Hang your freedom higher

The situationists … don’t talk of a real utopia but an abstract utopia. Do they really think that, one fine morning or one decisive evening, people will turn to one another and say “That’s enough! Enough work and boredom! Let’s make an end of it!” and that they’ll embark on an endless festival, on creating situations? Maybe it did happen once, at daybreak on the 18th of March 1871, but that conjuncture won’t come round again.
– Henri Lefebvre, October 1967

Although I’ve written about activism, I’m not an activist; I tried it for a few years, in my late 20s and early 30s, but after a while I wanted my evenings and weekends back. I joined the 24th November demo in Manchester, although I legged it when it looked as if we were going to get kettled; I missed yesterday’s altogether (I was at a seminar on student activism, ironically enough) and I haven’t been to the Roscoe occupation.

So I’m seeing the current movement from a distance, and I may be getting it wrong in any number of ways. But, from what I’ve read, it seems like this could be the start of something big. This, from OxfordCambridge, is absolutely exemplary in terms of tactical, organisational and ideological innovation:

On Sunday, occupying students will host a General Assembly for all those who have been inspired by their action against the cuts and the ConDem government. “It is clear that the cuts we are facing go far beyond the student movement and so should the resistance. This large general meeting aims to address the question: “what next?” By bringing together school, sixth form, and university students, academics, workers, trade unionists, pensioners, anti-cuts and community groups we will help to build the movement in Cambridge and beyond.”

The Cambridge occupation has now ended, but occupations continue at Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle and of course Manchester; in London there are occupations at KCL, UCL, the LSE and SOAS. (This is not an exhaustive list.) There are thousands of angry, inspired and well-informed people out there, who have made a serious commitment to this movement; for a lot of them the occupations are providing some great experiences, enabling them to get to know themselves and what they’re capable of.

There is depth of feeling and attention to detail, along with the inevitable earnestness; reasoned debates take place over coffee – they’d bought a machine since continual café runs had eaten into the kitty – and stale sandwiches donated from a staff meeting. They look cleanish though tired and cold – the heating got turned off on Sunday night and today is Wednesday – but they’ve learned to get round things: a shower and a night at home every few days, a few hours’ work on their essays before bed, a break for a lecture and to pass out flyers. It’s like a ‘really big sleepover’, one student tells me; another says that it’s almost become a way of life. They talk of the dance-off they’d had with the Oxford Radcliffe Camera occupation via Skype, of the ‘fun’ they’re having. They didn’t know each other before and now they’re a community.

If the fees bill gets passed today, I think we can be confident that a lot of them will fight on. And in the unlikely event that it falls… I think we can be confident that a lot of them will fight on.

One outcome which I think we can rule out is quick and effective repression of the movement. This is largely because the government is unpopular and disunited; the kind of tactically heavy-handed and legally ingenious treatment the miners got in 1984-5 was only feasible because the government was united in the belief that it was cracking down on the Enemy Within, and an awful lot of ordinary people backed them in that. But we should also give the movement some credit for the way it’s responded to the police attention it has received. There’s a learning experience going on out there:

The Metropolitan Police seems to be on a mission to prove to everyone under the age of 25 that the Marxists are right and the bourgeois state is fundamentally repressive. Last week they gave a bunch of fifteen year olds mild hypothermia and severe anxiety as part of this project.

As we all know a big turning point in every revolutionary’s life is that moment when they learn to really hate cops. The youth are learning. Watch this little video of the student protests on November 30th from The Gabber to see how they dodge the cops’ kettling tactic.

(Do watch it – it’s inspiring and sometimes hilarious.)

Did I mention my book? It’s been fascinating – and heartening – to see the tactical creativity, the ideological openness and the defiant playfulness of the 1970s movements which I wrote about reappearing in this one. Another interesting parallel is the sense that the established revolutionary groups are being sidelined – or, at least, are having to learn how to follow as well as lead:

Here is an expletive riddled account by someone who was at a recent student organised event.

“We were invited guests of the most radical activists in town. They had a very good structure worked out, announced at the start of the meeting. 1 hour of ‘open mic’ on what cuts are affecting your workplace, community, sector or whatever, and what fightback is occurring (if any). 20 mins tea break. 2 hours of strategizing about where next – first in relation to education and then the wider cuts.

|Of course, it only works if people respect the agenda set. And then the f**king deatheaters started with their boring set speeches. Do they not get it? This is not a rabble that needs rousing – they are already more f**king aroused than the constitutional revolutionaries, whose main objective is to win this vote, or that position. Egomaniacs sucking the air and life out of the room.

“The students were too f**king civil – very good at reclaiming space from the establishment but haven’t figured out how to defend their space from sectarians. All they could do was politely remind people to stay on topic.”

You can see why she is furious. If ever there was a moment when the vanguard is running behind the popular mood insisting on its right to lead it is now. Pretending that your small group is the only leaders a movement needs is downright delusional. This could just be one of those occasions when the best thing to do is to let the movement run free and develop its own momentum.

Wise words mate. (“Deatheaters”!)

The other sure sign that the movement is starting to get somewhere is that attempts are being made to separate the “extremists” (those who are revolutionary, violent, criminal, beyond the pale of civilised politics) from the “moderates” (those who are willing to denounce the extremists). Sayeeda Warsi’s attempt to hang the ‘extremist’ label on John McDonnell deserved to be laughed out of court, but sadly – and only too predictably – wasn’t:

While it would be great if Ed Miliband came out explicitly for the occupations, in much the same way the NUS leadership has been shamed into doing, he is unlikely to do so because of the gravitational pull received practice and Labour’s contradictory location exerts on him. Given the choice of supporting students, winning tens of thousands of radical new adherents to Labour, and placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts; and the prevarication of politics as usual, he will plump for the latter every time.

I would argue that Labour’s “contradictory position” isn’t just that of the party of organised labour within a capitalist democracy, which is what Phil has in mind here. Labour is also, like the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s, occupying the role of “gatekeeper” in a relatively closed political system. The party is the arbiter of the leftward limit of what’s politically thinkable, and maintains that position by either denouncing or appropriating innovations from the broader Left. The fact that under Ed Miliband the ratio of appropriation to denunciation is likely to rise above zero doesn’t change that context, or its constraining effects: placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts would simply be politically impossible.

Rather more disappointing was the failure of a leading Green to get it:

The Green Party’s Jenny Jones who is also a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority … opted to issue a scabbing statement saying:

“In my 40 year experience of going to protests, the violent people aren’t real protestors at all. They are criminals who use the cover of a demo to do as much damage as they can. Real protestors want to make their point and get good headlines for their cause.”

a fault line is going to start running through every trade union, students’ union, political party, Christmas party and football team as the struggle heats up. It’ll be around trivial stuff like vandalism but underneath it will be a choice about whether you’re on the side of the fighters or the capitulators. Jenny Jones won’t be the last to jump the wrong way.

I think this is exactly right, except that it won’t be – at least, it won’t purport to be – about trivial stuff like vandalism: it’ll be done through accusations that protestors were being violent, or threatening to be violent… or tolerating other people’s violence… or tolerating other people’s threats of violence… or failing to denounce other people’s violence… or failing to denounce other people’s tolerance of threats of violence… and on it will go, if the protestors let it. I wasn’t entirely enamoured of Clare Solomon’s tactics when she was grilled on Newsnight, but she clearly recognised the importance of not walking into a trap when it’s been laid for you – which, sadly, is more than you can say for Aaron Porter. When people get angry they often damage property and break laws. Damaging property and breaking the law is generally a bad thing, but getting angry is sometimes entirely appropriate: an angry demonstration does not turn into a criminal demonstration if some of its participants commit offences, and nor is the movement behind the demo tainted by those individuals’ actions. (Nor should it necessarily back them to the hilt, on the other hand. I agree with Mary Beard, up to a point – being punished for breaking a law which you set out to break cannot reasonably be called unjust. That said, I think what she misses is that no law is ever applied with absolute uniformity. There is always a broader context which determines whether the law will be applied in particular cases; in this case the protests against the law, and the claim that the law was broken in a just cause, are part of that context.)

A couple of quotes from my book seem relevant here. (SPOILERS: they’re the last sentences of the last chapter proper and the methodological appendix, respectively. But it’s even better if you read the whole thing.) My book, incidentally, has sold 248 copies in the UK; considering that it has an rrp of £60, and is presumably only being bought by libraries and the odd eccentric millionaire, I think this is pretty good going. The hardback edition is only 400, and if we can sell that out a paperback should be on the cards; so if it’s not in a library near you, why not request that they buy a copy? It’s starting to acquire a certain amount of contemporary relevance.

In Britain, where the electoral system excludes social movements from the national political system, the Labour Party remains the principal Left gatekeeper. Faced with a disorderly and uncontainable rival to its left, Labour would have the same options as the PCI. An inclusive engagement would require the party quietly to appropriate and absorb the demands and tactics of the new movement, while publicly denouncing its leadership as irresponsible extremists. An exclusive engagement, in contrast, would involve denunciations of violence, escalating demands for dissociation and emphatic assertions of the party’s own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Thirty years on, the Italian political system and the remains of the Italian Left still demonstrate how disastrous the effects of this approach could be.

in political systems which remain relatively impermeable, we should be alert to the power of the labelling mechanisms deployed by gatekeeper parties, in particular in the conditions of a negative engagement. We should be particularly wary of attempts to draw an authoritative dividing line between the ‘moderate’ and the ‘extremist’ elements of a social movement. A resolution passed by a national meeting of the ‘movement of 1977’ in April of that year concluded: ‘The movement does not carry out excommunications and does not accept the criminalisation of any of its elements.’ Neither should we.

One puzzle about this movement is where it came from: nationwide university occupations don’t come out of a blue sky, do they? One answer would be to refer back to poor old Lefebvre and say that sometimes they do just that. I think also there’s a combative mood that’s been building for a while, smouldering just below the surface. Ironically, it’s been fostered – or at least permitted to continue – by the fact that Labour were in office for so long. New Labour were certainly an authoritarian and pro-business government, but the two elements weren’t combined (as they had been under Thatcher) in a war on “militant left-wingers” and “union bully-boys”. New Labour’s authoritarianism mostly took aim at much softer targets – Islamism and “anti-social behaviour” – in a kind of punitive reinforcement of the social exclusion already suffered by marginalised groups. The result was that a generation forgot the lessons that were drummed into us under Thatcher: “pickets” meant “thugs”, “militants” meant “loonies”, “mass meeting” meant “mob rule”. In short, the taboos against collective action quietly faded away. Lindsey was an early – and impressive – sign of the kind of action that had become thinkable again. At the same time, and for similar reasons, radical ideas began to have a bit more purchase: the language isn’t always the same, but the ideas still work. A speaker at yesterday’s seminar suggested that “neo-liberalism” is becoming a master-frame for the current wave of activists: neo-liberalism gave us Iraq and Afghanistan, neo-liberalism gives us public spending cuts and now neo-liberalism wants to give us massively increased tuition fees. Neo-liberalism, nein danke. Those two taboos – against leftist thinking and against collective action – were the product of years of Thatcherite Kulturkampf, beginning in the mid-70s; it would take years to reinstate them, and it would take a stronger and more united government than this one to do it.

The other question is, of course, where it goes next. If precedent is anything to go by – and if that statement from Cambridge is at all typical – the next step will be to link up with workers in struggle; the next but one, to link up with workers who aren’t in struggle yet. We shall see. I don’t think today’s vote in Parliament will be the end, or even the beginning of the end – but it may be the end of the beginning.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 10 December 2010 at 22:13 | Permalink | Reply

    I think you may have referred to Oxford when you meant Cambridge quite early on…

One Trackback

  1. […] inbetween hawking his book, makes a good point of the background against which the university occupations take place: One puzzle about this movement is where it came from: nationwide university occupations don’t […]

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