I vaguely remember those golden days, when the international community still aspired to a congeniality which now seems conceited, when the fractures (at least to my adolescent self) were just beginning to show – when those nations which congratulated themselves for emerging victorious from the twentieth century began to rupture from within. I saw all of this from Cambridge, a city that sits at one extreme of the a socioeconomic, geographical, political, and cultural chasm mirrored in many other liberal democracies, conditioned by well-known forces of urbanisation, financialisation, and globalisation. Back in June 2016, 74% of Cambridge city residents voted to remain in the European Union, compared to 48% of the UK’s overall population. If anything surprised, it was that 26% of people voted to “Leave” in a city known for its global, liberal outlook. Here, the international elite are paid to dwell on the bureaucratic, constitutional, and diplomatic failures of western democracies. Its inhabitants tend to avoid the majority place where the most popular newspapers remain The Sun and the Daily Mail: where the whisking of technocratic cognition hasn’t produced a kind of cake you can both have and eat.
The medieval university, with its heritage and its prestige, acts as a kind of bay within the modern knowledge economy. The river is unnavigable for heavier traffic than daytrip punters, but the broader urban and infrasturctural fabric has rewoven itself to facilitate ever more movement. Beneath towering cranes, the centre of the city is braided into the surrounding landscape and other metropoles by an increasingly dense network of bus and rail connections. The centre of the city – that ancient, yet progressive, dense nugget of hyperactivity most susceptible to international and technological change – has in recent decades integrated more with the world beyond East Anglia, to become a lively microcosm of international exchange. One result has been gentrification, rent hikes, and a rising cost of living, which brings with it that strangely unsettling aesthetic of globalisation. Cambridge is now full of specialist coffee houses and gastropubs, which with their darkly ironic faux-industrial embellishments look like Xerox copies of those in London, New York, Berlin, or San Francisco. Like those cities, this fenland city attracts an ever-more mobile population: intellectuals, artists, and the WeWork crowd in more lucrative sectors like technology, law, finance, or consultancy. In 2013, after over 170 years trading, the bicycle shop on Regent Street was bought up by The City Pub Company. It was replaced by a cafe-bistro-bar called The Old Bicycle Shop.
It is a familiar story: that the city’s growing cohort of affluent professionals has displaced whatever was left of a more bohemian culture, which demanded far more modest factors of production. On Mill Road, close to Parker’s Piece, used to sit CB1, a family-run cafe which bought its ingredients from adjacent supermarkets and served local residents. I remember revising for my exams in the mellow basement room, which had some basic chairs and tables, a portable heater, and played amenable experimental and independent music. In the summer, I’d escape the cave to sit in the garden with a lemonade. Now, a venue called Tom’s Cakes is there – brightly branded and Instagram-friendly, it looks like anywhere. It’s only coincidental that the former cafe’s postcode namesake, CB1, was adopted for the commercial housing and retail development surrounding the train station. In Kettle’s Yard, the same shift, from cosy to showy, quirky to uniform, local to international, has taken a more direct form: as an intentional modification in architecture and interior design. Cambridge, like other cities well-integrated in global society, is quickly becoming a bland nonplace of gentrified cafes, luxury apartments, and corporate chains – emporiums for the most vacuous and impersonal forms of consumption.
Though set amidst a city transformed by international capital and its flattened personality, the epicentre of the institutional university – the Senate House, Old Schools, and its many colleges – has stayed remarkably constant. As they have for hundreds of years, students still live in small colleges, wear gowns, have supervisions, and eat formal dinners. But corporate bonds have been modified, to an extent, by the politics of discrimination and social justice which have come to prevail on elite university campuses across the world. The achievements of this unnamed mass movement have been considerable: most of all bringing attention to the experience of marginalised groups in an overwhelmingly white, patriarchal, and heteronormative society. At Cambridge, activists have successfully campaigned for new access initiatives for marginalised groups, increased spending on services like counselling, permission for students to ‘opt out’ of class lists, and even lobbied for a reduced burden of proof in cases of sexual assault. Though these arguments are made in medieval cloisters and Tudor halls, they belong to a generation taught by the proponents of late twentieth-century post-colonialist, post-structural, and critical theory: the second generation to spell out the implications of Said, Deluze, and Foucault.
This political discourse was dominant among the student body by the time I arrived. Some students associated with the Conservative Association, the Union Society, or who undertook internships in Westminster, remain attached to the classical liberal tradition, but the more prevalent way of speaking now emanates from the pages of Verso books. With particular emphases on inclusion and exclusion, privilege and oppression, personal identity, and grassroots liberation activism, this new student politics, often shared by academics in the humanities, persistently critiques an institutional university which is often backward-looking. While vital and important, a missing piece of the leftwing worldview, in Cambridge as elsewhere, has been a concern with ongoing and exacerbating divisions on the university, national, and global stages. This is significant not least because such arguments are made by individuals – often from North London, Bristol, or other prosperous, cosmopolitan metropolises – who themselves are often caricatured representatives of a monumental cultural division. It’s crass to say they drink artisanal ales at gastropubs and flat whites at trendy cafes, but the identifiability of those markers is itself significant. Many readily throw accusations about who is responsible for the culture war, but if acknowledged at all, the structural processes which produce it are regarded as inevitable.
The possibility that Cambridge’s vernacular political style not only reflects, but even deepens, this global chasm, has partly been obscured by the changing institutional and technological infrastructure of digital media. Despite its ever-growing pertinence, talk of ‘echo-chambers’ peaked a few years ago, and has since subsided. Technology facilitates the transmission of information almost instantaneously and the parameters of discussion in the public sphere move and vacillate at a dizzying and almost incomprehensible pace. Sustained reflection is therefore challenging. Progressive publications are mostly agreed about the threat posed to civil society by social media whose algorithms for content selection are expressly tailored to confirm and embolden preexisting biases. But the extension of this criticism to their own position proceeds only trepidatiously. We know that the way different kinds of knowledge and ideas are variously channelled to individuals and groups is inconceivably varied and complex, and, despite many recognisable patterns, is only becoming more so. In this confusing mirage of signals, the wind too quickly changes direction. Cynical entrepreneurs like Trump could only channel the justified resentment associated with deindustrialisation into a destructive, philistine ethnocentrism with Silicon Valley tools and proxies. Facebook and Twitter have intensified reactionary discourse: self-proclaimed progressives have unwittingly empowered incomprehensible demons. Even as circumstances demand that people think more laterally about the relationships between knowledge, media, technology, capital, and governance in all their multifaceted complexity, those relationships themselves conspire to undermine our best efforts.
And so Cambridge is conspicuous. We can hope that the university’s enduring traditions and institutions will prepare its students to engage effectively with the world which lies before them. My time here has helped me think more carefully about the contingent political, social, and attitudinal conditions under which my own knowledge about the world has been formed. But while it provides an abundance of isolated environments for reflection, the city itself is far from a bubble. Its inhabitants, despite being well equipped to, seldom recognise themselves in the system that produces them.