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Sharing the pain?

Why the coalition's cuts agenda draws on a masochistic streak in English culture.

"Keep Calm and Carry On." The appeal of this particular piece of credit crunch kitsch may now be on the wane, as protestors take to the streets, but since the first announcement of the coalition's austerity programme, we have been repeatedly subject to a similar kind of official rhetoric.

The exhortation that we "share the pain" of the cuts, recognising that "we are all in this together" has promoted a strange kind of collective masochism. That tells us a great deal about the assumptions which inform the coalition's agenda and that of the constituencies whose interests it represents.

A powerful strain of English sentiment assumes that pain is the only thing that can really be shared. It holds that just as the only real joys in life are private, personal, domestic and commodifiable, the only thing that society is good for is shielding us against the threat posed by other people. This is an ideology whose lineage goes back at least to the work of the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who pioneered the now widely-held assumption that the natural inclination of human beings was to kill and steal from each other, and that the only role of the state was to minimise the violence with which they did so.

This way of looking at the world informs both the joyless puritanism of Victorian culture and the manic narcissism of contemporary consumerism. What they all exclude from our range of possible experiences is any notion of collective joy, of human togetherness as a site of creativity and mutual empowerment. From the perspective of this tradition, all sharing is a little bit painful, and pain is the only thing that can really be shared.

Another 17th century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, tells us that pain always involves a diminution of our capacity to act, a reduction in power which is at once physical and emotional, just as pleasure and joy always involve an extension of our collective or individual capacities. This illuminates the current situation perfectly. What are we being asked to share in, if not a significant reduction in our collective capacity to act?

The coalition enjoins us to embrace impotence in the face of a historic assault on the remaining institutions of British social democracy. It asks us to accept the inevitability of a world in which Philip Green doesn't pay his taxes and half a million public sector workers lose their jobs. Much of the rhetoric of the Big Society is similarly concerned with reconciling us to the loss of public goods, at our own expense (as satirised brilliantly here).

At the same time, the government's proposed "happiness" index, like most of the happiness industry (from self-help literature to cognitive behavioural therapy) will doubtless assume that to be happy is to be safe at home with a few friends and a nice glass of wine in the evening. The idea that joy and fulfilment might depend on a collective, public and open-ended capacity to collaborate with others is deliberately overlooked.

It's this, perhaps, that is the most insidious dimension of the proposed "reforms" of universities which we are fighting this week. For these reforms seek to individualise and commodify the relationships which make up the process of higher education; despite the fact that education is a process which in truth can only ever be joyful as long as it is creative and can only be creative as long as it is collaborative.

Here at the University of East London, many of us have decided not to keep calm or carry on. Despite our vice-chancellor's welcome and articulate opposition to the government's cuts, the university has begun to roll out a programme of (so far voluntary) redundancies without any consultation with staff unions. At the same time, voided elections to the students' union - declared illegitimate last Spring - have still not been re-run, leaving students without any elected representation.

In response to the local and national crisis, occupying students have called an Emergency General Assembly for Wednesday 8 December. On the same day the Centre for Cultural Studies Research is holding a public seminar on "the politics of pain" with presentations from Kate Pickett, Michael Rustin and myself.

UEL is arguably a test case for the next wave of anti-democratic managerialism across the public sector. What's more, with one of the least wealthy and least white student populations in Europe, it's one of relatively few Higher Education institutions in Britain which even vaguely resembles the rest of the country in its social mix. What happens to the protest movement here will be crucial.

Everyday life and culture - from the busy streets to Glastonbury festival, from the dancefloor to the seminar room, from Facebook to the Women's Institute - is full of instances of collective invention and self-organisation. The new anti-capitalist politics which is re-emerging in the university occupations and on our high streets has many sources to draw on for inspiration and enrichment.

But if we want to find social and institutional models which can express the radical potential of all these phenomena, then it will not be enough, even in the universities, simply to defend the status quo, clinging to the faded relics of 20th century social democracy. Rather, we will have to initiate a new wave of institutional experiments which aim to de-commodify knowledge in new ways and enable new forms of democratic collaboration between students and teachers, and in the governance of the institutions themselves.

Jeremy Gilbert is a reader in cultural studies at the University of East London. A recording of the "Politics of Pain" seminar and a longer version of this paper will be posted soon at http://culturalstudiesresearch.org/