Issue 1 (December 2009)


Berkeley After Wheeler: Beyond Organization and Mobilization

Zachary Levenson



As one astute observer of the Wheeler occupation notes, the events of November 20 represent a synthesis of the twin strategies of the current student movement: “popular organizing” in the form of general assemblies on the one hand, and a “militant resistance” enamored of occupations on the other.(1) This synthesis represents, of course, the eclipsing of the impasse constituted by these twin pitfalls, as I describe them below, of organization without mobilization and its equally pernicious inversion, mobilization without organization.

The former tendency is most visibly espoused by self-appointed student leaders of various persuasions, most notably in SWAT, the General Assembly, and other more formally organized groups. While the intentions behind such popular organizing are genuine, this constitutes what might be termed organization without mobilization. Under the banner of democracy, endless weekly assemblies appear as an end in themselves, with mobilization posited as the ultimate goal, but it remains just that: ultimate. Now remains always too soon for escalation, for transcending merely symbolic actions that are all too readily described as the meritorious exercise of free speech. All calls for more militant action are either dismissed by the moderators of these assemblies as too premature, as desirable when organization reaches a stage adequate to the execution of such actions; or they fall through the cracks in these undirected discussions that all too often take the forms of redundant brainstorming sessions. The key tasks at hand, concrete organizing and mobilizing for future actions, do not in themselves comprise the agenda of these general assemblies, much to the bewilderment of many participants. This is a clear instance of antidemocratic democracy: the privileging of democratic process and procedure to the point where substantive discussion of tactical considerations is rendered an impossibility. What these assemblies embody, organization without mobilization, is reminiscent of reformist appropriations of Antonio Gramsci in the early 1980s. While Gramsci is unambiguous in his insistence that wars of position are means of penetrating civil society with the subsequent objective of executing wars of maneuver, in the last quarter century we have seen the elevation of the war of position to an end in itself, decoupled from any impending war of maneuver.(2) More simply put, organization without mobilization approximates a war of position without a war of maneuver: popular organization is construed as never yet ready for direct actions. It remains oriented toward the organization of an elusive those-not-yet-mobilized with negligible proposals for concrete organizing tactics. As we saw on November 18, flyers, posters, and outreach (however construed) go only so far. Diminished numbers, tired speeches, old picket signs: November 18 was but a harrowing reenactment of 9/24. If this rally was admittedly not an action but a means toward mobilization, it was quite clearly a failure. This brings us to the second pitfall of our movement.  Less clearly affiliated (and deliberately so) with officially formed groups on campus, this tendency posits direct action as an end in itself: mobilization without organization. While undoubtedly those who carry out these occupations are as tightly organized as any student grouping, organization stops there. The idea that action is itself an organizing force was demonstrated to be questionable at best by the first two Santa Cruz occupations. However admirable the intentions of those who orchestrated these actions, even those already organized and partial to moving beyond merely symbolic protest were alienated (and even conservatized) by those who present occupation as an end in itself. As the Wheeler occupation illustrated quite clearly, a small occupation retains no force in itself. Without articulating itself to a militant mass movement outside, occupations of the scale currently spreading throughout California retain little relevance or transformative power.(3) Hence the awkward declaration of victory after the weeklong occupation of the UCSC Graduate Commons: without supportive masses to mobilize, in what sense can an occupation be considered a mobilizing force at all? In creative yet desperate attempts to secure such a popular mass, these occupations held dance parties that demonstrated a notable lack of articulation between the actions themselves and the student movement at large. These actions conclusively demonstrated that direct action in itself is not necessarily an organizational force; the radical posturing of these occupiers failed to resonate with an otherwise radical student movement at Santa Cruz.

Why then did the occupation of Wheeler draw a couple thousand students, workers, faculty, and community members who persistently weathered pouring rain, flailing batons, and rubber bullets? It would be all too easy to craft an answer disregarding the apprehension we felt as we moved into Wheeler that day. I of course cannot speak for others who were in there with me, but I can assure you that I was terrified—especially after the embarrassing turnout on Wednesday and Thursday—that the mass support would not come. And even if the numbers did come to gawk at the riot cops and police tape, I’ll be perfectly candid: under no circumstances did I imagine upwards of 2000 militant students and workers dismantling police barricades, pulling fire alarms across campus, and blocking every possible exit from Wheeler. Perhaps an explanation can be sought in the open and democratic way in which the occupation was planned. Emerging from a general assembly the night before, just under a hundred interested students met and voted on their desired mode of escalation.  A locked occupation won out overwhelmingly. Instead of being dominated by a brand of anarchists whose aesthetic considerations trump tactical ones, the vast majority of the Wheeler 43 are students without anything approximating a unified politics. All were agreed that the time for escalation had come, that symbolic protest had served its function but was no longer useful by itself; other than that, there was no monolithic line inside the building. Most inside would have trouble identifying a label adequate to their intentions in occupying Wheeler. That is part of what made the action so productive, so resistant to dismissal as “those-people’s-action.”

As we begin to plan our next steps, our next actions, our next occupations, we must reflect on the success of Wheeler but in a future-oriented manner. Was it, as many would argue, the excessive police force, the Alameda Sheriff as spectacle, that radicalized so many on that day? Was it the concrete demands? Was it the manner in which we decided to occupy? How can we use police brutality as a mobilizing tool without deflecting attention from the real aims of our movement? These are all crucial questions, but we must not address them in an overtly self-critical fashion. The fact of the matter is that we have transcended the organization/mobilization divide—perhaps not once and for all, but for the time being. Whatever our reservations about what went down on the 20th, we now have the beginnings of a militant student-worker movement, something I had until Friday never seen on an American campus in my lifetime. If we suffocate this fledgling articulation of popular organizing and direct action with self-criticism, general assemblies, and more meetings about what happened, then what are we organizing for? If on the other hand, we retreat into highly militant but simultaneously cliquish and self-referential insurgency, how will our direct actions remain articulated to the broader student movement? As we move forward, we must remain both militant and grounded in a popular base. At present, we are there. The time has come to escalate this struggle, as students are doing across the state and across the world. Waves of student strikes and occupations are now spreading from Croatia and Austria throughout Germany and into England. The time has come to escalate! In the face of the attempted privatization of our university, of our public education, we as students and workers unite!


Zachary Levenson is a graduate student in Sociology at UC Berkeley. He was among the 43 arrested inside Wheeler Hall.



1. “Occupations Spread Across California.” Advance the Struggle. 24 November 2009.

2. For Gramsci, a “war of position” is a moral-intellectual form of attack waged on the superstructural terrain of civil society, whereas a “war of maneuver” entails a frontal assault on the state. He famously describes Russia as ripe for a war of maneuver in its utter lack of any organized civil society. On the other hand, he views Western Europe, due to its highly developed civil society, as requiring a war of position prior to any possible war of maneuver. See especially pp. 229-39 in Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International, 1971).

3. This is not only a question of scale. The type of student occupations most frequently observed in Latin America and Europe--sustained general assemblies--are qualitatively different from those we now see at UCs and CSUs. This is certainly something to which we must aspire, and perhaps we can conceive of these smaller closed occupations as a means of mobilization toward the eventual achievement of open occupations by hundreds (or as in Vienna, thousands) of students. We are beginning to see this shift at Santa Cruz. This is not to equate the ideological and cultural terrain of the US to that of Mexico, France, or Austria; clearly this poses real limits to what is possible in the immediate term. It is precisely these limits we must seek to transcend.