From Tadeusz Borowski to the common wealth: thoughts on recent events from someone who does not understand

On Thursday of last week, members of staff at my university went on strike to protest government cuts.

On Saturday of last week, 500,000 or so people turned out in London to protest government cuts. Apparently some violence happened.

And, according to an article in the Guardian, the government is allegedly holding the AHRC to ransom, in that it wants to push its own research agenda on to academia in the Humanities. This on top of more or less decimating what funding will go to Humanities research in the first place. And part of what it wants universities to study is ‘Big Society.’

This blog will be about all of these things, perhaps at the same time. It may lack focus, but here goes…

I was ‘away’ this weekend, so I missed all of the action, and I did not strike last week. Mainly this is because I am not a member of the UCU. I am not a member of the UCU because I found the talks given by the representatives wholly unconvincing when first I started my new job. The rhetoric offered was along the lines of ‘your employers will try to fuck you at some point, and if you’re not on board when it happens, then tough shit because we won’t help you.’ This just after my employers had said to me/us (i.e. those gathered) that they are very open about getting feedback from staff members, and that they will not tolerate discrimination of any kind in the work place.

So, a little bit off-put by the Citizen Smith-ness of the UCU reps, I decided not to unionise myself – feeling instead that I would like to have clear channels of communication to my employer myself, rather than to have everything mediated and potentially twisted by a third party.

My feeling was that I’d only be in a union if I (felt realistically that I could be part of a team that) ran it; and, as per descriptions from friends of things like the Fabian Society, which also I might consider joining were it not for similar reasons, it seems that these places involve too many chiefs, not enough Indians.

Let’s pause for a second to think about this last statement. Its implicit racism acknowledged, more at stake for me is the fact that it assumes hierarchies are necessary for action to make sense. There is possibly some truth in this, although what I mean when I employ this particular cliché in this particular context is that I trust myself and would prefer to represent myself rather than to have my interests represented by someone else.

This is problematic. It is problematic because it means I do not inherently trust other people. Or if I do, I trust the guy in the suit telling me he will try to look after me in my place of work – he’s my employer, after all – rather than the guy in the trainers whose narrative is less stylish and who works alongside me and who already is offering a confrontational approach to how to handle those self-same employers, which is not my style of acting.

I say that it is not ‘my style’ as a result of my own lingering inability to overcome aspects of my supreme middle class-ness. My prejudice against poor narrative, and my hypocrisy in that I was also wearing trainers – and will rarely be seen without them – are also playing a part in my thinking here; as is my own naïveté regarding my implicit trust in holders of purse strings…

It is also potentially silly on my part to use aesthetics (in that my thinking is based upon questions of ‘style’) as a basis for a decision related to political and economic well-being. Furthermore, I read recently about Tracks by Robyn Davidson, in which the author, learning to ride camels from an Afghan in order to prepare for a 1,700 kilometre trek across the Australian Outback, explains that an important lesson that she learned from the Afghan in question was that some people are – contrary to her own, naïve and middle-class sensibilities – just not nice people. That is, I still suffer from the same delusions as Davidson did, in that I implicitly trust people (of my own middle class background) more than I do people who do not (seem to me to?) share that background. Perhaps I can put it thus: my employers might well fuck me over at some point, but at least I am ready for that rather than getting fucked over by someone else who is claiming that they are doing the opposite.

My decision not to the join the UCU, problematic as it is, is not the topic here, but it gives some context as to why I did not strike last week: the fact is, I could not because I do not belong to the group that called the strike.

That said, I would not have either. In part this is because the classes I had to give last Thursday were the last to came ahead of an assignment that my students have to do this week, and I did not want them, the students, to feel unprepared as a result of gaps in their tuition. Or at least I did not want the students to have had no guidance concerning how to carry out the assignment (which seems de rigueur, since I have about 10 emails in my inbox as I write asking me about the assignment – mostly from students who did not turn up to the classes on Thursday, mind).

A further reason for not wanting to strike, was that, by all accounts, only a small majority of UCU members voted in favour of the action, in a ballot that saw only a minority of UCU members at my university turn up to vote. This in itself is not a justifiable reason not to strike; more, however, is that in the face of my university having 94 per cent (yes, 94 per cent) of its funding cut by 2014, it seems to me not exactly counter-productive to strike, but more that it should be the university’s policy as a whole to take action, rather than leave it to the mumbles of a minority. There is much weakness in this line of thinking, I admit; one has to start somewhere and a small protest is better than nothing. To get around this cop-out, here’s where I hide behind my teaching as an excuse: I don’t want my students to suffer as a result of something that is of little concern to them (both in terms of how much they care and in terms of how much say they have had in recent government cuts to higher education).

So… Basically, I don’t think that the industrial action was misguided, but I think that different motivation needs to reach not just the UCU crowd, but a more united ‘front’ – and that strikes should not take place on the last day of teaching before an assignment is due in.

If I ‘trust’ my employers, then should I not ‘trust’ the government? Well, in part this is the source of my confusion about recent matters. I don’t believe that many people in government are ‘evil’ and certainly do not think that they knowingly are evil, in that they actually want the poor in society to get poorer while the rich get richer – an outcome that seems likely based upon various interpretations of recent policy measures, predominantly the government cuts.

This becomes a hard attitude to maintain, however. Because while the government and their cronies, buckling to pressure from the economists that run this country (that is, the UK), may not be intentionally ‘evil,’ they do seem not to wish to listen to swathes of the population in determining their policies. When one does protest, be it peacefully or violently, those against whom the protest is launched should listen. And when they do not ostensibly listen, well, firstly it becomes hard not to see violence as a means of trying to capture their attention, and secondly it becomes hard not to think at certain times that ‘they’ do not want to listen.

If their hands are tied by economists, they (the politicians) could explain this, rather than allowing those who believe this to be the case (who believe that politics is an avatar of economics) to become the object of ridicule for those who sneer at them for being conspiracy theorists. It may not be that there is a room in which sit three people deciding how best to carve up the UK and its wider interests (that is, there may not be a conscious conspiracy), but the determination of a nation to measure everything by profit alone is deeply dehumanising and does lead to the suspicion of conspiracy. If the rich do get richer and the poor poorer, and if it seems obvious to everyone that this should not happen, then why does it persist? Suspecting conspiracies seems to me a reasonable response to this; someone, somewhere, is blocking the arrival of an egalitarian society.

Being ‘away’ this weekend did involve me reading some fiction for the first time in a long time. In his writings about Auschwitz and Birkenau (this is what I read for pleasure), Tadeusz Borowski explains that even at the concentration camps there were concerts to entertain people, that sexual relations regularly took place in what is termed ‘the Puff,’ that vodka was traded fairly frequently by ‘organisers,’ and that even weddings could took place.

I bring up Borowski because part of what he writes seems relevant to today. Let me immediately stop myself from over-egging this comparison: we are not in the middle of a Holocaust – not in the UK, at least, and not of the kind that took place in Europe some 70 years ago. I would not want anyone to believe that this is what I am saying, not least because comparisons between the UK and Libya, many of which have surfaced online following events this past weekend, seem to me similarly over-egged. Last time I checked, the machine guns were not in use in Trafalgar Square.

What is relevant about Borowski to me is that even in concentration camps there is entertainment to console the masses and stories of exceptional events, such as weddings, that help to legitimise the rule, which is the dehumanisation of certain people (the inmates), who then get used to the conditions in which they are held, such that seeking to change them becomes next to impossible, as does denying the very deathly reality that stares them in the eye. It becomes next to impossible to change these conditions because even the ‘breaks’ from them are stage-managed to reinforce them. When even ‘outside’ thinking – i.e. glimpsing a, perhaps the, different reality that possibly all humans believe in their hearts to be possible – is already a part of the system of government/rule, i.e. when ‘outside’ is in fact already ‘inside,’ then ‘true’ outside thinking (i.e. bringing about change) becomes even harder to imagine.

In a society of the spectacle, in which exceptional people and events are celebrated and mediatised with such astounding regularity, then the conditions for thinking differently are not real so much as stage managed. And in our screen-saturated world, this so-called society of the spectacle is indeed the society in which we currently live. Many people believe that learning about and/or teaching films involves sitting around watching films and saying how great The Adjustment Bureau is (it’s shit, by the way).

In fact, most of my time is spent trying to get people to think about how much their very thoughts, beliefs, and tastes, their very sense of self and their very identities, perhaps even the concept of identity itself, are shaped by these media. In part, I want to get my students to hate (mainstream?) films, so as then to inspire them to think something else. I don’t know what this ‘something else’ is (and perhaps would/could not recognise it if I did see it?), and perhaps they already have this and think this way, but I worry when I don’t see much evidence of it.

This desire to see evidence of ‘other’ thought is not without its paradoxes. For a start, it requires me and my students to find a common language through which we can express those thoughts. Can one demand, top-down, a language? And perhaps original thought is not to be found in this common language at all, if indeed it can or does exist. But here we must recognise what I shall term intersubjectivity, by which I mean that if we do not have a common language, then instead we are perhaps all idiots in the sense that we are alone talking to ourselves, speaking an idiolect that no one else understands. Existentialist philosophers might conceivably say that this is the case anyway, that we cannot know others. But even if this is so, then the Sisyphean task that I set myself is to find both this common language and to inspire ways of using it that continually reflect the changing thoughts that people have. Perhaps this is impossible; but against this particular windmill I suspect that I shall tilt until I stop drawing breath.

Of course, inspiring thought and finding a common language are tough things to do. For, in order for this to take place, one needs to live in a world that provides the conditions in which this can take place. And while the nature of those conditions is up for grabs, it does seem that the current government is doing its best to deprive universities of those conditions. If I did not have classes to teach last Thursday, then, I am defenceless in my decision not to take industrial action last week.

That the nature of the conditions for original thinking are up for grabs is important. For some this smacks of vagueness: if you don’t know what those conditions are, then how can a government meaningfully help to provide them? Well, firstly, it’s not the government’s job to provide those conditions. That is my job, and I spent a long time training to do it and I shall still be in debt (present rates of pay and debt-repayment taken as maintained) until I am about 37 as a result of my decision to undergo this training (note how I try to present myself as something of a martyr, here, even though I am simultaneous to my debts very frivolous at times in terms of how I spend my money). The government needs to trust me – and of course my colleagues – that we can do our job, and this is something it seems unwilling to do. Not only will it not trust me, but it does not even want to listen to me.

Now, the point is that the conditions for original thinking need to be up for grabs, or vague, as I am terming it. The reason that this is so, is because original thinking involves thinking new things – and one cannot know in advance what new things are going to be. One cannot know in advance what will ‘work’ and/or what will be useful. We need, in other words, to be able to experiment.

Given the attendance rates of students in some of my classes, I get the impression that many are out there experimenting. That they are not experimenting in my classroom is in part my failing, and in part a legitimisation of cutting my funding. But in other senses, it is testimony not to the success of my own performance, but to the success of the system as a whole. For, it is quite possible that those ‘dropout’ or ‘waster’ students will – perhaps even without even knowing it at the time – find original thought in their experiments that they will then spend the rest of their lives trying to translate into a common language for others to understand – and which will in turn bring about progress, change, adaptation, maybe even profitability. For me, this is perhaps the most meaningful definition of what a life’s work is.

In this sense, the vagueness of the student life is arguably necessary. It cannot have a predetermined goal, even if the task of university education as I see it is to try to get my students to take a few first steps along the road towards translating their original and experimental thoughts into a common language that the rest of us can understand; so that the rest of us can, in short, have a chance of recognising the brilliance of these young people that otherwise will be lost and which will lead only to resentment.

In a system of higher education in which experimentation is replaced by a pre-established need for certain goals to be achieved (in other words, for there to be guaranteed profitability – as if the economists of the UK and elsewhere were not highly aware of the fact, particularly in the context of recent economic history, that profits cannot be guaranteed), then these conditions for original thought are minimised. Instead of thinkers who then spend their life translating those thoughts into deeds, the present government seems determined (be it out of necessity or desire) to produce labourers who do not produce original but commonly expressed thought, whose future already is written, and who do not question the conditions that do not allow original thought to be expressed, because thought is controlled at every step. And if thought is controlled at all, then it must be controlled according not to what thought might become or according to where thought might take us, but according to someone’s definition of what thought is or should be now.

I hope that the above presents a relatively clear account of what I think is the purpose of higher education. To summarise, it is not to give certain thoughts to people – even though, perhaps by my students most of all, this is commonly (mis)understood as being what higher education is all about. Rather, it is to get people to think about their relationship with others, such that they try to find a decent way of expressing their original thoughts in a common language, while at the same time trying to provide the conditions for that original thought – which can have no pre-established goal if properly it is to be original – to take place. Naturally, this produces tension that is perhaps at the heart of much misunderstanding with regard to higher education (in the Humanities?). But as per the speech given to me at my first graduation ceremony, the piece of paper on which my degree was written was not proof of anything that I had done, but evidence of the fact that I had started to want to learn things for myself, and a promise on my part to carry on doing so for the rest of my life – whether or not I then wanted to confer to others those things that I had learned in a narrow or broad cast fashion.

If, as a result of the pursuit of profit without relent, one is treated not like a thinking human being but instead like a beast destined to labour in the construction of economic pyramids until one keels over having exhaled one’s last, then, like many beasts, one will indeed bite the hand that feeds it – because it, the beast, or ‘one,’ wants to feed itself and not live a life of servitude. No wonder cat videos are so popular online. No wonder my students sometimes bite my hand. No wonder protestors want to bite the government’s hand.

(Indeed, as Borowski would explain to us, when profit and survival become the main driving force in human societies, people will send their own families to the gas chambers just so long as they can themselves get by. I am not presuming here that human happiness, or human existence, is predicated on a coherent, heteronormative family. But I am saying that a society based solely upon profit and which makes scarce among many people the means for existence does produce ‘inhuman’ behaviour, and it is ‘rich’ of those with money to decry the savagery of those without it because they cannot afford to live their lives with the same sense of etiquette. And yet, even though Borowski is writing of Auschwitz and Birkenau, his words still echo in my ears when I read about what is happening in the UK today. Whatever violence is perpetrated by protestors in London, and however much this ‘spoils’ any ‘meaningful’ protests, we would all do well to remember that these people, even if they are ‘just like that’ – i.e. violent criminals – it is also at least in part because the conditions in which they live demand this behaviour from them.)

I shall return shortly to the idea of the ‘common’ as used above in relation to the concept of a ‘common language,’ but first I want to bring in some talk about ‘Big Society,’ because it strikes me as relevant to this blog.

In theory, Big Society asks people to take charge of their own existence; in short, its goal is to bring people into politics. It is a nice idea: people volunteer to carry out public services that otherwise cost the government a lot money – and they do this out of a sense of civic duty.

The words ‘right’ and ‘good’ get used a lot in connection to Big Society: people will do the ‘right’ thing and they will do ‘good’ for society. It is hard, if not shy of possible, however, to reach a consensus about what is ‘right’ and ‘good’ – let alone for those volunteering to be a part of ‘Big Society’ to act in such a way that a coherent definition would arise.

A further problem that strikes me concerning Big Society is that it aims to dictate from the top-down something that is supposed otherwise to be ‘bottom-up’ – i.e. directed by ‘the people.’ This paradox is perhaps well illustrated by the government’s threat to reduce its funding to the AHRC if Big Society itself not part of the research agenda over the forthcoming period. If it is indeed true that the government will dictate to the AHRC what its research agenda is or should be (an agenda that the AHRC will then dictate to universities), and if part of that research agenda should be Big Society itself, then how does a top-down initiative (top-down in the sense that the government demands it, rather than people volunteering to do it) tally with a policy that is supposed to appeal to a bottom-up sensibility?

Not only is there an inherent paradox in this system, then, but it seems also to understand as frivolous certain jobs that in fact require training and hard work. As seems to be a common example working its way around, politicians seemingly feel that manning local libraries is a job to be undertaken by volunteers, when librarians require training and, indeed, payment in order to be able to run a decent library. If libraries were not supposed to be run according to the voluntary principles of Big Society, then the government surely would not have cut the funding for so many of them.

(Borowski again comes to mind: if works makes us free, as was written above the gates of Auschwitz, then our present government seems to want people to work for free. Perhaps it will only be the starving martyrs of socially-conscientious and naïve – naïve because socially-conscientious? – children that will allow the government to see its folly – if folly it is committing? Work for free. Be a loser and a waster.)

It is interesting that the rhetoric surrounding Big Society also depends upon its futurity. This is interesting because it is the concept of futurity that seems to lie at the heart of many government policies. Don’t get me wrong: the government is responding as best it can – i.e., as per most humans, ineptly – to very present concerns, such as a massive deficit. But the government is also trying to steer us into a future the nature of which is already known. In this case, the future paradoxically looks something like a mythological, a romanticised, and as such a somewhat falsified past: a time, probably involving the Blitz somewhere, when Britons helped each other to help themselves, or whatever other facile homilies best sum this up.

Again, the ‘absolute evil’ that is Hitler emerges as the biggest favour done by the past to justify contemporary politics. This sounds controversial, and so will need a bit of explanation. I am not saying Hitler was ‘right’ – Heaven forbid this. But by being designated as absolute evil, Hitler does function – even if only implicitly with regard to the unspoken Blitz-era sense of community that ‘Big Society’ seems to rely upon – as a uniting principle that can cause people to set aside their concerns, as if the UK did not need a police force during the Second World War because everyone was kind and gentle towards each other. (To soften this assumption, perhaps read here.)

However, bereft of a contemporary Hitler, what can be the binding principle of contemporary Big Society, one that allows us all to understand what ‘right’ and ‘good’ really are?

Furthermore, if implicitly Big Society aims to bring ‘back’ a reality that never really existed, then it calls upon us to accept as true an idealised version of the past and of the UK as a nation. Idealised often is understood as meaning, or being related to the idea of, perfect and/or perfection. However, I also use the word idealised here in a slightly different sense: because that perfect Britain never existed, then Big Society appeals to not a reality, but to an idea of Britain. Because ideas are not ‘real,’ ideas refer to a certain extent to something that has not happened. And things that have not happened are connected to the idea of futurity: they have not happened but they may yet. When I say that Big Society involves a sense of ‘futurity,’ then, in spite of its implicit appeal to the/a past (that never really existed), it is as a result of its ideal(ised) nature.

This ‘futurity’ is important, not just because there is a sense in which the future is supposed to look a bit like what we assume, or are led to believe, was our past, but also because it is precisely against futurity that many government policies, particularly those cuts made in the realm of higher education, seem to be targeted. That is to say, as per the above, the government seems unwilling to spend on the future and on idealism, and yet one of the major concepts of its current policy drive is based on precisely that, even though it is wearing the mask of the past.

This is not all. It is not that this is necessarily any great hypocrisy on the part of the government; their mandate is to take us into the future, after all, and how can one do this without basing ideas selectively on what we have learned from the past? I say ‘selectively’ because people will disagree about what were the important lessons of the past, and if capitalism has had its failures, these seem to be overlooked, while the glorious unity paradoxically enabled by nothing less antisocial than war seems to be embraced. What is cute, though, is that idealism is typically attacked when it comes to conservative politics, which couches itself more typically in the concept of realism, when in fact idealism is part and parcel of realism, not least because the future is unwritten – it is an idea – and because our very understanding of reality itself is premised upon not necessarily reality itself (it is hard to know with any certainty that we have access to this reality thing) but upon an idea of reality, too.

Another concept that seems often to be found near mentions of Big Society is that of ‘the people.’ Some may baulk at the idea that ‘the people’ is only a ‘concept.’ I see people nearly everywhere I look; tangibly, they are real. And yet, ‘the people’ is precisely a concept because, if I may borrow ideas from various sources, it assumes unity across plurality; the people unifies into a singular persons that are very plural. In other words, Big Society relies upon a concept of people that in reality is just not true. If it were true, people would not deface the windows of banks or smoke (or apparently not smoke) in Fortnum & Mason as a form of protest (Holy Shit – some people did what?! They smoked in a shop?!). They would not do this, because the people would be unified.

But the people are not unified. And so already ‘the people’ as a concept must be refined. ‘The people’ now already means everyone except those antisocial mavens that do antisocial things. Now that one exception has found its way into the concept, Big Society just got smaller – and may only get smaller yet if its founding principle is to exclude all people who do not conform to its idea of what it is supposed to be. Again, then, although Big Society is allegedly about inclusion, it seems already to be based upon exclusion; and the more exclusion takes place, the more Big Society is exposed as an idealist policy from those that created it in the name of economic realism.

Let me clean up a bit of mess made above. I am the one connecting Big Society to recent events; and no one in or for government has – to the best of my knowledge – explicitly said that Big Society necessarily excludes anyone. It is me making these links, which could easily be argued as false, perchance idealised. But when these things – Big Society, recent demonstrations and violence, and cuts to higher education – are put alongside each other, it seems hard to imagine how Big Society could function without excluding some, perhaps even many, people. The people is in fact some people, even if a majority of people (the majority of people, I assume, do want universal love, but this seems harder to realise than to think).

If ‘the people’ is in some respects untenable as a major principle of Big Society, then, the removal of higher education funding also does not help. For if Big Society is designed to run on the ideas of ‘the people,’ then the removal of the conditions in which those same ‘people’ can bring into a common language their ideas is potentially lost or at the very least damaged. Furthermore, it is hard to know in advance what forms the ‘people’ will have to fill in to get their ideas realised, how people without specific training in making funding applications will be able successfully to ‘sell’ their ideas, what cronyism might take place at the level of distributing funds for Big Society to work, and how people (who do not have anymore the degree they might otherwise have tried to gain were their education not so expensive, and which might have given them access to a higher socio-economic status) will be able to earn enough money then to be able to volunteer to help out in the Big Society the rest of the time…

So if we are not to talk of the people, what are we to talk of? Recent thinkers might propose the concept of multitude as a coherent alternative. Multitude does not assume that everyone shares the same values, nor that everyone is the same. It in theory respects, or at the very least accepts, differences – and does not seek to unify diversity into a singular framework as does ‘the people.’

If ‘multitude’ is to work as an alternative, perhaps even a ‘realistic’ framework (a realistic framework coming from the Left?! who would have thought!) through which one might fabric a different society (why ‘big,’ by the way?), then it does need to find something that in other times one might call ‘unity.’ I hesitate to use the word ‘unity’ here, though, because unification as a process does bundle together differences that are subsequently lost, or which must be excluded in order for the so-called unity of the people to be maintained.

In place of unity, then, I shall, again in the vein of various recent political-philosophical thinkers, propose commons and/or commonality. Using a common language means that applications for funding do not need to be written in a specialised language that is known only by a few and which features certain keywords that tick certain boxes unknown to many people. Sure, common language requires some education or inspiration of thinking with regard to what words mean and how we use them, since common language is not quite the same as countless idiolects.

But if we are working towards the principle of a common language, then we should perhaps also be working towards other things that become common, not in the sense of everyday, but common in the sense of available for use by everyone – in the way that a common piece of land is land that belongs to everyone.

Perhaps other things to make common, then, include wealth. Historically, the British Commonwealth has perhaps not had the best track record in distributing wealth evenly, although a common wealth is not necessarily the same as the (re)distribution of wealth. A new British common wealth (why stop at Britain?) might see people working together and sharing, as opposed to hoarding for profit in the dehumanising fashion that I tried to intimate above. The common-isation process might have to counterbalance the privatisation process that seems insistently to have continued since the 1980s (if not earlier). A shift in emphasis away from private property and towards common property might see us rethink our attitudes not just to objects/property themselves, but to each other, too.

Commonality as opposed to unity accepts difference while also creating links across not people but the multitude. This no doubt sounds like pie in the sky garbage in many different ways. Part of me would contend that this is the brain rejecting immediately something that it does not understand and will have trouble thinking about because we are not encouraged to think about anything in this way; commonality is not a new concept by any means, but it is a stretch of the imagination in the current conditions for thought provided by our contemporary society. If this stretching of the imagination is not an appealing prospect, then think about what commonality might mean. And then, if you want to, can do, have time to, or just cannot help it, think about what commonality might mean some more. In a true common wealth in which people can walk free, envy for nothing, and not resent their work, then maybe a new, different – even if not that ‘big’ a – society can be born. Surely it has its issues, and like the realisation of any idea it will have to involve hard work; but that work can begin on the level of thought and of the imagination, and if that quite open future can be imagined – in the same way that commons are open territories, too – then perhaps we will have taken a major step towards realising it.

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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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