This is a guest post by The University of Strategic Optimism.
On the morning of 24th November 2010 the University for Strategic Optimism held its inaugural lecture at a branch of Lloyds TSB bank near London Bridge station. The operation had been planned with an almost theatrical precision: watches were synchronised, the reconnaissance was unveiled, a location was revealed and at precisely 12 noon a secret crowd of around fifty people suddenly materialised out of the nearby streets and shops and began to flow swiftly and excitedly into the small bank.
They had come from many directions to listen to UfSO professor Étienne Lantier kick off the university’s winter (of discontent) term, giving the first instalment of a collectively written course entitled Higher Education, Neo-Liberalism and the State. It seemed this was to be a practical workshop. As Lantier began to address the assembled body of citizens, a general bemusement from the bank’s customers gave way to a largely supportive reaction as they too stopped to listen to the important truths that were being conveyed. This was a truth that has been spoken in many different ways, at many different times and in many different contexts, but it is one that needs to be spoken again and again, so that we do not come to forget it or begin to disbelieve in its urgent power. Indeed it often seems as though it could not be true, its facts are seemingly incredible, but it is ultimately the stark and unavoidable truth of an almost inconceivable injustice. It is the simple fact that the majority of ordinary people in the UK, indeed people in many countries across the world; the poor, the hard-working, often some of the most vulnerable in society; are being shamelessly robbed of their livelihoods, their essential public services and their futures in order to pay for the greed of a tiny, ultra-wealthy elite who continue to make huge profits at the expense of those numberless masses which they so remorselessly exploit.
Despite brief and ineffectual protestations from the branch manager, stripped of his authority in the face of the message that stood so plainly in front of his eyes, the bank was momentarily transformed into a truly public space, the living lecture theatre of this new university. This gesture, set on reclaiming the hushed and shady architecture of the bank, returning it to the public, by whom it was after all was owned, seemed to speak that truth to people.
That day, November the 24th, was the day of a large student demonstration in London against fees, cuts and the wholesale introduction of a neoliberal marketplace into higher education. After leaving the bank that lunchtime, many amongst the audience headed down to Whitehall to swell the ranks of those crowds that had earlier gathered in Trafalgar Square. After reaching Whitehall and joining the main march they were lawlessly detained, ‘kettled’ like countless others, by a shamelessly political police operation of entrapment, violence and intimidation. This was a reminder, if any were needed, of those the government is eager to see punished for this crisis of capitalism: namely the young, the vulnerable, those least able to speak out, those least able to pay.
In its actions parliamentary democracy has been reduced to a performance of representation where public dissent is managed and enclosed by a government whose only response to the crisis is to proceed with, and intensify, the zombie logic of global capitalism. This is why it continues to be essential to speak the truth to those in power, those who are really to blame, in the banks, the multinational corporations and in government, a government without democratic legitimacy and bankrolled by those very financiers who caused the crisis in the first place. We must make plain that we will not be condemned and that we understand the systemic barriers to our wellbeing can be challenged. This is not a plea to morality that imagines a more benign economic-state that cares for its subjects, nor is it a plea to the super-rich to share their wealth. Recent social uprisings across the world are about more than austerity cuts. They stand against the eviction of democracy from politics and simultaneous loss of public space to the domain of private property. We can act, take back our agency, and map our own future.