A review of Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri, Verso, London 2011.
I was admittedly sceptical about reading Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri’s (edited volume, 2011), Springtime: The New Student Rebellions. Although I participated in and was in awe of the student protests that took place in the UK in 2010, it seems to me that attempts to nostalgically glorify (so quickly!) a movement that for some is still ongoing and for some has died down, simply seek self-glorification. This makes me apprehensive, though I will not deny that such moves can be productive: I faithfully refer to Ernesto Laclau here to elucidate. He observes that constructing the social (and specifically constructing social movements) involves building ‘chains of equivalence’: some form of ‘totalization’, and thus myth-building, has to take place for a group of people to identify with a common demand or identity (Laclau 2007: 73-81). Yes, myth construction is necessary, and organisers’ efforts to bring together voices of dissent are to be praised. Nonetheless, I am sceptical of the particular context here: I cannot uncritically accept a high-profile publication that places the UK student protests on a pedestal, most crucially by privileging their significance over other movements, which can be said to have greater traditions of resistance (as pointed out by Sebastian Budgen and Larry Portis in the section on France). I will elaborate on this below.
Overall, the volume is an extremely interesting read, and it depicts the ongoing thinking behind various instances of activism, predominantly in Europe and North America. The book is divided geographically into six parts, tackling protest movements in the UK, Italy, California, France, Greece and Tunisia and Algeria. It is highly intertextual, with pieces written by a variety of actors, with ‘Flashback’ pieces dotted throughout the book, with pictures, links to videos and visual analyses of the impact of social media on the UK struggle. Thus, the book goes a long way towards showing the transnationalisation of protests: how activists can learn from each other and how their aims are similar, namely battling the precarity imposed, generated and sustained by the framework of the flow of capital that is privileged by governments all over the world. The sixth part on Tunisia and Algeria works as a harsh grounding for the reader, since it depicts the extremity of these particular struggles, which can perhaps only be compared to the other movements presented in the book in their similar stances against the hegemony of the tyrant-backing and corruption-supporting politicians of the West.
Let’s actually analyse the item that I have here in front of me. The glossy front cover depicts a supposedly burning Westminster being photographed by a crowd of protesters and their Blackberries (an image that came out of the 9th December 2010 student protests). But we know that Westminster did not actually burn that day, in fact the politicians inside successfully voted through legislation that increased undergraduate fees to £9,000 per annum, thus completing a significant step towards the commodification of Higher Education, in almost complete defiance of the student protesters outside and their pleas for reconsideration of the controversial law.
Is this not misrepresentation of the nature of the student movement, a movement which, yes, was radical and manifested itself in mass occupations and in imaginatively hard-hitting demonstrations all over the country, but which was also quite ad hoc, mostly due to the fluctuating nature of student populations and which, in the end, seems to have accepted that the fight is lost after the UK government voted through laws making £9,000 fees a reality? Is this a movement that will see through change as radical as the burning of the Houses of Parliament? The book cover suggests that yes, though the London riots of 2011 suggest that radical action will most probably come from other – poorer, marginalised, oppressed – quarters.
Let’s go further though and look at the volume’s table of contents: the book is divided into six parts, since the authors rightly wanted to show how far the struggles of the past few years have spanned. The use of ‘flashbacks’ – to struggles from previous decades – adds further continuity. So, we have stories from (in order of appearance) the UK, Italy, California, France, Greece and Tunisia. Tunisia? Last? For clarification on this, I go to the editors’ introduction. But there is no rationale for the positioning of various texts, except to state that Verso decided to produce this book to mark a significant revival of dissent, protest and anger against the system, spearheaded by students from schools and universities across Europe and North America (4).
From the back cover, we can find out that the UK’s student protests ‘became part of a growing international movement that spans much of the Western world and is now reaching into North Africa’. So the rationale for the ordering of the texts is that the UK protests acted as a lightning rod for movements across the world, and that opposition to capitalism-protecting austerity measures is what ties their aims together. And yet, how disingenuous to privilege the ‘democratic awakening’ of the UK over the life-and-death fights that young and old people have been facing in Tunis and Cairo. Are the natures of the struggles really comparable? I suspect that they are – for example, in their objectives to politicise and to make silent voices heard – but there is a great deal of nuance and qualification that comes with this, and it is something that is not sufficiently addressed by the editors. The majority of the volume communicates that nothing can be taken for granted, that the time has finally come for popular participation and deliberation. So why deprive us of such nuance? It is not enough to assume that chronology can dictate the entire story and the editors should have known better.
A further, and main, criticism of the book lies at the level of the editorial policies and decisions that went into organising it. I was fuming by page 2, where the editors state:
It’s foolish to waste too much time trying to understand the character and motives of the politicians, bankers and speculators whose combined complacency led to the crash. Mostly they were a self-seeking, incompetent and single-minded bunch who contributed fairly equally to the crisis.
But why, why, why (!) discredit thinking and understanding in a volume that seeks to act as record and ‘point of reference’ on what it sees as a new and growing movement? Thinking through the multifaceted causes of the crisis should not be so easily dismissed, especially at a time when events are calling for us to rethink how we govern ourselves. Is it really as simple as blaming a complex and widespread crisis on a particular group of people’s corruption or greed? Where does complicity end/begin and can it really be determined simply by someone’s job position? The current problem’s roots may indeed be in bank boardrooms and, co-related to this, decisionmakers’ cabinet offices, but they represent far more complex causality than adjectives such as ‘greed’ and ‘excess’ may suggest. The view – perhaps propagated by bestsellers such as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and its neologism of ‘disaster capitalism’ – simplistically suggesting that if only bankers did their job responsibly, this would not have happened, seems to permeate much of the narrative. And yet, this does a lot to bypass the structural aspects of the problem, giving too much focus on agential factors. Within the Left itself, there are voices that also want to say, No, it is not just about a corrupt/greedy bank-government conspiracy; it is not just about getting people to work within the rules of the game. The rules themselves are designed to privilege specific interests, and this requires highlighting; not just in terms of ‘greed’ and ‘excess’ and demonization, but it has to be politically defined, so as to enable social change.
Thankfully there is a more considered treatment of the issue in the rest of the book. The ‘Communiqué from an Absent Future’ (part of the Occupied California section) articulates the bleak reality of the university: it is not just a place that produces ‘compliant producers and consumers’ (152) but one in which all of us are complicit:
The underlings are only too happy to play apprentice to the masters, unable to do the math indicating that nine-tenths of us will teach four courses every semester to pad the paychecks of the one-tenth who sustain the fiction that we can all be the one. Of course I will be the star; I will get the tenure-track job in a large city and move into a newly gentrified neighbourhood (153).
Similar voices come from Italy, and specifically the essay, ‘The Factory of Precarious Workers’ (by Giulio Calella, 89-103), which elucidates the ways in which the Italian Higher Education system has been opened up to increased specialisation, diversification and commodification. These are all trends that the (primarily British?) readership will be aware of, as they have been central to the majority of student political mobilisation. But the essay goes one step further and does away with what it sees as a the myth of the bourgeois student at university, stating that the majority of the Italian ruling classes either go abroad for their qualifications or to private universities; the Italian public university is, thus, for the ‘masses’, and is, in the authors’ view, becoming an indispensable tool in producing a ‘growing percentage of precarious workers’ (95). It is thus not necessarily a free and vulnerable space which might require rescuing; it is as full of the same money, the same personalities and the same structures that have brought the crisis and the common-sense of austerity to all aspects of global society: thus, ‘the university is already occupied’ (as per the Anti-Capital Projects Q&A, 165). Assigning blame or responsibility, then, is not as easy as the editors make it out to be in the first pages. Nor is the creation of singular identities straightforward either: Susan Matthew (Senior Lecturer at Roehampton University and mother of Alfie Meadows who was severely injured by police in London on 9th December 2010), for example, writes from the perspective of an ‘outsider’ to the struggle. While being wholly supportive, she also acknowledges the tense dynamic of belonging to the (or a) group – ‘Walking to Parliament Square on 9 December I felt out of place, and wondered whether to stop off at Tate Britain instead’ (32). How can sides be determined in highly activist times? This is a question worth pausing on – the answers are not self-evident.
In his piece, ‘A New Strategy is Needed for a Brutal Era’, Peter Hallward (Professor of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, formerly at the now closed Philosophy Department of Middlesex University) thoughtfully demonstrates that the vicious cuts being waged by the current government show us the true face of the order we have been facing till now (36-39). Hallward’s observations hit at the heart of the matter when, after delineating the ‘reality’ of government and its hiding of ‘bankers’ masks … behind police visors’, he refers to Michel Foucault: ‘the successful exercise of power is “proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms”’ (39). Thus, one of the most important lessons from the host of demonstrations and occupations that took place in 2010 and 2011 is that ‘the field is open’, as Slavoj Žižek says in reference to the Occupy movements developing across the globe. The single most important element of last year’s student protests, and the continuing civil dissatisfaction with ruling elites all over the world, is that the workings of the system are becoming clearer: we need to continue the important work of dissecting it through discussion of what went wrong and what alternatives are required.
Similarly, the essays by activists from Greece communicate a need for honest discussion. What these highly politicised essays demonstrate is that the issue at stake here is not whether or not (Greek) universities require change; the issue is what form this change is to take. Frequently, we are confronted with ‘problem-solving’ elites/politicians who take the ‘reformist’ path to impose policies they consider best, without engaging in dialogue about the policies’ presuppositions and consequences. ‘The system requires change, we have the solution’, goes their increasingly popular logic, thus propagating the view that any opposition to such action is an endorsement of stalemate. This is precisely the type of process that the mass walkouts, occupations and demonstrations all over the globe have been highlighting in the past few years: democratic process is not about having the right solutions, these protesters are saying, but about questioning whose interests policies serve and how they are implemented. As Spyros Dritsas and Giorgos Kalampokas elaborate in their description of ‘The First Big Wave: 2006-07’ (213-218), what also has to be opposed is ‘the authoritarian character of the attack, its openly neo-conservative “law and order” rhetoric, the sense of a violent disciplinary endeavour’ (215). And indeed, as outlined in Slavoj Žižek’s recent interview with Tom Ackerman on Al Jazeera, the new possibilities also bring with them new dangers: ‘this [opening of the field of politics] brings its own risks,’ one of which is the risk presented by powerful personalities who want to persuade protesters that their ready-made solutions are the right ones for the highlighted problem. The best demonstration of Žižek’s point here was exemplified by Bill Clinton, who evaluated Occupy Wall Street as ‘on balance…a positive thing’ and proceeded to give the protesters a word of warning:
They need to be for something specific, and not just against something because if you’re just against something, someone else will fill the vacuum you create.
He then went on to suggest how this vacuum could be filled, by getting ‘behind President Obama’s jobs plan, which he claimed would create “a couple million jobs in the next year and a half”’. But Bill, of course, misses the point: being against something does not necessarily signify lack of clarity, especially when this something is undefined precisely because its definition has been out of the hands of those who want (or need!) to have a say in this.
There is a clear need to beware of the nature of the struggle, and questions of process are emerging as the truly important ones. And though that may seem boring (and less revolutionary than overthrowing a clear-cut enemy) it is crucial that those of us who are involved in/sympathetic to/intrigued by the ongoing Occupy movements and global revolts engage in its discussion. Politics is continually in flux, and the sooner we realise that and stop trying to return to a golden era (say of the University), the sooner we will be able to tackle the issues at hand in real terms (for an impressive counter-argument to this see here).
In this context, the declaration of the Communiqué from an Absent Future is accurate; it states that we have arrived at a moment where the form of protest is more radical than the protest’s content (157). But this very form of protest which seems to be taking hold of the global imagination aims at restructuring precisely what is at stake, namely our social and political relations, and establishing ‘not this or that edifice but a system of social relations’ (165). The process of occupation – and the explicit politicisation of the movement that comes with it – makes this explicit: negotiations are not to be entered into simply for the sake of it (as our Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bristol would have us believe with his mantra that ‘being at the table, talking to the government, influencing policy and trying to develop that policy with them is the position’ one should aim for’). Negotiations are merely a tool in achieving political aims, and they cannot be relied upon indefinitely; indeed, they are quite helpful in delineating the limits of ‘dialogue’ at times, as the Occupiers of UC Davis clarify:
It should be a clear and unyielding principle of any future occupations at UC Davis that there can be no discussion with the administration whatsoever while tactical police forces are on the campus. As long as the administration has already called the cops to arrest us whenever necessary, negotiations are a total sham, and must be treated as such (173).
As these occupiers recall from the events of November 2010, ‘the nightstick, the taser, the riot shield became an extension of the bureaucratic violence of the administration’ (173). Similarly to Peter Hallward’s point above about bankers’ masks behind police visors, things become obvious within such struggles, and the more students, faculty and staff collaborate and come out together against official declarations, the more realistic a new reality becomes. There is consensus, it seems, across struggles about the common aims that can be achieved; and although differences exist, there is enough commonality for discussions and true negotiations to ensue among protesters.
To reiterate, a lot of work is still being done ‘behind-the-scenes’; starting from the seemingly boring conversations about procedures and aims, the establishing of networks between like-minded activists, and in the everyday opposition to top-down managerialism and decision-making that excludes those it affects. Elly Badcock (an activist from the UK) provides a retrospective on the SOAS occupations of 2009-2010 (‘SOAS: School of Activism Studies’, 67-68), and is right to point out that these provided a ‘base of organization in the midst of a fiery and militant student movement’ (68). Jo Casserly (an activist from University College London Union) then goes on to remind that occupations are not just about the activist spectacle, but are geared towards providing a democratic base, and should continue being used as such: ‘on every campus, those both within and without occupations, weekly, open and democratic assemblies of students and education workers are key’ (‘The Art of Occupation’, 71-75).
On a personal level, and speaking from Bristol, my worry is that the nuances of the struggle have not maintained their visibility; I cannot know whether everyone’s intention last year was for permanent change in how we engage with each other across the University (this arguably being the harder step to come after the highly intensive demonstrations and occupations).
This is what makes me welcome volumes such as Springtime cautiously; the book is clearly an important record of a complex period of unrest (which is still ongoing). Yet, it also runs the risk of romanticising actions that, on their own, do not suffice to enact the ‘alternative’ that the editors call for. It expresses nostalgia for a movement that, in the UK at least, may have stalled too early on, when all the work of political change and engagement lies before us.
And thus, finally, to the pieces from Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt: what does their figuring in this volume communicate other than our mass complicity in persisting inequalities in those countries that had to be taken back by popular will and organisation? Leila Basmoudi, Taoufik Ben Brik, the Parti des Indigenes de la Republique, Moncez Marzouki, Yassin Temlali and Omar Kitani all deliver a severe indictment on the tyrants destroying their countries, but also on the Western societies which the student protesters and activists of the previous sections represent. Reading through these essays’ descriptions of the dictators of Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Yemen as ‘staunch allies of Washington’, ‘admired by Western journalists’, and supported by the multinational companies that the protesters in Algeria also decided required attacking, I cannot help but wonder how we in the West could have encouraged (and still do) the pursuit of inequality, injustice and oppression on the part of such dictators. I am aware that citizens in the West bear no direct responsibility for the tragedies that the revolts of the Arab Spring are trying to undo, but what the essays in this volume make us come back to is the importance of process and the question of how politics is to be done, who by, and for what. If it is for continued oppression, for largesse and for privileging the powerful over the underprivileged and under-represented, then we have a responsibility to get involved, and to stop this. We cannot continue with a consensus where Western security and economic imperatives dictate the terms of political engagement in the rest of the world.
Crucially, and contrary to the editors’ preaching at the beginning of the volume, what needs to continue – and the recent Occupy movement clearly demonstrates this – is the process of thinking, bravely and critically, about problems that are usually presented within one-dimensional and stereotypical frameworks. The ‘enemy’ can be found just as much within bank boardrooms as within the ranks of exploited students. As a graduate student, working in the privileged space of the university, I see ‘career’, and through this ‘competition’, as increasingly privileged signifiers all around me in the ‘moshpits’ of aspiring academics (a neologism helpfully pointed out by a senior academic who shall remain anonymous here). And for me, the words of the Communiqué from an Absent Future ring especially true here:
the graduate students, supposedly the most politically enlightened among us, are also the most obedient. The ‚vocation’ for which they labor is nothing other than a fantasy of falling off the grid, or out of the labor market. […] There is no longer the least felt contradiction in teaching a totalizing critique of capitalism by day and polishing one’s job talk by night (153).
Nothing is obvious and nothing is fixed. The struggle for alternatives has to rely just as much on continued action as on considered approaches to the what, the who and the how of this action. As the above-quoted Communiqué points out, demands for change of the university cannot be seen as separate from demands for social and political change. Talking, then, about the ‘how’ of the new politics we might want to envision is paramount: ‘our movement will have to join with these others, breaching the walls of the university compounds and spilling into the streets’ (157) While it is easier and more natural perhaps for many of us to resort to cynicism, the hard work that lies ahead of us involves exploring the ‘new kinds of collective bonds’ between us; as one of the UC Santa Cruz Occupation statements declares, ‘the spaces in which we are free are those that we take and hold by force’ (163). This is a militant and resolute commitment to change, yet one that should resonate with those of us who are unsure about what the future holds, or should hold. I will conclude in true academic style and plead for action – mythical action even! – in a more considered fashion: let’s continue questioning hegemonic voices and the common sense(s) they propagate, this is what real change has to consist of. It might not be pretty, but it might be an improvement on the status quo.
1. Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri, Verso, London 2011.
2. Mark Duffield and Nicholas Waddell, Securing Humans in a Dangerous World, „International Politics” 2006:43.
3. Natalie Hanman, Sprintime: The New Student Rebellions – review, „The Guardian”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/15/springtime-new-student-rebellions-review.
4. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, Verso, London 2005.
5. Satyabrata Mitra, Book Review of Springtime Revolutions, http://classandcapital.blogspot.com/2011/05/book-review-of-clare-solomon-and-tania.html.
6. Slavoj Žižek, Occupy first. Demands come later, „The Guardian”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/26/occupy-protesters-bill-clinton.