So, what to make of Wednesday’s walkouts? Obviously, they were fantastic. No-one really seems sure how many universities were occupied, but it seems to have been at least 29. (Count ‘em: University of West England, Manchester Met, SOAS, Plymouth, Royal Holloway, Newcastle, UCL, London South Bank, Birmingham, Oxford, Cardiff, Warwick, Strathclyde, UEL, Dundee, Portsmouth, Leeds, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Manchester, Roehampton, Sheffield, Essex, Bristol, Sussex, Cambridge, Goldsmiths, Glasgow School of Art, and Brighton. Occupy Everything!, anticuts.org.uk and the National Convention Against Fees and Cuts all look like decent sources of info.) Some of them, like Man Met and Sussex, were a bit earlier, but the vast majority were on the day itself. Have over 20 universities ever been occupied on a single day before, or is this actually unprecedented? It’s pretty rare, at least. Even if they achieve nothing else, these occupations should at least have a valuable effect in bringing the tactic itself back into the public consciousness, which could be important when larger groups of workers move into struggle. It’s hard to say whether there’s any direct link, but it is noticeable that after a long period where occupations seemed to have disappeared completely, the wave of uni occupations over Gaza at the start of 2009 was followed by a number of workplace occupations at Visteon, Vestas, Prisme, Waterford Glass and Thomas Cook. If workplace occupations start spreading at anywhere near the rate the university ones have, the results would be amazing.
The targetting of Lib Dem HQ in Edinburgh and Simon Hughes’ office in London are both very encouraging signs, and the dispersed nature of the protests around the country made them much harder to police, as well as making it easier for vast numbers to participate, and meaning that people outside the capital were presented with something happening on their doorstep, rather than just another set of vague, far-off events in London. The amount of open mass meetings that seem to be happening are another important development, and it’s worth stating once again how much the left have been totally left behind. The original call-out may have come from the National Convention Against Fees and Cuts, but there’s no group with anything even approaching the level of presence in schools and sixth forms needed to take control of something like this. Even the mainstream media (well, the Guardian at least) seem to be slowly catching on to this aspect of the protests, gratifyingly reporting “[Claire] Solomon led the London march early today with a megaphone but found her directions overruled when students, instructed via mobile phones, spontaneously sprinted toward parliament.”
The next big focus looks to be the 30th of November, just days away. It’s possible this could backfire – anyone who went through the experience of Stop the War knows how disheartening it can be to just try to do the same thing again and again with inevitably diminishing returns, no matter how good the first time was – but this really looks like it could pay off, building on the existing mood of excitement and the massive amount of publicity the last two demos got. It’ll also give those who’ve not occupied yet a good reason/opportunity to do so, and allow those who’ve occupied and been evicted to just go all-out and occupy again.
So where next? It seems unlikely that this burst of energy will last for ever, especially with the Christmas holidays coming up. Of course, I could be wrong, maybe this is just the ideology of a politico trying to justify a role for myself in a movement that has no real need of me and the protests will just spontaneously continue to snowball and snowball, but either way it looks like at some stage there’ll be a move from the very loose networks we’re seeing at the moment to some kind of more structured form. It’s crucial that if and when this happens, we don’t allow the left to fuck it up. No matter how well-intentioned individual lefty militants are, the trots have demonstrated time and time again that they ruin everything they get control of. Even when they’re defending militant tactics now (which is the case in a lot of places, but it certainly isn’t everywhere, as their behaviour in Glasgow has showed), sooner or later the need to build their Party will come into conflict with the demands of the movement. When local anti-cuts groups are set up, they’ll try to influence them into having a closed, hierarchical leadership structure that they can then gain control of. Those of us active in the anti-cuts movement who recognise the dangers this poses need to be arguing against this. Better to risk seeming petty and sectarian now than to end up with an impotent, deradicalised movement in the long run.
The other crucial point at the moment is how far the youth are ahead of everybody else. In some ways this is to be expected, since the penalties for bunking a day of school or uni are far lower than those for walking off the job, but it can’t go on forever. Ultimately, no matter how heroic they are, school, college and uni students on their own aren’t going to beat the government; the class as a whole certainly can. A combination of the disruptive power of public sector workers with the defiant spirit of the students and pupils would be devastatingly effective. The dream scenario would be real, practical unity across these sectors: not just a handful of right-on students visiting picket lines, but mobs of scary 15-year-olds going fucking mental at scabs. We can only hope, but even if things don’t get quite that good, any action by workers that even comes close to the spirit of the last few weeks would be a very welcome move. (A few disclaimers here: obviously, students/schoolkids and public sector workers aren’t the only ones affected, hopefully pensioners and benefits claimants will start kicking off as well. And by saying I want the school students to go beyond just thinking of their own immediate interests and start developing a more general class consciousness, I am in no way lining up with all those liberal wankers trying to draw lines between the “good” protesters who really care about the issues and the naughty kids who ruin it for everyone because they just want an excuse to bunk off school and fight the police. In some ways, I think kids who just want to fight the cops have better politics than those who’re just really concerned about the education cuts: one group is just asking for a specific reform that can be granted fairly easily, the other is made up of those who’re generally pissed off with the conditions of their lives, and are directing that anger at a symbol of the class enemy instead of one of the multitude of alternative targets that are available. I know which one sounds like a better starting point for a revolutionary movement to me.)
If the movement manages to avoid being co-opted and managed by the bureaucrats seeking to steer it into totally ineffective channels, and the class as a whole gets involved rather than leaving the youth to get picked off on their own, I think there’s a real chance that we can break the coalition and bring the government down. But what then? Whoever gets in will still be required to manage the economy in the interests of capital. They may (or may not) be a lot more cautious and a lot less aggressively cocky, but there’s still going to be pressure on them to attack our living standards. If we’re going to be able to defend ourselves in that situation, we need to build a movement that won’t be disarmed by the promises of the Labour Party and its defenders – a movement against cuts, not a movement against “Tory cuts”.
So, that’s the task facing us. To stop the bureaucrats and wannabe bureaucrats on the left gaining power over the movement’s structures, while not boring everyone to death with endless incredibly dull arguments about structures, leadership positions and democracy. To spread the spirit of the youth revolt until we have an all-out rebellion by everyone who’s fucked over in this society. And to build a movement with enough political suss to stop it getting taken in by the promises of Labour, without just turning it into another tiny sect with spot-on politics but no real power to influence anything. It won’t be easy. But what else can we do?