Beautiful Transgressions Beyond the Picket Line

As popular resistance against the cuts continues to grow, the University and College Union (UCU) have voted to take strike action this week over pensions, pay and job security. Ceasefire columnist Sara Motta argues that spaces of resistance can, and must, be built on both sides of the picket line.

Beautiful Transgressions, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 0:00 - 9 Comments

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By Sara Motta

We need new methods of political action and new ways of thinking about our old methods if we are to overcome the collective fear of the individualised neoliberal subject and re-construct political community. The University and College Union (UCU) have voted to take strike action over pensions, pay and job security this week. This opens an opportunity to re-configure the experience and meaning of strikes.

We have witnessed decades of neoliberal violence, as I outlined in my previous column, which have left communities with emotional and psychological collective wounds, flexibilised labour relations resulting in precarity and produced a fearful and often lonely neoliberal subject.

Such violence, committed by politicians of the left and right, has eradicated the tight knit communities in which flourished the political cultures, knowledges and collective histories that were the life force of popular politics pre-neoliberalism. Political community is therefore disarticulated and where it does exist often fragmented. Traditional certainties about the way to organise radical politics and the objectives of such politics cannot be taken for granted.

So when we hear that someone is not striking, it is no longer simple enough to call them ‘scab’ and to imagine that they are on the other side of the picket line, too weak to resist or too implicated in power to care.

The picket line will be crossed for a variety of reasons many of which are not about weakness or lack of solidarity but about fear, precarity, the disconnect between union politics and ordinary workers and the lack of political community.

When a PhD student who teaches a few hours a week is unable to visibly strike it is because they will lose the money that pays the rent. When a teaching fellow on a contract goes to teach it is because they are fearful that they won’t get their contract renewed. When an activist scholar thinks twice about striking it is because she hasn’t been able to afford to pay her dues and will have to become further indebted to join the union. When an individual worker goes in to work it is because he fears the repercussions in his everyday working life if the tentacles of managerialism and ranking become targeted upon him because of his actions. Whilst for many students (and academic staff) the picket line and traditions of labourism do not resonate with their experience, political culture and history.

If we are faced with such complexities of fear, precarity and disarticulation of political community then this suggests the need, the urgency, to develop political methods and practices that take these complexities seriously. Part of this involves moving beyond set models and understandings of what it means to resist and how we build political community. It suggests transforming and transgressing political methods such as the strike (an inspiring example of this type of experimentation can be found in the praxis of the Really Open University).

In the university space, and in others, reclaiming, reconfiguring and re-signifying space during the strike opens up the potential to rupture this social fabric of fear and silence with both students and staff. Using laughter, satire and creating activities which are fun helps disrupt this normality. Such affective practices help to rupture the emotional and psychological weight of precarity, micro-surveillance and isolation. They speak to the desire for human warmth, solidarity and recognition that we carry within us.

The picket line is part of this but there are also many other practices that transform the picket line, disrupt the boundaries between university space and its outside and in so doing reconfigure the experience, meaning and purpose of the strike. There are a multiplicity of ways this can be done through music, art, street theatre, dance, teach-ins, teach-outs and occupations.

Creating art that marks the walls, floors and walkways, with images of the education that we desire, is a powerful means to disrupt the commodified physical space of the university and demonstrate our power to re-make that space. Creating music and dancing in grounds that have been anesthetised for the long queues of prospective ‘customers’ brings joy and creativity into a space of marketing and ranking. We reconfigure our bodies and our minds by transgressing our roles as the consumer student or anxious and individualised researcher.

When we challenge the routines, embodied performances and borders of the university space we open up questions about its purpose and meaning. So street theatre which satires the increasing marketisation of education changes the way we enact the space of the university (an exciting experience of this can be found in the praxis of the University of Strategic Optimism). As Lyotard argues ‘the transgression in deed can only scandalize; it constitutes a nonrecuperable critique; it makes a hole in the system; it installs, for an instant, a region in which relations are not mediated by the Metro ticket, by the ideology of the newspaper, by the university institution. A potentiality arises in the field of social experience.’ (1993, 55). Thus we open possibilities of experiencing and creating the university differently.

During teach-ins we re-configure the social relations of a university campus to create horizontal and equal relationships. Here we experiment with forms of creating knowledge which rupture the hierarchies and divisions upon which neoliberal education is constructed. In teach-outs we disrupt the enclosed borders of the university, asking questions about what and who the university is for and who is a legitimate member of that community (a permanent experience of this is happening at the University of Utopia). These are moments of subjective and collective creation, disruption and recognition across manufactured borders.

Yet not all the transgressions that we can practice during the strike will be as visible as these. The realities of precarity, fear and disarticulation of political community suggest that we should also re-configure striking as constituted by moments of dignity and autonomy in everyday acts.

So when the PhD student teaches his class but takes his students outside into the fresh air and links their topic of study to a discussion about the commodification of education this is a dangerous and courageous transgression. When the contract teaching fellow walks through the corridors wearing the ribbon and badge of solidarity this is a meaningful re-habitation of self and body, of occupying with dignity spaces in which ones autonomous voice is often drowned out by the drone of expectation and anxiety. When a lecturer who feels he cannot cancel his classes offers to use the wages from those days to contribute to a strike fund this is a moment that builds solidarity. Or when teachers begin to discuss what is happening together, perhaps in whispers, perhaps in fragments, they are opening spaces of otherness, of recognising each other, and imagining themselves and therefore the university in different ways.

This suggests other ways of evaluating the success of a strike. If we imagine the strike as a plethora of performances that transform the university by reconfiguring its physical, emotional, intellectual and embodied space then the richness of possibilities opened up by striking becomes visible. Processes of constructing political community and overcoming fear become as significant and powerful as any concrete measurable outcomes. As James Scott (1985, 29) argues, even when the visible objectives of a strike or other political action are not achieved, we are left ‘not least,[with] a memory of resistance and courage that may lie in the wait for the future.’ We are also left with concrete links of solidarity and shared political experiences and learning.

When we recognise these complexities of fear and political disarticulation we learn to see through other eyes and emotions. We recognise the need to subvert boundaries, not put them up between ourselves and those who are our potential and actual allies. In this way we open up possibilities of transgressing fear and weaving together political community during and after the strike.

Sara Motta is a mother, radical educator and writer.

My thanks to everyone who discussed the ideas in this piece and made helpful suggestions along the way. My special thanks to Geoff who offered the emotional and spiritual support that I needed.

Lyotard Jean-Francois 1993. Political Writings. Minnesota: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Scott James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Andy
Mar 24, 2011 19:03

Another powerful and interesting article.

I feel this article is pointing at a deeper issue: the role of ethical refusals, or ethical secession, or even of normativities, in activisms and counter-communities of all kinds. If we’re going down the path of Agamben (whatever-singularity – life matters whatever it is), or of Deleuze (subordinating social production to desiring-production), or of poststructuralism (rejecting binary oppositions), or of New Age (complementarity of opposites – holism of being), we really need to reject normativity in the usual sense (homogeneous/”shared” values, socially imposed rules, criteria of social acceptability, the whole composite of Toennies’ gemeinschaft) as irreducibly part of the logic of sovereignty / state despotism / othering / division we’re trying to overcome. But this very gesture implies a refusal which creates a new division: between those who recognise whatever-singularity and those who impose sovereignty; between active and reactive desires; between a tolerant poststructuralist self and intolerant essentialist others; between the spiritually holist being and the unfortunate others trapped in their false selves. Is this another dualism? (Deleuze has a complicated theory as to why it isn’t: basically, it comes down to the fact that the ‘bad’ pole is an alienated form of the ‘good’ pole, not really its other) If it isn’t, then can it become one? How do we stop it becoming one? (Ultimately it might come down to our attention to non-linguistic realities rather than to the language we use, as to whether a new concept becomes a dualism).

Something like the prohibition on scabbing, and its potentially oppressive implications in terms of failing to recognise others’ situations and their own forms of everyday resistance, creates a simple boundary which makes it easy to determine who is and isn’t resisting. If we lose these kinds of simple boundaries (and I’m attracted to the view that we should), we need to be a lot more intelligent in assessing and differentiating situations in the ‘shades of grey’ region, without clear criteria to apply. We need to be able to tell someone who’s really doing Scottian resistance from a Third Way clone who says they’re doing what they can, in their own way, to resist but is really using this as a pretext for conformity to the system (for instance, a certain English professor named after a fast-food chain, who writes ‘transgressive’ articles on science-fiction while actively collaborating with management against dissent on campus).

Because of this kind of problem – and also because I feel impelled by these kinds of strong ethical refusals in my own life – I can really feel the appeal of the picket-line as a strong barrier with a strong moral obligation not to cross, even though I dislike the idea of shared/common values and normative constraints – the line encapsulates something clear in the real process of social antagonism, enabling counter-power by seceding from a unified community with the bosses and their supporters. It’s a “one no” which creates a space of “many yeses”. This, too, can enable ‘thinking-otherwise’ and the emergence of other forms of being – without it, the most powerful voice (that of capitalism) can be overwhelming. But even in these cases, the boundary can be too black-and-white. People can be called scabs for doing extra work the union allows for example, or accused of being scabs on suspicion, or the union official might be called a scab for trying to get scabs unionised (see here: http://www.minersadvice.co.uk/ourview_forgive_and_forget.htm). This all gets fed into reactive and normative tendencies within the affected community. The hostility to scabs can become reactive, a workerist version of the hatred of folk-devils. The community of resistance can coalesce into a new trunk.

It’s all too easy to blame this on the limits of the old left, which has always been far too indulgent of gemeinschaft fantasies and normativity in general. But it’s not just an old left problem. The problem today is that there’s the same issues with any kind of ‘othering’, whether it’s scabs, snitches, abusers, fascists, hostility to consumerism, etc. Bonanno raises this issue in relation to anti-fascism (see http://ebookbrowse.com/alfredo-m-bonanno-dissonances-a4-pdf-d63823983). Even without social acceptability, there are certain things which are personally intolerable to each of us or several of us because they directly hurt us or put us in danger. I think we all tend to respond by reinscribing these experiences of intolerability as normativities, and the challenge is to find a way to respond which doesn’t perform this reinscription but which also does justice to the needs of the person experiencing something intolerable. The problem comes from the fact that we’re trying to reject dominant normativities, we’re trying to be tolerant and enabling, but this implies we have to be intolerant of the intolerant (otherwise they might destroy our movements), which reintroduces the very negative energies we’re trying to ward-off. Simplify it a bit and we’re back with trunk and other, qualified life and bare life. New Age people tend to say we should reject the split completely, and try to absorb the adversary as simply the denied dark side of the self. This makes a lot of sense with classical othering, but I wonder how it would work when the other is a figure of intolerance or silencing, i.e. the negation of the very gesture of inclusion – can one then perform the absorption without negating the whole point of the exercise?

I’m not sure what the answer is in terms of maintaining an ethical imperative to act without slipping back into a trunk-other frame, though it does seem that suspending judgement, assuming situational/human motives (e.g. the other causes pain because they’re in pain), and not assuming others will act from one’s own ethical assumptions (assuming multiperspectivalism) are helpful in preventing a new trunk from coalescing. I wonder if we also need to reassess actions in terms of the relations involved, and the needs involved, and the situation, rather than just creating classes of acts which are good and bad. We’d also need to come up with grounds as to why an in situ antagonistic (fighting off an attacker, blockading a workplace to keep scabs out) might still be justified without invoking a normative position. In Benjamin’s theory it is suggested that ethics can apply to the future, never to the past: one can’t judge a person for an action but only try to ethically alter their future actions. Some indigenous groups seem to work with a frame where acts are always considered to have cosmological effects which rebound on the self. It might also be possible to think of such issues in a conflict-transformation frame (Lederach), or a restorative frame, instead of a normative frame. But I think we sometimes need to fight back as well, especially against a certain kind of adversary who can’t recognise their pain. I don’t have any easy answers, but this question seems to me crucial in moving towards an ethical theory to accompany the huge advances made by poststructuralism and anti-authoritarian theory.

Holly
Mar 25, 2011 15:27

I found Sara’s article particularly inspiring because it draws attention to ways of enhancing, empowering and asserting meanings and alternatives through strikes and protests and beyond. Traditionally, strikes and protests, particularly in the UK, seem to be trapped in an authority and rebellion-against-authority dichotomy, with patriarchal and agressive elements in either or both sides. This has been easy for the Media to manage, and protests or strikes can be manipulated to tap into ideology of law and order, with the fear of chaos (the ‘dangerous’ student protestors in London), or of helping the economy (with BA and Ryan Airways staff being blamed for the effects their strike will have on business). This is fed to the general public deliberately to create divisiveness between workers, with accusations of those who strike being ‘ungrateful’ for the jobs whilst some are unemployed, when of course these issues are both products of the same neoliberal system.

So for me what is radical about Sara’s article is the opening up of spaces, of reclaiming them during protests (Starhawk springs to mind) or strikes, and using dance, art, ritual, to live the alternative in the now. The playfulness, spontaneity and sense of community these events can engender momentarily shatter the rigid stiff upper lip of neoliberalism. Strikes or protests which become a carnival rather than a fight are much more yin in their nature, and herein lies a power which is perhaps only beginning to be tapped into (Reclaim the Streets!). News footage of people celebrating life speaks volumes to other workers, whatever the voiceover says, and it empowers, awakens, brings a smile and hope, rather than fear or apathy resulting from images of protestors being arrested. The carnival here can communicate more deeply about what exactly it is we’re proposing instead of neoliberalism (think the difference between ‘alternate globalisation’ and ‘anti-globalisation’). Consequently, it can unite us as workers and people, and remind us that it’s not so much fighting against the system as fighting for the life we want to live and for jobs with dignity.

Holly
Mar 25, 2011 15:29

I found Sara’s article particularly inspiring because it draws attention to ways of enhancing, empowering and asserting meanings and alternatives through strikes and protests and beyond. Traditionally, strikes and protests, particularly in the UK, seem to be trapped in an authority and rebellion-against-authority dichotomy, with patriarchal and aggressive elements in either or both sides. This has been easy for the Media to manage, and protests or strikes can be manipulated to tap into ideology of law and order, with the fear of chaos (the ‘dangerous’ student protestors in London), or of helping the economy (with BA and Ryan Airways staff being blamed for the effects their strike will have on business). This is fed to the general public deliberately to create divisiveness between workers, with accusations of those who strike being ‘ungrateful’ for the jobs whilst some are unemployed, when of course these issues are both products of the same neoliberal system.

So for me what is radical about Sara’s article is the opening up of spaces, of reclaiming them during protests (Starhawk springs to mind) or strikes, and using dance, art, ritual, to live the alternative in the now. The playfulness, spontaneity and sense of community these events can engender momentarily shatter the rigid stiff upper lip of neoliberalism. Strikes or protests which become a carnival rather than a fight are much more yin in their nature, and herein lies a power which is perhaps only beginning to be tapped into (Reclaim the Streets!). News footage of people celebrating life speaks volumes to other workers, whatever the voiceover says, and it empowers, awakens, brings a smile and hope, rather than fear or apathy resulting from images of protestors being arrested. The carnival here can communicate more deeply about what exactly it is we’re proposing instead of neoliberalism (think the difference between ‘alternate globalisation’ and ‘anti-globalisation’). Consequently, it can unite us as workers and people, and remind us that it’s not so much fighting against the system as fighting for the life we want to live and for jobs with dignity.

Andy
Mar 26, 2011 5:14

The problem is whether we can actually have the carnival, the police response to Reclaim the Streets was to go on the attack, so we either have a pitched battle defending the site or everyone kettled for 8 hours and the sound systems seized. Authority has a way of shutting down the initiatives of those who don’t resist it.

Holly
Mar 27, 2011 16:53

Right, but those elements in Reclaiming the Streets, such as spontaneity, creativity and community, can be used in spaces such as strikes organized through TUs and protests with state approval, maximising positive effect and minimising the possibility of police brutality.

Breaking silences on broken promises
Apr 4, 2011 13:23

[…] life, can only be met with equally as serious acts of resistance – which may of course take a plurality of different forms. For ultimately, as Audre Lorde once wrote, ‘the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, […]

Lenin
Apr 19, 2011 1:45

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Reading them I’ve realized how similar and global can be some problems faced by those involved in education. As you mention the violence of neoliberalism has provoked such processes of precarity that some times resistance seems impossible and even not desirable. I can see similar problems in the Higher Education system of many Latin American countries and I think it is important to articulate non-hegemonic strategies to challenge hegemonic visions of the world (the examples presented in your article are lovely). I just would like to stress the idea of non-hegemonic strategies of resistance and the reflexion, dialogue and creativity it demands, especially because in the past some strategies of resistance coming for instance from some Latin American student movements has been marked by violence.This is still a burden for some student organizations in Latin America, especially in public universities. The criminalization of the protests and the reminder of the “dark periods” when the student movements produced “terrorist groups” close the possibilities of articulated protest. I think it is also urgent to globally share these experiences, between the so called “global south” and “north”. I think processes of confrontation and sharing of experiences in relation to the commodification of the education between academic communities of the planet could help to highlight problems that goes beyond our national and geographical barriers.

on spaces for dissent and resistance | Richard Hall's Space
Dec 7, 2011 18:41

[…] We are also learning that such serious attacks on public education, critical disciplines and research, non-hegemonic epistemologies and democratic life, can only be met with equally as serious acts of resistance – which may of course take a plurality of different forms. […]

Luke Evans
Mar 20, 2012 9:57

I completely disagree with this article. Firstly, with all the discussion of “precarity” and the deeply scarring effect it has on ‘political communities’ you mention not once the difficulty of striking for people who are not so-called precarious. The act of striking is not easy for those who are not precarious, it is not merely that those that cross picket lines are the most vulnerable or least secure.

This also misses one of the key moments in labour history in the UK, which was the birth of New Unionism in the 1880s. From a period of weakness of organised labour came the birth of rank-and-file syndicalist unions that defied the conservatism of craft unions and advocated strike action. A key workforce involved in the birth of New Unionism were the dock workers, who were often employed without any security, on a daily basis, etc.

Crossing a picket line is and can never be an act of solidarity, except with the status of the authority of the institution or ones own income. Regardless of the noble intentions of trying to rethink the act of resistance, it is not adequate to repackage a scab as a precarious weakling, and therefore attempt to make an economy of vulnerability where the right of the organised workers to strike is seen as the prerogative of secure workers. Therefore because precarity trumps security in the moral economy of, it will always be the case that any argument based upon ones self-identification with insecurity trumps the duty (yes, DUTY) to maintain the strength of a picket line in the face of a powerful constellation of reactionary forces seeking to break it’s efficacy.

TBC…

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