Free

The slogan I’ve always liked best from the recent student protests has been ‘Free Education Now!’, because the word ‘free’ in English hides two meanings. The first meaning, the one which has been the easiest to grasp at for corporate media reporting on the protests, has been ‘free’ in the sense of price: hence reports of ‘fees protests’ and the like. This, the economic sense, has also been central to a lot of discussion over financial models, costings, and leads inevitably to framing education (though, more accurately, the possession of a degree certificate) as a matter of benefits accrued to the student-consumer. But there’s also another sense of the word ‘free’, one that’s not concerned simply with a defence of the educational status quo, but which seeks to free education from the humdrum tedium of corporate-speak, manageriality and bloodless irrelevance sought for by the administrators of universities and colleges. In that sense, free education is not something that can be achieved by resisting the most recent steps in the long march towards total marketisation, but by moving against the institutional frameworks that determine what education should contain, or should do – which are so deeply embedded in the notion of marketable ‘skills’ and corporate box-ticking that they’ve become a seeming ineluctable condition of education for those of us inside those institutions. A truly ‘free’ education requires first, and above all, an act of imagination which refuses to be conditioned on the premises of education as it already exists.

This is why my favourite image of the analogue fliers produced at the Really Free School is this image of a book simply emblazoned with the word ‘FREE’. I’m sure anyone could rehearse a well-known argument about the liberatory potential of reading – for instance, the role of the printing press in stoking dissent, or opening up access to texts from the confines of monasteries and private libraries, or the development of mass literacy – but there’s also the removal of the book as private property and experiments in mutual construction of education. Additionally, in contrast to the increasingly paranoid and securitised institution of the university – which sees itself as a concentration of resources, a treasure-house in which potent ideas can only be unlocked by possession of the right credentials – what would it be to posit a space in which the logic of acquisitive concentration was itself rejected? Universities increasingly justify their existence by agreeing to a set of proposals about the way the world must be: strike an unholy alliance with arms dealers, bankers and corpocrats to endow plush buildings and locked-up libraries, extort students and inflate rents to pay for upkeep, tailor the syllabus towards employment and cart prospective graduates round job fairs, where offers of leather executive-chair luxury mingle with exhortations to be more ruthlessly cut-throat, out-compete your neighbour, and be forever acquiring more CV points because your job will be (must be) always precarious. In such an atmosphere, might it be worth asking, could we not try things a little fucking differently?

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In terms of protest itself, well, this weekend was interesting. Much of what went into preparing for the protests on Saturday was a reaction to the experiences of containment and kettling that characterised last year’s protests: a desire to be free of containment. In that sense, it was a success in that protesters avoided being kettled, instead running in small groups around the streets of central London, and taking over the roads. However, I’d hardly call it an unqualified success, because what was striking was how reactive it was: so much energy having been poured in to avoiding containment meant that there was little knowledge about what should follow successful evasion. I don’t think this entirely bad – it’s never a bad thing in my book that anyone on the street should see a couple of hundred people running through the roads followed by cops, as it’s at least more immediately baffling and disruptive than a staid march down streets where no-one’s actually watching or listening. Equally, it was nice to see that the lessons of containment have been learnt by pretty much everyone on that demo – ‘let’s not get trapped’ and so on. But it’s also true that the energy of Millbank or Parliament Square simply wasn’t there, replaced by a dutiful conviction that those smaller numbers who turned up still had to have some kind of protest, but what shape that should be taking wasn’t clear.

Is this the death of the student movement? Possibly. But then I’ve never really been overly invested in the ‘student movement’ other than as a peculiar irruption of a wider discontent, and my experience of it is that much of its resistant core spreads over a far wider and more amorphous demographic than ‘students’. What I think we’ll see – and hope we’ll see – is a broadening out of resistance over the coming months, and with that a form of resistance that’s not based simply on demos or actions, which are fruitless without more sustained action. That means a kind of activity which builds community strength and solidarity. Given that one of the first effects we’ll see from the austerity agenda is a widening inability to meet basic costs of living, this means projects like eviction resistance, food projects, simple, less glamorous activities which are nevertheless the heart of building an effective resistance.

That’s not to say that I think demos and actions are unimportant. They are, for a variety of reasons, very few of which are to do with whether they achieve their putative ‘aims’ or not. But what struck me about Saturday was how intelligently policed the demo was: under it all was the realisation that the physical manifestation of police power in the act of containment is an act of aggression that confirms the deep-seated knowledge that most protesters have about the police already. Instead, it’s far better, far more insidious of them, to rely on the imaginary potential of the police – the image of line upon line of riot cops is doubtless stuck in the head of many protesters. While we were at no point kettled, those of us running around the city were also very rarely free of a police presence – at most points you could see a cop or two somewhere in your line of vision. This sense of police ubiquity is disturbingly effective tool: while apparently not transgressing freedom of movement, the imaginary weight of the police, and their vans trundling a hundred or so yards behind, prevent any attempt to engage in serious disruption. At the few moments a store might have been shut down, they materialised reasonably effectively, their constant presence having already drained many of the spark necessary to dare to act. Thus a crowd of 250 sat down for 5 minutes in the centre of Oxford Circus, and then ran off again, solely because the police were arriving; I can’t hope to count the number of times I heard the hysterical cry ‘they’re going to kettle us!’, but it was alarmingly frequent. Paranoia. They’ve colonised our imaginations: maybe we should free them?

Image of the Year

It’s a fascinating image. You can see why it made the front pages. SHEER TERROR IN HER EYES, ran one of the headlines. A bit mendacious, that: it’s not terror, really, it looks more like she’s clucking and hooting in rage or confusion. It really does have it all: that semi-vacant, half-O face, across which all sorts of emotions could flicker, the gaping witlessness of her husband beside her, electric Regent street Christmas lights flashing in the shiny paint of a vintage Roller. It’s one of the moments you’d never really have the temerity to write as fiction: the heir to the throne gets driven in a vintage Rolls-Royce through a riot, en route to preside at the annual ritual where the media caste scrape and grovel in wonder at the rotting sump of hereditary privilege.

Nice. Those of us kettled in the cold in Parliament Square got the news not long after it happened. A friend mentioned it disbelievingly. It sounded like the rushed news you sometimes hear at actions, which turn out to be entirely fictional later. Rapidly, two forms of analysis emerged: the first held that the action was an error, either strategically (it would dominate press coverage, or alienate the public) or morally (some variation on ‘scaring pensioners’); the second that it reflected the scale of feeling, or presaged the start of a wider insurrection. Such debates played themselves out in the following days, with ubiquitous fear over media portrayal being one of the dominant threads. I cheerfully admit my reaction was one of unalloyed pleasure, and fascination at the circulation of the image itself.

One could use the image to talk about ‘violence’ and its uses, or to bewail the cosy, craven stupidity of newspaper editors, or indeed that, thirteen years after Diana, the royals apparently still haven’t learnt to wear seatbelts. One might, more interestingly, remark on the disproportionate emphasis given by some more centrist protesters to the impact on message rather than the impact of police batons on other protesters’ heads. But those things should all be obvious. I am more interested in why the photo has lingered in memory, and what’s not articulated behind the assumption that the photo embodies something shocking – i.e., that it’s a clear icon of disruption of some order we should all know instinctively.

That order itself has something to do with both what royalty is, and what form ‘protest’ should take; its disruption is tangible in the notion that there was something uncanny about the event, the deep conviction that this is a thing that should not happen. Nowhere did we read that the scandal might be that a man by dint of birth is driven through the streets in a vintage car, where others can scarcely afford to eat; everywhere was the assumption that somewhere along the line, something important had ruptured.

It was precisely the irruptive nature of that event that makes it both so disquieting and so characteristic of the student protests as a whole. In moments like these, I think one can see the authentic swell of anger among grassroots, and the radicalisation that comes as a consequence of experiencing protest. To me, what’s key is precisely that the destruction of a Topshop window, the graffiti on the Treasury, or the blockading of a royal convoy is not mindless, but quite the antithesis: the point at which structural inequality, when the whole, stinking, hypocritical con becomes utterly apparent… and is sitting there in front of you in a chauffeur-driven car.

These worlds are not supposed to coincide: it is precisely the illusion of their separateness that shores up their concentration of power. A couple of days later, the Standard ran a fervid and unintentionally amusing story ‘revealing’ the apparently scandalous news that Camilla had been prodded with a stick. That moment of touching, and what turns upon it, evidently offered some considerable allure.

It’s tempting here to think about the ancient notion of the King’s Evil, that the touch of a king could cure scrofula, or the enduring psychological presence of myths about sacred kingship and taboo. Perhaps far more interesting here is Kajsa Ekholm Friedman’s suggestion that, far from evincing a fundamental ground for notions of sovereignty, such myths and taboos come to exist, or at least are most stringently enforced, in times of great social and political upheaval. (Bloch notes, indeed, the propagandistic uses to which the royal touch was put in the English Civil War.) No one seriously believes in such things these days; either in the supernatural locus of sovereign power, nor that, should the crops fail or banks collapse, royal blood should drip off the altars of Westminster Abbey. But the aura of order and taboo surrounding them continues to work its stupefying charms, now perhaps propped up with the myth of the ‘apolitical’ head of state.

Order and touching are related: there’s rarely an occasion where someone touches Elizabeth Windsor that someone else doesn’t rumble along to talk about protocol, dignity, and respect – and, underneath that lies some occult fear that to act upon the body of a sovereign presumes that the body of the State itself can be acted upon. The fiction of order that surrounds the royals at all times – the eternal smell of new paint, extensive cleaning, ordered ranks of dazzled people – is really only rarely broken, and almost never by anything more than something that can be written off as a lone nut’s solitary plan.

Where does dissent fit in this picture? It’s not that royals have never encountered protesters before, but they have largely been of the banner-holding, neatly-assembled, contained type – what we might also dub the ineffectual type. Ineffectual precisely because their ‘dissent’ becomes a recuperated part of the very system they want to protest against – and is seen as a sign of its pluralistic values, its healthy, democratic spirit. This argument should by now be familiar: it is the rationale behind direct action, behind the refusal to co-operate with a system designed to make protest ineffectual and non-disruptive.

But it is precisely the disordered nature of such protests that makes for the most compelling narrative in that picture, because so much of state, police and reactionary response has been to seize on disorder as the central metaphor for what happens on the streets. That is to say, from the implication that protesters fail to understand the plans for education, to the suggestion that to protest in anything other than the approved form was dangerously crazy or fanatical, or indeed to the general police response, the emphasis has been on dissent as a disorder not solely in a tactical sense but a medical sense as well.

That metaphor has characterised police thinking throughout: from the ‘sterile zones’ to ‘containment’, to the argument that protesters had somehow been ‘contaminated’ by ultra-leftists; from here it is an easy step to justifying violence as a medical response to infection, and some of that was abundantly clear from the continued police jibes about students needing to take a bath. But the virtue of the medical organising metaphor is precisely this: it views politicisation as a symptom of a malady that can be wiped out, that any action resulting therefrom can be viewed as symptomatic behaviour, as lacking in cohesion as a fever-dream, that political positions dissenting from particular articles of faith are a sign not just of unsound beliefs, but unsound minds and unsound bodies. How much easier to beat a teenager when you have drunk so deeply of that poisonous brew that you think you’re doing them a favour.

Of course the state has to think of such a movement as an infection, and one that is dangerously spreading through the body politic, but it is not a metaphor that we need to accept. One thing is to make clear that we can reject the notion that political reason is found only in the heads of Westminster politicians, but is found inside every single one of us; that we can reject the logic that Cameron or Clegg or any of their class of politicians and media hypocrites claim to set the bounds of rational objection; that, precisely, we know how deeply the law courts, the glitz of Oxford street, the Treasury and the relic in the Roller are all connected.

What to draw from this? It’s apparent to me that the odd disjunctions brought to the fore by these kind of actions – which expose the sheer brazenness of inequality and the violence the state is willing to use to perpetuate and strengthen it – are part of the movement’s strength. Call it an infection, or think of it, rather, in terms of resonances, or rhizomes, or weeds, but it’s clear this decentralised approach does not preclude ideological engagement, or political commitment, that it is precisely the strength found in autonomy that has allowed such actions to proliferate. To break with the traditional model of dissent is also to find a freedom in one’s targets; things without the bounds of ‘traditional’ and easily-neutralised protest. The image of a red and black flag over Millbank, or the wave of innovative occupations, or a stick in the ribs for Camilla: these things should send an uncompromising message that we’re not acting out a puppet theatre politics, where we stick to the hollow ghost of real protest, which has been relied on to prop up the mythic pluralist bedrock of sham ‘democracy’ for decades. When the most arbitrary, fossilised, absurd avatar of class privilege and cheery face of its entrenchment gets driven into your protest what can you do other than see him for what he is? What better sign that we’re not ‘all in this together’?