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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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.

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.

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.

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.

The university is a sham

It’s my first day of the third year of university.  For some reason, I didn’t sleep much last night.  It’s quite odd – I think at some points I never dreamed I’d get here.  At most points I was sure I didn’t want to, but that the options within the walls of this institution seemed safer, less grievous, maybe even more promising than outside.  I think a lot of those promises have been quaked and broken – in debt, repression, alienation and trauma – and reforged – in community, friendship, love, and maybe, even, in glimpses of belonging – again and again.  It’s been turbulent, to say the least, frenzied for all the reasons capital and security and management and the state did and didn’t want.

I grapple with the reality, try to trace its contours, wonder whether it’s real and whether it means anything, what it could have meant if I’d have done things differently, if I’d have stayed a little longer in the club where I’d felt the least safe and most alone I’d ever felt in my life in first year, if I’d joined different societies, if I’d spent less time in occupations and court rooms and police stations and more in lecture halls, if I didn’t lose all my focus and will to engage with my course, if I indulged the simulations of the ‘student experience’ a little more.  And yet, some part of me still feels like a fraud – this all still feels counterfeit, less like I’ve missed out on something and more like we all have, like none of this has ever actually been ours.

It’s kind of surreal, seeing the excited new throngs of freshers on campus, in all their multitudes of hopes and worries and complexities and eagerness and contradictions and truths.  I think I’ll try to find myself among them, to ponder how paths intersect and diverge and unfold, how Universities – encumbered and embattled as the sector is by the market – illuminate and eclipse those courses, enclose as much as unravel them, confine as much as open them, how the terrain shifts beneath our feet, whether people feel like they’re chasing something here, racing to outmanoeuvre one another or get ahead because the maze continues to close in on them, whether they’ll feel disoriented or out of step, whether they’ll see the chalk or banner or spray paint on the walls and feel some surge of guidance like I did – or whether to them, and to some distant part of me, it feels like just another gimmick, another distraction, maybe even a dead-end, and we should not dedicate ourselves to the illusions of a way out.

How do they navigate this fortress?  How do their horizons kindle and conjure themselves?  Do they notice the cracks in the walls, or feel that such walls are bearing down on them at all?  Is this is a sojourn, an escape for them, a glade finally discovered after the thickets and brambles of their old lives – or a deeper and denser foliage through which they feel obliged to wade?  That is – do they feel they are chasing, or being chased – or both, or neither?  If I was there with them, would I end up in the same place that I am now?  Would I want to?  Do we have some opportunity to tap into a variety of spectacles, but each one remains a spectacle nonetheless – is this course always set, always turning back in on itself, winding and leading to the same destination?

After all, everything’s changed, and everything’s still the same.  It’s the same old authoritarianism of Thrift, under the deviously amicable visage of Stuart Croft, who performs with more flourishes but is – and I think we all expected this – following the same script.  It’s another £9,000 in debt, maybe more, loaded on to already heavy shackles – ever shifting, spectral digits manipulated by financiers and politicians for solely their benefit, the terms and conditions always controlled by them as they speculate on and trade our futures amongst themselves, relegating education to a process of owing and not discovery.  It’s the same cold, pristine, hollow walls, under the sheen of new expansions and constructions and branding.  It’s the same wicked monster, with different contortions and a gentler visage and its claws concealed.  It’s home, and a place that is cruelly distant, all at once, one where we feel preyed upon by pernicious corporations hoping to lure and snare us into their web, honing us into compliant, yet aggressive, and exploitable, yet ruthless, personnel – to internalize their sinister image, to draw on and foster the worst in us. The so-called ‘graduate premium’ is a ghost, rent through by debt and precarious employment and austerity.  Our education is reduced to a lever in the ‘pipeline’ to finance and industry, and we to raw material honed, processed and channelled to our allotted positions within a socio-economic machinery soldered together at its hinges by debt, stalling and overheating and barely heaving on.

The establishment proclaims a commitment to ‘social mobility’ whilst abolishing maintenance grants and savagely cutting every public service imaginable.  They idolise ‘teaching excellence’ and propose to improve it by further auditing and overworking staff who are struggling to make ends meet on hourly paid contracts.  They deem their new reforms guarantors of ‘student choice’ whilst raising tuition fees and forcing us to take on higher and higher loans.  The university managers declare that the devastating changes to Higher Education are ‘national issues beyond their control’ whilst they sit in Russell Group meetings and shake hands with government officials behind closed doors.  They brand us ‘yobs’ and ‘intimidating to staff’ and surveil and brutalize protestors when we dare to resist and fight back (often in alliance with staff), whilst exalting critical thinking and changing the world and whilst mythologising the protests of the past into their marketing strategies.  They talk of ‘democracy’ whilst the democratic process is eviscerated to a functional ratification of decisions already dictated by the pressures of capital.  There’s a reason why I’m wandering, why my mind’s always somewhere else and I’m always tired and why I have far too many nightmares.  The routines of normality have settled themselves in lies and deceptions.  I wonder if the new students feel cheated, or whether they will, and for what reasons, and whether they’ll fight with us.

I don’t regret how my time at university has turned out, even when it’s been hard.  Everything’s become brighter, and darker.  But I know it’s worth it for every moment the light burst through the cracks, and I didn’t feel so lost and torn and scared anymore; for every moment I glimpsed the walls crumbling, and us smashing through them; for every moment the shadows seemed to recede upon the advance of our chants and flares and fire. Whatever happens, at least I can say I tried – tried to cast a flint against this rock, to confront the demons that haunt this place, to map pain and begin to trust that I had companions who wished to tread the same path as me, who ventured to chart the unknown and believed the horizon was something worth reaching towards, that we could steady one another and band together and carry on, and that the journey, in its turmoil and setbacks and obstacles and rigours and exhilarations and discoveries and joys, could demand realities of dreams.