Free Assembly Is The Freedom We Need


The students are revolting ha ha, the students are revolting. In London and across the UK, students have been standing up and protesting, as tuition fees of £9,000 per annum — three times the previous maximum charge, and something the Lib-Dems swore they would block — start to bite.

They could be accused of self-interest, though in fact it’s the reverse — any change to the law will take years, barely benefit someone doing a three-year degree now. The individualist strategy would be to keep your head down, get the best degree possible to get the best job possible, to start paying down the debt, so that you can be in a position to acquire a debt for an overpriced house.

The students are protesting about the mass inequality contained within tuition fees, its role in creating a society disciplined by lifelong debt on the one hand, and precarious and intermittent work on the other. Indeed, the UK formula is about as dystopian as you can get — the debt has been sold off to private equity companies, who will collect it aggressively.

However unlike other private debt, it cannot be cleared by bankruptcy — which would be a viable strategy for the free-spirited. It is a lifelong burden, for all save those who can pay it upfront, or immediately at the conclusion of studies.

So the debt has generated a new movement, but it has also generated a new university. Or at least exacerbated the formation of a new type of university, which has now been underway for some time. With its funding provided not by the state, but by student fees, competing in global markets, and with vast demand for training, with vice-chancellors increasingly drawn from corporate settings, the new university, the post-university, has reconceived itself.

Where once it was a place that was more than a place — a grove, a quadrangle, a campus, a place of face-to-face dialogue, which could bound within its discussion, the entire universe — it is now a conglomeration of capitals, intellectual, social, cultural and financial, scattered across many buildings and cities.

Often as not, it has had removed its "universal" faculty, philosophy, and those closest to it, such as history and theoretical science. Hitherto, the synecdoche of the university space was something to be guarded by the institution’s leaders, as a space where anything could be questioned, including, to the limit of general functionality, the authority within the university itself.

Free thought meant free speech, and free speech meant free assembly. That didn’t make for easy running, but hitherto, even the most superfluous Vice Chancellor had an understanding that some degree of protest and free flow had to be permitted in such a space, if it was to be worthy of the name. Calling the cops was an absolute last resort.

Happily, UK VC’s have hit on a middle path: they’re taking civil injunctions against their own students protesting, and then calling in the cops to enforce them when breached by protesting students. Talk about international best practice.

Five UK universities have fried this ruse so far, the most hardcore being the University of London, which has spent much of the past year trying to abolish its own student union. There is nothing remarkable about this at all. Across the West, there is a full-scale assault on the right to assemble, something which has become a particular focus. As the right to free speech has become a cause and a fetish-object for the right, even when it is barely threatened, the right to assemble is being attacked and worn away from every angle, yet with very little capacity for people to name the specific freedom under attack.

Thus the attack on freedom of assembly stretches from the dreaming spires, to the Queensland bikie laws, which criminalises three or more people without criminal convictions being in the same space; it extends to mass injunctions on groups like the Tecoma McDonalds’ protestors, slapped with massive commercial injunctions, which are then enforced by the state; it has been attacked by blanket stop-and-search dragnets thrown across whole suburbs; by internal movement restrictions put on journalists during the NT intervention; by the use of anti-terrorism laws applied to civil disobedience, when trespass and breach of peace laws serve adequately; by felony criminalisation of such protestors who are then subject to plea bargains banning them from contested spaces; by the mixed public-private control of spaces such as Melbourne’s Federation Square, so that political activities can be authorised; and above all by the changed ratio of private to public space by enclosure in shopping malls, gated communities, and their enforcement by private security/police squads.

In the US in particular, it is increasingly enforced by the prospect of a wildly excessive and often lethal armed police response — guns tasers and pepper spray — which are becoming default mechanisms of public order for quasi-police bodies. When all this is augmented by total and multiple surveillance, as it is in the UK, then the result is the most sustained assault not merely on our liberty to be politically expressive, but on very right to live.

As three-dimensional beings we have to, from time to time, move through spaces. Those spaces should be public, unsurveilled and unpoliced, to the greatest degree possible (although the last of these is a complex question). Reversing the bias from openness to control, from privacy-in-public to default suspicion, chokes off free life at its very root.

How have we reached this situation? One answer is that we haven’t actually had such freedoms for very long, and are now returning to a default setting. Right up to the 1950s, the state was unchallenged in applying vagrancy laws, riot laws, and the like to individuals or groups it wanted to move on. Bourgeois liberalism has not only never accorded freedoms of assembly, organisation and association their full due, they have often actively conspired against them.

No wonder; freedom to assemble was the power of a mass, often pre-literate, who are unable to take advantages of the freedom of speech — really the freedom to write and publish — that becomes the bourgeois touchstone, and the foundation of documents such as the US Bill of Rights. The bourgeois ideal is of a social space with no public spaces of assembly whatsoever; merely private land up to the door of the state office, linked by highways.

Charles Beard’s classic 20s, An Economic Interpretation of the US Constitution demonstrates the way in which the particular protections required by property owners (including owners of slave-property), dictated the freedoms that would be presented in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — and that they would be presented as universal and core rights, relegating all others.

Achieving freedom of assembly was the major challenge of the labour and social movements throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, and it was only with the defeat of fascism in World War II that a genuinely left-liberal hegemony was achieved. That did not guarantee the non-speech freedoms — far from it — but it ensured that any fight around them would be conducted on a terrain of broadening freedom into these multiple dimensions, as an expression of liberal rights.

With the collapse of that brief liberal period in the late 1970s, that freedom began to tighten once again. Nevertheless, it is worth noting how little encroachment there was in the Thatcher-Reagan years of political reaction, compared to what would come after. Cops may have still gone the biff, infiltrated organisations, and kettled protests — but chaining yourself to a fence was still a misdemeanour, not a terror act, whole city blocks were not pre-emptively closed, and scores of suspicious persons not rounded up, China-style, the day before important events (as occurred before the UK royal wedding).

While there may be all sort of strictures on random police violence (to some degree, and largely because omnisurveillance leaves them less chance to lie), these tend to coalesce with all the other controls on bodies, as collateral damage. It’s not nostalgic to say the boundary between the state and the public space, though it was often marked by a flying truncheon, was a lot clearer right up to the 90s, than it has been since then.

By that point, the social base and framework had changed so much that the idea of public space and assembly was beginning to change all around the public and in their minds as well. By the 90s, police forces had started introducing the "broken windows" model of policing — that petty crimes such as public disorder, drunkenness etc, were symptoms of, and would feed, wider disorder, and therefore should be excessively policed. That applied to both shrinking public space, and the ever-expanding space of malls, arcades, galleria etc, which had, by now, acquired their own police forces, also applying the excess policing model.

More broadly, there was also a change in the understanding of public space, bodies and risk. Both the demands of the insurance industry, and an increasing capacity to minimise injury and death by environment design, resulted in public spaces — street crossings for example — which are criss-crossed with fences, lights, and barriers, all designed to steer and channel human beings rather than allow them to act autonomously. Over a two-decade period, the nature of public space has changed immeasurably, but piece by piece, so as to escape much notice.

And just as public space was becoming more threatened, the nature of private space was changing. The rise of the web from the 90s onwards, and the introduction of an increasingly encompassing screen environment — first graphics, then videos, then picture exchange, then social media — has created an alternative level of reality and exchange, just as progressive and radical movements began to feel that the streets were no longer theirs. Cities were being neoliberalised and privatised, and the "alternative" inner cities that had flourished throughout modernity, were themselves being commodified, becoming hipster museums of boho. The pattern of alternative and radical life has changed in western cities — far more scattered, as mini-neighbourhoods and foci in lower-rent areas, now on the outskirts of cities, and thus increasingly interconnected online.

Of course, all these tendencies were taken up, drawn in, and welded together by 9/11 and the "war on terror" that followed it — in which the presumption of guilt that lurks in much of public space design today (the CCTV, the private cop, the safety barrier), was weaponised and turned into explicit public policy. From the ‘war on terror’ emergency, the guilt presumption spread outward, into all areas of life, accepted by a public that had become accustomed to viewing their public spaces as potential threats, to be secured, and their fellow citizens as potential enemies, to be checked out. Not coincidentally, the 9/11 emergency allowed for the shutdown of the global anti-capitalist movement, which had focused explicitly on the different modalities of occupying, and republicising, space — an emphasis which would become even stronger with the next iteration of that movement, Occupy.

Now, in Australia at least, we see the next stage of the process of marginalising freedom of assembly, in the Abbott government, and the right’s, push on "free speech". The ostensible reason for this push has been a culture war against the liberal-left, conducted via a defence of Andrew Bolt, and the finding of an RDA 18c "insult and offence" provision against him, for his nasty, racialist assessment of the "indigineity" of people by their skin tone.

The tribunal made it clear that they were finding against Bolt not simply because of his opinions, but because such opinions were yoked to wildly untrue allegations against Anita Heiss and others. Many of us on the left feel that "insult" provisions can’t be defended, if you also want to defend a robust public space — one where it should be possible to call for civil disobedience or even insurrection without legal sanction. But the exclusive focus of the Right on this narrow issue of speech rights at the same time as the parties they support impose constraints on assembly and organisation such as the bikie laws and the revival of the Building Commission, gives the lie to their emphasis on "speech".

Actual speech relies on free assembly; published writing demands a platform. Whatever collateral benefits bloggers et al get from such defences, the main game is to defend propertied speech as the pure, and sole, realm of freedom. The appointment of the IPA’s Tim Wilson as human rights commissioner, and his emphasis on "freedom" and "free speech", as summing up pretty much the whole of human rights, a rather singular view.

Photo via Twitter user @grogsgamut.

That bifurcation gives a clue to a way forward. The right has been able to paint the left and the social movements as opposed to freedom, by the simple expedience of defining freedom as, in its essence, the preserve of the propertied. Since progressive groups have been split on the desirability of provisions such as 18c, this argument has had some purchase. But freedom of assembly and organisation is not only of prior importance to a progressive politics, it is something on which such forces are not divided.

Furthermore, freedom of assembly is something on which the right are divided — with not merely IPA mascot Chris Berg, but also reactionary big beasts like Paul Sheehan coming out against the bikie laws.

In Victoria, the rising mass campaign against the East West link is politicising public space. The revival of the ABCC, will remobilise the building unions and sections of the wider union movement. Assembly, and the right to public space, is the precondition for progressive politics. There are times when such preconditions have to become the focus of a campaign itself. It seems likely that such a specific campaign is now necessary. Not only would a campaign on assembly address essential conditions, it would make visible the repressive nature of the current government, and of the right’s skewed arguments.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.