We Know What We’re Marching against but What are We Marching for?, by J.D. Taylor, Charlotte Latimer and Kevin W. Molin
Charlotte Latimer, J.D. Taylor and K.W. Molin on the anti-cuts march organised by Trade Union Congress, 20th October 2012.
C.: Marched in London for ‘a better future’, caught up with friends, danced to reggae and got a free lunch from the Hare Krishnas. It was a great day out, but what impact did it have? While 100,000 dedicated people turned up, they only constitute about 0.002% of the UK population: a poor turn-out when compared to the severity of the cuts. The initial excitement felt at marches last year has faded away, muted in part by the extreme tactics of the police. People are refusing to look ahead to where England, and the rest of the world, are headed.
J.D.: I wasn’t expecting a better future, I’d marched enough times, knew the route well enough not to bring a map. Marches haven’t impacted policy decisions and seem to have largely depressed, rather than excited, public opinion. I came because it was a common symbolic protest against the Tory-led government and its scorched-earth political war against the working class. I’d include the majority of police, or ‘plebs’ as the Tories call them, in that bracket. Most people I talk to in the community are against cuts, but no-one knows what they’re for.
K.W.: I woke up late on Saturday, around eleven thirty, even though I had not gone to bed particularly late the night before. At some point in the day, I remembered the march was going on. I was just outside the building where I live, talking to a Greek neighbour, and the topic emerged, with some air of resignation. I don’t wish to argue against marches as a form of activity, far from that. Sometimes a march is more than necessary, even from one point to another, but sometimes not doing something might be even more ‘useful’. Hard to know when or what. I ended up spending almost whole day reading new Ofsted regulations, in force since September, and realising that some of the documentation is more loose than expected, and that school leaders or inspectors or teachers themselves use a lot of their own interpretations, amplifying its perverse basis upon constant measurement, evidence, impact to a force it originally lacked.
One example: I know at least a couple respected teachers who have been tortured with constant evaluations and forced to change school or job by school leadership, as a consequence of not having filled in a ‘lesson plan’ proforma in preparation for inspection. Stories are legions. These are the typical forms that eat your hours away and require high level copy-pasting skills, for generally little educational benefit. Well, the surprise was that the official documentation requires no lesson plan whatsoever. None. I was shocked. To my knowledge, most schools if not all demand that all lessons are planned by the minute beforehand, all year round.
C.: There needs to be some shared aims and objectives and more empowering forms of resistance. Marching from one designated point to another is a weak form of resistance as the largest global protest in history, against the Iraq war, taught us. The best thing the march can offer is a place from which to build collectively, but build what? We have to start acting now unless we want the coalition government to continue to rip apart our institutions in a careless and irresponsible way.
J.D.: There’s some religiously righteous element to marches I struggle with: the politeness, the hymns, the exhortations to a congregation of brothers and sisters, the near-annual vigils. The countless marches against Thatcher are forgotten now, the riots and battles less so. -like nature of themMarches are always so polite, like a long queue to a tourist attraction where you know exactly what will happen, wave a placard from A to B; a cheeky song with rude words in; jeer at a line of fascist pig !!!! policemen or at an otherwise popular coffee-shop. It does have its limits, this kind of ‘resistance’. There was a shared objective: possibly, perhaps, organise a 24-hour general strike, because, after all, cuts are bad, for ordinary children and for ordinary families! The problem lies in the vagueness of this call, and the lack of political will for such a strike. That if such a strike were organised, a 24-hour strike would not disrupt infrastructure, say compared to a one week strike. That the unions haven’t been an effective mobiliser for precarious, non-unionised workers, the unemployed, and college students. That attempting to speak to ‘ordinary hard-working families’ is also the very same normative language of the Tory-led government. And that the mass mobilisation of bodies, against scantily protected institutions, results in, what, an orderly line of people queueing up to hear Ed Miliband talk?
K.W.: When I hear the term outcome or objective, I shudder. It’s again a remnant from school expectations. Ofsted are no doubt keen in formulating anything that is valuable as a learning experience in terms of having clear, observable, objectives set and shared with students at the beginning of the lesson. Documentation does not state this, but from my experience, I’ve been always been ‘trained’ to think that a lesson is poor if the aren’t clearly written lesson objectives on the first slide of the PowerPoint. This seems to be independent of the fact that the majority of kids I speak to have no idea what the word ‘objective’ even means, after at least twelve years of it being mentioned. Perhaps, that’s a good attitude. Still, I have no problem with objectives per se, more with the idea that these are always visible, measurable, explicit, fixed, known in advance. I seem to be only talking of schools, but there is a certain order that is instilled or begins somewhere, with no great authority demanding this other than a general culture of compliance. Even the march complies with the protocol march, gestures, songs, etc.
Hard to know where problems reside, what unit of measure to use, who to blame, how to do something about it. Marching can be good. I’d like to see some more marching on the tune of non-compliance, however. Marching instead of working, more than marching outside of work or as an extension of it. Besides reading the Ofsted guidance, I endured two hours of a very bad French movie, despite falling asleep a couple of times, and I kept hoping that all my suspicions that the plot wouldn’t turn out as predictable as it seemed were misguided, that there must be some twist coming at some point, some of the internal dialogues and music seemed suggestive of something more to happen – only to be disappointed by the two protagonists eventually kissing with an overlaid Fin. Not I have anything against love.
C: Nobody from any of our major political parties represents me or my views, I can’t even begin to imagine how alienated others must feel. Why is the current political systems so narrow, inflexible and archaic? Why can’t they be more fluid and inclusive? Wouldn’t living in a society that offered up opportunity and opened up possibility create citizens who were more passionate, engaged and driven? I know this is a vague, undeveloped argument but I’m not claiming that I know the best way to reform the political system, but the belief in that possibility has to exist before it can happen. The classism that is deeply rooted in English culture is no longer able to hide behind the affluence of the past few decades, austerity has made clear who owns what and who has power.
J.D.: ‘No future’; ‘no escape’ – I wake up most days and see the evidence of these words, feel the consequences of these words, hear them echo round my brain in snatches of song. Compelling feelings I wish to be rid of. They are not new feelings, but marks of domination and passivity, a cynical peace-making with powerlessness. So much hard work already goes into grassroots political organisation. It’s impossible to keep up with the new work of critical theorists across the world who devote their waking hours to theorising alternative political movements. There is no shortage of ideas or meetings! But ideas or meetings alone won’t convince demoralised peoples, or topple smug governments. I think the Left has always had a charming but doomed faith in the rationality of its opponents. Neoliberal leaders like Thatcher and Murdoch, Branson and Blair, have never been interested in free markets for their own sake.
C.: The tax scandals that have been revealed over the last year, the most recent being Starbucks shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The raison d’être of capitalism as an economic system is to accumulate profit. The laws in England, and across the globe, have evolved with that system to serve and protect money. All the different groups representing at the march today all had one thing in common, they were all campaigning for a system that doesn’t prioritise money over all else (arts, education, health etc). Money is a tool that we use to distribute the resources that we have in the world; how it gets regulated, inflated, manipulated and distributed is up to those who have it. What is crazy is a culture that encourages businesses, organisations and individuals to make money their primary focus and target. At this point the system is not working, the liberation that was promised by the free market has not been delivered, it’s time to start finding alternatives. As difficult as it is to unpick and understand the complex global economic situation we now inhabit, the only way to smash it and stop it is from the ground up. There is no one at the top controlling it who can reign it back in.
D.: Consider the huge level of state intervention to protect financial capitalism. Neoliberalism as an idea was generated precisely as a counter-ideology to communism. Perhaps the naivety of political neoliberalism was to believe its own propaganda: money cannot be made, it is a power-relation. It has always belonged to banks which possess it, and governments which regulate it. Compare two responses to the 2008 credit crisis: decline in the UK, with the failure of quantitative easing in the UK and the cuts to public services, a naïve ‘balancing of the books’; versus investment in infrastructure that will in turn produce demand, reduce unemployment, train the workforce and improve overall quality of life. Again, there’s that danger of rationalising our opponents.
C.: You have to spend money to make money; the cuts are illogical. Hacking away at public services and selling what’s left off to private businesses is irresponsible. So many people will be left in crisis by the reduction of services and benefits, the human cost is going to be astronomical and this will impact the economy massively. Most public services, like education and health, enable and encourage people to work, without this infrastructure many will find it hard to cope. The inevitable rise in crime and homelessness will create chaos, the attractiveness of London to tourists and finance capital will start to fade. If nothing else, why, when there is so much scrutiny on public spending why would a government give its taxpayers’ money to private companies who will utilise those contracts to boost their profit margins?
J.D.: Maybe I’m giving Gideon Osborne too much credit: it seems mass unemployment and social crises in low-income areas aren’t a problem in what has been a very well-organised effort to turn the UK into a tax haven. All the political parties are near-identical in their Oxbridge-educated neoliberal fervour: appealing to the wisdom or clemency of well-fed politicians to affect change will get the working-class nowhere. Power is something already possessed by workers, the problem is that, so far, there’s never been confidence to assume it, act it, and use it. But arguing against the effects of government cuts based on their inconsistency with its propaganda, well, it feels a bit like trying to persuade a child’s imaginary friend not to burn down houses. Let’s grab that matchbox away.
C.: At the moment narratives of austerity and necessity are continuing to hold power over many people in the UK. Small grassroots groups are working hard to try and beat down those stories and create a space for alternatives. Amongst others there were local services, workers collectives and educational groups present at the march; all affected by the cuts, all asking for a reassessment of priorities. These groups are small and fragmented and are working hard to strengthen their resistance While we need to work collaboratively to create its important not to lose sight of the importance of that diversity and retain a variety of perspectives. The government is not listening. We need to start asking ourselves ‘What do we want?’ and ‘When do we want it?’; we know what we’re marching against but what are we marching for?