This is the blog of the student occupation/solidarity campaign at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London. Go there for complete information about the UK Border Agency raid on the college’s immigrant cleaning staff, the student occupation, videos and photographs of the protests, press reports, letters of support, and updates on the situation.
Scenes from an Occupation
This is one struggle among many, but for me it also resonates far beyond its own example. In what way? I think this instance makes a strong case that ‘Fortress Europe’ and the immigration controls associated with it in fact constitute a form of class war. As in the US, while employers are all to happy to exploit immigrant labour, they also rely on the state to discipline and attack that labour when it becomes too assertive and organised. I think it also makes the case that any political slogan that divides the working class, such as ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, is a valuable tool of employers for defeating it. Finally, I think it is resonant in another sense. Neal Ascherson once suggested that if you want to see how the government would like to treat us, look at how it deals with immigrants. In this case, the almost Gestapo-like tactics deployed by immigration police (which is absolutely routine) provide the model for crackdowns on all kinds of labour organisation.
Needless to say, universities are not special places, reservations for freedoms absent from the ‘real world’ beyond. But they are institutions whose critical vocation and cosmopolitanism should hold them to certain standards. The students at SOAS have clearly been more faithful to this calling than those who facilitated these arrests or turned the other way. They have demanded of their institution a minimal coherence with its reputation for research on human rights and migration. They have rejected the pervasive cynicism that allows us to be critical in theory but indifferent to, or complicit with, practical abuses of power. They have testified to the idea of universities as places where the questioning of how we’re governed, how we work and how we live together is not a purely speculative pursuit.
If tolerated or ignored, current moves to integrate education, business and the state will effectively make a mockery of any vision of the university as an institution that seeks to foster independent thought and broaden our solidarities. This is true both of the often invisible and precarious labour that makes university life possible and of academic life in general. If the government has its way, universities will become extensions of the border, with lecturers and administrators effectively required by law to monitor their students on behalf of the Home Office. This is not a question of some unique moral mission bestowed on academia. What Friday’s arrests and deportations bring home is that universities are workplaces much like any others, microcosms where all the stresses and contradictions of our society – inequality, the exploitation of migrant labour, the expansion of state power – are manifest. But they are also places where we supposedly foster critical thinking – an activity that is irreconcilable with the callous and hypocritical treatment of the SOAS cleaners.