Beyond The Picket Line

23 Mar

We need new methods of political action and new ways of thinking about our old methods if we are to overcome the collective fear of the individualised neoliberal subject and re-construct political community. The University and College Union (UCU) have voted to take strike action over pensions, pay and job security this week. This opens an opportunity to re-configure the experience and meaning of strikes.

We have witnessed decades of neoliberal violence, as I outlined in my previous column, which have left communities with emotional and psychological collective wounds, flexibilised labour relations resulting in precarity and produced a fearful and often lonely neoliberal subject.

Such violence, committed by politicians of the left and right, has eradicated the tight knit communities in which flourished the political cultures, knowledges and collective histories that were the life force of popular politics pre-neoliberalism. Political community is therefore disarticulated and where it does exist often fragmented. Traditional certainties about the way to organise radical politics and the objectives of such politics cannot be taken for granted.

So when we hear that someone is not striking, it is no longer simple enough to call them ‘scab’ and to imagine that they are on the other side of the picket line, too weak to resist or too implicated in power to care.

The picket line will be crossed for a variety of reasons many of which are not about weakness or lack of solidarity but about fear, precarity, the disconnect between union politics and ordinary workers and the lack of political community.

When a PhD student who teaches a few hours a week is unable to visibly strike it is because they will lose the money that pays the rent. When a teaching fellow on a contract goes to teach it is because they are fearful that they won’t get their contract renewed. When an activist scholar thinks twice about striking it is because she hasn’t been able to afford to pay her dues and will have to become further indebted to join the union. When an individual worker goes in to work it is because he fears the repercussions in his everyday working life if the tentacles of managerialism and ranking become targeted upon him because of his actions. Whilst for many students (and academic staff) the picket line and traditions of labourism do not resonate with their experience, political culture and history.

If we are faced with such complexities of fear, precarity and disarticulation of political community then this suggests the need, the urgency, to develop political methods and practices that take these complexities seriously. Part of this involves moving beyond set models and understandings of what it means to resist and how we build political community. It suggests transforming and transgressing political methods such as the strike (an inspiring example of this type of experimentation can be found in the praxis of the Really Open University).

In the university space, and in others, reclaiming, reconfiguring and re-signifying space during the strike opens up the potential to rupture this social fabric of fear and silence with both students and staff. Using laughter, satire and creating activities which are fun helps disrupt this normality. Such affective practices help to rupture the emotional and psychological weight of precarity, micro-surveillance and isolation. They speak to the desire for human warmth, solidarity and recognition that we carry within us.

The picket line is part of this but there are also many other practices that transform the picket line, disrupt the boundaries between university space and its outside and in so doing reconfigure the experience, meaning and purpose of the strike. There are a multiplicity of ways this can be done through music, art, street theatre, dance, teach-ins, teach-outs and occupations.

Creating art that marks the walls, floors and walkways, with images of the education that we desire, is a powerful means to disrupt the commodified physical space of the university and demonstrate our power to re-make that space. Creating music and dancing in grounds that have been anesthetised for the long queues of prospective ‘customers’ brings joy and creativity into a space of marketing and ranking. We reconfigure our bodies and our minds by transgressing our roles as the consumer student or anxious and individualised researcher.

When we challenge the routines, embodied performances and borders of the university space we open up questions about its purpose and meaning. So street theatre which satires the increasing marketisation of education changes the way we enact the space of the university (an exciting experience of this can be found in the praxis of the University of Strategic Optimism). As Lyotard argues ‘the transgression in deed can only scandalize; it constitutes a nonrecuperable critique; it makes a hole in the system; it installs, for an instant, a region in which relations are not mediated by the Metro ticket, by the ideology of the newspaper, by the university institution. A potentiality arises in the field of social experience.’ (1993, 55). Thus we open possibilities of experiencing and creating the university differently.

During teach-ins we re-configure the social relations of a university campus to create horizontal and equal relationships. Here we experiment with forms of creating knowledge which rupture the hierarchies and divisions upon which neoliberal education is constructed. In teach-outs we disrupt the enclosed borders of the university, asking questions about what and who the university is for and who is a legitimate member of that community (a permanent experience of this is happening at the University of Utopia). These are moments of subjective and collective creation, disruption and recognition across manufactured borders.

Yet not all the transgressions that we can practice during the strike will be as visible as these. The realities of precarity, fear and disarticulation of political community suggest that we should also re-configure striking as constituted by moments of dignity and autonomy in everyday acts.

So when the PhD student teaches his class but takes his students outside into the fresh air and links their topic of study to a discussion about the commodification of education this is a dangerous and courageous transgression. When the contract teaching fellow walks through the corridors wearing the ribbon and badge of solidarity this is a meaningful re-habitation of self and body, of occupying with dignity spaces in which ones autonomous voice is often drowned out by the drone of expectation and anxiety. When a lecturer who feels he cannot cancel his classes offers to use the wages from those days to contribute to a strike fund this is a moment that builds solidarity. Or when teachers begin to discuss what is happening together, perhaps in whispers, perhaps in fragments, they are opening spaces of otherness, of recognising each other, and imagining themselves and therefore the university in different ways.

This suggests other ways of evaluating the success of a strike. If we imagine the strike as a plethora of performances that transform the university by reconfiguring its physical, emotional, intellectual and embodied space then the richness of possibilities opened up by striking becomes visible. Processes of constructing political community and overcoming fear become as significant and powerful as any concrete measurable outcomes. As James Scott (1985, 29) argues, even when the visible objectives of a strike or other political action are not achieved, we are left ‘not least,[with] a memory of resistance and courage that may lie in the wait for the future.’ We are also left with concrete links of solidarity and shared political experiences and learning.

When we recognise these complexities of fear and political disarticulation we learn to see through other eyes and emotions. We recognise the need to subvert boundaries, not put them up between ourselves and those who are our potential and actual allies. In this way we open up possibilities of transgressing fear and weaving together political community during and after the strike.

Sara Motta is a mother, radical educator and writer.

My thanks to everyone who discussed the ideas in this piece and made helpful suggestions along the way. My special thanks to Geoff who offered the emotional and spiritual support that I needed.

Lyotard Jean-Francois 1993. Political Writings. Minnesota: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Scott James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.



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