IN DECEMBER 2010 I was a graduate student at University College London (UCL) working on what felt like an impossible number of essays, while at the same time teaching philosophy students about psychology and the legacy of Sigmund Freud. It was a cold month, but I loved the bustle of London. My days triangulated between seminar room, library, and a tiny studio flat on Gower Street, right behind the monumental Waterstones bookshop. As an international student I was only just beginning to understand the culture I had moved into.
Fast forward to the present, twelve-and-a-half years later. I’m at home, which — after Brexit — is no longer the UK. I’m reading Laurie Penny’s book Penny Red(2011), a bundle of columns and journalism. It includes her reports of the wave of student protests and riots that overtook London in those final months of 2010. And, reading about those events, I realise that I was there. I must have been, somehow.
Penny typed up her pieces on her Blackberry in the heat of the moment. By offering an up-close view of the student movement she tries to portray a political turning point. “Nine months ago,” she writes, “many of them still believed, however naively, that the democratic process might deliver real change. Now a new spirit of youthful unrest has been born into an ugly and uncomprehending political reality. A generation has been radicalised by the betrayal of their modest request for a fair future, and by repeated experiences of police brutality against those who chose to resist.” Somehow, she writes elsewhere, “the pressure has been released and the rage of Europe’s young people is flowing free after a year, two years, ten years of poisonous capitulation.”
In one of these reports, Penny describes that, on the 10th of December, she is writing from the UCL main building, “where injured students and schoolchildren keep drifting in, in ones and twos, dazed and bruised, looking for medical attention and a safe space to sit down.” Those imposing nineteenth century cloisters Penny was writing in were my daily route into the university library. During the period she describes they were occupied by students and turned into a hub for protest. On that tenth day of December, 30.000 students and schoolchildren had marched on Whitehall to protest against the Tuition Fee Bill. The march was, Penny’s words, “no less than the democratic apparatus of the state breaking down entirely”.
The Bill, which had been passed the day before, raised the cap on education fees from just over £3000 to £9000. One of the parties in government, the Liberal Democrats, had earlier that year campaigned to abolish education fees, no doubt attracting the vote of many for precisely that reason. But the Lib Dems had betrayed them. Their support allowed the new Bill to pass. For months, students had warned that the £9000 cap would simply become the new default fee for studying, to little effect. Hindsight confirms that the students were both right and screwed.
Reading Penny’s work twelve years later is sobering. First of all, where was I? I don’t have any vivid memories of these events, though I do recall seeing the occupation in the UCL cloisters. But I wasn’t part of the movement. I had to go back to my diaries of the time to figure out what I was doing.
True enough, I did wander into one of the very first student rallies at UCL, on the 10th of November. But I decided not to join the march to Westminster because, as I wrote, “I had work to do, and the entire thing did not seem incredibly beneficiary for the cause”. The reason I thought it wouldn’t benefit the cause was that I thought the groups involved had “more broad ranging political agenda’s”, particularly Marxist ones. Back then I was suspicious of Marxists because what they demanded didn’t seem to me realistic demands. Meanwhile, visiting professor Raymond Geuss showed up late for one of my lectures because he had prioritised speaking to the protesters at the Houses of Parliament. And one of my immediate peers in the Philosophy programme told me she would spend the night at the student protest camp in UCL. It was only in March the next year that I joined the by then 200.000 strong protest against government ‘austerity’ and spending cuts. Either I had finally understood the seriousness of what was going on, or the protest movement had become so bland that it no longer required much political daring to take part. I now see it was likely the latter. Back then I was still convinced that the democratic process might deliver real change.
Apart from the embarassing conclusion that a decade ago I was a naive political moderate — thank heavens I’ve changed — reading Penny’s reports makes clear that events that initially appear to be progress and change may turn out to be a mirage. That period of orchestrated protests and riots in 2010 was not enough. Nothing happened. Nothing came of the marches and the disruption. Nothing changed.
In Penny’s writing during those unruly events you see an eager conviction that the UK student movement had opened a new chapter in politics. She describes it as something different, as something that would spark a revolution. Her optimism was understandable. Standing amidst thousands of bodies that marched for a cause, refusing to be broken by police batons, Penny must have looked around her and realised: this is actually happening!
But it wasn’t happening. Not really. It was the appearance of a genuine shift, but little materialised. As Penny herself concluded a few months after the fact, governments are “not at all worried about the prospect of hundreds of thousands of people marching from A to B.” Yes, it is disruptive. Yes, they will crack down on any manifestation that does not conform to the rules. Yes, it will generate spectacle. But spectacle is aesthetics, not politics. And although we may need to exploit the power of aesthetics, we direly need to change our politics.
It is telling that in Penny’s book only one chapter describes a climate protest, a Climate Camp in Edinburgh. Back then it was seemingly possible for an entire generation concerned about their future to remain largely silent about the impact of global capitalism on the climate and ecosystems. That has changed. Today the climate movement is arguably the most visible of protest movements. Everyone has seen Extinction Rebellion or Just Stop Oil in action, or perhaps even taken part in these movements themselves. Yet their tactics often stick to the playbook Penny described in 2010: try to get large numbers out on the street, be disruptive, get attention. The climate movement mostly sticks to a variation of marching from A to B.
But what if this is not enough? What if governments once more decide to play the long game? Because that’s what they’ve done so far. The UK government a decade ago simply waited for people to grow tired of marching and being beaten up by police and to go home again. And eventually the students did go home.
In his book How to Blow up a Pipeline Andreas Malm suggests that the climate movement’s current tactic of mass gatherings and public disruption may not be enough. These happenings are all too friendly and nice — despite the feigned outrage they cause in those clenching onto the status quo. What the climate movement needs, Malm tentatively suggests, is a more violent wing, a group of people willing to go beyond mere symbolism who actually start destroying the infrastructure of ecological depletion. Direct action. Taking matters in your own hand.
Perhaps what Malm proposes would make a contribution, but it would mainly be as a foil against which moderate climate activists will seem more appealing to a wider public. I think Malm’s suggestion doesn’t really address the problem that reading Penny’s work in 2023 makes clear.
The problem is, how can we channel the energy of super-charged protest movement into a genuine alternative? The students who occupied UCL twelve-and-a-half years ago, and for a brief period of time worked, ate, and slept together may have caught a glimpse of such an alternative. And then they were kicked out by management. Going beyond the aesthetics of protest requires a genuine change to forms of living together. And that, at present, I think few know how to do.