The past week has seen a sudden upsurge in antagonism at universities, reminiscent of the wave of anger that erupted at the end of 2010 and served as the starting point for the anti-austerity protests of the last few years. This isn’t a detailed report on everything that’s gone on, more a fairly rambling attempt to try and pick out a few important features and possibilities.
First, I think it’s worth noting that it’s not a fully national movement in the same way as 2010, or at least not yet. November 2010 saw 29 universities occupied on a single day. In contrast, last week there were eight. That’s still impressive and exciting – especially the occupation at the University of Ulster, which didn’t go into occupation last time round – but it’s not the same thing, and it’s worth bearing the difference in mind. There are a few big flashpoints, mostly in London and Brighton, but also places like Birmingham and Sheffield to an extent, but it’s hard to tell how far the mood there is reflected across the country.
One of the big factors that made the movement in 2010 so exciting was the involvement of people other than uni students, particularly sixth-form and even school students protesting about the cuts to EMA. It’ll be interesting to see if the movement can make similar connections this time round. Certainly, many of those sixth-formers are now involved as uni students themselves, but what about their classmates who couldn’t afford the fees? What are the kids from the slums of London doing now? When looking at ways these events could spread, it’s worth remembering the explosion of revolt that took place the summer after the last wave of student protests, which showed the strength of anti-police sentiment. This is also something that’s, understandably, become visible among student protesters in response to the recent police violence against them. It’s a connection the Cops Off Campus protesters certainly want to make, as shown by the chants of “You killed Mark Duggan!”, but it remains to be seen whether any of the rioters of August 2011 will recognise themselves in these events. Riots like those of 2011 are hard to plan for: any analysis that assumes this society can stay stable indefinitely without erupting is going to be wrong, but any plan that depends on them breaking out tomorrow is also likely to fail.
Spreading to other young people not in higher education, as in 2010, would be one way for the current student protesters to escape isolation; another would be making connections with organised workers. This route seems considerably more likely to work; last time round, the student protests were mainly focused on student issues, whereas this time they’re much more motivated by solidarity with the struggles of university staff. In 2010-2011, we saw three different struggles (the student revolt, the August riots and the public sector pensions dispute) take place more or less separately from each other, and almost totally out of sync with each other; at the moment, there’s no strike action on anything like the scale of the big pensions strikes, but university staff are experimenting with some much more exciting kinds of bottom-up organisation, as with the Pop-Up union at Sussex and the 3 Cosas campaign at the University of London. In some ways, university workers, even the most exploited cleaners, are among the luckiest workers in the UK: most workers can’t expect much in the way of solidarity if they strike, and they certainly don’t get other people occupying their employer’s buildings to prevent scabbing and increase disruption. This relatively strong position can then give them the confidence to attempt to organise in more ambitious ways, and their victories, such as the recent concessions on sick pay and holidays won by the 3 Cosas campaign, can then potentially serve as inspiring examples for other workers in a time when success stories are rare. Perhaps the current wave of struggles at universities might spread, not in a direct way with more people joining in, but as an inspiration and a model that others can take up and adapt to their own situations, much like UK Uncut or the Occupy phenomenon.
Thinking about Occupy as a comparison reveals another interesting aspect of the student protests: they’re an addition to an ongoing series of attempts to define what an occupation actually is. Broadly speaking, we can trace (at least) two different ideal types of occupation: on one hand, there’s occupations which explicitly aim to disrupt business as usual and block the normal flows of the economy. This category covers workplace occupations, university occupations, and things like UK Uncut actions. Strikes, blockades, and these kinds of occupation are all ultimately attempting to do the same thing. On the other hand, the assembly movement that spread across the globe in 2011 promoted a different kind of occupation, where public spaces like parks were taken in a way that didn’t immediately disrupt anything else, even if they were used as spaces in which to organise more disruptive activity like the West Coast Port Shutdown. After 2011, the word “occupy” seems more likely to conjure up images of people sitting in parks and squares than a form of direct action that stops commodities from being produced and exchanged. In contrast, last week’s occupations were conscious attempts to deepen the disruption caused by strike action. If they help to make direct action tactics even a tiny bit more visible and normalised, then that’s an important contribution.
A recurring problem that’s haunted working-class movements over the last few decades is how non-workers – that is to say, people who aren’t bosses but also aren’t actively engaged in labour and so can’t strike – can take effective action. Attempts to take mass direct action outside of the workplace have included Reclaim the Streets, the unemployed mass pickets of Argentina 2001, and, since the start of the global crisis, the “standing outside/inside of shops” tactics shared by UK Uncut and the workfare campaign, the roadblocks used by Disabled People Against Cuts, and the Oakland General Strike and West Coast Port Shutdown. These latest student protests are another step in the process of experimentation that’s needed if we’re going to have a movement where everyone, not just unionised workers, can start taking back power over our lives.
So, what next? Given the current state of class confidence and militancy across the UK in general, it seems quite unlikely that the current wave of protests will spread far beyond the boundaries of the campuses. That isn’t to say that the campaigns of industrial action won’t get results, but while the level of repression being handed out may be counter-productive and inflame the situation in the short term, in the medium to long term the state is strong enough that it can keep cracking heads and kettling crowds until the protesters become exhausted. But even if these struggles don’t last long, they can leave behind an important legacy: recent waves of struggle have shown the power of a good example, and the militant direct action tactics used by students and the experiments with new forms of workers’ organisation among staff at Sussex and University of London may contain the seeds of practices that are vital to mass movements in the future.