Last week, we published Tom Johnson’s article on the student demo against tuition fees in London on 19th November. Brighton students Bill Whitney, David Brand, Moses Milner have sent The Verse a response to Tom’s article.
We would like to begin by thanking Tom Johnson, and The Verse, for the article. Satire is a great tool for highlighting politically sensitive issues and we agree that humour is one way to discuss serious topics without boring people. The voice of this 19th century Gentleman, whose perspective of the world is shaped through the monocle chained to his waistcoat, captures the Tory hatred of not just students, but anybody who did not go to Eton, who does not own property, and is completely out of touch with the very lives most vulnerable to their arbitrary policies.
‘Will no one rid me of these turbulent students?’ cries Duke Johnson IV, a progressive landed-aristocrat of old money who, while supporting free education, despises the rabble who are fighting for it. He fears the mob. Their songs are sung in a strange language. The Duke knows that when we finally get round to building that bonfire with Torys on the top, and Lib-Dems in the middle, that fire wood might be taken from his estate. He wants to see change, without anybody mobilising for change. Maybe that is a disservice… he wants to see change carried out by the perfect ‘political’. One that has a completely objective and neutral account of the facts, one that is absolutely committed to the cause – but who does not chant, does not sing, does not enjoy themselves… just marches forever forward on the sweeping tide of Victorian liberalism. And perhaps most importantly a ‘political’ who has abandoned the ‘pointless’ principles of equality, self-determination, and solidarity – there is no room for those pinko-commies here old boy, just the Duke and the benevolent old guard who knows what is best for us all. The meta-Dukes combination of antiquarian Victorianism and postmodern irony equates to an empty vacuous hole of cynical inactivity and more of the same. No one is right and everyone is wrong, except of course our ignoble Duke. This is satire without irony, just facading pastiche.
But we have decided to respond with a point-by-point response in case anybody does mistake satire for authenticity on the eve of the biggest student movement since 2010 in this country.
Firstly, it is claimed that ‘the majority of people were there for the enjoyment and for the excitement of doing something en masse’. Is the implication of this that those who attended the march shouldn’t have enjoyed themselves, that political action should be a dull and ritualistic domain? Politics can often be boring, and so one of the great things about the march on the 19th was the excitement and energy felt by those who were in attendance. If people were just out to have fun, with no political intent, then there are much better things they could be doing – especially if you’re apparently not interested in politics in the first place.
Secondly, The Duke chastises ‘a smaller majority who were there for the popularity/fashion contest’. This group is evidenced by the fact that a woman asked his girlfriend where she got her jacket from. The only reasonable answer to this is, so what? Those engaged in active demonstrations do, as it happens, have lives outside of politics. Inevitably some of those are going to be aesthetes who are interested in fashion and appearance.
The third targets are the ‘pointless politicals’, who ‘love the sound of their own voice spouting their utterly useless political jargon’. This useless political jargon may seem alienating to those, like The Duke, who cling to their neutrality above all else. But for those involved, to be able to use such language en masse is liberating. If it isn’t appropriate to use such language on a march like this then where is it appropriate? Such criticisms stem from a paternalistic desire to police what movements can and can’t say, and how they can say anything. This is a fundamental element of the Victorian attitude towards any grassroots political movement, couched in the style of the sneering hipster journalist.
The fourth and final section of the demonstration that comes under attack from The Duke are, what is commonly called, the black bloc, those that were there ‘to jump at the chance to cause an unnecessary ruckus’, violence that, apparently, ‘has nothing to do with what they are marching for’. Now, whatever your opinion on direct action, the claim that it was mindless and undirected is patently false. Those buildings and areas that were targeted were emblems of the state and capital. Parliament square was stormed; we will not be told where we can practice politics. Tax dodging Starbucks was egged; clamping down on tax avoidance would finance free education. The department of business and innovations, one of the key architects of the so called ‘restructuring’ of higher education, was doused in paint; in the absence of Nick Clegg, covering government buildings in paint will have to do. Just as the plague doctors, who were probably in Duke Johnsons living memory, would mark the houses of the sick in a community, so too does the black bloc mark sickness in our community.
Perhaps the Duke’s own cliched cliche, his self-irony, anarcho-snobbery, and virtuousness is powerfully indicative of the archetypal attitude the banker, politician, estate agent, or lobbyist has towards politics. The state of our current political convention is dictated by the enlightened, self aware and technocratic few who have pulled themselves above the pulpit and know what’s best for us. The logic, or dogma, being deregulation caused the crisis, so let’s have more. Privatisation is making institutions dysfunctional, so let’s privatise more industries. Cuts cause poverty, so let’s cut deeper. At some point, in some time, it will work. It doesn’t matter how, or when, or even who it effects, it just will. Our meta-duke wants change but only on his terms.
But, Tom Johnson did make a completely valid observation that we support – the student movement is inclusive of all students. You do not have to be a doctrinaire to stand up for yourself; you do not have to be so absorbed in politics that it becomes impossible to speak about anything else – but if you do want to join in with chants, and discuss these issues in formal language then why not? If you do not think marches are enough, then direct action has been a constant part of the student movement way before the 2010 betrayal. For new, for old, this is a movement for all students, that is only one part of a wider campaign to resist austerity. So Tom Johnson, in his own special way, stumbled across something to really celebrate and be proud of in student politics at the moment. Thanks Tom.
By Bill Whitney, David Brand and Moses Miller from Free Education Brighton.