Critical reflection from within the Goldsmiths occupation:
I was among those supporting a real occupation of Goldsmiths this week. A large group of students, staff and supporters agreed before the library was occupied that only a significant disruption of the normal functioning of the university would contribute to blocking the govt’s plans and forcing action from the university management.
For me the idea that symbolic protests with banners, or more innovative tokens of opposition, are the only ‘positive’ forms of protest is regressive aesthetically and politically. It shows how far we are from grasping the powers which collectively we already possess. We have much more powerful and effective materials at our disposal.
In a society in which just doing our jobs and carrying out our tasks – whether writing essays, teaching, or stacking (book)shelves – is the main way in which social relations are reproduced, it may be that NOT doing anything is our real weapon. Far more effective, say, than doing even more, or doing something additional to our existing jobs. So sitting in a library doing paid teaching or studying work (like those attending radical teach ins with their radical paid teachers yesterday and today) is a purely symbolic gesture which refutes and undoes itself.
Symbolic gestures can be enabling, catalytic, tied up with a subtraction and refusal of work which really does make a difference. But it is not enough to mime the withdrawal of work. The occupied library – insofar as it was ever truly an occupation – at least began to interrupt normal paid teaching, studying, and library-keeping. The library was opened up for 24 hours a day and put at the disposal of the whole public – a crucial gesture, and ACT, at a time when the state is about to take access to such libraries away from all but a privileged minority.
Returning to symbolism – I do support the disruptions which will arise from tomorrow’s protest, but it is worth remembering that a punctual day of action confined within the groove laid down by unions and government will be less likely to achieve anything than one which precisely disrupts the normal functioning of society. As such the attempt to make the library truly ours, to control entry and exit and functioning, was already a more effective and powerful move than that of many of the symbolic actions which will have been planned within it. It was an attempt to create a kind of ‘bank’ of struggle that could pay out in the accumulation of ever more effective oppositional actions. We could turned the financialised university on its head, and turn it into a hub for the expansion not of speculative bubbles but oppositional combinations and activity. Against this, a lot of what is now going on there, now that business as usual has been resumed and occupiers are having to deal with harassed librarians trying to carry out their normal jobs in exceptionally difficult conditions, is just small change.
What the government has in mind is no small change, it is the most massive reduction in all our living standards since the creation of the welfare state. Small change will not be enough to prevent it. Since all our protests have in common the fact that they respond to the government (and capital as a whole’s) decision that society must be scaled back, massively cut down, in order for business to carry on expanding, I think we should all use our existing social relations to interrupt society’s functioning as much as possible.
They want to shut down our society? Fine, we’ll shut it down. And not just for a few moments, or for a day, but for as long as it takes to reverse their decision to axe our services, our jobs, and our futures.
Sorry to use this space to make my own symbolic protest, but having participated in the occupation of the library and watched it go from a takeover to a glorified sit in with the connivance of pseudo-radical academics, anxious union reps, obnoxious sub-trotskyists and pedantic anarchist hangers on, I feel email lists are an appropriate and necessary forum in which to try and recover a sense of what our material tools are in this struggle.
If we confine ourselves to symbolic gestures, we will produce merely symbolic effects. Everything that has moved this struggle forward has tried to cross some line that hitherto the majority thought fixed and uncrossable. The action of the crowd in kicking in the windows and entering Tory HQ had more poetry and more wisdom than the cautious councils of the bureaucrats and stewards. Likewise the attempt to take over and control the functioning of the Goldsmiths library was more subversive of the management than any previous gesture by university occupiers, in that it offered students, staff and support workers the chance to control their space for the first time, and to interrupt the functioning of the whole university at a crucial point in the struggle against cuts and fees.
If replicated across the existing university occupations in the UK this would be a powerful obstruction, more effective than any amount of colourful sambas in the streets, but by no means antithetical to futher action in the streets and shops and workplaces of the country. On the countrary, a network of truly occupied and student-controlled universities could feed struggle across the entire public sector and help us force – not persuade, or argue or negotiate, but force – our self-appointed executioners to lay down their axes, and let us begin salavaging some of the rudiments of a society from the wreckage they have been trying to impose on us. This kind of collective force, through withdrawal of labour and of reproduction of social spaces and institutions, is both the most appropriate and the most effective tool, since, as the poet said, we are many and they are few!
If you feel the same way, or can see a shred of reason in what I say here, please join me at Goldsmiths college library this afternoon where I will be holding tutorials and a non-paid teach-in, where we can at least discuss and plan for the coming days of actions. I shall be somewhere in the library foyer, where the occupation began. On this site, the occupation was quickly turned into a discussion-about-an-occupation by a more academic faction of occupiers. This was much to the chagrin of those who had for the previous few days collectively and democratically planned and discussed occupying, carefully avoiding ceding control to a timid and intimidated student union while said faction were carrying out their teach-ins and radical seminars. Sadly we took them seriously when they said they wanted to occupy, and that they would join in our plan to occupy specifically the library. We did not realise they wanted merely to hold yet more discussions and workshops, or banner making sessions, yet another sit in.
Still, we did achieve something. Although the library may now have resumed 99% of its function for management and business purposes, it also remains open – at least in theory – to people from anywhere who want to plan and organise. Please do come down to the library and join me for a discussion of how to use the very real tools and possibilities at our disposal in a truly disruptive and transformational way.