Issue 1 (December 2009)
November 18 Strike Address on Berkeley's Sproul Plaza
Today, as befits a professor of English Literature, I am going to speak about economics — and particularly the issue of student educational fees, and where they go, and what this tells us. But I can’t do that without talking about who the “us” is, which also means talking about who the “them” is. I mean I have to talk about conflict, and antagonism, and struggle. So maybe I should start by speaking for a minute about the public debut of this particular struggle, which was the September 24th Walkout, the opening action of what is being called the September 24th Movement.
The University of California system is the home of the Free Speech Movement, and was a nursery for the anti-war movement in the Sixties and Seventies; it has seen mobilizations against apartheid, against nuclear weapons and power, against appalling labor practices. And somehow the September 24th Walkout was the largest coordinated political action in the history of the UC. It is not entirely clear what it is about, or at least isn’t clear to everyone. Certainly economic crisis. Certainly the defunding of education. Certainly immediate issues include the merciless mistreatment and abandonment of workers, especially the most vulnerable employees; certainly they include the obscene increases in student costs even as student services and educational quality die from institutional murder and indifference. These are huge issues. They begin to frame the terrain of us and them. But they do not however provide a single name for the antagonism that motivated such a historic action, and I find this a remarkable fact.
This is not the only remarkable thing about the September 24th Movement. Equally extraordinary is that it was initially called for, organized and forwarded by unofficial groups. The action seems located within the institution of the University, but it has not been an institutional movement. Eventually...as the tide of evident concern, commitment, and even enthusiasm for the Walkout rose among faculty, among workers and students...eventually official groups started signing on or endorsing the Walkout, or planning parallel actions. Unions were vital in this, UPTE and CUE and AFSCME and AFT and others. Groups like the University of California Students’ Association. The Daily Cal. Solidarity Alliance and then SAVE, a faculty association at Berkeley (which enthusiastically asserted itself as author of the protests); several entire departments at Riverside; and then it was a tidal wave. Tens of thousands of people. Five thousand at Berkeley alone. In Davis, a thousand in the hot sun, a mass march and a brief, thrilling occupation of Mrak Hall, the squat tower of bureaucracy. Now there is an institution.
This remarkable sequence began with self-organizing groups here and there. They did not have letterhead, they did not have voting procedures and elected representatives, they did not have funding or resources. They called themselves into being swiftly and admirably and desperately in the late days of summer.
I have never seen anything like it — and I was at Berkeley when Sproul Plaza was occupied and renamed Biko Plaza for an entire summer, with real divestment from apartheid South Africa following shortly thereafter. That was something, but it was not September 24th. I have never seen anything like it, and this may be because I have never seen anything like these times, this sense of crisis and possibility, this urgency to act. I fear for those who feel this urgency, since it will involve long and exhausting struggle, frustration and disappointment, and even loss, possibly failure. I fear more for those who do not feel this urgency. I hope they will leave the sidelines and join us.
But this does not resolve who “us” is. One of the reasons it has been hard to figure this out is because of how elusive is the “them.” One of the disorienting outcomes of September 24th was that the administration and the Office of the President actually thanked the protestors for their help, thanked us for assisting with the process of pressuring Sacramento to fund education (a task the Regents had more or less abandoned until this sequence began). In response to a poignant and powerful letter of protest and refusal co-authored by the entire English Department at UC Riverside, Mark Yudof wrote, “The faculty, staff, students, Office of the President, and The Regents need to work together to address the major challenges we face....I urge you to join with us in this effort to improve UC.” And we all know that Mark Yudof has taken to describing the State, somewhat apologetically, as “an unreliable partner.”
This opens up two related mysteries. The first is simply this: if the State is such an “unreliable partner,” why are the Regents and President so anxious to be a reliable partner to the state? Many of you will perhaps know that the UC system, which currently has a better credit rating than California, this summer used that credit rating to float a 200 million dollar loan to the State of California for construction projects that would help UC, a state institution, build medical classrooms at UCSF, a new Telemedicine Resource Center at UC Davis, and a Biomedical Sciences Facility. Worthy capital projects, one assumes, especially given the revenue that medical facilities generate. Never mind that those revenues are not necessarily returned to the education of students, even kinda-sorta.
How does it happen that, in such dire times, the University has such a sterling credit rating? I’m glad you asked. You might have had a chance to read Robert Meister’s report called “They Pledged Your Tuition” — Robert Meister is the head of the Council of UC Faculty Associations, which helped him get access to restricted documents...documents they wouldn’t even let him copy. But if you haven’t acquainted yourself with his report, let me summarize it in brief.
Students: they don’t spend your educational fees on your education. That’s the executive summary.
Here’s a slightly longer version. Students and parents: they keep telling you they are increasing your fees, around 300% this decade, 32% next semester, because of shortfalls in educational funding from the state. But they are not devoting those fees to educational expenses. They are setting them aside as collateral against construction bonds. They are using your tuition as security so they can credit-finance a whole lot of construction, for buildings you might never be allowed to use, while they slash wages, instruction, courses, medical coverage, and employees.
Oh, and PS: They might default, which seems pretty possible if the economic situation is half as desperate as they keep telling us that it is. And if they do, the bondholders get your educational fees. You know, the fees that are for education. That’s what “collateral” means. That’s how a “security” works.
We could certainly go into more detail on this. How much construction? Well, they started this bond scheme in 2004, and by 2008, pledged collateral had reached 6.72 billion dollars. And they have rolling layoffs for landscapers. 6.72 billion and librarians are being sent home. And faculty are being told they have to work on days they aren’t being paid for (but it’s not a pay cut!). 6.72 billion and students can’t get the classes they need to graduate, even as they scramble to work extra jobs to pay into this vast pool of construction collateral. And some never get to be students at all, as enrollments go down and economic barriers to entry go up. And they pledged 1.35 billion of your tuition immediately after declaring an “extreme financial emergency.”
It would be easy to dwell on how disingenuous, dubious, and deceitful this practice is. Or how it seems like a staggering insult to current students, and a kind of open discrimination against future students. I want to make a somewhat different point — to place this in the context of the recent and ongoing economic crisis. You will perhaps recall that the tinder for the incredible conflagration that led to the economic meltdown, that the tinder for this was that collection of formerly obscure financial instruments now filed under the heading “toxic assets.” There are several kinds of toxic assets and I only understand a few. There are Mortgage Backed Securities, and Credit Default Swaps, and Collateralized Debt Obligations, and Synthetic CDOs, and so on. They were ways of inventing credit ratings and then credit itself out of an elaborate chain of instruments that eventually led back to mortgages, mostly commercial real estate mortgages but also private home owners. A mortgage is actually a simple thing. A person promises that they will pay over time to get a house now. They commit their future hours and days and years of labor, and in return they get to spend it in the present on a building. So that mortgage becomes a revenue stream for a real estate company that sells it to a bank that sells it to a consolidator that sells the risk to an insurance company and so on. It sometimes gets called “fictitious capital” but it’s very real; that revenue stream is as real as the effort it takes you to get up at six to go to your work, to type and to haul and to empty garbage and to write reports and answer the help line and do childcare and all of that.
And the mortgages started to go south, a couple years ago. Mortgages started to go south and mortgage-backed securities didn’t pay off and the insurers who had covered them with default swaps couldn’t pay off the insurance and we currently have a U-6, that’s unemployed, underemployed and permanently discouraged, at about 20%. This is the outcome of the toxic asset chain and the real estate bubble it helped inflate.
And this turns out to be the exact strategy of the University. They have generated what are, in effect, tuition-based securities, bonds that are debt obligations and they are collateralizing those with student tuition. They require not the hope but the presumption that fees will continue to increase.
Let me emphasize: this isn’t pocket money. It’s a mystification even to call it “savings.” It’s work that already got done, serious and difficult and boring work, or it’s work that will have to be done in the future, especially if you have been credit-baited to fund your world-class education. And you don’t even get the house, not even for a couple years. You’re just a revenue stream.
This is unacceptable on the face of it. But it becomes even more grotesque when one realizes that the Regents have been unable to learn even the most simple lessons from the economic crisis they keep waving around like a flag of war, to rally and to threaten us. Their brilliant ideas are basically the same as the ones that set the crisis loose in the first place.
This, I think, gets us a bit closer to understanding who the them is, and who the us might be. The line, let us say, is not students and teachers, even though the administration tried that nonsense on the eve on September 24th. The line is not even labor and management, for it is a bit unclear how that works in as complex an institution as the university, a non-profit tranche of capital relations still haunted by the memory of guilds.
Them is the ones who furlough the most vulnerable employees while floating 1.35 billion in new construction bonds after declaring an extreme fiscal emergency. Them is the ones who securitize your tuition for those bonds. Them is the ones who build the walls, enclose the public space of education, and set you and your family laboring just so you can beg at the door to get in. Them is the ones who do this on the backs of the staff inside these new enclosures, and send you out with your degree to staff their next set of buildings. They keep saying “education fees” but they mean “bond collateral.” They keep saying “public education” but they mean “show me the money.” Them is private. Them is interests. That’s them.
Us is public. Us is against privatization in every form. Us is against capital projects, against enclosures. Us will not pay for the architecture that keeps us out. Us will not participate in this structure anymore.
They have interests; we have solidarity. They have police forces they do not hesitate to summon against unarmed and non-violent members of the UC community, trying to make it too difficult, too frightening, to take action. They are the principle of the police. We are solidarity. We are the readiness to take action, because we are tired of asking politely, because we know that there is nothing to be gained from asking them to do things differently. They are committed, after all. They have creditors, and bonds, and contracts. We will not change that by asking, not even if we write letters every hour on the hour, and stamp our feet. They are interests. We are solidarity.
But solidarity is a difficult word. It does not mean we agree on every point, every analysis, every tactic of resistance and refusal. Such perfect concord is exactly what solidarity isn’t. Solidarity is knowing you share the side of a struggle, an antagonism, a commitment. Solidarity is knowing that while your life may be different from the person standing next to you, different from the undocumented North African worker in France, different from the student in Zagreb — knowing still that you share a common desire, a common urgency. Woe to those that do not share that urgency. Solidarity is knowing that you will not accept the privatizing away of your common lives. This is the struggle, and it can be won. There is a them, and they will try to stop this. That is their name. Our name is solidarity itself; its principle is us.
Joshua Clover is a faculty member at UC Davis. He was among the 52 arrested inside Mrak Hall on November 19th and the 66 arrested inside Wheeler Hall on December 11.