Political change, is there victory in failure?

image used with kind permission from Leyla Williams

jack layton
by Jack Layton

On 25th January 2016, 150 students from University College London declared that they were going on rent strike. It was a bold statement of direct action sending a clear message to UCL management that the current state of student housing was not acceptable. The accommodation was too expensive and in poor condition. It was a message that resonated. The story was picked up by The Independent, The Guardian, The Economist, and BBC to name but a few. Spending time with the strikers it became evident these actions were not just about the state of their dated accommodation block, but also about what it meant to attend university as an institution.

The particular act of withholding rent was related to broader issues of the housing crisis and the commodification of Higher Education. It was (and is – the campaign is still ongoing) politics in action. It is worth unpacking the relationship between particular actions and their broader effects. In an age when the challenges facing society appear insurmountable: climate change, the relentless march of neoliberalism, and xenophobia, it is necessary to understand how political change is achieved. The history of student activism is a useful place to tentatively explore this.

May 1968 Paris is the iconic example of student led activism. Students went on strike, occupying university buildings and areas of the Sorbonne. Workers soon joined the students going on general strike and occupying factories.  It was a clear message against consumerism, as well as a revolution against the sexual and cultural conservatism of France. Eventually, the protests were violently repressed. However, their repression has not stopped the ideas the events stood for from permeating through academic and political culture.

Based on the experiences of ’68 Habermas developed the idea of New Social Movements. New Social Movements expanded the scope of politics to include issues of rights, identity, and culture, beyond base access to economic material.  It also captured the idea that there were alternative modes of political organising, focusing at institutions other than the state. These ideas are commonplace today. A solely class based organisation concerned with increasing access to the means of production, singularly protesting a state, seems almost quaint. Political progress today is far more likely to take the form of networked individuals loosely associated with a particular single issue. Using multiple modes of engagement with states, NGOs, transnational corporations, and international institutions.   

From the same 1968 events, Henri Lefebvre, became convinced that the forthcoming political revolution would be urban. That access to a city and all of its resources was the key frame for improving society. This idea has been taken up enthusiastically in certain radical political circles today. The aim is direct occupation of urban space and the democratisation of urban resources. A compelling thought.

But, May 1968 failed. The protests were violently crushed. Yet, and this is the key point, the ideas they propagated have been taken forth and manifest themselves in unpredictable ways. The kind of cultural politics experimented with in ’68 can be linked to the sexual and identity politics of today. The forms of direct action and student occupations have a clear lineage to the Occupy Movement – which did so much to bring the idea of the ‘99%’ to the fore of the popular imagination.

This is not to argue that May 1968 is the key to understanding all politics, or that history is down to great men theorising how to do politics. Rather, that political action is improvised and experimented with.

Politics is not an arrow flight from bow to target; a clear arc of progress taking society to a final endpoint. Rather politics is a messy push and pull of what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable. The protests of ’68 were violently crushed. But the ideas of sexual freedom and individual liberty are now an accepted (to a greater or lesser degree) part of society. The arrow may take flight, but change direction, drop unexpectedly, burn to the ground, and then rekindle and head in an unexpected direction.  There is no trajectory. Only a constant unfolding of society in myriad directions, constantly adjusting the values of society and ways in which it is organised.

If politics is understood as a constant push-and-pull of what is deemed acceptable, the battle for ideas becomes essential. And, I am sad to say, progressives have been losing. The most vociferous vision of the future is currently right-wing populism. Donald Trump’s vile rhetoric is pulling political discourse in a less tolerant direction. Whilst on this side of the Atlantic the tub-thumping little-England rhetoric of Nigel Farage has yanked Britain into an EU referendum. These campaigns may fail, but they will have succeeded in normalising a wariness of foreigners and international cooperation.

This push-and-pull is why it is so essential to have voices like Bernie Sander and Jeremy Corbyn in politics. They help to re-calibrate what is seen as acceptable politics. Why movements like #BlackLivesMatter, and E15, are essential for claiming an alternative vision for how the future could be. Emmeline Pankhurst did not live to see gender equality; and Martin Luther King did not live to see racial equality. Yet their hard work of pulling political discourse and society in a more progressive direction has had a long constructive legacy – with much work still to be done.

There will be no revolution. But there is the relentless push-and-pull of what is deemed acceptable.

The UCL Cut the Rent campaign has captured the imagination because it is making an argument for what a university should be. Not quibbling over whether rents should increase by 1 or 3%, but demanding that universities see the provision of housing as part of its duty of welfare to its students. Questioning whether the university is best understood as a private company or a public institution.

In the moment, it is difficult to link walking down a street with a banner, or withholding money from management, with anything other than the task at hand. Only with hindsight is it possible to look back on a campaign and consider the (in)direct affect it has had on the rest of society. The protests may fail, but it is vitally important that alternative visions of society are constantly pushed for. UCL may not agree to cut rents by 40% as the strikers are demanding, but I hope the case continues to be made that universities need to be run as institutions for welfare rather than profit; and that the left continues to make arguments for a more tolerant, generous, and fair society.

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