Zero-Level Protest, the Student Movement and the Spectacle of Politics

I agree with Joe.

The fall-out from Wednesday’s fees protest has congealed into some familiar oppositions. On the one side, we have disavowal. The violent minority, undermining the broad case against cuts, inarticulate in their regression to a juvenile acting-out. On the other side, affirmation. The real vandals are Clegg and Cameron, the insurgents were the epiphenomenal expression of legitimate mass anger, and broken glass is the not-that-unfortunate substratum of all great political movements.

These are not morally equivalent narratives. The case for the disavowers is built on a palpable desire to appeal to bureaucratic reasonableness, and to present the case in terms sympathetic to the cadences and tones of power, as if the problem was one of flawed communication. More ‘rational debate’ please! More damagingly, the internal disciplining necessary to any movement conceived of as a Party is already under way. Bad protester, good protester. Wayward foot-soldier, clear-sighted leader. There was a serious message, and the hijackers lost it.

This is nonsense. That the march was larger than expected would have made news, barely. But the aerial shots of Westminster, and the collections of amusing signs and fancy dress, would have concurred fully with the established parameters, the well-worn rituals, of polite English disagreement. There would have been patronising cod-support about how polite the young are these days and Mock-The-Week non-jokes about the difference between Parisian insurrectionists and London shufflers. In such symbolic space, and especially on The Right, the trope of the feckless student is impermeable to disproof. This is the mistake of those scrambling for respectability. No amount of denouncing The Crazed Vandals Of Millbank will make the cause of education palatable (although those heading up the NUS will ascend, like those before them, into the lower ranks of party politics).

Slavoj Žižek put the appropriate response nicely:

“You could have delivered the same message without violence”. Fuck them, of course you can deliver the message. But nobody would hear the message. This is what they like, that 100 people gather and write a message and then you don’t even get the bottom note [in the day’s paper]…You have to break some windows to get the message through.

This is true enough, but should already alert us to some dangers, and to the necessity of overcoming the choice between affirmation and disavowal.

As with the temptation to merely defend the status quo, the danger of counter-disavowal is that of radical posture. Not posture because it is somehow fake, but because it is easily contained within the ‘eternal game’ Žižek identifies, but this time in the stereotyped figure of the protester. This is not the same as saying that anger has its place, but that it must be contained, still less of trying to ‘balance’ protest between a politics of demand and a politics of direct action (which, after all, generates its own politics of demand).

The events at Millbank, and especially the interpretation of them, has thus far conformed universally to the spectacle of politics, that performative space in which we can inhabit our worn-in roles (as sympathetic but uninvolved fellow-traveller, as reflective but cynical quasi-protester, as full-throated participant, as contrarian academic Troll). Vandalism and violence are potent mediums for the message in their own way. But this is only so because the symbolic coordinates are rigged. There are only two options. Either the polite march, by turns celebratory and tedious, nominally articulating a worked-out and necessary political agenda, but lacking any libidinal charge to match that agenda. Or a politics as carnival, over-saturated with feeling and meaning, yet for that very reason judged by definition to lack any coherent mission or understanding beyond its own performance. It is therefore not so much that student anger on Wednesday was itself a zero-level protest, as that the representation of it in both disavowal and affirmation constructs it as such:

…a violent protest act which demands nothing…What is most difficult to accept is precisely the riots’ meaninglessness: more than a form of protest, they are what Lacan called a passage a l’acte – an impulsive movement into action which can’t be translated into speech or thought and carries with it an intolerable weight of frustration. This bears witness not only to the impotence of the perpetrators, but, even more, to the lack of…’cognitive mapping’, an inability to locate the experience of their situation within a meaningful whole.

Žižek is here diagnosing the banlieu riots, and my analogy may seem suspicious. After all, there is a programme to the student protests. But it is not one that can be attributed to the protesters themselves. Think of the trope that students shouldn’t even be upset, since increased fees won’t affect them, only the generations that follow. What all this avoids is the question is of what will be allowed to count as an affirmative politics in the student movement. Affirmation  discourse, as it currently stands, reproduces the roles, and the game, in the same moment as it appears to contest it. Moreover, it has already embraced the trope of noble leftist defeat. There is a gap between the act and the result, between the protest and the imagined future point at which the Government reverses its plans. The absence of discussion of how that end would come about is itself indicative. No one regards it as a real prospect. We are acting out a pre-determined failure, one that we can add to Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Gaza, with fresh battle scars to match. Clearly polite marches and respectful discourse cannot fill that gap.

It is a void where a social movement should be, and one capable of an institutional form anathema to the coordinates to which both disavowers and affimers currently assent.

There have already been occupations at both Middlesex and Goldsmiths, both events brimming with more hope and possibility than (near) zero-level protest. In and of themselves, such acts are likely to be too disconnected and short-term to bring about any meaningful transformation. But they are more likely to deliver than acts carried out within a temporary space, however much we might celebrate them as ‘interstitial zone’ or the like, in which the state and police will always hold the upper hand. Even if statements of intent are possible before the riot vans arrive.

In introducing his remarks on violence, Žižek also reiterated that the reforms are aimed at the transformation of the university into the expert space, and of intellect into Kant’s private reason – that managerial-consultant disposition which would turn the academy into a research wing for Accenture and Ernst & Young. What we require is not another passion play reliving of past losses. What we need is a student movement for public reason suitable to its task and its ends, and not to the lines that have already been scripted for it.

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8 thoughts on “Zero-Level Protest, the Student Movement and the Spectacle of Politics

  1. Shit the bed Portugan! You are briiiiight, most enlightening. I’m going to read all your blogs from this day forth and bathe in the intellect until some of it seeps into me. It must do eventually. Thank you for including pictures- I understood all of them. Ha ha.

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    • Violent aspects of the protests are indispensible and should be supported. The task is to untie it from the “post-political” ideology that rulers want propagated and attempt to introduce the proper antagonisms(just education will not do), emphasizing the interdependence of a radicalized proletarian base(following Zizek’s argument for radicalization of the concept of the proletarian) and attempting to create a political movement.
      During the second protests, there seemed to have been an anticipation of the violence and encouragement of it (leaving the old police van to be smashed). And of course, there are now many ideological narratives floating around seeking to give the protests meaning. Post-political administration loves to create situations where they decide the interests of every miniscule formal category of people they can conjure up. So we get superficial divisive statements, creating diverse and opposing interests within capitalism(which of course are not real oppositions), which is taken as second nature/reality by ordinary people, and “holy economic science” by rulers, for which they sacrifice their lives, and ours whenever they get the chance. Here students and the everyday worker have diverging interests. Hard workers have to pay more taxes for free education so students can party instead of work like they do and now the ungrateful students are smashing things and making everyday life harder on everyone else. The worker has static interests and celebrates being a worker, not minding the exploitation, while the student smashes things and parties, going home happy and satisfied; everything here is nice and ordered. Given this context they will be happy to create and show students smashing a police van, shouting obscenities, drinking beer, and dancing as if in a night club. And of course, if students protested peacefully against fees, and workers against their own issues, everyone remains insulated in their quaint administrative category, like school children who learn to choose either rock or rap music.
      What is hidden here is the systemic violence of capitalism, which is slowly but surely eating away the welfare state(not just education), and the rise of a violent and political far right(even neo-fascist). Globalized Capital as a subject needs to be brought out in convincing ways. The education cuts are only one part of a squeezing of ordinary people that threatens to dismantle the welfare state wherever it exists and in all its aspects. Most, if not all, workers and ordinary people, are becoming the welfare recipients they are supposed to despise, included or excluded by whim or favor of the rulers, by the very fact that they still have a job that allows them a dignified life, rather than it being outsourced to third world sweatshops. Also, there is no reason why continued protests should not be seen to include opposition to the growth of the political right wing, which is propagated as an outlet for frustrated working class youth by rulers(EDL, BNP, or even David Cameron when he recently came out and promised to limit immigration). The growing insecurity of people is leading to increasing attacks on, and scape-goating of, Muslims and immigrants; in other words, they are being proletarianzied by the same process leading to the education cuts.
      Introducing the real antagonisms at stake here requires ignoring the post-political dreamworld and how it considers violence. It is great to see students out there protesting and there is huge potential there, but there is no reason why affirming its violent character necessarily turns it into and impotent passage a l’acte, it becomes an obscenity in the eyes of ordinary people, and a chance for students to party and feel good about themselves as they fit their pre-fabricated role of student/rioter etc.,when ideology is effective. Fuck it, (not only)students need to be disciplined, organized, and militant; requiring effective propaganda and continued violence. What will happen in ordinary “peaceful” conditions is more appalling then people standing up for themselves and demanding a dignified life.

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      • There’s a lot to unpick there, but the central issue seems to be around whether a zero-level protest is really ‘impotent’. As I mentioned, I’m not using the analogy in a direct way, since I don’t think the student protests are *really* zero-level (and I’m not sure the banlieu ones were either, actually).

        The question is about the interpretation of the acts, and how apparent defences of it or affirmations reproduce the categories. There isn’t anyone saying that the ‘violence’ and ‘vandalism’ is itself a political programme. They are saying that it is an *understandable* expression of anger, but an expression of anger nonetheless. It is to do with a political case against cuts that the action itself doesn’t actually articulate. This is part of a spectacle, and one that it is well-rehearsed. That the van-smashing or graffiti gets more coverage that the occupations and teach-ins should alert us to the ease with which this can be transformed not into something that ‘ordinary’ people actually feel *angry* about, but at least as vicarious entertainment and office cooler chat (“those bloody students, eh? Didn’t think they ever got out of bed!…chortle…”).

        Perhaps the connections you demand can be made. But that’s not what I see happening. ‘Effective propaganda + continued violence’ sounds far too much like a slogan to my ears. I don’t see how it is to be cashed out, or even clearly what it means. Statements of that form have their own ritualistic quality, and their own reliance on a deferred Event to be born somehow in the margins between the police battons and our linked arms.

        The post wasn’t a call for ‘peaceful’ action. It was a suggestion that this debate doesn’t get us far in most cases (although it might in some) and that we might be better off looking to other questions.

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  3. I basically agree with everything you said, my comment was less of a criticism than a restatement and an attempt to build on it.

    Of course committing acts of violence and allowing the post-political narrative (“spectacle”) to play out will go nowhere, as we may unfortunately be seeing. I just don’t think we have to give up there, or brand violence itself as necessarily disconnected from positive steps or necessarily connected to the spectacle.

    I just depends on what we can do an build to counter and expose that narrative, not play into it and be happy about a days protest where we smashed a few police, then letting it be. That is all I was trying to get at. Who else will do it?

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