaged in a battle over the conditioning of the future.

What keeps a movement moving?

“Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality… Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable”.
Michel Foucault

Our critique of reactive politics does not assume that this position prevails amongst those who have been taking to the streets and lecture theatres. There have been many moments over the last months that have exceeded this logic; indeed it is the nature of movement to exceed.

Social movements form in relation to specific issues and the logic of those issues influence the initial shape and composition of the movement. As the current movement formed in relation to ‘cuts’ in education, many assumed that the movement would come to understand itself in terms of an inter-generational antagonism, as those who benefited from a free education pull the ladder up behind them. In fact, the movement has primarily defined itself in terms of both the need for extra-parliamentary action (inaugurated by a boot through the window of Conservative Party HQ), and the re-emergence of class as a legitimate way of talking about politics (even if the operative conception of class is still quite static and sectional - “David Cameron – Fuck off back to Eton”).

This can reveal to us a more universal dynamic - movements move because they exceed the specific issues of their emergence. Movements create an excess, they are more than the sum of their parts. If movements are to continue to move then they need to find forms of expression for this excess. This does not usually involve creation out of nothing, it often involves certain elements of the movement turning away from mere function and towards expression. A movement comes to understand itself through expressing itself and it is by gaining control over this expression that the movement gains control over its own movement.

In the case of the Global Justice movement, it was a certain form of organisational process that turned from function to expression; consensus decision making became central to how the movement came to define itself. What was at first a seemingly unremarkable method of facilitating meetings became a motive force that opened up a new field of potentials and came to mark a new conception of politics. Of course the form of expression need not be an organisational form, it is also possible that the wheel will turn a full circle and that certain demands may become an expression of the excess of the movement. Directional demands are designed precisely for this purpose; what takes precedence is not the demands themselves, but the positive compositional effect they have on the ‘movement actors’.

There is of course the danger that these very expressions – which at one point were exciting and dynamic processes that collided beings and events together in new ways – become stagnant, having a pacifying effecting on movement. Perhaps the most recently identifiable stagnation was the ‘camping’ refrain that took hold of the Camp for Climate Action. That refrain, which emerged out of an earlier cycle of street-protests against intergovernmental summits, provided an exciting compositional effect that changed how and what was possible. The idea of a yearly camp, however, reflects a certain understanding of what is possible, it reflects a certain, low, level of intensity of the struggle. Both of which inform a certain conception of what politics is, who does it and where it takes place. The form through which a movement expresses itself contains a specific temporal and spatial conception of politics and if this gets out of sync with shifts in social relations then that mode of expression becomes redundant.

In fact doesn’t this lead us to a real excess that has been created by the recent ‘student’ movement? Political activism has begun to escape its status as a specialist interest, bringing into question the who, where and how of ‘history-making’. It is now quite legitimate, across new sections of society, to think politically and to act collectively. There is a new level of intensity to the struggle, with weekly protests accelerating the movement’s collective learning. The movement needs to express this new reality in ways that allow it to keep moving.

Of course it’s not always obvious which function will be turned to expression. It seems likely though that the best mode of expression will be a form of action that will simultaneously act as an expression of our power. Perhaps by prefiguring the sort of change that we are anticipating – e.g. Rosa Parks who sparked a struggle against segregation on US public transport by enacting the world she wished to see and simply sitting in the wrong part of the bus. Or perhaps it will be a form of acting that shows how the reforms and cuts rely on our cooperation to implement – e.g. the Poll Tax non-payment campaign or the Italian auto-riduzione movement in the 1970s.

The urgent task at hand is to ask what form of expression we can forge that will tip this over from a defence of the present to a general movement that controls the future. What is it that will allow not just ‘student’ uprisings to resonate together, but for this to overflow into all sectors of society - precisely so that these ‘sectors’ are no longer perceptible (neither students, nor workers, nor mothers, nor the poor, nor the middle class etc.)? What steps do we need to take to move this from an ‘interest group’ contesting a narrow issue to the generalised desire of people acting as authors, participating in the collective writing of many histories?

Bertie Russell and Keir Milburn are both based in Leeds.