The University for Strategic Optimism is a political and cultural activist group based in London who has been organizing various actions, lectures and disruptive activities in the public space following the drastic cuts of the public sector in England. The group promotes a fairer access to public education whilst offering an alternative based on the principle of free and open education. Following an exchange of e-mail, this discussion took place to talk about about aspects of the group’s activities and echoes Prof. Grave Riddle’s essay The (Anarcho-Capitalist) Big Society, available here.

Benoit Loiseau: So what is the University for Strategic Optimism and how did it come about?

Grave Riddle: I think we’re generally a bit reluctant to give a biography, and it varies a lot to the people in it, it’s quite fractured. But I could give it a go! It started whenever the cuts came about; we had a big meeting in the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths (University of London). There was a lot of talk about what we could do, and we had some ideas about actions, like bank occupations and this sort of stuff. It kind of developed from week to week, not really with any direction. Then we came up with a name, we had different actions, and it was more about how to ‘package’ it. You know… Distribute it.

BL: It’s a quite a well organized group…

GR: Well, I think it’s very loose. It started out loose; whoever turns out, from week to week… Action gets organized, then we see who can do it. There’s no ‘standard’ for political action. There are issues to do with international students for example, regarding what they can and can’t do (in terms of their rights/visas). They wouldn’t want to risk being deported, for example. And some of us aren’t really into ‘the action’, although we are all quite reactive in a way and we do engage quite critically. There’s a writing group as well; it depends on who has the time, and how pressing certain issues are. Before Christmas it was pretty quick and intense, you needed to get something together in time, before the final vote on the cuts.

BL: So how many people are we talking about, roughly?

GR: Well at one point we had a full room, it must have been about 50 people. Then you know, it goes down to ten or nine people. I mean, the involvement has been going in different directions. There has been a lot of involvement in journals/publications and with affiliated groups, or other political activist organisations… So it’s a lot of people doing stuff, and we get a lot of e-mails from people asking to contribute to talks, actions, classes and so on. We did an action recently in co-ordination with The Art School in the Art School1. They wanted to do a synchronized action, and they did this sort of complementary action in New York, in the same format as ours.

BL: That’s very interesting, how was it organized?

GR: It was self-organized. They e-mailed us before, asking if we’d like to be in an exhibition called ‘I know you know I know you know’ at Hunter College's Times Square Gallery. So we said yes, not really knowing if it was going to happen. I think we kind of left it at that, and then we did ours, and put it on the Internet, and then they did theirs… That was really amazing.

BL: So what type of actions have you done so far?

GR: Well, we’ve done the bank occupations, and the lectures in them. We did one at Lloyd’s TSB, Borough High Street, London (November 24th 2011, Inaugural Lecture); then we did another one at Coutts’ Head Office, on The Strand, Central London; and we did the Conference on Violence during one of the student protests, where we did some speeches, and spoke to police officers… So we held this conference within the protests, in central London.

BL: What kind of space were you in? Was it just outside in the crowd?

GR: Well the idea was to do it within the ‘kettle’, but I think it happened in different parts during the day, some of it was just walking around, doing some reporting, some of it was doing speeches to, also trying to interview the police officers.

BL: There seems to be an intention, in your actions, of reclaiming the public sphere, or at least what could be considered public or available space—as opposed to privatization—for self-organised modes of learning or socialising. I suppose that’s a direct response to the cuts and the political climate, but do you feel that there’s a sustainable form of action that is developing or is it more about making a instant statement?

GR: Well I suppose that there’s definitely a common principle of reclaiming the public space. And that comes from the cuts, but the cuts are really just an open statement from the conservative, new-coalition - whatever you want to call it—political drive. It’s in dialogue with the Big Society, the vague concept that we wanted to attack—according to them, it’s like a balance, so they increase the fees instead of paying for it, it practically means the privatization of universities. And then also, it means the withdrawal of responsibilities from the public sector. So yeah, you know it’s like, well “let’s go learn in a bank!”

BL: It was a completely gorilla style kind of action, wasn’t it? How do they react when you turn up in a bank and start a lecture? Did you promote the event at all?

GR: The event was quite secretive in a way. Although we’re not very good at that! It’s supposed to be unexpected, and disruptive. In the banks, say for example Lloyds, we’re going to be there for ten minutes and give a lecture about the banks in a bank. We’re not going to cause any trouble, or damage any money. There’s an interesting relation between how much it’s a filmed event, and then distributed. It’s almost kind of pre-packaged in a sense. We want to go into a bank, because it’s a difficult space. We want to go in there, make the film, get some sort of reaction, then put it on the Internet and circulate it.

BL: That’s something that struck me when I first came across the videos, the aesthetic quality of it. I wouldn’t say it’s staged, but you can tell it’s organized…

GR: It’s a communicative act in a way. You can call it lots of things… I mean, an ‘occupation’? It really was just ten minutes. Apart from the fact that you’re going to get thrown out, and the police are going to arrive pretty quickly, if you can even get in there at all. We want to do something, and we want to do it somewhere where there is an element of responsibility. We did the one in Tesco as well.

BL: Oh yeah, I like that one!

GR: It was quite a difficult one. You’re in an isle, you’re sort of cut off from the supermarket, going in and out of this isle, it’s quite difficult to film as well. When you try to organise the occupation of a supermarket, you realise how small the isles are! In terms of performativity, I think we’re aware of negotiating a vague line between politics and art, and that’s coming I suppose from our large involvement in cultural theory.

BL: So how about the notion of social action, as described in David Cameron’s Big Society, and how would that relate to your actions?

GR: At some point, I was reading anarchist theory, and… I can’t remember what they call it, ‘public action’, or ‘direct action’; they are quite similar to David Cameron’s idea of ‘social action’. There’s a meeting point somewhere there. There’s a lot of anxiety about doing Cameron’s work for him. If we do social action, are we actually just helping him out? And more concretely—particularly in regards to charity and community groups in general—there’s this idea that if we engage in community activities, we’re taking responsibility away from the government, doing their job for them—and that’s exactly what they want us to do.

BL: That seems to be largely what the Big Society is about: encouraging forms of participation, basically taking away responsibility from the state.

GR: Yes, completely. They historically work side by side: public sector, funded by the government, and also social action and voluntary kind of things. Someone has to do the work. I mean, if you can’t convince the government to do it, then in the mean time, someone has to help people out. The CAB (Citizen’s Advice Bureau) is a really interesting organization: they work with the government on policy, and advise them, but also on the other hand they fight the government on social policy and they mount campaigns against different problems. They’re now getting their funding cut massively. Anyway, the concept of ‘social action’ is an example of David Cameron appropriating an idea saturated with various connotations, from across the political spectrum – I’m not sure how tactical it is on his side, but it’s pretty clever (an example of Orwell’s Newspeak for sure, see appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four)—and there’s a conservative agenda behind it, which is very limited. Social action for them is, doing the work that they were supposed to do. It’s not about occupying banks, doing lectures in them and distributing it on the Internet! It isn’t squatting either.

BL: How do you monitor that though? It’s funny to think of where to draw the line, what’s the ‘right’ form of social action and how do you promote it, from the government’s perspective?

GR: Well that’s what the police force is there for. It’s reasonably clear I think, where you can draw the line, because the police or the legal system will shape it. But the interesting thing about it – and there’s a theoretical background to it with people like Foucault or Deleuze—is a kind of excess. When the government has this concept in place and uses it, they can’t control its meaning. It’s this boundary area that is interesting.

BL: And this idea of control and surveillance seems to go in line with the system of volunteering for the police—I’m not sure if you’ve been following that, I find it extremely concerning. The way they promote it is very strange as well.

GR: There’s a very interesting cultural reference to this—which probably no one else has read! I’ve just read Under the Dome, by Stephen King—one of those big fat books that he wrote! It’s got this idea of a dome that comes down over this small town in America, and it’s like a vague plot device that is completely unexplained… Anyway, the book describes this idea of bracketing off a community, which becomes completely independent of the federal law. One of the first things that the dictator—or whatever you call this figure in the book—does is get rid of all the undesirable people from the local police force (i.e. the good guys, from the reader’s perspective), and replaces them with volunteers who are the classic bullies of the community, those with violent tendencies. Very quickly, this massive police force, with no qualifications, no training, are handed guns, and what happens is that they just go out and immediately abuse their power.

BL: Exactly! And if you look at it, isn’t that how they’re trying to sell it—offering access to some vague social position of power? I get these ads on Spotify every thirty minutes, asking if I’m ‘interested in joining the police’, it sounds like some strange propaganda.

GR: There is a lot of stuff going on behind it, which is interesting and complicated, and it can’t be reduced to any kind of framework. The police force is kind of sold as this great way to get back into work, or it looks good on your CV—there’s all that kind of stuff going on as well. It’s not just about power for a lot of people; it’s a way back into other employment.

BL: This idea of a blurring distinction between civilians and police force is quite questionable I guess. In a way, it is limiting people’s ability to identify who is or isn’t going to be in a position of control or surveillance.

GR: The police are an interesting area of society really. I was thinking about the stuff that is going on in Egypt at the moment, where the army is this kind of transitional presence and they have a responsibility to help the new government out, and they’re not just a representation of the undemocratic political power, they’re also kind of autonomous in a weird way. But then, not everyone in the police force believes in the policies of the government. The UfSO actions before Christmas were really interesting in that respect (Conference on Violence and Spread the Love for Education); going around and having a chat with the police, getting a police officer to admit that they don’t necessarily agree with what is going on is quite a strong statement.

BL: In the essay, you briefly talked about the notion of class-consciousness…

GR: Briefly yeah… That was probably a quite dangerous remark! I feel that there’s an area of precarious labour that needs to be addressed. There’s an implicit view that there is a difference between people who are in work, and people who are out of work—I don’t think that’s true. To a certain extend, everyone is in the same position, pushed out of secure work. There are no careers in a job anymore, you can’t go and have an apprenticeship somewhere and be there for forty or fifty years. In terms of political action, there’s a huge percentage of society that is either out of work or in precarious labour. They should be working together.

BL: It makes me think that this energy is rather redirected towards voluntary work or social action, in the context of the Big Society.

GR: There’s a difficult spectrum between the ideas of revolution and reform, and then like you say, there’s the issue of redirected anger. Who in Britain actually believes that a revolution is possible here? I probably don’t.  But then I understand that reform is problematic. Is there a third option? You know, there’s an end to welfare, if you look at its history. Unconditional welfare, as a solution to the ills of capitalism, didn’t work.  There was still rising unemployment despite a thriving economy. You get to the 80’s or the 90’s with New Labour, and they started looking at America, Sweden, and shifted to a workfare system; not unconditional welfare anymore but rather trying to get people back into work. It’s this idea that if you’re getting welfare you need to make some progress. And I think some of it is quite positive, like full-time training for a year, voluntary schemes, to get you some work experience, and then subsidised work placements. But then I guess it just pushes people into unsecure work.

BL: And we get back to the idea of responsibility…