Amanda Armstrong, Chris Chen, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Zhivka Valiavicharska
We have compiled the second issue of R e c l a m a t i o n s as university administrators and the state have taken aggressive steps to repress a nascent, cross-border education movement—one of the first mass-organized attempts to push back against the financial austerity policies which have been imposed in state after state across the country. Some have feared that the deliberate and coordinated crackdowns on politically active students and workers have squelched the movement’s energies and subdued the spirit of resistance. Others, however, have noted that what we currently see is the ripple effects of an explosive sequence of actions and protests starting last fall. They have exposed with ruthless clarity the vast class and power asymmetries hosted and reproduced by the University—a multibillion dollar institution charged with serving the California public whose budgetary priorities remain beyond the reach of public control, and whose undemocratic system of governance is protected by semi-private police forces. They have exposed the structural discrimination endemic to our educational institutions, magnified by racist and homophobic attacks within our communities. They have revealed what some have described as the increasing depoliticization of public space through the neoliberal regulation of protest. They have made visible authoritarian campus codes of student conduct, quickly placed in the service of political prosecutions.
At the same time, with coalitions forming to directly address the deteriorating climate across California campuses for minority and LGBTQ students and workers, the movement has also sparked critiques of privilege and generated sustained and sometimes acrimonious internal debates over aims and tactics. These debates have focused upon the movement’s inclusivity on the one hand, and on the other have probed the strengths and limitations of long-range movement building versus more immediate forms of direct action such as building occupations and highway takeovers.
Antagonisms between mass mobilization and direct action have continued to organize crucial debates about the social relations shaping and constraining such actions, and the current issue of
R e c l a m a t i o n s explores these overlapping lines of political struggle. Ryan Davis’ piece on the continuous exclusion of black students from the struggle, a feminist critique of direct action, and an anonymous piece Reflections on I-980/I-880 Takeover all address such concerns in ways that open up rather than fetter the political potentials of such efforts, by offering productive reformulations and visions for more equal and inclusive political engagements.
Ryan Davis’ critique of last fall’s direct actions at UCLA points not only to the racial composition of the collective body occupying Campbell Hall, but also to the unexamined colonial, universalizing logic of the occupation movement’s language and political aspirations. By failing to “speak to the particular conditions [Black students] face,” the demandless occupations only reinforce the discursive and structural whiteness of the struggle while romanticizing the subjugated positions of the Black experience and constructing the figure of the “trendy Black radical.” The movement needs not just to wage abstract wars against neoliberalism, Davis states, but to address the “structuring irrationality” of anti-black racism which exceeds the rational antagonism of capital versus labor, and to confront directly the overlapping conditions of oppression black communities face.
Similarly, the feminist critique engages with the structural logic of masculinity and the forms of domination reproduced in current direct action practices, in their political discourses, and in the narratives their “anthologies” construct. Observing the ease with which gender hierarchies reinstate themselves at moments of collective action, the stories shared caution about uncritical celebration of our collective ability to simply “negate” the powers that be, and ask whom those experiences of emancipation belong to and at whose expense they succeed. As the authors ask, “what are the new orders of subordination that emerge, or persist, precisely at such moments of collective emancipation”?
Much more hopeful is the anonymous testimony on the highway takeover in Oakland on March 4, Reflections on the I-980/I-880. We were male, female, transgender, gay, straight, and lesbians, the voice states. We were “white and Latino, African-American and Asian,” and against critics who have painted the highway disruption as a primarily white and male anarchist action, it asserts: “we came from multiple political perspectives. We were anarchists and communists, liberals and libertines; students from UCs and CSUs and Community Colleges; teachers and public workers and taxi-drivers…” Such moments of togetherness, the author notes, do not mean that privileges and hierarchies will be suddenly eradicated. Nevertheless, these moments of radical collectivity—including the support of the drivers stuck in traffic on the highway, the audible solidarity of the prison inmates watching from the cells of the county jail nearby—are fleeting but real human bonds that shatter the structural conditions enforcing social divides and inequality.
Questions about what material relations we are struggling for and what forms of struggle could enable their material realization continue to inspire analyses of the university as a site of social reproduction. The essays by Jasper Bernes and by Will Parrish and Darwin Bond-Graham compel one to ask whether the university is so saturated with the value form as to now produce little more than disasters and deprivations—from nuclear weapons technology to colossal student debt; from precarity-inducing biofuel crop technologies to widening racial and class inequalities. Parrish and Bond-Graham’s investigative report reveals the underside of the University which, a companion to America’s imperial expansion from its founding moment, is now deeply embedded in the neoliberal order. They issue an obvious yet astonishing reminder that the current neoliberal reforms are implemented with unmatched radicality, sweeping moves, and stunning innovation, and challenge the movement’s powers of imagination to reciprocate with bolder political visions and actions.
Adam Hefty’s interest in questions of strategy is similarly concerned with the present and future forms of our political engagement. March 4 opened and expanded the social and geographical terrain of our struggle, but Hefty observes that it also revealed the limits of current political strategies and forms of organization. He asks what new modes of mobilization need to mature to embrace the expanded conditions of our struggle.
Addressing what he calls “the limit condition” of political protest, Bernes argues that current struggles against capital manifest themselves in configurations that produce fragmented oppositions, while continuously failing to bring the struggle to the “encounter between capital and labor in the workplace.” Bernes attributes this failure not to a “bad strategy or weakening resolve” but to the radically restructured forms of the reproduction of capital, dominated by finance and circulation, and marked by fragmented, decentralized, flexible, and self-regulated modes of participation. Such conditions render inherited struggles of labor against capital and the traditional working class revolutionary subject structurally impossible. He explores how these impossibilities are manifested in the spatial and tactical contradictions of the political mobilizations on the university campus, a space which functions simultaneously as a site of value production, capital reinvestment, exploitation, and reproduction of class inequality. By exploring the November 20 Wheeler occupation and protest, Bernes raises the much-needed question whether, in fact, the University bears within itself traces, non-identical with the value-form, that could be reclaimed and set to emancipatory ends by those of us who daily circulate through its spaces.
In its final section R e c l a m a t i o n s features the transcript from the bitter public debate about UC Berkeley’s Code of Student Conduct, a transcript that strangely reminds of a playscript. It is a revealing record of some leading administrators’ arrogance and stonewalling when confronted about the code’s dubious legality, history, and arbitrary application. Stephen Rosenbaum’s analysis of the code and its enforcement in two of the most egregious student conduct cases, those of Angela Miller and Zachary Bowin, exposes how the vague, quasi-legalistic language of the code grants almost unlimited authority to the administration to convict any student of a broad range of violations without the need to respect constitutional rights such as due process and the burden of proof. The arbitrariness of the code’s enforcement and the administration’s failure to follow its own rules becomes apparent in Rosenbaum’s correspondence with the Office of Student Affairs, which he accumulates while serving as Miller and Bowin’s legal representative. R e c l a m a t i o n s makes public the original documents from this protracted exchange with permission obtained from the two students. Finally, Amanda Armstrong and Annie McClanahan address the obvious political nature of these prosecutions, and urgently call for mobilizing against the suppression of political activism and free speech on our campuses.