UfSO @ Tent City University, debriefing.
It began as a farce. My colleagues couldn’t get to the Tent City University because there was a ridiculous War remembrance cum advertising parade (at one point I saw a float selling Stoke on Trent, with girls prancing around in costumes symbolising the business potential of this old industrial Midlands city). Then the noise of the parade plus the musical accompaniment of the St Paul’s bells drowned out any possibility of a workshop inside the Tent City Uni. Exasperated, we sat down with the two people who had turned up to the talk, who were already members of the UfSO. But anyway, we carried on, discussing for some reason Ethics and Morality for the first half an hour (something to so with the Tory climate of ideological moralism?). We attempted to read what we had written to help frame the discussion, I tried to give my speech on Utopia through a terrible mini-microphone, watching Prof Marcus Karlsberg’s bemused face trying to pretend he was hanging on to every word with true solidarity. And then the noise stopped. It was beautiful, the conversation began. After this there was a regular flow of people coming into the tent, sitting down, talking, walking off, coming back. We sat in an ever-expanding circle with no facilitation to speak of (until right at the end), just letting conversation happen. This approach goes back to our desire to open up conversation and critical social engagement, which was mostly a reaction to the dry and anti-social workshops, rallies, meetings, exhibitions, art-events, etc that we attended towards the end of the last academic year everywhere in London
However, in the Tent City University we experienced the opposite problem: everybody wants to talk about the University or politics or capitalism, which is of course great. Yet what inevitably happens is that, without facilitation and direction, this conversation becomes dominated by individual personalities and bogged down in detail. So, we had a chap very enthusiastically criticising the University and suggesting ways in which it could be improved. Then an interesting argument developed between him and three or four other members of the circle, which developed into a pretty self-contained discussion on the problems and possible solutions regarding the education system as it is now. I tried to make my case as ever that the University is useless corpse which should only be approached as a parasite (what’s that one that gets with the wasp and controls it’s mind, eventually eating it alive from the inside once it’s purpose has been served?) invades a useful host organism. Yet the deep and unconscious middle-class defensiveness on behalf of the enlightenment ideal of free education within the existing system is strong. Apart from a personal axe to grind, my strong attack was also an attempt to reintroduce an historical and socio-economic context into the argument. Details are all well and good, but there must be a constant dialectic between the details and the bigger picture.
The critique of the University cannot make any progress without a story of how the University as an institution has its historical roots in the victory of the bourgeoisie over the feudal system and then its subsequent solidification into a reactionary ruling class with its now hollow ideology of universal free education. Furthermore, this analysis must be linked to the function of the University in maintaining, reproducing and disseminating the ideology of this bourgeois class (albeit in a very confused way, because the University system in Britain must represent a ruling class that is made up of both the middle and aristocratic classes, a mess of reactionary and capitalist sentiment). One of my colleagues eventually interjected the conversation with a strong Marxist point of view, which funnily enough revealed a free marketeer in our midst. Unfortunately, this move to the economic base of the conversation came at the end when we were being thrown out in favour of the cuddly toy making afternoon session.
In retrospect, I feel that the event was a success in regards to creating an open conversation about important issues. The Tent City University is kind of unique as an educational space, situated right in the middle of tourist London and a tourist spectacle in itself, absorbing unlikely participants into the debate. To a certain extent, this is the ideal we have been arguing for since last year: an open space for mutual-social-self-education and sharing of critical-creative activity that exists at once within and without a “University”. And for us, the UfSO, this was an opportunity to experience what this can be like in a practical sense, and also to have to think about the next problem: how to encourage a critical conversation that engages on the right level of analysis without being exclusionary or boring. For it is important to remember that there is a limited potential for truly critical conversation within the existing regime; this is the central problem of all utopian projects. A critical space can be created, but we cannot expect to have the corresponding mindset of a truly free and equal democratic/socialist society. We are all saturated to the core with ideology and alienation, it will take time to cleanse ourselves, and to a certain extent this is a life-long project for all of us. I think even in a socialist society this will be the case; perhaps this will actually be the basis of such a socialist citizenship in which the dream of unity of work and thought will be realised.
So, in conclusion, I think now that we as a movement are engaged in utopian projects of taking back public spaces, we need to start to agree on some fundamentals. This is a war, and we need to be smart and effective. A big problem we face is that capitalism is incredibly well organised, it is hegemonic in the sense that it is not a matter of brainwashing the public anymore, capitalism is a way of life. The fundamentals of capitalism are the basis of everything we experience, not only in work but also in our consumption of culture, our common-sense opinions about everyday life. We need to come to some firm provisional but convincing conclusions as to what we are fighting and why so that we can come together as a significant revolutionary force. The proletariat isn’t the revolutionary class anymore, we are all in this system of wage-labour and the creation of surplus value, and not only do we on the left involved in struggle need to come together, we also need to really engage the public in order to create a popular socialist movement.
In particular, there has to be something in common between activists and activist groups. It doesn’t mean we have to give up on our particular issues, race, sex, globalisation, war, environment, etc. I think this thing in common is the capitalist system, which will inevitably make me sound like a far-left ideologue, but oh well. And admittedly it isn’t clear what the historical or logical priority is between power and the abuse of society on the one hand, and the specific manifestations of this class struggle (I mean, what came first, power or class?). But we should work on the contemporary manifestations of class and the abuse of power, which is our social reality. I think all specific struggles do meet at the level of the economic base, and the final point I want to make is a fundamentally Marxist one: any truly popular revolutionary uprising will need to be based on a correct analysis of the capitalist system. This analysis will bring all the struggles together, as they all are linked thorugh this system and the specific abuses of power that it allows (and encourages). The capitalist system after all is based on an exploitative labour relation and takes advantage of any weakness in global society to create super-profit.
We can all take part in this analysis, and it doesn’t have to be boring. It will bring us together and re-introduce debate, hope, creativity and intelligence back into the public sphere. But it needs to be made at the right level and from the bottom up, strategic everyday struggle at the level of detail is important, but will not change the system as a whole. When we are divided we are weak and depressed, together in united struggle we will be an irresistible and joyful force
Prof. G. Riddle, Visiting Fellow