Weaponise the corpse! Anti-Privatisation Struggle at Sussex University

By Various, 5 April 2013

Four accounts written at different moments during the anti-privatisation struggle at Sussex University over the last two weeks


1. A First-hand Account of the National Demo on the Sussex campus, 25 March 


The demo kicked off in Library Square at 1pm. There were probably 1000-1500 people present. A number of short speeches were given, including one by a Labour MP, who was heckled by a small number of the crowd with chants of ‘shame on you.’ There was also a speech by Alfie Meadows. The crowd then set off on a march round campus. On the way, small groups began breaking off and climbing up lampposts and signposts and onto the roofs of buildings. Several large buildings soon had banners unfurled from their roofs. The crowd stopped at Sussex House, the central administrative building on campus that contains the offices of all the senior managers (all of whom had found appointments off-campus for the day). Sussex House had been fortified overnight. There were iron bars across all the ground-level windows and some were covered completely with wood panels. A small group with their faces covered shimmied up a signpost and on to the roof, and one of them lit a flare which threw out a plume of yellow smoke. Yellow is the colour of the occupation. The university flag was torn down and a yellow flag raised in its place. A huge banner saying ‘destroy capitalism’ was unfurled and draped off the front of the building.


The crowd was chanting and angry and soon began trying to enter the front of the building by force. The front doors are made of reinforced glass. Soon enough a caravan of four police vans showed up and a team of about 30 or so police wearing soft hats and body armour surged through the crowd and tried to secure the front doors. There was an aggressive pushing and shouting match. The crowd started chanting ‘Fuck the police. No justice, no peace.’ After about 10 minutes the police realised they were overwhelmed and they withdrew back to their vans. The crowd surged again and at some point around this moment the front doors were somehow smashed, I think by protesters just repeatedly hurling themselves against the glass, and people began rushing into the building. The police came back, now kitted out in riot helmets. But they stood off and did not intervene; they just watched. A statement from the police later explained that it was decided to avoid conflict because people would surely have been hurt. Their numbers were obviously inadequate to contain or resist the crowd of more than 1000. This situation went on for a while, with people now freely entering and leaving the building, spray-painting slogans on the walls, throwing yellow paint bombs around. The police continued to stand by and watch. I went away with a part of the crowd that moved off toward the occupation in Bramber House and came back about 30 minutes later to find the alarms ringing and a big cloud of smoke ascending over the building. There was a large bonfire roaring in front of the heaps of shattered glass that used to be the front door. Some protesters had ransacked the administrative offices, pulled out all the banking files, made a heap in front of the building and exploded them. I think they doused them in petrol and threw a load of lit fireworks into the heap. A very loud bang could be heard right across the width of campus. I know they were banking files because once the fire had been put out a crowd swarmed round the smouldering heap to inspect them. They all seemed to be from Barclays. Dozens of fat ringbinders. I am keeping this report short and only giving the facts, but in another context I should try to explain how this moment felt and what that burning pile of dead labour looked like: many hundreds of so-called ‘man hours’ in a mess of fire and foam. The bonfire was first tackled by a policeman with a single extinguisher.


By this point most of the protesters had gone elsewhere, there were maybe 20 or so people hovering. Some of them were talking to two policewomen next to me. The policewomen were remarkably calm. They were openly sympathising with the protesters and the student occupiers and complaining about the cuts to their own numbers. They all but explicitly said that they couldn’t possibly police a protest like this because the government had deprived them of the resources to do it – with what really seemed a twinkle of promise and sympathy in their eyes. I wonder if Caroline Lucas, our local Green MP who supports the occupation and entered a motion in parliament in support of it, could have had a role in limiting the number of police officers available to be sent to Sussex yesterday. Soon the fire department showed up and blasted the still-burning bonfire of files with their hoses. I saw a senior manager appear at this point and stand bewildered staring at the carnage.


Soon everyone moved off to the occupation. I was nervous and uncertain what to do, to be frank. The situation felt dangerous. With a friend I went up into the occupied building and got to the top floor. There was a team of two policemen guarding the door. The glass in the door had been papered over from the inside so we couldn’t see in. We asked the police whether they meant to keep us out of the occupation. They again started saying in friendly tones that they had no intention of interfering, that after all what could two of them possibly do, that we were free to do what we liked – and then, to my real surprise, they asked us if we would like them to withdraw and leave their posts. We said yes, and they did. They just turned around and walked down the stairs and out of the building. The occupation was absolutely thronged and the atmosphere was extremely tense and excited. I would say there had to be at least 500 people crammed in there. Speeches soon began. The doors were barricaded up and chained from the inside. I left just as the last door was being barricaded and went home, listening en route to Cameron’s speech on the radio in which he promised to discriminate against immigrants and do everything in his power to make their lives still more miserable. I felt bewildered and shattered. Today all classes have again been moved. Several buildings are still locked down.


All images: Demo 25 March at Sussex University


2. A Realistic Picture: Some Background on the Privatisation Struggle


To paint a realistic picture of ongoing events at the University of Sussex requires a view of the University spanning the best part of a decade. The relevant context to the outsourcing of 235 jobs, and the recent student occupation against it, reveals the process to be neither new nor unforeseeable. At this same time the University of Central Lancashire is en route to becoming a fully private institution, while the Universities of Exeter and Falmouth are moving toward a ‘shared services’ model for all academic services (e.g. the libraries and IT services). A study of Sussex thus yields insight into what is fast becoming the industry standard across the board in higher education.


In May 2012 it was announced that all non-academic services were to be put out to tender, but the on-going changes, as they affect workers at Sussex, far pre-date this announcement. Having successfully overseen the outsourcing of cleaning services at St. George’s medical college in the University of London as its Principal in 2006, Michael Farthing was appointed as Vice-Chancellor at Sussex in 2007. Farthing’s appointment came in the wake of his predecessor, Alasdair Smith’s decision to stand down following his failure to close the Chemistry department after widespread dissent from staff and students. It hardly seems a coincidence that Smith’s failure and Farthing success in making cuts provided the backdrop for the change of management. Moreover it is notable that this move towards privatisation, therefore, pre-dates not only the 2010 reforms to HE and tuition fee hike, but even the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008.



Since 2007 services across the Falmer campus have been gradually yet relentlessly restructured. A comprehensive history of this restructuring is however difficult to write given its very nature – namely, that the process has been one of slow attrition occurring alongside the separation of services into discreet sections within the university. The accumulative effect is that workers in any one service experience similar degradation in their working lives while becoming less able to identify concomitant and simultaneous trends in any other. The reordering of services undertaken over the duration of Farthing's reign makes each area neatly saleable, whilst eroding the abiltity of workers to organise against the changes.


Long before outsourcing was announced, caterers were already experiencing the working ‘freedoms’ of zero-hour or short-term contracts. Similarly, porters’ overtime pay has been abolished: its replacement with flexible shift patterns means the University conveniently avoids paying the full pension contributions that would be entitled to a porter working the same hours across five days. Such trends are exemplary of other changes to conditions experienced by workers across the University which do not bear listing here. What is salient in this restructuring, rather, is the designed intensification of labour in many areas, and the depression of wages within each. While the University invests heavily in infrastructure, opening the £29 million Jubilee building (principally for the School of Business, Management and Economics, and Science Policy Research Unit) just months after the ‘efficiencies’ sought in outsourcing were declared, the expenditure on ‘variable capital’ (i.e. staff wages and conditions) is significantly reduced. Ultimately, the outsourcing project hopes to see this expenditure nominally abolished altogether.


The refusal of Sussex management to involve or consult affected staff regarding the proposed outsourcing has been widely touted as an instance of foul play on the part of the University. The recently-evicted occupation of Bramber House in particular included this among its main grievances against Farthing et al. While the desire for greater worker participation in decision-making processes is sincere and many respects commendable, it is difficult to conceive of how things could have been done differently. Outsourcing represents an attempt by capital to divest itself of the inconvenience of its own workforce. Neither Sussex management nor any other representative of capital can simultaneously recognise a labourer while pursuing her actual abolition. The ‘Report from the Facilities Management Focus Groups at the University of Sussex, 31 July 2012’ by Magenta Associates, shows this precisely. Not only was this token discussion with staff itself outsourced, but the brief openly declares its purpose to be ‘to ensure that stakeholders feel that their views have been taken into account’ (p.3, emphasis ours). Moreover, the report tellingly cites the deterioration of services on campus over preceding years as a concern for their outsourcing. In other words, their very restructuring in order to become saleable becomes an excuse for their eventual sale – dressing ‘modernisation’ up as the staff-endorsed solution to the problem it in fact creates.


With respect to the recent occupation, a few cursory remarks are necessary regarding its influence on events. On the face of it this occupation is not dissimilar from previous occupations, both at Sussex and in the broader wave of student struggle against rising tuition fees. However, Occupy Sussex has in many respects been more materially disruptive than the majority of these past occupations – both in its immediate presence and, perhaps more importantly, as a centre for further action. The occupation intended to materially impact the running of campus in number of different ways, one of which was to re-appropriate space, recreating a university environment that participating staff and students want to be part of.


Furthermore it aimed to interfere with the daily running of campus by disrupting major sources of income, including the occupied conference centre itself and the various cafés which were temporarily occupied on different occasions. This disruption culminated with a national demonstration against privatisation on Falmer campus on 25 March, which saw students and staff at Sussex joined by others from across the country who, together, destroyed the front of the management building, Sussex House.


Perhaps the most interesting and challenging effect of the occupation, though, was its reinvigoration of a previously stagnating campaign against the privatisation plans. It reignited a sense that it was possible to do anything and provided a space for the blossoming of the then embryonic Pop-Up Union – an attempt by staff to form a self-organised trade union whose purpose is to facilitate workers to take lawful industrial action. The Pop-Up Union was formed in response to the inactivity of the recognised trade unions in the face of the current outsourcing plans and the restructuring leading up to them. While action through existing trade unions has proven difficult, this has owed as much to their structure as much as any potential malaise. The Pop-Up Union, by contrast, is open to all workers, irrespective of their position within the university or existing membership of the recognised unions. Decisions are taken collectively using a delegate system in order to overcome the isolation of different groups of workers from each other which has prevented effective mass-meetings from taking place. If the pop-up proves successful it may present a solution to the real and material circumstances workers face throughout HE (or any pre-privatised workplace). A victory for workers at Sussex could both embolden and provide a working model for other struggles, not just in HE but across all sectors as cuts continue to bite.



3. Three Thoughts on the Recent Protests at Sussex



An Affirmative and Open Spirit


The general affirmative spirit of the Sussex Against Privatisation campaign has been massively inspiring. Despite the fact that students and staff have managed to maintain a steady, productive and creative occupation of Bramber House, while simultaneously building a campaign of ever increasing public support for several months now, what is striking when you hang out there is the real sense of openness and affirmation as to its development. This was particularly notable during and after the 25 March national demonstration, with the ostensible lack – or perhaps, refusal – to collectively condemn, or even publicly discuss, the ‘Millbank’ moment, though it clearly provided the catalyst for the recent eviction. About 30 minutes into the march, a group of protesters smashed their way into Sussex House, the symbolic HQ of management and the university’s administration building. Though the building was empty, the management having strategically organised a meeting offsite, and the administrative staff having left in advance – merely enacting their already existing intangibility as interlocutors for the students – the energy of the protest was then consumed by merely providing bodily presence to maintain the occupation, while a handful of protesters decorated the building with graffiti and then stole and ceremoniously burnt a pile of financial documents. While there will obviously be some protesters who feel disconnected from this act – either because they see it as too concrete, (as direct violence and destruction of property), or else too symbolic, (in its thrashing around for an object that has always already been displaced) – it was not a prominent narrative of the day, nor has it been emphasised since.


On one level, damage to a bit of property is insignificant in relation to the wider campaign. On another level, the completely formulaic and manipulative rhetoric of the establishment, which endlessly attempts to divide the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ protesters, and thus fragment the movement, must be blocked. During the anti-globalisation movement, there was a conspicuous strategy of the ‘diversity of tactics’, an unwillingness to condemn the tactics of different members or groups within the movement and the recognition that the necessary response to the homogenizing impulse of global capitalism is one of irreducible plurality. While it is obviously problematic to simply affirm ‘diversity’ or ‘horizontalism’ as an abstract principle, it seems to have emerged as a significant tendency of the recent UK anti-austerity protests, specifically the student movement and Occupy. As the protests against tuition fees developed, the composition dramatically changed, with the looming EMA vote, the youth club closures, the consolidation of groups such as UK Uncut and the growing participation of young school kids, and a relative generalisation of different forms of violence rendered such rhetoric of division highly problematic, even untenable. The lack of, or refusal to, condemn actions at Sussex becomes even more interesting within this wider context.



Dialectic of Local and National


The final eviction of Bramber House took place on Tuesday (2 April), with the arrest of four students, all of who have since been released. A notable characteristic of the Sussex campaign, despite the very general nature of its object of critique, i.e. ‘privatisation’, has been the insistence of maintaining focus on a few very specific, concrete and localised issues – the outsourcing of 235 jobs and the failure of management to hold any consultation. The recent injunction and possession order acquired by management renders not only occupation, but also any form of protest whatsoever that takes place on campus grounds to be illegal until September. While the spirit of the protesters in the face of the law is clearly defiant, it seems quite possible that Sussex management will be effective to some extent in displacing the unrest, at least for the rest of term, and are obviously calculating that the summer holiday will see the fizzling out of the movement.


One possible result of the injunction is that it may reignite and provide steam for the Defend the Right to Protest campaign, in addition to feeding outwards into national-level ‘Days of Action’ against privatisation. While connecting up with broader struggles is crucial – and, in a sense, the previous student movement can be criticised for their failure to get behind the EMA and youth club closure campaigns – it is perhaps important to disallow a simple trajectory from the local to national level. There is the danger that the management’s displacement of the unrest, and the general proliferation from the local to the national might leave the movement without a firm context from within which to engage with their object of critique. Perhaps after building up energy and momentum on a more national level, it should be retuned directly back to Sussex campus with full force, kind of like a dialectical move between local and general. We at Sussex fight for very specific, local and tangible things, while a gigantic ‘Communism’ banner hovers in the background, delineating our potential horizon.



The ‘Pop-Up Union’


A horizontally organised ‘pop-up union’ was announced during the 25 March protest on Sussex campus, as an attempt to side step the central campus unions and stop the outsourcing of the 235 jobs. The project was initiated by rank-and-file members of the three recognised campus trade unions – UCU, Unite and Unison – and has the additional support of many students. The pop-up union claims that it does not intend to ‘replace’ the recognised unions, but to provide ‘a means for workers across campus to lawfully oppose the outsourcing proposals.’ It conceptualises the need for its generation as ‘a result of management’s refusal to engage meaningfully with staff, students, and the recognised trade unions for over 10 months.’


To some extent, the pop-up union is a clear and direct expression of the current crisis of politics, in which the redundancy, and thus the illegitimacy, of conventional forms of political representation for workers is soberly recognised and announced as such. Conventional union forms are illegitimate, as is implicit within the pop-up union’s statement, because they are not recognised as meaningful by management. The protesters have avoided any simplistic rejection or attack on the union as a representative form per se, but rather keep the redundancy of a specifically entrenched, conventional union formation located within a wider context of analysis. However, there is of course an implicit critique of the conventional union form, and its static entrenchment within the capitalist system, in opposition to which the pop-up union – a menacing jack-in-the-box – articulates the potential power of disconnection, of spontaneity, of horizontalism. Whether this turns out to be anything more than a largely symbolic power is as yet unclear. Little has been said about the pop-up union since its inception, though this could be because they are engaged in the process of consolidating themselves as a legal entity. However, interestingly there has been a recent response by the three central unions on campus, who will hold a meeting on Thursday to discuss an indicative ballot about potential industrial action. Thus the strategically friendly confrontation from the pop-up union might, at the very least, have the effect of provoking, challenging and mobilising the central unions.



4. Afterword: How to Weaponise the Corpse


For the first time in a while, the fixed-capital of Sussex University is attacked and part of it is destroyed. Destruction is never enough. Nothing so far had been enough. That is, nothing that this campaign has done has been enough to convince the cowardly scum in charge of Sussex that they had to play their full hand. Intimations of this as the occupation carries on so long. The last time there was a large police presence on Sussex campus there was a second, vital occupation within a week. The buffoons in charge knew this much so they held off as a banner with the word ‘Communism’ periodically floats off the side of the building.


Then Monday. Things are destroyed, 1,000 people turn out and walk around campus being photographed. Familiar faces are there, familiar masks are worn and the book-bloc claims ‘Paradise Regained: Millbank.’ Negation of the negation: We will Raise the Dead. This is a problem. If there was one thing missing from Monday it was ghosts. The attempt at occupying Sussex House fails, largely due to a lack of planning and also due to the same tired man-voices shouting about the need to defend the home territory from an encroaching, non-existent enemy. So the new is abandoned and the limit for struggle is set. No more chances for that, surely. Inside the new room in the same building there is an attempt at a general assembly whilst two more floors lie unoccupied, journalists arse-dance around and observers perch on radiators singing against bureaucracy. Someone shouts, ‘If anyone thought that the student movement was dead...’ Of course they are wrong. It is dead, but so are lots of things. The question must be how to weaponise the corpse.


So far only the mummified heroes of 2010 have visited. Penny and Jones. On Monday some of those who knew what it meant to suffer that year were also there. To them it was abundantly clear that this was not a resurrection or even an echo. Individuals found themselves ‘all over again’ experiencing the worn out structures of political procedure. Management meet as well and declare that there will be no more protests on Sussex Campus. The corpse no longer has to look alive, it just has to be enclosed long enough for people to go home.


For a moment on Monday the campus was framed with the ‘Communism’ banner that had been debated over for weeks within the occupation. Here the intimation that the actual may fight back against the possible, the variable against the fixed, poppy against memory. From this comes both the police and the injunction, and the possibility of their failure.