Thursday 11 November 2010

Student violence is wrong

Regular readers may not be surprised to know that I am among the boring sensiblists who believe that the violence at the demo did the students' cause no good yesterday.

(I would have to politely disagree with the "smashing windows is not violence" defence offered by Arthur Baker in his eye-witness account over at Liberal Conspiracy).

Political protest may well be more important in the year ahead. Stuart White led a lot of discussion on this blog about kettling, policing and democracy. It is not good to tonight have the Ten O'Clock News reporting whether the police have "lost their edge" in policing protest. And the media may struggle to work out how not to make violence the threshold of whether and how to cover protests.

So student violence is wrong.

However, some of our leaders may need to be a little nuanced in how they make that argument, a point made by a letter writer, Adam, in tonight's Evening Standard.

If certain Bullingdon Club members had suffered the full force of the law for their student antics, they wouldn't be where they are today.

Let's examine the evidence.

The official line on David Cameron is that he was the one member of the Bullingdon Club who was tucked up in bed with a cup of hot cocoa before any of the traditional smashing up went on - though the Prime Minister in fact managed to run away and escape a night in the cells after being part of a group, one of whom had put a plant pot through a restaurant window.

Boris Johnson is also believed to have been familiar with the sound of broken glass. He appears to have fictionalised his account, by claiming to have been among those who were caught, when in fact he escaped.

Still, he's grown up now. Boris Johnson has now said that he hoped those responsible for violence at the demo yesterday "paid a serious price for their actions".

But fellow Buller members say they were much more responsible than other Oxford dining clubs, because the violence tended to be directed at furniture rather than people.

And then there is the most curious case of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who once staked a claim to have out-vandalised the Buller.

Cactusgate. The terrible tale of the student arsonist, who destroyed two greenhouses full of the finest collection of cacti in Germany, and gained a criminal conviction.

Yet it turned out that there seemed to be so much less to it than meets the eye. No charges were pressed, though Clegg says he did some voluntary work.

Cactus specialists in Munich denied any knowledge of the vegetative inflagration. One of Nick Clegg's old teachers revealed that, "There was absolutely no fire at all, it is simply untrue to say otherwise. It was with a cigarette lighter and he held the flame to the plants. He singed four or five, that was all." The Daily Mail went so far as to suggest that the story had been completely invented by Mr Clegg.

If there are one or two students in the bars next week claiming to have been a little bit closer to the Millibank violence than they were, might they be the "heirs to Clegg"?


Anonymous said...

You elude two different notions. One, that the violence was wrong. I agree. Two, that it was bad for the students' cause. On that, you need to do a more careful accounting. Then it would be interesting to see your conclusion.

Sunder Katwala said...

What the student protestors have is

(i) their votes, particularly seeking to use these against LibDem MPs in university towns who promised to do one thing and did another

(ii) the ability to persuade broader public audiences on this issue, and the perception of the government more generally.

And I think the reporting of the violence (while it was higher profile) is overall likely to have reduced broader sympathy and support for the students' argument, to the extent that it has a long-term impact.

If anybody wants to argue that it does the opposite, please do make the case.

Stuart White said...

The problem, I think, is that many people are understandably dissatisfied with a conventional demo followed by listening to speakers. This just doesn't speak to the felt need to take action and raise the profile of what one is concerned about.

But I totally agree with Sunder that violence isn't the answer. Whatever the impact in this case, in general violence tends to deflect attention away from the underlying cause. And, of course, there is a tendency for people to get hurt. Once violence starts, you can't contain its dynamic and its only a matter of time before someone lobs a fire extinguisher off a roof (for example) and only a matter of time before that kind of thing will kill someone.

What we need, as a supplement to conventional demonstration, are forms of direct action which are non-violent and do not have this kind of escalating dynamic. The Vodafone sit-down protests are a good model, as perhaps are the kinds of things that Climate Camp have done in the past on the climate change issue.

There is a third way?

13eastie said...

"The problem, I think, is that many people are understandably dissatisfied with a conventional demo followed by listening to speakers".


The reasons for this are as follows:

a) The "leadership" is desperately uninspiring and this has been demonstrated by the obvious lack of unity among the NUS/SWP and the various factions and splinters.

b) The "injustice" against which they are "campaigning" does not actually exist. Students are embarrassed because they know that they are listening to and spouting a bundle of scaremongering lies, spin and propaganda about what is, in fact, a funding proposal that makes higher education free at the point of entry and easier to afford than at any time since Labour introduced tuition fees.

c) The "speakers" sound ridiculous because their message is empty: there is no credible strategy on offer as to how to fund the massively (and unnecessarily) increased numbers of students entering a dumbed-down higher education system. Except the Government's.

No-one is listening to the students because they sound like petulant children are talking rubbish.

Their "grievance" essentially amounts to whining that the Liberal's manifesto is not being implemented. This is because they came third in the election.

None of this is the fault of anyone at Millbank Tower, the police or the owners of private property.

"Activists" who make the risible claim that they have "exhausted all peaceful options" within only a few days of the Browne report being published need to take a long, hard look at themselves.

Where there is a credible cause, a coherent argument, and a reasonable objective (the dignified leadership of a principled PR genius helps, too), tenacious, peaceful protest is extremely effective. Ask Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

The NUS and Aaron Porter have disgraced themselves.

The students' is a lost cause. Rightly so.

Sunder Katwala said...

A comment from Zio Bastone


Let me answer just a few of your points.

(a) Poor leadership? Whingeing students led by donkeys? So dissent must always be ‘led’, which is the nub of most conspiracy theories? There can be no anger from below, and students are just sheep? And credible causes, coherent arguments and reasonable objectives must always precede any action? They can’t be immanent in what is done or emerge or be called into being by what is done, as with Badiou’s ‘Event’?

(b) ‘Free at the point of entry’?

But how exactly is this relevant? Paying is paying, after all and this is paying for what was free.

You subscribe to one of two opposing models, a commodity model in which individuals buy what they need and the State (in the current settlement) is treated as a sort of elderly shopkeeper, anxious to sell up and then retire. I think that way of viewing the world robs us of public space, of politics and history. I prefer a sharing model whereby we invest in a common future (children’s education) to serve our common good. Now the funding of tertiary education through postponed tuition fees is, indisputably, one of several moves away from my sort of model towards yours via the mechanism of HP. And what students are objecting to is that they will now have to pay (on the never-never) for what they view as a common resource. This is not, eo ipso, daft.

(c) Dumbed down education? No credible strategy? Can’t be funded any other way? Here is my interpretation. Blair stole from Robert Reich (who was Clinton’s Labour Secretary) the idea of a ‘knowledge economy’. He could have stolen more usefully from some of the Italian post Autonomists who got there first and more thoughtfully, but he didn’t. And that is how we got what we would both call ‘dumbing down’, albeit for different reasons. All (not just higher) education has been increasingly instrumentalised in the service of a globalised and ‘cognitive’ economy.

Hence Blunkett’s attitude to schoolchildren when he was education secretary.

Hence the expansion in universities, the elision of the university/polytechnic distinction, the increased hegemony of the business world (the importation of people like BP’s Chris Motishead into places like KCL, the creation of the BIS Dept) over that of education, and the introduction of weaselly concepts like ‘research impact’ into how HEFCE funds our academics. And so on.

To which the Coalition’s preferred alternative is … what exactly? To keep tertiary education within the remit of the same department and (it appears) to accept the thrust of the Browne Report. So the Coalition’s own ideas, including the funding hike, against which nothing else is ‘credible’, remain a bit of a mystery, don’t you think?

As to funding itself, even if one accepts that education is a needless public expense which can be defrayed through commoditisation (which I certainly don’t but you apparently do) then there’s always the graduate tax. And there’s also a conceptual confusion at the heart of all this, which you seem quite unaware of. It’s analogous to that applied to the banks, bankers’ bonuses and the commodification of risk, whereby giant financial institutions become both our saviours and our albatross, like the half full and half empty glass.

On the one hand all our extra graduates in, say, Tourism, Business Studies or Carbon Footprints (I’m paraphrasing Browne) are the engine of splendid economic growth and on the other hand that growth is so frail, so unpredictable and so much attached to the individual that we have to hit these youngsters with £27,000 in instalments once they emerge and start working.

Which just doesn’t make any sense.

Sunder Katwala said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
13eastie said...


My post was a response to Stuart's earlier earlier attempt to explain why the protest turned violent, in the light of the fact that so little time had so far elapsed since Browne. I'm not terribly sure you've read it as such, but anyway...

POOR LEADERSHIP. Good leaders unite followers behind a cause. There is evident disunity among those at the incoherent forefront (laugh with me at the ludicrous spectacle of anarchists demanding the state teaches them) and this is one reason why the rest are "dissatisfied with a conventional demo" as Stuart put it.

So they riot.

FREE AT THE POINT OF ENTRY. This is an extremely important point. The claim that anyone "cannot afford to go to university" is patently false. Students have failed to fool anyone but themselves on this, and they know it. The premise of the protest is phoney. The argument fails immediately on this point and this is a major reason for such an early preference for violence.

So they riot.

DUMBED DOWN EDUCATION. If mediocre candidates wish to spend three years studying for a barely credible qualification from a third-rate 'university' who are we to stop them? If however, they are unwilling to contribute IN ANY WAY, EVER financially for enjoying this privilege, it's reasonable to question the intrinsic value their studies, and then to ask why anyone else should be expected to fork out. The 'education is priceless, so we should get someone else to pay for it' line is simply paradoxical and they can't make the argument work.

So they riot.

NO STRATEGY: You are guilty of exactly the same thing as the student protesters, I'm afraid. Citing rhetoric about education being precious does not explain how the funding of >40% of school-leavers' further education is to be achieved. Instead of proposing anything yourself, you choose to attempt to project words into MY mouth e.g. "education is a needless public expense" (which is a bit creepy, frankly, but seems to be becoming the modus operandi of the left). The "graduate tax" is NOT an alternative to fees, it is the same thing in all but name. Nobody is listening to the students because they refuse to address this point (except for drivel about tax-evasion i.e. 'only other people should pay tax').

So guess what? They riot.

Sunder Katwala said...

A response from Zio Bastone


Yes I knew you were answering Stuart. One might position his ‘third way’ (mischievous phrase) between Hobbes’ ‘People’ and his ‘Multitude’. If the polity doesn’t work (if the Liberal Democrats promise one thing and actually do another) and the violence of the mob simply isn’t an option, what do you do? I’d want to bring in Spinoza and Simondon at this point, and the elaboration of Spinoza’s ‘Multitude’ by, say, Negri and Virno. I’d also want to bring in (‘dissatisfied with a conventional demo followed by listening to speakers’) something of Augusto Illuminati’s distinction between ‘militancy’ and ‘activism’. All of which is a direction in which (I assume) Stuart himself would not go.

But no matter.

Let’s take ‘needless public expense’ and start from there. If this is an idea I’m falsely attributing to you (you seem a bit red in the face about it) then why on earth do you wish the cost of student’s education to be shifted away from general taxation and onto individual students?

You imply that I said education was a ‘precious’ good and dismissed that as bombast. I didn’t. I said I preferred a common good model to one based on purchasing commodities. And what I didn’t say then but will say now is that knowledge (of the sort our universities have traditionally been concerned with) can’t be crassly linked to economic applications: it bears the same relation to, say, ‘skill sets’ as activity bears to work.

In fact I wasn’t using ‘rhetoric’ at all. I was arguing, employing specific and concrete examples and with both those thoughts in mind, that government policy (which I did attempt to source; you seem to have no references whatsoever) has encouraged the growth of ‘barely credible’ qualifications in the service of supposed economic growth. I also indicated what I see as a gross conceptual flaw within all this.

Where do you deal with these points?

Maybe you aren’t aware (just to be concrete again) of the changes at universities such as Sussex, for example, where courses without immediate application (in the case of Sussex, it’s a huge chunk of the History syllabus) are being cut. Now that you have been made aware do you really still think that this is all to do with mediocre students choosing fatuous courses at third rate institutions or are you merely populating the discussion with ill equipped straw men?

I fare no better with ‘poor leadership’. You just quarantine my points and then re-state your own, which simply don’t account for the diversity within the protests which even you acknowledge when it suits you. Look at the Coalition as an analogy, and at how policy (cuts to front line services, the hike in tuition fees) emerges from engagement with a situation rather than from some pre-existing blueprint. And if you insist on characterising all 50,000 protesters (some of whom were academics) as rioting students then why not use the same reductionist metonymy to characterise all cats as grey or all Conservatives as the owners of moats and duck houses?

Let me now deal with ‘free at the point of entry’ then I’ll stop. Here you answer a point I didn’t make. In the short term you are correct as well as evasive: kids going to university will have their costs postponed. But that’s just a vacuous truth. It doesn’t get us anywhere. And if you factor in the student loan, the housing ladder and so forth then the fees hike may well have the effect (since the NPV of a degree isn’t all that impressive as it is, as far as I’m aware) of disadvantaging some groups relative to, say, plumbers or junior bankers in a way that won’t be helpful to society as a whole.

And, in any case, affordability is to some degree subjective. What about the perception (Cf Bourdieu and how the extent of cultural capital improves or impedes social mobility beyond economic means) that debt is a Bad Thing and not-for-the-likes-of-us? Or, for that matter, the distorting effect that earning potential is likely to have on degree choice?

Sunder Katwala said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for responses. I would like to encourage Stuart to blog on his 'third way' proposal, between Hobbes and the multitude. I don't know enough about Spinoza (and still less Simondon) to entirely follow the detailed trajectory of Zio's response, but a longer discussion might draw out some interesting issues.

Sunder Katwala said...

This is a comment from Michael Brannigan, that he has also published on his own blog, having not managed to post it here.


Whether the Lib-Dems cams third or thirty-third is an academic point.
They are now a part of government. When they were touting for votes they promised to remove tuition fees or at least oppose an increase in their rates. On these point they have reneged. If the electorate are supposed to be a part of the election process surely they can only vote on the basis of the promises made by politicians, (or are they supposed to be psychic and see into the future?) and vote accordingly.

The Lib-Dems were voted for due to the above pledge, promise, oath, whatever suits your argument, but to me they are one and the same. Especially when they have been signed! The Tories were voted by the same people who always vote for them come rain or shine. New Labour lost the election rather than either of the dynamic duo winning. One may be able to argue that, a hung parliament was what the electorate wanted, but hoped that Clegg would have allied to New Labour, bearing in mind, in theory at least, they should have been more closely related than the Chimera we now have.

Taking aside the above and focusing on the Student Demonstration. There was a violence, which with respect, there is at every demo at some stage or another – be that by the demonstrators or the police. To dismiss violence as part of airing a grievance is as nonsensical as quoting Gandhi in relation to this incident. Parliament would not be the organisation it is now without it! Cromwell come to anyone’s mind?

The Labour Party would not have existed without violent demonstrations and quite a few deaths.

What seems to be missing from this discussion is the amount of violence being perpetrated on the British public and society. Tuition fees are a very small part of an ever reaching ideological idiosyncrasy that has pervaded virtually every part of Human society. These cuts are about changing the structures of our society. Back door privatisation of Health, Education and civil society. This surge will cause depressions, suicides, poverty and destitution on a grand scale. If that isn’t violence then I don’t know what is.

As for you Sunder Katwala how you see a progressive left movement changing the direction of this surge through soft platitudes and ‘now, now we’ll not be having any more of that’ or ‘We’ll march on Parliament, (if you don’t mind officer) and we’ll shout very loud about how you connived to get elected and we’re right upset about that. By the way! You wait! In five years time we might even un-elect you and elect another lying moron so we can moan some more.’
Violence is not nice and someone usually gets hurt. But to argue that without it there is a chance to change politics is naive in the extreme. I can only gather from your article that you aren’t a Marxist or Trotskyist. I can only assume you are that new form of Socialist the Brown/Blairist. Although they weren’t averse to a bit of violence either. Five wars later one couldn’t call them pacifists without laughing could one?

You have me stymied. How do you intend to bring forward a progressive left alternative? What do you really believe in? Who are you? It’s so wonderfully cosy to be sitting with like-minded individuals and talking up the working-class while your heating bills are being paid. Let’s see how passive you are when the bailiffs are knocking on your door and removing you and your family from your home. Let’s see what you think about violence then. Please give me an invite to your organisation.

I want to learn how you intelligent, empathetic human beings propose to solve the grinding issue of an unrepresentative democracy.

Sunder Katwala said...


Agreed, I am not a Marxist or a Trotskyist. But those have always been very much minority strands on the British left at all times for well over a century; so the choice has not been between Marxism and New Labour.

I don't agree with "The Labour Party would not have existed without violent demonstrations and quite a few deaths". There was the famous Peterloo massacre, where 15 people were killed protesting for the vote, but that was 80 years before the foundation of the Labour party. Violent protest played no role in the foundation of Labour, or in the career of leaders like Keir Hardie. It was more about the trade unions believing they wanted Parliamentary representation - including to challenge court decisions - and the emerging ethical Socialist strands around the Fabian Society and other groups.

I am not a pacifist. The most important outcome of the last century was the defeat of Nazi Germany, which would not have been achieved without military force.

There is also clearly an overwhelmingly strong case for forms of direct action protest in the case of disenfranchisement (campaigns for the vote, for US civil rights, against apartheid South Africa; for independence from Empire, etc). Those have often broken the law; but they have also shown that peaceful direct action can be effective.

But even apart from the ethics of the Millbank violence - and it was simply a matter of luck that nobody, a policeman or student, was killed by the fire extinguisher being chucked - I am not convinced by the argument that violence has achieved positive outcomes in Britain and that other forms of political activity have not. For me, the history mostly suggests the opposite.