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Reflections on Britain's student movement

This exchange revisits the student movement that erupted in Britain over the winter of 2010-2011. It produced a new cohort of young activists, fueling the anti-cuts movements and Occupy. But to what extent was the movement middle-class, a-historical, and shaped by neoliberalism?

In November of last year, Jeremy Gilbert and Guy Aitchison took the opportunity to reflect on the student movement that had erupted a year earlier, sparked by opposition to the tripling of tuition fees in England. In the following exchange, they debate the nature of this turbulent period, its limitations and successes. At the heart is a discussion on the extent to which the student and anti-cuts movements have exaggerated their originality and liberatory potential, unwittingly replicating the patterns of neoliberal ideology. 

A cut version of this exchange was published in Regeneration, a print and e-book on intergenerational justice.

Jeremy: I think I'm going to start with a series of questions which will be deliberately provocative and aren't necessarily as rhetorical as they might sound. Here goes anyway.

I'm going to ask you some questions about last winter's student protests and in particular about some of the rhetoric around them.

Firstly - in a positive vein - what do you think was the medium-term achievement or gain of the campaign? And does it have a future?

My next question would be whether you would agree that in hindsight many of the claims made for the significance, inclusivity and originality of the campaign were hyperbolic beyond the point of ordinary enthusiasm, and that in particular they were predicated on a deeply ahistorical grasp of the place of the protests in British political history.

One heard the claim being repeated quite often that these were the only or the most significant protests since the Poll Tax: a very peculiar claim given the that the intervening period  included a wave of student protests in occupations 1991-2 (including an occupation at Middlesex which probably lasted longer than the UCL occupation of 2010-11), the road protests of the early 1990s, the campaigns against the 1994 Criminal Justice Act and in support of the sacked Liverpool dockers, the anti-captialist protests of the late 1990s and early 2000s (which was where kettling was first used as a police tactic - despite the repeated claims of certain commentaters that this was somehow novel in 2010), up to and including the radical wing of 'Make Poverty History', the European Social Forum held in London in 2004, the campaign against the Iraq invasion, etc. etc. 

This claim that basically nothing had happened since the Poll Tax seemed to be originating from the Trots, who had a vested interest in promoting it because the anti Poll-tax campaign is the last moment when they can even claim to have had any success (which itself, I'm afraid, is a classic piece of leftist self-delusion. The Anti Poll-Tax campaign was only strong in areas that were always safe Labour strongholds, and as such had no effect whatsoever on Tory government policy, which was reversed not because of the ATPU but because middle-income swing voters in marginal constituencies with low property values,  and consequently lows council rates, particularly in the North-West and the West Midlands, were suddenly seeing their tax bill go up and were very unhappy about it), but it was repeated by people who should have known better, however young they were. But am I myself exaggerating how widely-circulated or significant this claim was for the self-identity of the movement? 

Similarly, the claims that things like consensus decision-making and networked organisation were somehow novel were frankly insulting to the intelligence, as well as to the generations of activists going back to the early 60s who were the real pioneers of all those techniques, but it got made repeatedly by high-profile commentators. On this I have to say I think the facts are squarely on my side - it's easy to find examples of activists and commentators citing all of these as novelties when they demonstrably weren't. 

Again, the insistent claim that the campaign was truly socially inclusive, and was not largely middle-class in character, became a catechism which it was simply not publicly permissible to challenge, in my experience (even though the individuals who got most angry when I said it privately were all Oxford alumni). Of course the participation of the 'EMA kids' was interesting and welcome (although arguably less significant than the participation of schoolchildren in the campaign against the invasion of Iraq), but the university populations which were overwhelmingly represented within the campaign were mostly very middle-class in nature, and while there were a few localised exceptions such as London Met, the activity at institutions like my own (UEL) was largely confined to tiny rumps of middle-class students, who were entirely hegemonised by the SWP, and had no grassroots support amongst the wider student population. 

What was problematic about all this for me wasn't that it was basically a middle-class campaign defending a historically middle-class privilege (debt-free HE; something which incidentally had long ceased to be a reality for students like mine), but that it seemed to become impossible within the terms of the campaign to acknowledge this fact and so to start thinking about what might be done to widen and deepen the campaign's base. Again, I might be wrong about how widespread this was, and I might be building a whole critique on the basis of a couple of conversations with unusually self-interested journalists; but I can't remember seeing anyone but the Right make the point that the campaign just wasn't all that inclusive, and I don't remember anyone from the campaign responding with anything other than denial to that claim. I don't remember hearing anyone acknowledge that that might be true, while it might be possible to change it. 

So all in all I found the campaign against tuition fees very problematic to the extent that it's discourse was couched in terms of a kind of ahistorical, unreflective boosterism. Now, I don't think this is just the grumpy response of a middle-aged activist who's seen it all before (although it is obviously that as well). My problem with this is that in exhibiting all of these characteristics, the campaign actually exhibited many of the key characteristics of contemporary neoliberal postmodern culture. So while the content of its discourse involved a strong critique of neoliberalism, its form failed to make first, basic, most fundamental gesture of ideology-critique: namely, the accurate historicisation of its own conditions of possibility. Instead it actually reproduced the basic forms of contemporary neoliberal ideology, in many instances. 

Finally I've touched on this several times already - what do you think about the role of the hard left in the campaign - not just at UCL but more widely?

Okay that's enough to start! I know I haven't said anything yet about UK Uncut, but I think that's a whole different (though related) story.  


Guy: Thanks Jeremy, you pose some searching questions around last winter's student movement. The bulk of your criticism focuses on the mismatch between the movement’s limitations, particularly its lack of inclusivity, and some of the inflated, self-congratulatory claims made on its behalf. 

Before I tackle this, let me first respond to your question about what medium-term gains the movement made. Undeniably, it failed in its overarching aims to stop the government lifting the cap on tuition fees and abolishing EMA. A majority of universities are now planning to charge the full £9,000 a year and we are in for a long, difficult fight if there is any hope of reversing this. That said, the movement came within a whisker of defeating the coalition government slashing its majority from 83 to 21 with three resignations. In the process, it destroyed the reputation of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, exposing the hypocrisy behind their platitudes about “fairness”. The party now regularly polls below 10% and even lost its deposit in a bi-election this year. At the recent Labour conference, Ed Miliband’s pledge to cut tuition fees by a third grabbed the headlines. Woefully timid, for sure, but it shows what a potent issue higher education funding has become - all without the backing of the official union, the NUS.

The other, less tangible, gain was the rise in political awareness not just amongst school and university students who discovered a sense of their own agency after years of passivity and inertia, but all those galvanized by the stark and visible refusal to submit to the governing consensus that there is no alternative to the cuts. The Labour patrician Richard Crossman once observed with approval that Westminster is a “rock” against which waves of popular opinion crash and break. At least we now know it’s penetrable.

But how about the rhetoric? In your view, this can’t easily be dismissed as youthful hyperbole since it reflects a more fundamental failure to comprehend the socio-historical constraints within which the movement operated that lead it to radically over-estimate its own originality and liberatory potential and reproduce hegemonic neoliberal “forms”. This is the most interesting part of your criticism, for me, so perhaps you could flesh out what you mean more specifically? Of course, it would be foolish of me to try and defend some of the more frenzied proclamations offered as instant commentary on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like, but I’d question the idea students were uniquely guilty here. Take a look at "We are Everywhere", for example, a compilation of writings from activists involved in alter-globalisation struggles, and you'll find plenty of predictions about the "movement of movements", which seem silly today. New movements ought to be permitted some over-exuberance.

On the Poll Tax, the  only context in which I heard it mentioned was to make the point, in the face of liberal condemnation, that antagonistic forms of protest can be far more effective means of political contention than uniform A to B marches. I’d question your purely electoral explanation of Thatcher’s defeat – with 20 million people refusing to pay, the policy simply wasn’t implementable. The real tragedy was the failure to build this defiance into a mass movement.  It’s fundamental, I agree, to learn from the shortcomings of earlier movements and draw inspiration from their successes. In this spirit, what do you think students can learn from the campaigns you mention? In Anti-Capitalism and Culture you identify the beginning of the end of the 90s anti-roads movement with when Reclaim the Streets abandoned an environmentalist agenda focused on Britain’s countryside, for the much more ambition goal of fighting global capitalism? This is a well trodden path, which many involved in last year’s protests will recognise. How, then, do you think activists following the logic of their convictions can avoid ghettoisation?

The student protests burst out of nowhere and certainly made mistakes. I agree it wasn’t diverse enough, though you’re perhaps too dismissive here. The presence of the EMA kids was a real phenomenon. The protests were rooted in concrete, material interests in a way other recent protest movements were not. Whether this can be sustained remains to be seen, but it’s good to be having this discussion as the new academic year gets underway.


Jeremy: Thanks very much for your thoughtful reply. Essentially I don't disagree with anything you've said, and I've almost certainly over-inflated the importance of that since-the-poll-tax remark in my own imagination. 

Thanks Jeremy, you pose some searching questions of last winter's student movement. The bulk of your criticism focuses on the mismatch between the movement’s limitations, particularly its lack of inclusivity, and some of the inflated, self-congratulatory claims made on its behalf. 

Before I tackle this, let me first respond to your question about what medium-term gains the movement made. Undeniably, it failed in its overarching aims to stop the government lifting the cap on tuition fees and abolishing EMA. A majority of universities are now planning to charge the full £9,000 a year and we are in for a long, difficult fight if there is any hope of reversing this. That said, the movement came within a whisker of defeating the coalition government slashing its majority from 83 to 21 with three resignations. In the process, it destroyed the reputation of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, exposing the hypocrisy behind their platitudes about “fairness”. The party now regularly polls below 10% and even lost its deposit in a bi-election this year. At the recent Labour conference Ed Miliband’s pledge to cut tuition fees by a third grabbed the headlines. Woefully timid, for sure, but it shows what a potent issue higher education funding has become - all without the backing of the official union, the NUS. The other, less tangible, gain was the rise in political awareness not just amongst school and university students who discovered a sense of their own agency after years of passivity and inertia, but all those galvanized by the stark and visible refusal to submit to the governing consensus that there is no alternative to the cuts. The Labour patrician Richard Crossman once observed with approval that Westminster is a “rock” against which waves of popular opinion crash and beak. At least we now know it’s penetrable.

That's all true. 

But how about the rhetoric? In your view, this can’t easily be dismissed as youthful hyperbole since it reflects a more fundamental failure to comprehend the socio-historical constraints within which the movement operated that lead it to radically over-estimate its own originality and liberatory potential and reproduce hegemonic neoliberal “forms”. This is the most interesting part of your criticism, for me, so perhaps you could flesh out what you mean more specifically? Of course, it would be foolish of me to try and defend some of the more frenzied proclamations offered as instant commentary on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like, but I’d question the idea students were uniquely guilty here. Take a look at "We are Everywhere", for example, a compilation of writings from activists involved in alter-globalisation struggles, and you'll find plenty of predictions about the "movement of movements", which seem silly today. New movements ought to be permitted some over-exuberance.

Again, that's certainly true - and I was complaining of this even at the time (the closing pages of that book actually cite an email from me to the editors in which I was trying to make this point, amongst others). Indeed I have to say those guys were very far from being the worst offenders at that moment. Some of the rhetoric that was around at the time was positively millenarian in character, and this demonstrates that part of what I’m complaining about is in no way a new phenomenon or even one restricted to the sphere of political activism: 20 year olds have a tendency to imagine that they are the first and last people in history to do whatever they happen to be doing. In fact I was moaning about this tendency at least as loudly when I was 20 as when I was 40, as some of my longer-standing comrades may still remember. But does this mean that the ahistoric approach and the lack of reflexivity that have characterised activist-led ‘protest’ movements for many years now are simply inevitable? Only partially, I think. More on this shortly.

On the Poll Tax, the  only context in which I heard it mentioned was to make the point, in the face of liberal condemnation, that antagonistic forms of protest can be far more effective means of political contention than uniform A to B marches. I’d question your purely electoral explanation of Thatcher’s defeat – with 20 million people refusing to pay, the policy simply wasn’t implementable. The real tragedy was the failure to build this defiance into a mass movement.  

That’s true, of course, but I think we have to be clear exactly what we mean here, because a great deal is at stake. The organised civil disobedience of the anti-poll tax campaign was a factor in pressuring the government, but only because they were also vulnerable electorally as well. The confrontational politics of the poll tax riots made no difference whatsoever, however. I had a pretty clear view of this at the time because I lived in a Tory/Lib Dem marginal constituency which the Tories lost in 1992 primarily because of residual anger about the poll tax: but the residents of that leafy suburb - who were precisely the voters that the Tories were most worried about losing - had no sympathy at all with the riots and relatively little with the non-payment campaign. There are important lessons here.

For one thing, as you rightly imply, the non-payment campaign didn’t amount to a mass movement; or rather, I would say, it remained a mass movement that was entirely confined to communities and localities which were already Labour strongholds, and never managed to connect with those disillusioned Middle English voters who might have been persuaded that their hostility to the poll tax ought to imply wider support for progressive taxation in general. What do we learn from this? Well, the same old lessons that an unreformed Gramscian like me tends to draw from every such situation: you need a broad-based coalition and a language that the different elements of that coalition can more-or-less share; riots get you nowhere in this country, because the idea that they are a fundamentally illegitimate form of protest runs too deep in the British political psyche; you need at least some degree of resonance between organised ‘street level’ resistance and a  serious electoral challenge to the status quo to make things happen.

Probably the most important thing missing from our current situation is a clearly defined alternative agenda from Labour that will put real electoral pressure on the coalition; but we also need something more like the sustained participatory campaigning of the anti poll-tax movement and less focus on spectacular but inevitably short-term interventions (demonstrations, occupations). With regards to the student movement in particular, I think all this will only be possible if it can take a long hard look at itself and see the fundamental reasons as to why it is currently so much less representative than it thinks it is. I’ll come back to this in a moment. 

It’s fundamental, I agree, to learn from the shortcomings of earlier movements and draw inspiration from their successes. In this spirit, what do you think students can learn from the campaigns you mention? In Anti-Capitalism and Culture you identify the beginning of the end of the 90s anti-roads movement with when Reclaim the Streets abandoned an environmentalist agenda, focused on Britain’s countryside, for the much more ambition goal of fighting global capitalism? This is a well trodden path, which many involved in last year’s protests will recognise. How, then, do you think activists following the logic of their convictions can avoid ghettoisation?

I guess I’ve already started to answer this. I think one thing they need to do is to put together a coherent and realistic programme and to pressure the Labour leadership to take a position on it. This in no way precludes the other kind of activity which we’re seeing begin, with free universities being discussed and even set up, courses being offered for free, teach-ins etc. It seems to me that time and again we can learn this same lesson from the history of oppositional politics in the UK: what works is a combination of imaginative, peaceful, constructive, grassroots activism - direct action in the classic sense, where you actually try to do something to address the problem here and now, rather than the symbolic sense (I could go on and on about the abuse of the term ‘direct action’ to designate almost any kind of spectacular protest) - with a clear electoral alternative to the status quo. You don’t have to co-ordinate them fully. We don’t need Ed Miliband to say he supports the students, but we do need him to propose to implement a coherent alternative which looks more-or-less like something they would want. But if you ignore the need to hold together a broad-based coalition, and you try to insist on the right to violent protest, then you just get nowhere.

We’ve already seen this mistake this year, with UK Uncut refusing to distance themselves from the Black Bloc. Sorry to say - but they blew it. They had built up a good level of public support for their campaign, including swathes of the public and individuals as unlikely as Polly Toynbee, which was truly impressive; but when it came down to it, they were more bothered about being loyal to their anarchist principles than about holding on to that support, and in the process they threw away a historic opportunity. And their defence of their position collapsed into an absurd defence of liberal individualism: ‘it’s just up to every individual to decide for themselves how to act’. No it bloody isn’t! The whole point of collective action is that it involves a degree of shared responsibility.

Of course I understand why they took that position - and of course I personally couldn’t give a toss about Top Shop getting its windows smashed in and wouldn’t want to see anyone punished for smashing them.But this is the kind of choice you have to make when you’re trying to change the world: do you stay in your comfortable anarchist ghetto or do you maintain the precarious, difficult dialogue with the people on the middle ground who are starting to listen to you? They opted for the former and they’ve blown it. All they would have had to do would have been to issue a statement to the effect that smashing up shops under current political conditions is clearly counter-productive despite the legitimacy of the claims being expressed by such violence; but they wouldn’t. 

But there’s a more important set of issues here, I think, which we’ve touched on but not addressed directly. The problem is not just what specific lessons one cohort of political actors can learn from the experience of a previous cohort (I’m deliberately avoiding the loaded and frequently-misleading term ‘generation’ here), but more fundamentally: what is the mechanism by which such lessons could be learned at all?  I know that there has been good research on the topic of cross-cohort knowledge transmission amongst activist groups, and the findings are pretty depressing: they tend to show that successive cohorts face almost identical situations, problems and issues, and they learn almost nothing from the experience of previous cohorts, because there is simply no institutionalised mechanism by which they could be shared. 

It seems to me that this is a huge problem for the postmodern, networked politics which some student activists have been so elegiac about. In an age without mass political parties - when the job of parties is to reproduce professional political elites and to win elections through clever media strategies, rather than to organise democratic publics - then it is very unclear what kind of organisation could actually carry out some of the crucial historic functions of parties: enabling, containing and delimiting broad-based coalitions in a way which prevents their militant wings from inevitably spiralling off into irrelevance and their centrist wings from being lapsing into abject conservatism; constituting sites of public debate at which large-scale social analysis and long-term goals can come together with pragmatic and localised forms of policy-making and problem-solving; constituting and preserving the institutional memory of a movement. It’s this last function which I think I’m bemoaning the lack of today. We’re already seeing interesting experiments in addressing the first two: Compass, in particular, is exciting for its attempt to carry out the first two of these functions, so I’ll stick to thinking about the third.

You’ve asked me to comment further on the problem of avoiding a mere replication of the patterns of neoliberal ideology. To this I would say now that the classic, well-proven way of achieving this is to develop a real sense of historical consciousness: a sense of the specificity, contingency, but also the continuity of one’s particular historical situation. Frederic Jameson famously asserts that the first lesson of critical thought is ‘always historicise!’; Althusser argues that the first function of all ideology is to de-historicise, to create the impression that a given set of social arrangements is eternal and unchangeable. In the post-war period, and into the 70s, radical historiography - as still exemplified today by the History Workshop Journal - was seen as fundamental to the project of building and sustaining radical movements and radical knowledge. Even in the 1990s, George Mckay made a significant contribution to the ‘consciousness’ of the protest movement with his seminal study of the radical protest since the 60s, Senseless Acts of Beauty.

My worry today is that we don’t have any equivalents to this kind of work, and that it isn’t seen as important. This was why I found Paul Mason’s Live Working or Die Fighting such a refreshing and exciting work: it was explicitly trying to draw lessons from the history of the labour movement for contemporary struggles. But its relevance to the UK situation is very limited, given that it explicitly concerns itself with classic, leading-edge proletarian struggles of a kind that happened in Europe in the 19th century and might be happening today in Asia and South America. But still, it’s a very interesting model of the kind of knowledge that we need. 

The question now is: what would actually enable us to historicise our own situation in this way, to produce and sustain the kind of knowledge that we need? It’s really striking that this is the kind of thing that the communist party used to be really good at, and so the question remains: how do we do it in an age when there cannot be a communist party? Indeed, it’s important to remember that even the Labour party fulfilled this kind of function within living memory. I will never forget being advised to read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by a 70 year-old member of my Labour branch when I was 18 years old. The question is: where could something like that happen today (given that I assume you will agree that if there is no place for such things to happen, there can ultimately be no successful political movement?).

Here your guess is as good as mine, but I think it’s the kind of thing that people like us should be thinking about together. Perhaps the answer is that this is exactly the kind of thing that should form the content of new kinds of educational and research initiative outside of the increasingly neoliberalised formal education sector, that what we should be doing is trying to organise lecture series, research projects, seminars, podcasts, web-archives precisely on the subject of radical history. But I’d really like to ask you to comment on all this now. What do you think? Am I right that the lack of institutional, collective memory for contemporary opponents of neoliberalism is a real problem, and one that could be addressed: if not, why not, and if so, how do you think it could be addressed?

The student protests burst out of nowhere and it certainly made mistakes. I agree it wasn’t diverse enough, though you’re perhaps too dismissive here. The presence of the EMA kids was a real phenomenon. The protests were rooted in concrete, material interests in a way other recent protest movements were not. Whether this can be sustained remains to be seen, but it’s good to be having this discussion as the new academic year gets underway.

Well, we could get into a whole complex of issues here about exactly whose material interests were at stake. The campaign and most of the rhetoric supporting it from the left were all predicated on ignoring a rather uncomfortable socio-historical truth: namely that the new system of student funding only represents a dramatic reversal for those students who come from social groups wherein it has remained the normal expectation that parents would be able to fund their children to the completion of a university degree without incurring sizeable debts. Of course lots of poor students were brought onto the streets by the belief that the new system would actually mean that they had to find £27,000.00 up front to go to university, or would have to repay their loans at market rates on graduation (neither of which is remotely true), and by the abolition of the EMA (which is a real issue and had real effects, as a gladly concede); but that doesn’t alter the fact that this was overwhelmingly a movement by and for the children of the professional classes. 

For students from poorer backgrounds, the real difference between finishing university with a debt over 30,000 (as most of them do already) and one over 50,000 (as the new system implies) is largely abstract, and will be massively offset anyway by the fact that their loan repayments will now start only when they are earning a much over 21,000 / year instead of 15,000 and will be limited to a fixed proportion of their income. This is of course irrelevant to those students who confidently expect to earn more than £25,000 p/a on graduation anyway: in other words, middle-class students at elite universities.

For such students, fees until now have been sufficiently modest that parents could in many cases hope to able to subsidise or cover both fees and living expenses such that their children wouldn't have to graduate with massive debts. The whole idea of starting your working life debt-free (or even with that nice little nest egg which grandma bequeathed to you still intact) has in fact been an exclusively middle-class privilege for a whole generation now (and working-class life under capitalism has involved routine indebtedness throughout its history, with the only exception being the post-war generation), and this was what the campaign was really about: the professional classes are furious that the historic privilege of entering the labour market unencumbred by debt is being withdrawn from them. You can't tell me that THIS wasn't something we heard endlessly during the campaign: 'these reforms mean that I will start working life with a massive debt around my neck'; as if this hadn't been the norm for students from poor backgrounds for decades already. Almost every vox pops I've heard from a campaigner in the broadcast media has then gone on to elaborate on how the extra expense of loan repayments would compromise their early entry into the property market: doesn't that itself speak volumes about the extraordinarily privileged status of the core group who were protesting (although obviously it also indicates the kind of students in whom Oxbridge-educated journalists are interested)?

If it was ever the norm for working class students to gradate debt-free and be able to buy a flat at 25, then it certainly hasn't been that way for at least 20 years.  I don't mean to imply that it was ever a desirable situation that this should have become the norm for working-class students - but I do suggest that framing things in these terms revealed a constitutive blindness to the real class issues at stake in such a way that the campaign was inevitably exclusionary, to the extent that it really had nothing to say to those groups who had NEVER enjoyed the privilege of free, full-time, state-funded, debt-free higher education.

So I would posit that students like mine at UEL were mostly indifferent to the campaign precisely because it didn't make any attempt to represent their interests. If it had done then it would have been predicated on a much stronger critique of the existing funding arrangements - which had already left them marginalized, exploited and under-supported for years - and on the implicit elitism of the entire HE funding system which is predicated on the assumption that such inequalities are not only acceptable but desirable (as if students at UEL somehow deserve to receive a fraction of the resourcing of students at Oxbridge...or UCL...), rather than simply attacking a reform which was only going to make a significant difference to those who has previously been the beneficiaries of that system.

In fact, to be honest, if the campaign was really going to address the interests of the poorest students, it would have had to acknowledge the potentially progressive dimensions of the reforms: the fact that the repayment mechanism effectively makes the system look more like a graduate tax than a normal loan repayment schedule; the fact that supporting part-time students for the first time is a major advance, especially for poorer and mature students; the fact that for the poorest 30% of the students the level of support for living expenses looks likely to increase significantly - all of these, please note, issues which are of no relevance or are actually negative factors from the point of view of the wealthiest graduates from the most privileged backgrounds.

None of this is to say that the professional classes don't have the right to defend their own interests; but it is to suggest that the campaign was always far more of a sectional defence of a relatively narrow set of interests than it ever wanted to admit to itself, and that this self-delusion was fundamental to its inability to widen out its social and critical scope. And in the meantime, the government has been preparing plans for the virtual privatisation of the entire sector which have received far less attention than the fact that they were increasing fees. 

I'd also dispute the claim that 'other protest movements' have not been grounded in concrete material interests. Isn't the need to live on a planet that remains environmentally hospitable to human life a concrete material interest? Isn't the right not to have your government take military actions which will make you a target for militant Islamists a concrete material interest?  

I really should make clear - I’m not saying all this just to have a go at the movement and its activists. I also recognise that much of the student movement has been trying to address a much wider set of issues around the commodification of education and the attempt to drive the critical humanities out of the non-elite universities, and about the general withdrawal of public funds, and of course I welcome enthusiastically the work of the movement on these issues. But again I would have to reiterate that many of these issues have been affecting those institutions in, the ‘bottom’, say, 30% of universities for many many years now, and there is an understandable if often unspoken feeling amongst many students and staff at such institutions that nobody cared about such issues as long as they were only affecting them, and that too much of the rhetoric of the campaign still implicitly endorses a naively meritocratic view of what the HE sector has been like up until now, and does not address at all its endemic, long-term inequalities. So I really think the movement can’t develop or go forward until it gets to grip with this set of issues, instead of kidding itself that the rights which it is trying to defend were ever previously very widely enjoyed.

Okay that’s for enough now. Time for you to respond!


Guy: Thanks Jeremy, I’ve delayed getting back to you because your reply raises so many big, important issues that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Underlying all of these is the perennial question of how the left organises with its traditional institutions dead or in decline. The stakes couldn’t be much higher. At the time of writing, Greece and Italy hover on the brink of collapse threatening to bring the entire Eurozone with them. Everywhere popular sovereignty and living standards are sacrificed to the gods of the market, with our own government now blaming Europe for the disastrous impact of its own policy of retrenchment. There are also signs of hope. It seems more and more clear that we are entering an era of mass anti-capitalist protests. Occupations, strikes, popular assemblies, economic blockades and outbursts of civil unrest are fast becoming the familiar backdrop to the breakdown of Globalisation 2.0. It’s all a bit bewildering. For years, neoliberalism promoted the common sense view that any kind of collective action is futile. Now, all of a sudden, it feels like Pandora’s Box has been opened.

The new movements springing up bear many of the characteristics you attribute to the student movement last year. Contentious politics are enacted with little reference to any established body of theory or practice. Again, we see established institutional actors being sidelined. Broad swathes of the population are undergoing a rapid process of politicization and practical learning through experimentation. This is a strength in so far as it encourages creativity and openness, but there is a danger of failing to learn past lessons and quickly becoming demoralised. So the question of institutional memory is a pertinent one.

We could talk here about out how networked, rhizomatic forms of organisation, encouraged by what Aaron Peters and myself have termed the “open-sourcing” of political activism, are well-suited to short energetic bursts, whilst bureaucratic, arborescent forms allow for long-term strategy development, learning and planning. The role of the internet in lowering the barriers to collective action and undermining institutional monopolies over dissent is familiar. But does it also have a role to play in transmitting knowledge of strategy and tactics to new political actors? I’d tentatively suggest it does. Take the worldwide “occupy” protests inspired by the Wall Street encampment and the Spanish indignados. The global mobilization that took place on October 11th involved hundreds of thousands of people taking part in an estimated 951 actions in 82 countries. 

Some on the left dispute the efficacy of these largely symbolic protests, but what can’t be denied is that whereas previously it would have taken months, if not years, for news of the public encampments to spread and global co-ordination to take place, now it happens almost instantly as protest tactics and repertoires, judged successful, spread virally like memes. The initial UK Uncut actions and student occupations had this quality, as do the nationwide walk outs and pickets by electricians who are seeing their pay cut by a third.

A kind of collective learning is taking place. In Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky advises readers not to become impatient with the conservatism of new activists since you can always rely on the reaction of the establishment to radicalise them. In an era of interconnected memetic activism this process is being fast-tracked and the rules are changing. When police brutally cracked down on occupiers in Oakland, inflicting brain damage on an Iraq war veteran, this felt like a radicalising moment for the occupations movement globally. In response, thousands of activists shut down Oakland port - the fifth largest in America - with the co-operation of Longshoremen. It struck a more effective blow to US capital than any amount of smashing high-street banks. Millions around the globe watched thanks to citizen reportage and the dissemination of the successful action on social media. Within the student movement, too, lessons are transmitted, as, for example, with Chile where resistance to neoliberal reform of universities has exploded into a powerful mass movement, forcing President Pinera to point out that “a demonstration is one thing, but trying to paralyze the country is something else entirely”.   

Perhaps the meme of occupying ports will now catch on. Certainly there is an abundance of historical resources on economic blockades online as well as instant analysis of what worked well and what didn’t. The official public sphere, mediated by the corporate media, has been bypassed in favour of an unofficial cosmopolitan public sphere of networked anti-austerity struggles. Where this is heading no one can say. Chances are they will lose steam or get shut down by the authorities. That’s what usually happens. But a seed has been planted. The occupations have provided a space to practice new co-operative forms of democratic citizenship, but also to discuss and demistify the reigning economic orthodoxy and imagine alternatives. The “99%” slogan may be wooly and unsophisticated as class analysis goes, but it crucially defines an antagonism, singling out the political and economic elites whose dominion has gone unchallenged for too long. Class power, long dormant, is being reconfigured.

Perhaps here I should probe your claim that targeted property damage will always be counter-productive under present conditions with a counter factual (leaving aside, for the time being, whether it counts as “violence”). The Health and Social Care Bill, now in its final stages, will effectively privatise and dismantle the NHS, perhaps the single most popular institution in the country. The official opposition, organised by the trade unions, had all the vigour and urgency of a sedated tortoise. Had there been a rambunctious street protest, perhaps even the smashing of a few windows, at the first stages of the parliamentary bill, as happened with Millbank, do you think a successful opposition movement to save the NHS would have been more or less likely? I’d suggest the former. Certainly it couldn’t have done much worse than the “candle lit vigil” that was organised before the reforms had even passed. This isn’t an endorsement of “black bloc” tactics (I agree they probably alienated people on March 26th), more of a warning against uncritical genuflection, by some, before the semantics of “peaceful” protest.

We are, I think, only witnessing the beginning of the popular reaction to the financial crisis of 2008. It took over ten years between the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the new epoch of Keynesianism and the welfare state. The intervening period saw protest, social unrest, labour militancy and a world war. It’s possible we’re looking at a similar timescale before any watershed today, but it doesn’t seem too implausible to suggest that information abundance and communications efficiency, alongside the speed of global markets, will quicken the pace of change.

I don’t want to get too carried away here. The internet is no panacea. I doubt, for example, that it can replace the kind of formative, political education you received as a young man encouraged to read Robert Tressell. And the dissemination of activist “best practice” globally is unlikely to substitute for the confidence that comes with a proud history of victories. It’s also the case that the exhilarating peaks of collective agency we’re seeing - “moments of excess” in the words of the Freedom Association - aren’t enough without the long-term infrastructure that empowers people in their everyday lives. I agree with you that if mainstream political parties ever did play a useful role here, providing a shared history and culture, they no longer do. The technocratic, centralized and hollowed out entities they have become are well described in political science as “cartel parties” – not an outgrowth of civil society, but an appendage of the state and corporations. It is the Trotskyist parties, of course, who always claimed to embody the “historical memory” of the working class. Though they can play a useful role in educating radical youth, and encouraging union militancy, their out-dated Leninist dogma and hierarchical methods remain unpopular. It is noticeable how, unlike in 68, there has not been a growth in the numbers of far left organisations. 

Trade unions still provide a vital space where knowledge and skills are transmitted. Though weakened, the big unions, under pressure from the rank and file, still have the capacity to co-ordinate mass strike action involving millions of workers. Meanwhile, more radical, syndicalist unions have had some success in organising low-paid cleaners at the University of London and Guildhall. The boldness and adaptability of these groups could make them a model for today’s struggles. Like you, I enjoyed Paul Mason’s didactic history of labour organising and took from it the lesson that the unions made their biggest gains before the era of centralized bureaucracies and full-timers. This is especially important when you consider that all but the most ineffective forms of union activity may well be prohibited by the Coalition. We have just had the farce of a minister suggesting public sector unions engage in a symbolic “fifteen minute strike” over pensions. I would put this down to pure vindictiveness, but given the widespread ignorance of the labour movement’s role and history who knows.

If anti-union laws are passed, it will be consistent with a wider pattern of criminalising any dissent outside of institutionally prescribed channels. The most recent student demo on November 9th saw the new Met commissioner’s strategy of Total Policing put into effect. 4,000 police, mounted units, dogs and undercover snatch squads were all used. Rubber bullets and water cannon, we were publicly warned, were on standby. All side streets were blocked and anyone who diverged from the official route was liable to arrest under draconian anti-protest laws. A mobile kettle herded us along the route through the City to Moorgate. Clearly the British state, too, has learned something from the last year of street protests. That’s one place where institutional memory isn’t an issue!

This means a new strategic situation. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts – a voluntary organisation - succeeded in putting 10,000 students on the streets on November 9th  (a week day) without the help of the NUS. Ideally, it will raise enough resources to become a nationally representative student organisation and keep its radicalism. This move to a more conventional institutional politics, amongst parts of the movement, doesn’t mean abandoning more confrontational tactics of collective action. Nor does it negate a more expressive politics that seeks to transform the norms, meanings and structures of civil society, the Gramsican “common sense”.

An important part of this will involve exploring and challenging the role of debt in our society, the way it structures and dominates our lives, disciplining us individually and collectively into the market. Insane plans are in the works to create a new securitized market out of student debt. It could well be the next subprime crisis. In the US, some estimates put student debt at $1 trillion. With loans being made at commercial rates and the state taking on the liabilities it’s a huge form of corporate welfare. And with no jobs, it’s crazy to think that it will ever be paid off In Debt: The first 5000 years, anthropologist David Graeber argues that whenever you have a huge expansion of virtual credit, you either have to have a safety valve of forgiveness or you have an intense outbreak of social violence that tears society apart. 

Under the Ancient Jewish Law of Jubilee all debts were automatically cancelled every seven years "in the Sabbath year" and all those in debt bondage freed.  With the coming university intake in England paying the higher rates of fees perhaps we will see the rise of non-payment unions (if a way can be found round the government’s extraction of payments through the PAYE system) and a campaign for debt forgiveness to involve all current and former students.

On the point about debt, I’m convinced you’re right that last year’s protests weren’t anywhere near representative enough given the issues at stake. Part of this, as you say, was a result of class blindness and the failure to articulate demands that resonate with less well off students who already face a mountain of debt and to acknowledge the existing bias and inequalities in higher education.  As I’m sure you know, at London Met, which has the largest working class intake of any university, management are colluding with government to enforce cuts of 70%, basically transforming it into a business school. It signifies what’s happening to non-elite universities nationally: the removal of courses that aren’t profitable for private providers and an effective prohibition on working class students studying the humanities. Many people in the broader student movement supported the occupation at London Met, but it’s true this side of the campaign has had little attention compared to the media-friendly narrative of middle class students unhappy about fees. It’s a set of issues that needs to be addressed. 

There is, I think, a wider difficulty here that faces any anti-austerity campaign: the need to defend collective provision against neoliberal reform, whilst acknowledging that existing services are imperfect and often profoundly unjust. I doubt there’s an easy answer to this, but I think part of it will involve the creation of autonomous social and political spaces to reimagine the role of education along more democratic, egalitarian lines. There also needs be an intellectual effort to address the full scope of what is wrong with the current system along the lines of Michael Bailey and Des Freedman’s Assault on the Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance and the Alternative White Paper by the Campaign for the Public University.

We know what we’re fighting against. It’s distilled in AC Grayling’s New College for Humanities that opens in Bloomsbury this year; a grotesque boutique college for the global ultra rich, where share-holding celebrity dons fly in for the occasional lecture whilst academic proles do the drudge work. It’s a sign of things to come unless we build an effective, broad-based campaign to fight privatisation.

About the authors

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His most recent book is Common Ground. See jeremygilbert.org for more information, or follow @jemgilbert.

Guy Aitchison is a contributing editor for OurKingdom's Great Charter Convention. He researches and teaches at University College London (UCL) where he specialises in political theory and human rights (@GuyAitchison).


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