Wednesday, 19 January 2011

To the students [who were] in occupation at Birmingham University

From Dr. Sarah Amsler from Aston, who tried to give us a talk during the occupation. She has kindly written it for us so we can read it in our own time, if anyone feels the need to be re-inspired after what for some was quite a dispiriting experience this is worth a read.

To the students in occupation,

I stopped by to see you today and to offer a talk; I was looking forward to participating in the planned round table discussions as well. I hope they went forward. Unfortunately, as I understand like many others, I was barred from entry – even from speaking to any one of you in person. I was told that I had ‘no right’ to be on the university campus, ‘no business’ being there, because I was not an employee of the university. This implies that others including prospective students, parents, members of the community, researchers, even tourists have no right to inhabit the campus spaces either. No difference that I was invited by Birmingham students; your invitation carries no weight as you are ‘in dispute with the university’. No difference that the occupation was itself meant to be free and open to all, and that it was in fact the university administration that transformed it into a closed and inaccessible space of confrontation rather than dialogue. No difference that I am a lecturer at a university, that many of you are my disciplinary peers, that I have been to Birmingham many times in the past few years to meet with colleagues, to participate in workshops and conferences, to hear talks – as academics and students do at universities everywhere. When I explained this, I was accused of lying – none of my activities, I was told, could have been possible. I was reminded that the university, even the stairwell I was standing in, is ‘private property’, and that I must leave without delay. I was told to take my opposition to this exclusion ‘back to my own university’ – what an odd logic – by guards who rolled their eyes and acted as if an academic presuming membership of the academy was the most audacious and irrational thing they’d ever heard. Talk of the enclosure of the commons is often vague; experiences such as this make its arbitrary processes visible.

Hope to meet you in a freer space soon. I attach my notes for what I had originally planned to discuss. I intended it as a starter for discussion and debate, not as a lecture.
Best wishes,

Dr. Sarah Amsler

For the Birmingham Students against the Cuts occupation, 17/01/2011

Both critique of the situation we find ourselves in, and the spirit of refusal to resign to it, all circulate widely today. But acts of resistance, of the refusal to let ourselves or others be governed, subjected, and devalued in these ways, and practices to create autonomous, human and what we hope are more liveable lives, are still relatively rare.

Refusal and transformation are rare because they are risky – sometimes because they invite discipline and retribution, but more basically because they require a willingness to sacrifice what is known to be doable for a much riskier hope that alternatives might be possible. And in moments of closure, such risks are often taken in the knowledge that these alternatives are not simply waiting in the wings to be activated, but will need to be constructed from the ground up in conditions where the languages and rationalities required for their recognition may not yet exist, and where those that do exist are hostile to the alternatives. Your work demonstrates that, for all its challenges, taking such risks is a realistic possibility (though I think an unevenly distributed one), and that doing so may be increasingly necessary.

We find ourselves at what sometimes feels to be an endgame of the long march of capital through the cultural and political institutions of this society – the proposals to slash funding (especially for arts, humanities and social sciences), escalate tuition fees, and subsume the entire concept of higher education into neoliberal rationality are consistent with the trajectory of higher education policy for the past four decades. Could our predecessors, could we, have done more to slow, prevent or alter it? The question must be asked, although the answer need not necessarily be yes. It is important to know what we are up against. By the early 1970s, E. P. Thompson argued that the English university was already subordinated to industrial capitalism; during this time it was decided that the ‘special place of democracy’ within the universities was a hindrance to their efficient operations as corporations. For students and educators alike, the conditions for and value of critical and humanist forms of knowledge and practice have since that time been progressively and systematically eroded. And as Paulo Freire once wrote, ‘if the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed’. We have been trying.
Thus, while slogans of ‘Nick Clegg, f**k you for turning blue’ communicate something important about the betrayal of liberal democratic hopes, they also miseducate. This is not a red, blue or yellow agenda, but a problem of the entire political system being reshaped into and subordinated within the logic of the market. In the 1990s, Labour introduced tuition fees, then pledged to decrease them, and then raised them again; at the same time, both Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders pledged to abolish them before now shoving them up in coalition. The entire history of widening participation, which saw the expansion of a system of universities that served only 4% of young people to nearly 50%, has been marked by a nearly symmetrical decline of funding for that education, and increasing demands from universities themselves to be given the authority to privatize in the wake of abandoned socialist possibilities. The ‘crisis of funding’ is systemic, not a consequence of recent bank bailouts or ongoing national debt. Challenging the particular policies and decisions is important, and must continue on intellectual, political and moral grounds. Defending and preserving livelihoods is a necessity. But the real problem in fact lies much deeper, in the logics and forms of the governance of society itself. The university, as you well know, is only one manifestation. The question thus is, what does a genuinely public university look like in this situation? How do we protect and recognise those who work in and for it? How does it work? What is its work? And how might we need to remake the university, and ourselves and relations to one another, to make this work possible?
During a previous period of crisis here at Birmingham in the 1980s, which involved a solid round of closures, mergers and ‘restructuring’, Stuart Hall reminded us that moments of closure in a particular phase of political and cultural struggle are also moments of possibility. He argued that his generation of students, academics and workers faced a historic choice: to ‘capitulate to the Thatcherist future, or find another way of imagining’. There have been other ways of imagining, but I think this also true for us today. Despite the tendency towards despair, we have deep resources of theory, feeling, experience and desire to nurture sustaining projects of radical imagination. And it seems clear that the reclamation of time, space, autonomy, collectivity, agency, humanity and democracy is often a necessary condition for these projects to be possible. I think they will not be permitted otherwise, for the university is already under occupation. It has been for some time, and the extent to which these spaces of learning and debate are dominated by neoliberal rationalities is made visible in the ways we are not permitted to call them our own, to use them for our purposes, to repurpose them, to think them otherwise. Your actions thus seem to me more of a reclamation of the university than its occupation, and a reaffirmation of its democratic promise and possibilities. By using the space for peaceful dissent and protest, the defence of the rights of workers and ideas, expanding possibilities for the advancement of knowledge and understanding, opening up space for radical experimentation and dialogue, welcoming all those who want to engage in these pursuits, creating new relationships and forms of being – in doing all this, you reinsert the progressive promises of higher education, and of democracy, that are being hollowed out from the spaces of the university itself. They have never been perfectly realised; very far from it. But they must remain open for the possibility.

In 1989, Jürgen Habermas told a German audience that he suspected ‘new life can be breathed into the idea of the university only from outside its walls’. I’m not so sure. We have been looking for an ‘outside’ to neoliberal rationality for decades, but it seems that the longer we seek to discover this from within, the more subordinated we actually become. Your occupation points to an alternative: that we are always-already potentially the outside; that alternatives may emerge from rupturing the existing spaces of permissibility and doing something new in the intervals created through this temporary negation. While this might involve a personal flight from the institutions, it might also be accomplished through their reclamation for all. One pressing question now is how this logic, or forms of it, might begin to inform acts of resistance and practices of freedom with others, in other areas of social life. How we might reorient our educational work towards this purpose. How we might learn to inhabit our everyday lives otherwise, and to build the solidarity and courage that will enable us to do so.

Your work makes it possible to imagine this. We are watching closely in solidarity and in hope.

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