Issue 3 (December 2010)
Amanda Armstrong, Chris Chen, Munira Lokhandwala, Paul Nadal, and Zhivka Valiavicharska
In the past several
months we have seen the rise of a kind of international call and
response sounded by students, workers, and faculty in response to
waves of austerity measures enacted in the wake of a global financial
crisis. Public universities from the Philippines,
the UK, Italy, Puerto Rico, France and across the US face an onslaught
of austerity measures that threatens the very existence and future
of public education. The transnational nature of this movement has
become apparent, with a flood of images, videos, and news reports
indicating the global scale of the emergent movement for public education:
of crowds scaling the Leaning Tower of Pisa or entering the Roman
Coliseum with road flares, lolling over rail overpasses, occupying
Tory headquarters, walking out, hand-in-hand, fist to fist, onto
the streets of Quezon City. Videos record widening social unrest
and ubiquitous police violence; masked students smashing and spray-painting
a police wagon, a group of young women linking arms in an attempt
to stop them. Cameras
capture the different obstacles these movements face; an officer
drawing his gun on student protesters in a parking garage in San
Francisco, bobbies looking on as students scale security fences,
or Garda on horses beating students bloody while charging through
crowds of protesters. We are told that the de-funding
of public education is as mystically inevitable as the global financial
crisis itself, unstoppable, unlocatable—without authors, agents,
or enforcers. We are told to open our eyes, but when we look where
they’ve invited us to look, to the national and international
context, we see other students, workers, and a few faculty in revolt.
In this issue of R e c l a m a t i o n s we’ve brought together an assortment of articles and interviews—theoretical analyses and historical reflections in defense of public education, in-depth interviews and essays that address the challenges of both militancy and movement building, as well as a range of critiques of ongoing prosecutions of student protesters.
As students and university employees struggle over deteriorating working conditions, the content of their education, and the explosive rise of student debt, a “lost generation” of catastrophically indebted students and increasingly precaritized academic workers are attempting to relate transnational education movements to broader social struggles against neoliberal austerity measures. Carrying forward his analysis from the Fall of 2009, Bob Meister’s open letter—addressed to UC President Mark Yudof and Governor-elect Jerry Brown—provides an account of the University of California’s role in the reproduction of widespread indebtedness, as well as a series of proposals for how the university might reduce or restructure tuition rates so as to ameliorate future debt burdens. Meister’s letter presents a bleak image of what current tuition hikes promise, asking us to imagine a future in which heavily indebted graduates have paid for the promise of class mobility and yet confront a devastated labor market, stagnant incomes, prolonged unemployment; where waged work is scarce, yet remains a necessity for nearly all of us. Theorists Silvia Federici and Peter Osborne, in their respective interviews, interpret emergent student struggles against tuition increases as attempts at forestalling a future of permanently precarious labor and deepening racial and gender inequality. For both Federici and Osborne, the rise of the transnational student movement reveals the politically explosive character of educational institutions as sites of social reproduction.
Both present the current round of educational austerity as consistent with a thirty year history of privatization, even as they trace genealogies of student struggle which predate the latest wave of student unrest. Federici in particular suggests that the educational restructuring currently being contested in the global North is the latest iteration of a neoliberal agenda that was first imposed over two decades ago on universities across Latin America and Africa, despite protracted student protest. She recalls that “[t]he struggles of African students in the 1980s and 1990s were particularly intense because students realized that […] behind the cuts a new international division of work was rearticulated that re-colonized African economies and devalued African workers’ labor.” In this sense, social opposition to an emergent, neocolonial international division of labor was partially mediated by struggles to preserve public education.
In his interview, Peter Osborne identifies recent historical antecedents to the severe cuts currently facing universities in the UK, cuts that are disproportionately affecting arts and humanities programs at the so-called “new universities” (ex-polytechnical institutes), as exemplified by the precipitous closure of the Middlesex Philosophy Department last spring. Osborne argues that the latest wave of educational austerity extends the logic of reforms first imposed under Thatcher, which began to marketize and re-stratify higher education in the UK. Such reforms put pressure on the new universities to redirect resources away from arts and humanities programs, many of which were direct inheritors of the extra-mural pedagogical practices that had given rise to Cultural Studies and other politicized theoretical paradigms. In his discussion of the social and intellectual ferment that enabled the creation of such innovative theoretical forms, Osborne makes an observation decisively confirmed by the recent student mobilizations in the UK—namely, that the fate of the “left” academy is intimately tied to the fate of the broader extra-parliamentary left. The preservation into the future of the former is dependent upon the latter’s effective reclamation of the commons, educational and otherwise.
If Osborne and Federici position contemporary student movements in relation to late twentieth century political economy, Rei Terada offers a more expansive, fragmentary genealogy, juxtaposing reflections on recent events in California with scenes from early nineteenth century struggles over the reform of the German university system. Terada takes up a series of alternately spectacular and mundane figures, from Carl Sand, a radical student who assassinated a rightist playwright and whose portrait subsequently became a medium through which a certain class rage was transmitted, to the brass-handled black doors lining the side streets of Winchester that, along with Sand’s portrait, captured John Keats’ attention, if only for a moment. The boundaries between political and non-political phenomena are never stable, Terada suggests, as seemingly minor observations and investments inevitably supplement, interfere with, and subtly reshape political projects and our very sense of what constitutes the political.
For Terada, one of the depressing continuities between early nineteenth century Germany and twenty first century California is the disconnect between, on the one hand, active students and university workers, whose political positions are informed by an experience of the university as an employing institution which consistently works to reproduce class hierarchies, and, on the other, professors whose critical and pedagogical engagements stop short of questioning the university’s internal hierarchies, class and otherwise, particularly when doing so would jeopardize their professional status. “[E]ven radical professors,” Terada observes, “act as though the social and class distinctions professor/student and permanent labor/temporary labor are more compelling than equality in the university [...] Faculty act as if no one is speaking if a professor or administrator is not speaking.”
If Terada critically analyzes the roles faculty take up or refuse as “inside agitators,” Ianna Owen and Puck Lo’s essay investigates the historically durable role of the figure of the “outside agitator” in delegitimizing political militancy and disciplining dissent. As a popular epithet for civil rights movement leaders, as well as black power advocates like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, the figure of the “outside agitator” has a long and troubling history. Articulating a political position rendered seemingly impossible within prevailing racial discourses, Lo and Owen discern the continuing deployment of the trope in public discourse in response to both the university student movement’s use of militant and direct action tactics as well as to the periodic public riots which have marked the trial of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. For Owen and Lo, the figure of “outside agitators” and “white anarchists,” now a common media talking point promulgated through a strategic alliance between state-funded nonprofit organizations and the Oakland Police Department, continues to represent communities of color as politically homogenous and manipulable subjects. “By no means should youth of color be seen by the world appearing dangerously angry, uncontrollable, or even more threatening still,” Lo and Owen observe with irony, “as self-determined and active agents damaging the symbols of business-as-usual, and rioting over the murder of their peer.”
Addressing the crucial question of “whose interest does it serve to construct and circulate these figures and the real or imagined boundaries that determine whether or not someone has the right to express their rage about an unjust system,” Lo and Owen track a crucial and largely underexamined debate between state-funded nonprofit organizations, anarchists of color (including groups like Anarchist People of Color or APOC), and radical student-of-color organizations like Laney Student Unity and Power (SUP) and Advance The Struggle (ATS). In “Grove Street Panthers,” Laney SUP sheds light on the historical emergence of the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, providing an alternative genealogy for Bay Area political movements and ongoing tactical debates. It highlights aspects of the Black Panther Party’s political program which the author(s) argue have often been overlooked in a rush to fetishize the group’s armed militancy. The history reveals the work of a “multifaceted organic expression of a specific section of Oakland’s working class to overturn institutions that claim to serve them and remake them into bases for struggle.” For Laney SUP, the Panthers continue to be relevant to the California education movement and contemporary radicals of color more generally in the twenty-first century because of the mutually-reinforcing relationship between a forceful response to police violence and a vision of community control and self-determination, challenging the legitimacy of state institutions through a “dual power” organizing model.
Similarly, for Silvia Federici autonomous organizing emerges as a crucial mode of political engagement for women confronted with sexist and masculinist forms of militancy persisting in radical circles. As she points out, forming autonomous spaces should not be misconstrued as separatism; it is rather a strategy that opens the absolutely essential conditions for a collective articulation of counter-logics, languages, networks, and practices, which not only generate oppositional politics but lay the material groundwork for alternative social relations.
Concerned about the effects of the contemporary demobilization of feminism as a social movement and engagement with this “socially transformative project as women,” Federici points to the depoliticization of gender relations in everyday life and new patterns of gender inequality and undervalued reproductive work. She powerfully reasserts the continuous salience of the category of “women,” which necessarily undergoes repeated contestation and recomposition. Federici reminds us that to the extent that gender is inevitably intertwined with newly emerging forms of labor exploitation and devaluation, “women” as a political project should always reassert its presence on the “crucial terrain of collective resistance to capitalism.”
Through a series of open letters and critical interventions, R e c l a m a t i o n s continues to address the urgent question of escalating police intimidation and administrative repression on campuses, as evidenced by recent police visits to the homes of student activists and the continued arbitrariness of quasi-judicial student conduct processes. The anonymous author of “On Administrative Conduct” documents in detail how the UC Berkeley Office of Student Conduct (OSC) has violated its own regulations in prosecuting student protesters. The article goes on to argue that students have been prosecuted under versions of the conduct code that were not in effect when they engaged in the protest for which they are being scrutinized, and are facing hearings months after the official OSC timeline should allow, and their confidentiality is not being protected in the hearing process. These violations indicate the degree to which the OSC, far from serving as a neutral arbiter of a stable and impartial conduct code, emerges as an arbitrary power functioning as “the disciplinary arm of the administration, an institutional extension of the university’s repressive apparatus.” “On Administrative Conduct” articulates a powerful critique of the “community standards” OSC advocates and claims to serve--“integrity,” “civility,” and “responsibility”--by revealing the administration’s own inability to embody these values.
Judith Butler’s testimony against the prosecution of Laura Zelko, a student who had participated in two building occupations during the Fall of 2009 and was tried in a public hearing, underlines the irregular and excessively punitive quality of the conduct prosecutions. Butler offers a compelling defense of the three-day university strike at issue in the hearing, and of disruptive collective action in general as a form of political activity. Against arguments that condemn disruptive protest as violating the “rights” of others to engage in work and study which are selectively invoked by administration officials to regulate student protest, Butler insists that university strikes help us “reflect on what makes education possible, who does the work that keeps the departments and the buildings running, who can afford to pay the tuition and get into the building, and who cannot. When those questions are so dire, and those issues are so fundamental, we do stop. We go on strike.”
And finally, two letters composed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California. The first one, "Regarding Recent First Amendment Violations on the UC Berkeley Campus: An Open Letter to Chief of Police Mitchell J. Celaya III, UC Berkeley Police Department," addresses the most recent incidents of unconstitutional actions on the part of the UCPD to suppress free speech and stifle dissent on the UC campuses. The second, "Flawed Disciplinary Process for November 2009 Student Protesters: An Open Letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau," calls attention to the UC administration’s inconsistent and bad faith application of disciplinary action and proceedings related to student conduct hearings stemming from last year’s protests. The letter argues that the UC proceeded with “unclean hands” in its prosecution of students and calls for the dropping of all charges on students who were not granted hearings within the 45 days prescribed by the conduct timeline as well as expunging the disciplinary actions already imposed.