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Manuela Zechner, "Movement, Learning: A Few Reflections on the Exciting UK Winter 2010"

Movement, Learning: A Few Reflections on the Exciting UK Winter 2010 Manuela Zechner

Something starts. An event rocks our world. It produces a rupture in the continuous flow of our life; is has a ‘before’ and ‘after’, it marks a clear point or intervention in the flow of our life and into our understanding of who we are, what we are doing and why. An event is a powerful dynamic of subjectivation, a movement through which we are recomposed as subjects. It’s not a merely quantitative dynamic that determines how much of an importance a situation takes on for us, but the degree to which we are moved by it, its degree of resonance. An event resonates, and so we hold it dear even once the situation that brought it about has passed: we want to stay faithful to it. Most events are short, pass in a flash, but they can have a long echo, many waves. They can transform us, and because we want them to transform us, we operate all kinds of efforts to stay close to what they made us see, feel, grasp, become. We try to re-member events, give them a body, inhabit and incorporate them into our previous life. And so we do with this November: remember remember. After Millbank, I heard people say, over and again and in different formulations: ‘I can’t believe it’, ‘something has moved’, ‘we have done it!’, ‘it is really happening’, ‘there’s a movement’… We remember by holding meetings, assemblies, training sessions, discussions, preparing ourselves to become more, more like what we want to be. This text tries to operate this sort of re-membering through writing.We liked the taste of 50.000 people gathered in joy and anger. It rocks what our bodies can do together. This text attempts to reflect on the emergence of a student movement in November 2010 through retracing its affective dimension.

2. November November 10th. Reverberating waves of cheers, chants, moving in and out of different phases, phrases, rhythms as we walked along a national students’ demonstration against a government that is about to send the precarious and poor into pauperization. Young people, home-made banners, fresh voices. We got lost in various groups, saw our groups mixing, disintegrating, re-gathering in the general movement. We danced with strangers as a soundsystem passed. Many smiles exchanged, beautiful radiant strangers and lit up familiar faces. Many new faces flashing up across streams of signs, sounds, fabrics, temperatures, colors, smells. A bright winter day, a lot of heat. How did this all hold together? Who prepared this? No one did, we did. Weeks of organising, flyering, discussing, banner making, networking, thinking. A lot of efforts and a lot of desire, anger and creativity. Desire to change things, anger at being made into idiots, slaves, paupers, creativity sparking in that moment where we have so little to lose. Get us to this point and we’ll be more than willing to fight, because our society is bigger than yours, we won’t eat your shit. CU*TS. We're here! We're queer! We can't afford nine grand a year! Strike! Occupy! Resist! Forget university, I can't even afford college any more. FU** FEES. Where's my future? Education is not a business! Keep your hands off my arts! If it's Browne, flush it down! Tory Scum! The big society = you’re on your own. We’re not all in this together!1

November 24th. Then another demonstration, another range of university walkouts and demonstrations across the country, another seven thousand people in the streets of London, a wave of university occupations sets off. Massive police showoff this time: 800 officers paranoically kettling in a few thousand protesters in London, for nine hours, at temperatures close to zero degrees Celcius. The tactic attempts to demoralise people, dissuade them from their right to protest. Yet cookies and tea circulate, interviews get done, fires keep them warm, a rave behind a bus shelter, five young students chatting cosily in a narrow phone booth, spontaneous speeches, a smashed up police car (left as bait?) and a few broken windows…). Spirits are up: This marriage must end in divorce! Education for the Millions, not the Millionaires! Cuts perpetuate privilege! I can't get no education no no no no... Cuts are nuts! Education is a right! I hope I'm as good a liar as Clegg when I leave drama school! Nick Clegg = Tory Slag! 'Big Society': Bollocks! Tory Farce, Kiss my Arse! Adopt a Prof for Xmas! How will I learn to SPEL? David Thatcher Education Snatcher! These men have 'ETON' our future!2

November 30th. Another day of action and demonstration: this time the crowd swarms through the city, defying the kettling techniques the police had so obviously set out to use3. But repression and kettling won’t defeat this movement: small groups of protesters break out to defend their right to protest in ‘public’ space, rallying down London’s most expensive shopping streets and traffic junctions, stopping traffic and making themselves visible to the city and it’s people. No ifs, no but’s, no education cuts! The police struggles to apply their military techniques to these colourful, youthful, cheerful swarms, running after them hopelessly, trying to contain them. It snows with great intensity, the day leaves us feeling like kids that played in the snow, made the city ours. This movement learns fast, with every demonstration, every meeting there are new tactics, ideas, affects put into circulation.

2. Dance vs. depression So what next? Something is going on around us – not the predictable witch hunt that the police and media are staging, condemning a 'violence' that was only ever property destruction (unlike the horse and baton charging of the police, or their recent killing of Ian Tomlinson, for instance), calling it the 'activists' vs. 'the peaceful students wanting to exercise their right to protest', trying the usual tactics of division. What strikes us after these days is something rather less fathomable. Why do peoples faces seem so beautiful? Why does this appear like such a beautiful movement, full of shining and bright people? In their moments of utterance at meetings, in their smiles and calm postures of listening, in their dances, with their placards, in their responses to the media: graceful folk4. Ballerina-like poses as bodies try kicking in windows5. Radiant faces and eyes, where did those come from, did we never notice? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEkk2eUCY1Y&feature=player_embedded#!

Affects circulate more intensively these days, in the way that a heart pumps blood faster sometimes. Those people who used to walk with eyes lowered, tired, bent, whose voices we remember sounding worn out, sad, hopeless, cynical, slowly come to appear in a different light and tone. More alive, new hopes and inspirations flash color across our skin, we speak to each other with inspiration, step across the depressing fraction lines of political groups, try our best to catch up with everyone. This struggle is too important to be lost to internal disagreements, we can’t let them divide us at this point. We’re all in this together…

We know the reasons for those recent years of depression, how it bore upon our souls and bodies, our relationships and economies. The collapse of the global economy can be read as the comeback of the soul. The perfect machine of neoliberal ideology is falling to bits because it was based on the flawed assumption that soul can be reduced to mere rationality. The dark side of the soul, fear, anxiety, panic and depression has finally surfaced after looming for a decade in the shadow of the much-touted victory and promised eternity of capitalism.6

That was before something happened, before things got intolerable. Manoeuvring oneself out of a period of depression and apathy doesn’t occur through psycho-pharmacological treatment, taking uppers and calmers, going shopping or watching TV, voting in elections, paying for a therapist to hear us. We're here because we got the taste of a new body, new movements, voices and ways of being affected. That’s how we can smile at each other today, when the most brutal cuts are coming down on a population con-demned to precarity and poverty. We found that a new wealth lies between us, and can empower us to fight:

The identification of richness and acquisition is deeply embedded in the social psyche and in the social affect as well. But a different perception of richness is possible, one that is based on enjoyment, not with possession. I’m not thinking of an ascetic turn in the collective perception of wealth. I think that sensual pleasure will always be at the foundation of wellness7.

Potentials and challenges Here's a movement that is coming to know the importance of its joyfulness, of resonance, of our desire and our wellbeing. Right now the rhythm of events is dizzying, groups struggle to stay on top of it, care for vital energies within it, stay in touch with our energies and feelings. Avoiding burnout will be a key challenge for this movement: our youthfulness in bold and strong, but we also know that we are vulnerable beings - and that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. Perhaps we know that as much as a movement can be divided ideologically, it can be cut off from itself affectively. It's not easy to operate affective resistance when things are moving so fast: we need to hold our culture of care very dear. To be vulnerable is to be strong, if we have a culture of collective care in place, modalities of taking breaks, looking after our bodies, paying attention to our relationships amongst each other. As winter flus knock us out, it's good to remember that this is only a beginning, that we can go at this in our own time, connected as much as possible to each other.

The power of these recent events – which no one still quite knows how to refer to, gladly: ‘what happened last week’, ‘the Millbank protest’, ‘the Millbank riot’, ‘what happened at the Tory HQ’, ‘Millbank’ – lies in the fact that we carried them with joy, that we don’t have a name ready for them. Names will come, slowly but surely, as we keep organizing. Different affects will come. With them will come challenges to find temporalities alternative to last minute organising, tonalities alternative to the hypertension of alarmed and thrilled bodies and voices. At this point, our energy and openness is something that manipulative media and police campaigns can’t take away. Vulnerability means exposure to potential violence, but also openness to change and to solidarity: the best thing we could do with our precarity is let it be the basis for a collective openness, solidarity and care. Luckily, a youth that has gone through depression, medicalisation, commodification and precarization has a pretty strong knowledge of its own vulnerability. We don't need to be reminded of the fact that we need to take care of ourselves: being forced not only to look after ourselves (because no one else will) but also to manage and ‘treat’ ourselves with/to whatever makes us more able to work and keep going, we can hardly ignore our own vulnerability.

Were we that so-called apathetic generation? Those hopeless students plugged into Ipods, not giving a fuck? In the UK, where youth is poised for unemployment and precarity8, repressed and controlled by market and state, it’s hardly surprising that we were feeling depressed, crazy, unhappy. There was a sense to our apathy: an orientation towards something else – even if not present yet – away from the hysteria of late capitalism. As things around us went in the direction of illness and death, leaving us isolated and stuck, we shut ourselves off, often suspended our sensibilities, so as not to suffer too much. We're incredibly sensitive, we feel a lot. Apathy is the absence (‘a-’) of suffering, feeling, emotion (‘-pathos’), which is produced by an education system that trains us to become apathetic specialists, precarious workers, reserve armies to cater to those well off, consumers lost in meaninglessness. Apathy is an obvious response to a world that leaves us only two options, to compete or to rot.

Our surge of feeling means we’ve come in touch with our suffering, each others suffering, and built solidarity from it. What joy - ! Let’s hope we can be a ‘pathic’ generation, inventing new ways of sensing and enjoying, knowing how sad it is to be sick and stuck in capitalism. We lie in bed and dream of what happened in the last weeks – those thousands of people, this messy sensuality, this event we can’t quite name, our organisational ideas, agendas and conflicts. We keep giving this November different names, colours, stories, doubts, doing justice to the wealth of experiences it holds together. There wasn’t just one issue at stake here, but so many: they connect to the pain and dreams of other people, of generations. Another key challenge to this movement will be to link with other sectors that have been cut, extend solidarity out beyond the university. It's clear that this movement needs to grow to involve all those affected by the cuts (that is, almost everyone) with the ultimate aim of bringing this government down – and with it, all the bullshit rhetorics of 'austerity', of 'being in this together', of the holiness of 'work', of 'excellence', of the 'big society', of 'competitiveness', and so forth. We need to build a shared, cross-sectorial, poly-vocal analysis of those policies of misery, to build a resistance that explodes those empty promises. We are seeing transversal connections be made, bit by bit, as other sectors' struggles take on force: the fire fighters9, the tube workers10, public sector workers11, unemployed12, women13, disabled14... There are a lot of transversal connections to be created and strengthened still.

As this movement begins to articulate itself, produce (counter-) images, discourses, songs, affects and feelings, it faces a third big challenge: to articulate an alternative to the horrid notion of self-management that the Conservatives (aided by a Liberal Democratic farce) have put out there. Our self-organisation is not that of the 'big society': our teach-ins and free schools are not those that the Con-dems want us to run for free. While their big society discourse is about legitimising the dismantling of public services, the end of redistribution policies and the beginning of a new era of free labour, of an ever more crass separation between the privatized services of the rich and the pseudo-autonomous, unfunded institutions of the precarious and paupers. We will not have this: these coming weeks and months will see much discussion, research and writing go into the articulation of a powerful counter-discourse, a refusal of the Con-Dems cheap appropriation of our cultures of self-organisation, self-education, solidarity. Our sense of humour is bigger than yours, as we reclaim spaces:


Noticing how nice our bodies feel after these weeks, having been away from our routines and the computer, from our mute sites of our work, it comes to be ever more clear that ‘work’ is not all there is to fight for. The crass workfare policies of the ConDem Covernment are only one aspect of the way neoliberal austerity governance tries to sell us the idea that 'work' is all there can be to life. The world we create will make that alienating rhetoric of 'work' void, will stop it from dividing us: rather our self-organisation shows what pleasures lie in messing with the division of labour on all sorts of levels. Occupations are laboratories of such un-division, of joyful collaboration, of conviviality that has something more in mind than a career, the next job, a house and a car. Up and down stairs, off to meetings in unfamiliar places, carrying cookies and teabags, exploring our vocal range, gazing at strangers, designing last-minute placards, turning lecture halls into spaces where life and learning finally overlap again, baking hundreds of cupcakes, learning street theatre as part of our protests. A collective becoming is never based on a fixed identity, on a set plan, on a few steps: it happens because our potentials resonate with our givens, because we enjoy and grow. We work to keep this resonant, growing, spreading, building, fun: that's the 'work' we like. We'll keep with it: moving, sensing, fighting, dancing.

1See http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/laurie-penny/2010/11/justin-bieber-tic... for some images of these slogans.

2See http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/gallery/2010/nov/25/student-protest-... for some images of these.

3 For a lovely video of this protest, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/video/2010/nov/30/student-protests-d...

4See for instance this highschool student, alive and active in the movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrgzpPvJxmQ&feature=player_embedded

5The flagship image of the first protest, in a guardian article, somewhat misguidedly entitled: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/10/student-protest-fees-vio...

And some images of girl power, in a reactionary article of the daily mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1332811/TUITION-FEES-PROTEST-Stu...

6 Bifo, how to heal a depression, 2008, Minor Compositions http://www.minorcompositions.info/BifoHowToDealADepression.pdf

7 Bifo, how to heal a depression, 2008, Minor Compositions http://www.minorcompositions.info/BifoHowToDealADepression.pdf




11 http://www.wrp.org.uk/news/5905