Mourning Star, a Response

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:

See also the two related organisations I discuss: the University for Strategic Optimism and the Really Open University.

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.


5 thoughts on “Mourning Star, a Response

  1. I can’t separate the bile from the nonsense. But I’ll just say that you totally embody the over emotional knee jerk response that ruins what might otherwise be for the left. And no it’s neither Guardian or Times, they’d probably take your over simplistic view.

  2. I should also address this point:

    ‘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.’

    My point is not that the violence in deprived areas, worldwide – take Baghdad for example, although Hackney, very differently, is an example I am glad that we can both really relate to – is equal to the violence which holds capitalism together – which I mentioned anyhow. It is, rather, that such a violence, the abstract kind, which holds capital together and which should only hypothetically – for Zizek, who never explicitly says we should counter this invisible violence of State-Capitalism with actual violence – be resisted with real blood and guts violence, is a nice diversion for some, but nothing compared to the real violence which erupts daily in poor peoples lives (rich too, but not, obviously as a result of deprivation). Violence is one thing, and is real, and to manipulate it, abstract it and use it as some kind of trope for the satisfaction of academic ends is all good and well, but there is a responsibility behind such an employment of the term. Plus at this point there isa real danger in glorifying violence which Zizek does if only for his bizzare preoccupation with it.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts on Hackney – I worked off Kingsland Road for a brain injuries day-centre in a non-admin role, so please don’t picture me as Moz-bespectacled hipster. Do I dare raise another spectre – Iain Sinclair? His recent ‘Rose Red Empire’ is a good read on Hackney if you’re interested, though lacks as much as it inspires. Zizek is guilty in many ways too, and I was going to post a report on his recent Birkbeck talk on Violence Reconsidered (which I’m guessing by your allusions you also attended) but haven’t had time or motivation to. There is a complacency there like in much of the student protests thinking, in fetishising Millbank as anything other than the pleasure of breaking the rules, of a small pebble dashed across the symbolic order.

    Your first comment is unfair, and does – come on now – suffer also from the accusation of reactionary simplistic bile, given it was posted ten minutes after that response – which would’ve taken about 5 minutes to comprehensively read through – though then again I think you didn’t stray beyond the second and last paragraph without getting incensed. Fair enough, my post is harsh and poorly articulated in parts but I wouldn’t’ve bothered writing it if I hadn’t felt it worthwhile, if a certain sting wasn’t necessary to identify weak points in your argument.

    Ignore the accusations of masochism and do reconsider the USO, it isn’t just snotty middle-class lefties lecturing the hideous unwashed proles, but a thinktank that uses performance to get its name out there – and a very small one at that. From your blog I see your at Goldsmiths, so consider coming along to a meeting even if it is just to tell people the idea’s wrong.

  4. I’m at Goldsmiths studying a PhD, but live in Rome, after spending 5 years in Hackney. I’ve been talking a lot about Zizek’s ‘Violence’ and his talk on BackdoorBC with a couple of artist friends. And I think he is not helping in many ways.

    Probably we have a lot of common ground, though I must say I did try to put my case as rationally as possible, and I think it is clear that I have the interests of a fair society at heart. I might also say, though it wouldn’t be apparent in that post, that I shirk both ‘left’ and ‘right’ in favour of a political inquiry led by ‘Art’. But I’d need a lot of space to go into that. There is a dialogue between myself and Tom Gokey here that covers this quite well: .

    What the USO do is valuable, clearly, I only argue that there is some confusion in the way they rail against the system, but seem to want that same system to support them. Maybe the issue is that I am not a Statist, though it surprises me that the only options being peddled discernibly over the internet, which is a considerable forum, is a Statist one, and the State is in any case in the hands of big business. It looks in some respects that people are throwing their toys out of the pram because they are not going to be supported by a system they despise on the one hand, yet on the other hand cannot see beyond that system. When they do suggest a beyond, it is an out of date model and here I have to say that there is a lot of nostalgia for and fetishization of the left as it was, at a time when things have somewhat changed. Though if sound ideas are being knocked around I’d love to see them, though I am unlikely to be at any meetings in London for the foreseeable future. Maybe this (it seeming that the counter-Capitalist movement, as it has become, is lacking in ideas) is an issue of image, and it does seem that various groups all too readily appropriate the rhetroic of heroic and failed battles past. They also seem to like haranguing the public, and employees of large companies and institutions, dismissing any dissent as to their aims out of hand, setting up hate campaigns against public figures – I talk of the movement at large – and generally implying the stupidity of the public and/or of anyone who doesn’t disagree with them.

    Further, the movement has a short memory, and the notion that the Tories are worse than Labour is dangerous because it plays into the hands of a system where the strings are pulled outside of government, by big business, who can get along with its corrupt activity so long as the public are engaged in irrelevant party politics.

    I am sure that there are workable solutions, and one’s which preferably aren’t tied to ‘left’ or ‘right’, because being unaffiliated in my mind adds weight and sincerity to an argument, as it is easy to otherwise be swayed emotionally by these grand historical symbols. And I cannot be sure that that has not happened to a theorist or activist – being blinded by the romanticism of history – when they spout rhetoric over discernibly innovative ideas.

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