The Big Society Bites Back

01.29.11 London Demo, Photo by Author

“Move along folks, you’re blocking a cash point.” This pithy synopsis of the neoliberal logic driving the policing of student protest was delivered unironically by one of London Met’s Finest to the milling crowd at a recent demonstration at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, whose inmates gazed down apprehensively from their glass cubicles as the plods herded us a safe distance from the hapless hangmen charged with the execution of the English university. The deployment of some 25 paddywagons for a scraggly gaggle of a hundred-odd protesters seemed like overkill for a comparatively mild demo against the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, after twenty disappointingly riot-free minutes of which even the helicopter got bored and wandered off. Yet it was a potent sign that Britain stands on a knife’s edge between surveillance and reprisal, persuasion and coercion, manipulation and repression – or what some popularly caricature as the counterintuitive tactical distinction between the “strong state,” in which obedience is exacted through hegemonic consent, and the “weak state,” in which sedition is punished with truncheons, tear gas, and terror. Most western nation-states constitute a calculated composite of both, with strong tactics exercised most visibly inward through pseudo democratic participation and weak ones inflicted most visibly outward through violent imperial conquest, but the higher education demos threaten to expose a new generation of middle class white kids to the despotic weak-state methods generally earmarked for Britain’s destitute poor, uppity workers and ethnic minorities on home turf.

Where the fountain pen leads the six-gun follows, and so it is with the unfolding tragicomedy heralding the beginning of the end of the British welfare state. Since last I wrote, the government has concluded that throwing the book (and worse, the inveterate snitches at the Telegraph) at protesters is insufficient to banish the terrifying spectre of student cadres armed with trenchant slogans and reasonable demands, and decided to call in – wait for it – the military. According to a report in the Observer, senior officers have consulted with defence contractors about how best to meet the dire national security threat of spontaneous public redevelopment and extracurricular essay composition in Westminster. Given their track record in Afghanistan, I think we can reasonably expect more glass underfoot. If the prospect of those geniuses from defsec tearing themselves away from the critical job of constructing craftless aircraft carriers to lend a hand in managing our domestic extremists failed to put a jingle in your bells this holiday, just in time for pantomime season we learned that the NUS sent a fake revolutionary to negotiate a fake settlement with the fake coalition, demonstrating definitively that we have learned important lessons, if largely dramaturgical ones, from the war on terror.

The more radical visionaries among the newly-minted Whitehall Maoists, however, are unwilling to wait until students are old enough to vote before crushing their insurrectionary tendencies through the carrot-and-stick combo of seconded military thuggery and leveraged political buyouts. Education Secretary Michael Gove has proposed the militarisation of the primary school classroom by commissioning demobbed soldiers as teachers, part and parcel of what he unabashedly calls a “cultural revolution” for British education. The front line of defence against any potential children’s crusade, however, are way ahead of him. Thames Valley Police, for example, have been keeping a close eye on the homegrown insurgency blossoming mutinously among the fertile fields of the nation’s comprehensives, sending an anti-terrorism squad to pull 12 year-old Nicky Wishart out of his English class at Bartholomew School in Oxfordshire and threaten him with arrest for organising a protest against the closing of his local youth centre at the PM’s constituency office.

Beyond the spectacle of milquetoast Tories cowering obligingly from the wrath of pre-pubescent militants, some veritable pillars of the British establishment have contributed, however inadvertently, to the burgeoning national trove of seasonal slapstick. The royals themselves blundered unwittingly into the fracas when a protestor allegedly poked the future queen with a stick through an open Rolls Royce window (presumably in the manner one might prod an insect of unknown but suspicious intent) as the geriatric Prince and the People’s Divorcée made their way to a Royal Variety show in the midst of a higher education demo, prompting Home Secretary Theresa May to pronounce with ministerial gravity that “there was some contact” and generating no small amount of public speculation over just what counts as an intolerable degree of oik-toff cross-contamination. Not to be outclassed in the dissemination of preposterous inanities, the BBC got in on the act shortly thereafter by accusing activist and cerebral palsy sufferer Jody McIntyre of rolling menacingly toward police in his wheelchair, from which the cops dragged him in retaliation for the grave double offense of protesting while disabled. And lest anyone feared that the political drama of 2010 was a limited run, just as the curtain came up on new year, onto the stage bumbled the incomparable Norman Baker (MP for Lewes and the Liberal Democrats’ very own Benny Hill), who recently compared himself to South African reformer Helen Suzman, and in the doing inadvertently (maybe) likened the coalition’s fearless leader to PW Botha – or perhaps more fittingly, Hendrik Verwoerd, given the uncanny resemblance between neoliberalism billed as the “Big Society” and apartheid proffered as “good neighbourliness.”

With adolescents now classified as terrorists and wheelchairs rated as weapons of mass destruction, it seems indisputable that while the recession may have stolen our bread, it’s done wonders for our circuses. However disparate the narrative threads of Britain’s political farce may seem, they can be increasingly woven into a singular chronicle in this theatre of the absurd. When the state dispenses public monies contracting domestic mercenaries to prevent students from protesting the defunding of higher education in order to pay off a national deficit run up in part by the perpetration of a 20 billion-pound, nine-year, torture-ridden, two-front failed war – because the students might get violent – we have officially crossed the line from politics to vaudeville. Still, for those feeling insupportably discombobulated by the revolutionary burlesque sweeping the nation, one British tradition holds fast: even with counterinsurgency tactics coming home to roost, water cannons remain reserved solely for the Irish.

Sir Hugh Orde, Chief Constable and president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, isn’t laughing. Clearly a beneficiary of his free postsecondary degree, Orde has offered the astute analysis that demo policing must not be “played as the cops acting as an arm of the state, delivering the elected government’s will, rather than protecting the rights of the citizen.” His evocation of play is indicative. The distinction between “doing” and “seen to be doing” is an important one in British politics, and Orde seems keenly attuned to the performative PR routine through which responsibility for state violence is refracted back on its recipients, and particularly those who stand up against it. Its most recent target are British youth, and in the wake of Millbank, especially university students, who have been shunted from one end of the vilification spectrum (lazy, entitled, feckless) to the other (violent, riotous, threatening) with masterful speed. While much of the blame for this tediously predictable moral panic rests rightfully at the feet of Fleet Street, the dailies are only tapping the well of a deeper public psychosis.

The casual denigration of students, a longstanding fixture of British cultural politics, is symptomatic of a far larger disease, a chronic and malignant ephebiphobia against which there is no inoculation and no immunity. Its manifestations vary with the vectors of transmission (racism, classism, sexism, nationalism) but they are essentially of an epidemiological piece. While the hoodies are berated as no-account wasters and the students dismissed as overprivileged brats, black youth are slated as gang bangers and Muslim youth are stigmatised as terrorists; poor young women of all ethnicities are typecast as a neoMalthusian demographic threat while the disabled, homeless, immigrant and unemployed are maligned as drains on the public purse. The only passable youth in this country are the ones who knuckle under and do what they’re told: shut your trap, get a McJob. If only they could. With Britain threatening to overtake Spain in the European youth unemployment lottery, their backs are up against the wall. The symbolism of Orde’s hordes kettling student protesters on Westminster Bridge – threatening to tip them over the barriers and into the Thames or crush them, Hillsborough style – not only sends a chilling message to anyone who would take to the streets to contest the gutting of the British public sector, but reflects the cold hard realities of a generation whose only choice is to jump, suffocate, or push back.

Amidst the sea of propaganda alleging student violence (in which the biggest victims thus far have been inert property), the nation seems to have missed the soon-to-be-sold national forest for the trees. British youth have become all-too-routine victims of violence, both structural and overt: the discursive violence of a media which viciously denigrates them at every turn, the military violence of a state which sends them to the front lines of an unwinnable and interminable war, the ecological violence of a privatisation scheme which plans to auction off their natural heritage to the highest bidder, the economic violence of a financial crisis which has thrown them out of work and onto the dole in record numbers, the political violence of revanchist legislation which threatens to simultaneously remove their social safety net and their means of upward mobility, and the physical violence of the cops who beat and kettle them for protesting against these injustices. By the same token, the public have been expertly conned into disregarding the ironic flip side of this same sorry coin: the students among them – that allegedly selfish shower of layabouts who (according to the received wisdom peddled sagaciously in Daily Mail Land) think of little beyond gap year and the next binge session in city centre – are fighting for just about everyone but themselves. Those at university in England now, and indeed those entering the system next year, will be grandfathered in under the old tuition regime, and will only constitute indirect victims of the higher education assault.

01.29.11 London Demo, Photo by Author

So why do they fight? There are two possibilities. One is that Cameron’s Big Society is materialising before his very eyes, a disquieting reminder that he may get more than he bargained for in the demand for a new era of civic engagement in Britain. The other is that the students have made a deeper structural analysis, rightly pegging the retrenchment of higher education as one tick in a privatisation time bomb that will land on their own doorsteps sooner or later. Either way, the coalition government is banking – as evidenced by Nick Clegg’s urgent move to shove through the fees vote before the embers at Millbank had even cooled – that the student movement boils down to a fiery but fleeting voluntarism which, with few immediate structural ramifications at stake, will burn brightly but briefly. Yet a spark might be enough to set Britain’s political tinderbox ablaze.

The moment which epitomises the zeitgeist of these days comes courtesy of an affable boy named Jack Jordon, who organised a walkout among his schoolmates last term. Outshining even the venerable Tony Benn at an anti-cuts rally at Goldsmiths this past November, Jack took the podium before 500 people and made a pronouncement that brought the room to its feet: we saw the college students stand up and defend us, so we figured we’d better stand up and defend ourselves. Therein lies the danger for the coalition. The students may have lost the fees battle – at least for the moment – but they’ve accomplished a far more astonishing feat. They’ve demonstrated that the British public, against all rational predictions to the contrary, have not been X-Factored into sleepy submission by the stupefying drone of consumer complacency. The Facebook generation, long written off by many of its elders as a post-political sacrifice on the altar of the iPod, have thus far proven the squeakiest wheel on the creaking radical wagon – all the more remarkably in the face of an official student leadership which seems intent on selling them out – and there are encouraging signs that the unions will throw some industrial muscle behind them in the coming year. The fervour with which the British student movement exploded has taken many by surprise (word from across the Channel has it that even the French are raising a well-groomed eyebrow), and with good reason for concern. Anyone who underestimates the power of youth-led protest through a gratuitous conflation of ephemerality with ineffectuality would do well to heed the unexpected but undeniable lessons of Tunisia.

5 thoughts on “The Big Society Bites Back

  1. Thanks to you, I have learned a new word: ephebiphobia. I love not just the writing style of course, but the fact that you spotlight counterinsurgency as a domestic practice, with clear signs of the multifaceted blowback which goes well beyond “we are making new enemies overseas.” No, you’re making new enemies at home now.

    By the way, over what time period is the fee hike to take place? How many current students will be affected directly, and how severely?

    I worry that many will feel paralyzed because collectively we have not spent enough time talking about alternatives. Do the students themselves speak of what an alternative society might look like, and how it might be overhauled so that such disparities and crises may become a thing of the capitalist past?

  2. Thanks. To the best of my knowledge, the new tuition scheme will come into effect in autumn 2012, hence the application rush for 2011 we’re already beginning to see through admissions. And on edit – current students are likely to feel it first and foremost through exposure to a profoundly demoralised faculty, delivered economically by the time strain entailed in increased exploitation which will come down the pike through cuts to research funding and VT budgets – as the University of the Arts London’s SU predicts amusingly, here:

    There’s a huge amount of discussion about alternatives, and they tend to take short-term (liberal) and long-term (beyond liberal) contours. In the short term, a lot of people in the higher ed fightback and its cognates in other sectors are looking to the ideas of the anticuts movement, which has been protesting in front of high street shops such as Vodafone and Top Shop with the pretty basic idea of getting corporations to pay their taxes in order to cover the alleged debt crisis without decimating the poor. Alongside this usually comes demands for tighter regulation of the City. There’s no one voice here speaking for all but I would characterise these as broadly Keynesian perspectives which demand a greater role for the state in mopping up or staving off market failures. It’s a fairly familiar tune.

    There is also a detectable wellspring of anti-capitalist sentiment which, if not entirely hostile to the more liberal short-term accommodation, acknowledges that it’s not enough. It’s especially prevalent among the university protests and takes the form of questions such as, “What would anthropology be like in a wholly different world?” – a topic I’ve been asked to address at an upcoming teach-in, for example (I don’t have the answer yet but I’ll let you know if I come up with one). The issue of immigration is also rapidly becoming a flashpoint for “what if” discussions, with a lot of solidarity coming from student movements around the world, and activists here stepping up the movement (which began long before the Browne review) to oppose the criminalisation of “foreign” students, which is about to get worse if the Home Office gets its way. The nation-state system is so fundamental to business-as-usual that any discussion about national borders, spatial regulation and labour control can’t help but prod larger questions about what the world would look like if the problems of national capitalism were addressed in their global context. But if it’s any encouragement, and I think it should be, “alternatives” are high on the agenda wherever I’ve been involved in organising, both in academia and in place-based forums (for example, our London borough of Lewisham) – though happily those lines are getting extremely blurry.

  3. “What would anthropology be like in a wholly different world?”

    Please ask them for some helpful hints…about what they mean by “different.” Otherwise only a few answers seem possible, and they have to be really short and without any substance: a really different anthropology, or an anthropology not known as anthropology, or no anthropology at all.

    Thanks for the additional explanation, and also please feel free to post your thoughts in reply to that question.

  4. Actually I looked it up and the exact wording was, “Is there an alternative….in Anthropology?” part of the larger open-ended question, “Is there an alternative?” At this point I don’t know what alternative there is IN anthropology, because frankly, anthropology is a mess, and it’s going to take a massive restructuring of the academic labour market to even approach fixing that. It’s my personal belief that the discipline holds an enormous radical potential linked directly to the holism (Wolf’s “world anthropology”) we struggle (sometimes) to maintain in the face of the continued alienation of intellectual labour into bits and bobs. But there’s also an enormous conservatism to the discipline which I think is directly linked, especially in Britain where it’s so formalised, to audit culture, the devalorisation of teaching, the publish-or-perish edict, bureaucratisation and the general structure of our work which results in exclusivity, elitism, individualistic protectionism, and most chillingly, obedience.

  5. Great post. It is so sad in their rush to empower, Labour did not think enough about how to more robustly engage civil society as a partner for social transformation.

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