Bad thoughts on recent events

Opinions are the mind’s way of taking a shit.

We take in much information, and a good amount of it we digest and use to nourish our minds. The rest, the excess, we dispose of. These are opinions: the worst of ourselves, the excess.

I feel as though I have heard a lot of opinions recently on the issue of university fees, and without wishing to add too much to the growing pile of shit that has been spoken about it, I have out of desperation had to sit down and offer up a few stools.

So the big stink is that university fees in the UK are set to rise from £3,000 to £9,000 per annum.

As a result, students have gone out into the streets in their thousands and on several occasions. They have destroyed some public and private property, have sat in on university property (students have actively carried out ‘occupations’), and have on some rare occasions undergone police violence.

What is at issue?

For student protestors is the obvious case that fees for higher education are trebling. Some students will now leave university with debts of around £40,000, if we allow for maintenance loans to be included as well. The government has pledged that students will not need to start paying back this money until they earn £21,000 a year or more. But even with this system in place, one can imagine students being 48-50 years of age before being clear of their debts – which means that they might conceivably get on the property ladder at about 65 years of age, just in time for retirement at about the age of 75 or so.

Also at issue is that the Liberal Democrats have lied. Having pledged not to increase the cost of universities, they have in their Tory-coalition-assemblage-form done an about face and done precisely that.

I don’t know how many of these students voted in the last election, how many voted Lib Dems, and how many will next time around be voting, presumably, Labour. But while Lib Dem followers do have a right to feel aggrieved, the general rhetoric of the anti-Lib Dem ranting seems somewhat pointless: if Nicholas Clegg’s policies had been popular, he might well have won more votes at the election, in spite of his supposedly ‘miraculous’ performance on the X Factor-style TV election debates, and in spite of consistent arguments that the Lib Dems would be a real force in politics if the UK moved to a system of proportional representation.

Even though I find it somewhat odd for people to point out that a politician has lied, or at the very least had to back track, I similarly find Mr Clegg’s defence of his decision somewhat baffling. He tells angry students that he has had to become realistic and to face facts and this is why he is not proposing blue sky thinking with regard to free education and similar ideas. If this is so, how poorly informed was he before the election, such that he made promises he would be in no position to keep?

Not only this, but one can imagine Clegg, like David Cameron and George Osbourne, being taken to some back room of Downing Street after his election ‘success,’ or perhaps to an underground tunnel, and being told the ‘truth’ – something that is kept from Joe Bloggs, because he would not understand it, but which those in power are told upon accession to its seat. Armed now with ‘the truth,’ all arguments against are unrealistic, naïve, idealistic, and other words that are unthinkingly branded as negative – even though we know full well that reality is malleable, that the future is not written, and that anyone who dares precisely to think differently (which is to have ideas, which is to think idealistically, which is to think about not reality as it is, but as it might be, i.e. to think unrealistically) offers up the greatest potential for contribution to this world. Invention is the mother of success – and invention requires bringing what was previously unreal into reality. So the disempowering discourse whereby we people in the street do not understand matters well enough to be able to act upon them, is baffling, even though Clegg in person seems to justify this given his U-turn in thinking and policy.

For me, this highlights what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have, among others, correctly identified as the crisis of representation. Not only is Nick Clegg part of a coalition government the Frankensteinian and monstrous nature of which no one – I repeat no one – voted for, therefore meaning that we are being represented by a government that in some respects was not elected, but it shows that politicians do not feel themselves to be representatives of their voters (by which I mean the people as a whole and not just those people who voted for them), but rather they feel that they can tell their voters what’s good for them. They do not represent anymore, then, but they dictate, even if we do not have one single dictator to identify (recourse to Hitler).

Let’s backtrack a second here. The preceding paragraph might have slipped into the assumption that everyone is behind the students and their protests. And yet I am not sure that this is the case. The tone of much press coverage has been damning of the violent behaviour that the students have shown, although this might be another form of dictation as opposed to representation, and there has been little in the way of solidarity movements from elsewhere. Against the student protests, then, might be the fact that the students and their lecturers are somewhat alone here, which suggests on at least a certain level a conservative desire not to change but to keep/conserve things as they are. In other words, maybe Clegg is representing a/the majority of people – and the students are in a minority, even though they and their teachers will themselves try, at least implicitly, to make out that this is because ‘normal’ people don’t know what’s good for them. That is, academia as a whole does seem to employ some of the same tactics that government does: you don’t understand, and you can’t (unless you pay me, and then I will tell you my secrets).

In addition, what I find interesting is that many of the students that are protesting will not be affected by these government decisions, which are set to come into being in 18 months, by which time a number of these students will be working as brand managers and management consultants. Perhaps those who are currently 16 years of age are too young to be out protesting, but that current students are fighting for future generations of their ilk, laudable in many ways as it is, might also be a case of misrepresentation. That is to say, this battle is not necessarily their battle at all. And while those who will really be affected (future redundancies in higher education notwithstanding) are perhaps too young (they don’t understand?) to do anything, perhaps it is they who should be protesting, whose voices we should be hearing.

A common and somewhat inevitable argument against the student protests is that the UK is running with a huge deficit. I shall return to this later, but within the logic of late capitalism, it seems inevitable that ‘luxuries’ like studying, or more particularly studying the Arts and Humanities, would face the chop. The Olympics, Trident, and various other British/British-backed endeavours that cause controversy seem to continue unabated, and from another (supposedly better informed?) point of view, this makes sense; but it also seems to outrage many people that it is students that suffer while these particular money pits suck yet more funds into their abysmal depths.

Here we can come to the issue of violence. The UK is an implicit supporter of violence, given the wealth that the country is willing to spend on defence, wary as it is that terrorist attacks can break out anywhere, while certain other dictators might need toppling in Iran or North Korea before too long. Okay, so the UK invests in violence in order to ‘prevent’ violence, or so we are told; but it is not the bookworm that is too busy learning to get involved in a fight. No, the UK is at the gym, pumping iron, despite being, in international terms, the 5’1” slightly aggressive small guy who once won a few fights and now likes to trade off his hard reputation (i.e. the UK is a bit of what in my world we call a cunt).

Now, I am neither here nor there (in this blog) with regard to whether defence spending is a good or bad thing. Even though I don’t, I want to – or perhaps just have to – trust politicians on some things – particularly because they tell me that I would not and cannot ‘handle the truth’ – and with regard to defence I’ll therefore let it go for the time being (I reckon I can handle the truth; it can’t be any more agonising than the frustrations of feeling like one cannot know). However, if implicitly the UK is investing in violence, it seems rich that the violence perpetrated by some of the student protestors is so roundly condemned.

So the students have smashed a few windows and chucked paint on a Rolls Royce (that happened to contain members of the royal family). Why is this violence so poorly regarded? To resort to violence is considered the ultimate in self-defeat, not least because any act of violence immediately raises the ghost of the t-word (terrorism). In some respects I can follow this line of reasoning, but in other senses I find it baffling given the allegiances and tendencies of those making the accusations. Personally, I do wonder that non-violent protests along the lines of (I here must take out a further loan from/increase my debt to Hardt and Negri) the White Overalls kids from the late 1990s in Italy might be more productive: irony, carnival, jubilation in protesting, as opposed to rage. However, I do also query the logic of the condemnation of violence. Almost certainly some humans have been caused harm by these protestors, especially perhaps some ‘psychological’ harm to those fragile minds that cannot take a smashed window. But the media coverage seems to focus in particular on violence conducted towards objects: smashed windows, paint on a car and (amusingly, as far as I am concerned) a burned Christmas tree. Counter-coverage, meanwhile, talks of students beaten with truncheons, and police brutality.

In other words, the violence seems to me to be rather one-way in that the powers of the state are carrying out brutal acts on their fellow humans, while, it seems, the protestors are venting their anger on objects. That this violence to objects is condemned, though, is revelatory. Even though 3,000+ people died on that day (RIP), it seems that since 11 September 2001 the worst violence one can commit is to objects, particularly buildings, especially buildings that can have invested into them some symbolic meaning. That is, the violence committed here, by the UK protestors of 2010, is the apparently insufferable violence towards established meaning. In other words, seeing objects not carry out their supposed use, to eke some excess of meaning out of them (they look better smashed, splashed with paint, or burning), is to be condemned, apparently. And yet it is the development of new meanings that drives humanity into the future, along the lines of the making real of the unreal outlined above.

Furthermore, this violence towards objects which is considered to be the most outrageous violence, such that it justifies police retaliation on people, serves to show that we invest in our objects, our cars and windows, as much if not more than we invest in other people. In some senses, then, the coverage of the protests as involving self-defeating acts of violence in some senses is self-defeating, too, since it shows that we are prey to the logic of late capitalism to such a degree that we do not even think twice about this absurd investment in objects such that their safety takes precedence over the safety of humans. Personally, I am not going to mourn the paintwork on Prince Charles’ Rolls; worse acts of ‘violence’ are daily carried out in the name of ‘humour’ (perhaps there is more irony from the Punk’d/Summer Heights High generation than I am able most of the time to recognise).

(How this is reminiscient of Cameron Fry trashing his dad’s Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – apparently the nation, like Mr Fry, loves not its children, his son, but a fucking car.)

If, to borrow a now-cliché from student favourite Fight Club, our objects own us more than we own them (Michael Landy, where are you now?), then this is no doubt a result of the systemic privatisation of matter and time. Violence to our property is violence to us (“get off ‘my’ land”). And nothing is worth anything if it does not make a profit (serving a purpose that helps the owner, a window being a shield, as opposed to helping someone else, a window being an object to smash).

The current emphasis on STEM subjects in higher education is also endemic of a society beholden to privatisation and profit. If it don’t make money, it’s useless (and can be destroyed?). But let us remember that the production of knowledge in all realms happened long before the privatisation of knowledge took place, such that people had to produce knowledge that was suitable for trading on the markets of commerce. One might – almost certainly legitimately – say that artists and those who understand and follow art will find a way to exist regardless. But then again, if we add footballers and bankers into our swathes of people who seemingly will not have to undergo any substantial cuts or debts in order to progress in life, it seems unfair that students are footing the bill for something that they most certainly did not provoke nor could have provoked.

A man, whom I shall name Keith Bellend, was decrying on the London Tube yesterday about how he does not want his taxes to pay for students that are not his own kids. In some sense, Mr Bellend’s point of view is fair enough, although while he does not want to pay for students to learn, presumably he is happy, as a friend explained to me last night, to fund various alcoholics and others who will piss his money directly up the wall. However, Mr Bellend is also misguided in many ways, for it is not really him that is potentially funding other students (well, luckily for him, it seems he won’t be), but it is students who are paying now for whatever systemic advantages he has had in the past. Mr Bellend did not look loaded; he was not Paul de Gascoigne getting commoners to push-start his plush car. But Mr Bellend has reaped rewards that a whole generation will perhaps never be able to know now.

A realist might say: “Well, the party’s over. And the young, ecologically-minded generation in fact needs to live an austere life to save the planet. Sorry, kids, but it’s the truth that we fucked up – but we’re too stuck in our ways these days to change, so you guys can do the hard work of bailing us out.”

However, as David Mitchell has pointed out (in an article that was pointed out to me by the same friend who brought up alcoholics), it was in Britain’s most impoverished moments after the Second World War that the welfare state and the free higher education whose death we have long since been mourning came into being. Of course, a lot of young people had just been killed at that particular moment in time, meaning that fewer universities needed to educate fewer people (something that I always think Lucky Jim should have explored but stubbornly did not). As the next generation grew up and needed training in order to be useful in the world, alternative/additional institutions needed to be created, and these have only grown in terms of numbers, not least despite the fact that the permanent UK population is relatively stable (the large and fluctuating numbers of more or less temporary visitors aside).

Perhaps, contra Mitchell, those post-war kids got a little treat in the form of higher education to compensate for their experience/make useful the shell-shocked and potentially useless men who had come back from war. While some subsequent generations also managed to sneak into the back of this club, now that club has to shrink or shut, and raise its cover charge to keep going.

A further defence of the increased student fees is that higher education in the USA is more expensive than here. I can understand this as a reasonable line of argument, but from what I understand, the difference between the rich and the poor in the USA has not recently been shrinking. To invoke common examples, the housing crisis, Hurricane Katrina, and other elements of post-industrialisation/rationalisation have left a huge number of people more hungry now than they were before, even though others have money coming out of their ears.

If it is practically impossible to get a well paid job without a degree (let alone the fact that, as per another friend of mine, huge debts upon leaving university will discourage entrepreneurship, Dragon’s Den-obsessed though this nation is, because students will have to take that job they might not otherwise have gone for because they know they’ve got to start paying the government back), then higher education is a massive tool for social mobility. Say what you want about pissed students drinking the whole time, watching Jeremy Kyle, and eating Pot Noodles (actually a relatively expensive commodity), the students at my university are more often than not working – and up to 40 hours a week – in addition to studying, such do they understand that if they want to get somewhere in life, they need to have a degree (even in something as supposedly ‘useless’ as Film Studies – although my views on how fundamentally useful this discipline is will wait for another time).

If my students with their current fees are working the hypothetical equivalent of 4 x 7.5 hour working days per week (like fuck people only work 7-8 hours a day anymore; like fuck they get rewarded for this), then, to continue a reproductive theme, fuck knows how they’ll afford £9,000 a year. In other words, as per the USA, the proposed cuts will stifle social mobility.

Here is where I wonder not about the motivation of the protestors, but about their closed-mindedness. No one likes to be accused of closed-mindedness, and I suffer from this ailment as much as anyone else, and almost certainly do not know enough protestors to be able fully to judge them, but it does seem as though the government is making noises about increasing support for students from impoverished backgrounds. That is, the present government claims to be ‘right’ behind social mobility, and perhaps in an astute way it is not going to fund middle class kids whose parents can afford to pay for their kids until they are in their mid- to late twenties anyway (like the parents want to!).

On this topic, people I have spoken to seem to become unclear: are poorer potential students being thrown the bone of a loan to cover these fees, or will they get the equivalent of scholarships and reduced fees? If the former, then in fact they are offered less incentive than they might be, since what social mobility their degree is supposed to afford them is seriously compromised by the debts that they will accrue (but who said social mobility was either one way or easy?). If the latter, then perhaps this government is not so bad. In fact, no one I have spoken to seems to know, and I am not sure that this has been made entirely clear. Universities that charge the full £9,000 per annum (and which universities will – have to? – do this has not been announced either – although it is thought that ‘most’ will) will have to offer scholarships, while those students who have been eligible for food money at school apparently can apply for two years’ free tuition – meaning that they would only pay for their third (and typically final) year to receive their degree. This is not ideal, but there are some laudable thoughts behind it. More importantly, I report on the confusion about this matter in order to say that, in spite of all of the good reasons to protest (above and beyond the point of protesting in and of itself – people need reminding that we are the people, and we are the makers of our own destiny), the protests seem somewhat confused and confusing themselves.

Again, confusion is not necessarily a bad thing, and for the protests to have more direction might be to fall into the kind of thinking that is already too rational to be truly effective in forcing the world to pose questions about the consequences of its actions.

But there is some (deliberate?) sense of misguidedness in the protests that we are seeing, however unpopular conveying this opinion might make me among those who feel most involved in the actions. But the reason that I say this is because these protests show the libido/desire for change, but not necessarily change with regard to higher education. Higher education is in some respects not the point of what is going on. Instead, the point of what is going on seems to be the constitution of a generation through its conflicts that will endeavour, like those that have come before it, to strive for an alternative means of existence. Perhaps it will be one, after Hardt and Negri, based on common wealth and a simultaneously singular and plural multitude. In which differences are tolerated and actively supported, rather than homogeneised.

Ecologically speaking, it seems as though we have to change the world if we are to survive within it, and if it is to be able to support life in its current manifestations. In some respects, these protests are proof that we are stepping up to the task. But in the same way that the tools we used to dig this hole (the spades and shovels of capital) now are not going to help us necessarily to get out of it (when you are in a hole, stop digging!), then perhaps we need different tools to get out of it. If we might think about filling the hole in with one thing, it might be with shit. These opinions of mine, then, might be a modest and malodorous contribution to that mission.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
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