Tag Archives: student protests

How dense are the public?

by Anne Archist

As student politics moves through its seasonal cycle back into a period of comparatively high activity, we see occupations in Cambridge and Birmingham, with a strong probability of protest once again sweeping across the country, particularly in the South-East. Politicians might want to carry umbrellas over the weekend as there may be showers of rotting fruit. Seriously, though, the students are at it again.

I have mixed feelings about this, though mostly positive; my enthusiasm is tempered by the impression that despite the relatively high political and organisational continuity from last year, nobody has learnt very much from past experience, or thought very hard over the summer about the way forwards. It feels like an activist ‘Groundhog Day’ rather than the next step in a struggle that’s going somewhere. Regardless of this, the recent student activity (including the recent national march) does at least raise interesting questions about current attitudes within and towards various groups.

Firstly, of course, it raises all the usual questions about the attitude held by the rest of society towards students, students towards education workers (given the upcoming strike), etc. However, it also raises another question with more immediacy and clarity than before (and it has certainly been hovering around for a while). Namely, how long can the media go on reducing this to a question of tuition fees?

I just read an article about David Willetts’ first appearance (should that be non-appearance) lecturing at Cambridge last week. I was in the audience at this event – amazed at the audacity of this man and bemused by the surreal atmosphere that the student intervention created – and something rang very untrue about the media’s representation of this intervention. An article subheading read “protesters take over lecture hall to oppose £9,000 tuition fees”, one of those grey sentences that could have been written by anyone, for any paper, at any time over the past year. What is interesting about this sentence is its distillation of a whole lot of complicated issues down to one simple and fundamentally inaccurate summary. The protest was manifestly not about tuition fees.

If there is one positive comparison that can be made between what had happened by this time last year and the first couple of months of this academic year, it is that the focus within the movement has shifted somewhat from tuition fees. This supposed anti-fee protest consisted of students reading two statements (one was directly addressed to Willetts, while the other was read after he had ostensibly left the building). Only one of these statements is mentioned in the article – the first one, judging by the context. I got hold of a copy of this 2-page statement, and it does not mention fees. Not once.

The second statement does mention fees in various contexts. There is no explicit reference to “£9,000 fees”, but one sentence does presumably relate to this – the criticism in this context goes no further than referring to fees as “a massive debt”. The remaining sections relating to fees are more for the sake of putting other issues (cuts and privatisation) into perspective than protesting fees (in fact, these sections could equally be used as an argument for higher fees), and altogether these make up only 3 paragraphs out of 13.

Whereas earlier protests and arguments centred around the effect of near-tripling fees, there seems to be both a deeper and a wider understanding of the white paper as a whole – it is perhaps possible that the supposedly incendiary issue of tuition fees is merely a flash in the pan by comparison to the kind of unrest that could grow from a thorough and widespread grasp of quite what the government is doing to education. Personally, I take this shift in focus as a good sign; I have to own up to a relatively heterodox position on this, in that I don’t really believe in or agree with a lot of the alarmist arguments used around tuition fees.

By arguing about high fees reducing applications, or whether loan repayments are affordable or not, I think we largely play into the government’s hands. The issue, for me, is not one of whether high fees are unaffordable (because I think it’s fairly rare for this to be the case) or whether they reduce the number of people going to university (there isn’t really any evidence that this is likely to happen). The question we have to put is whether they are fair, given that there are alternative methods of funding education which would put the burden more squarely on the rich and would acknowledge the contribution of education to society and the economy as a whole, etc.

I digress. When I ask “How dense are the public?” I am posing a question that I suppose politicians, journalists, editors, and news presenters have to ask themselves on a regular basis. It could be phrased otherwise – “How much can we get away with? For how long?” For how long will facile arguments such as the accusation that current student protest is motivated by pure selfishness hold currency? How long can the government and the media stick their collective heads in the sand and pretend that this is a passing dispute over rising prices, as if we were bartering at a market stall?

It is convenient for servants of capital and neoliberal ideology to pose this as an argument over a ‘fair’ price for a ‘private advantage’ that happens to have ‘positive externalities’ (in other words, coincidental positive effects for other people). What is not convenient is to acknowledge the truth; in fact this is a full-scale revolt against a fundamental redefinition of the rules within which education operates (and I do mean education as a whole, rather than just universities, as these moves are in concert with the establishment of more academies and free schools, hints in the direction of desecularisation, etc).

The student movement, as part of a wider coalition, is coming to the point where it is not quibbling over price but questioning changes to the very nature of what it is that people are paying for, quite distinctly from the question of how it is funded. This is laudable and is moreover a strategic and intellectual advance compared to where we were a year ago. But it is not getting the attention it deserves, as the same old narrative horse is continually flogged (an apt cliché here since both senses of the verb apply). Who will point out the flies circling the carcass first? Just how much do the public understand that is not let on in the media consensus – on this and other issues? And what will happen if it no longer becomes possible to frame the back-door deregulation and privatisation of public education as “driving up standards” or “ensuring value for money”?

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Enough of this bullshit

by Edd Mustill

There is currently a “debate” going on in the anti-cuts movement which runs like this: The national committee of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) has called a national student demo for November 9th. This call has come under criticism from different quarters. Some complaining that not enough people have been consulted and the call was made in a top-down manner. Some activists from Youth Fight for Jobs (YFJ) are decrying the demo on the 9th because their re-run of the Jarrow March ends with a demo in London on the 5th, the Saturday beforehand.

I think the Jarrow March idea is a good one, it was right that NCAFC members voted to back it, and no doubt NCAFC activists will be involved in it as it makes its way down to London.

Crying foul because another group calls a demo without letting you know might be legitimate, but “uniting the resistance” or “linking the struggles” doesn’t just mean everyone going on the same demo. There is a sea of local and national campaigns for all sorts of things, against cuts in all sorts of areas, employing all sorts of tactics.

NCAFC and YFJ are campaigns that have different, albeit linked, emphases. NCAFC is fighting the government’s plans in higher education, and YFJ is fighting against the existence and effects of youth unemployment. NCAFC is more representative of radical student opinion nationally than YFJ is. YFJ has a bigger base in trade unions (but let’s be honest, repeatedly saying “X number of unions back us” doesn’t make you a grassroots or mass campaign. Is UAF? Is Cuba Solidarity?) YFJ recognise this. Presumably that’s why they set up Youth Fight for Education during the student protests last year? What happened to that?

Don’t we want a lot of stuff happening in the Autumn? Don’t we want local, regional, and national actions for people to involve themselves in? Don’t we want industrial action, marches, direct actions? Was it wrong to have demos last year during a time when people were occupying university buildings, on the grounds that they couldn’t go to both? No. Was it wrong to have demos in quick succession? No. We don’t know what this Autumn will look like, but it’s fairly likely to be another “hot” period where the more stuff that goes on, the better. If there’s two demos, go to one or both of them. Tell your mates about both of them. Promote actions undertaken by other groups whose politics you substantively agree with.

In any case, we need to avoid falling into “big date” politics where everyone thinks “let’s build for March 26th, then June 30th, then [insert date of pension strike here]…”

The “top-down” criticism doesn’t hold water either. Too often this sort of criticism reads like: “But no-one talked to me and my friends about it.”

If you’re against committees altogether then I can respect that as a principled position, but good luck trying to organise a campaign on a national scale. The committee was elected at a conference that, while not particularly large, was genuinely “national.” It is also, as I understand it, interim until another conference next term. If you don’t like its decisions then unseat them at conference if, if you prefer, ignore them.

By the way, some people lament the demise of the London Student Assembly (LSA), but the NCAFC committee has at least as many democratic strong points as the LSA ever did. How could the latter claim to set the pace of the national movement when it was a purely London-based organisation. Where can the dates for national demos come from, if not from national organisations?

Really anyone who has spent any time as an activist anywhere in any group will know that no method of decision-making is democratically watertight. There are holes that can be picked in committee and consensus models, in assembly and campaign structures, and so on. But I think the NCAFC committee is probably one of the most meaningfully representative bodies in the anti-cuts movement (and would have been more so if, for example, Workers’ Power had decided to stand for election to it).

So I guess this is a defence of the NCAFC committee’s position. The 9th is a weekday, a year since Millbank, and allows more Scottish participation, and, importantly, a protest with a separate character and different demands to those of the Jarrow March.

But more than that, this is a plea for some calmer heads. Dates aren’t set in stone, discussions and negotiations can happen. Obviously if there turns out to be a pensions strike that week for example, things will be different. Campaigns need to seriously discuss, internally and externally, how they relate to one another. This is something that the “grown-up” anti-cuts movement (CoR, RtW, NSSN…) has almost totally failed to do. Will the student and youth organisations behave any better?

The exaggerated outrage, and the suspicion that everything any other group does is motivated primarily by a desire to get one over on your own group or network, is a ball-and-chain round the ankles of the movement. Everyone, stop it. Enough of this bullshit.

Remember the fuss about the “two demos” on January 29th? Remember the fatal blow that having more than one demo dealt the movement? No, me neither. The date of one or two particular demos will have very little bearing on the success or failure of the movement. Can we get over ourselves, and start to recognise that?


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Review: Fight Back! A reader on the winter of protest

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.

Protest tactics

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.


Filed under Political Strategy, Reviews, Student Issues

Porter’s parting shot at the left

by Edd Mustill

“Withdraw your children from the streets. They are drugging your children, they are making your children drunk and sending them to hell.”

Muammar Gaddafi
Aaron Porter

Today’s interview with outgoing NUS president Aaron Porter in G2 reveals a lot about his political approach, and that of the Labourite groups which have run NUS since humankind crawled out of the sea.

He dismisses the tactics of the left as “still incredibly irrelevant, outdated and frankly tired, and if these people think that’s the way to get their point across then I frankly think they are deluded.”

Anyone who has been involved in student politics will recognise this as a common tactic: dividing people into sensible, right-minded moderates and insane revolutionaries. Imagine being a revolutionary, eh? You’d have to be crazy. So anything revolutionaries say is crazy. End of. The left is not made up of “ordinary students” but sinister political operatives, doing things only for their own end. In this interview, Porter goes further and includes the Guardian newspaper as part of this agenda.

Porter is no doubt correct to say that a general radicalisation of students has not occurred, but to dismiss everything that has happened since November so lightly is the mark of a man detached from political reality.

More than anything, the approach of the right in NUS is, and has been for a long time, incredibly dogmatic. The line goes like this: Students don’t want rhetoric. Students are not political. Students are fed up of radical posturing and support responsible, constructive criticism of government policy.

The idea that an “effective campaign” is something that plays well in the media is a poisonous one, and too often influences people on the left as well. Remember that the attack on Millbank got nothing but hostility from the press, but without it a movement on the scale of what we saw before Christmas would have been very unlikely.

Porter praises the Egyptian protests and says he has more sympathy with the Poll Tax protests of the early ’90s, than the Millbank protest. Never mind that the Poll Tax protesters smashed up a lot of the West End in a much more indiscriminate fashion than the vandalism at Tory HQ. What he’s really hiding behind is the old moderate axiom: I support genuine protest that I don’t have to deal with or take responsibility for. Things that occur, for example, thousands of miles away or many years ago.

Ultimately, it is the paucity of Porter’s politics that have led to his demise.

The following quote reveals all we need to know about his political skill. Challenged by Decca Aitkenhead about the inadequacy of the NUS’s anti-fees campaign, he says: “The preferred outcome from the pledge would’ve been that the Liberal Democrats stuck to it – but they didn’t.”

British student politics has not lost a world-class political mind.

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The February Theses

by Anne Archist

Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason (allegedly a former member of Workers’ Power, though I don’t know if this is true or not) has written 20 theses on the current situation, particularly regarding anti-austerity dissent in Europe and the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East. He specifically asked for comments and replies on twitter, so I’m here to remind him to be careful what he wishes for…


1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future…

Is there? “It all” here refers not only to the student protests in this country, and the wider anti-cuts movement, but also anti-austerity mobilisations elsewhere in Europe and even the rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Can we put all of these down to the “graduate with no future”? I think not – my experience of the anti-cuts movement in this country is that it is largely composed of activists, students and trade unionists. Only some of these students have “no future” (yes, some people who do have secure futures are capable of dissent too!) and only some of them are in higher education.

2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany [sic].

True to an extent, but it is important to bear in mind the descriptive and potentially momentary nature of this. The fact that people are using the internet a lot doesn’t imply that people ought to rely on it; there is massive potential for these sorts of coordination to be hampered or prevented altogether if it becomes really necessary (apparently the USA are working on an internet kill switch that would allow the president to unplug the country on a whim).

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

There’s no reason to assume that truth moves faster than lies through social networks!

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

Au contraire – membership has risen for Labour and far left groups, and I’ve been in contact with sixth formers keen to learn more about Marxism and Anarchism, for instance.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

To put this down to the development of modernised markets undermines the hard work that has been done throughout the history of social struggles to improve the lot of women within them. Would “modernised labour markets and higher education access” have ensured the same result without the input of socialist-feminists taking male leaders to task, the active and conscious selection of women as spokespersons for campaigns, the use of women’s caucuses in trade unions, etc? Most groups purposely and self-consciously deal with gender issues within the campaign, and to put the observation of women organisers/etc down to economic factors is to do a political disservice to these groups and to the hard work of women within them. Women had to fight for the position they are now beginning to occupy, and it’s by no means assured or entirely equal!

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

Perhaps Mason means something specific by ‘vertical’ hierarchies (are there such things as horizontal hierarchies?), but hierarchies of sorts certainly persist in the face of technology. They may be different kinds of hierarchies (those who have a smartphone vs those who don’t), and they may in fact be even less appealing ones. This is the sort of point made well in the classic pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness. At least a democratic hierarchy allows us to choose and change who is at the top; emergent accidental hierarchies may be decided by factors like income, etc.

7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.

I don’t have anything to add here…

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

Again, though, this idea of ‘networks’ can be dangerous if it leads to the formation of cabals that are unaccountable, personality cults, etc.

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess [sic] – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

People get unhappy when the economy turns to shit – nothing too surprising there.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I’m not entirely sure what this is about – how is it “compounded”? Maybe I just don’t understand what’s being said here.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

But a revolution of poor lawyers produces a social order organised for rich lawyers – the French revolution was an essentially bourgeois revolution, this is no surprise. Unrest in the Middle East, China, etc may lead to a revolution of poor lawyers that throws off political repression and so forth (and this is by no means inevitable). More economically developed, liberal-democratic states are already organised for rich lawyers, however…

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

Well, this in itself is making very few claims – in what sense is the intelligentsia predominant? What has the relationship changed from and to? I’m not convinced that the claims it does make are true – the intelligentsia seems to have little to do with anything when it comes to the politics of the street that are emerging.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he [sic] old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

This is a pedantic point, but it’s not a loss of fear if they’re young radicals that weren’t involved in social movements like this before, because they never had occasion to fear in the first place. Taking a day off from protesting (and occupying) is not as easy as it may seem – certainly you won’t get people threatening to break your legs, but you might reasonably expect peer pressure, guilt, and so forth. On the other hand, it may be true that the struggle these days is being fought in a more ‘tactical’ hit-and-run fashion. The question remains whether this is merely a transitory phenomenon or whether we are in a new era of struggle; soon we should be seeing a lot more industrial action, and we’ll see how comfortable people feel from having a day off then…

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

This isn’t to do with the changed nature of class relations within the movement or anything of the sort. The core activists of most campaigns do tend to overlap, and they always have done historically. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Socialist groups in the 60s in the USA would have had a place in the civil rights/black power struggle, the women’s liberation movement, the unions, community groups, the anti-vietnam protests, etc.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.

This is an interesting observation from an academic point of view, but I doubt as to whether it tells us much about the nature of the movements we’re examining.

16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons [sic] – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

I don’t have anything to add here either.

17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

This is romanticising protest aesthetics as if they were a source of political power in themselves – to paraphrase Mason, “they use graffiti” is missing the point of what they use it for. Furthermore, it’s always been possible to bring down a government without spending years in the jungle – “international pressure and some powerful NGOs” is not the way to do it, however. The Russian February Revolution was the work of the women proletarians and the product of bread queues. International pressure generally comes to nought unless it consists of foreign interference; Egyptians don’t want the US to replace Mubarak with a CIA-approved puppet, they want to force him out and decide what follows.

18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.

Again, this is part of the Laurie Penny narrative according to which young people have no truck with old-fashioned notions that social workers and billionaire property tycoons have conflicting class interests. This isn’t representative of the consciousness I encounter in the movement, however.

19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.

The task of socialists, of course, will be to reverse this, as it has always been!

20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.

Expanded the space of the individual? At this point Mason seems to be getting a little too keen on Foucault. It’s interesting that he mentions CCTV cameras as if they expand the power of protesters; this thesis forgets that for every blog there is now a tank, for every smartphone there is now a wiretap, for every soundsystem there is now a Forward Intelligence Team.


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Carnival of Socialism

by Edd Mustill

Welcome to the 52nd Carnival of Socialism and the first to be hosted by the Great Unrest. In light of recent events, we’ll be focusing on an international theme.


While Tunisian events seem to have been eclipsed by Egypt for the time being, they remain important. Follow statements from the leadership of the UGTT union here.

Socialist Appeal describe what they think is the development of some elements of dual power. But Tunisia Scenario has a more sombre assessment. The majority of demonstrators seem to want to give the interim government a chance. The author also reports:

“Since the revolution many of my friends have started wearing Hijab and growing beards (having a long beard and going to prayers could supposedly get you disappeared) and it’s one of the most visible signs of the revolution. We hear a lot in America about regimes around here that repressively enforce Islam, but a lot regimes are just as oppressive in the opposite direction and it’s nice to see people take their basic rights back.”


Of far left groups, Counterfire has probably been giving most coverage to the Egyptian protests. Understandably, most of the coverage so far takes the form of news rather than in-depth analysis. Socialist Worker carries some fantastic live eyewitness reporting from Judith Orr. Richard Seymour takes up the question of the army as an unknown quantity. Workers’ Liberty report on the formation of a new independent union federation. Entdinglichung has the press release.

The Egyptian blog Maat carries a detailed description of state repression and the rollercoaster of emotions unleashed by the revolutionary movement. The Arabawy blog is a good one for more eyewitness evidence, and reports that the tax collectors’ union is calling for the dissolution of parliament and cabinet.

Carl at TCF has produced a solid overview of the Muslim Brotherhood and a critique of the line on Islamism taken by prominent SWPers past and present, including Lindsey German, Callinicos, and Chris Harman. Dave Osler is pessimistic about the prospects for a positive resolution to the crisis from the point of view of the left.

Yourfriendinthenorth takes the “Socialist” International to task for keeping Mubarak’s party as a full member (yeah, I know…) until the last possible moment.

What are the prospects for further spreading of the unrest? Paul at TCF asks if the contagion will spread to Algeria. Here is the blog for an overlooked action taken last week by the General Union of Palestinian Students. They staged a sit-in at the PLO’s London offices to kick-start a campaign for direct elections to the Palestinian National Council. Perhaps partly influenced by recent student actions in Britain and/or the movements in Tunisia and Egypt? Tendence Coatesy has a round up of developments in Sudan.

Puerto Rico

Meanwhile the Third Estate is seemingly one of few English-language websites to be following events in Puerto Rico, where a somehow forgotten student struggle has escalated into violent clashes with riot police.


The Republic of Ireland has been kicked around and stomped all over by international finance, and is now at the beginning of an important general election campaign. Andy at Socialist Unity has bigged-up Sinn Fein’s anti-cuts credentials and electoral prospects.

WorldbyStorm at Cedar Lounge Revolution predicts a very tough time for the governing Fianna Fail party if recent polling is anything to go by. A Fine Gael/Labour coalition seems likely, and the Labour leadership is criticised here for not countenencing a coalition with Sinn Fein and the Left.

Cedar Lounge also has one of the more unusual election broadcasts, from independent candidate Dylan Haskins.


Back home, the split in the National Shop Stewards’ Network following the Socialist Party’s decision to push through the launch of a new anti-cuts campaign has provoked remarkably little discussion, perhaps eclipsed by international events. The exception is this thread on Socialist Unity.

The anti-cuts protests of 29th January have restarted the movement after a Christmas lull. The anti-official sentiment was shown in Manchester when NUS president Aaron Porter was chased off the demonstration. Subsequent wobbly accusations of anti-semitic abuse have been discussed on this blog and at Latte Labour, among other places. SSY‘s article is typically scathing. Infantile and Disorderly has a detailed account of the Manchester protest. Truth, Reason, and Liberty has an anarchist perspective, making the point I have tried to make on this blog that the anti-cuts battle is not a debate but a clash of social forces.

HarpyMarx has some good photos from the roving London protests. Latte Labour has a detailed account of Saturday in London, including a critical view of the Oxford Street protesters’ lack of engagement with shoppers.

UK Uncut’s Boots protest on Sunday was met with heavy-handed policing and the use of pepper spray, as detailed on the group’s website. New Left Project carries a report from one of the activists, which includes interesting indications of the attitudes of a police officer and the Boots staff themselves.

RandomPottins’ description of an anti-cuts protest in Brent reminds us that local groups are gathering steam in between the national demos. Hangbitch reports that Barnet Unison is balloting for strike action, although there seems to be very little of this going on nationally, considering the scale of the attack on local government jobs.

Debates around the movement go on. OpenDemocracy is advertising a forthcoming book on the recent protests from an eclectic bunch of contributors. Luna17 posts a short defence of democratic centralism. Although it forms part of a discussion about the Tommy Sheridan saga, it has a place as part of the wider debate about structures that is ongoing in the movement at the moment. Rob Ray decries what he sees as the Trotskyist tactic of setting up fronts. Another form of organisation, that of sex workers, is discussed at The Daily (Maybe) in a guest post from Jane Watkinson.

Owen Jones criticises “traditional” nationalisation, which is an incredibly important point to make.

Sofie at Zetkin is currently writing a three-part post about journalism and the student movement, taking Laurie Penny to task on some issues, which is worth checking out.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party can’t seem to get into the news much. Left Outside sounds a note of caution for those who are too optimistic about Ed Balls’ appointment as shadow chancellor. Darrell Goodliffe at Labourlist wants his party more heavily involved in the anti-cuts movement.

Leftist Lols

The award for Left-Wing Spat of the Week goes to Jacob at the Third Estate and Laurie Penny, who are engaged in a crucial high-level polemic about whether or not one of them is “a cunt.” (Un?)fortunately the comments thread is now closed.

Elsewhere Madam Miaow keeps up with the Julian Assange saga. The man is now being accused of smelling pretty bad.

So that’s our Carnival. The next one will be hosted by AVPS in mid-February.

Let’s give the final word over to Maat:

“Around me, friends are sleeping on couches, on the floor, in any empty space they can find.
I call them friends eventhough half of them I’ve never met before this week, but so many things happened, together we shared intensely charged emotional days that we became friends rapidly.

Yesterday I was terrified, I was freaked out like never before. I was shaking in bed trying to convince myself to sleep. I actually thought of writing a note and posting it on my fridge incase I died. Now I feel elated.

I have lived to see the uprise of the Egyptian people and the downfall of Mobarak. I can dream about having kids and me telling them proudly that I was part of this extraordinary moment.”


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