Archive of the Month: Student Movement 2010-2011

This month’s archive log looks at writings from the 2010-11 Student Movement.
You can view the collection here

Universities were the symptom. In 2008 it appeared as though a world finely constructed out of debt had collapsed. Derivatives that changed hands between financial institutions obscured the fact that mortgages were unpayable, as property prices boomed and wages waned. The crisis migrated into national bond markets. As the future dropped away, the debt to which it was harnessed. What everyone knew already in 2010 was that the situation was a lie. Politicians appeared on television proclaiming that chunks of the state – and chunks of the future – had to be sold off, in order to pay back what had been borrowed. The truth was that they were just developing new markets for debt, within civil society institutions, local governments, and education. Paying back the debt meant nothing but further leveraging an even emptier future on people’s backs.

The writings that arose out of the student movement reflect this complex situation. It is often unclear to whom they are written: certainly their cries are not directed towards any posterity. The very best of them are declarations of fury. Take, for example, Bloomsbury Fightback’s broadside ‘Tales from the Sausage Factory’, which in in its shifting typefaces musically depicts the raising of a voice into a scream.

Within the written materials of the student movement, these shortform texts – never quite journalistic articles, never quite theoretical essays, never mere opinion pieces, never political manifestoes – predominate. Publications were most often democratic in this sense: operating as a place for these spiky interventions to be gathered together, without any authoritative voice. Take for example Mute Magazine’s pamphlet ‘Don’t Panic, Organise’; the pamphlet ‘Rage’ put out by an anonymous collective, the book ‘Bad Feelings’ by Arts Against Cuts, who organised a massive two-day event at the height of the movement, or even the strange Trotskyist version of this form Springtime was dedicated to displaying ‘voices of the movement’.

If these texts are furious, then they also attempt to introduce theoretical positions. The writing often borrowed from situationism, the traditions of autonomia and workerist feminism, EP Thompson-style histories, and all stripes of heterodox Marxism and anarchism. Few recent movements in the UK have been so productive in drawing on such varying histories of radical thought, and assuming them into the shape of a new struggle. The breadth of this historical borrowing – with everyone reaching for the most antagonistic resources they could find – stands in contrast to the left movements that followed. Everyone, in their own way, was trying to explain something of the hopelessness of the debt-structuring of the world around them and the will to break out by annihilating the institutions that policed it; or to bring the movement into relation the international struggles that precipitated from the global financial crisis, whether this was the Arab Spring, the Greek anti-austerity movements, the struggles of the indignados in Spain, or the Occupy Movement, which would emerge in the USA.

The student movement was ultimately short-lived. By December 2010 the increase in tuition fees and the abolition of the educational allowance was passed into law. But the movement that had started continued over the course of the next years. Some of the best reflective writing on the struggles that ensued – including the legal troubles from all the people who were arrested on protests – can be found in a little magazine called ‘The Paper’, which ran a number of issues during 2011 (it caused controversy for offering instructions on shoplifting, autoreduction, and undermining police riot control tactics.)

The dissolution of the movement ran in various directions. Already at the time bits of it had come close to professionalism: in the sphere of journalism student movement protagonists were becoming talking heads on the BBC; the movement also flirted with officialdom within the university (see for example the programme for the 2011 conference ‘Whose University? Resistance + The Idea of the University’ hosted at Goldsmiths), or within the of the Artworld establishment (for example Auto Italia’s ‘We Have Our Own Concept of Time and Motion’).

The most vibrant ends of the movement moved into other spheres of activism, as the Tory and Lib Dem austerity agenda became ever more baroque. The university was envisioned newly as a site of struggle when students joined up with cleaners fighting for better wages and conditions, while campaigning around the casualisation of teaching staff, which led to the ‘Cops off Campus’ pitched battles with the police. Many people got involved in squatting (until that was made increasingly difficult by new laws), or organised hilarious communist raves. Some made new social and political groups like Plan C.

Many got involved in migrant solidarity struggles and tenants unions. And in the end quite a lot gave up all the fun to do bureaucracy in the Labour Party. Small mercies: at least they are not yet Tories!

Later this month we will be holding an event reflecting on the student movement from a decade’s distance. Right now, our collections of materials from the student movement are quite modest – they are mostly London-centric, print-based, and particularly reflect theoretical outputs. We believe that lots of people – from all over the country – have materials relating to this movement (these might be anything from recordings and films, to flyers and pamphlets, to digital archives of twitter accounts, to stickers and placards.) If you are interested in depositing any of these materials to supplements our collections, then please get in touch.

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