Sussex Utopia

June 17, 2013


At the Sussex occupation, a copy of The Problem with Work by Kathi Weeks lies on the floor. Some of the occupiers remark that they have not done any of their class work for the past six weeks, since they started occupying Bramber House. They don’t seem worried about it. Instead they have been running an inspiring campaign alongside the 235 campus workers whose jobs the university’s management are attempting to outsource. Living, cooking, meeting, talking, learning, plotting and taking action together, the occupiers’ activities are meaningful, inspiring, and necessary; carried out willingly, collectively, and horizontally. No wonder they seem unconcerned at the weeks of missed class work – the very antithesis of what is happening here.

Their banners and posters declare ‘the university is a factory – shut it down!’. They have been very effective: occupying and closing down all the cafes on campus to hit the university financially (as well as allowing the workers the day off), smashing in the doors of the management’s building, bringing together both students and staff in Library Square to take over the campus, and withdrawing themselves from the assembly line of ‘knowledge’ production. Yellow squares and ribbons decorated the entire campus, banner drops hung from buildings and swung from tree branches – the university is more a playground than a factory. When the police try to end our fun, we push them back off campus in order to defend our space.

The occupation and the wider campaign raise two key issues around work, which may seem contradictory but that can be resolved, albeit rather messily. The occupation and the shutting down of the university-factory is an act against our alienated work and existence, ‘even if we didn’t have the campaign, I’d still want to be in this space because it’s a great social space’ said one student. As Kathi Weeks’ book on the floor of the occupation shows, in its rejection of work and its forms of organising, the Sussex occupation is anti-work in its nature. They are, however, also defending work in its current form in the face of worsening conditions through outsourcing. Cleaning and catering jobs are under threat – jobs which involve subordination and servitude, poverty pay, monotony, and the enforcement of a reduce identity – ‘this is what you do, you are this’. Whilst this side of the campaign against outsourcing does not explicitly question the nature of work, it is somewhat radical to defend your conditions of work under a system which devalues everyone. The demand for staff and students to have control over their working conditions, and the formation of the “pop-up union,” does, in fact, allow us to challenge and even move beyond work.


“Work makes me…” – the cascade of possible endings to that sentence provided by a Google search makes for grim reading. Yet things are getting even grimmer. Sussex University’s attempt to outsource jobs is one of numerous examples of the worsening conditions which people are increasingly forced to endure. At the same time, as work becomes even more unappealing, the attack on the unwaged intensifies, whether it be through rhetoric – the vilification of those who are unwaged and the supposedly redemptive qualities of work,  or actual forced work itself. One Daily Mail journalist and the equally bigoted Salvation Army have both recently drawn from the chilling Nazi slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Labour makes you free.) The violence and the inescapable dominance of work, for the waged and unwaged, is becoming ever more explicit.

The rise of workfare, a new(ish) phenomenon that continues a long tradition of forced and unwaged work, for example women’s unpaid housework and care work, vividly illustrates the horrors of how work is perceived and organised under capitalism.

A two day A4e workshop – ‘finding and getting a job’ – involved being spoken at by a man called Vince, wearing a metallic looking suit, who attempted to convince us all that we could get the jobs we wanted if only we believed that we could. The wider economic crisis and whether work was actually necessary in our lives was absolutely irrelevant. We should sell ourselves like iPods, write our CVs like we apparently would behave on a first date, “you don’t tell them everything on a first date.” It was taken as a given that we must all strive towards work, spending every moment working on getting work, fuelled by an unwavering belief in ourselves as desirable workers.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ recent introduction of Universal Jobmatch re-enforces this relentless job searching. Through this mandatory scheme, claimants will soon be made to job search online for 35 hours a week. Searching for work is itself set to become a full time job, thereby robbing claimants’ of the precious time they need to survive the welfare system and get by on impoverishing benefits. Imagining claimants stuck at computers for 35 hours a week searching for jobs that are not there, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was the stuff of some dystopian novel. Perhaps they would build special factories with rows and rows of computers, claimants sitting at them trawling through the web day after day in order to receive their meagre benefits (if they are lucky enough not to have been sanctioned.) Sadly, this is not some futuristic nightmare, but reality. When recently accompanying a friend to Work Programme provider CDG’s office, we arrived to find a dimly lit room full of computers with claimants sitting at them, looking for jobs that do not exist.


The suffocating dominance of work in our lives, whether we are waged or not, is not something that we can escape on the left, even the more radical left. In fact, it is becoming ever clearer that this is one of the places where we are going wrong. We are failing to interrogate how we organise, and how we spend our days and our lives. The TUC’s rallying call for a ‘Future That Works’ saw them fail to even organise a demonstration that worked. How can they claim to be plotting out a strategy for all of our futures when their vision is still so firmly entrenched in a romanticised notion of 20th century Britain?

Focusing back on the present, Dan Hancox’s brilliant book “Utopia and the Valley of Tears” finds him in the small Spanish town of Marinaleda as part of his search of real living alternatives to capitalism. Here, with their practically decommodified housing and infamous parties, it certainly sounds like “full communism.” However, there is still work, in fact, quite a preoccupation with work, and a gendered division of labour too. Young people are leaving the town because a life of farming does not appeal to them. An outsider remarks, horrified, that they are forced to work on Sunday (although the mayor claims that this is volunteering). People are fleeing utopia.


My most dreaded question is “What do you do?” A recent version of this question which I was confronted with was even more disturbing: “What do you do with your time then, apart from filling in job applications?” Despite it being such a commonly asked question, as if we cannot relate to someone without knowing what their paid employment is, or lack of, I still find myself in a sort of paralysis whenever I am confronted with it. Because I’m not engaged in waged labour, how do I explain and justify myself?

The violence of work is more and more intensely felt, yet our propositions of a world without work feel almost non-existent, despite most people daydreaming about such ideas on a daily basis. When I do hear such ideas put forward, they are the most wonderful sounds…a relief, inspiring, exciting.

Let’s skive off work and smash the job centres and decide how we spend our time together.

This article was written before the eviction of Bramber House on April 2nd. After occupiers peacefully left the building, four students were arrested.

By Izzy Koksal | @IzzyKoksal


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