This is brief account of what happened at the first Demand the Impossible! summer school, held at Goldsmiths College from July 30 – August 3 2012.
Undeterred by talk of Olympic transport chaos, 22 teenagers from across London made the journey to Goldsmiths College for the start of Demand the Impossible! 2012. Organisers Ed Lewis and Jacob Mukherjee, along with volunteer Holly Rigby, were there to meet them. Everyone was wondering quite what the week would hold, even if they’d been planning it for months.
We started by discussing the meaning of some key concepts that we’d be making reference to throughout the week: ‘democracy’, ‘power’, ‘solidarity’, ‘political activism’ and the less familiar phrase ‘radical politics.’ The main aims of the course were introduced – in terms of knowledge and ideas, an understanding of radical perspectives on what is wrong with our society, ideas for how it can be changed and strategies for achieving that change. But the students were most interested in learning that they would also get a taste of what it is like to take part in political activism (more below). Next there was an interactive session on two case studies – the struggle of the Ogoni people against Shell in the Niger Delta, and the Visteon factory occupations of 2009 - which students then related to the key concepts we’d outlined.
After a ‘freegan’ lunch, using food reclaimed from supermarket bins, much to the amusement of many of the students, Mark Fisher came to give a wide ranging talk on capitalist ideology. This opened up a debate on the extent to which modern capitalist society can be regarded as meritocratic, with a number of students, led by Niki, taking Fisher on directly in arguing that we really do live in a society where anyone can “get to the top”. This became a major theme of the following days…
On the Tuesday Jacob and Ed were delighted that everyone came back – in fact the ranks had swelled, as Melody joined us. We spent the morning focusing on capitalism – identifying what it is, what kind of people it creates and what the arguments might be given for and against it. Rosemary commented that after studying economics for two years at A level, she had never really known what capitalism was before, and that she had only seen arguments in favour of production for profit.
In the afternoon, after a critical introduction to British and American foreign policy, writer and activist Tom Dale gave a talk on the revolution in Egypt, where he has been working as a journalist for most of the last year. Tom got the students to discuss the causes of the Revolution and its impact on the Middle East and the wider world.
In an initial evaluative discussion on Tuesday afternoon, Faraz had led the call for a look at alternatives to capitalism. Fortunately, this turned out to be the plan for Wednesday already! Before that, however, we looked at a range of other case studies of activism (ranging from foreign policy-focused campaigns to the student movement of 2010-2011), using them both to develop the critical perspectives of society that were developing and to explore how activism can succeed or fail.
To introduce vision, we asked the students to put down any ideas they had of what a better society could look like by creating a ‘vision wall’.
We then discussed different proposals for changing society – such as establishing a basic income of £20,000, requiring all workers to do a mixture of empowering and routine work and giving wages for domestic work – before looking at models for a different kind of political and economic structure. Most students were attracted to social democratic ideas, but some argued that more radical ideas drawn from socialism, anarchism and ecologism were worthy of more attention. A number of people commented that they had never realised that there were well thought-out alternative models to capitalism.
In the afternoon Maeve McKeown ran a highly interactive session on feminism, using videos about popular culture to illustrate aspects of patriarchy and a theatre workshop, drawing on Boal’s ‘theatre of the oppressed’ techniques.
As if this wasn’t enough, a group of us then went to Firebox in Camden for a talk about the occupation of Palestine by Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association.
Thursday was the day that Demand the Impossible boiled over into something truly special. The day began with action – in the majority of cases, the first political action that any of the students had taken. Most were flyering or petitioning around issues that had come up during the course – the depiction of women in “lad’s mags”, British arms sales to repressive regimes, and even the abolition of capitalism! One group took matters a bit further, and guided by Holly and other volunteer activists, they staged an Occupy-style ‘human microphone’ protest in Sainsbury’s over the company’s refusal to pay the London living wage.
There was a new level of energy in the room after we returned from the streets. The impact of taking action on the students was dramatic. Yousef, who at the start of the morning had feared violent eviction from Sainsbury’s by burly security guards, said he felt fired up and ready to do the whole thing again. Nuseiba, despite trying unsuccessfully for half an hour to persuade a member of the public to sign a petition against the arms trade, said the experience had given her a renewed faith in the power of political activism.
The students spent the afternoon constructing campaign strategies and creating materials for their own campaigns before we went as a group to Stratford for an alternative Olympics walking tour.
The final day of DI started with two exciting presentations, from Feyzi Ismail of SOAS about the student movement and anti-fees occupations, and Mel Evans from Liberate Tate about the art-activist intervention ‘The Gift’, and her route into activism.
Feyzi and Mel then stayed to guide the students to develop their own campaign ideas. The students wanted to focus on cuts to youth services, domestic violence, Islamophobia in the media, negative stereotyping of young people, and the way in which gender identity is imposed on the young. Jessica, Niki and whoever else worked on this proposed as an action plan making toyshops gender neutral.
As the week drew to a close, we also resolved to take a wide range of further steps together. At the start of the week almost none of our students would have described themselves as ‘radical’ or ‘activists’, but every single one was now enthusiastic about getting further involved in radical politics in some way. Proposals included going on a demonstration together, organising some sessions on alternatives to capitalism and getting involved in the Pay Up campaign about the Living Wage.
So – watch this space!