Thoughts on the Sussex Occupation as Dead End

Members of the Queer (in) Crisis collective question the Sussex occupation and demos as empty forms and traditions, and discuss how to maintain the toxicity of protest.

The current occupation at Sussex University is in its fifth week, with no signs of ending. The management remains comfortable with its presence and unwillingness to force an eviction. In a recent interview Sussex University Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing stated the following:

I respect students’ right to voice their opinions, and we always have done, and Sussex has been a place where people have been critical of a whole range of issues from management to government. Providing protests are peaceful, providing they’re legal, and providing the students are safe we have freedom of speech here and we allow people to express their views … . If it wasn’t [legal and safe] we would have taken action to bring it [the current occupation] to a close, and we’ve done that in the past when we have been concerned about legality and safety.

Like Farthing, it is possible to read this occupation as the continuation of a tradition of particular modes of activism at the university. Occupation has established itself as the predominate and normative tactic for student protesters on campus. Over time, this form of action has depreciated in significance, becoming a deradicalised and safe expression of student criticism. Perhaps the occupation is now a legitimate form of protest, expected, even welcomed. To what extent is the current occupation permitted, and to what extent does that permission manifest itself as neutralization?

Over the last few years, occupation as a tactic has increased sharply, spreading memetically between differing struggles. While the occupation initiates the visceralities of communality, providing a space to imagine alternative ways of living and practicing, its suitability and political efficacy for this particular crisis are in doubt. The recurrence of occupation at Sussex has resulted in a process of normalization. It is diluted by liberal accretions to the point of semantic satiation, with each repetition reducing the anxieties and intensities of the form. In an article exploring Tahrir Square as meme, The Deterritorial Support Group (DSG) state,

The tactic [of taking squares] also becomes problematic when the form of the protest, the driving force of the idea of “the Square” starts to become its content; when “taking the space” replaces any discussion of what is being attempted, what aims are and what processes are fit to achieve those aims… . This is a key component in the life of a meme– the content is emptied out of the meme until all that remains is a self-reflexive closed network, relevant only to those who already understand, incapable of communicating new ideas or pushing for change.

Without a critical engagement of the processes fit for our aims we cannot hope to achieve those aims. The occupation does provide a venue to consider modes of political engagement and participation, such as consensus-decision making and what one participant recently described as, ‘innovative forms of leadership (apersonal, horizontal, with multiple heads, random selection, and regular swapping of roles)’. However, as DSG warn, when those processes become ends in themselves, ‘A self-congratulatory atmosphere ensues, with the very simple task of making decisions equitably becoming seen as a “victory” … rather than a basic component of non-coercive human interaction’.

Sussex University has always been at the forefront of student activism. However, this expectancy comes with its negative aspects. In what ways does the immediate concern to take action arise out of a sense of historical responsibility to the University’s so-called traditions, invented as they are?

Protest by Sussex students in 2010…

We suggest that the performance of particular forms of action at the university is determined by an intellectual and culturally left-wing university climate that fosters liberal inclinations and encourages “radical” experimentation. This climate favours a particular aesthetic which, practiced and emptied of content over generations, produces actions such as the current occupation. These lack a critical interrogation of the particular resonances of the form and its efficacies. The actions of past students within these traditions and cultures inflate the symbolic value of the occupation as form, while current students replicate forms of action conducive to an aesthetic and coherent student ‘Sussex’ identity that distorts the meaning of legitimacy. Without content, this form of action is easily tolerated and there is no need for management to bring it to a close.

The occupation is compromised. It is no longer dirty but sanitized and management is immune to its effects. It is predictable, can be forecasted and monitored, maintained and tolerated. (Similarly, students can tolerate this interruption on the ordinary progression of their lives as a productive experience without risk). The occupation as form is no longer unmanageable but is employed as a prophylactic agent within the university body. The toxic content of the campaign against privatisation’s aims is reified by the form of the occupation, as a symbolic value profitable for management. We could even call this a process of real subsumption within the social or university factory.

Let us expand on this notion of toxicity. The current occupation is the manifestation of a conflict between members of the university body and the regulatory administration. A particular group of students and staff have taken a position that threatens the ordinary processes of capital; they have become toxic. Toxins are threatening entities that exist outside, and they are threatening because of their capacity to cross the boundary between outside and inside.

The discourse of capital invokes the notion of the toxin—consider the phrase “toxic assets”—to describe financial assets for which there is no longer a functioning market. By this we mean, these assets are still within the market but have diminished in value so much that they exist outside productive processes of exchange. They no longer exist as capital. During the “financial crisis” of the early noughties, people were being “allowed” to remain in homes on which they had stopped paying the mortgage while banks were sitting on the foreclosure process. These subprime mortgages remained tradeable assets on the financial market. However, when those evicted homeowners  remained in their recently foreclosed homes, they did so ‘in occupation’. At this point the asset became toxic.

How does the asset metaphor work when considering the current occupation of the Conference Centre at Sussex University? Students in occupation should be considered evicted homeowners: by refusing to leave the metaphorical foreclosed home, they prevent the forced sale of the home itself, which makes the asset toxic.

Instead, however, the students in occupation are the very asset that is being sold. The occupation has been reconfigured in terms of symbolic capital. The university transforms student activism into symbolic capital that is then used to leverage potential investment by future students. With the increase in fees, the university’s potential for political prestige is materialised as more money in the back pockets of the administrators. Our intimate crises become tradable cash prospects.

The postcard back of the previous picture, distributed at 2012 Graduation ceremonies

Let us not be mistaken, the occupied space is a loan. In this case, in what sense is it not performing?

Management have loaned the occupiers the space in order that they further the image and credence of the university through practice—let us call this an investiture in a credit-debt contract. This credit-debt contract is then sold on to potential new students, or those about to invest in the university, as an unreality or an action stripped of meaning.

The actual space, or the conference centre, exists as collateral in this production of symbolic capital. How can we realise the potential toxicity of this credit-debt asset? How can we make this a crisis for prospective students?

We must actually win whereby student activism as an asset becomes toxic. We propose that occupiers stop acting symbolically with respect to the occupied space or occupation—occupiers must demonstrate an inability to pay back the loan under the terms set. We must occupy a foreclosed space by refusing any symbolic value. By that we mean an immediate end to the symbolic meaning of the occupation and a return to its material basis. While the space is being used for great things such as teach-ins, etc., it is paying on its loan by contributing to the political prestige of the university’s image—its toxicity is merely a potentiality.

To what extent is it helpful to think of the management as invested in the political traditions and reputations of the university? Do not imagine that the university body exists for management as anything other than a bullet-point in their curricula vitae, or securitisation on their escalating mortgages. Management is continuing to extend the terms of the loan. The VC has openly accredited the occupation to the university’s legacy of radicalism, invented as that is. The administration refuse to recognise loss; there is zero political will for open acknowledgement of toxicity, and thus toxicity remains a potentiality.

This management of crisis always threatens to become the crisis of management themselves. A toxic asset is an asset in crisis, positioned just at the edge of liability. Toxic assets always stand on the edge of death, where death occurs as the loss of capital, or capital’s loss. Management are managing their own death; they are lying about the value of the occupation—meaning is being stripped from action. When we push the boundaries of this form they are quick to reconfigure themselves to contain us. Tradition and reputation occur as a process of recuperation. As UC President Mark Yudof once said, ‘being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery…’. The political tradition of the university’s dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the current student “activists”. Our political actions have been commodified and our activities become dead labour.

An example of this dead labour is the production of symbolic value in the demo. The demo works in the mode of the spectacular as a symbolic demonstration of presence and solidarity. The value of the demo lies in a distinct aesthetic amenable to the university’s branded image. This aesthetic is moulded by appeals to media representation. Building for demos becomes a constant and laborious process of production. The demo belongs in the realm of the image: all that was once directly lived has become mere representation.

The occupiers are particularly reliant on the demo form and this is telling. They insist on attributing to the demo a determinative or permissive quality that limits the possibility for action after it. For the occupiers, all action must occur as a result of the demo because actions can only be justified by the quantitative demonstration of support at the demo. This promissory quality stems from a privileging of the quantitative element itself, as a liberal populism. Larger numbers also dilute individual responsibility and accountability for actions and their potential ramifications.

The demonstration of solidarity at the demo itself manifests as a form of patriotism. The soft nationalism of chants, such as “Sussex united, will never be defeated,” provide confidence for the occupiers in their actions; this implies that the occupiers are invested in a university community conceived as a university-homogenizing sovereign with a coherent and stable identity that they can always rescue from corruption. Attributing to the university community a sense of homogenized sovereignty allows the occupiers to consider it as subject to external and coercive forces. The form of the demo reinforces this construction by becoming a form of ‘three-dimensional lobbying, or a moral pressure’ generated by numbers.

To some extent management find it politically expedient to leave their status as “enemy” unchallenged. Not only does this prompt a kind of cathartic form of protest, one without material results, it also reinforces the perceived value of the demo itself. It means that there is no critical acknowledgment by heuristic individuals of their own implication in the production and reconstruction of neoliberal economies. The actions of the occupiers are not infallible.

The demo becomes a form of protest that management can recuperate: like the occupation of Bramber House, the demo is not toxic. Perhaps our goal is to produce a state of intoxication—to shift the ordinary perception of modes of protest by increasing our critical concentration. To reiterate, we call all those in the occupation to reconsider how their political actions on-campus are valued. It is time to move away from the chauvinism of demos and the stagnancy of the occupation. Refuse image. Become unmanageable.



  1. March 16, 2013 at 9:42 pm · Reply

    Intoxicating Ideas!
    We love your timely analysis and your call for new paths and methods.
    Here are out thoughts on some first steps towards March 25.

  2. Maïa Pal
    March 17, 2013 at 3:12 pm · Reply

    Comment reposted from Joseph Kay:
    I haven’t really been involved enough in the occupation to know the internal dynamics. I think it’s important to acknowledge that many of our struggles simply become marketing blurb in future prospectuses. And of course, they can also adopt stale ritualised forms. That said, from a staff point of view, the occupation (and attendant yellow everywhere) has disrupted the sense of fatalism carefully cultivated by management, ably assisted by Unison.

    It would be easy to overlook the fact management did not want the occupation to continue. It was force – mass entrance to reinforce the occupation – which made them concede open access. Sure, they can now adjust to the new normal, and try and convert the occupation into symbolic capital, but behind that willingness is a balance of power – i.e. after last time, they know calling in the riot cops would backfire.

    So it’s possible that balance of power is in a stalemate, and ritual is kicking in. Ultimately, struggles must expand or die. Movements can’t stand still. To that extent, I think this piece is important, but i also think it’s perhaps too focused on students. Nothing students do will win this fight: workers’ self-organisation will.

    Now, I’m not saying that in a really workerist way. I think student-staff co-operation is essential and necessary. But management will likely be able to bulldoze this through if staff aren’t able to assert themselves collectively. In other words, to break with the ritualised stalemate requires a shift in the balance of power away from management, and a shift in the locus of struggle from student occupations to staff action.

    I’d also say, from a staff point of view, the demos can be a really important opportunity to find one another, to identify fellow militants, to chat, to meet people from other departments etc. I’ve spent most of my time on demonstrations having these kind of conversations. It may prove too little too late, but I think there’s more going on than just ritualistic rites of passage for student radicals. Maybe the call to “work silently” overlooks, perhaps inevitably, the huge amount of silent work which has been going on, but is yet to find its voice.

  3. Stuart King
    March 18, 2013 at 3:29 pm · Reply

    Reading this makes one yearn for a Campaign for plain English amongst students and socialists!

    Cutting through the post-modernist jargon this contribution is basically saying the occupation has gone on too long, is being tolerated by management and that demos don’t help. The problem is it suggests no action based alternative.

    We should take the opposite view. The occupation at Sussex has been a beacon in the struggle against privatisation at Universities up and down the country. The persistance of students and staff in maintaining the occupation is only to be praised.

    Of course occupations run their course, as do all campaigns. It is up to the occupiers to decide when they end it and move on to other tactics. Was it, is it, possible to link the occupation to strike action by the campus workers under threat? Strike action combined with a mass student and community campaigns aimed at forcing the management to retreat could be successful. Demonstrations national and local show support and solidarity for the actions, they raise morale and put pressure on the University authorities to retreat.

    The above article is purely negative and pessimistic. See you al at the national demo on 25 March.

  4. Sam
    March 18, 2013 at 10:13 pm · Reply

    This is a highly insightful and timely intervention – and raises the issue which seems unspoken among its participants and supporters with an uncomfortable degree of accuracy. However, I find – from the perspective of a supportive outsider – that these issues are already tacitly addressed in practice.

    I would tentatively agree that the occupation as it stands has ceased to be unmanageable, and that the ‘self-congratulatory atmosphere’ has troubled me over the last couple of weeks. Having taken the space, early successes in generating media attention and engaging positively with the wider university community may have given rise to the appearance of exhaustion as time has passed. Yet this may be inevitable, as the initiation of a such a dramatic development (which it remains for many less active and jaded members of the student corpus at least) constituted a break from the norm of campus life, while its concentration in a single location soon gave it the character of the ‘new normal’ once the initial flurry of newspaper articles and celebrity endorsements slowed.

    Due solely to my position as a tutor, ‘my’ students past and present who are involved in the occupation have maintained a touching and arguably misguided tendency to think, as supportive as I am, I might have something to offer in analysis which goes beyond their own. But I think their tendency to ask where I think it’s going & how it will end suggests that many of the concerns related to the ‘prophylactic’ nature of the form of the strategies of conflict raised in this thought-provoking article are being turned over in the minds of the occupiers already.

    Some of the actions we have seen to date show that this is the case. Increasing the mobility of the occupation in pursuit of VCEG activities on campus, and targeting the events intended to market the University to donors and ‘customers’ are a forward step in ensuring that this new normal remains a direct affront to the management. For what it’s worth, my view is that this is a strategy which is effective and could escalate this confrontation significantly while enhancing its vitality, or ‘toxicity’.

    The University’s effort to turn activism into literal capital has been a hallmark of the half-centenary year. Yet it’s not the main drive. Utilising the ‘radical tradition’ of Sussex to flog degrees to the next generations – reconfiguring themselves to contain us, as you have it – it is a cynical footnote to the main drive towards growth, focused on business and management students from overseas rather than the diminishing number seeking Sussex out as a destination for critical scholarship. This is a far more problematic aspect, as it is this move which will further marginalise critical research and teaching in the social sciences as budgets are skewed in the direction of explicitly capitalist forms of knowledge production. In emphasising that the occupation is taking place in a space that the VCEG is making no effort to reclaim, you open yourself a little here to the charge you lay at the door of the conference centre: of privileging form beyond content.

    I feel that some nuances of the ‘toxic asset’ metaphor may be important, and agree that the extension of the metaphor may well, as you intimate, have the potential offer a solution to the problem of the sublimation of dissent.

    Firstly, the VCEG did not seek to ‘loan’ this space, it was taken. The non-performing assets the metaphor describes were deliberately sought by the financiers, who inverted the process of ‘redlining’ – excluding low income groups – to actively seek out their debt, which delivered a higher return precisely due to the risk it carried. Though the VCEG does speculate on the capital of campus politics, it does not seek the kind of confrontation that the occupation entails, and this is exactly why it is making such a concerted effort (with some success) to absorb the critique. Their weasel words (claiming that numbers are smaller than they are, claiming that the 235 don’t support it, Duffy’s Lies ™ in national newspapers) and dirty tactics (seeking to suppress expressions of support, ignoring UCU reps) show that this is already a higher risk than they anticipated.

    Secondly, as my note on ‘redlining’ suggests, the default of a percentage of these high-risk debtors was built in to financiers’ calculations from the outset. These anticipated defaults were not toxic in themselves, much as the simple presence of the occupiers is not toxic. What made default toxic was the dispersal of such assets through the financial system. The upcoming national demonstration on the 25th may begin to help to enhance the ‘toxicity’ of protest by expanding its scope beyond our campus and bringing greater attention to management actions. For the same reason, a return to the strategy of wildcat occupations may have a greater impact by overcoming the protest’s implicitly negotiated confinement. Perhaps these measures, already undertaken by students, could go some way to reclaiming the material basis of the protest?

    Finally, I agree the ‘Sussex united’ chant is problematic. The campaign doesn’t move the cash-cow business students, the union representatives of the 235 are criminally supine, and simply keeping your ears open around campus will deliver the news that many are not sure what outsourcing means never mind how it relates to the broader problematique of austerity, or are negatively disposed to the campaign.

    Yet for all its problems, I can only back its intentions: seeking to stress the way in which the policy of outsourcing will affect everyone on campus and expand the support base of the movement doesn’t equate to chauvinism. The occupation & the demos are making the space for these issues to become more than the domain of the activists who have been the backbone of the campaign in its various iterations since the school reorganisations, redundancies, and strikes of 2009 – in the face of union failures and neglect. Not to mention management bullying. Providing a rallying point for groups wider than this across all walks of campus life and work is incredibly important and should be seen as a major achievement.

    This iteration of the confrontation with management is far bigger than the last, and is actually targeting the key issue rather than narrow union politics. It may fall within the rubric of a partially co-opted tradition, but that tradition can never be fully sanitised. It may not deal a once-and-for-all blow to management plans, but it’s already transformed management practice and made more space for the student and staff actions which will be necessary in the future.

  5. March 20, 2013 at 6:15 pm · Reply

    Talk face to face with Sussex Occupy this Thurs & Fri
    using Google+ Hangout

    as part of their open day : ]

  6. March 22, 2013 at 6:13 pm · Reply

    When student occupations ran out of steam in the CUNY system, they went and occupied additional buildings and raised additional demands. I’m not saying to go and do this, but sometimes escalation (and the risk of potential defeat) is a better option than a slow, gradual defeat born of a long-term stalemate.

  7. Maïa Pal
    March 23, 2013 at 5:48 pm · Reply

    Some beautiful poetry by a campaigner in defense of the occupation:!

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