Photo: Andrew Moss Photography
The past two years have been a lesson in the necessity and resilience of mass dissent. It is necessary because after 30 years of Thatcherism, and no serious parliamentary opposition, the government is embarking on a programme that will end the public sector as we know it, throwing our increasingly improvised daily lives open to the logic of the market, just as that logic has become morally – and literally – bankrupt.
And it is resilient primarily because it began with a mass movement of young people too young to remember a time when real alternatives existed. Any force capable of mobilising students in 2010 would not have been put off by anything as trivial as a defeat in parliament.
This wave of dissent began after the ‘end of history’, and has continued to grow despite being encumbered by Thatcherite anti-union legislation and repressed in the streets. It has spawned the beginnings of an ideological renewal for the left, given trade unions a kick-start and created thousands of activists and different campaigns.
Transform or bypass
The weaknesses that exist within this movement lie not in a failure of collective will or ideological critique, but in the failure of these things to permeate ‘our’ institutions. Part of this is a failure of the organised left to translate grassroots radicalisation into bureaucratic weight. All eyes are on Occupy, anarchists and the largely unaligned student activist networks (such as the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, or NCAFC) – not on the paper sellers, for whom a cycle of recruitment and factioneering still often prevails.
Unlabelled grassroots pressure, driven by the sheer scale of the assault on pensions, may bring us a few days of large strike action per year. But in order to bring the government down and pose a credible alternative to further neoliberal retrenchment (the only real goal that serious leftists can now have), a cohesive political project is needed, capable either of transforming the institutions of the left, or bypassing them altogether.
Failure to organise rapidly, properly and imaginatively will mean the end of public education and the welfare state. Veterans of previous great waves of working class and anti-capitalist dissent will be well acquainted with the timid trade union leader and the careerist NUS president. The superficial reappearance of such characters is only half of the story: in reality the state of trade and student unions – let alone the Labour Party – is now far worse than it has ever been.
Supporting, not organising
The outright hostility of the NUS leadership that characterised the student revolt of 2010 has abated in recent months following the election of a more sympathetic president, whose manifesto included a call for a national demonstration. But this pledge has gone unimplemented, putting the NUS in the absurd position of supporting the NCAFC-organised demonstration on November 9 2011, but, as a large organisation with massive resources and hundreds of staff, refusing to actually organise it.
In the end, the demonstration was funded as much by PCS as by NUS, and the whole thing was done on a little under 5 per cent of the cash, and almost none of the staff support, that went into the 10 November demonstration in 2010 prior to the fees vote.
In what seemed to sum up what was wrong with much of the official student movement, a flurry of student unions threatened to pull out of the demonstration just days ahead of it, citing mistimed risk assessments and the failure of the NCAFC – a campaign with barely any money and no staff – to, among other things, take out public liability insurance that would have cost tens of thousands of pounds.
In the midst of the biggest assault on the welfare state ever, with the government’s higher education white paper proposing to privatise, cut and fence off universities, and further cuts to further education colleges coming through, many unions hid behind their trustee board structures, clung to the idea that inaction was preferable to trying without a guarantee of success, and in some cases merely shrugged, as if mobilising for a national demo to defend education and the welfare state was an odd kind of thing for a students’ union to be doing.
Within this context, the ability of the NCAFC to mobilise about 10,000 people – as it did on 9 November – was a significant achievement, testament to the durability and reach of the NCAFC and to the continued, and rapidly generalising, anger among students ahead of the 30 November strike action. If NUS had organised the protest itself, turnout may have been closer to 100,000.
As it was, we put the higher education white paper debate on the agenda, kept some of the student movement alive, and built momentum for N30. The ‘total policing’ of the demonstration itself, unpreventable for the NCAFC as organisers, is something that we must tactically digest in the coming months.
The alternative strategy, pioneered by Labour-aligned NUS leaders while their party was in power, of lobbying for crumbs from the table, is taken seriously by barely anyone under the current government. Unless NUS moves rapidly to mobilise again, the prevailing political culture within it will have twice fallen victim to its own lies: that mass mobilisation and direct action, backed up with serious political demands, are ‘dinosaur tactics’ from decades ago, used only by the hard left to lose valiantly.
Echoes of this rhetoric can be found throughout the Labour Party and its commentariat, and parallel structural and legal shifts can be found in the trade unions. The legacy of Thatcher and Blair has pushed the student movement and the labour movement to the brink of inertial catastrophe.
That is the real issue at stake in 2012: it is not a question of whether ‘the rest’ can keep up with ‘the students’ in their various Uncut or Occupy guises, but whether or not the mass unrest of the past 18 months can organise itself as a movement, and is able to reclaim the political ground that has been lost to Blairism and its heirs.
It is a moment in which student activists must take seriously the fight for bread and butter issues on their campuses as well as the broader battles, and it is a question to which the old organised left may not have a timely answer.
Michael Chessum is a co-founder of NCAFC and a member of the NUS national executive council. Visit www.anticuts.com for more details
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
Greenwald speaks Trump, War on Terror, and citizen activism
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn