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.