Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

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Wu Ming 1 about his contribution, climate activism, the occupy movement and the mystery why writers on the left still do not publish under copyleft or creative commons.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 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

Interview – White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race

In Interviews on 20 November 2011 at 11:32 am

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh interviews the editors of White Riot:Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay.

Stir: Your new book White Riot looks at a particular response to another period of enforced austerity: Punk Rock.  It seems a good time to look back at the failures of this resistance and to the resources that can be used for effective opposition today.  Why did you decide to put this critical collection of essays and interviews together now and how did you come to choose the contributors?

Stephen Duncombe: Almost 40 years after its inception, it seemed to us like good time to look back and see what impact Punk Rock may have had in rethinking (and reinforcing) our notions of race. It’s our basic premise that race is deeply embedded in Punk Rock, not just musically – the obvious cross-overs between reggae and punk — but integral to its very formations. Read the rest of this entry »

Interview with McKenzie Wark

In Interviews on 31 August 2011 at 9:08 am

Whilst suitably engaged in Guy Debord’s boardgame The Game of War at Houseman’s Bookshop, author McKenzie Wark talked with me about his new book, The Beach Beneath the Street, revisiting the Situationists and their legacy.

STIR: To those unfamiliar with the Situationists how would you introduce them, their contribution to the understanding of political events while they were writing, and their “contemporary resonance”?

McKenzie Wark: Only seventy-odd people were ever members of The Situationist International. It was an extremely marginal avant-garde movement that was formed in 1957 and then dissolved itself in 1972.  Why the hell would anybody be interested in this tiny marginal activity? The footprint the Situationists left in political aesthetic culture is vastly greater than their actual numbers. As their leading light, Guy Debord, said ‘all you need is a few trustworthy comrades’.

So, why look at this stuff again?  Well, if you are interested in how to think critically about everyday life, how to think and act outside of institutionalized forms of knowledge, in ways of inventing practices that are at least partially outside of the commodity system, then they are great precursors for dozens of things happening now such as Copy Left and Creative Commons on one side and forms of autonomous organisations in the media on the other.

There are also certain calcified stories about what was important about them, and it’s not as if those stories were wrong but sometimes it is worth going back to see what we have missed and what we have forgotten.

In The Beach Beneath the Street I wanted to tell the stories and extract the concepts of some of the figures who have not really been discussed. I have to say, though, now I am in the UK, that it is British comrades who have done a lot of work in saying that is not just about Debord—it’s also about Jacqueline De Jong, Alexander Trocchi, Asger Jorn.

Instead of looking at the one famous person, I look at it as a movement, a collective practice.

Read the rest of this entry »

Return of the Public? Interview with Dan Hind

In Interviews on 15 August 2011 at 5:23 pm

The public may well have made its return to the political stage but the real question is whether it can come back in its own right rather than as the docile invention of a financial elite?

Photo by Nina Power

STIR: The title of your most recent book is ‘The Return of the Public’. Do you think this is a ‘return’ of the educated voter who is concerned with regulation and policy or do you think that we are seeing the emergence of a new public? Read the rest of this entry »

Interview with filmmaker Brandon Jourdan

In Interviews on 1 April 2011 at 7:14 pm

I met Brandon Jourdan at a convergence space in London the day before the March 26th protests against public spending cuts. He is an award-winning independent filmmaker, journalist and writer currently based in the Netherlands, where he is working on a film about reactions to the financial crisis. After the march, we met up again to talk about his current film project.

STIR: Why are you in the UK?

BRANDON JOURDAN: I came here because there was a very large protest march that I wanted to cover.  On March 26th, 500,000 people marched to protest government austerity measures.  I’ve been particularly following this story and related stories about the financial crisis since it began.  I have worked in a few different places such as New York City, where I covered the housing crisis and the campaigns that working class people had launched.  I also did some work in California covering the occupations that had occurred because of the fee increases.  Also, earlier in the year I was in Greece during the eighth general strike since the beginning of the financial crisis.  Greece is now experiencing a very nasty structural adjustment that is being pushed by the IMF, European Union and the Central Bank.  London was the next stop on the way. Read the rest of this entry »

High Practice

In Interviews on 29 March 2011 at 8:37 pm

An Interview with David Graeber

Is it possible to speak of the activist and the academic as the same person? What can be done to revive the relationship between critical thought and practice? The emergence of the alter-globalization movement has provoked some interesting responses to these questions.

STIR: You have said “It’s hard to think of another time when there has been such a gulf between intellectuals and activists; between theorists of revolution and its practitioners”.  Why do you think that this has become so extreme and do you think it could be a legacy of the Frankfurt Critical School or is the Frankfurt Critical School just another expression of this legacy?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, I think both of those things are true.  I think it is helpful to put the Frankfurt School in its historical context.  It seems that people have been cruel to them and in a way it is easy to do because they were so elitist, snobby and condescending.  This makes it really hard not to feel that way about them but they have become such whipping boys.  When they said that the media is manipulating the masses, they were considered to be arrogant, but we have to remember that they were Jews who came from Germany in the thirties, and it was clear that the masses were being manipulated by the mass media and they understood that.  I think that one of the main legacies of the Frankfurt school, though, is one of failed revolution.  Read the rest of this entry »

Working Theory

In Interviews on 29 March 2011 at 7:10 pm

Interview with a Plane Stupid Activist

On 1st March 2010, after a successful campaign to stop airport expansion at Heathrow, a group of activists swooped on a abandoned market garden near the airport. They transformed the site into a community garden and created a space to build local resistance and resilience.

STIR: After your initial success in resisting airport expansion, you decided not to leave and were able to maintain this ‘local victory’.  Your current occupation of this previously unutilized site (near Heathrow), and the process of making it productive, appears to be central to the alter-globalization movement.  Your actions seem to share an expression with the Argentinean Recovered Factory Movement whose slogan is a strategy: “Occupy, Resist, Produce”.  In 2009, five years after the first occupation and resumption of production at the Zanon ceramics factory (now called Fabrique Sin Patrones, or factory without bosses) they have received the definite legal titles.  Is this the process that you are engaged in?

PLANE STUPID: It is a similar one, but what we have been talking about recently is the notion of ‘occupy, create, resist’.  You have to take space in order to create; and if we are going to create a movement that is for something then we are going to have to create that something. Read the rest of this entry »

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