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An Experiment in Radical Education

(Image: Demand the Impossible!)

Demand the Impossible! is a new project aimed at helping young people learn about and get involved in radical politics and political activism. It debuted this summer at Goldsmiths College, where twenty 16-19 year olds came for a week-long summer school led by Jacob Mukherjee and Ed Lewis, one of the co-editors of NLP. Jacob spoke to Alex Doherty about the project.

Can you explain to us what the aims of the Demand the Impossible! summer school were, what the course consisted of and why it was targeted at teenagers in particular?

Our stated aim was to “create a network of critically minded young activists.” By “critical”, we meant two things. First, we wanted our participants to question commonsense, ideological assumptions about the world. Secondly, we wanted them to be able to evaluate the various alternative or “Left” positions on how the world is now, how it should be, and how to get there. On top of this, we wanted the young people on the course to see the value and importance of activism: to be inspired by past and present examples of activism, and to be motivated to take action themselves.

The spine of the course consisted of interactive sessions run by Ed and I which sought to take the participants on a journey from a critique of society as it is, to a consideration of how things should be, to a examination of different strategic approaches on how to get there. We tried where possible to do this using an eclectic mix of real-life case studies, such as the struggle of the Ogoni people in Nigeria, the Visteon factory occupations of 2009, the boycott workfare campaign and many more. Alongside our input, a number of expert speakers addressed the young people on issues related to the themes I’ve outlined. Mark Fisher spoke on ideology, Tom Dale gave an account of the Egyptian Revolution, Maeve McKeown ran a session on feminism, Feyzi Ismail took us through the student movement against the increase in tuition fees and Mel Evans spoke about using art in environmental activism. As well as taking part in these sessions, the participants got to experience activism first hand. Some leafleted and petitioned against the arms trade and the depiction of women in “lads’ mags”, others tried to sign up members of the public to an organisation committed to the abolition of capitalism, and one group took part in a direct action protest to highlight Sainsbury’s refusal to pay the London Living Wage. This “taste of activism” was designed facilitate the development of practical knowledge and to demonstrate the emotional impact that involvement in activism can have on those participating. It also fed into a discussion about the value of different strategic approaches. On top of all this, we arranged two evening excursions: to Firebox in Camden for a talk on Palestine by Camden Abu-Dis Friendship Association, and to East London for an Alternative Olympics walking tour. I know of no other educational events organised by Left groups with aims as wide-ranging and ambitious as ours.

Demand the Impossible! was also unique in terms of the participants invited. They were, in a nutshell, ordinary teenagers from working class backgrounds. Very few had any experience of activism and even fewer would have described themselves as leftwing. Some, nevertheless, had been mobilised by the student protests against the increase in tuition fees and the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. We wanted to engage this group precisely because they are generally neglected by the Left. The week was also something of an experiment in this sense: we wanted to see if it was possible to introduce the complex ideas associated with radical politics to people who had experienced neither the relative intellectual freedom of university nor the frustrations of full time work.

Tell us about your political backgrounds and what led you to create this project.

Demand the Impossible! was organised by Ed Lewis and myself, with the involvement of other activists. We are both teachers and NUT activists who met through the anti-war movement at university in 2001. We were both very active in that movement and became radicalised in the process. Ed has been active in alternative media both with NLP and openDemocracy, as well as with Shake!, a youth project about arts and activism initiated by Platform, which was part of the inspiration for the course. I previously co-authored a blog called Left Luggage and organised students and staff against education cuts at the college where I work. We were assisted greatly throughout the week by an activist and aspiring teacher, Holly Rigby (who is now helping to organise Cuts Cafe London), and two “senior participants” – Samia Aziz and Ikram Musa – who are slightly older and more experienced that the other participants. None of us is a member of any political party and the summer school is independent of any party or other organisation.

Demand the Impossible! utilised our skills as secondary school teachers and our interest in developing a more self-critical and pluralistic culture on the Left. Ed suggested the idea of a radical politics summer school aimed at teenagers to me back in January. Since then, we’ve somehow managed to create a course we’re extremely proud of, despite having no resources and relatively little experience of organising an event of this kind.

As I understand it most of the participants came to the course with some interest in activism, but were not already activists in their own right. Is there a danger that such a group could feel that they are being lectured at? How did you encourage independent participation and opinion?

For me, the most pleasing aspect of the week was the way in which the participants’ motivation developed. At the start of the course, many of the participants claimed they were extrinsically motivated: the course would help them get to university or give them something to add to their CV. By the end of the week, every single young person wanted to get more involved with political activism or learn more about radical politics.

The “taste of activism” we offered participants was crucial in developing this motivation. It was clear from speaking with them afterwards that they had found the experience of collective action exhilarating. One young man spoke of how his fear at taking part in direct action turned to a feeling of empowerment once the protest started. All our participants were able to draw lessons about strategy from their experiences. It is interesting that participation in political activity seemed to have a greater radicalising affect than learning about injustice. Ed and I had spoken about how, at the start of our involvement in the anti-war movement, our political ideas had lagged behind the action we found ourselves taking. The same seemed to be true of our participants.

The week was a pleasingly unconventional educational experience both for us and for the participants. Ed and I were able to take at face value some of the educational jargon we encounter in our working lives. We were able to use “discovery” and “kinaesthetic” forms of learning, discussions, role plays and debates to encourage genuinely critical and independent thinking, rather than as tools which tend to simulate such learning, as we act on the managerial prerogative to get students to pass exams. It was also liberating to teach knowledge and skills we felt were intrinsically important, rather than those said to be important by government, employers and universities. The participants relished the chance to use the analytical parts of their brains, instead of mastering “the trick to get the tick”.

We had mixed success in getting participants to adopt a critical attitude to present social arrangements. There was unanimous agreement that a pyramid is the shape that best represents the distribution of wealth and power in society, and most agreed that capitalism was fundamentally exploitative. However, most of our participants stopped short of a full-blown anti-capitalist critique. I think there are two main reasons for this. First, there was a strong faith that Britain is a meritocratic society – even among those most critical of capitalism’s exploitative nature. This faith seems to me to have psychological and sociological routes. Psychologically, to accept that meritocracy is an ideological myth would be immensely demotivating for young people fixated on improving their material situation. Sociologically, the fact that our participants have not had much contact with those from more privileged backgrounds may also have prevented them recognising class barriers. Interestingly, the one area in which our (overwhelmingly female) participants seemed happy to adopt a radical position was on gender and feminism. This might be because they encountered concrete manifestations of patriarchy in their daily lives. Perhaps if we had done more to encourage participants to identify the ways in which capitalism impacts on their daily lives, the anti-capitalist position would have appeared more attractive.

The second impediment to our participants embracing a more radical critique of society was their strong conviction that “there is no alternative”. For some, there was as little point criticising inequalities of wealth as there was criticising the fact that water flows downhill. This belief was linked in a sense with the belief in meritocracy. Since there is no way to alter the fundamentals of our social and economic system, the only course of action is to strive through individual endeavour to make the best of things. The case studies we selected showed that collective struggle can, in fact, bring about change, and many of our participants found them interesting and inspiring. In retrospect, there may have been ways to utilise these case studies to more effectively bust the TINA myth.

In our session on alternatives to capitalism, we presented simplified, schematic visions of different social structures that could humanise or replace capitalism. Most participants favoured social democracy over other alternatives, such as “the participatory model” (drawn largely from the ideas of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel) and “eco-anarchism”. This is not surprising, since social democracy was the least radical and most familiar model we offered (and because we didn’t leave enough time to explore the implications of more radical ideas). Nevertheless, it is encouraging that participants embraced a model of social and economic organisation significantly different from that advocated by Britain’s political class. After all, many on the Left were initially attracted to mainstream social democratic politics, and only became radicalised once their experience of activism demonstrated the limits of this politics.

On the final day of the course, our participants presented campaign action plans that were supposed to synthesise all that they had learned about the impacts of capitalism, anti-capitalist alternatives and approaches to strategy. They came up with some imaginative ideas, including a campaign against gendered children’s toys and one for greater democracy. Ultimately, though, most of the campaigns had fairly limited aims and were predicated on a reformist strategic approach. Again, given our participants’ limited experience of activism, perhaps this is not surprising. Activists do not adopt a more radical approach as a result of abstract choice but because, through reflection or experience, they see the limits of pure reformism.

Looking back on the week as a whole, it is clear that some of our aims for the course were realised more fully than others. We certainly made our participants aware of some of the harmful effects of capitalism. This, along with the empowering experience of involvement in collective political activity, created powerful motivation which can hopefully be harnessed in future. However, we were less successful in developing an orientation towards specifically radical or left-wing politics. One main reason for this, I feel, was that our participants seemed to accept the assumption that the rules and principles governing our society are the result of a tacit agreement between members of that society. Radical left-wing perspectives are based instead on the understanding that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between elites and the rest of us. It is only with this understanding that we can see why the myth of meritocracy is so prevalent, why reformist measures will not alter fundamental injustices and why social democracy in Britain has probably had its day.

This raises the question of how we might have cemented an understanding that capitalism is a system based on conflict. My own feeling it is may have been possible to develop a more radical orientation in two ways: first, by placing more emphasis on taking action during the week, and seeing if that leads to more general insights about the kind of society that we live in (the brief action they did take did indeed help to generate some very interesting ideas). Second, I think in future we ought to encourage participants to reflect upon their own experiences more than we did, particularly in relation to features of society they encounter directly – education, the media and policing (by contrast, we focused a lot on the workplace in trying to elucidate key processes of capitalism).

In any case, we are already planning for the next time we run the course, and looking to grow the network of people involved in order to generate a project that can be increasingly valuable in the future.

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