CHALLENGING THE BOUNDARIES:
BEARDED IN ITS OWN DEN
Lancaster University Conference
by Steve Booth of Green Anarchist
Knowledge Lab - Making Global Civil Society: Grassroots Practice and Academic Theory of Globalisation from Below
A weekend gathering for collective reflection amongst activists and academics. November 4, 5 & 6 - 2005.
Lancaster University, North West England.
In late September 2005, Lancaster University prosecuted Rachel Jackson, Joanne Moody, Anthony Ayre, Keith Richardson, Matthew Wilson and Rhiannon Westphal, six students, for protesting against a September 2004 conference to promote the commercialisation of the university. The students disrupted a mutual back slapping session between corporates, interrupting the keynote speech by Lord Sainsbury. The trial has profound implications for freedom of speech within universities. Prior to this, controversially, the built up area of the campus expanded by a third, with a new area built by Jarvis under PFI, eating into a green field site. Part of the development, a hilltop luminous green building, the Infolab, criticised as 'a neo-Brutalist Gerbil Box', towers over residents of the village of Ellel, but in a surreal gesture of contempt, has recently been given an architecture award.
The fact the disrupted conference was attended by representatives of arms manufacturers like British Aerospace, and yet took place in a university building named after George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, is an irony which has not been lost on observers. The students were dubbed the 'George Fox Six'. The day they were found guilty by a court in Lancaster, with characteristic sensitivity, the university announced yet another deplorable expansion plan, this time to build a huge science park in the last remaining space to the north, between it and the southern edge of the urban sprawl of Lancaster.
It is against this background that, one weekend in early November, the Institute for Advanced Studies organised a conference on building up global civic society.
Of the Challenging / Asserting the Boundary Dialectic
Visitors to the conference travelled up to Lancaster amidst mounting signs of the distress in the environment and transport system. The rain was extremely heavy, rivers and streams in the area swollen. On the Friday when most came up, a disgruntled ex-railway worker sabotaged signalling equipment in the Midlands. Symbolically, directly outside the university gates, an embankment on the West Coast Main Line collapsed due to the very heavy rain, derailing the 2 p.m. Manchester to Windermere train, and disrupting services. Even so, despite all this transport dislocation, the conference was well attended.
I suspect unlike most of the visitors, I walked up to the uni. The first event I went to was on the 'Activist / Academic Boundary'. I must admit, at first I felt a bit suspicious of the subject. I felt the one might try to exclude the other, while at the same time seeking to appropriate its prestige. Yet this was a misinterpretation, and the talk was open and even handed. Problems identified included the difficulties of crossing the boundary, and academic jargon. One example was the way that, after the 2005 World Social Forum, an internet discussion group was started. It was hoped there would be input from all continents, and translations would be provided. Their hopes fell flat, and it became dominated by Europeans and North Americans. Stefan Burnham talked of a journal called Ephemera, and people were publishing a book about the Gleneagles G8 summit protests in July. Zoe told how a watchdog on international finance was begun, initially as a spoof NGO website, but the project became more serious [www.ifiwatchnet.org] and began to dish the dirt on unknown agencies like the European Investment Bank. Helen spoke about the 'open space network' [www.openspaceforum.net] which also produces a journal, but got stuck with problems over boundary pre-conceptions and academic grand theories. Penny explained about her work in Palestine, acting as an independent observer, seeing how every aspect of the life of the Palestinian people, even the dumping of rubbish, is an act of resistance, and told us how she tried to mediate in an incident between the Israeli army and a Palestinian family.
Theory / Practice Gap
There was a lot about 'Research Activism' versus 'Activism Research', two sides of the same boundary. All through the weekend, a lot was said about the 'precarity' of academics (the lack of security of tenure) and the George Fox style commercialisation of universities. Some spoke passionately about the divide, and the uselessness of academic theory when attempts are made to apply it in practice. People mentioned Michel Foucault, and the way universities are designed to reproduce themselves at a minimal cost to the system, I suppose rather like a novelty toy factory churning out little pink plastic elephants. Others said how a university is something done to the students and academics, more than something which they themselves do. Clara spoke about the difficulties of publishing research, and disclosure issues to do with hard scientific work, eg to do with nuclear, pesticides, or gmos.
At the first feedback session people asked questions such as 'What should we do to win?' Neo-Liberalism disempowers people, industrialisation has negative impacts on health. The problem of academic language was mentioned, and the reification of activism.
The second workshop I saw was 'Anti-Capitalism in the Workplace.' Here, Ben spoke on the intended book about the G8 protests, and related what he had to say here back to the 'Give Up Activism' essay published after the 18th June 1999 City of London protests. The activist becomes a specialist in social change, with prestige and distinct knowledge. He / she has to compensate for the inactivity of others. The G8 protest was interpreted as a missed opportunity to develop a further critique of Neo-Liberalism. A 1905 agitational tour by the IWW was put forwards as a model for a means of catalysing change among the working class, but now we need a 'Post Industrial Workers of the World'. Perhaps we could all smile at the thought that they should be called the 'Pomo-Wobblies'?
The Carbon Fibre Composite Tower
It was suggested we need a new metaphor to replace talk about the 'Ivory Tower'. People talked about the internet, and of building more open ways of circulating information. A familiar face in Lancaster, who used to be the Socialist Worker here, Larry, spoke about 'Enclosure and Resistance' in the university, and the way its productions are commodified. Another speaker mentioned our need for a positive alternative, so we are not just against capitalism, but for something else. He spoke about 'Parercon', an alternative economic system.
Make Recuperation History... ?
Despite the J-18 essay, in the discussion, people felt that activism is a positive thing. The problem was that 'Make Poverty History' was seen to be negative and meaningless, but this was where the numbers went. Others talked of a resource centre in Oxford, which had a neglected downstairs bar, and the activists rebuilt this, which helped the social life of the community, but also brought credibility and made the political space for their ideas to be listened to and taken seriously. If the movement is a lifeboat, ran one analogy, "We need to find the flow that takes us somewhere."
After lunch, Alex from North Wales gave us a session about land based lifestyles, starting with the 1990s road protest camps like Twyford Down and onwards through TAZs, the G8 protest camp near Stirling, or places on the front line like the Pink Castle gmo protest land squat near Dorchester. Generally these were transient, 'biodegradable', but often put into practice a positive example of sustainable living. One more permanent was the 'Land Matters' co-operative in South Devon, where 18 people chipped in £3,000 each to buy seven fields, a total of 43 acres. For a year they left the land alone, and observed it. They were helped by Patrick Whiteley, a permaculture expert, and also developed a 160 year low-impact management plan on a neglected oak plantation. They did hedge laying, started a tree nursery, and built a number of low impact 'benders' using reclaimed materials, each shelter costing under £400 to build.
Mike from the 'Kings Hill' collective, spoke about the planning process, which being part of the system, is weighted against sustainable lifestyles. Nevertheless, several hard won legal decisions, some involving the Human Rights Act, and Article 9 of the ECHR have been successful and are moving matters forwards (slowly).
Andy from Scotland spoke on the Scottish 'Land Reform Act 2003', a move by the Scottish Parliament, which gives the local communities the right to buy the land. The history of the crofters' communities was explained, the clan chiefs and then the absentee landlords, the Highland Clearances. In several places, like the Island of Eigg, the residents have bought out the landowners, and a new wave of cultural confidence and creativity has followed.
This session on the practical stuff relating to sustainable living was the best part of the conference, in my opinion.
Saturday Round Up
At the end of Saturday there was a plenary feedback session. Emma from the 'Social Organisation and Movement of Movements' event spoke about vertical as distinct from horizontal organising patterns. Terms such as 'Justice' are loaded. Whose Justice?
The session on 'Networking Feminism' looked at networks of women living under Islamic laws. New journals were being tried out, people finding their voices. In the wider discussion, the importance of virtual communications was set against the difficulty of meeting up face to face. The idea of 'Activism Tourism' was criticised.
On Sunday morning, the session discussed the media. I found this one too postmodern. The movement is about putting forwards 'counter narratives to the dominant'. This event was as though the movements' very own press officers were trying to justify the way they put out "stories" to the mainstream media. The media were understood as a 'site of contestation'. It was OK to use the BBC as a source of information about the protest movement, and to accept directions from journalists about where to go on the demonstration. The stupidity of allowing our enemies to define us was pointed out, and the many occasions when protesters were lied about by the media mentioned. This message was blanked by the facilitators and the meeting suffered from a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome in my view. They talked of the G8 and other protests, and the way films captured by the police, or voluntarily given over by their friends the BBC are then used to identify protesters. This lesson was learned in about 1973 but is still to be learned by some people. Reinventing the wheel. Others complained about the 'no cameras' policy at protest camps. There was a naive comment made about the openness of the US civil rights movement in the 1950s; this not being the world of today with its technologies of surveillance and repression, where people like Walter Wolfgang, an elderly man shouting "Rubbish!" at Jack Straw during the Labour Conference can be detained under anti-terror legislation.
Nice Cop... Nasty Cop
What a fair proportion of those present wanted was to craft "beautiful stories", but instead naively walked right into the situation where the cameras immediately cut from the nasty dark protesters of the Black Bloc to the nice white protesters of the 'Make Poverty History' campaign. Bad protester / Good protester. Interestingly, the G8 clowns were talked up, and an incident described where children in Hulme (Manchester) threw bricks at their circus workshop and shouted racist abuse. The clown advocates were asked, but could offer no clear explanation as to what they were about. "Look at the Website" they said elliptically. In a 'Garstang Market Test' the clowns were felt to be useless as a means of advancing the message, and dismissed by others as 'publicity seekers'.
This was confirmed in the way that others said how it was easier to confront the cops than to explain things to their neighbours, and one man said he was terrified about talking about a compost scheme to people. Strategies to break out of the radical ghetto are sorely needed, they said. Perhaps they have been hard boxed in by the clowns...
Another World is Possible
The world which the people attending the conference are trying to build is a million miles better than the one which the corporates, with their prosecutions of dissenters, have created. Not that the conference was without its own academic jargon and buzz words - "narratives", 'precocity', 'Discourse', and the "movement of movements", for example. The naivity of some people in the media workshop, their ultimate subordination to the dominant paradigm was one particular type of problem. The same mistakes are made over and over again. The protests are manifestly not a form of 'Discourse'. Sometimes too, there is a fatal confusion between means and ends - between the self referential movement, or protest activity as an end in itself (it doesn't matter if it succeeds or it fails, as with the clowns or the Black Bloc) and the wider need to change the world. The one can become a comfort zone, a substitute for the more difficult demands of the other. The conference engaged with the question of how do we break out, how do we make a difference, outside the radical ghetto. We have the set-piece battles like the G8 at Gleneagles, but in my opinion, the small initiatives like the 'Tinkers Bubble' permaculture land co-operatives are one effective, practical way forwards to the future. There must be others...
This was a well worthwhile event. Here's to those brave folks who organised this amazing conference. In this oppressive climate, what they have done here must seem rather brave and overshadowed, like riding tiny silver bicycles up against the massed ranks of corporate tanks. Fun and defiance were seen in equal measure, a tiny sliver of hope.
- S.B. 2005
(Counter)-Knowledge Laboratory on Globalisation from Below
The Knowledge Lab on Globalisation from Above and Below, located at Lancaster University in North West England and funded by the Institute for Advanced Studies, brings together activists and academics to discuss aspects of the capitalist economy driving globalisation from above - such as enclosures, precarious labour, structural violence, colonialism, and their justifying cultural imagery – and to make visible alternative architectures emerging through processes of globalisation from below, i.e. through grassroots movements cooperating to create a world based on human rights and mutual aid. The Knowledge Laboratory is an anticapitalist initiative.