"No one is going to do this for us, so we'd better get it right"

Why the university occupations are giving students a crash course in political activism.

The defining image of the student occupation at University College London is probably a MacBook. Walk past security, through the corridor plastered with hand-made signs, and into the brightly-lit Jeremy Bentham Room, which is overflowing with students, and you'll be struck by the proliferation of laptops. Clusters of large tables are dominated by them, supporting the core of the UCL occupation: the working groups.

The Media Team are updating Twitter, an important tool that has brought the support of a previously reluctant NUS president. "Outreach" are working on the daily leaflet to persuade fellow students to join us. The "Process" group are untangling the complicated business of helping meetings of hundreds to make decisions. "Events" haven't taken a break for days, filling our schedule with meetings and entertainment. "Escalation", a group dedicated to building the movement, debate the next political action before breaking off to start it. The UCL occupation is constantly working.

These groups are largely composed of new activists. Fired up by attacks on education they've joined with living wage campaigners and union members, long active on campus, to form the backbone of the occupation. They are the social media obsessed, apathetic, celeb-enamoured generation of popular myth. But they're taking the emblems of this stereotype - the laptop, the Blackberry, the internet - and turning them into political tools. And for young people often tarred with the apathy brush, they're intensely hardworking. As a new visitor said to me last night, "you're surprisingly disciplined for a group of students".

It's not all hard work, despite the sense of commitment that gets us out of our sleeping bags every morning. As the temperature drops and the huge windows darken, clusters of tired occupiers enjoy music and comedy, provided by some of our 2,000 Twitter followers who've made the trip to Bloomsbury. The floor is covered with sheets and hunched figures paint our latest slogans on them. One security team comes in to grab some dinner from the communal supplies while another replaces them, carrying the books and playing cards they'll need to fill a four-hour shift. But as the day's work winds down, the discussion continues. With music and dancing in the background we keep talking politics.

This is important - in this space, politics has become not something we consume, then cast away, but a process we have to build for ourselves. There's a feeling of a work in progress here, a work that we own. Coming up against the sharp end of cuts brought the occupiers here. What's keeping us here is not just the struggle to defend education, but an investment in exploring how that can best be done. Fighting cuts and fee rises are our goals, but the ongoing experience of constructing our own movement from the ground up is of equal importance.

Let's not be starry-eyed about this. We're not a new "generation of 68", skipping past cops and holding hands across barricades. Implicit in the reclaiming of what constitutes politics is a hard-edged cynicism. Not about our ability to win, or at least to build something of lasting significance, but about university management, the media, mainstream politics and even "our" national union. When it was announced that the NUS President Aaron Porter planned to visit us, no one jumped for joy. A lot of us might be new to this, but none of us is naïve. As the debate stretches out into the night, as we wake up to another day of hard organising work, we continue precisely because of this cynicism - no one is going to do this for us, so we'd better get it right.

Sofie Buckland is an English Literature student at UCL, and a former member of the NUS National Executive Committee. You can follow the UCL occupation on Twitter here and find out about student actions across the country here.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage