For the University as radicalised space

On Tuesday 13 December De Montfort University will be hosting the Roots of Violent Radicalisation Conference, which has been organised by the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee. I will be speaking in the workshop on how Universities can best counter violent radicalisation. I will make the following four points.

  1. The University has a radical, historical tradition that is politicised, and which enables both deliberation about and the legitimisation of alternative positions. Importantly, these positions might be realised inside the University.
  2. Most radicalism is not violent, but seeks to refuse, negate and push back against marginalisation and de-legitimisation, through tactics of deliberation, denial or disobedience.
  3. Current University tactics against protest mirror the state of exception imposed by the State, and that this reinforces marginalisation and de-legitimisation. Thus, strategies for coercion are being imposed and are kettling scholarly debate.
  4. The University should fight to recover itself as a space for general assembly and deliberation, and that this work should be done in public, in order to engage with the roots to violent radicalisation.

Point one: the radical University tradition. There is a distinct and vibrant strand of radicalism, as opposed to violent radicalisation, that infuses the historic idea of the University. This strand connects Newman’s declaration that the University was a site for the “collision of mind with mind”; to Humboldt’s view that “Education of the individual must everywhere be as free as possible, taking the least possible account of civic circumstances. Man educated in that way must then join the State and, as it were, test the Constitution of the State against his individuality”; and to the student activism of the 1960s and 1970s that led the historian EP Thompson to declare a hypothesis that was against:

a university [that] had become so intimately enmeshed with the upper reaches of consumer capitalist society that [its administration] are actively twisting the purposes and procedures of the university away from those normally accepted in British universities, and thus threatening its integrity as a self-governing academic institution; and that the students, feeling neglected and manipulated in this context, and feeling also – although at first less clearly – that intellectual values are at stake, should be impelled to action.”

And this strand of radicalism connects many other examples of political, scholarly, historical activism: in Oakland; and Santiago; and Turin; and Dhaka; and University College London; and Kent State University; and Manila; and beyond.

Point two: marginalisation and radicalisation on campus. This radicalism is fed, in-part, by marginalisation; by an existence that is de-legitimised beyond the abstraction of money, and where putting students at the heart of the system reveals only the intellectual poverty of a life lived as a consumer, wrapped in the ideological rhetoric of choice, private property, debt and marketisation. This rhetoric then forms the background to the enclosure and removal of historically-accrued, socially-defined goods like free education and healthcare. Thus austerity is exposed as the State’s action against our shared future.

And in response to this marginalisation we see students in a range of contexts taking non-violent direct action that questions the State’s actions and reveals the coercive machinery of its power. Much of this work of protest is done in public spaces through marches and occupations, and Judith Butler has argued the importance of these radicalised, public movements:

When bodies gather as they do to express their indignation and to enact their plural existence in public space, they are also making broader demands. They are demanding to be recognized and to be valued; they are exercising a right to appear and to exercise freedom; they are calling for a livable life [sic.]. These values are presupposed by particular demands, but they also demand a more fundamental restructuring of our socio-economic and political order.”

This point reflects the politicisation of both the form and the content of our institutions, and a process of indignation or radicalisation. As the activist Pierce Penniless argues:

We are living in an extraordinarily hot political moment, in which people’s politics are changing rapidly – and in which systemic popular dissent is more visible than it has been for a long time. That it is systemic is most interesting: for all the reductive slogans about bankers and their bonuses, the political conversation that emerges in the camp is far more about systemic change than some peculiar bad bankers.”

Point three: the coercive University in a state of exception. In a reprise of historic activism, we see students marching and subsequently being kettled or maced or receiving official letters from the Police ahead of future demo’s or being threatened with baton rounds; we see students using the historically-situated tactic of occupation, in order to protest their opposition through general assemblies and teach-ins, and being classed as terrorists or extremists, and having services denied to them. Or we witness our educational leaders as supine or quiescent in the face of the brutalisation of our young people by the State. Their silence is deafening.

And now we see the Universities of Sheffield and Birmingham and Royal Holloway (University of London) in the UK seeking or obtaining High Court injunctions banning any form of protest on their property. Against this criminalisation and de-legitimisation of dissent and the creation of a state of exception on campus, Liberty have argued that “The right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy and this aggressive move hardly sits well with our best British traditions of academic dissent… Universities should be places where ideas and opinions can be explored [my emphasis].” And the written evidence submitted by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies to the Parliamentary Inquiry on the Roots of Violent Radicalisation echoes this point:

Universities play a key role in challenging prevalent ‘wisdom’ as well as debating and researching controversial topics. The ‘values-led’ approach to the revised strategy risks harming legitimate grievances being aired on campuses and could have a significant damage on intellectual debate and research as well as the international reputation of British universities.”

Thus, these English Universities’ attempt to criminalise the politicisation of the form of the University. They attempt to de-politicise its form whilst its content is being politicised through its marketisation. The inscription of a hidden curriculum of debt and consumption within campus-life is coupled to the de-legitimation of any counter-argument that confronts or refuses or pushes back against their power over where scholars might assemble and what they might discuss. We surely have better strategies than marginalisation and overt coercion with which to accommodate difference?

Point four: reclaiming or re-legitimising Universities as radical spaces. Against the neoliberal constraint on what can legitimately be fought for, University communities might consider how they share stories that reclaim the breadth of their common histories and social relationships. This process might usefully be developed using open technological systems. This is important because universities have much to contribute to a public discussion of how cultures protect the richness of their ecosystems, which in turn helps us to describe alternative worlds, and to accept that much of our present is shaped by historical struggles that are valuable precisely because they are political. Thus, we learn not to accept dominant narratives as given, or neutral, or beyond our collective wisdom to re-define in a legitimate manner. And our non-acceptance is not seen as radicalisation.

Which brings us to an engagement with and understanding of violent radicalisation. Universities, in terms of both their management and the communities of scholars that management is meant to facilitate, need to engage with issues of marginalisation, legitimacy and power, and to do this democratically and in public. It is not enough to de-legitimise all protest as extreme unless it conforms to proscribed norms, in prescribed spaces that are too often private. As the historian John Tosh has argued, differences need to be deliberated:

Few things would make for a more mature understanding of current affairs than an awareness that the relevant historical perspectives are themselves the subject of debate – particularly if those controversies bear on the present. It then becomes possible to think outside the box – to challenge the spurious authority of single-track thinking.”

In this process we uncover what is legitimate, and we reveal what we collectively are willing to bear in the name of freedom. What we are willing to bear has to be negotiated communally, through a process that re-legitimises the politics of both the form and the content of the University. This demands trust and consent rather than coercion, a discussion that is more vital to the idea of the University in a world that faces not just economic austerity but socio-environmental crisis. For it may be that we risk enduring a semi-permanent state of exception if we do not find the courage to deliberate the reality of our world. EP Thompson recognised this courage emanating from a radicalised student collective, and saw in it a glimpse of redemption beyond economic growth:

 “We have been luckier than any of us had the right to deserve in the quality of our students. They took the initiative. They asked the right questions. They began to understand the answers. They stood firm against rhetoric, against threats, against the special pleading of those with large interests to lose. They have – by now in scores – put their academic careers at risk. It is they who have reasserted the idea of a university. They may well need help.”

This was echoed forty years later by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies when they argued that we need to open-up the debate against and beyond the permanence of exceptional circumstances, in order that “The autonomy of universities as places of free speech and expression should be preserved.” It is in this struggle that the University as a community of scholars should fight to recover both its history and its self-realisation as a public space for the discussion of legitimacy, marginalisation and power.