This year's student occupations: getting out of the box

Many student movements seem to fizzle out, but they build shared experiences and extended networks that lay the foundations for coherent, sustained resistance. 

Roger Hallam
14 July 2015
LSE occupation

LSE's rebels were in good company. Flickr/Laurence Horton. Some rights reserved.

Universities are winding down for the summer break after a year of growing student activism which holds the promise of much more dramatic developments in the year ahead. Below the radar of the mass media there has been a little noticed explosion of occupations this past year. In London alone there were five occupations going on during April, inspired by a full scale take-over of university space on campuses across Holland and rumblings in Chile, Canada and the U.S.

Bottom up student activism has been steadily increasing on a wide range of fronts against the ever advancing juggernaut of the neo-liberalisation “reform” of the university system – whether that be growing inequality of pay, rising fees, causalisation, or monitoring and surveillance. All these developments have been incrementally edging forward for a number of years and are expected to continue apace under the new Tory government. What is less acknowledged is that a tipping point of mass resistance is being approached within the university sector.

The initial spark

It is easy to dismiss student protests as naïve, transitory, and disorganised but it is worth noting that social revolts historically speaking have, more often than not, involved or been initiated by students. Whether it be the upsurge of civil resistance against authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Hong Kong, or anti-austerity movements in Spain, Greece and the U.S, students have been on the front line of the protest. Historically they took the leading role in the revolts of 1968 and against in the various oppositions to and downfall of the Eastern European states in the decades leading up the 1989. Further back they took on a significant role in the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and 1870 and in the various political upheavals of the early twentieth century.

In all these contestations their role has more often than not been the same – a spark that triggers wider social rebellion. Ironically it is their supposed weaknesses as a social force which explains this critical role. Radical students’ naivety, idealism and general lack of “realism” is in fact their strength. While most of “mature” society is in the grip of the TINA – the “there is no alternative “of capitalism realism, radical students do not have the “knowledge” of the world to realise that “resistance is futile”. They have the capacity then to call time on supposedly“ durable ”dictatorships” and “middle of the road” conventional western politicians.

In fact research is on the side of the students.  Studies of political revolts conflict with the common conception of what is and what is not politically possible. There is a common misconception that because there is widespread acceptance and even collaboration with a political regime there is no hope for revolt (the present widespread depression about the election result is a classic example). However the first thing to realise about revolts is that they do not grow gradually in an agreeable straight line from very little, progressively, to quite a bit and then to a lot.

Revolt appears from “nowhere”, often when least expected, and explodes onto the political scene. There are now good explanations to why this happens. The problem is that we confuse widespread compliance with active support – both display the same outward behavioural features. The Soviet system of course is the great example. But the same double reality of private fear and rage combined with near universal outward signs of support for the system is present in today’s higher education. (It can be seen in other potential flashpoints such as in marginalised communities – the urban unemployed and ethnic minorities – not to mention the ever present hidden scandal of prisons).

Research, across a number of fields, shows that a small growth of activity is a good sign of a vastly increased risk, of a major event. From earthquakes to terrorism – all highly interactive systems show this tendency. So for instance if deaths from terrorist attacks rise in a country from say 100 a year to 200 a year then the chances of a major event of say 5000 deaths might increase from 1% to 20% –   a twenty fold increase in risk from only a doubling of observed activity. Of course the exact figures are only illustrative but the key point is that we almost always misunderstand the nature of tipping points and explosions within systems. Our minds have an inbuilt bias toward steady change and so are always surprised when ever these events occur even though the historical record shows them with predictable frequency. Path dependency and a bias towards the status quo makes us suckers for narratives that say that things will always be the same – and capitalist realism is just the latest narrative to sell this lie.

Unseen developments

In political spheres there are two key developments which need to be looked out for. First, there is this small but significant increase in anti system activism. Most of this usually remains under the radar and so is thought of as insignificant. But in the past year this is exactly what has happened on many U.K. campuses. From 1 or 2 occupations per year in the previous years, there have been 10 to 15 since last September, depending on how you count them. Secondly this increase has happened in an atmosphere where there is a very small minority who are consciously and profoundly alienated from the system; situated within a large majority that have lost any positive attachment to that system. This second metric is often very difficult to gauge. In oppressive systems people rarely speak their minds and their true feelings come out only in private conversations which, by their nature, are difficult to measure. In university authority run surveys, loved by their neo-liberal managements, people will usually say what is wanted from them. By contrast the results of anonymous student run surveys give you a hint of the real feelings.

In a recent survey at our college the authorities were given an average mark of three out of ten.  The mass compliance in universities in fact masks a near universal opposition to the crass, insulting, and plainly unjust ways students and staff are treated by the higher management. For instance graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) at my university are routinely told in their contracts that they are being paid around £16/hour for their work. But this is only paid for a ridiculously small fraction of work which GTAs have to do – which includes marking and preparation for classes. There is a double insult here. First is the demand that people work for less the legal minimum wage (average pay works out at less than £4 an hour for many GTAs). But possibly more pernicious is the assumption you can trick PhD students with such cheap capitalist tactics of saying you get £16 an hour when it’s actually £4. It’s this sort of fraudulent stupidity which everyone in a university setting soon learns to recognise. In a survey I helped to conduct, 92% of students agreed GTAs should get paid for each hour they have to work to fulfil their contracts. It’s a pretty basic demand for transparency and fairness but in the doublespeak world of the neo-liberal university this demand becomes “impossible”. And to add insult to injury, as one head of department put it, “if you complain it will affect your career”. Not that this needs to be said – everyone knows this already – hence the sheen of compliance.

Something out of nothing?

So as we head toward the next academic year, a thorough analysis based upon complexity theory and tipping point effects, would predict a real possibility of a major revolt “coming out of nowhere” on university campuses. However this possibility will be greatly increased as students become more savvy about how to organise effectively. Most of the occupations I observed in the past year displayed clear signs of what I call “privatised horizontality” – there is lack of hierarchy but only amongst a small group of activists who communicate through privatized hidden channels and thus, often unintentionally, exclude other students and potential activists. While the trademark general meetings often made efforts to encourage participation, once things heated up with management they stopped happening and key activists reverted to decision-making in their small original groups.

However, activist commitment to the mass participatory mobilisation, which is so vital to achieve their aims, is genuine. To make this happen they have to move towards a “public horizontality” of clear procedures, transparent information and decision-making, and pro-active encouragement of participation through training and explicit policies (e.g. of gender parity).  There is now a clear recognition of this need by many activists who have re-learnt the lesson that structurelessness in actuality is hidden hierarchy. A key step has been the commendable adaption of safe space policies in all the occupations which makes explicit that behaviour, not just slogans, have to conform to the demand for real equality and respect for minority and traditionally abused groups. Building on this foundation there is every chance that students will “get their shit together” with the creation of explicit structures of decision-making and enhanced participation – so they are not having to make it up as they go along again, as happened in the courageous but disorganised occupations of the past year. There are now common experiences and extended networks to be built upon.

Signs of weakness

Having often surprised themselves in succeeding to create sustained occupations, activists have smelt weakness in the supposedly all powerful universities managements. Like in Gandhi’s India where 50,000 English administrators duped 200 million Indians into giving up their freedom and passing over their resources to the supposedly impregnable imperial forces, so universities are being run as businesses by tiny higher managements for the financial gain of that higher management, to the detriment of vastly greater numbers of students and staff. This is why lecturers seen their pay decline by 15% in real terms in the past decade while Vice Chancellors have seen increases of over 200% during the same period. While top university VCs enjoy the “market rate” of 500,000 pounds a year and rising, many lecturers live on the edge of poverty on as little as £25,000. Like in Gandhi’s India then the situation is ripe for strategic nonviolent resistance. To succeed this needs to be organised, planned and smart.

The aim, as in all campaigns is to put the authorities into a stinging dilemma – use force to stop the transgression and risk general mobilisation, or let it happen and lose the all important myth of impregnable political power. The latter happened in the year just gone – and students can see the making of political opportunity. Not for no reason did Craig Calhoun, the VC of LSE bring in some cupcakes for the students on the first day of their occupation. As a former scholar of social movements he no doubt knows, like many of his colleagues, how vulnerable he and his cronies are to smart civil resistance. In actual fact the neo-liberal university is completely unable to cope with mass sustained attrition. Like many institutions in our “networked” age, its life blood (and more specifically its bottom line) depends upon a myriad of vital flows between it and the wider social ecology – potential and past students, government and utilities, funders and corporate sponsors, workers and students. Block these flows, even partially for a small amount of time, and, as Gandhi showed, the system starts to collapse.

Instead of the traditional symbolic repertoires of leaflets and demonstrations, the real battle needs to aim to block these flows – email and telephone blockages, repetitive and unpredictable flash occupations and physical blockages, low level security alerts, administrative slow downs , concentrations of requests, queries and “mistakes”. All these activities need not be illegal – or at least occupy that growing no man’s land between the clearly lawful and unlawful – but through mass participation they have a catastrophic effect on an institution’s ability to operate.

Combined with a further strengthening of the culture of public deliberation, through the creation of autonomous open spaces and assemblies within the occupations and beyond, and you have a recipe for a rapid politicisation and empowerment of both students and staff. Add to this the much observed power of social media to publicise and mobilise and you can start to see how combustible is the real situation. And it is worth reminding ourselves that momentous revolts actually actively involve a small amount of a total population – 2-3% at the most – whether you are talking about the “mass” mobilisation of 1968 or the Arab Spring. The big joke before Cairo 2011 was that Egyptian youth would never pull off something like what had just happened in Tunisia because they were always on Facebook. Of course it is true – most people most of the time are non-political. The salient issue is what the 2-3%, who would be willing to revolt, are doing on Facebook. A month later Egypt and the world found out!

Of course all this is at best informed speculation. But we should not buy into the false and scientifically incorrect narratives that nothing can change because nothing is changing. The election of the Tories has no bearing on the success or otherwise of the growing movements of extra-parliamentary activism in the UK and beyond. All movements look pretty hopeless before they explode – taking even the activists involved in them by surprise. The state of the New York radical scene was famously splintered and in disarray before Occupy Wall Street. But if we want to be truly “realistic” we have to follow the “science” and look for the two tell tale signs – small but significant and sustained increases in oppositional activism and deceptively widespread and deep alienation from the political system.

Don’t be complacent

The state of our universities ticks both boxes – and not just in this country but across the seamless neoliberal space which is global society. It only takes one major spark in the right place at the right time – the over-reaction of a complacently arrogant management, a little “over enthusiasm” by security staff that puts a student in hospital or worse, for the rage to go viral and an “explosion of consciousness” to occur. It’s happened before and don’t fool yourself that it won’t happen again. And since 2011 the new global movements have started to learn fast how to move beyond chaotic protest to forming radical agendas, parallel institutions and assembles, and rapidly emerging populist political parties. Next time “the mob begins to reason”, it won’t still be arguing over hand signals in general assemblies – it will be ready to dismantle power.

In the marketing notes for my PhD application, in classic neo-liberal management speak, it says how much the university values “impact”. It is a sign of the coming hubris, that this word can be used with no hint of irony. Impact? They’ll know it when they see it – and it may be sooner than we think.


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