Archive for 2011|Yearly archive page

The Aviation Justice Tour

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 10:32 pm

Abby McFlynn and Jonny Gordon-Farleigh

“Clearly somebody doesn’t want to hear the story about the Heathrow Campaign,” said John Stewart, someone who has been described as the most effective activist in the UK, as he retold his seven-hour detainment and interrogation by FBI, secret service and immigration officers at New York’s JFK Airport.  However, there were communities all across North America who did want to hear about the victory of the ‘No Third Runway’ campaign at Heathrow Airport, and decided to invite John and Plane Stupid activist Dan Glass to visit their communities that are being affected by the expansion of the aviation industry.

Even with a file full of support from MPs, MSPs, congressmen, senators, human rights lawyers and scientists, Dan didn’t even get as far as New York because of the “incident”.  “Which one?” “You know which one!  The superglue.”  At the Belfast passport office a CIA agent took him aside to a Hummer with deck chairs, and when he finally made it to his interview, he was asked “Dan, I hear you want to superglue yourself to Sarah Palin?”.  This suggestive question concluded any chance of Dan traveling into the United States, and now with both John and Dan barred from the country, the Aviation Justice Tour went ahead thanks to Skype, and the ‘Let John and Dan in’ petition maximized publicity for the tour. Read the rest of this entry »


A Competitive Cooperative

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 10:14 pm

Katherine Selby

Now in its 40th year, the Essential food cooperative presents itself as a viable alternative to the unjust food system, and its worker-owner management model is a inspiring example to anyone who wants to change their social and economic relationship to people and food.

The days of wholefoods being considered impractical, ‘odd’ and personified by ‘brown rice and sandals’ have long gone.  Much has changed in this market since its humble beginnings in the 1970s to embracing organic, fairtrade, ethical and sustainable goods.  Oddly, such goods are now considered more upmarket and desirable than their mainstream counterparts and the choice of conscientious consumers, as opposed to the ‘wacky’ audience of its early years.

There were critics a-plenty when wholefoods first emerged and many thought this would be a fad; a passing phase.  How wrong they were!  Essential Trading – one of the pioneering wholefood retailers – is celebrating 40 years’ successful trading this year.  As it goes from strength to strength, the critics have long been silenced and ethical, sustainable, organic wholefoods are here to stay.

As it celebrates 40 years in the business, Essential Trading has a turnover of around £12m.  It produces its own Essential branded products and offers a cash and carry service for around 6,000 goods in the UK and abroad.  Its export arm that supplies European countries is growing 15% year on year. Essential Trading employs 85 people, making it one of the largest successful worker co-operatives in the UK.  Yes, not only is this a successful wholefood business, it is superb proof that a cooperative can be competitive.

How it all started

Essential Trading was one of the first wholefood businesses to set up shop in 1971.  It has come a long way since selling pulses and muesli out of hessian sacks on the shop floor. Over the years the market and consumers have changed and come around to the sustainable way of thinking, but the ethics and principles at Essential Trading have remained unchanged in all its 40 years.

Courtesy Essential Trading

Essential supplied organic and fairtrade food for ethical reasons, long before it was trendy to do so.  It has held steadfast to its views and gradually – with issues such as BSE, salmonella in eggs and GM crops attacking the ‘traditional’ mode of thought – the mainstream market has finally seen that the ethical, organic, fairtrade and wholefood movement is, in fact, not just viable but preferable.  Essential was a founding member of Genetic Food Alert and lobbied parliament against GM. To this day, brands that cannot guarantee to be GM-free are not listed with Essential.

Supporting the independents

It took the supermarkets nearly 20 years to make the leap into wholefoods – when they were good and sure that the independent sector was onto a winner.  Despite its strength and reputation, Essential made a conscious decision not to supply supermarkets and instead stayed true to its values and core principles by continuing to trade with local, artisan and specialist producers and to supply only the independent health food trade.   This ensures retailers retain many unique lines that they know customers cannot find elsewhere and has been key in keeping the independent health food shop alive on our high streets.

“The last 40 years have seen the wholefood market grow exponentially,” says Eli Sarre, marketing manager for Essential.  “Back in the 1970s health food stores were novel and the foods they stocked relatively limited,” she explains.  “But now, through education, a distinct rise in vegetarian and vegan diets, growth in free-from diets and the shift towards organic and ethical foods, we have a strong and thriving industry.  It has been most gratifying for Essential to see the changes and improvements down the decades, and we are looking forward to seeing what the next 40 years will bring.”

Ethical Code

Essential adheres to a strong code of ethics that runs through its business, employees and suppliers.  It actively supports organic and fairly traded goods and continues to call for the banning of GM crops.  “The wholefood movement started with organic commodities – most of which were supplied in bins, such as pulses and rice,” recalls Steve Penny, Finance Director at Essential who has 25 years’ service within the company. “Everything was in 5kg and 10kg bulk sizes but the health food stores and their customers didn’t mind.  It was a brave new world of wholefood shopping and demand grew rapidly,” he says.

Mass Market Triggers

Essential believed strongly in the inherent value of eating good, unprocessed, additive-free, organic and vegetarian food.  But it took a few major events in the 80s and 90s to start to change the opinion of the masses.  Firstly, the Daily Mail published the F-Plan diet, which advocated the importance of fibre in the diet from whole grains instead of processed “white” foods.  This created a big run on such goods.  Next came salmonella, BSE and pesticides scares, not to mention the worrying concept of GM crops.  Suddenly people were questioning the provenance of their food.  With 15 years’ experience in the organic, sustainable, wholefood market, Essential was ready for this new dawn of conscientious consumer demand. When in 2004 Dr Gillian McKeith recommended people eat more pulses, she ‘nearly killed us with success’ says Eli.  While the F-Plan and pulses stampedes may have subsided, their legacies remain.

A Little Essential History

Essential Trading is the company and Essential is its own brand label but the business was borne out of local co-ops established in the 1970s, Harvest in Bath and Nova in Bristol.  Harvest dealt mainly with retailers while Nova had a customer base of wholesalers, so a merger made absolute sense.  The two came together in 1991 and the company name was changed to Essential Trading. All jobs, customers, products and ethics from both companies were kept at the bigger company.

Courtesy Essential Trading

As a co-op supplying wholefoods, Essential Trading wasn’t trusted by the big banks who considered their business to be a fad and unreliable.  So Essential had to trade very carefully to ensure cash flow and survival. They devised a system whereby orders were in on Wednesdays, they bought the goods on Fridays and delivered on Saturdays.  Essential asked for seven days’ credit from their suppliers and cash on delivery from their customers.

All the sales money was banked before the cheques were presented. All the profits were invested in building up stocks, to ensure a reliable supply and better margins.  Gradually – organically! – the business grew.  Its development, like its goods, was sustainable. This business model is worthy of anyone starting out in 2011 – and preferable to shouldering a business loan or overdraft.

Supplying organic and fairtrade food before it was trendy meant Essential was early to market and, when the demand escalated in the 1980s, it stepped up its business and grew rapidly right up to 2008 when things started to plateau.  By the 1990s, organic was really coming into its own across Europe.  Essential’s buyers went to the European trade show Biofach to see what producers further afield had to offer.  Essential started importing key organic food and non-food goods and its status as an international trader was established.  As in the UK, Essential was competitive and other businesses had a similar trading pattern: the market was becoming exciting and dynamic.

Supermarket Wake-Up Call

Once the wholefood companies had established a substantial market, the supermarkets woke from their slumbers and started to stock organic.  The honeymoon period was most definitely over and Essential had to regroup to ensure it maintained its success, despite the threat of the ‘mass market’ organic brands being sold through the supermarkets.

The Essential Trading co-op made the decision to not supply the supermarkets.  By trading with the independent wholefood stores only, it guaranteed retailers a bespoke range that could not be bought at the supermarkets. Thus it protected its heritage and gave the independents key selling advantage of selected lines to keep their customers coming back.

Fairtrade Movement

As organics levelled out, the new kid on the ethical food block was fairtrade. Arguably, fairly traded and sustainably sourced foods set the independents apart from the multinationals even more so than organic.  Again, Essential’s ethical code that had embraced fair trading saw the business in the right place at the right time: it was simply a case of stepping up its fairtrade business in line with the demand.

“Organic trading was bigger financially and commercially, but fairtrade defines Essential internally,” says Eli Sarre.  “We all believe in the bigger picture that includes people and communities across the world.  Organic farming is important but sustainability of this farming is even more important.  Markets need to be sustainable if they are to survive.  And the livelihoods of the producers must also be safeguarded.”

Why a Co-op?

Essential Trading – and Harvest and Nova before it – is a workers cooperative meaning the business is owned and managed by its workers.  Like its stock-in-trade, co-ops were considered rather faddy and ‘alternative’ back in the 1970s.  The Thatcher years were not exactly conducive to flat management structures or seeking a consensus of opinion across all employees. But Essential had unshakeable faith in its coop status and employees all embraced the opportunity of being a stakeholder with a voice.

Courtesy Essential Trading

Each employee pays a minimum £500 to Essential as their ‘stake’ in the business.  Every member has an equal say in all major decisions and this democratic and non-hierarchical structure makes for an empowering environment – and a spirited community where all views are welcome. The co-op structure also gives some financial stability and Essential Trading currently has over £90K of members’ loans.  As a cooperative, Essential actively seeks out other co-ops at home and abroad to work alongside to perpetuate this caring, sharing business model that is endemic to the wholefood trade.

Looking Forward

Like most 40 year olds in 2011, Essential Trading is far from middle-aged. In fact, it aligns itself more closely with those who believe ‘Life Begins at 40’.  The market will no doubt continue to change but, as Essential has shown for four decades already, it is alert to opportunities and will move with the times to sustain its business. Organic is here to stay and fairly traded food continues to gather pace with new goods coming on-stream every year.  The overarching goals of sustainable farming and production and ethical wholesale and retail practices will see this market survive. Supporting the planet, protecting people, eating healthy food and cooperating with your business and social partners will not go out of fashion.


Essential Trading Co-operative is a worker-owned organic food wholesaler based in Bristol. It supports strikers with food and pallets for fire wood, and also sponsors the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls.

Grassroots Football: Values, Examples, Potentials

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 10:10 pm

Gabriel Kuhn

Modern football is often criticized for bringing the history of football as the “people’s game” to an end. Authors like Matthew Bazell (Theatre of Silence, 2008) speak of the game’s “lost soul.” With respect to professional soccer and its ever increasing commercialization, such views are hardly surprising. Earlier this year, the 24-year old Sporting Gijon defender Javi Poves quit his job in protest. He was quoted by the Spanish daily ABC as saying, “The more you know about football the more you realise it is all about money, that it is rotten and this takes away your enthusiasm.”

Courtesy PM Press

However, the professional game is only the surface of a global football culture that, on the grassroots level, remains as much a people’s game as it has always been. In the alleys and backyards, on the meadows and beaches, the traditional “soul” of football is still alive. The 2010 documentary film Pelada, which follows Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn Oxenham, two U.S. soccer enthusiasts, on their journey playing pick-up games in twenty-five countries, is but one example to demonstrate this.

At its core, grassroots football shares many principles with grassroots organizing, championed in many alternative and progressive circles: self-management, horizontal organizing, anti-commercialism, a strong community base, etc. Grassroots football can take on many forms. This article attempts to present some of them.

The classic: the pick-up game

On the most basic level, grassroots football consists of kickabouts and pick-up games. Whether it is on college playing fields, city parks, or neighbourhood playgrounds – in many places, people simply gather at more or less regular times and in more or less organized fashion to play casual games of football. The rules – usually very loose – are established locally. Very often, the fun and the community aspects are at the centre, sides change constantly with a flow of arriving and departing players, scores are hardly kept, and referees unnecessary – it is an entirely self-managed affair, very much the opposite to the strictly regulated and contested professional game. While we ought not romanticize and forget that occasional arguments, and even fights, can erupt on such occasions, that certain social groups – especially women – often remain excluded, and that (micro) power structures and territorial claims can be part of the experience, many kickabouts and pick-up games are conducted in an open, welcoming, and peaceful spirit. People enjoy the company of others, making new friends, and, of course, playing football.

“Grassroots football shares many principles with grassroots organizing…
self-management, horizontal organizing, anti-commercialism, a strong community base.”

The events also provide a setting, in which football proves its reputation as an “international language”: visitors, travellers, and migrants can often connect to local populations ways that are impossible otherwise, be it because of language barriers or because of prejudice. On the football field, class or educational backgrounds do not matter – if anything, middle-class college kids have to prove that they can be “part of the people.” The improvised football ground is a place that challenges many of society’s barriers.

Community Football: 17 SK

On the basis of the social values entailed in grassroots football, people around the world have established more sophisticated versions of the pick-up game variety, mainly in founding projects providing a more organized framework, with reserved playing fields, regular hours, and individuals taking on responsibility for basic equipment (balls, goals, jerseys). The casual character of the game does not change, however: scores are not necessarily kept, sides are switched around, rules are flexible and decided upon democratically, and referees are replaced by self-responsibility. Often, the motivation is to make use of football’s social values in the context of local community organizing and social work. One recent example is 17 SK, a community sports club founded in Stockholm in early 2011.

Fiona Moyler/RAG: RAG: Anarcha-Feminist Magazine

17 SK emerged from Nätverket Linje 17, a network of community projects along the southern end of Stockholm’s subway line 17. Nätverket Linje 17 describes itself as “an umbrella for different initiatives and activities of local groups focusing on a variety of issues, from organizing talks to involvement in local schools and collective gardening.”

In this context, the idea behind 17 SK was, in the words of the initiators, to “create an environment in which people can play sports with a sense of community and without competitive pressure. We also want to use sports’ potential to bring people together, to get to know one another, and to share joy, laughter, and exercise.” Flyers including this credo, and an enchanting artwork by Fiona Moyler, borrowed from an article about “Revolutionary Football” in the Irish RAG: Anarcha-Feminist Magazine, were distributed in the neighbourhood to launch the project.

The results have exceeded all expectations. 17 SK started with one mixed game a week. Soon, a women’s game and training session, open to transgender people, was organized on another evening, then a second mixed game on the weekend, and finally a football school for children, including kids at the tender age of two. All this happened within a few months, when a total of about one hundred people, ranging in age from twelve to sixty-five, had attended the games, the majority not tied to activist circles and hailing from a variety of countries rarely seen represented together at local political meetings: apart from Sweden, there were players from Argentina, Austria, England, Gambia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Somalia, the U.S., and other countries I now forget.

The level of competitiveness is kept at bay by the project’s guiding principles. Switching sides has proven to be a very easy manner of avoiding the winner-loser pattern. Rules are kept to a minimum and the standard points of contention (throw-ins, corner kicks, role of goalkeepers, etc.) are decided collectively on the spot depending on the number of players, the size of the field, and other factors. Most games have been played on a patch of grass next to the fields of the local football club where portable goals and water are available, allowing the players to make use of often undervalued public resources, which fits in nicely with the anti-privatization sentiments of the Linje 17 network.

The biggest challenge for the mixed games was avoiding the neighbourhood’s “football lads” from taking over the event. Even in Sweden, where women’s soccer enjoys a comparatively high status among the population, a strong gender imbalance is deeply embedded in the game and football tends to be an area in which masculine hierarchies are established and defended. Despite pledges of “inclusiveness” and “non-competitiveness,” this can also spill into projects like 17 SK. However, very gentle countermeasures proved to make a big difference. After a couple of weeks, four “guidelines” were established that prevented some of the most problematic behaviour from recurring and thereby making the games much more welcoming for people with less football experience, which was one of the main goals of 17 SK from the very beginning. These guidelines, repeated at the beginning of every game, were:

1. No hard physical play: no tackles, no high kicks, etc.
2. No hard shots with the potential of injuring people
3. Encouragement between players rather than critique
4. Responsibility to include everyone in the game

Especially number four turned out to be of great importance. Even with the best intentions, it is easy to pass the ball to friends or players you consider most likely to score rather than to newcomers or less experienced players. However, the insistence on the guidelines together with a raised level of awareness proved effective in the long run, and while it would be foolish to claim that all problems were overcome at the end of the 2011 outdoor season, the 17 SK games had turned much more inclusive and enjoyable for everyone – at times, women outnumbered men even in the mixed games.

Establishing a women’s group, “17 Sisters,” was another means to counter the gender imbalance inherent in football and to provide more space for women to play. There is an overlap between the mixed games and the women’s group, with some women participating in both. Others prefer to play only in the women’s games. Among other things, 17 Sisters has contributed to 30-year-olds playing football for the first time in an environment they actually enjoy. The success has been huge. Now, there is a 17 Sisters Facebook group with close to fifty members and indoor facilities have been organized to continue weekly games during the winter. This is a pioneering effort within 17 SK, which will hopefully inspire more indoor activities next winter – significant in a country like Sweden.

Meanwhile, “17 Kids,” the children’s football school, has been enjoyed both by the children and their parents who self-manage the school. Not only can children at the youngest age participate, there is also a conscious effort not to let gender determine early divisions (personally, I consider five-year old boys naming Sweden’s Lisa Dahlqvist as their favourite player a huge step forward), and not to exclude anyone for “lack of talent” or “lack of ambition,” making the common joy in playing the most important aspect instead.

“It is useful to break out of your Political community and enter the political Community, and ‘expanded’ sports clubs can be a short-cut to doing this.”

With the first outdoor season finished, there are, of course, plenty of discussions about how to proceed with 17 SK. So far, no 17 SK team has been formed to play in competitions. Shall one, in the future, participate in “Korpen,” a Swedish variety of Sunday Leagues, or at least in amateur tournaments around town? Or would this violate the non-competitive credo? Can the “community project” continue, while a Sunday League team might emerge from it? If so, can both projects carry the same name?

For 17 SK, these questions will be answered in the future. Other grassroots football projects already field teams in Sunday Leagues and amateur tournaments. Many of them prove that this does not necessarily mean to betray football’s social values – in fact, it can be a vehicle to promote them.

From Lunatics to Cowboys

There are many self-managed clubs in football, formed by colleagues at work, the patrons of a certain pub, or the sports nerds of a university lab. All of them are part of the wider world of grassroots football, at least as long as they aren’t run by power-hungry egocentrics and sponsored by local businessmen, which are the first steps towards football being controlled by political and economic interests rather than by the people playing it. Some teams avoid any such development consciously and make up the backbone of what is a constantly growing global network of grassroots football clubs based on principles of self-management, anti-commercialism, and community organizing.

Easton Cowboys

The histories of these clubs differ, but they are all, in one way or another, rooted in combining a passion for football with the desire to make the world a better place. The Lunatics from Antwerp, who want “to combine a great fighting spirit and an attacking mind with the necessary fair play” derived their name from a local reggae band and formed already in the 1980s, “when some young punks and other youths didn’t only want to hang around in the local park, but started kicking a ball as well.” The Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls Sports Club in Bristol developed from a Sunday League team formed in 1992 by “twenty punks, anarchists, hippies, asylum seekers and local kids” into a flagship of alternative sports organizing with twelve current league teams in four sports (apart from football, Cowboys and Cowgirls are to be reckoned with in cricket, basketball, and netball). The Republica Internationale FC, calling itself a “socialist football club,” has its roots in various amateur teams formed in Leeds in the 1980s, before taking its current name in 2001. The FC Vova was born from a football match advertised on a Lithuanian punk website in 2004 – today, the FC Vova Sunday League team draws up to two hundred fans and has its own supporter clubs. The Autônomos & Autônomas FC of São Paulo, Brazil, was founded in May 2006 “by a bunch of punks who were tired of other punks questioning their passion for football and of football fans questioning their passion for punk”; recently, they acquired their own club house.

The constitution of the Republica Internationale FC contains values that are, essentially, shared by all of the mentioned projects:

“The club will not tolerate racist, homophobic, sexist, prejudicial, or abusive behaviour by any of its members.

The game should be played in good sporting spirit.

Whilst committed to the rigour of hard physical, competitive sport, players will not behave in an unacceptably aggressive or violent way.

Players should play in a camaraderie spirit of a team, co-operatively advise each other in a positive manner and never offer purely negative criticism.

Players should recognise that the game is played, first and foremost for fun!”

The political potential that lies in playing football on this basis has been summarized in an excellent article written by Roger Wilson, founding member of the Easton Cowboys, for the book Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and radical Politics. Calling “soccer the lubricant, progressive ideas the engine,” Wilson elaborates thus:

“Football (and other sports) can go some way to breaking divisions of nation, race and culture whereas overtly Political interventions often fail.

Ideas such as autonomy, popular democracy, inclusivity, and internationalism can be practically explored outside of the confines of Political organizations.

It can be easier to test ideas like these when there is no overt Political approach. The ideas themselves are more important than political stances or labels.

It is useful to break out of your Political community and enter the political Community, and ‘expanded’ sports clubs can be a short-cut to doing this.

Organizations such as sports clubs can provide social spaces for people to meet, which can overcome some facets of sub-cultural, race, class and gender divisions.

Clubs such as the Cowboys should not be judged on their ability to achieve Political objectives but in their capability to put radical ideas into practice and act as conduits for their spread both locally and globally.”

One of the strengths of this level of grassroots football is the international dimension that comes from being able to send teams to “football festivals” abroad. Events like the Anti-Racism World Cup in Belfast, the Alternative World Cup in alternate locations, or the numerous Antifa Football Cups in Germany allow players and activists to meet regularly, to establish ties, and to exchange experiences and ideas. The best-known of these events is probably the Mondiali Antirazzisti in Italy, organized since 1997. Today, over two hundred teams participate and numerous social and political events are organized parallel to the football games. Soccer games are also organized at political protests. In 2008, for example, an Anti-G8 Football Cup was arranged by the incredibly energetic Rage & Football Collective from Tokyo during the anti-G8 protests in Japan.

A People’s Game to Stay

The politics of football aren’t set. Unfortunately, football can be tied to many political ideas and forces. As pointed out, grassroots football itself can reproduce highly problematic power structures on a micro level. However, grassroots football holds great political potential and keeps the best of football’s history as a “people’s game” alive. Calling football “one of the greatest concepts of humanity,” as the now defunct website did some years ago might overdo it a touch, but there is indeed much to be excited about. There are values inherent in football that can help us form and establish communities based on direct democracy, solidarity, and, not least, fun.

Under ideal circumstances, football is a great environment in which to experience and to experiment with the juncture of individual freedom and social responsibility. People with many different skills have to work together to make a successful team. Individual star players might dazzle, but their role must not be overrated. For him or her to shine, others have to do plenty of work that they are not able to do: form a solid defence line, run down loose balls, tackle opponents, win headers, and so forth. There are many examples in football history of a team of “no names” beating a star-studded side simply because the players made the most of their abilities as a team. Football teaches people to combine their individual talents in the way most beneficial to the social good. When opposing players, spectators, and the social environment of a team are included in this ethos, football can become an important part of community organizing in general. The fun aspect might appear trivial, but it is a crucial moment in the grassroots soccer experience, both for players and spectators. It must not be belittled as “non-political.” The U.S. Anarchist Football Association’s variation on the famous Emma Goldman quote about not wanting a revolution in which she can’t dance, is telling: “If I can’t play soccer, I don’t want any part of your revolution.”

If these values are focused on, then grassroots football can be a unique combination of social learning, political education, community building, and sheer pleasure. Its future echoes that of one of its most prominent incarnations, the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls Sports Club, as described by Roger Wilson:

“There’s a sense in which the club is one ever-unfolding social experiment. Most sports clubs or social organisations have a limited lifespan and often rise and fall pretty quickly, but nearly twenty years into the Cowboys I have no idea what or where it might lead to next or what the shape of the club might be in five years’ time. Which, after all, mirrors the excitement of playing the ‘beautiful game.’ You never quite know what might happen next…”


Gabriel Kuhn is an Austrian-born writer and translator, currently living in Stockholm, Sweden. He publishes on a variety of subjects, including anarchism, subculture, and sports. Among his most recent books are Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics (PM Press, 2010) and Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics (PM Press, 2011).

Occupy Blog: The Spanish Election Rejection

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 9:55 pm

Marianne Maeckelbergh

A poster in support of direct action not elections. Courtesy of Marianne Maeckelbergh

La Nostra Elecció: L’ Acció

Barcelona, Spain, November 2011

The streets of Barcelona appear deceptively calm at first sight. Fashionable people stroll the streets, shopping bags in hand, while others stop to drink a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe. These luxurious images project a sense of prosperity onto the streets of Barcelona, but underneath the surface, a struggle rages. The 15 May Movement that captured the global imaginary just six months ago and encouraged people all across the world to occupy public space and hold massive democratic assemblies is no longer limited to the central square. Now, they are everywhere.

Across the city less complacent images abound. Everywhere there are posters and banners that declare: “Democracy is a farce”; “Democracy is Hypocrisy”; “No One Represents Us”; “Active Abstention”; “All Power to the People: Don’t Vote!”; “Democracy is a Grand Circus”; and “Our Elections: Actions”. Two growing trends are visible here in Barcelona that certainly resonate elsewhere. First, people seem to take for granted the idea that voting and electoral politics actually bears little relationship to democracy. Second, there is an evolution in the tactic of occupation – expanding from public squares to buildings, hospitals and universities. Read the rest of this entry »

Interview – Wu Ming 1

In Interviews on 30 November 2011 at 9:49 pm

As I’m with the Bears, a collection of short stories from a damaged planet, is published, I interviewed Wu Ming 1 about his contribution, climate activism, the occupy movement and the mystery why writers on the left still do not publish under copyleft or creative commons.

Stir: In Bill McKibben’s introduction to I’m with the Bears he says that “science can only go so far…it is the role of artists to make us feel”. This expresses the limits of knowing something intellectually – “the climate science” – and emphasises that our experience of these important issues are complicated by psychological, historical, political and social forces. How important is this understanding in your own work and do you think that if we are to have any success against runaway climate change that we will have to take these considerations seriously as authors and activists?

Wu Ming 1: I’m an Italian novelist trained in continental philosophy, so this kind of reflection sounds like a truism to me. I think that there’s no real comprehension of the world without feelings. Neuroscience has demonstrated that Descartes’ concept of an abstract, disembodied, rational mind was utterly wrong, and that there’s no dichotomy between reason and emotion. Whatever “reason” is, it is embodied, and there’s really no rationality without emotions. We think through narratives based on primary metaphors, narratives whose unfolding has emotional and moral implications. By the way, this is precisely the reason why I prefer “continental philosophy” over “analytic philosophy”. I think that fans of analytic philosophy tend to have a somewhat narrow-minded idea of what the mind is and what language can do, they tend to focus almost exclusively on logic and the empirical realm, while continental philosophy in all its strands (Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze, Foucault etc.) has tried to re-invent language in order to force us into thinking in different ways, into grasping the world not only as it is but as it could be. What continental philosophy is about is casting different glances on the world. That’s why continental philosophy developed a very fruitful relationship with poetry and literature, and sometimes even merged with them, as is the case with Nietzsche, Deleuze, Foucault etc. Foucault’s style was described by some scholars as “demonstrative lyricism”. When Rudolf Carnap rejected Heidegger’s concepts by saying that they lacked any empirical basis, he failed to understand that Heidegger was using language in a poetic way.

S: Your short story Arzèstula is a post-apocalyptic tale that takes place after the crisis. Do you think the promotion of this negative vision of the world is crucial to avoid it?

WM1: When I wrote Arzestula (a heavily, disturbingly autobiographical story) I tried not to lay too much emphasis on nightmarish descriptions of a post-apocalyptic future. Actually, I wanted to write a surrealistic, dreamlike tale of hope and redemption. And you probably noticed that global warming is never mentioned in the story. Honestly, I’m not even sure it fits in the anthology, Mark Martin thinks it does, and I trust him, but it isn’t a cautionary tale… Generally speaking – that is, forgetting Arzèstula for a while – I think that many writers (including yours truly) would like to produce a positive state of social alert. It may happen that an artistic work raises awareness of a great problem and takes part in spurring a decision process. I’m not talking about solving the problem, that goes way beyond what you can do with literature, but take for example the nineteenth-century serial novel, the stuff Dickens wrote in Britain and Dumas, Sue and all those guys wrote in France, where the genre was called “feuilleton”. Serial novels were very successful, and made the French public opinion aware of ghastly living conditions in poor neighborhoods, with such a clamor that the parliament was induced to pass an “anti-feuilleton” act. Moreover, literature and fiction can make us imagine “worst case scenarios” and thus serve as admonitions, to avert further deterioration of the situations. If during the Cold War civilisation wasn’t destroyed by nuclear weapons, it was in part because public opinion was constantly kept on alert with scenarios of apocalypse, post-nuclear stories, movies and novels about wandering survivors scorched by radiation. In 1983, The Day After was seen by one hundred million people. In Italy it was distributed at cinemas and was the third biggest hit of that season. Wherever it was broadcast or screened, it sparked heated debates on nuclear armament. The quality of that film was rather mediocre … But it had a function, it increased awareness. Think also of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: the question raised by that novel was whether it is more ethical to let a warmongering president be elected or assassinate him during the campaign! Without public opinion being constantly prodded in that direction, who can be sure that Nixon or Reagan or Brezhnev wouldn’t have dropped the bomb some day? However, we’re talking about ages ago. The question is: are cautionary tales still useful? Or should we authors write stories that are already… post-cautionary? Stories that take the catastrophe for granted, and try to figure out how people could go on and live and find a new sense of community after the world we know has fallen down? That’s really what Arzèstula is about.

S:  After the protests in Genoa in 2001, you described the event as a “crucial moment for the latest generation of activists” and talked about how it contributed to the understanding that you cannot “besiege a power that is everywhere” – the realization that capitalism’s power lies in the fact that it does not reside in a single place (a castle, a conference hall etc) but has been incorporated into almost every aspect of our social and economic life. Can this criticism be easily applied to the Occupy Movement that has turned up at Wall Street – the formal home of our financial system – or do you think there are important differences?

WM1: Violating the “red zones” was pure self-delusion, there was nothing in there, actual decisions were not taken in those summits. Capitalist power isn’t inside any fortress: it is in the microphysics of daily exploitation, in financial exchanges, and so on. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which has now turned into the Occupy Everything movement, is already a step – maybe several steps – ahead. As McKenzie Wark wrote, they started by occupying an abstraction, they weren’t actually occupying Wall Street, they were occupying the concept of Wall Street, and the rhetorical device by which Wall Street had come to mean “financial capital”. There is a more precise insight on how power works. In Italy we had “Occupy Bank of Italy”: campers weren’t really occupying the bank, they were shifting the focus of public discussion from Burlesquoni’s theatrical antics to the austerity measures dictated to Italy by the European Central Bank. They chose Banca d’Italia as a target because that was Mario Draghi’s last week as governor of the Bank. He was going to become president of the ECB. The movement was attacking enemy troops not in the positions they were leaving, but in the positions they were about to take possess of. In short, there were no trivialities like “Let’s besiege the palaces of power.”

The Occupied Wall Street Journal by Mat McDermott

S: You are a member of the writing collective Wu Ming which is a symbol used by Chinese dissidents, and means both anonymous and five. Could you explain how anonymity is part of your political and literary approach and why you use other uncommon forms of writing practice, such as the revision of female characters based on feedback from female readers, in your novels?

WM1: Well, we aren’t anonymous. “Wu Ming” is the name of our band. Then each members has a nom de plume that’s consistent with the band’s name, in the same way each member of the Ramones took that fake surname: John William Cummings became “Johnny Ramone”, and so on. Thus we are “Wu Ming 1”, “Wu Ming 2” etc. That’s no anonymity, that’s pseudonymity. And our real names aren’t secret, in Italy everybody knows that my name is Roberto Bui, but nobody uses it, it would be like calling Joey Ramone “Jeffrey Ross Hyman”, there would be no point in doing that. Confusion arises because our band’s name is a tribute to the political and cultural use of anonymity, but we aren’t really anonymous ourselves. As to uncommon writing practices, we always find it strange when people find our practices strange. To us, they are perfectly soundly normal. Submitting our female characters to the judgment of female readers is hardly revolutionary: we are an all-male band after all, we need to vicariously look at ourselves from an outside, indeed, we need to vicariously look at ourselves from an outside while we’re creating and depicting female characters, in order to breathe life into them and make them credible.

S: You have long published under Copyleft – a license that allows noncommercial and attributive reproduction of creative works. This license, along with Creative Commons, is still largely unpopular amongst radical political publishers and authors. Why do you think this is so?

WM1: I know this answer will disappoint you, but I really don’t have a clue. To us, it is a mystery. It would seem the most rational, useful, coherent thing to do, and yet only a few people do it. Quite strange and mystifying.


I’m with the Bears is published by Verso for £8.99 and royalties from the sale of I’m with the Bears will go to, an international grassroots movement working to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Wu Ming 1 is a member of the Wu Ming Foundation, grew up in the lands between Ferrara and the Adriatic Sea which are depicted in his story, and blogs at

The Assault on Universities: A Review

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 9:45 pm

Nina Power

Around 50,00 students took to the streets of London on 10th November 2010 to demonstrate against the proposed higher education cuts. Andrew Moss Photography. CC BY 2.0

What will higher education in the UK look like in a few years’ time? What can we do right now to save it? If the coalition government’s vision in the Browne Report and subsequent White Paper is to be implemented in full we can imagine several things, all highly undesirable: a two-tier university system in which rich and well-placed middle and upper-middle class students dominate the Russell Group even more than they do already; these institutions, now being able to set their own fees, can charge Ivy-League rates whilst ignoring the all least attempted meritocratic supplement of US college scholarships; students at these institutions will be able to study a wide range of subjects, including those in the arts and humanities – Philosophy, History and Classics will thus return to being the preserve of a cultured elite. In the second tier, private providers will take over those institutions unable to survive the loss of the block grant and who lack land and other resources to weather the sudden loss of income: degrees here will be shorter, perhaps lasting two years rather than three or four, classes will run before and after people go to work, or at weekends, and much of the provision will appear online. Smaller subjects will have disappeared due to a supposed lack of demand and the awkwardness of fitting them into the timetable. Endless feedback forms will attempt to reassure the student that he or she is first and foremost a “client”, unless he or she is involved in any political action on campus or elsewhere, in which case the new squatting laws will immediately be applied, turning the student from consumer to criminal faster than you can say “domestic extremist”. Read the rest of this entry »

An Education System: But What For? And When Will We Answer the Question?

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 9:38 pm

Michael Newman

We are trapped in an ever-repeated education debate, whose very simplicity and facile nature allows everyone to contribute equally; meanwhile, our children are taught that learning is about exams, their futures, and what jobs they are to do. The majority struggle, the majority fail the five GCSE’s grade A-C, but once they are free from school they can ‘control’ their lives and will not have to study again, except maybe to improve their jobs. Our society continues to confuse human rights with consumerism — we have shopping riots, we have problems with community, with child poverty, with fear of youth, with ethnic differences. What kind of society do we want? How can our schools support this aim? And how can we escape the nausea of this ever-repeating debate that is more like sound bites from a popular TV show than an attempt to answer some of the most important questions we face.

Our new government has been challenging many apparently progressive moves that occurred under Labour. Whilst people on the web and in industries linked to ICT and creativity are holding debates around innovation and revolutionising our schools, there appears to be a regression back to the training of children to pass exams and gain qualifications that will allow them to take opportunities to further study and work. This is reflected in Toby Young’s ‘Free School’, based on his own experiences of schooling: the back to good old basics attitude that only requires that you have been a child in a school for you to talk about schooling and education, whilst the actual child has little voice in the debate.

“What we need to do to address the recycling of schooling debates is to include the children.”

The education secretary Michael Gove focuses schooling on exams as the conclusion to courses, and has recently announced a new Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, “who has told the BBC he is prepared to shake up England’s schools and that he will not tolerate any school being given an Ofsted rating of “outstanding “ unless it achieves outstanding academic results”. Gove is critically looking at the place of citizenship education and its contribution to academic achievement, and in his support of the baccalaureate measure of a school’s success seems to downplay the creative aspects of the curriculum. Teaching is about control, respect for authority, the efficient learning of academic subjects, and the measurement and celebration of outcomes as exams and qualifications. There is no need for education philosophy, or sociology, or psychology except for increasing the effectiveness of teaching.

What is at stake in the current education debate?  Why is its very nature part of the problem? How can we escape from the recurring nightmare of the repeated mantras of standards, basics and achievements: either from the right wing — training to be good producers and consumers — or the left wing —increasing equality through the opportunities of motivated training to pass exams — and, from both, the turning of our children into willing volunteers for the Big Society.

Let us start with some surprising establishment views about the direction education should have taken:

“What cannot be doubted is that a piece of fascinating and valuable educational research is going on here which it would do all educationalists good to see.” (HMI report 1949 on Summerhill)

“A vision of what the new form of secondary school can be.”  (HMI report 1948 on St Georges in the East)

These are the words of HMI, or Osfted, the very organisation that threatened Summerhill School with closure in 1999. We used the first quote to invite politicians, the Select Committee on Education, and educationalists to visit the school, or to meet us all when we held a democratic community meeting in the Jubilee Room at the House of Commons in 1999. They have yet to visit.  They prefer to meet with celebrities and hear about Jamie Oliver’s experiments in education made for a popular TV audience. Even so, they have discussed Summerhill’s fight with Ofsted and the consequences of its legal fight for survival.

Sadder still, no one seemed to respond to the opinions of HMI in 1948 and 1949. The 1948 comment is about an East London school that A. S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill School, thought was the furthest any state school could go with democracy, participation, and children controlling their learning. He visited the school a few times as guest of honour at their prize giving ceremony. You may have read about St Georges-in-the-East in the novel ‘To Sir, With Love’ by E.R. Braithwaite.

A. S. Neill was a teacher and writer who in 1921 founded Summerhill School in response to his experiences of teaching in state schools in Scotland. He wanted to create a school in which the children would be happy, would have no fear, would be able to choose how and what they learn, would be able to play as much as they wanted, would be able to express and share their emotions and creativity, and would be able to control their lives through democratic meetings.

A.S. Neill: The founder of Summerhill School

In 1915 he published his first book, A Dominie’s Log, which would become the Dominie Book series. This was a diary of his life as a teacher. He begins sitting on his school desk reflecting on the rules of writing an official school log. ‘You must not put your feelings, ideas or reflections into it.’ He goes on to think about why he is the head teacher of Gretna Green village school, and why the children of farm workers, who will never own a home or go to university, come to his school. The series ends with the book, A Dominie Abroad, in which he sets up his own school as a result of his thoughts and experiences of education and children. Summerhill School is the result of years of reflection on philosophy, different models of practise, experiences of teaching, discussions with other practitioners, psychologists, criminologists, educationalists.  Neill is now recognised by UNESCO as one of the world’s hundred most important educationalists.

This is a different world from that of Toby Young’s inspirational experiences of being a teenager in a strict, traditional, and successfully academic school. This difference in ‘heroes of change’ reflects the difference in their values. The arguments of the traditionalists are obvious — ones that we can all sympathise with as they relate to how we felt as children in our own schools. Give us soldiers or great communicators from television, and without any knowledge of education theory, practice or history, they will make good teachers and schools. If not, then we simply need to train them in classroom methods.

Neill reflects on the wider questions, necessarily ignored by the Toby Youngs and Goves of this world:

“Books are the least important apparatus in a school. All that any child needs is the three R’s; the rest should be tools and clay and sports and theatre and paint and freedom. Most of the schoolwork that adolescents do is simply a waste of time, of energy, of patience. It robs youth of its right to play and play and play; it puts old heads on young shoulders.

When I lecture to students at teacher training colleges and universities, I am often shocked at the ungrownupness of these lads and lasses stuffed with useless knowledge. They know a lot; they shine in dialectics; they can quote the classics – but in their outlook on life many of them are infants. For they have been taught to know, but have not been allowed to feel. These students are friendly, pleasant, eager, but something is lacking – the emotional factor, the power to subordinate thinking to feeling. I talk to these of a world they have missed and go on missing. Their textbooks do not deal with human character, or with love, or with freedom, or with self-determination. And so the system goes on, aiming only at standards of book learning – it goes on separating the head from the heart.”

Imagine if HMI’s comments on St Georges and Summerhill had been followed-up. If our schools were now based on the work and experiences of these and similar schools, imagine what our children would be like. Imagine what learning would be like if, as Sir Ken Robinson stated in his concluding speech to the TEDx London conference, our progressive schools should become the mainstream innovators. Indeed, imagine what our teachers would be like.

Strangely, there is a sense that this has happened with creative, self-directed, and individualised child-centred learning; the input of children’s voices into their learning and their schools; the right not to be physically punished; the importance of play and the role of emotions in learning; the previous government’s growing importance of citizenship education, participation and enterprise.  All this may be seen to be influenced by Summerhill — if nothing else but as the icon of progressive education. Again, quoting the ‘enemy’, the Conservative Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Young, in 1999:

“My Lords, is it not a fact that in many respects Summerhill School has been the pioneer of many educational ideas which have subsequently been incorporated into mainstream school teaching and practice?”

Sadly, these changes have greatly affected our primary schools but not our secondary schools. I remember picking up a battered Penguin children’s book on my local doctor’s waiting room table called ‘The Primary School’. The class take a vote on where they want to go for their class trip!

How can schools based on children’s rights be created?  “By the children.” – Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner

Our national curriculum subject descriptions and assessments, literacy and numeracy hours, and SATs all undermined these changes. Indeed they undermine the aims and values of the National Curriculum and state education, which are to develop successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve; confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives; and responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.

These values are very close to those of the progressive education movement, and are hardly referenced by the traditionalists. In Summerhill’s most recent inspection in October 2011, on the school’s 90th birthday, Ofsted finally recognised that we fulfilled these aims:

“Pupils behaviour is outstanding…”     “Pupils develop clear views in how to live their lives and there is a tangible atmosphere of tolerance and harmony.”    “Pupils have an extremely deep understanding of work-related learning.”

At last, as a result of a legal battle in the Royal Courts of Justice in 2000, a team of modern inspectors examined the school according to its values and philosophy instead of those of academic classroom teaching. Summerhill is now seen to be a working school that shows excellence in its development of active citizens, ‘outstanding’ in eight aspects of its provision and practice, and ‘good’ in all others. Even so, we do not expect the government or the Select Committee of Education to come and learn from us.

So why should they? What issues about schools, learning and modern society does Summerhill address?

We are in a rapidly changing world: our technology, our knowledge, the nature and diversity of our communities are all being transformed. Religious people claim that we are in a moral malaise because people are deserting God and so they are fighting for religious schools and the influence of religion on values education in state schools; business people claim our children are not ready for work and that we need to compete with producers and businesses around the world; our universities are always criticising the young people they get as lacking in basic information and literacy and numeracy skills; our government argues that we must get back to basics to ensure that children become literate and numerate so that they can access opportunities in our society; our children need to learn parenting skills so that children in the future do not become ‘feral’…the list goes on and on.

The irony of this debate, and the sense of superficiality of it all, only hits you if you bother to look up a bit of history. The arguments have been repeated again and again and again. Darwin’s Bulldog, the scientist Prof T. H. Huxley, who coined the term ‘agnostic’, was on the first School Board of London and his words echo through time:

“In fact there is a chorus of voices, almost distressing in their harmony, raised in favour of the doctrine that education is the great panacea for human troubles, and that, if the country is not shortly to go to the dogs, everybody must be educated. The politicians tell us, ‘You must educate the masses because they are going to be masters’. The clergy join in the cry for education, for they affirm that people are drifting away from church and chapel into the broadest infidelity. The manufacturers and the capitalists swell the chorus lustily. They declare that ignorance makes bad workmen; that England will soon be unable to turn out cotton goods, or steam engines cheaper than other people; and then, Ichabod! Ichabod! the glory will be departed from us. And a few voices are lifted up in the favour of the doctrine that the masses should be educated because they are men and women with unlimited capacities of being, doing, and suffering, and that it is as true now, as ever it was, that the people perish for lack of knowledge.”

These issues hit the headlines during the debate around public education that led to the Foster Act (1870) that created a national schooling system. In the school boards around the country and in the House of Commons they had to discuss ‘What is a school? What is a teacher? How big should a classroom be?   What should be taught?’ They are in the writings, speeches and the workings of the school created by Robert Owen in response to the industrial revolution at New Lanark.

There are several problems here.  Firstly, the failure of our schooling system to respond to debates and to take account of the evidence and work in the fields of sociology, education research, psychology and child development.  Secondly, the failure of our school system to reflect the values to which it is framed and is supposed to legally express — the Education Act and the aims of the National Curriculum.  And lastly, the failure of the school system to tackle the problems projected onto it.

Michael on a panel with Summerhill students answering questions as part of celebrating the school's 90th birthday at the Institute of Education's students union. Courtesy of Michael Newman

What we need to do to address the recycling of schooling debates is to include the children. It is to allow our school students to find out about the evidence, the history, the working models of progressive schools and communities — from Robert Owen’s school at New Lanark, to Nellie Dick’s Whitechapel school that she founded in the early 1900s at age thirteen, to Janus Korczak’s Warsaw ghetto orphanage, to Bloom’s St Georges-in-the-East, to A. S. Neill’s Summerhill. Let these models of practice, of the history of the implementation of children’s rights, become a part of our children’s culture, and then let them see how they can adapt these successes to their own schools and communities.

The fight for good education is part of the fight for our children to have their rights expressed in their communities including their schools. After women, blacks, ethnic minorities, the working class, and groups of different sexuality, children are the last group prevented from struggling for their rights. Ironically, the image of the child was the powerful argument used to deny most of these groups their rights. We continue to do so by projecting onto our children the need for authority and control, experiences from our own childhoods, rather than the contrary examples of what children do when given those rights. We need the children to be able to respond to Toby Young and attack his view of childhood with a look at what’s happened, is happening and what has worked.

Without children’s rights all of our human rights are undermined. How can we have the values and culture of rights that protects groups from being bullied, imprisoned, disempowered, exploited, and killed if our childhoods are based on the opposite, paternalistic authority? When asked how schools based on children’s rights could be created, Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner, said “by the children”. This can only happen if the children can see that rights are about justice, and that arguments about responsibilities and practicalities can be answered through models of extreme practice. They need to disarm those adults who hang onto unaccountable power by showing them that schools based on children’s rights can work, have worked and will work.

My mission is to help our children transform their schools as active citizens fighting for their rights. For children to be active global citizens they should learn about school councils and children’s voice through radical models of practice that create an alternative framework from orthodox, traditional schooling, allowing them to question the assumptions of the nature of childhood, learning and power. This will enable them to develop the underlying values of children’s rights and social justice.


Michael Newman trained as a science teacher to deliver the then newly created national curriculum,attended the Speakers Conference on Citizenship in 1990, which was chaired by Francis Morrell, and included Shadow spokesperson Jack Straw with the Education Secretary John McGregor.  He has been active at conferences either as a delegate or speaker on citizenship, rights and educational innovations including social enterprise with the Executive Director of the Serco Institute, Gary Sturgess.   He has also worked at A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School for over 11 years as teacher and then houseparent, facilitating the children’s campaign to save the school in 1999, and organising events with them ever since to share Summerhill’s history and philosophy with other children and educationalists.  For the past six years he has been a school project worker for active global citizenship working with primary and secondary schools in Tower Hamlets and London, working on children’s and human rights, local democracy, sustainability, ICT, community cohesion, and co-operative enterprise.

Common Ground: Securing a future for all who share our planet’s resources

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 9:37 pm

Dr Mark Everard

Seed Sharing: To counter the rise of the proprietorial control of seeds Indian women swap seeds.

We live in a fragmented landscape.  This would matter a lot less if human populations were sparse and ecosystems across the globe were in a healthy state.  However, the exact converse is the case today: human numbers have exceeded seven billion with the fastest rates of growth in developing and often already environmentally-stressed countries, and the UN’s authoritative Millennium Ecosystem Assessment provides solid evidence that virtually all major habitat types across the planet are substantially degraded with alarming implications for their continued capacity to support human well-being into the long-term future.

The causes of this fragmentation of landscapes, watersheds and seas are multiple.  However, many, if not all, stem from the parochial way in which we have made decisions in the past.  This parochialism extends beyond mere geographical localism, blind to wider-scale ramifications including for example localised flood defences exacerbating flooding elsewhere in inherently connected catchments or changing uses of land affecting water resources downstream.  Read the rest of this entry »

Making Music a Racket

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 2:57 pm

Mat Callahan

Joe Hill was a labour organiser and songwriter. By Carlos Cortes

The criminalization of file sharing spearheaded by groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America has been underway for more than a decade. While this strategy has failed to halt the decline in the sales of recorded music or the increase in the sharing of music via the internet it has nonetheless sown a great deal of confusion. In particular it has succeeded in pitting musicians against each other and their audiences. In a climate of fear and mutual recrimination the real culprits get off scott-free.

To shed some light on this situation it is useful to examine how the music industry in the United States took shape, how copyright law evolved to serve it and how music has been affected by this process. While specific to one country, this experience is valuable to people in the Global South as a negative example that should not be followed. Read the rest of this entry »

The Assault on Universities: A Conversation

In Interviews on 30 November 2011 at 2:23 pm

A conversation with teacher and activist Nina Power, Co-Editor Michael Bailey and independent researcher Andrew McGettigan.

Nina Power: Let’s start with the book – can you talk about the motivations behind getting these essays together? Why you decided to work with Des Freedman? What you hope the response will be to the manifesto? And the practical demands that you have at the end of the book?

Michael Bailey: The main motive for the book was in response to the coalition government’s spending review last year, not least the announcement that it plans to abolish the block teaching grant for higher education and allow the trebling of tuition fees from 2012 onwards. Both Des and I feel very strongly, as do all of the contributors, that adult higher education is a public good which benefits the whole of society, and as such it should be publicly funded. But what Des, myself, and the contributors are especially concerned about is that the new fees regime will disproportionately affect young adults from socially disadvantaged families insofar as they’re less likely to apply to universities when faced with what potentially could be a lifetime of debt. For example, my own family background is one where my parents, both of whom are working-class, are very risk-averse and they would never pay for anything on the ‘never-never’, apart from a house mortgage – but that’s it. And it’s a way of thinking that was instilled in myself. Of course, traditional working-class attitudes and habits have changed a lot in recent years. But I honestly don’t think I would have chosen to go to university to study for a three year degree if I’d been asked to pay £9,000 per year, even if it is a loan. Taking on that amount of debt as an eighteen year old would have been unimaginable. And I expect the same is true for many young people today.

Another motive for putting together the collection of essays is that they’re intended as a riposte to much of the media coverage of last year’s student protests. There was a lot of bias and misrepresentation; you know, the way much of the press reinforced David Cameron’s portrayal of student protesters as a ‘feral mob’ but had very little to say about the heavy-handed tactics used by the police. And it wasn’t just the national press – some of the BBC’s coverage of the protests was unbelievably one-sided: for example, the debate between Jeremy Paxman, Claire olomon, Aaron Porter and Simon Hughes MP on Newsnight was infuriating. And the interview between (BBC News Channel broadcaster) Ben Brown and Jody McIntyre was utterly disgraceful – the interviewer was clearly trying to bait the student by suggesting he was the aggressor, not the police. And this is a disabled student, for god’s sake! Anyhow, both Des and I felt there was a need for some sort of publication that presents an alternative picture to the one being depicted by mealy-mouthed politicians, journalists, news presenters, and the like. Hence we asked a handful of colleagues and student activists if they would each write a short essay that would better inform public understanding about the true motives behind the government’s marketisation of higher education and about the likely consequences. In actual fact, contributors approach the subject from different points of view and methods of analysis: some are more explicitly political than others, some write from a liberal-humanistic perspective, one or two look at historical developments, whilst others compare the situation in the UK with countries elsewhere … so, though we’re all fellow travellers, the book is quite a broad church made up of different opinions and ideas.

But it’s more than just a collection of academic essays. During the process of editing the essays, I happened to read the May Day Manifesto (1967) edited by Raymond Williams, Edward Thompson and Stuart Hall, and I was struck by the clarity with which they articulated a list of demands on the then Labour government. And I suggested to Des that we do something similar, so he drafted a series of demands aimed at both the coalition government and university Vice-Chancellors, and we decided to call it ‘A Manifesto for Higher Education’. We published the manifesto online and as an appendix in the book, and we’ve had over a thousand messages of support from colleagues and students all over the world. In terms of what we hope to achieve with the manifesto and whether it will have an actual impact, it’s too early to say. What I do know is that it puts public values and democratic criticism at the heart of what we ought to be discussing amongst ourselves as educationalists. I say this because the instrumentalisation of higher education has been long in the making and academics have been party complicit in going along with this: for example, we tend to be very individualistic when it comes to doing research and wanting to be recognised by our peers, and this can sometimes undermine professional collegiality. Also, higher education is very sectarian with research-intensive universities on the one hand and post-92 institutions on the other, and this can result in a complacency in those colleagues whose work conditions are relatively cushdy. But by far the worst development, in my opinion, has been the gradual rise of university managerialism and this McKinseyism doctrinaire. And it always amazes me that it’s often promoted by colleagues, and sometimes very aggressively, who were once ‘radicals’. It’s Malcolm Bradbury’s History Man writ large! Power: I think sometimes you end up with the paradox where academics are working on politically radical history and at the same time absolutely acquiescent when it comes to middle management demands about filling in forms and so on.

Around 50,000 students took to the streets of London on the 10th November 2010 to demonstrate against the proposed higher education cuts, which if passed will mean a tripling of the cost of tuition fees. By Andrew Moss Photography via Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Andrew McGettigan: I think many academics can teach Marxist theories of exploitation but are not very good at spotting when they are giving it away.

Power: Yes, I find that strange. It would be interesting to work out the psychological mechanisms to explain why academics do that.

McGettigan: Well, people are very personally invested in their own research and will work Saturdays and Sundays and do it as a hobby. This means that you become open to a certain kind of management manipulation to do more hours because you would do more hours anyway.

Bailey: A very good instance of this is the present ‘work to contract’ dispute. In my opinion, it’s just not going to be effective because academics have never worked to contract – we continually self-exploit. When was the last time either of you worked a 38 hour week?

Power: I think there is also a structural problem with research. I agree that people are very invested in their own research but one of the effects of this seems to be that research is often very narrow and specialized, and there is no link to important political questions or the political scene. This means that you’re not engaged and become, as a result, the most neoliberal privatized individual – whether you are working on something that is politically radical or not.

McGettigan: Specialisation is also atomization.

Power: Yes, the university is also more specialized than most jobs. It is isolating and people are doing this seemingly of their own will on the weekends. I do not understand why people abdicate their ability given the position they’re in. Academics don’t have much left in terms of status and respect, but they do have some. Actually, it is interesting in the recent court situations (student protests), how much weight witness statements have if they come from academics. Academics may have lost status in some senses, and certainly in relative pay, but they still have social and cultural status. So, if academics want to take a stance on something – write an article or letter to editors – then it will be picked up in a way that a group of bakers writing a letter, sadly, probably wouldn’t be. So, there is a strange way in which people abdicate that potential for intervening in public matters.

McGettigan: Something that I have come across, in terms of my writing, is that sometimes people assume that everything is a function of my politics: that I have political values that I direct my research through and that this predetermines the results. In fact it’s the research itself that is producing the politics. There is this issue about the broader cultural understanding of academics, particularly when they engage in public, that there is a preset mode of engagement. Your research produces concerns that you want to share with people – that model lacks authority and avenues in many places.

Bailey: I think that that is something peculiar to this country. This is not the case, say, in France, where they have a long history of academics speaking as public intellectuals. But in this country it’s almost frowned upon, even within the academy. I know that Stefan Collini has argued that Britain does in fact have an intellectual tradition, which it does, of course, but it’s very cloistered. And when you do get academics debating in public, it’s often carried out in a very contrarian and overly academicised fashion – it’s rarely about informing public opinion or speaking truth to power, as Edward Said did, for example.

McGettigan: Some of the responses to Collini have really tended to focus on the fact that he’s certainly writing for the London Review of Books by interpreting documents, and in fact people see him as not discussing the broader political agents at work in this process. So, he is within Cambridge and the idea that Cambridge has nothing to do with it and has done no lobbying or had any engagement in these processes in the last year, is false. So, there is a problem with Collini and it looks as if when he writes that these things are being imposed on us as universities. But, as you’ve said before and maybe we should talk about it again, universities have been complicit in these approaches themselves.

Bailey: I think this is deeply problematic, not least because it’s a very difficult subject to broach, for obvious reasons. I just sense that some colleagues actually see the present political conjuncture as an opportunity to reassert the old regime whereby Russell Group universities monopolise research funding and the rest are just teaching fodder.

McGettigan: Some people think that the rot set in when the polytechnics became universities and certainly trying to work within a very broad range of academics. One thing that I have noticed is how little sectorial solidarity there is, and that a number of people would, were the government to take its tanks off the lawns of Oxbridge colleges, then those academics would be quite happy regardless of what happens in the rest of the sector. The number of people who are most vocal in this, again, maybe its not right to focus on Collini here, but when he talks about humanities, he is very much embedded in the Oxbridge tutorial model and the way in which the humanities exist outside of that model clashes with the way in which he talks about it. And if you talk about the newer universities, post-2000 universities and design colleges, then the broader sense of how you have a collective sectorial solidarity across all those different kinds of institutions, all these different kinds of pressures, it’s a huge problem.

Power: I think some of this comes back to details. In the last research assessment exercise, however critical you may want to be about it, when it actually came to peer review on the ground, lots of Post-92s did much better than people thought in certain areas. At Roehampton University we had the number one ranked department in Dance, very high ranking in Anthropology, and so on. But following this academic result, the government’s response was ‘now is not the time to be redistributing research funds’. So, even if people know there are pockets of excellence, they are going to concentrate their funds in the same old places. You have this kind of situation where people do not want to admit that there is incredibly interesting work going on at other places on a very high level of research. Even though the teaching and other demands of working with students who come from non-traditional backgrounds (or whatever euphemism they use) nevertheless there are places that do produce amazing research. It is sometimes

recognized on the ground but it is not recognized financially at all, so that funding is pulled.

McGettigan: And the funding for science, engineering and maths are ring fenced and protected, where as in the other disciplines it wasn’t.

Power: Yes, and I think that it is a kind of inter-departmental solidarity. If you take something like philosophy, it’s been almost completely destroyed in the post-92 sector. In London, Roehampton University is the only post-92 university that is still recruiting for its Philosophy department.

McGettigan: It’s moribund.

Power: There is very little support from people in more established philosophy departments and this is a huge problem. There is no sense in which, even from a point of self-interest, you would have thought that the more philosophy the better, right?

UCL Occupation, 1 December 2010. By suburbanslice via Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

McGettigan: Well, the philosophy establishment in Britain has not come to terms with the popularity of the philosophy A-Level. The philosophy A-Level came in the late eighties, early nineties, and no philosophy department in the country even recognizes that their undergraduates may have already done two years of philosophy when they start. I think this is a particular problem with philosophy – and it is a discipline that has got itself into an awful mess on a lot of levels

Bailey: I’m really struck by what Nina said about new universities outperforming older universities in some subjects. If you look at Media and Cultural Studies, it’s often the case that the very best research is carried out by colleagues working in post-92 institutions and this is evident in the rankings for the last Research Assessment Exercise. But instead of celebrating the achievements of these departments and the importance of teaching young adults about media literacy, communications policy, political economy, cultural history, critical theory, etc, what you got was a backlash from a minority of colleagues working in older universities saying that the research funding allocated for Unit 66 would be better spent on more traditional subjects. But what these people fail to understand is that the academic study of the media and cultural industries has a transnational history that goes back some sixty odd years, and that it’s an academic field that was pioneered by very eminent scholars from a variety of older academic disciplines.

Power: The other really cynical point about the 100 percent cuts to the arts and humanities is it’s not because these subjects do not attract interest because they do. It is setting up a scene, where you ideologically say, ‘well no-one is going to pay £7,500-9,000 to study philosophy at somewhere like Roehampton University’, and you present it as a fait accompli about numbers and recruitment. But actually what it really is about is that lots and lots of people want to study subjects like philosophy, history, art history, classics and so on, but private enterprise can make shit loads more money taking over those kind of teaching things.

McGettigan: I don’t think private enterprises are going to teach those kind of subjects. I think they will teach vocational subjects like business, accountancy and law, which they have always provided; but because they are outside of state-funded system, their tuition fees are uncompetitive and so they only cater for the overseas market. But with the removal of the teaching grant their fees are lower than it is possible to run a humanities degree on, and so that form of competition changes. People used to go to university and study a three-year BA and pay much lower fees than they would to study business and accountancy, but now that is reversed. And so people’s decisions will be affected because of it. Take for example the idea of the law conversion course: there is this old idea that people went to university and did the BA they were interested in and then do a conversion course. What we are seeing now, especially in the psychology of law, is that they are setting up the accelerated course two-year law degrees in 2012 precisely to reverse that situation. So, students go and get enough law to go and get a job in a solicitors office and then pursue the humanities as a hobby afterwards outside of the degree structure.

Power: I agree with that, but don’t you think there will be a situation in which you will have institutions providing budget cut courses in the arts and humanities degrees – maybe in the evening, maybe part-time or online?

McGettigan: Yes, but not as degrees but as other kinds of qualifications such as HNDs and short courses. I think there will be a huge market for short courses. But I am not convinced there will be the commitment to pursue a BA in the Humanities. It will be interesting to see what happens at places like Birkbeck and the Open University; but what we are already seeing in the statistics is that the take-up of apprenticeships is suddenly exploding in the over-25 age group. People are moving towards different kinds of qualifications and those that are vocational.

Power: I just wonder that given there is a desire, let’s say in a hobbyistic way, to spend three years studying literature, why wouldn’t there be a market for a three-year degree that is part-time or online?

McGettigan: This is the question, if you remember, that I put to Collini in November. If you defend the humanities you have to defend it in quite a rigorous way because people are going to ask ‘what can I get from a humanities degree that I can not get from a reading group?’ And his response is that universities have no monopoly on learning, which is a politically dangerous thing to say but is indicative of the fact that universities are not in a position to argue what the difference could be. If you have a reading group and you all put in £5 a week and you bring in an expert to talk about a book you have read, then what is the difference? I think this the argument that the humanities is really struggling to make: what is the difference between extra-mural autodidactism or a three-year degree?

Bailey: I think one of the positives that’s come out of this wider discussion about the idea of the university is that it’s has forced colleagues and commentators to acknowledge that universities ought not necessarily have a monopoly on adult learning. As you’ve just mentioned, there’s a very successful model of co-operative education in the UK and we shouldn’t forget that many of the best university educators cut their teeth teaching non-traditional learners, otherwise known as the ‘Great Tradition’. We can still learn a lot from the likes of Albert Mansbridge, William Temple, Richard Tawney, Arnold Toynbee, Richard Hoggart and organisations such as the Worker’s Education Association and Ruskin College in terms of their commitment to democratic scholarship and critical pedagogy.

McGettigan: The Worker’s Education Association have just advertised for a director and last week I met with the new CEO of Conway Hall. Both these organisations see that they lost ground with the expansion of the university. Those they previously catered for went to university, but now they see a whole new terrain open up where universities are going to be overpriced, run by managers in a way that may be to the detriment of the education provided, and they can come back in as an alternative offer that people may well now be much more amenable to and may meet their interests.

Power: I think that is right, but I suppose one of the problems for me is that you are still going to get an elite group of people who have degrees in philosophy, classics and history. It is returning to that system where you get a group of people who are rich enough, or have enough time or privilege, to study those things that we are to endlessly see as indulgences or hobbies. That is a huge problem for culture and a huge problem for politics. I am really committed to the expansion of these subjects within the university structure to non-traditional students. I think a three-year philosophy degree makes a huge difference to the way people think, the way people write, the way they approach the world. There is something about the degree structure (with all of its problems) and going to the university that is different. It is like we expected to prepare for it to elastically snap back to the same elite group who have always been privileged enough to study those subjects. That is the problem for me.

McGettigan: These points are made very well by Natalie Fenton in The Assault on Universities, where you see the difference in third-year students in that the previous year is starting to come together, they are a lot more focused and had more time to think about things, they produce a higher level of work. I think there is a huge danger in the government, particularly in the way the market has set up various pools of applicants with AAB and above at A-Level or this new lower 20,000 pool. In particular to the lower 20,000 pool, the places in that pool are not for three-year undergraduate degrees. They are also for HNDs, HNCs, Foundation degrees, accelerated two-year courses, and these are presented as if they are equivalent. If there was a sector that was also on offer but it wasn’t at the expense of the established provision, that would be one thing. But because the way the number controls are going to work, each place awarded for a two-year accelerated degree in law or business, you take away a place from somewhere else.

Power: If it is always client-directed learning or choice learning, lets say you decide you want to spend two years doing a part-time degree in history of art, that is lovely – but it is a hobby model. And what you said about the anecdotal description of people being transformed by the their third year, or writing focus changing, I would totally agree with that. If you presuppose what it is you want to know then there are certain things that you are never going to learn. If I decide that I want to study this subject because I am already interested in, then it is a different model of learning than learning as a commodity – in two years time I will know a little about the history of art as opposed to being part of a structure which is more open-ended in a way and potentially more painful. You do not know what you want to learn but you have a vague idea that you want to study philosophy.

McGettigan: Commodification has that aspect in the sense that if it really works and we become the consumers they want, and they pay so much money and have preset expectations but because the education sector does not work like a commodity where if you do not get your expectations met you cannot easily change what you buy next week. It is pretty much going to be a one-time purchase and this is going to be hugely problematic in one sense. Another thing is that it is meant to be a qualification, so people are meant to earn it and pass. There’s a danger in the commodification model – and we already see this in the initiative announced by Coventry University where they have a subsidiary Coventry City College which will be run a gym membership line where lecturers will be provided from 10-9pm every week day and the 10-4 on Saturdays and Sundays and people will do courses. At the same time, Coventry City are providing effectively a money back guarantee, where if you fail you get to repeat for free until you pass, and at that point, what was once a qualification has become a commodity.

As the Demo-Lition march in December 2010 passed the Millbank Tower headquarters of the governing Conservative Party, hundreds of student protesters branched off to express their anger in person. Met by only a small number of police, elements of the crowd invaded the building, threw missiles at the police and smashed the glass front of the building's entrance. By lewishamdreamer via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

Bailey: But this is something we’re starting to see even in the University sector where academics are under increasing pressure to increase the number of 1sts and 2.1s, or to compensate those students that are failing so that they can progress to the next level. But we’re doing students a real disservice here – if they’re failing or not doing as well as they’d like to, universities should be offering more tuition and institutional support, assuming the student in question is prepared to put the extra effort in.

Power: I think grade inflation is a real fact. It’s definitely happened and of course it’s not unrelated to the fact that people are paying for this (or borrowing so much money) and they feel that there is a direct relation.

Bailey: And it’s to do with national league tables as well.

Power: Yes exactly, but both at once. I’ve been in situations at work where it’s become impossible to fail somebody because the students’ parents have threatened legal action if their son or daughter fails. Then you can have students putting cases against universities saying, ‘well I paid for this, I wasn’t given enough supervision; it’s the fault of the university that I failed; it’s not my fault.’ If the university says ‘look, you’re a client; you’re buying a product’, is the product the degree?

McGettigan: Well we’ve not seen a legal case like that have we?

Power: No, but what you have is pre-emptive action by universities telling us not to fail people. I’m not joking.

McGettigan: Well it’s the erosion of this notion of academic judgement.

Power: Yeah, the university management won’t back academic judgement; if we want to fail somebody they say ‘Oh can’t you just give this person the lowest possible mark, because it’s too much hassle to fail somebody.’

McGettigan: I’ve been in a similar situation. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but I think there is a case where if too many students fail a course there does need to be a review of what has happened there. I wouldn’t say academic judgement should be in lieu of any kind of review or testimony. If say you’ve failed a third of the people on the course, you should be prepared to have that looked at, and back it up.

Power: I agree, but I think that situation is incredibly rare now. I think most students don’t fail, they just get the lowest possible mark. People are less and less willing to fail students because of the hassle and bureaucracy involved, and the legal threat. You think I’m exaggerating but it’s really like that.

Bailey: Can we talk about the protests?

Power: Yeah if you want. Why don’t you say what your feeling is about the strengths and weaknesses of the student movement? Obviously in a sense almost all of the main demands weren’t met. The protests didn’t stop the fee rises, they didn’t stop these reforms.

Bailey: That’s true, and a part of me is deeply pessimistic about the way in which the student movement has been ignored by politicians and university management, but I have found the past twelve months or so incredibly energising and very politicising. For example, I’ve had quite a few students telling me about the protests and the cuts in public funding, and the same is true of other colleagues, and I think this has caused some colleagues and students to rethink the teacher-student relationship. It’s very easy for one to blame the other for the way in which higher education has changed this past twenty years or so. But the fact of the matter is that we’re in this together and seeing thousands of lecturers and students standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the marches in London and elsewhere has been a breath of fresh air.

Power: First of all, there’s an important point about political consistency. You’re saying lots of lecturers went on these protests. Particularly the first one in November last year, there were thousands of lecturers on that protest, but it’s some of the students who have got punished for it. Given that we were all on that march for similar reasons, as in we oppose the increased fees, we oppose the cuts to our humanities grants, we oppose the privatisation and the reform of the university in these negative ways, I think it is only politically and personally consistent for those lecturers who also fought against those things to remember the students who are being picked on to make a political point. All the documents that lecturers get sent round on ‘what to do in the event of an occupation’ and so on – they’re all about somehow pitting lecturers against their students or vice versa. From the universities standpoint they have a completely bizarre model of what the student is, on the one hand, yes, it’s a source of income and the university wouldn’t exist without them, but at the same time they’re absolutely terrified of the students if they have any kind of political desire or will whatsoever. The increasing way in which academics are being asked to spy on their students, which in the past decade was far more addressed to Muslim students; if people were missing classes or seemed unduly pre-occupied with foreign policy or whatever, which is now expanded to include any ‘domestic extremism’, any sort of radicalism among the student body. But I think this is an opportunity for a form of political solidarity. You see far more students and lecturers realising in the past year that they have common interests, that these cuts and changes effect each other in similar ways, so when we have UCU picket lines outside the university you get a lot more students joining than in previous years.

Bailey: Could you say something about those students that are being prosecuted? I understand that you were in court yesterday.

Power: Clearly this something that has been going on for a long time and lots of the charges that we’re now seeing against students and other protestors are a step back to last November, and they’ve been very heavily delayed because of the riot rulings because they wanted to rush those through. In some ways the protestors are being retroactively punished because of decisions now made about public order situations in general. What is happening, which is very explicit in the judges’ rulings, is that where students and protestors have really done very little by any standard they are nevertheless fitting these charges of serious violence or disorder, which if you look at them seem to involve neither violence nor disorder, or only disorder in a very minimal sense. We are seeing people getting sent down for twelve to eighteen months for chucking a couple of banner sticks in the direction of the police, not hitting anyone, not hurting anyone. It is very explicit in the judges summations that this about deterrence, this is about stopping future protestors thinking they will be able to do anything other than march from A to B. But there is also a bigger political question about what public order is and about what collective gatherings of numbers of people for a political reason means for the state. Obviously the British state is not going to come out and explicitly say, ‘we don’t want people to gather on street corners’, we don’t want people to collectively protest’ because we have to have a fantasy of Britain as a democratic country in the sense that people will have the right to protest but in practice it is clear that that is not straightforwardly true. It’s very useful for the state to have these individuals held up and be punished, and their lives, where not completely ruined, at least for a few years are pretty fucked up. Long term employability is a huge question, people putting degrees on hold, a lot of these people are very young; seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, having to wait a year out on bail to have a criminal trial by a jury is an insane proposition. So a lot of people are changing their plea to guilty or pleading guilty just to in principle get it over with, but that’s obviously not what’s actually happening.

Bailey: Is there anything academics can do to support these students?

Power: Yeah I think there’s several things. There are very personal things such as writing character references for individual students, but also at the institutional-level making it very clear that the institution recognises that these are political sentences, that academics on campus have the same political views as the students being prosecuted. We did have a case where one lecturer was up on a criminal charge but it got dropped. I think it would have been very interesting to see what the response would have been had it not just been students but also lecturers.

McGettigan: Do you think that’s part of it: the age of these people? That they seem to be uninformed, they have no counterbalancing gravitas of a certain sense; that they can be seen to be reasonable individuals by virtue of what else they’ve done in their mature adult lives, so they’re able to be presented as potentially wayward, led astray and therefore need correcting?

Power: No, I think it’s even more sinister than that. Because actually all the young people I’ve see – they are actually already very politically aware. They don’t seem wayward in any way whatsoever. There is no sense of correction; these sentences are not about correction. The individual in a way is not the point. The point is the deterrence. It is not about individual reform, redemption, punishment or correction.

Bailey: Do you think they’re been scapegoated?

Power: Yeah, the law, the police and the government are completely indifferent to these individuals, of course they are.

Bailey: Do you think there are analogies here with the recent riots in London, Manchester and Birmingham?

Power: Yeah for sure, certainly in terms of public order. If you look at all the judges’ summations they’re all about how public order situations are somehow exceptional, that you can’t talk about ordinary criminality in these circumstances; that somehow if you committed fraud in the real world you would get a certain sentence, if you wrote a dodgy cheque in the middle of a protest you’d probably get five times that sentence. It’s something about the context. It’s about public order, it’s still in fear of people; about people not getting into public order situations, basically. That covers whatever you want to call riots and civil unrest, young people hanging round street corners, groups, gangs, demonstrations, protests; any situation where there is a collective goal or even just a physical presence of people in a certain place. I don’t think it’s an over-determination to say that: you can see it in everything they say. They get to determine the context, they get to say crowd situations are exceptional and should be punished much more harshly than any other situation.

Bailey: Could you finish by saying something about the Defend The Right To Protest campaign, about how students can be a bit more savvy when going on protests, things they should look out for, legal observers, points of contact.

Power: The Defend The Right To Protest campaign is less about stuff on the ground, as there were already groups doing that work: Legal Defence and Monitoring Group, Green and Black Cross, people who hand out bust cards about what to do if you’re arrested. We’re working at the moment on a bust card that includes stuff about witnessing, to be on the lookout for police behaviour, because one of the problems we’re having defending students and protestors is that people aren’t coming forward when they’ve seen police beat someone up. We’re trying to get more pre-emptive awareness of being aware on protests. Of course you’re there as representing your position but I think we’ve got beyond this idea that the police are always going to steward neutrally, or that they don’t spend a lot of timing stopping and searching. We saw this a lot on March 26th and June 30th. They’re doing that more and more, they’re doing targeted stop and search. It’s very heavily racialised: it’s the age thing as well. Basically anyone with a hood, anyone who looks to be nineteen, twenty or younger, often younger really, they are pre-emptively targeting certain kinds of protestors. Anecdotally one thing that’s quite common among the people who have been arrested is that they’re often quite tall. So police pick out certain people in the crowd and focus on them. The police have really ridiculous and naive models, not only about policing crowds and what they think a crowd is, and what they think fear is in a probably broader situation, and it’s probably all highly cynical, but they also have a really rubbish model about leadership and political organisation. They’re still working to models of charismatic student leaders. They think that this is how things work. So they do come armed with pictures and images of certain individuals that they will pick out at protests.


The Assault on Universities is published by Pluto Press for £13.  In this issue of Stir there is also a review of the book by Nina Power and a recording of an event for the book with Alberto Toscano, Clare Solomon and Peter Hallward.

Michael Bailey teaches sociology at Essex University.

Andrew McGettigan is a freelance writer, speaker and researcher based in London.

Nina Power is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University

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