by Edd Mustill
This is the first of two lengthy reviews of books about the student movement that have recent appeared. This review looks at Fight Back! A reader on the winter of protest. The second will look at Springtime: The new student rebellions.
Fight Back! Has been put together largely from blog posts and other articles written contemporaneously to the most heated period of student protest, just before Christmas. Much of the content has been taken from the OpenDemocracy website.
The breadth of the articles is impressive. They include many posts dealing with tactics, some of the more well-known articles of those few weeks such as Laurie Penny’s Out with the Old Politics, and a contribution from a rebel Liberal Democrat peer.
The book is, on its own terms, an important one. The editors have done a decent job collating contributions from what could be called the various “decentralising” trends in the movement (you won’t find anything from the Trotskyist press, but then if you want to read that… go read the Trotskyist press I guess). Perhaps some harsher editing could have cut out repetitive sections in many of the articles wouldn’t have gone amiss, because they are personal accounts from different blogs and tend to repeat the facts of the protests a lot. I’m also not sure why we need to be reminded so many times that all the book’s editors have been caught up in a real police kettle.
The material is very London-centric, dealing with the national protests there and the occupation of the Jeremy Bentham room in UCL in some detail, with few contributions from outside the capital. Nevertheless it covers issues of national relevance.
Some of the most original articles deal with the variety of tactics used on the pre-Christmas protests. They all favour decentralised, horizontal forms of organisation which, according to Jon Moses, bind activists together through shared experiences rather than ideology (although I’d say the same is probably true for the SWP’s Central Committee…).
In his contribution Markus Malarkey argues: “the strength of the student movement lies in its capacity for dispersal and for spontaneous, creative and autonomous actions that catch the police unprepared and avoid containment.” (p. 311)
This is certainly a tactical strength of the movement, but not really anything to do with its social strength. A failure to get to grips with the latter is perhaps the biggest weakness of the entire volume.
Rory Rowan is similarly a fan of “civic swarming,” the sort of cat-and-mouse protest that occurred on 30th November. Worried that the kettle is being used to defuse and demonise all protests, he argues that, “A step outside the kettle will be a welcome step outside the law.” (p. 235)
An admirable emphasis on the importance of radical action runs through the volume, as well as criticism of the media’s coverage of the protests. But some contributions unfortunately lapse back into the language of that same media.
Guy Aitchison’s criticism of the NUS’s famous “glowstick vigil” on the day of the Parliament Square demo is a case in point. He describes “the farcical spectacle of the NUS’ glowstick vigil (candles were deemed against health and safety) of 200 people at Victoria Embankment, whilst 30,000 students marched to Parliament Square to make their voices heard.” (p.55)
Isn’t “marching to make our voice heard” the very same sterile non-protest that other contributions criticise, and indeed that the whole book laudably seeks to downplay in favour of more creative, militant action?
Aitchison again lapses into mediaspeak when he calls the throwing of a fire extinguisher from Millbank roof a “mindless act of aggression.” (p. 69) But how can it be understood as anything other than a part of the Millbank action, however uncomfortable that makes us? Similarly, Paul Sagar condemns a group in Parliament Square “Waving red and black flags, dressed in plain black, with faces covered and snooker balls in hand, these were anarchists in the technical sense… clearly prepared for violence.” (p. 77)
This seems to capitulate to the police narrative of a minority ruining it for the innocents, especially in a protest situation where we know – and the series of eye-witness reports included in Fight Back! Testify – that the police have effectively criminalised us all and will use violence more-or-less indiscriminately.
Politics and space
I’ll admit that when it comes to talking about the spatial element of radical politics, a lot of that stuff goes over my head. I get bored with Debord. I’m at a loss with Deleuze. Nevertheless, even I found some interesting nuggets on the topic which I could understand.
Adam Harper argues strongly that students have used the protests to assert that, far from being the “dreamers” Clegg dismissed them as, they are actually very much rooted in the real world. Slogans about LibDem betrayal and the “This is actually happening” banner that appeared on the marches testify to this, as does the Book Bloc (making ideas literally into instruments of protest).
Talking about the use of music on the protests, Dan Hancox draws an interesting comparison between London grime and punk in the 1970s: “At its best, it’s the most explosive, exhilarating form of music Britain has produced since punk rock: and the repeated playing of two songs at several of the student protests – Tempa T’s ‘Next Hype’ and Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow! (Forward)’ – encapsulate that energy” (p. 267)
Punk is always thought about in the context of the “political” 70s. I relish the prospect of Next Hype being the soundtrack to countless future nostalgic documentaries about the political struggles of this decade.
Class and the unions
Class is in some ways the elephant in the room. There’s plenty of talk of the damaging effects of the government’s austerity measures, some very interesting exchanges on the changing nature of the university and the social implications of this,
Despite calling Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s article praising the student protests a call “without parallel in the history of social activism in this country,” (p. 314) most articles don;t go further than talking about making solidarity with others affected by cuts.
Through this there is a danger that everyone’s struggle is seen as auxiliary to everyone else’s, that, rather than the holistic movement that Laurie Penny rightly calls for in her opening piece, we remain a series of sectional struggles united more-or-less through marriages of convenience. We support our lecturers in “their” struggle and hope for their support in “ours.”
Similarly, there is an implication that militant tactics are “our” – that is, students’ – tactics. The unions can have their boring marches and we’ll go off and do our exciting things. Perhaps what needs to now be talked about is how we go about applying militant tactics in the industrial field.
Guy Aitchison is absolutely right to argue that the most pressing question is how to turn solidarity into a fact on the ground. Surely the best way to do that is to start talking about the class struggle that we are all engaged in?
A lot of useful legal and practical information is included in the back, and thanks to the editors for plugging the Unrest alongside other websites in the book’s appendix.
Fight Back! is worth a read, or even just a dip into, to get a flavour of some of the ideas coming from a particular amorphous “wing” of the anti-cuts movement. Everything is readable and clearly written. Taken together, the articles reveal a useful engagement with the tactics of protest and the practical questions of “resistance,” but leave you wondering whether the contributors are thinking much beyond short-term protest and resistance. Nevertheless, as an introduction to last year’s protests; as I suppose what could already be regarded as a historical document, it serves its purpose well.
For details of how to get hold of Fight Back! click here.