The Occupy Movement has already changed the debate. Whereas previously systems such as capitalism or two-party democracy were taken as unquestioned "goods", now the very essence of our political-economy is up for mainstream discussion. In many ways, this was precisely our goal.
For too long, neoliberal doctrine reigned unchallenged. Success or failure were seen as solely the responsibility of the individual; state regulation constructed as a hindrance to be curtailed and reduced to a minimum; the unfettered ‘market’ a wand that would always and everywhere optimise output and distribution. To publicly question these ideas was unthinkable. But no longer.
This is crucial; even in terms set by the liberal-democratic establishment. Few would deny the importance of free flows of information to a well functioning democracy. Yet under neoliberalism, precisely those flows were impeded, as public media became concentrated in the hands of a very wealthy few and universities found their funding slashed. Dominant ideologies were consequently re-hashed and the space for alternatives was closed. We are redressing that balance.
And we’re not stopping there. If we really want to engage the 99% and shake up the system we see as unjust, un-democratic and unsustainable, we must keep moving forward, provoking thought and forcing debate. At Tent City University, Occupy London’s educational arm, we’re doing just that. Every day we host speakers ranging from world-renowned economists to mothers analysing the devastation that austerity has visited on their communities. Every day a few more people gather here and go home asking questions they previously wouldn’t have asked. Eyes are opening and the shackles of apathy are loosening.
But education isn’t just about eye-opening debate. It represents, in our understanding, a radical platform for challenging the very legitimacy of existing power relations. This is happening in at least three ways.
The first relates to our approach to learning. Though many of us come from academic backgrounds, we recognise that the structure of contemporary academia can and does reproduce both the injustices of the dominant political-economic system and the class divisions and inequality on which this rests. As Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire argued, ‘there is no such thing as a neutral education process’. In the context of the contemporary neoliberal ‘marketisation’ of universities, education functions less as a creator of critical, free-thinking human beings and more as a production chain for the integration of the young into the market economy. Related to this, the myth of equal access to education and the process of grade-standardisation has led university qualifications to become a pillar of social hierarchisation. In today’s marketplace, those with a Masters are ‘worth’ more than those without a degree, the accumulation of qualifications thus constituting a path to the accumulation of status, wealth and power.
We reject this. Our motto is ‘anyone can teach, everyone can learn’ and we seek to promote an approach to learning that prioritises process over end-point and values the skills all of us have to share and the capacity all of us have to learn. Our workshops are therefore given by bicycle mechanics and electricians as well as by academics, and every speaker sits among the crowd as we discuss what has been said. What matters here is not the graded piece of paper; it is the process of learning and the new directions which emerge from it.
This relates to our second challenge – to break down some of the communication barriers constructed by the dominant status quo. While research increasingly reveals that humans are hard-wired to be empathetic, recent neurobiological studies have demonstrated that empathy is reduced by lack of interaction and mobility across social groups. In our society, these divisions are especially acute. We believe this to be a significant contributing factor to injustice and inequality. And so by creating a space in which people from all walks of life can come together; by having ex-bankers share stories of the wrongs of their industry; and by having migrant workers tell of the abuses they face as they clean the buildings that house this industry; we strive to challenge and overcome the many forms of division, privilege and discrimination that separate us from each other and prevent us from uniting to overcome injustice. We know that by offering this space we are only just beginning to bridge these divides and we recognize that to overcome them we must listen especially closely to those who have been denied a voice. But what we are attempting to build here is a context in which new collectivities and communities can emerge.
Our third challenge regards the use of public space. Though, intuitively, British citizens may assume they have the right to peacefully assemble at the heart of the nation’s capital to voice grievances and air concerns, in reality they do not. As in city centres across the country, many of London’s nominally public squares and thoroughfares have been parcelled off to private landowners or corporations who have the right to legally exclude anyone from rough sleepers to protesting students. Again, we reject this. And one way in which we contest the authority that underpins it is through our ‘flash teach-outs’ – a combination of education and direct action, where we assemble un-expected and en masse to stage public lectures and host open debates. Already, after the success of our teach-outs in front of the Bank of England, the Corporation of London has fenced off what most previously thought the ‘public’ square outside it. When asked why they had done so, they told us it was to ‘prevent disruption’. If, in 21st Century Britain, public debate constitutes ‘disruption’, then we intend to continue disrupting, because an authority that excludes the people from the people’s land no longer governs with popular assent.
At Tent City University, as at Occupy London more widely, we at may not yet have all the answers; indeed, this may be our very strength. But what we do know is that the system is failing us, and it is here, now and in these ways that we are working towards building an alternative. If you’d like to get involved in any way you choose, please visit our website or come along in person to one of our many talks and workshops.