Britain is not at a cross roads: before us there do not lay routes from which to choose, rather there exists space to command, to commandeer. Recent student uprisings are about much more than cuts, they stand against the eviction of democracy from politics and simultaneous eviction of people(s) from public space.
The illusionary integrity of British democracy means little in the face of a controlling minority that cannibalises revenue from the country’s lands and extends its parasitic operation through the expropriation of citizens’ tax into a system of private wealth. Its formal inauguration started with Magna Carta; today the erosion of public agency and public space has found a bedfellow with neo-liberalising tropes of governance.
The feudal regime of monopolising land and extracting the labour of its inhabitants without genuine reparation remains integral to the spatial reality of Britain. More than 50% of land ownership in the UK is unaccounted for, while 37 million acres of land (two-thirds of Britain) constitute ‘private’ ownership. Twenty-four million dwellings stand on 7.7% of British land. The modern twist which compounds this inequality manifests in the form of neoliberal economics. Rhetoric lionising the ‘devolution’ of power may sound progressive, but the word may easily be substituted for ‘marketisation’. The governing coalition’s ideology is corporative not communal, their goal is the dismantling of any social and communal forms to render them exploitable to capital.
Since the 2010 parliamentary election when a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power, citizens have been instructed that due to our government’s debt we, the people(s), must forfeit rights that have historically been the foundation of society. In recent years the British government has readily propped up corporate banks in the name of society only to now sacrifice one of society’s essential foundations: education.
The government claims that their restructuring of the education system will make universities more economically efficient and facilitate the fairer selection of candidates. Yet the proposed changes have revealed their priority is to restructure the foundational logic of learning towards economic expediency, instrumentalising all knowledge towards economic ends at the expense of that which enriches the social and public sphere.
Attempts to privatise the university epitomise this, based as they are on the principles of boosting competition to increase economic efficiency. The most profound effect however will see people’s ability to access education overwhelmingly predetermined by their individual financial background. This will polarise the institutional ecology, fast-tracking the economically privileged to the most elite universities. This marketisation agenda also manifests within those funding structures which survive this privatisation. The government is privileging the ‘hard’ sciences and instrumental social sciences (i.e. economics and law) over arts, humanities and other social sciences, imposing arbitrary research standards designed to reduce the value of research to a crude economic calculus. Whilst ‘hard’ sciences are valuable for society they do not have sufficient critical capacity to guide on the moral, ethical and political questions that we must engage with at every level of our lives.
The government, in appointing the market as exclusive arbiter of value within education, is deliberately undermining the humanities’ status in favour of disciplines whose end result is net private profit. This complements a wider coercion into financialised and managerial modes of work, not just in universities but across public services. Managerial imperatives and C.E.O.-style leadership have become the normalised internal structures in various sectors across society.
Such a move is evident in secondary education with changes to funding and the introduction of ‘academies’; in Universities with the withering power of their board of governors to keep in check the solely economic interests of their C.E.O.-style leaders; in the cuts to National Health Service funding to coerce people into private healthcare or be forced to go without; in the cutting of legal aid and the replacement of genuine workers’ organisations with ones which are led by corporate-style figureheads whose interests are indistinguishable from the mainstream interests of political parties. Those that question the normalisation of these ideological interests are harassed and witch-hunted, such as the whistle-blowers in the NHS who have brought to light the deaths and endangerment of hundreds of patients under the auspices of mis-management.
It is within this context that we have witnessed and participated in some of the most creative protests and direct actions of recent decades. Our sentiment carries with it the rumbling sensation of a destabilising and fracturing of the normative capitalist ordering of space and time. Students and workers across the country have been challenging and subverting what has now been starkly revealed as the desiring-machine of neo-liberal logic: its bleak ‘commonsense’ that seeks to reduce our lives to a base functionalism where everything, including our hobbies, interests, desires, joys, and excesses, are given their proper place and time as long as they do not undermine the productivity of our monadic working capacities and ‘citizenships’. Places and times of subjecthood(s) are proscribed and conditioned by aggressive marketing so as to complement and enhance, as Foucault might term it, the ‘biopolitical’, or rather, the government’s maximum extraction of labour from the people(s) at its most cost-effective rate. Life itself becomes just another surplus to be reinvested into circuits of ever-enhanced ‘efficiency’.
Of course, not everyone in society is subject to this ordering of time and space. Those who elude such an ordering are not only those that own capital in the orthodox Marxist sense, but those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – where wealth and knowledge is concentrated amongst a very few whose positions and organisational structures tie other ‘professional’ workers into hierarchical socio-economies – those who are figured as untouchable by the protections of the political establishment. Mainstream political parties have refined their political duplicity to a performative art. In collusion with the mainstream media, these politicians project the appearance of concern, albeit to the interests of the centre, whereas privately they gladly and sincerely vouchsafe the interests of an economically powerful elite. Hence, when the thousands of protestors first marched and occupied the Conservative party headquarters at Millbank on 10th November, it was not some ‘violent’ catharsis of a naive group, or the criminal act of a selfish few, as has been articulated by a plethora of useless commentaries. On the contrary, it was a declaration that we(s) will not be fooled by our politicians’ appearances. ‘Representation’ is the contriving of various appearances: where our allegedly representational democracy manifests the appearance of democracy, the irruption of embodied direct actions discloses the politics of appearance and disowns it. This initial rupturing of normative spatial order has cleaved the physical securities upon which government writes its authority from the discursive mythologies that prop its ‘legitimacy’ up. A lightening flash of illumination has reinforced the lucid and energetic perception of the deep cracks and splinters that pervade the structure of the economy, and reveals thus the edifice of ‘right’-as-property upon which its apparent stability relies.
Since Millbank there have been two days of national protest, each time gaining in strength, with thousands of all ages taking to the streets. They have voiced their indignation at the plight of future generations’ educational chances being reduced to the will of the market, with good cheer, true camaraderie and critical insight. Their acts cannot be seen as negative reactions, but positive projections for thinking and acting out other possibilities, other visions of society outside of this current market-led order. Whilst the three days of national protests have been geo-spatially large enough to capture the attention of the national media, there have been hundreds of smaller acts which have manoeuvred in terms of different kinds of spaces and modalities for the freeing of action from normative uses of space.
Such acts include the viral-technological appropriation of leading politicians’ social-media presences; the dispersal of subversive and creative notions of the future across cyberspace and between and through a message of enduring solidarity; the reclaiming of universities, banks, high streets and supermarkets as spaces of public belonging and right; the powerful gestures of high school children walking out from their local schools; rousing rallies at local councils to stop committees from pushing through financial cuts behind closed doors; and the table talk amongst friends and families to make sense of events occurring.
These acts are communal and inclusive in nature and mobilise without need or desire for hierarchical planning. The fragmented nature and sheer diversity of actions in opposition and over-coming of what the government promises the nation, is their greatest strength. Proof of the effectiveness of the actions so far becomes apparent when we observe the government’s totalitarian modes of addressing them, which speaks more of its fear rather than the legitimacy of its force. One recent example suffices: On the 24th November in London near Whitehall, the police pre-emptively adopted what is known as a ‘Kettle’ formation, aborting a legitimate march from its inception. For more than 9 hours the police encircled protestors, imprisoning them in subzero temperatures, without access to water, warm clothing, medical treatment and only 1 toilet cubicle for more than 3000 people. The police rhetoric of ‘preventative’ action (prevention of rioting, or damage to property) with the formation of a tightly packed ‘chain’ of police bodies, backed with a garrison of vehicles and a reserve force of riot police, horses and dogs, is not only an inhumane and disproportionate use of force, but in fact reveals something much deeper about the state of mind of the political establishment. It shows them to stand as agents of a defunct parliamentary politics; politicians fearing that they are exposed as without credibility, legitimacy, and authority vis a vis democratic representationalpolitics.
This fear is not confined to the state’s instruments of physical force, but has also been manifesting itself in the mainstream media. This hegemonic media has been deliberately circulating a discourse of blame and hypocritical moral outrage against a supposedly ‘violent minority’ versus a ‘peaceful majority’. Such a spurious and oppressive binary-logic has come to condition and divide not only our politics but also presumes to instruct the people as to how to identify identity vis a vis an illusionary Other; at the level of gender, ethnicity and class as simultaneously individualising and universalising: The net result being the imposing of a homogeneous and thus endlessly marginalising narrative upon the national imagination.
Instead of focusing on exposing the genuine structural violence that is soon to be inflicted on generations of British children by a remote class of political elites, the mainstream media have deliberately employed tactics which cynically exploit certain supposedly signifying instances to attempt to create divisions within the student body. One such instance upon which a simplistic narrative has been hinged is the consistent referencing of NUS President Aaron Porter’s condemnation of a ‘violent minority’ at the Millbank protest. Far from weakening this student movement, these tactics have given it a greater strength and dynamism as students bypass homogenising political models such as the NUS, rejecting ‘representation’. Instead, students are using direct-action, performative and discursive modes of struggle to express their indignation and expand the notion of the ‘political’ that has been foreclosed by neoliberalism, as well as enacting new ways of being together across and within already intersecting socialities.
The various demonstrations that have unfolded in recent weeks in the U.K are not contingent events. On the contrary, this is the beginning of a resistance movement that, whilst triggered by educations cuts, has gained momentum across all sectors of society. Those that have taken part in the movement have formed a de-centred strategic alliance rather than being members of a homogenised and hence recuperable unity. What minimal unity exists centres on our common opposition to the current government’s neo-liberal ideological agenda that will impoverish us all. The disunity of this movement is its greatest strength because it allows the diversity of lived injustices to be heard, destabilising any positions that assume to speak for all.
We(s), as students of the University for Strategic Optimism, support all initiatives to reclaim public space and public education, to politicise and to draw out the latent political which inhabits the spaces in which we exist. We(s) oppose not just cuts to university funding but cuts across our public services. The physical and discursive violence of the government through the instruments of police and media acts is an affront to people’s legitimate right to question the decisions of a coalition government on a weak mandate. The dual aim of their actions is to cease this democratic movement and to disguise the fact that Conservatives, and especially their Liberal Democrats coalition partners, only 6 months ago refused to acknowledge the possibility of such extreme new policies before the general election. Indeed, only 10 months ago many Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament signed personal pledges to oppose any rise in tuition fees.
Whilst attempts are made to foreclose our imaginations, our imagining of a sustainable and egalitarian society is perfectly viable outside the narrow terms of neoclassical economics. With this vision unfolding, we(s) will continue to resist, not least through defending our legitimate right to protest. We(s) will not be intimidated either by aggressive police attempts to exclude democratic opposition from public space or the mercenary scribes of the mainstream media who obediently disseminate UK government misinformation. Both police and press have shown themselves to be the foot soldiers of the state and integrated within its doctrine of neo-liberal violence.
We(s) demand depth, breadth and autonomy in education, not the baseless pitting of sciences against humanities. We demand an education that is not instrumentalised for financial gain but offers no other justification than that of learning itself. We will continue to highlight the agenda of those who want to extend their private wealth at the expense of the population and the ideals of democracy, denouncing their rapacious command of the productive wealth of our society.
The parliamentary vote on the government’s education proposals is now only days away, but all protest movements remain committed to fighting for a non-elitist, non-corporate society before and beyond the coming decision. We are bringing back the commons and this is only the beginning.
Charlotte Lattimer, Christopher Collier, Jaideep Shah, Katherine Burrows, Matthew Woodcraft and Saoirse Fitzpatrick
We(s) write as students, members of the University for Strategic Optimism, self-ascribed activists, friends… the list is infinitely long. We do not write or speak from one ground, nor do we represent ourselves on these multiple grounds. These categories or identities have no logical essence or order but are fluid and are evoked in specific contexts that allow for no systematic unity.