Student occupations, John Lewis, and the externalization of belief

I heard earlier today that a student I teach is occupying the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford (the student website is here). I was driving a car at the time I heard, so I couldn’t jump for joy, but my heart swelled with pride. In the university at which I teach full-time, they’ve been occupying the Founder’s Building and set up a webcam to display their peaceful protest (see their website).

These excellent students stand in solidarity with thousands at more than a dozen universities across the country who are protesting not just against the proposed rise in tuition fees, the cutting of the Education Maintenance Allowance, and the evisceration of the funding model for higher education, but in general against all the cuts that the ConDem government is visiting on the country – cuts that disproportionately hit the poor, sick, and otherwise vulnerable. There is no economic case for the cuts; they are simply being pushed through as a continuing consequence of an ideological shift that took place a generation ago, when the fall of Communism brought with it, mostly unacknowledged, the death of social democracy. (David Wearing provides a nice analysis here; Žižek’s New Left Review piece from this August is a more substantial piece: read it here.)

The students, school children, and a good smattering of professionals (including academics) are, I hope, the first wave of a protest movement that, if it is to stand any chance of success, must be prolonged, massive, and vicious. If it operates wholly within terms dictated by the coalition – peaceful argument, debates in schools (a sickening and preposterous idea put forward by a head teacher on the ‘Today Programme’ this morning: as if allowing pupils to vent their spleen within school premises will have the slightest effect on the wild-eye evil of a rapacious government), and so on – then it will be defeated. Michael Gove, the schools minister, said earlier ‘I respond to arguments: I do not respond to violence.’ Exactly the opposite is, of course, the case. Arguments can and will be ignored – ‘Now that you’ve had your say in a peaceable manner, go back to your room, child’. The real violence is not the odd smashed window or graffitied (planted) police van but police kettling, government intransigence, and of course the life-destroying barbarity of the cuts programme itself.

Not unrelatedly, I received a little hardback book from John Lewis the other day, advertising its new website, Show You Care. It features ‘inspirational tales of gifts & giving’. It is, of course, a bit of (presumably very expensive) marketing for this Xmas. It reveals in part the challenge and the hope of the student protests.

The challenge is of course Western society’s total ideological commitment to neoliberal capitalist economics. All major parties subscribe to a free-market ideology and a commitment to viewing things purely in monetary terms. The marketization of higher education has been in train for years and the Browne Report that kicked off these proposed tuition fee rises was only the latest, if admittedly a very vulgar, expression of it (Stefan Collini’s review of it in the London Review of Books hits every nail on the head). Every element of public life – of the elements of civil society that constitute the ‘commons’, the things like transport, education, healthcare, and so on, that ought to be protected for everyone – is vulnerable to this, the fundamental background to all our public discourse.

John Lewis’s marketing hardback reminds us of this in pointed ways. Of course good liberals like John Lewis, a nice business run on co-operative grounds, selling nice things to nice middle-class people. It’s a quirky and mildly amusing way for them to advertise a website that essentially urges people to continue to participate in the wastefulness of capitalist accumulation. ‘Show you care’ not by reflecting on ways that capital shapes interpersonal relations nationally and internationally, but by buying a posh but ultimately shitty gift to give to a loved one. The beauty of the system, and one of the reasons why we’re so committed to consumerist Xmases, is that we don’t actually have to do any caring ourselves: the well-chosenness of the gift does that for us.

I’m reminded of the line Niles Crane reads to his brother Frasier from the convalescent-home brochure he’s got in the first episode of the sitcom. ‘We care so you don’t have to.’ Frasier is disgusted and shamed by the idea that putting his father in a home would show he doesn’t love him, and so takes his father into his own apartment (fortunately, or there’d be no series). Niles, of course, isn’t at all shamed by the sense that someone else should do his caring for him: he’s happy to let Frasier do it.

There really isn’t anything wrong or even unusual in externalizing our beliefs and actions: we let Xmas cards and children believe in Xmas for us so that we don’t have to, even without John Lewis’s gift advice doing all the hard work of caring so that all we have to do is stump up a bit of cash to get the job done. Psychologically speaking, belief and feeling is always externalized onto objects in this way: this is a basic principle of Lacanian psychoanalysis. It’s also the way that commodity fetishism works: the relations between people take on the function of relations between things (commodities).

Which brings me back to the student protests, and the hope they embody. The students are there, ultimately, because of our investment in capitalist ideology. But they’re also there as an externalization of a rage shared by millions in the light of these cuts: they are the whole nation’s John Lewis hardback. It’s entirely normal that these protests, this ‘violence’ by marchers, should do the protesting for those of us who aren’t occupying university buildings and so on. Sooner or later, though, I think everyone will start to join in. And at that point we’ll really show we care.

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