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?
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?