On occupation, trauma and hope: beyond the politics of withdrawal

I never believed that we would win.  We practice guardedness, cautiousness, cynicism – so accustomed are we to the ruthless motions of oppression and defeat – to steel ourselves against the inevitability of loss, to provide a defence mechanism against the acute disappointment of unanswered hope.  We never expect to win, but at best to desperately cling on to that which makes our lives bearable in this terrible world, so invulnerable do the forces we oppose seem, so cruel and without mercy.  Maybe that’s why this still feels so surreal.  We’ve fought for so long, and all those defeats, all those hardships, all those lessons have converged and culminated here, finally, in victory for the Warwick occupation.

Maybe that’s why it’s difficult to process, and to register.  Maybe I fear that acceptance signals a collective forgetting of that which we have struggled through to reach this point, a forgetting of that which we have lost, who we have lost; that it entails a performance of closure or reconciliation concealing and belying the deep scars that still afflict us; that an imaginary will emerge where we believe that one direct action, as if spontaneously arising, permeated and fuelled by an atmosphere of intoxicating excitement, will surge forth in a healing deluge sufficient to mend these cracks.

After all, what happened 2 years ago, on Dec 3rd 2014, for most people in that space, was a reel on a documentary, a distant and appalling phenomenon requiring a certain reflexive expression of grief.  I felt myself suspended in stasis as I watched myself, projected on the screen of the Slate, being wrenched to the floor by those monsters again, worlds of memory and history colliding with and grafting over a precisely choreographed present, looking upon myself as a person I should have recognized but didn’t, and couldn’t.  Not because I regret what I did, but because I have inhabited the trauma of that moment for years, because a part of myself was shattered there, because I’m not sure whether this is just another nightmare punctuated by flashbacks or if I’m in the courtroom under the judge’s glacial gaze or if I’m lying in the darkness of my room feverish with fear as the #CopsOffCampus demo rages and I don’t get my revenge.

That trauma defines and frames and cloaks everything, coalescing into a backdrop of treacherous and shadowy terrain, an ambience of screams and cries, a lingering and suffocating smog, that is at once forcefully present and dislocatingly remote, both a source of intimate pain and a kind of political memorial erected amongst dark ravines.  We bear witness from afar, fearful of getting too close, skirting around the ridges and clefts and desolation.  We mention, and gesture, attend as if in formal tribute, but are careful not to delve too much, wary not to explore or to say too much, respecting the silence, the imperceptible, raucous whisper of ghosts.  They assert that what we have won is meaningless in this broader background of malfeasance and decay, and that it will never make up for what we have lost.  Still they haunt us.  It’s why I departed immediately after the Our University screening, why I was literally shaking with panic after getting home from the Yarlswood demo having been hurt by riot police.

Activism is hard.  It is gritty.  It is sometimes painful.  It is bound up with risk and sacrifice.  We have a tendency to evade this conversation, rather than honestly confront it.  We recognize that the institutions and structures we are opposing are prepared to hold on to their power by any means necessary.  Herein lies the logic of direct action: we disrupt and cost them so much that they are forced to reconsider their position, and reassess their decisions.  It would be amiss to not recognize that war is being waged – often implicitly, but sometimes, when necessary, overtly – in the course of a logic where it is not democratic or moral deliberation which determines governance, but the brutal, depersonalizing abstract of commercial calculation.

Values of society, community, the public good, are surrendered at its altar, as personal principle and volition are overwhelmed by, redirected and managed by market pressures.  It’s why the apology about Dec 3rd was never about reconciliation, or closure, or finding common ground – we have no common ground with management, whoever that management might be, because their agency is dictated by the market.  We have mutually opposing and fundamentally conflicting sets of interests.  Of course, there are real differences in political outlooks between Thrift and Croft – but, after all, Croft was still prepared to silently push approval for these reforms through the governance structures of the University, without so much as a whimper of protest, if we had not forced his hand by targeting and disrupting the financial channels of the university.  This is not someone who is on our side.

The apology was about embarrassing them, exposing chinks in the armour of their well-oiled, immaculate marketing persona and nauseating propaganda machinery. It was about causing ruptures and highlighting contradictions.  It was to break the silence of what ‘we have to make difficult decisions’ really means, that this is not a language of absolution, not a calculated declaration of innocence, but of complicity.  Because ‘neutrality’ is not the goal – that indicates a ‘common sense’ which levels out the capabilities of violence and social positionalities of students and police, invoking imaginaries of even ground in a world of obstacles, pitfalls and asymmetries.  Just because some manage to leap over the cracks doesn’t mean the cracks aren’t there, and that people won’t be left behind.  Forgetting people is unconscionable.

Forgiveness demands an expectation of rectification, a substantive change in behaviour, a commitment to compassion.  Capital is incapable of making that commitment.  We will not forgive, nor forget.  We cannot.  Too many have fallen, not just in that foyer in Senate House, not just on that day – but to underfunded and overstretched mental health services; to extortionately priced, low quality or non-existent accommodation; to relentless overwork; to precarity and poor working conditions; to disempowerment, to alienation, to borders, to violence.  This terrain has all the wearings and marks of a battleground – it’s why there’s Dassault Systems offices residing comfortably in the luxury of Riley Court.  We’re exhausted from individually clawing and fighting and barely clinging on.

In that occupied space, collectively, we weren’t just clinging on.  We had control.  It was ours.  It was affirming and liberating and empowering.  But it was not exempt or abstracted from the power structures of the University – it was an intervention in them.  It pushed at structural boundaries but could not in and of itself fundamentally reconstitute them through prefiguration alone.  It actualized a microcosm of more equitable and emancipatory social dynamics, the practicing of a different set of values and interactions to those which underpin the everyday functioning of the university.  It provided relief from the imposition of its power structures, solace from its routines of alienation, competition and marginalization, forging a robust community in a space from which we would conventionally be excluded, seizing it from corporate clientele and repurposing it as an open, inclusive, democratic and cooperative educational space.  It enabled us to continue challenging and deconstructing implicit biases, prejudices and oppressive patterns of behaviour we have internalized in the process of acting within, and being acted upon by, an oppressive world.

This is incredibly significant – we must cherish and defend contexts in which we can envision and enact alternative social formations, ideas and practices, in which we can regroup and seek refuge from the exploitation and structural violence levelled upon us by the world, in which we can feel inspired and transformed by the possibility of change, by our capacity to collectively care for one another, by the chance to define our everyday realities on our own terms.  The kind of bonds formed in occupations are often like no other, expressed and fortified through a unified sense of ownership over a rekindled future.  Some call occupations adventurism – yet herein is an implicit acceptance that our lives are largely devoid of adventure, that our socio-economic system is structured so as to routinely constrict the everyday potentialities of enjoyment, fulfilment and excitement, that we are duty bound to suffer in toil and alienation and isolation for the sake of economic reward.  The question, indeed, is not are occupations adventurism – but rather: why do we stigmatize the idea of adventure so?  Though occupations are far from personal thrill seeking, far from a detached, indulgent and privileged pursuit of pleasure, we must rigorously resist a narrative that demands activism must be a laborious ordeal, that negates the communal joy and empowerment it should invoke, and that surrenders the terrain of happiness when it should be fundamental to our political project and imaginary of the future.

But we should not relate to occupations as abstract sanctuaries.  Primarily, they are tactics, intended as disruptive mechanisms to economically leverage management.  They are not ends in and of themselves – though they can act as bases to sustain and facilitate struggle, around which resistance and radical ideas can cohere and flourish, they should not be fetishized.  We must resist the tendency within the student movement and broader social struggles which insists on the reclamation of space as a ritual act of spectacle, absolution and performative prefiguration.  Rather than conceptualizing occupations as sites of and culminations of struggle, as tactics within a broader arsenal of methods, a politics of withdrawal can emerge wherein we engage in occupation to evade and insulate ourselves from dominant systems of power, confining ourselves to marginal enclaves of the already converted, aspiring towards complete ideological purity and rigorous regulation to arbitrary standards of safety.

This politics infatuates itself with the project of abstracting an idealized university or society into existence among a clique of the already radicalized – rather than grappling with the throngs of people we need to convince, with the state, management and capital, to generate a mass movement and a counter-hegemony which can collectively seize and transform existing infrastructure and apparatuses of power in order to claim that society. It seeks to perfect and purge our spaces of all harmful influence, individually purify ourselves of all problematic beliefs and attitudes, punishing and excluding and making enemies of one another for every mistake – at the expense of collectively intervening in the systems, institutions and material processes that structurally dispossess, exploit and marginalize us and that propagate and enforce oppressive mores and divisions.

This manifests more concretely in a side-lining of democracy in preference for the guidelines of safety prescribed by a few experts, whose authority is designated and qualified by their lack of privilege.  It hampers debate and neutralizes disagreement.  It also produces a certain relationship to repression, aggressively extolling individual safety above all else.  Occupations are predicated upon conflict, and are distinctly unsafe. There is a prescriptive mantra in activist spaces of ‘prioritizing your wellbeing’ by avoiding potentially harmful political situations, yet if we wish to demand and create a better future we will have to confront oppressive forces, and we will have to take risks.  After all, people are already being hurt – routinely and systematically.  My wellbeing is grounded in the promise of effecting political change in order to eliminate the roots of this structural harm, even if furthering that end may sometimes be at my immediate personal expense.  The frames of reference of self-care and individual wellbeing are insufficient, and must be bolstered by terms of collective defence, collective conditions, our collective future.

Wellbeing and struggle are not a binary, not mutually exclusive, but integral to one another.  Personal sacrifices must sometimes be made for the greater aims of the movement, for one another, and I know the preservation of my wellbeing requires that I fight. Remaining passive only entrenches my dejection; however much repression or burn out may hurt, and as essential time out from activism often is, not devoting myself to the pursuit of an emancipated future often hurts immeasurably more – not only in terms of the unchecked material impact on our communities if we do not resist, but also in my sense of power and purpose in the world.  My wellbeing is bound up with the wellbeing of others.  We must reckon with the idea that the politics of safety hinders our capacity to collectively wage struggle and secure a safer world in the long term.  We cannot dislocate ourselves from conflict: it defines our socio-economic reality.  Our choice is whether we demand safety, or freedom.   Our choice is whether we will withdraw, or fight.  Our choice is whether we will fatalistically content ourselves with illusions of purity, or intervene in systems of oppression with the faith that we can overcome and win.  Our choice is between fear, and hope.

After all, occupations do not merely mean joy: they are exhausting to sustain, they are vulnerable to eviction and repression, they are isolating and confining, they are emotionally draining and resource-intensive.  Occupations to me also mean sleeplessness; discomfort; police intimidation, kettles and arrest; having nights disturbed by security intentionally shining torches through windows; being launched into walls and violently tackled whilst fleeing security after an occupation attempt failed; being deprived of heating, hot water, nutritious food; being evicted by bailiffs and cops at 8am; night shifts on vulnerable doors; relentless organizing responsibilities; frenzied political activity; another chance to be aggressively targeted and victimized by a university that has attempted to force me through a disciplinary, facilitated a great deal of physical and psychological harm to myself and my close friends, and left me with a criminal record.

Occupations are bound up with memories of the still raw sting of repression as much as the prospect of fulfilment and joy: it is important to state that these two do not negate one another.  It is not a zero-sum game where joy must solely situate itself in a sphere above and dissociated from pain, only engaged with privately and passively in rituals of self-care.  We must, I think, expand the contours of what joy can mean: perhaps to a notion of collective overcoming.  There is a reason I still participated significantly in the occupation despite being scared, and tired, and worn out, despite the gravity of the political moment weighing heavily upon every aspect of the action and at times crushing my spirit with the responsibility to act.  I decided the sacrifice was worth it.

I must be clear that I am not advocating martyrdom.  I remember, in my early days of activism, racing from direct action to direct action, believing if I gave enough of myself, if I wanted and willed it enough, if we accumulated and stoked enough rage and unleashed it powerfully enough upon our oppressors, we would win.  This obsession with confrontation and sacrifice is ultimately compelled by personal catharsis, guilt and obligation rather than a sustainable collective strategy; it is desperate, blinkering, destructive and draining, and evades all sorts of questions around resources, positionality, and vulnerability in a person’s relationship to activism.  But we must transcend a politics which frames direct action and confrontation as a privilege or luxury.  The history of movements against oppression is founded upon the principle of direct, disruptive and organized resistance because it is oppressed groups who have been most acutely impacted by systemic dispossession and violence; whose survival has necessarily placed us in conflict with the status quo and relied upon our disrupting and obstructing these processes of domination.

We must recognize that in eliding difficult conversations around risk, repression, and violence because we do not wish to destabilize an abstract sense of safety, we are not preparing ourselves for the dangers of the world as it exists.  We expect certain people to be martyrs without recognizing it; by negating the political necessity of taking risks we privatize their execution and fail to create material infrastructures that can diffuse responsibility and support us practically and emotionally through repression.  We ensconce ourselves in idealizations of horizontality whilst informal power structures and leadership roles emerge – often mediated by capacity, capability, experience, commitment – that we do not venture to recognize or hold accountable.  A kind of performed, meditative positive energy is engendered by the politics of withdrawal that is fragile, idealist, and solely seeks shelter, rather than centred upon a tempered and robust hope that grittily protects, reproduces, loves, and perseveres in spite of the rigours levelled upon us.  We must reject both a politics that prioritizes and valorizes the self at the expense of the collective – an incapacitating and neo-liberal logic – and that which completely surrenders the self in service of the collective – a logic of martyrdom that does not cherish or care for each of us enough.

The victory of this occupation was grounded in not only the two years of movement building and struggle engaged in by Warwick For Free Education, but also drew its power from many other sources – from Defend Education Birmingham activists who taught us militancy; to the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts who honed our ideas, our organizational capabilities, and lent us support, resources and coordination at every opportunity; to the wonderful Warwick Anti-Casualisation activists and staff with whom we are allied; to the context of political activity and resistance informed by Protect the Public University, liberation groups on campus, and a chain of movements struggling against apartheid, fascism and cuts that shaped the memory and climate of Red Warwick.  It’s been a long and hard fight.  We’ve been pursued, profiled, surveilled, intimidated, bludgeoned, victimized, detained, kettled and arrested.  We’ve lost people.  We need to recognize this, and not forget them.  We need to become better at taking care of one another, incorporating it as a core component of the processes and practices of our groups, weaving it through and beyond struggle rather than merely outside of it.

It is clear, then, that resistance reverberates, surges, erupts through the cracks, despite time, pressure, repression and violence.  I am reminded that herein there is always cause for hope.  I am reminded what hope feels like.  I am reminded that hope is not something to fear.  Though it was hard, draining, exhausting, I will remember this occupation, first and foremost, for helping me believe again – in myself, in the possibility of change, in the wonder of collective strength, in our urgent and persistent claim to a different world, and in the absolute necessity of hope.  It must be a hope that defines itself not only in reference to safety, as merely insulation from harm, but a commitment to collectively reproduce and defend one another in order to withstand that harm.  It must be a hope that confronts rather than flees, that mobilizes, rather than is simply mobilized by, fear.  It must be a hope that equips us for both compassion and struggle, that prepares us to overcome hardship, pain, and suffering together, that emboldens us to seize our reality, rather than withdraw from it.

It must be a hope that blazes a trail through the smog, guides us through the rocky barrenness together, that confronts the monsters which prowl this place, that shields us when we are stricken down, that embraces and bandages and cries with us when we are injured, that holds on to and props us up when we fall, that marches upon and finds itself in new horizons, that remembers and sings and forges onward.  We, after all, have a world to win.

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Occupy, Strike, Resist!

A lot of the rhetoric around various Xmas strikes reminds me of the opposition to the Warwick Slate occupation from some vocal Warwick conference workers. There’s this division manufactured and stoked between those engaged in political struggle and those who might be impacted as a third party because of that struggle. There’s essential points to be made here about the necessity of disruption to forcing social progress, but the backlash also exposes more worrying trends regarding the dominant ideology of neo-liberalism, and how that resituates blame, redefines moral priorities, relations and attitudes, and – most significantly – reconstitutes market economics as a set of sacrosanct natural laws, insulated from political interference, by which we must uncritically abide.

The Tories say the strikes demonstrate ‘contempt’ towards ordinary people; some vocal Warwick conferences staff say we don’t REALLY care about workers, and that we’re just ‘middle class students’ engaged in thrill-seeking and adventurism, detached from the realities and rigours of every day life, that we can afford to be disruptive, that we’re disrespectful, an interference. So we see struggle framed as a luxury, protestors and trade unionists portrayed as ‘enemies within’, consciously malicious and villainous, pursuing abstract political change rather than seeking immediate material improvements. It speaks to an insidious set of ideas where working class politics is no longer politics at all, no longer concerned with the collective conditions, wellbeing and future of the entire working class – where as long as injustice exists we are all unfree and we have a duty to fight – but as centred upon personal striving, individual success, and professional advancement, gatekept around the self and the family unit, where anything interjecting in the conquest of our private destinies is irredeemably harmful.

This reasoning, taken to its logical conclusions, results in the kind of ultra-reactionary politics that legitimize the running over of Black Lives Matter protestors so people can ‘get about their daily lives’. It demands consideration only for the self, and necessitates that any interference therefore deserves the most vicious of anger as we are pitted against one another relentlessly. This is not to underplay the very real struggles people are forced to confront, especially at such an expensive time of year – people are literally struggling to survive in the cruel world bosses and Tories have crafted, and the fact that all the time and emotional energy a person has is devoted to clinging on to a subsistence is both tragic and entirely reasonable.

It’s not just about the ideology of neo-liberalism, after all, but the failures of class struggle and the left to provide an alternative to combat it, such that a consciousness of class position is a consciousness of individual self-interest and the imagination of collective intervention is one of impossibility, frustration and despair. We need to develop a politics which intervenes in this set of conditions, in the daily difficulties of social reproduction in an increasingly casualized labour market, in a context where public services and institutions we once relied upon have been overwhelmingly gutted, where unionization is low and increasingly constricted and repressed, where politics has been eliminated from the ruthless economic calculus imposed by daily survival under neo-liberalism. And we need to vigorously defend those engaging in this strike action as our comrades, as ‘ordinary people’ sick and fucking tired of bosses shafting them, their conditions and protections worsening and their pay stagnating. We have only one set of people to blame for the disruption brought on by these strikes, and that’s the greedy fucking parasites that continue to prosper whilst people are exploited more year on year. Bosses have forced these strikes to happen by disrupting and damaging the lives of workers, of ordinary people, and treating them like disposable resources.

These structural problems can only be overcome by collective political struggle and organized resistance. We must be armed with the recognition that an injury to one is an injury to all, and that without systemic change, achieved through collective, unified, mass intervention, generalized across all marginalized and oppressed communities, we will continue to be on the back foot, continue to suffer, continue to toil our way to fascism. These strikes, instigated to turn the tide against an increasingly brutal and exploitative labour market, in order to protect workers’ collective livelihoods, are more important than peoples’ Christmas presents arriving on time. An occupation to challenge the set of Higher Education reforms which will fundamentally destroy any last remnants of public Higher Education, in solidarity with hourly paid staff struggling to make ends meet, is more important than the pride conferences staff feel towards opening a sterile lifeless building for the first time to corporate clientele.

We have to reckon with the real concerns people have without ceding ground to a politics that is compatible with the trajectories of capital or conceives of justice as another scarce commodity to compete over. We know all too well the dark path this politics leads us down.