Thoughts on the Sussex occupation as a dead end

Members of the Queer (in) Crisis collective question the Sussex occupation and demos as empty forms and traditions, and discuss how to maintain the toxicity of protest.

The current occupation at Sussex University is in its fifth week, with no signs of ending. The management remains comfortable with its presence and unwillingness to force an eviction. In a recent interview Sussex University Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing stated the following:

I respect students’ right to voice their opinions, and we always have done, and Sussex has been a place where people have been critical of a whole range of issues from management to government. Providing protests are peaceful, providing they’re legal, and providing the students are safe we have freedom of speech here and we allow people to express their views … . If it wasn’t [legal and safe] we would have taken action to bring it [the current occupation] to a close, and we’ve done that in the past when we have been concerned about legality and safety.

Like Farthing, it is possible to read this occupation as the continuation of a tradition of particular modes of activism at the university. Occupation has established itself as the predominate and normative tactic for student protesters on campus. Over time, this form of action has depreciated in significance, becoming a deradicalised and safe expression of student criticism. Perhaps the occupation is now a legitimate form of protest, expected, even welcomed. To what extent is the current occupation permitted, and to what extent does that permission manifest itself as neutralization?

Over the last few years, occupation as a tactic has increased sharply, spreading memetically between differing struggles. While the occupation initiates the visceralities of communality, providing a space to imagine alternative ways of living and practicing, its suitability and political efficacy for this particular crisis are in doubt. The recurrence of occupation at Sussex has resulted in a process of normalization. It is diluted by liberal accretions to the point of semantic satiation, with each repetition reducing the anxieties and intensities of the form. In an article exploring Tahrir Square as meme, The Deterritorial Support Group (DSG) state,

The tactic [of taking squares] also becomes problematic when the form of the protest, the driving force of the idea of “the Square” starts to become its content; when “taking the space” replaces any discussion of what is being attempted, what aims are and what processes are fit to achieve those aims… . This is a key component in the life of a meme– the content is emptied out of the meme until all that remains is a self-reflexive closed network, relevant only to those who already understand, incapable of communicating new ideas or pushing for change.

Without a critical engagement of the processes fit for our aims we cannot hope to achieve those aims. The occupation does provide a venue to consider modes of political engagement and participation, such as consensus-decision making and what one participant recently described as, ‘innovative forms of leadership (apersonal, horizontal, with multiple heads, random selection, and regular swapping of roles)’. However, as DSG warn, when those processes become ends in themselves, ‘A self-congratulatory atmosphere ensues, with the very simple task of making decisions equitably becoming seen as a “victory” … rather than a basic component of non-coercive human interaction’.

Sussex University has always been at the forefront of student activism. However, this expectancy comes with its negative aspects. In what ways does the immediate concern to take action arise out of a sense of historical responsibility to the University’s so-called traditions, invented as they are?

Protest by Sussex students in 2010…

We suggest that the performance of particular forms of action at the university is determined by an intellectual and culturally left-wing university climate that fosters liberal inclinations and encourages “radical” experimentation. This climate favours a particular aesthetic which, practiced and emptied of content over generations, produces actions such as the current occupation. These lack a critical interrogation of the particular resonances of the form and its efficacies. The actions of past students within these traditions and cultures inflate the symbolic value of the occupation as form, while current students replicate forms of action conducive to an aesthetic and coherent student ‘Sussex’ identity that distorts the meaning of legitimacy. Without content, this form of action is easily tolerated and there is no need for management to bring it to a close.

The occupation is compromised. It is no longer dirty but sanitized and management is immune to its effects. It is predictable, can be forecasted and monitored, maintained and tolerated. (Similarly, students can tolerate this interruption on the ordinary progression of their lives as a productive experience without risk). The occupation as form is no longer unmanageable but is employed as a prophylactic agent within the university body. The toxic content of the campaign against privatisation’s aims is reified by the form of the occupation, as a symbolic value profitable for management. We could even call this a process of real subsumption within the social or university factory.

Let us expand on this notion of toxicity. The current occupation is the manifestation of a conflict between members of the university body and the regulatory administration. A particular group of students and staff have taken a position that threatens the ordinary processes of capital; they have become toxic. Toxins are threatening entities that exist outside, and they are threatening because of their capacity to cross the boundary between outside and inside.

The discourse of capital invokes the notion of the toxin—consider the phrase “toxic assets”—to describe financial assets for which there is no longer a functioning market. By this we mean, these assets are still within the market but have diminished in value so much that they exist outside productive processes of exchange. They no longer exist as capital. During the “financial crisis” of the early noughties, people were being “allowed” to remain in homes on which they had stopped paying the mortgage while banks were sitting on the foreclosure process. These subprime mortgages remained tradeable assets on the financial market. However, when those evicted homeowners remained in their recently foreclosed homes, they did so ‘in occupation’. At this point the asset became toxic.

How does the asset metaphor work when considering the current occupation of the Conference Centre at Sussex University? Students in occupation should be considered evicted homeowners: by refusing to leave the metaphorical foreclosed home, they prevent the forced sale of the home itself, which makes the asset toxic.

Instead, however, the students in occupation are the very asset that is being sold. The occupation has been reconfigured in terms of symbolic capital. The university transforms student activism into symbolic capital that is then used to leverage potential investment by future students. With the increase in fees, the university’s potential for political prestige is materialised as more money in the back pockets of the administrators. Our intimate crises become tradable cash prospects.

The postcard back of the previous picture, distributed at 2012 Graduation ceremonies

Let us not be mistaken, the occupied space is a loan. In this case, in what sense is it not performing?

Management have loaned the occupiers the space in order that they further the image and credence of the university through practice—let us call this an investiture in a credit-debt contract. This credit-debt contract is then sold on to potential new students, or those about to invest in the university, as an unreality or an action stripped of meaning.

The actual space, or the conference centre, exists as collateral in this production of symbolic capital. How can we realise the potential toxicity of this credit-debt asset? How can we make this a crisis for prospective students?

We must actually win whereby student activism as an asset becomes toxic. We propose that occupiers stop acting symbolically with respect to the occupied space or occupation—occupiers must demonstrate an inability to pay back the loan under the terms set. We must occupy a foreclosed space by refusing any symbolic value. By that we mean an immediate end to the symbolic meaning of the occupation and a return to its material basis. While the space is being used for great things such as teach-ins, etc., it is paying on its loan by contributing to the political prestige of the university’s image—its toxicity is merely a potentiality.

To what extent is it helpful to think of the management as invested in the political traditions and reputations of the university? Do not imagine that the university body exists for management as anything other than a bullet-point in their curricula vitae, or securitisation on their escalating mortgages. Management is continuing to extend the terms of the loan. The VC has openly accredited the occupation to the university’s legacy of radicalism, invented as that is. The administration refuse to recognise loss; there is zero political will for open acknowledgement of toxicity, and thus toxicity remains a potentiality.

This management of crisis always threatens to become the crisis of management themselves. A toxic asset is an asset in crisis, positioned just at the edge of liability. Toxic assets always stand on the edge of death, where death occurs as the loss of capital, or capital’s loss. Management are managing their own death; they are lying about the value of the occupation—meaning is being stripped from action. When we push the boundaries of this form they are quick to reconfigure themselves to contain us. Tradition and reputation occur as a process of recuperation. As UC President Mark Yudof once said, ‘being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery…’. The political tradition of the university’s dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the current student “activists”. Our political actions have been commodified and our activities become dead labour.

An example of this dead labour is the production of symbolic value in the demo. The demo works in the mode of the spectacular as a symbolic demonstration of presence and solidarity. The value of the demo lies in a distinct aesthetic amenable to the university’s branded image. This aesthetic is moulded by appeals to media representation. Building for demos becomes a constant and laborious process of production. The demo belongs in the realm of the image: all that was once directly lived has become mere representation.

The occupiers are particularly reliant on the demo form and this is telling. They insist on attributing to the demo a determinative or permissive quality that limits the possibility for action after it. For the occupiers, all action must occur as a result of the demo because actions can only be justified by the quantitative demonstration of support at the demo. This promissory quality stems from a privileging of the quantitative element itself, as a liberal populism. Larger numbers also dilute individual responsibility and accountability for actions and their potential ramifications.

The demonstration of solidarity at the demo itself manifests as a form of patriotism. The soft nationalism of chants, such as “Sussex united, will never be defeated,” provide confidence for the occupiers in their actions; this implies that the occupiers are invested in a university community conceived as a university-homogenizing sovereign with a coherent and stable identity that they can always rescue from corruption. Attributing to the university community a sense of homogenized sovereignty allows the occupiers to consider it as subject to external and coercive forces. The form of the demo reinforces this construction by becoming a form of ‘three-dimensional lobbying, or a moral pressure’ generated by numbers.

To some extent management find it politically expedient to leave their status as “enemy” unchallenged. Not only does this prompt a kind of cathartic form of protest, one without material results, it also reinforces the perceived value of the demo itself. It means that there is no critical acknowledgment by heuristic individuals of their own implication in the production and reconstruction of neoliberal economies. The actions of the occupiers are not infallible.

The demo becomes a form of protest that management can recuperate: like the occupation of Bramber House, the demo is not toxic. Perhaps our goal is to produce a state of intoxication—to shift the ordinary perception of modes of protest by increasing our critical concentration. To reiterate, we call all those in the occupation to reconsider how their political actions on-campus are valued. It is time to move away from the chauvinism of demos and the stagnancy of the occupation. Refuse image. Become unmanageable.

Originally posted at the Anti-Capitalist Initiative site.


Joseph Kay
Mar 17 2013 15:17
Comment from facebook wrote:
Some scattered thoughts...

I haven't really been involved enough in the occupation to know the internal dynamics. I think it's important to acknowledge that many of our struggles simply become marketing blurb in future prospectuses. And of course, they can also adopt stale ritualised forms. That said, from a staff point of view, the occupation (and attendant yellow everywhere) has disrupted the sense of fatalism carefully cultivated by management, ably assisted by Unison.

It would be easy to overlook the fact management did not want the occupation to continue. It was force - mass entrance to reinforce the occupation - which made them concede open access. Sure, they can now adjust to the new normal, and try and convert the occupation into symbolic capital, but behind that willingness is a balance of power - i.e. after last time, they know calling in the riot cops would backfire.

So it's possible that balance of power is in a stalemate, and ritual is kicking in. Ultimately, struggles must expand or die. Movements can't stand still. To that extent, I think this piece is important, but i also think it's perhaps too focused on students. Nothing students do will win this fight: workers' self-organisation will.

Now, I'm not saying that in a really workerist way. I think student-staff co-operation is essential and necessary. But management will likely be able to bulldoze this through if staff aren't able to assert themselves collectively. In other words, to break with the ritualised stalemate requires a shift in the balance of power away from management, and a shift in the locus of struggle from student occupations to staff action.

I'd also say, from a staff point of view, the demos can be a really important opportunity to find one another, to identify fellow militants, to chat, to meet people from other departments etc. I've spent most of my time on demonstrations having these kind of conversations. It may prove too little too late, but I think there's more going on than just ritualistic rites of passage for student radicals. Maybe the call to "work silently" overlooks, perhaps inevitably, the huge amount of silent work which has been going on, but is yet to find its voice.

Joseph Kay
Mar 17 2013 16:06
Another comment from facebook wrote:
I dunno i don't think there is a mood of desperation in the occupation (...)

I don't really see the occupation as reaching a 'dead end' either, we are just facing the same question we always did in terms of getting the balance right between growing and strengthening the movement and disrupting managents ability to run campus. But that is up for people to figure out themselves in their own practical action. People can continue undlessly writing letters and petitions, mobilising and going on demos if they like and hopefully realise for themselves the limitations of these approaches.

This article is great for making people question the nature and impact of our protest and how we can turn this movement away from being appropriated as symbolic capital by management. These debates are important and need to take place continuously - but we should not see the movement as reaching a dead end.

Everyone should engage with the struggle in the ways they want to and learn from what works and what doesnt and those of us that want to escalate and sabotage should do so and enable others to act and become toxic. So lets do it ;)