Collective action and the realisation of your own smallness

After nine days of strike action, I’ve begun to realise how formative I have found this experience and how frequently I will think back to it in coming months and years. In part, this is a reflection of the novelty of the action itself for me but also the novelty of the context in which this action is being taken. When I finished a three year part-time postdoc at the University of Warwick in January 2017, I was ready to be outside of the university for some time as a department I had previously felt at home in had become unrecognisable to me and the university itself unwelcoming. After a year spent consulting while continuing to work in my role as Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review Foundation, in late January I joined the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge as a part-time postdoc in the new Culture, Politics and Global Justice.

I found it a strange experience being part of a new university for the first time in a long time, with the partial exception of nine months at LSE when the experience was mediated by being part of a tightly organised group. This is compounded by the peculiarities of Cambridge, as I tried to get my head around the mundane operations of a university quite unlike any other I had been part of. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I had mastered it as of February 22nd. I still hadn’t managed to log into my office computer or discovered how to access one of the many libraries. Irritatingly, I can’t get Edu Roam to work, in spite of this being the one thing I really missed when not attached to a university. But it was nonetheless the case that I had started to learn my way around the place. I had begun to form routines and a certain Cambridge-inflected rhythm was beginning to enter into my day to day life, even on the three days a week where I was working elsewhere. Then the strike began.

I think of myself as someone who is politically active. At different points in my life I’ve campaigned for the Labour Party, the Green Party, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Stop The War and various others which failed to lodge themselves in my memory to the same extent. I’ve stood as a local councillor and organised fund raisers for multiple charities. I helped setup Campaign for the Public University and a local anti-arms trade campaign. I’ve run a speaker series with a political purpose and written political articles for blogs and zines. I’m currently running the digital engagement for the Imagine 2027 project and volunteering at a homeless shelter. But if I’m honest, it has always been tangential to my everyday existence. It has always been easily boxed, in spite of the significance I have accorded it in my own self-understanding at various points in my life. It has been something to put down and pick up. It has been something I do on my own terms or don’t do at all. The strike has left me reflecting on why this is the case, as well as how this might express a broader academic condition. A wonderful essay in the Varsity by a politics student at Cambridge captured at least part of this wider malaise. Describing the strikes which have engulfed the university, Alice Hawkins identifies the agency this demands from those involved or even just impacted by them:

The impacts of these strikes are extraordinary because they are intimate. They are forcing engagement with the real political issues that have a direct impact upon us – right now, standing outside our lecture halls, and for a long time into the future. They are forcing a new level of cognizance of the institutional power structures within which we exist, yet so often fail to recognise. They are forcing a recognition of the political agency which we all possess. And from my experience, the best kind of political agents that we can strive to be – the best kind of people – are those who are thoughtful. Those who can reflect on their own context, experiences, and values to challenge their own assumptions about the way the world works, and evaluate their role within it.

Does this pose a particular challenge for those whose occupations revolve around discussing such action? The evidence would suggest it does:

Yet, from my experience, there exists in this institution a bizarre cognitive dissonance between people’s willingness to engage in political theory and their willingness to engage in political reality. I know firsthand which place is the more comfortable place to be. I know the temptation that exists to retreat from the latter into the safe confines of intellectualised debate and armchair philosophising in the former. But if I’m not prepared to at least attempt to overcome this, I’m really going to have to start asking myself what kind of student of politics I think I am.

A similar question is often asked of those university leaders whose avowed radicalism is belied by the actions they undertake at their universities. As many have pointed out the University of Sussex Vice Chancellor Adam Tickell once wrote of his ambition to “slay the neoliberal dragon” yet now presides over an aggressively marketised institution in which students attempting to do precisely that have found themselves objects of police violence. However my favourite example is the radical geographer Nigel Thrift, something which is perhaps unsurprising given I spent over a decade at the University of Warwick. But this still positions the cognitive dissonance as something out there rather than a feature of oneself and the last few weeks have left me thinking about how it exists within me rather than merely being a feature of self-seeking university leaders who it is easy (and fun) to pick apart at a distance. Defining myself as someone who regularly engages in political action has, it seems to me, propped up a version of this cognitive dissonance: externalising my own limitations about politics on to others.

In parallel to this, the strike has forced me to confront the role of work in my life, recognising how I rely on it to provide order to the everyday flow of my experience. I find it much more unsettling than I expected to suspend routine in this way. It’s compounded by the weird environment created when those you co-exist with have similarly suspended their routines. This collective suspension of routine reveals how open are shared lives really are, in spite of the false necessity which our language and customs imbue them with. The real constraints on doing things differently are elaborate rather than powerful, multifaceted and woven into the fabric of our daily lives rather than being external forces pressing down upon us. But our autonomy leaves us organising our existence in a way which accentuates their power, isolating us from the creative possibilities which emerge from gathering together with a shared commitment and an open agenda, as we have been doing every day on a picket line.

Most of all it has left me thinking about action and the cognitive, emotional and financial costs associated with it. It is tiring to be an agent, working with others to express and enact collective purposes rather than being carried along by the tides of habit which underpin social order. It also involves recognising how small your own life is, in spite of the significance which the quotidian terms of your existence accord to it. We are dependent on others, shaped by others, dominated by others. The hilarity of the Universities UK Twitter meltdown is coupled with a terrifying realisation of how incompetent these people who shape our lives really are. How similarly mired they are in their own smallness, with all the particularly toxic qualities which flow from their status, commitments and projects. The whole thing has left me newly aware of how alienated I am and have been for a long time. I run up against limitations I was only dimly aware of having when I struggle to participate in the way I want, withdrawing into myself when I want to be out there and longing for a routine which I know would isolate me from current events. It’s also left me newly aware how this capacity to withdraw is a function of my own privilege, one that has shaped me in all sorts of ways I’m only now beginning to understand. Ways I want to try and transcend.

A brief but unpleasant experience on the picket line took place earlier this week. A college officer aggressively interrogated my presence outside my place of work and asked for my name so it could be reported to my head of department. The principal of the college then emerged to demand we leave the picket line, shouting at me to “leave now” without any attempt to explain the legal or moral justification for this request (beyond the college officer’s repeated and bewildering assertion that it wasn’t my place of work because it was rented by my employer rather than owned by it). After contemplating whether to walk away, we stayed and were faced with another interrogation during which the officer in question denied any threat had been made and ridiculed the idea his behaviour had been anything other than polite.

The subsequent intervention of the union was reassuring and we made it a point of principle to sustain the picket the following day, preparing ourselves to explain firmly but politely that they had no basis for their request and should please stop harassing our picket. As empowering as the return was, it was a catharsis predicated upon a feeling of shame provoked by my initial acquiescence to a request that was neither legitimate nor justified. It’s frustrating to realise how easily authority you deny intellectually can nonetheless exercise a power over you in practice. There’s a particular poignancy with which l’esprit de l’escalier occurs under such circumstances, as rumination about how you might have reacted becomes a way to avoid the unpleasant feelings which your failure to act had provoked within you. But my initial acquiescence to this, my lack of preparation for others trying to exercise power over me in problematic ways, underscored my own privilege even further in a much deeper manner than the usually intellectualised way in which I had reflected on it previously.

Three weeks of the strike have left me aware of my own moulding with an immediacy I had never had before. What I can do, what I can’t do. What I can be, what I can’t be. The gap between my self-concept and my self, the creative tension that can arise from this but the capacity for illusion which is its unspoken corollary. It’s also left me with a sense of collective efficacy I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. A sense of how we can realise other possibilities and transcend the smallness which actuality leaves us mired within, but only if we do so collectively. There’s no personal routine, no writing project, no transition and no promotion which can accomplish the same effect if undertaken in an individualised way. The whole experience has left me newly aware of my own alienation while also showing me how to transcend it. The world feels unsettling but profoundly open to me at the moment. It’s going to be strange going back to work.

8 thoughts on “Collective action and the realisation of your own smallness”

  1. This is excellent and so helpful for me in constructing my own analysis of institutional abuse of power, past and present. Universities coerce in us the most frightening of hypocrisies. The political forcing ground of engagement of the last 3 weeks will hopefully give birth to a more ‘woke’ workforce prepared to resist this. Analysing and discussing institutional power will need to be part of our DNA henceforth.

  2. Yes definitely, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘organisational literacy’ as a political goal and how social media can help entrench it.

  3. Great article, Mark. Thank you. One of the unexpected (but incredibly valuable) outcomes of collective action is that realisation of both individual powerlessness and the potential of exercising collective power.

    When we have been driven to strike in the past (Australian university context), the thing that has really turned members out onto the picket line is the harsh reality of the university management’s naked exercise of power. The power to say “no”, the power to ignore the people they otherwise claim to be “our most important asset” (an expression offensive in itself, and all the more so for its manipulative intent), the power to threaten our livelihoods and wellbeing.

    The (re)discovery of the power of collective action is a great thing. The exhilaration of telling a university security officer “no, we’re not moving, and we will continue to stop traffic and tell people why we’re here”, the sheer catharsis of taking action on years of pent-up frustration due to overwork, ridiculous bureaucratic requirements and ever-escalating expectations of productivity (both research output and student enrolments).

    And yes, as you say, for those who choose to reflect, the realisation of privilege in a broader context. The critical questioning: what happens to workers who are not in a position to withdraw their labour? Those in the gig economy, the minimum wage workers, our own casual staff…? To me, as a union leader and poltical activist, the potential personal and political transformation that can result from collective industrial action is reward in itself – and a source of hope.

    Best wishes and solidarity to you and your sisters and brothers on the picket lines.

  4. I haven’t read it for ages, I think it will be particularly poignant to go back and start reading it properly again.

  5. This is a kind and insightful response, thanks Cathy. This had been the most personal thing I’d published in a long time & I was trying to make sense of the feelings the strike was provoking in me. Your comment has helped me see those feelings with greater clarity. Thank you 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.