Protest in Cambridge is as old as the University itselfVarsity

Emma Goldman famously wrote that “If there won’t be dancing at the revolution, then I’m not coming.” In Cambridge, it seems like the attitude is “If the protest isn’t seen by my friends, I’m not coming.”

Protest in Cambridge is as old as the University itself. The University, spawned from a group of breakaway scholars from Oxford, was born from protest. Today, however, it seems that protest is less for change and more for enunciating the individual protestor’s identity. As Lent Term begins, the prospect of a second round of strikes for this Academic year looms. The University and College Union (UCU) had 8 days of strikes in 2019 and may choose to enact another general strike this term.

“...during the strikes, everyone was a socialist, right up until they started worrying about their grades.”

In the 2018 UCU General Strike, I helped fly-post the city, and construct the infamous red fence that blocked off the Senate House entrance. It was good fun – but I was also a first year itching to establish myself with a distinct brand in the view of my peers. This performativity in the protests swept up all those around me – during the strikes, everyone was a socialist, right up until they started worrying about their grades.

Performativity is crucial to striking. Performativity is the concept that we can create meaning through the very utterance of what we say. By protesting against pension reforms in 2018 and 2019, the students were declaring their disdain for the changes. In this way, the protest itself is a force for change. However, protest is also a performance that is seen by others and helps display one’s own identity. Student protests are therefore an opportunity to display ourselves as ‘activists’ or ‘woke.’

The issue here is whether you are protesting for the cause or protesting so as to be seen protesting. The psychology of our generation is one of external validation and abstract factors that define the individual. Marks from exams purporting to represent intellect, awards and prizes to vouch for sporting ability, grades in exams to discern talent. This is corroborated by a social structure of quantified interaction – for example, the quantity of likes on a photo can be equated to levels of popularity. Every aspect of our existence is mediated by the observation and judgement of others.

In this landscape of signs and figures representing us, to appear at a protest takes on a form of currency – it means you are political, whether or not you actually believe in what you’re protesting for.


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The historian David Swift has observed this trend in contemporary Politics, from 2015 (with the rise of Momentum) to present day haranguing ‘tory’ behaviour. He argues that politics and protest are often performed by people for leisure, and that many self-identified Leftist activists are “there through choice, to campaign for abstract issues that don’t affect them or anyone they know.” Whether or not we empathize with the cause we protest for, there is always the niggling sense that we’re also doing it for ourselves. What’s worse, those who don’t protest are deemed unsupportive of the strike, regardless of any personal circumstances that might make joining the strikes impossible.

Within protest, there is the logic of protesting for those who can’t protest for themselves. Alongside this is the idea that protesting is dangerous, and that, to support a cause, you must first make yourself vulnerable. But the University doesn’t care whether you protest or not, nor who you empathize with – for every hour you stand outside Senate House, the monetary sum you represent to the University is uninterrupted. While not every Cambridge protest is centered around the University, showing dissent against it does not interrupt the harsh economic reality that, to Senate House, we are sources of revenue. If you really want to send a message to the University, you should probably refuse to pay your fees. But that doesn’t quite have the same exhibitionist value as being on a picket line.

I wholeheartedly support the fundamental right to protest. But the agency we have in 2020 to enact change is circumscribed by the ever-present, anxiety-inducing need to brand yourself, and powerlessness with which we are entangled in the economy of the University. For these reasons, I chose to help out in 2019 (and will carry on doing so) by making sure my fellow Architecture undergrads don’t get stressed out, pressured or intimidated by the strikes. Authentic solidarity starts with the personal. As strikes loom by again, our actions should be centered on the change we want to enact, not the brand we want to create.

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