Worrying developments, people. I find myself on the side of The Man over the little people, albeit not through choice and not with any ideological fervour. A few weeks back, a horde of angry students, many shouting “Ra ra ra!”, started occupying Bramber House, a conference centre opposite where I work which usually hosts cosmically dull events about paperclips. They stormed the barricades (well, a revolving door) and announced they would not be leaving any time soon.
Initially, there was a policy of containment. No-one was being allowed in and once you left, you were gone. Private security firms, somewhat ironically considering the nature of the event – ‘Sussex Against Privatisation’ – were drafted in to stand by the exits with badges on their arms and emit a general aura of menace, thus proving that private sector contractors give off the humanitarian warmth of a sharp ground frost. After a few days, presumably because the pong of dozens of unwashed students became unbearable, arrangements became much more relaxed and now students swan up and down, apparently taking on ‘shifts’ so they can never be chucked out.
The reasons for the occupation are sound. The University, with all the wisdom and foresight we expect from a leading Higher Education provider, have decided to outsource a swathe of jobs. Clearly, all the evidence, especially that coming from the beef burger industry, suggests that privatisation is always the answer to life’s manifold crises. These proposed changes happen to affect the lowest-paid, hardest-working manual workers on campus and daren’t touch the Vice-Chancellor or the important bods who sit in roomy offices counting post-it notes and holding meetings about meetings.
Apparently, outsourcing these people’s jobs will not result in redundancies, or so management have argued, not entirely convincingly. Quite how they can guarantee this when their actions are explicitly handing control to private enterprise who will then dictate terms and conditions, is never spelt out. The feeble arguments perpetuated by the authorities did not appease the occupiers, and neither did the University Vice-Chancellor’s long-awaited response to the situation. He waited ages before making any kind of public pronouncement over the matter, meaning he probably had more to say about the lack of toilet paper in the staff loos than the occupation for a long while. According to The Guardian “Michael Farthing responded to the protesters by asking them to leave the building in return for a meeting with the registrar, John Duffy”. ‘Cos obviously nothing gets the pulse racing of a lefty, lentil soup-slurping, never-seen-9am student like a meeting with a Registrar. Better crack open the Xanax for that high octane thrill ride.
Mr. Farthing can’t have been serious. The presumption that a protesting student will be satisfied with a meeting – with agendas, minutes and more AOB than you can shake a stick at – beggars belief. There’s no reason for a civilized discussion about the pros and cons of the University’s stance when something glamorous and visible and daring like an occupation is taking place. Instead of fighting over the last chocolate bourbon in the biscuit box and making small talk with people they will be arguing against in a few minutes, they could be swinging from the ceiling, playing party songs and camping in a conference centre commune with dozens of fellow long-haired denizens of the politically active world.
Celebrities like Mark Steel and Josie Long have made their support known, alongside world-famous, all-round excellent person Noam Chomsky. It’s uncertain whether Sussex alumni Frankie Boyle supports the students, although considering his description of Sussex’s brethren as a bunch of “boring cunts” in his autobiography, I suspect he may not speak in glowing terms. Furthermore, ITV and BBC have run news reports about the demonstration which has only served to increase the self-importance of those involved.
All of this fuels the lie that these students are making a difference. It’s quite sweet, really. Only the other day, one of the occupiers shouted from the rooftops that they were “making history” with all the exuberance and unalloyed naivety that you expect from someone who has never participated in Real World Shit. Such is the history-shaping profundity of what is occurring, surely the common question “Where were you when JFK died?” will be replaced with “Where were you when you heard that forty-two students and a boom box invaded a 200-seat auditorium, proceeding to drape flags out of the window and engage in terrace chants?”
Sorry to be so cynical. I sort of wish I was like them, all head-in-the-clouds, idealistic and certain of their convictions. To the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’ they shout “We all live in a privatised machine!” and wonder why people roll their eyes. I work with some of the people protesting and they may read this and be disgusted by my bourgeoisie outlook (I would never use the term ‘bourgeoisie’ but it’s often deployed when you’re left-wing and you’re arguing with a normal person so I’m isolating that line of attack), especially as a couple of them wanted me to sign a petition in blood and jettison my job to join in.
I said earlier I was on the side of The Man. Not quite. On the one hand, I doubt whether this action will make the slightest bit of difference in the end and that’s what stops me from doing anything more pro-active. On the other hand, I admire the spirit of resistance and am partial to a bit of aggro to keep us on our toes. It’s true that I am being inconvenienced by their ploy but not to the extent that I’ll dash into Bramber House with a fire extinguisher and clop every man, woman and child unconscious. I am too amused by the protest to care that it gives me an administrative headache. We have a number of events booked for the conference centre and the protesters don’t look like budging, so I have been busy booking other rooms. It’s a mild hassle to be honest and one that I have no problem putting up with when I see hapless political romantics swooning over the occupation and declaring it the greatest thing they have ever seen.
I despise some of the bullshit jargon that emanates from the University, which argues that there has been an extensive consultation process. The protesters argue that this has been thoroughly non-existent and could not have been less productive unless Michael Farthing shook a Magic 8-ball, asking “Shall I attempt to push through this significant alteration to life at Sussex with reasonable discussion and a mandate?” Clearly he received ‘fat chance’ in response.
Plowing ahead with the plans, the University announced it was involved in “competitive dialogue” with potential companies for outsourced contracts. Competitive dialogue? How does that work? “I see your line about ‘savings’ and I raise you ‘costs and efficiencies’”? On a YouTube video made by UniTV detailing the movement and its aims, some wag in the comments section bellows “SUSSEX WILL NOT BE HIJACKED BY A SIX FIGURE SALARIED SADO-MONETARIST CABAL”, surely a perfect example of competitive dialogue if ever there was one. I’m intrigued about what constitutes a sado-monetarist though. George Osborne in a BDSM nightclub?
Anyway, there it is, I’m caught in too many minds and I don’t feel fully committed to any particular emotion. Admiration, mild annoyance, respect and frustration all play a part in this mad game.