Time is scarce, but I found myself writing this response to a stimulating critique of some of the tactics of the current student protest movement, featured on the Logical Regression blog of Mike Watson. In homage to the old etiquette of the blogosphere, I post it here rather than as a comment.
The original post is here:
Thanks for your post – I have many problems which I would like to take up, though my main interest is your description of the University for Strategic Optimism, alongside the amount of masochism and contradiction in your piece, so if you do respond please address these above all.
You begin with the observation that a new left is emerging from academic and student quarters against proposed rises in tuition fees, then you advise caution and bemoan the left-wing’s lack of vision. I don’t think its lack of vision is a problem, perhaps your understanding of what its vision actually is. The world is capitalist and socialism of course has been tried and failed – thanks for that original viewpoint – is this a Guardian editorial or a Times editorial? I think blaming the critical Left itself for this current dreary position instead of its actual architects and propagators, the Thatcherite neo-Liberal power bloc in government, finance and media is a poor and vampiric move, blaming the victim for the crime of being a victim. Is the issue really those maddened and ruined by their readings Marx and Badiou? Or those who attempt a kind of armchair academic posturing like your lonely figure Adorno resisting the naive students – assessing scathingly and retrospectively all current movements as failures, not the right sorts, and obstructing anything that might bring about new movements, despite your declared willingness.
My only point of interest however is your description of the University of Strategic Optimism, and your comparison to the Really Open University. I’ll address your points briefly: you argue the USO is pessimistic because it aims to reverse the government’s decision to increase tuition fees. You argue that given the government is an empty puppet of business, it is absurd to criticise corporate-sponsored degrees like Tesco because both are part of the same inherently corrupt capitalist system. In one way I like this argument – there is something of a reformist hope here, but fundamentally a democratic one – that a symbolic point can be made against the increasing commodification of education and government. Perhaps instead you want something more revolutionary than reformist, yet you denounce its anger, again self-thwarting. But how can you call for a movement of passive resistance and then criticise angry actions as a specimen of ressentiment, without any irony? What exactly is your point? I read denouncements and more left-wing navel-gazing and belly-button picking.
Consider again the USO. Read their syllabus. It is not a blithe call for governments to pay for education again – it is obvious that if the current movement gains any capitulation, it will only be a compromise reversed later. The Lib Dems might collapse and the Conservatives get a minority government – currently this is the weak prospect, but it is not the issue. The lectures are a symbolic point, and I think the most significant purpose is to create a new kind of critical thought and debate, beginning with the logic of the cuts, but leading to wider criticisms of neo-liberalism, the Big Society and capitalism itself. Its premise is to debate, forge, generate (whatever productive image you want) the kind of vision that you call for in this piece but fail to articulate. So be part of it or not at all, because your description of its pessimism is quite unfounded.
Your best and most caustic contempt is reserved for left-wing students and academia. In the Leeds university hall you unironically celebrate the young for not being ‘brainwashed by leftist rhetoric’. You denounce student anger but celebrate these young people for not believing anything – have you talked to or heard any of these 14-18 y olds? There is a belief and idealism there, that’s what motivates such anger. I’ve met few Communists so far in the current student protest movements, so I don’t think Marx and Badiou should get all the credit! A revolution would cause great violence and upheaval you argue, yes ok, but undirected and emotional anger is bad. Instead you call for an anticapitalism without victims, which takes us back to your square one – such passive anticapitalism would achieve little or would provoke a violent struggle which you denounce, a rather ‘Menshevik’ position if we’re discussing leftist histories. So what you call for isn’t really anything.
I feel all this is Marxist self-hatred, confirmed by your advocacy of ‘mimesis’ – again unironically – alongside a very similar and unsustainable model of free universities you lambast your peers in the USO for. You quote the ROU on face value, failing to realise that both groupings are calling for a new kind of free university as you sketch at the end – one I myself have problems with. What the ROU calls for is fairly unoriginal and we find it throughout the postwar student movements, and like the USO perhaps may well be a short-lived brightly-burning star. But these things can hopefully lead to articulating more serious critique, and the performative element both offers a viral and easily reproductive form of effective protest, and takes education outside of damp university campuses and into a public domain. Forgive them as well, these guys are young and it requires a lot of courage to erupt in a supermarket or bank.
The danger is that David Cameron himself would be proud of your initiative – a reduction in administration and building costs as well as superfluous support staff. Instead we can all learn together on the internet – who needs personal tuition when we can email round a reading list and you can log in to submit your essays, which our accredited minimum-wage graduates can mark and hand back. A fitting form of uncritical and lonely education for call-centre futures – classes take place in coffee bars where most of the indebted students work full-time or on buses – again I invoke John Hutnyk’s image of PhD micro-supervision on the 436 bus. You make a fine neo-liberal argument but you might already know that such free-thinking social entreprises already exist – consider the IT courses run by Joskos, HomeLearningCollege, or Reed on these lines. Or the Open University.
You argue capitalism is inherent violence which yes, is a good but familiar point, yet your entire piece well-written as it may be is a self-thwarting piece of violence against yourself. Why not bring your critical skills and energy to the current student movement and discuss and share, instead of armchair masochism? I’ve sat in debates about long-term vision – come and propose one. If not student anger, then what? There is a lot happening in CCS which you could support, but I really don’t think this here is original or helpful, albeit very interesting.
P.S. A note on your postscript. I worked in Hackney for two years and your absurd point that the real violence and suffering (“hate breeds hate”) is in impoverished communities is on its own terms fair but made with real bad conscience. This is an entirely different kind of violence called for, and if we’re to drag in Zizek, then his entire point – like Mark Fisher’s of course – is that capitalism inflicts a kind of violence on the proletariat every damn day. So a sanitised violence-free Marxism is a delusion. An international bunch of students in south-east London who are trying to formulate such a critique of society and capitalism from the ground up are not your enemies, and their work supports social change. Enough.