Chihab El Khachab: Some Thoughts on the Oxford Left Review Issue 3

When I started reviewing the third issue of the Oxford Left Review (OLR), which was published following the Tories’ 2010 cuts in culture and education, I only had a faint idea about what circumstances led to the cuts, what devastating effects they could have, and what role student activism played in resisting them. When the protests started, I was only an undergraduate, studying on another continent, with little experience in student activism and little knowledge of the UK, at least outside what I saw on BBC News in North America. My fading memories of the 2010 protests blur with countless other events—World Trade Organisation protests, anti-war protests in 2003, Quebec student protests in 2011—which were reported in mainstream media according to the selfsame narrative: a ‘crisis’ occurs; suspicious protesters react using VIOLENT means; we need to end the VIOLENCE before we can tackle the ‘crisis’, which is probably just a glitch in an otherwise perfectly functional system; a momentary challenge to our blissful democracy; a misunderstanding—really, just a misunderstanding.

We will come back to the theme of VIOLENCE in a moment, since it was much discussed in OLR 3. For now, I just want to say that given my lack of personal involvement in the 2010 protests and my relative unfamiliarity with the UK student movement, the following review inevitably relies on textual and audiovisual evidence—the essays in OLR 3 of course, but also bits and pieces from news reports, images, videos, or personal accounts. This entails obvious disadvantages, not the least of which is my inability to speak intelligently about strategic choices made in the UK student movement: their successes, their failures, their overall merits. However, I can and will speak about other theoretical concerns raised in OLR 3. This, I think, is what my situation allows me to write about: ‘theory’, which is neither vague language play nor an idealised vision of human conduct, but a reflection on concerns which have similar practical effects across a range of comparable cases – or, in line with the theme of this issue, comparable student movements. This review addresses two main concerns: the role of education in contemporary societies and the role of violence in student protests. Wait, did I say violence? I meant VIOLENCE. Never forget about that.

Most readers will be familiar with the context within which OLR 3 was published. The Tories announce massive cuts in universities, public television, public arts funds, legal aid funds, and so on. Students and other affected groups react to the announced cuts with demonstrations, marches, and occupations—the most prominent being the Millbank occupation. In this context, without focusing too much on particular events, OLR 3 begins with a simple interrogation: why should students continue protesting against cuts? As several articles in the issue show, students should not—and mostly do not—protest out of strict self-interest in avoiding more tuition fees, or out of blind love for welfare state institutions. They protest because recent funding cuts signify a deeper divergence about what we think our education should ideally be—and because these cuts will take us further from, not closer to, this ideal.

What ideal, then? Certain themes recur in OLR 3: education should be ‘free’, ‘accessible’ and ‘popular’. A Tory may think that these terms ‘don’t mean anything’ and offer ‘no clear alternative’ to the cuts. This would be grossly unfair, yet it is not entirely inaccurate. Depending on what historical, political, or even interpretive angle one takes, one can read different resonances into such terms as ‘access’ and ‘popularity’. The occupiers of the Oxford Radcliffe Camera (pp. 6-7), for instance, sketch a vision of education, where to increase ‘freedom’, ‘access’ or ‘popularity’ would mean to attack, indistinctly, the economy of knowledge under capitalism, the epistemic authority attributed to academic knowledge, the very walls guarding our universities and our tyrannical system of accreditation. Reminiscent of the quasi-anarchic, quasi-utopian ethos of 1968, they call for an attack on ‘everything we don’t like’ about universities. In contrast, Tom Cutterham (pp. 8-10) and Peter Hill (pp. 20-23) imagine a rather different education, working towards universal access by lowering financial barriers to education, while bringing in more interaction between students, professors, and the world – i.e. a better articulation between curricular and extra-curricular activities, a greater popularization of academic knowledge, a more encouraging environment for critical thinking, and so on.

The difference is sizeable. On one end, we have an education ideal with the goal of destroying any form of authority—economic, political, epistemic—in favour of a constant flux of politicised discussion. On the other end, we have an ideal seeking to reform existing institutions in order to better coordinate academic and non-academic spheres. While diverging on several points (primarily, in my opinion, the value of academic knowledge), these ideals share a total distaste for the Tories’ views on education. I do not mean to suggest that all Tories have an identical view on education, which is certainly untrue in historical terms. However, in a surprisingly consistent way across industrialised nations, today’s conservative forces share a common view about what education involves: since students are destined to work in competitive labour markets, our national education system needs to ‘harmonise’ training offers with market demands. Universities, here, become akin to factories, where value-added student-commodities are produced. Education, in similar measure, morphs into an autonomous sector of our free market economy, inserted into a supply chain of labour, subject to consumer market dynamics.

A Tory reader would perhaps protest such a simplistic characterisation. He might say that it is unrealistic and closer to a neoliberal version of conservatism than to good old-fashioned conservative values. The difference is worth noting, of course, yet there remains something eerily retrograde in dreaming about reinstating a ‘good old-fashioned’ education system, in its most stubbornly nationalist form (see Michael Gallagher’s article, pp. 43-44). Our Tory reader may finally say that our description objectivises individual student-subjects. We would then remark, in our defence, that the subjective language of ‘leadership’, ‘career-advancement’, ‘lifelong training’, and ‘research impact’ leads directly, in fine, to the conservative version of education sketched above: students as self-marketing commodities inserted into a universal labour market; academics as workers designed to create value-added research products. If the Left protested and continues to protest against cuts, it is because it rejects this model of education, regardless of internal divergences about what the alternative might be. This point is plainly illustrated in OLR 3, and it raises further questions about how we can propose different models of education, or perhaps generate consensus about available alternatives.

We will come to these points later. VIOLENCE has waited long enough. We need to make a few general remarks here. To begin with, one must always resist any discussion of ‘VIOLENCE’ in general. Under this general label, it is used as a self-explanatory defusing tool for genuine political debate. After all, why would we still be talking and debating when we need to reckon with VIOLENCE? Notice that the mere emphasis on the term ‘VIOLENCE’, which we have so far achieved via letter-capitalising, is at best distracting from more pressing issues, and at worst discourages further reading. Since it always occurs under given conditions, violence is likely to be unevenly distributed when it is exercised by one group against another. We always need to understand, therefore, what structural power relations exist between groups affecting – or affected by – violence; it rarely, if ever, affects everyone in society equally.

In OLR 3, discussions of violence were centred around the Millbank occupation. To briefly recall the events, a bunch of students trashed the campaign headquarters of the Conservative Party, and were later removed by the police. Several articles in OLR 3 (see Rowan Tomlinson & Jennifer Oliver, pp. 28-31; and Alexander Hacillo & Matthew Barber, pp. 32-34) denounced the unfairly tilted balance of mainstream coverage, which emphasized violent confrontation or destruction over peaceful protest. This not only misrepresented the student movement vis-à-vis public opinion; it also directed attention away from its core demands. The problem is not that the majority of the movement was ‘peaceful’ and that ‘a few bad apples’ ruined its peacefulness. The problem is that the movement’s demands became illegitimate – or even non-existent – in the public eye as soon as the movement was associated with any form of violence whatsoever. This situation raises two interlinked questions in OLR 3. Firstly, is violence an effective strategy in the UK student movement? Secondly, is it ethically acceptable?

I cannot give more insight into the first question than was given in OLR 3 itself. It seems that violence is effective in attracting media attention, but that the kind of attention it attracts is undesirable in the long run (Tomlinson, p. 30). It seems that civil disobedience under certain forms (e.g. destruction of property) has been an effective strategy in the past, but we are not sure how well they would work now, even if we fully commit to them (Hacillo & Barber, p. 33). Obviously, if people consider ‘violence’ an effective strategy, it is assumed that ‘violence’ is ethically acceptable in some sense, or under certain circumstances. This is where it is important to understand what we mean by ‘violence’, since we are too prompt to condemn it when we use the term too broadly. Articles in OLR 3 make an important distinction between violence against people and violence against property. While the former is understood to be entirely unacceptable (Anthony Barnett, p. 14), the latter attracts more nuanced sentiments, with sometimes squarely favourable reactions (Rowan Tomlinson, p. 29).

I do not intend to judge, here, what kind of violence is ethically commendable under what circumstances. I simply mean to emphasise that it is crucial to situate ‘violence’ within the specific circumstances in which it occurs, and it is even more crucial to understand what power dynamics sustain it. If we take the Millbank occupation, we cannot simply focus on occupiers as ‘violent anarchists’ (for they were not), while dismissing violence against protesters. The most repulsive thing about Millbank was not the occupation itself, nor the impunity with which police forces rooted out protesters, but the general acceptance that police actions were not really that violent because they were somehow necessary. In fact, protest violence reported in mainstream media was invariably amplified at the expense of any serious reporting about police violence. That is not just biased reporting, it is in itself a violent act insofar as it enforces and legitimates police violence against citizens exercising a right to protest. This point was not sufficiently raised in OLR 3, but I think it is quite important. As Anthony Barnett argues (p. 14), one of the greatest victories from the 1960s was securing our inalienable right to protest. If we were to abdicate this right in the face of police violence—that is, if we disallow ‘violent’ protest tactics because of some ethical argument or simply due to the possibility of police sanctions—we are simultaneously giving license for increasingly extreme police repression while sacrificing our hold on various means to pressure an otherwise blind, deaf and insensitive government.

I want to conclude with a brief note about the role of ‘theory’ in student movements. The introductory editorial to OLR 3 (p. 4) talked about the importance of ‘creative praxis’ in the student movement. This referred to an active invention of practical alternatives to current education systems, movement tactics, economic forms, etc., instead of direct, knee-jerk reactions to the government’s proposals. The idea is an old one: social movements, including student movements, must not be caught in the moment, so to speak, since continual proximate reactions to the dominants’ actions will, in the end, advantage the dominants. Instead, it is suggested, we should think about long-term alternatives and further their implementation in practice. This, I think, is a worthy effort. Yet efforts of imagination must not supersede continual resistance to government actions. Even when a movement does not have a clear idea about its ultimate goals, it remains vital for it to resist its proximate targets—reactionary policies; unfair media coverage; police intimidation.

What Oxford Left Review Issue 3 accomplishes, and what I hope to have accomplished in part, is to catalyse our theoretical understanding of what we need to target, and to galvanise resistance thereby. The next step, as intimated above, consists in convincing wider audiences to join in resistance and, eventually, to implement fairer models of education in practice. •

Chihab El Khachab is reading for a D.Phil. in Anthropology at Wolfson College.

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