Education and work: lessons in alienation

It’s strange, witnessing the arrival and return of students from the ‘outside’ this time around. Sainsbury’s has been preparing for this moment for weeks, the welcome and orientation weeks heralding a frenzied bustle of students shopping alone or with their parents’ assistance in that last-minute clamour for the essentials. Management, in their absurd ‘huddles’ – which in reality demoralize and divide more than unite or uplift – relay the sales statistics in the weeks prior to the students arriving, and inform us that the start of the new term will be indispensable to recuperating lost ground in the context of sales revenue. ‘You need to be at your best’, ‘always smile’, ‘give customers your undivided attention’ – the familiar constellation of hollow slogans of customer service are repeated ad nauseam, sugarcoated with gestures towards co-operation and the fulfilment of ‘common objectives’ (as if we ever see management on the shopfloor except in a fleeting capacity of ‘checking in’ to stave off any potential aspersions on their being out of touch, and as if Sainsbury’s profit margins were proxies for our wages, conditions or collective well-being).

There’s an insidious undertone coursing through the ‘motivational’ language and hyped-up performance review, which the workers implicitly all of course understand, though we diverge on the extent to which we’ve internalized the details as right, inevitable or necessary.  The Mystery Customer scheme – which, stripped back, is little more than a covert, private spying mechanism designed to root out workers who have not adequately adopted the optimal Sainsbury’s persona – is at the forefront of a set of underhand, yet innocuously framed, monitoring and disciplinary techniques deployed by the company to assess the performance of workers and establish grounds for regimentation and punishment. These ‘huddles’, of course, underneath the bluster, are about reasserting management authority, and reproducing an ideological homogeneity in which we identify our personal desires, motives and convictions with the framework of Sainsbury’s commercial targets and success.

This process is all the more effective when they recruited a whole new cohort of part-time staff to deal with the surge in commerce entailed by the arrival of students. Our shift patterns are arranged so Sainsbury’s are not legally obliged to afford us any breaks.  The pay is low; the work physically straining, onerous and monotonous; sexist and transphobic harassment frequent, and the expectation of our resignation to it intimately bound up with a virulent idea of the inexorable ruggedness of service-sector emotional labour; monitoring from supervisors, bosses and surveillance systems relentless; and productivity quotas and targets interminably bear down on us. There is no union presence, no remnant even of the idea of its necessity.  This is all framed simply as the dynamism of the modern workplace – and we must learn discipline, passivity, gratefulness for even being granted this opportunity.  The conditions of the vacancies on offer – temporary, at around 10 months, to reconcile with student term dates, part-time, etc – were justified under a rubric of flexibility around studies, thus concealing and normalizing a whole-sale decimation of protections and rights across the labour market under the Conservative adminstration.

Work and university are mutually constitutive in their tensions and contradictions: not only because university is a site of service and knowledge production, increasingly subservient to corporate interests, but because more and more students are being forced into work due to heightening financial pressures, and universities and workplaces are more and more subordinated to the same ruthless logic of market forces.  In particular, programmes of performance management dominate both spheres, contriving impossible standards of productivity in which workers’ livelihoods are interminably at risk, with increasing workloads, deteriorating working conditions and even dismissal due to ‘financial underperformance’ commonplace.  We are ever more over-burdened, under-remunerated and emotionally spent as we police ourselves against consistent measuring and monitoring, our affective capacities territorialized as a resource by capital.  The looming pressure of deadlines and exams for students are mirrored in a vast bureaucracy of metrics and targets for workers: with these competing pressures often acting on the same subject. Alienation from the mission and purpose of one’s work, having oneself and others made into rivals, resentment with conditions and rules over which we have no control, self-repression, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, instability, feelings of ‘falling behind’ and ‘never being able to do or be enough’ and all-or-nothing competition, inadequacy, dejection, result.

This is not simply an indication of the importance of staff-student solidarity in our struggles, both in and beyond the university, but fundamentally gestures towards the ever-increasing importance of recarving the strategy of student struggle itself as an industrial one.  Students must become a power in and of themselves, not simply offering solidarity to sections of the working class from the broader community, but also becoming a self-organized industrial force, mobilizing as workers as well as tenants, subjects of oppression, autonomous social actors, etc.

This is especially true because the political potentialities of university are always in tension, due to their being traditionally conservative institutions home to a middle class cultural elite, engaged in projects of gentrification, and acting as sites of reproduction for managers, politicians and technocrats.  This dynamic has been somewhat recomposed by neo-liberal reforms, with universities increasingly rendered as sites in which indebted consumers and trained professionals are equipped and disciplined for the labour market.  Throughout history, students have acted as the revolutionary agitators within broader processes of working-class mobilization due to the specifics of our situation – more spare time, free access to academia and radical enquiry, cultural spaces of independence from the nuclear family and social orthodoxy, the (sometimes mythical) trajectory of universities as tasked with a public mission to grapple with and challenge received wisdom upheld through rigorous struggle, etc.

A strategy delimited by too restricted a ‘student’ focus could indeed advance a narrow scope of ‘student interests’ at the expense of the broader community.  For example, students can and must be at the forefront of fighting against casualization when our passivity to such work regimes is approved by the state as a proxy for tacit acquiescence in the broader working class.  This is especially true in a context where precarity and temp agencies are created, propagated and legitimized by our own universities, normalizing casualized work across cities and communities.  Our interests as students and as the working class must be understood, and actively unified, as one in the same.  Indeed, a perennial problem of student organizing, high turnover – engendering short-termist strategies and a tendency to not develop resilient infrastructure – is increasingly applicable to waged work and its post-Fordist recomposition.

The most effective response to these conditions is, I think, to draw on and meld the best of both the robust traditions of unionism, and the fluid, horizontalist practices adopted to suit conditions of precarity and popularized by the recent history of anti-austerity revolt.   These histories, and this collective imagination, though in some sense propelling and rejuvenated by the Labour project, is largely non-existent across most workplaces (with exceptions such as the SOAS Justice For Workers victory to bring all workers in-house among one of many notable examples).  A rupture in the neo-liberal consensus has indeed occurred, and this must be celebrated – but hope has not translated to the shopfloor, and without organized rank-and-file working-class militancy, the strategic vision developed to occupy this rupture cannot be realized.  With disproportionately young people leading canvassing efforts and voting for Labour, our role as workplace organizers must too be recaptured.

Most of those in the new cohort at Sainsbury’s are, of course, students ourselves – college, University, or recently graduated.  We see ourselves projected in the multitudes of students acclimatizing to their new-found independence, that excitement and apprehension invoked by thought of the novel academic, social and personal possibilities of university – what could be, what is, what was.  Mostly I see vague wisps of what should have been, if universities were the sites of transformation, exploration and discovery they now only aggressively market themselves to be.  I see glimpses of campaigns and dissent in which we collectively realized these values; realized something beyond a compulsion to desperately pursue every experience at university as an ‘opportunity’ to advance our careers in a ruthless labour market, as if HE institutions were merely training grounds in a battle with the looming spectre of debt; realized something beyond our state of owing, paying, toiling. Everything positive I found at university – love, community, empowerment – was wrenched from it in struggle, asserted despite and against it rather than because of it, wrested as concession rather than gift. I don’t want these students to go through what I and others went through.

I shouldn’t have to recall university mostly with pain, rent across by memories of oppressive harassment and abuse, to overbearing disillusionment with a course I undertook only for its job prospects, to episodes of panic as I struggled to reckon with the aftermath of traumatic police and security violence, to shedding flurries of tears as I approached exams in a haze of overwhelming stress, to those same floods of tears lamenting the convictions and community service levelled by the court for protesting against fees, to the doctor’s visit diagnosing my depression, to supporting friends through illness, self-harm, abuse and violence in the absence of professional infrastructure, etc.

Though our experiences are not homogeneous, these are all too common features of a Higher Education system aggressively oriented towards the interests of the market – which demands and engenders alienation, isolation, often unbearable academic and financial pressure, regimes of auditing and assessment, oppression, evisceration of support services and democracy and community, a sentence of debt, and preparation for an existence of professional drudgery and social submission. With suicide rates deplorably at their highest ever rate at universities, too many of us are haunted by recollections of university as the first time we were struck by the devastating desolation of suicidal thoughts, ideation and even attempts.  Too many of us have felt like we would never again experience happiness, in a place we were exhorted would be our home.  Too many of us have not made it.  So many have dropped out and temporarily withdrawn, unable to cope with the pressure.  This is a product of a social order in which hope is a luxury, ciphers in a brochure, artificial symbols of aspiration and acquisition to contend for and clamber towards through mires of debt.

It should not be this way.  It cannot be this way.  I don’t want to look into those students’ faces and see ghosts, shadows of loss and fractures of despair through which bitterness and jadedness whisper when co-workers ask me ‘how did you find your time at university?’.  I want to be happy for them.  I want to be excited for them.  I want adventure for them, possibility, worlds that support their collective flourishing and self-realization – just as I want that for every worker here who damn well deserves better than this, deserves better than a life at the mercy of bosses, toiling in unrewarding and arduous work, performance managed until our emotions and personalities are subsumed into the machinery of a faceless corporate persona, our dreams and potential untapped and sacrificed for the sake of the rich. A narrative which conceptualizes any of these problems as inevitable byproducts of the rigours of independence, or failings in individual resilience, is a callous one which can only serve to reproduce these problems.  It is a narrative that sanctions ailing public services, the voiding of collective empathy and solidarity, the prescription that we should be content with a regime underpinned by insecurity, anxiety and domination, in which most of us are exhausted and debilitated to the point of desperation.

I think back to the instances of joy at university – and hold to them, like moments of clarity and stillness amidst a cacophony of check-out beeps and barked orders from bosses.  They still linger on, in the infrastructures of political organization we’ve formed, the memories of struggle we’ve forged, the change we’ve catalysed on campus.  I am now largely uprooted from that certainty, that continuity, that collective strength, with many of my dearest friends and those with whom I started Warwick For Free Education disappeared to every corner of the country.  I like to hope that these are connections that span histories, transcend distance, can and have overcome any adversity.  Whether actively asserted and communicated as frequently, these connections have impacted me indelibly, changed how I carry myself, believe in myself, and care for others.  I never felt like I truly belonged anywhere before I found them.  And when I see the excitement gleam in those fresher’s eyes, it’s those contours I’ll see, silhouettes of tears dissolving into warm embraces and clasped hands and locked arms.  And I’ll remember not only the moments I thought I’d never know joy again, but the moments I knew joy more beautifully than I’d ever known it before.  And I’ll think: maybe even in this place, then, I can know it again, if we dare to fight. But it’s hard, harder in this place because there is no collective memory, no infrastructure, more regimentation and corresponding adaptation, and I barely know where to begin.

I don’t just want to remember: I want to see futures, realize them, rejoice in them, to feel hope for those throngs of freshers, for the workers around me, for myself.  We should settle for no less.  It is not entitlement to want more than this: we should feel entitled to more than this.  Through intentionally decimated expectations, constricted prospects, eclipsed political horizons, and neo-liberal individuation of responsibility, we have been coerced out of that understanding.  We are, I hope, beginning to reclaim sight of how much we need one another, and how much we ought to defend one another, and recognizing that things should be better than this.  They can be better than this.  They must be better than this.
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Happiness

I walked to work listening to Brand New

The first song’s automated voice and haunting refrain

Provoking me to wonder whether this was all there is

The torrential rain broke out on cue

Dousing a male uniform that will never fit

I’m branded and embalmed in that same maroon –

The tone that harbours so much pain –

As the thunder rages and screeches inside my veins

Like a distant and ubiquitous knell

That aches with each discordant swell

Like a siren imploring us to withdraw

And wait out the coming war

Like a portent as the sky weeps in ire

 

The trees provided some shelter

But then the leaves hold so much water

That when it did fall it drenched me through

 

But I still want to love, and felt the pendant closer

Against my sodden skin

That one we found on the market stalls of Brighton

When I told you I’d finally felt happiness again

And that the sea

Didn’t scare me so much anymore

About how it glistens and cradles despite its fury

About how beautiful it felt to finally find the shore

About how present and still I felt there

With you, as the tides gently lapped under

A tender sunset fire

And our laughter soared from the pier

In a bliss illuminated from the throes of fear

 

I’ve missed you, missed everyone

It’s felt like becoming unmoored once more

But I know you’re still close

As you tell me of the turquoise, shimmering waters in which you’ve swum

Whilst you’ve been away;

It’s a comfort just to know that you’ve been happy.

 

I sing the music we’ve rested to

Inflect these mechanical routines with vestiges of a melody

And reveries of your company

As I carry out their careless orders

Because I want to remember

That there has been more than this

That there will be more than this

That we’ve gathered together under

Those same trees

As we basked in a resplendent summer sun

That even when joy feels overcast and shorn

The sky still has horizons and memories

Beyond the storm

 

When I left work it was sunset

And I clutched the pendant tighter to my chest:

The sky was clearer, and beneath this uniform

I felt my skin tingle with warmth

And I thought of the ocean breeze

And how the water cascading from the trees

Could have drifted from that Brighton sea

That the path trudging through the storm is surer

Bolstered by thoughts of the fires we kindle together

Bound like mast and sail as we traverse these waters

Surfacing in this chorus called Happiness.

Clarity

Writing has always been important to me.  I remember, when I was younger, that I used to write religiously every night, exhausting notebook after notebook with angst-ridden stories. Looking back on them now – perhaps out of wistfulness, perhaps searching for common threads in a tangled mess of imagery, perhaps hoping, or wondering if, I had captured something in that naivety that was worth remembering – they are, as you would expect, somewhat embarrassing, shoddily constructed, overwrought, agonized, wandering, urgent, wayward, trite, earnest, lucid, unfocussed, dismal, brighter than much I would now dare to write.

Much of it was influenced by divorce, bullying, grief, alienation, song lyrics, the person and world I wanted to discover and actualize, a grasping for politics I had not yet found, a grappling with frameworks for understanding myself and for deciphering the complex, collective and unique experiences of anguish and joy.  It was always a world I felt comfortable withdrawing into, seeking refuge in, knowing that there might be warmth and consolation, if not answers.  It was usually crystallising and cathartic, sometimes frustrating, like trying to chase storms to their source – a certain curiosity it sated, a certain impulse for betterment and peace and clarity it fulfilled, but ultimately disorienting and steeped in an enveloping kind of chaos, a vertigo at the enormity of it all.

I’ll always remember the English teacher in Sixth Form that encouraged me to pursue writing.  Her disposition was that of a kind of disgruntled tenderness, a hardened and quietly tempestuous exterior belying an interior of intimate care and ardour: almost an embodiment of the writers she admired, as if she deeply inhabited the art and its personas channelled themselves through her.  She was infatuated with Byron, and adored the Romantic poets, and it was in no small part her passion for them that helped me fall in love with their artistry too.  I borrowed her personal version of a book comprising a selection of Shelley’s poems.  It was punctuated with her thoughtful commentary, notes and annotations – I can picture the arc of the handwriting still.  I always pondered why exactly she lent me that book – but I know I felt honoured, and that when I read it something profound shifted within me; sparks of lighting and fire struck, emblazoning the horizons of my imagination, weaving themselves into the most exceptional patterns.  Art, the world, and my conception of my place within it, were all transformed.

To this day, Shelley’s work is ineffably special to me – I found a sense of belonging in its scope, its intensity, its radicalism.  The memory of that teacher, who asserted I was a great writer, told me she was proud of me when the fragments of my home struggled to piece sentiments of affection together, and hugged me when I won a poetry prize, is even more special to me.  I remember how much I admired her, and how her reciprocation of that admiration was an immense blessing, and still is.  That memory still bolsters me, and I want to honour it, dedicate the space to it that it deserves.  She not only nurtured my writing, but – like no one else really had – instilled me with the faith that I had something important to say, and that I should have the faith in myself to say it.  She compelled me to continue writing at a point where I needed it most.  I wonder if she’d still be proud of me, whether one day she’ll read anything I write, how she’s doing, whether she’d have ever counted on me to become the rebel I always suspected her to be. I think she’d probably assert that all good writers should flout the rules.

I find myself often struggling to feel as connected to writing as I did in my younger years. One might say it’s the erosions and trappings of life, depression and adversity.  After all, hardship can harbour with it an urgency to seek out catharsis, yes, but it can also deprive of creativity, leach of vitality, erode one’s faith that such virtues as clarity or hope are possible.  Depression eclipses and blunts emotion, withers memory, eviscerates self-worth – only the most romantic depictions of the illness could render it as a source of inspiration when mostly it just amounts to a kind of unforgiving emptiness, a desperate dread that the world is bereft and everyday life is an unsurvivable, unbearable and drudging ordeal.

I think, most of all, though, I’m scared to write.  I think I was always a little scared, because it was important to me and I didn’t want to fail, I didn’t want to fuck it up, I didn’t want to commit something to paper and discover one of the very few things I believed in and was told I was good at didn’t measure up, didn’t amount to anything, didn’t mean much to anyone.  But I mostly wrote for myself, for my own closure and catharsis.  Why did the world need to see it for it to be important?  Why couldn’t I just write unshackled from the weight of those expectations?

The answer, I guess, is clear: writing, truly good writing, is a communion, a dialogue, an exercise in empathy.  It becomes a collective phenomenon, begins to offer a means to reshape the world rather than just observe its motions and vicissitudes, when it is shared, communicated, explored, when it no longer consigns itself to monologues, when the world rather than solely one’s thoughts become its theatre, when the cast and audience expand and narratives of histories and futures manifest.  Stories are how we trace the world, trace worlds we’ve known and yet to know, trace promises of something better and different.  They are one of the most intimate expressions of the inner self as we seek out meaning and purpose in that world.

And that, I think, is part of the reason for my fear: if what is written here is the most undiluted expression of who I am, what if it is unworthy?  What if it is indulgent, equivocating, cynical, lacking, uninteresting, harmful, even selfish?  What if I can never do justice to the significance of the topics that I want to explore – what if I’m missing something, if I never get it right?  What if it my thoughts never translate as I wish them to?  What if some things just cannot be articulated or reasoned through?  What if I look back on this blog in the future and am ashamed of it?  What if people I admire the most are disappointed in it?  What if I can’t write like I used to, if I’ve lost something?  What if I’m reaching for something I’ll never find?

I’ve found myself returning to previous blog posts frequently, agonizing for days over their content, editing over and over again, in the most difficult moments even feeling an impulse to erase them, purge them from the plane of the public, withdraw back into the safety of shelter rather than risk the vicissitudes of the weather.  When it just feels like you’re getting drenched and you haven’t seen so much as a glimmer of lightning in a long time, the horizons start to blur, the worlds you’re trying to create seem to become eroded and mired in fog, and you wonder if the lightning is just in some other part of the world that you can’t reach.

After all, writing begins from a premise that you do indeed have something important and unique to say, that your voice deserves to be listened to.  This is an assertion I’ve always found difficult to come to terms with.  We all have a story to tell, but I’ve always struggled to imagine mine needed or deserved space.  I think a lot of us probably feel that way, and that this doubt is in part a result of how power functions in our society: our collective stories wrought into the mould and narrative of dominant ideology, assimilated and smouldering, our creativity sublimated, our autonomy repressed, our collectivity shattered, our dignity ensnared and besieged by the trappings of profit and domination.

But it is, of course, not simply a political question – though one wonders where the separation resides.  Much could be written of the contours of that separation.  In part, I started this blog to reclaim some of my personal voice.  It’s deeply inflected by politics, of course – the very name of the blog is a bit of a give away in that sense.  But politics, though useful in articulating a theoretical framework which connects personal experience to broader forces, was never quite enough to figure through grief, loss, especially death.

I found myself increasingly frustrated when trying to write about these things, resorting to vague and wavering metaphors, agonizing over the irrationalities and tensions, tormented by not only the pain but the very fact that I could not find peace.  It’s one of the reason I harked back to my old notebooks, wondering if my younger self had any lucid insights, perhaps trying to reconcile my current self with a persona that had not known as much pain, one that was not so lost and submerged.  How do you render the dimensions of those experiences?  How do you render any of this adequately, enough to honour memory, care, hopelessness, shame, love, enough to reckon with the fear and gravity and complexity, enough that you might finally be able to let go?

I don’t have an answer for that.  Perhaps I never will.  These stories are always evolving, as we change, as the world around us does. Words are not intended as blueprints, but, I think, an initiation of a conversation – with pain, with history, with possibility. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that through these stories we can begin to not only cautiously map out some of the vastness of the world, but make some imprint on it, offer some guidance to ourselves and one another.

I often feel envious that my favourite music artists can better capture my emotions than I could ever hope to, that I could never be so clear-sighted or eloquent, but I think to conceptualize it in the terms of competition would be misguided.  The very best song lyrics are not only the simplest ones, but those that speak to a certain commonality of experience, that venture to expose conversations that are repressed and marginalized, that question and challenge and search rather than presume simple conclusions, that at once acknowledge and reckon with the rigours of the world but also assert our agency in it.  Writing is an often painful process because it is an act of reclaiming voice, asserting one’s place in an often vicious world, trying to forge something complete and grounded out of an infinitely messy reality, exposing oneself to judgement and misinterpretation, and bracing ourselves against our most grievous insecurities.  It is a process wracked always by the dissonance between ideation and realization, and the doubt of how much should be uncovered or revealed.

It’s said you should write about what scares you, and writing is one of the things that scares me.  But, despite this, I still feel an urge to write: to try to encapsulate that feeling of electrified euphoria that courses through the crowd at a gig, to try to process the impossible enigmas of grief and loss, to try to understand the world, to express stories in the hope that others might find something in it, that I might.  I think there’s something worthwhile in that, and I hope that feeling doesn’t wither away, and I hope that every time I write I’m confronting my fears, reaching somewhat closer to some kind of answer, some kind of conclusion, contributing something to this ever-charged and ever-developing network of conversations with the world and each other, like a criss-cross of flares set off from shipwrecks, cast less like meteors to cauterize the rifts in one another’s horizons but more like sparks scattered to let others know we’re out there and we’re struggling too.  Sometimes that feels like the closest we can get to lightning, but it’s something.

There is, I hope, something significant in daring to ask the questions, even knowing that, ultimately, maybe all of this is just too chaotic, complicated and immense to make sense of.  There is, I hope, some worth to weaving the kind of stories that attempt to kindle something, articulate our vulnerability, and bind us together despite the throes we wade through. There is, I hope, some hope to find here, some clarity, some story worth telling.  

In Defence of Munroe Bergdorf

The treatment of Munroe Bergdorf has been atrocious. In what is insidiously a habit for them, the Daily Mail have latched on to, distorted and sensationalized the analysis of racism she outlined on a personal Facebook post to engage in their usual character assassination of marginalized people and their slander of anyone who speaks out against oppression. L’Oreal then, under pressure from the public outcry against Bergdorf incited and rallied by the routine bigotry of the Daily Mail, arbitrarily terminated their contract with Bergdorf, after recruiting her on the ostensible grounds of ‘inclusion and diversity’, self-indulgently co-opting the language of liberation and – as usual – instrumentalizing the lives of trans people and people of colour to bolster their brand and image.

This is a clear indication of 1) ‘inclusion and diversity’ being a tokenistic marketing ploy with no actual substance 2) the hyper-exploitative and precarious labour relations to which trans women of colour are subject 3) bosses disciplining and firing anybody that has the audacity to publicly disagree with their vision of the world and 4) the very white supremacy Bergdorf was critiquing in action – the viciously racist and transphobic mainstream media and capitalist institutions grossly smearing her character, caricaturing her stance, and publicly assailing her for simply identifying racism in society. The racist and transphobic backlash Bergdorf has received for her comments has been especially deplorable, with people who were apparently so horrified by being held accountable for any kind of complicity with white supremacy feeling perfectly content to attack Bergdorf with racist slurs, degrading remarks and even rape and death threats.  Naturally, this only provided credence to the point Bergdorf was trying to make.

Whiteness is bound up with sensibilities of nostalgic moral purity, a sense of entitlement to not be challenged in our racial worldview, and a vicious kind of defensive aggrievement when someone interrogates skewed and racialized power arrangements – it operates such that even those who distance themselves psychologically from those structures can still benefit from, participate in and enable them through our actions or silence. Despite loudly in an uproar proclaiming ‘we are not racists or bigots, Bergdorf is really the bigot for generalizing us like that’, hordes of white internet trolls managed to generate enough pressure to help incentivise L’Oreal to fire their first ever black trans model, thus continuing to cement those disparities in power and resources.

It’s interestingly paradoxical that some people are seemingly so invested in distancing themselves from bigotry that they care more about personal moral absolvement than properly enacted institutional bigotry as a black trans woman is fired in a manner propped up by this very distanciation. After all, it’s the same strain of logic that draws equivalences between Antifa and Neo-Nazis – that people who aggressively challenge bigotry are really of the same moral fibre as the bigots themselves, that holding someone to account for bigotry is somehow a kind of policing and control resembled ultimately by how bigots act and behave.  Such false equivalences diminish systems of oppression into a series of discursive infractions, psychological attitudes and personal dispositions, reconceptualising oppression as more a mode of conduct than a material infrastructure.  It shouldn’t be especially controversial that we all harbour oppressive biases as a result of our being influenced by and participating in a deeply oppressive society, and that these micro and macro forces are intertwined and mutually reinforcing – the kind of reproach invited by interrogating this is clearly a technique deployed to deflect such critique and solidify power relations as they exist. When a trans woman of colour levels such a critique, this reproach is especially acute.

It’s bizarre, but unsurprising, that people are coming forwards with the tired rhetoric of ‘the left are hysterical snowflakes clinging to safe spaces, casting out and writing off anyone they disagree with as bigots’ in response to Bergdorf’s comments (a wholly bankrupt rhetoric and knee-jerk nonsense peddled out whenever reactionaries want to delegitimize the left) but don’t recognize the dissonance between that and supporting an arrangement of power whereby corporations and the media are enabled to punish, dispossess and dismantle anyone who upsets the status quo. Corporations want safe spaces for their bottom line and the media for their bigotry, and anything which disrupts that is censored, repressed and penalized.  Such institutional processes always level themselves at the expense of the marginalized in society – possessing a force that decimates those people’s material wellbeing and lives.  The Daily Mail – the paper which historically supported the Nazis, no less – publishes virulent, inflammatory and abominable articles about migrants, Muslims and black communities regularly, and with impunity, imitating and fuelling the racist rhetoric which dominates the formal political arena – but Bergdorf expresses a sentiment that punches up rather than down and that is sufficiently unconscionable to justify her being fired.

Because that’s really the key difference here – Bergdorf expressed frustration with power structures in society and was fired from her job as a result of it, whereas white people are under no material threat from the comments she made because the dominant institutions in Western society uphold nativism, nationalism and racism.  Trans women of colour, particularly when they are poor, experience the most acute kind of street-level violence from predominantly white men – the demographic statistics for murders of TWOC are egregiously high.  The deployment of transphobic slurs and racist microaggressions occurs in a broader social context, reinforcing a cultural designation of inferiority which justifies and legitimizes such acts of violence.  When Bergdorf describes a reality of systemic racism and how that reality has been internalized by dominant races, this is distorted into an assertion of the inherent malice of white people (such misrepresentations, again, being useful deflection techniques, often segueing into gaslighting and victim-blaming so as to displace the onus of fault from oppressor to oppressed) – but, even if Bergdorf were being malicious towards white people as a group, it would be an abstract attack on the forms of domination we uphold, not a material attack on our resources and lives.  Not only would this be a very legitimate expression of anger given the circumstances that trans women of colour endure daily, consistently bracing themselves against the possibility of violence from white men – but to try to qualify bigotry and anger with bigots as the same is demonstrably ludicrous. Having one’s socio-economic advantage challenged is not the same as oppression; losing the right to dominate with impunity is not the same as being dominated.

Such equivalences lack any analysis of history or power – which is why it meshes seamlessly with the corporate framework of ‘diversity’ that is fundamental to justifying Bergdorf being fired, because this framework leaves the underlying structures of resource and power distribution uninterrogated and firmly intact, projecting a model of the world where bigotry has been materially overcome and marginalized identities just need further aesthetic representation to complete the trajectory of progress, where the playing field has been levelled out and therefore anyone has a fair shot and is now fair game for discrimination.  This model is clearly wrong-headed – and how it simply serves and entrenches existing power relations has been demonstrated acutely by the maltreatment of Bergdorf, thus confirming its moral and intellectual bankruptcy.  Assuming neutrality on an uneven terrain is, certainly, an act of complicity, because it accommodates these power relations and glosses over the conflicts, ideologies and injustices which underpin them.  We would, I think, do well to be offended more by the evil itself than in someone attributing some complicity in that evil to us.

I felt the urge to write this post after witnessing a lot of ‘progressives’ seemingly being very reluctant to condemn L’Oreal and support Bergdorf.  This was usually justified on the grounds of ‘what she said was alienating and an example of identity politics’, ‘she’s well-off and representing an exploitative brand like L’Oreal so it doesn’t really matter’, ‘what she espouses is just toothless, individualistic celebrity activism’ or, at worst, ‘what she said is anti-white racism’.  The latter point is not even worth engaging with – it’s clearly absurd, and symbolic of a left that is concessionary on and doesn’t make the effort to properly understand and address race in our politics.  But all of them, largely, I think, miss the point entirely – a trans woman of colour tried to initiate a conversation on white supremacy and was viciously shut down by corporations and the press.   I’m not suggesting we can level no critique of her politics, but I think this is a matter of priorities, time, setting, and sensitivity.  Standing behind Bergdorf against the hordes of racist aggressions besieging her should, surely, be at the forefront of our approach, but this seems a ground we are all too willing to concede.

I have my critiques of identity and privilege politics, but I don’t think that’s the key tension here – I think, if anything, the way the world has reacted to her statements and the way the left has been so reluctant to express solidarity are illuminating as to why identity politics has been fostered over the years: as a response to a world that is callously and very publicly hostile towards oppressed people, especially when they voice discontent or anger, and more internally to rectify the pitfalls of the left in not robustly addressing issues of liberation.  The other points – on ‘celebrity activism’ and its varieties – I think also gesture towards a zero-sum game we sometimes play on the left which exalts marginality, disdains the significance of popular culture, misplaces the blame for the grassroots left’s position of weakness (it’s not the fault of identity politics), engages in economic reductionism, and abstracts away from existing material conditions.

I think Bergdorf was very brave to so publicly voice disaffection with a corporation like L’Oreal – she raised important critiques despite knowing the consequences and that should be lauded.  People who are outspoken on liberation within the dominant institutions of society serve to help normalize a discussion of these tensions and issues, and – though we can critique its shortcomings – I think that should be celebrated.  Yes, I do ultimately think that it is only through the working classes properly organizing ourselves into a mass collective force that we can fundamentally alter society – but we need to be prepared to have these difficult conversations about division and oppression if we are to reach that point, rather than subtly condoning the most powerful capitalist institutions shutting down such a conversation.

Solidarity with Bergdorf.

Fragile

Life is so fragile. Make sure those you care for know how loved and cherished they are. Tomorrows can be so capriciously and cruelly wrested from us – so it’s paramount we express to friends, comrades and partners what they mean to us today, whenever we get the chance, always. Ultimately, it’s our care for one another that makes more tomorrows – more hopeful tomorrows – possible, and that structures meaning into the relentless vicissitudes of the world. Sometimes little of any of this makes sense, with the discord and turmoil of it all overwhelming, and the scale of the feeling that our lives are threaded together by the mere frailty of chance daunting.  But I’m reminded, even amidst the most terrible of circumstances, that there’s something extraordinary and ineffably important to hold on to in the bonds we share with one another.

Graduation

Graduation day, for me, is more an emblem of the past than the future.  I attended the graduation of my older sibling a long time ago and after enduring the tedium, the artificiality, the ostentation of it all, I was pretty determined not to attend my own. For the most part I’ve always perceived it as an exclusive, grandiose and anachronistic ritual through which parents could finally witness the (almost necessarily cynical) aspirations they sought to embody in their children vicariously bear fruit. I always thought of it as a chore, an exercise in sitting restlessly through tired platitudes about ‘journeys’ and ‘the next chapter’ and ‘ambition’ expressed by self-aggrandizing managers and bureaucrats on obscene salaries, who do and have done many an unscrupulous and venal thing to clamber up the sordid ladders of capitalist society.

It feels somewhat like a coronation in atmosphere, as if we are processions of loyal subjects queuing up to be graciously bequeathed a gift by the array of aristocrats and professionals donning extravagant gowns lined up on stage at the front – stages reserved for orientation speeches, ceremonies, gatherings of honoured guests, where the curtains open and close and conceal beneath all the splendour what actually happens here. You get the sense that even the esteemed individuals delivering the speeches don’t much believe in what they’re saying, nebulously appealing to notions of ‘society’ and ‘community’ and ‘tackling pressing global issues’ whilst in their own institutions presiding over declining wages for academics, slashed paid breaks for cleaners, desperately underfunded mental health services, and relentless attacks on working conditions. It’s why this rhetoric of aspiration really rings hollow – especially in this vast, coldly-lit, adorned theatre, the stage like a distant altar at which dissenting thought, passion and justice are nominally extolled and gracefully sacrificed.

We’ve all been waiting for this moment, right? This is why we clawed our way here through depression, trauma, obstacles and adversity: for this curtain call, drawn down finally with glory and pride and closure. In a way, they were right: it’s a fitting end to a process of higher education that has become more and more performance to serve the ends of the rich of this society, a reminder of the history and legacy of universities as institutions of the elite. Of course, universities are much more job factory than sites simply in which the ruling classes and technocratic elites reproduce themselves now, much more bound up with training skilled professionals than channeling elites into parliamentary and managerial positions – but you get the sense of ossified tradition here, a carefully choreographed set of proceedings designed to convince us that this place and the debt-ridden chase of phantasmal, degree-ticketed wages are altogether more noble than perhaps we would otherwise believe them to be. The meritocratic myth seeps through proceedings, that we can all be our own boss and should indeed want to be, micromanaging our time and our lives to best serve the ends of individual success and acquisition. It’s still this acting out of hierarchies, this preservation of a mythology of universities as distinguished and enlightened sites of knowledge and development and not deeply authoritarian, exploitative and ruthless institutions embedded in the barbaric projects of imperialism and neo-liberalism.

This is what we worked so hard for, right? That gilded piece of paper finally in our grasp like a trophy, proof and evidence of our ambition, conviction, and capability – our education an illustrious commodity purchased and earned to rent out to the bosses of this world, to vaunt on our CVs as a quantification of our accomplishment and self-worth. I understand why people want to attend graduation – especially those who have struggled the most. It would be unbecoming of me to deny that we deserve to feel pride for our achievements. But – perhaps because I am profoundly, intransigently unambitious – my mind lingers on those who had to drop out because of mental health problems, who failed because of personal difficulties and hardships, or who could never even attend university in the first place. It lingers on those who have had to retake or have been awarded degrees that apparently don’t deserve ceremonies like this, or who have been informed last-minute that they can’t attend because of outstanding fees. It lingers on all those under-remunerated, exploited, precarious, alienated workers who only get to see this stage in the capacity of cleaning up the dirt of aristocrats and professionals who would deport them without remorse if it served their business projects. It lingers on all those the spotlight excludes, all those who have struggled with little to no support throughout their degree, who have bled and cried to reach this day but to no avail. The margins are firmly reinforced around these rites, and so many should be here who aren’t.

To so many this will be like a banquet after a war or a celebration of finally being rid of this place and all its alienation. To some it’ll be a bittersweet commemoration of one of the best times of their lives finally passing. Maybe that’s why I was kind of sad upon receiving the email saying that because I hadn’t yet been awarded a degree my place at graduation would be cancelled. Not because I ever wanted this, but because I damn wanted that opportunity to not shake Croft’s hand, to not stand for the national anthem, because for all its artificiality and pomp at least there was an illusion that this moment was one to remember, one to feel pride in, one that was ours. This university affords us so few moments of revelry and I swear just for a moment I wanted to see my family smiling and proud of me again, a moment of normality, a respite from the battles we’ve all had to fight, the chimes of celebration signalling that this has all come to a close, that we’ve finally been victorious, and that maybe it is in our power to do great and exceptional things. However artificial, I wanted to take that moment and relish it for all it was worth – because for all the time I’ve been here it’s felt like Warwick has not even performed the principles and virtues it waxes so lyrical about and every day has felt like a struggle. It wasn’t about the ‘distinguished’ speeches, it wasn’t about the ceremony or the rites, about the feeling of eminence and prestige – but a feeling of triumph.  I’m sad that I’m not sadder to leave this place.

Someone once told me that closure is a fairytale, anyway.  It’s clear neo-liberalism sells us lots of myths to obscure the brutal realities of its functioning. I think I’ll remember university not for the story it mapped out for us and expected us to tread, but for the narratives we forged with occupations, with protests, with dissent, with real community, with a real sense of belonging and camaraderie. All this university’s extravagant, hollow spectacles couldn’t even begin to emulate that feeling of empowerment and affirmation in seizing and repurposing corporate space on campus, collectively confronting injustice, finding real friendship, affection and compassion to heal all the cracks alienation has wrought across our lives. We haven’t been spectators, but have grittily done everything in our power to change things.

I’m proud not of what I’ve done to subordinate and advance myself as a ‘paying customer’ and ’employable graduate’ but everything we’ve done to resist that logic, everything we’ve learned, every moment of resistance and adversity and solidarity. I’m proud of disobeying, acting out, surviving. I’m proud of the communities we’ve created, the bonds and alliances we’ve forged, the strength we’ve found. I’m proud of the drop-outs, the undesirables, the troublemakers, the professional agitators. I’m proud not of what this university has granted us as ‘consumers’, but everything we’ve created and discovered and reclaimed as collective social agents. I won’t remember the moments I’ve been in the audience and witnessed the ceremonies play out, but rather every time we’ve spoken out, stormed the stage, sabotaged the charade with blazes of banners and choruses of chants.

It’s a story that’s not simulated, that’s not perfect, that’s not proofread, that’s not reputable, that can’t be packaged. But it’s mine, and it’s ours, and I believe in it.

Power

I’ve seen that enraged expression before

Felt the violence it harbours

That predatory, baleful glare

Scrutinizing points of vulnerability

As you begin to intimidate me and snarl

And I’m already on the defence

Ever vigilant, ever tense

Braced for the raised fist, the shove, the slur

Jarred from conflict to conflict

 

I’ve seen you clad in black vests

Bearing riot shields and handcuffs

Erupting in sparks of tasers

Surging forth in barrages of batons

Stalking through mists of CS gas

Displacing and dispossessing and devastating

 

I’ve seen you in fascists marching the streets

Hurling bottles, punches, venomous vitriol

Phalanxes of cops guarding your ranks

Guaranteeing your safety

Until the lines mingle and blur

‘Facilitating’ – participating in – your strategy

To control the streets through force

Police lights coalescing into brandished union jacks

 

I’ve seen you command the spaces of buses and trains

With disapproving glares

Scornful sneers

Cruel and degrading remarks

Belligerently reminding us that we are other

Unwelcome, a pestilence, lesser

Weak and decadent and impostor

Deviant to be punished

Malfunction of nature to be forcibly cured

Legitimate target to be preyed upon

For nation, for pride, for power

 

I see you in flags still casting a shroud

Over occupied and colonized lands

I see you in glacial prison cells

Devoid of humanity and compassion

I see you in love, manipulated and contorted

Into another territory to be conquered, another weapon.

 

I’ve seen that expression as police descended

And bludgeoned us with a grin.

I’ve seen it reflected in handcuffs

Seared into damaged wrists.

I’ve seen it etched in scars

That overlap until I cannot trace the contours

And I blame my fragility and recklessness.

 

I want to wear an eyeliner that doesn’t feel stained

I want to construct myself

Out of more than fragments of pain.

I want more of a choice than

To be either martyr or coward.

 

I want to do more than wait on guard

Railing against the shadows

Desperate for those moments clustered around campfires:

The smoke gathers and advances upon forbidding mires

As we find ourselves amidst loss and disrepair

In retreat even as we earnestly stand our ground

Recalling the lost, tending to the injured

And never truly recovering

With even triumph a prelude to mourning.

 

I fear every crack is a fissure

And dare not wonder how deeply they course

How this hurt engraves itself and lingers.

I see you everywhere

Every quarter claimed

Encircled, until I police myself

And remember my place

Extinguish everything

Outside your reign.

Vote Labour

I’m tired of seeing benefits cruelly revoked from friends that can’t work due to ill health, punished by callous and degrading bureaucracies that relegate peoples’ lives to a set of criteria and a scoreboard determining whether they deserve to survive or not. I’m tired of feeling desperately helpless in not being able to support friends who have been failed again and again by underfunded, overstretched, under-equipped, slashed-to-the-core mental health services with unconscionably long waiting lists. I’m tired of dreading that there’s days I or those close to me might not make it through, overcome by the feeling that it’s just too damn hard to carry on in the wake of the political, social and economic turmoil wrought by the Tories, where fear, despair and drudgery are the routine and inevitable order of things.

I’m tired of a neo-liberal system of university which is more and more transaction, job preparation, commodity to be consumed, a sentence of debt, corporate discipline and crushing alienation that we become increasingly desperate to escape, rather than a place of transformation and dissent.  I’m tired of waiting for scarce, ruthlessly-competed-over, under-remunerated, precarious, dismal jobs with no protections or rights, atomized and isolated, encumbered by debt and dejection, anticipating that mechanical response of ‘your application has been unsuccessful’ hundreds of times if they care enough to reply at all. I’m tired of hearing my mum’s strained voice on the end of the phone as she recounts the daily indignities of work in a call-centre, with conditions becoming more and more draconian, workers more and more micromanaged, treated as more and more disposable, falling more and more ill, or worse, due to stress and pressure.

I’m tired of seeing the fear and fatigue etched in nurses’ features as they survey severely overcrowded A&E waiting rooms, realizing some will be waiting upwards of ten hours before they can see a doctor regardless of the pain they’re in, regardless of whether they’re crying out, bleeding profusely, struggling to breathe. I’m tired of speaking to people of evictions they’re enduring by vicious and rapacious landlords despite suffering from severe mental health problems – these very problems often resulting from or exacerbated by grinding poverty, by sanctions, by insecure work.

I’m tired of being too damn burned out to even grapple with politics anymore because it feels like such a forlorn struggle against impossible odds. I’m tired of the nights isolated in my room because I barely have the will to confront the world anymore. I’m tired of feeling disconnected from everyone, tired of friends struggling and suffering needlessly, tired of the routines of panic, trauma and tragedy. I’m tired of seeing lives, their potential, dignity, freedom, disintegrating like this and sacrificed at the altar of the free market so an elite can prosper.

I implore you to vote Labour tomorrow, if you’re tired too, if you’re scared or angry – even if it’s just for that glimmer of a promise that things can be different and better than this, that renewed if fragile possibility that things don’t have to be this way. I need to believe in that. I want to believe in that.

Waiting

I know how dangerous the undertow can be

And that you’re the kind of person

Who would dive headlong into a maelstrom

If there was a chance you might be able to rescue someone

 

I saw you in the colour of the stranger’s maroon dress

That grievous night of waiting

Steeped in the water’s depths,

Frozen in catastrophe

Fragmented memories of dancing

Scattered amidst the furies of the rain and wind

Fibres of fabric fraying

Unravelling and spiralling

Their dreams of splendour and passion

Dashed upon the rocks

Flurried steps capsizing into oblivion

Words washed off worn scripts

As we floundered, choked, panicked

Desperately casting out cords

Hoping something might catch

Clambering with dread

Into the crowded, punctured lifeboat

All our frantic efforts to keep it steady lacking

Terrified the glacial cold would set in

Before we reached the shore

Doubting, even, that there was a shore at all

Helplessly waiting

As reapers patrolled and shrieked overhead

And encircled us in shadow

 

I thought back to that day you said you liked the colour:

It was animated as I watched you draw

With the gentle tones of watercolour

As the rain pattered the window

And tender soundscapes ensconced us

On those afternoons when we didn’t mind so much

That the clouds had shrouded the sun

And the colours had fled from the sky

When you could invigorate every last one

With the tip of your pencil.

 

These recollections were adrift

Amidst haze and sea foam

As I watched the maroon bleed from the dress

And some part of me wished

You could have been there to repaint it

 

I wondered whether I would ever see

This colour in the same light again

I wondered just how many stories a hue can hold

When here beauty just feels like a stain

I wondered how many tragedies

A frame can endure before it unfolds

 

That’s why I didn’t call

Even though I thought about it

For every agonizing minute

Because I don’t want to expect you

To repair these withered seams

To ensure these nightmares

All transform into dreams

To bear these sodden clothes

With you everywhere

 

I’m so tired of seeing those I love

Devoured by the waves

Yet we must persevere

As if goodwill alone could save us

Huddling as we wait for the cracks to give way

 

Know I thought of you

In every lurch of the boat:

All that kept me afloat

Was knowing you were not sinking too

And all that steadied my hands

As they trembled from the cold

Was the thought of them clasped

Someday again in yours

Communion

You said you saw a feather fall from the sky

And that it reminded you of him

That it was a sign he was okay

Maybe even in a better place

That it descended from heaven

From his gentle and majestic wings.

 

I dismissed it as coincidence,

As just another shift in the wind,

With a bitterness I regret.

For what are these poems

But an attempt to seek communion

And truce with that which has faded

And will not fade?

 

I wish I could believe what you said

And I wish sometimes that you didn’t

Because there is no glory, no elegance, in death

Only desolation, and oblivion, and tears shed

In the throes of pain and mourning.

 

I’m scared that you cling

To this like a desperate vision

Of release, as if hope can only ever be a relic

And that you only believe in heaven

Because of despair that we cannot change the present

As if these conditions of oppression

Are some twisted celestial plan

And we must acquiesce to drudging toil and suffering

As some virtue, as inexorable and meaning something

As if a test restituted by some future redemption

As if compassion were some barb-wired bargain.

 

But I sometimes wonder whether dreams of salvation

Are that different from thoughts of revolution.

Maybe we’re all just waiting

Under the reign of spectres

Invoking barriers and illusions

To soften their sting.

 

So I hope you see more cascading feathers

And I’ll keep writing

Both hoping that angels can deliver us from here

And envelop the perished with their wings

Hoping we can soar, and surge amongst clouds, and sing

A hymn which soothes the roar of the wind

Hoping, praying, that there is something more than this