At long last, the shit hits the fan in California…
After the huge student movements in France in 2006, as well as last year’s occupation of the Sorbonne by the staff and the professors; after the rolling and agitated “anomalous wave” of protests against the Bologna-process restructuring of higher education that swept Italy last year; after the astonishing refusal of tuition fees by Croatian students this spring and summer — to name only three arenas of an expanding transnational revolt — the global crisis of the university has finally come home to the neoliberal heartland: the State of California. On September 24, a walkout of students, professors and staff was called across the entire University of California system, in protest against draconian budget cuts decreed by the UC Regents, which is an extremely powerful and prestigious administrative body whose members are appointed directly by the state governor for 12-year terms.
California is the state where, in 1979, the infamous Proposition 13 began choking off funding for public services, while launching the “taxpayer revolt” of the rich and inventing the basic neoliberal campaign rhetoric that would bring Ronald Reagan to power. Since 1983 there has been only one Democratic governor of the state, Gray Davis, which means that the UC Regents have mostly been named by Republicans in order to represent multiple business interests in the fields of both research and education. The budget squeeze has been permanent, since the same Proposition 13 set the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote for any new local or state taxes. After Governor Davis was prematurely recalled by a Republican smear campaign following the “rolling blackouts” inflicted on the state by possibly the most corrupt corporation of the dot-com era, Enron, it was the new “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenneger who signed the 2004 Higher Education Compact with the President of the UC Regents. In the context of the ongoing financial crisis and the resulting budget shortfalls across the US federal system, Schwarzenegger is now using the effective minority rule granted to the Republicans by the two-thirds majority requirement to be the “Terminator” of California’s public education and research, which the Compact redefines as a private good, to be produced by corporate investors and sold to clients on an open market.
There are now plans to raise tuition by 32%, in addition to a 9.3% hike approved last May, as a consequence of the long-term withdrawal of state funding, further exacerbated by the current fiscal crisis of state governments. The result will be the elimination of large numbers of economically disadvantaged students from the university and a shrinkage of the student population by as much as a third. In a video-taped speech where he explains many of these issues, the award-winning Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff had to choke off his emotion as he recalled how glad he had been, thirty-four years ago, to come to teach at a public university: his own parents had been too poor to attend high school.
A wealth of information on both the budget crisis and the student/staff/faculty movement can be found by following the links at the UC Walkout website. Among the more interesting bits, a talk by Wendy Brown, the first American academic to understand Foucault’s courses on the birth of biopower and to realize that neoliberalism means “the end of liberal democracy.” For a wider perspective on the course and meaning of such struggles in the world, there is the Edufactory collective, as well as The New School in Exile and a highly subversive text on the protests at that institution in December 2008, Preoccupied. But if somehow you have not yet done so, the first thing to read — and certainly one of the most powerful student-movement texts since the Situationist tract On the Poverty of Student Life — is this impresive and impassioned document, emanating from the “Research & Destroy” collective and prefiguring the events at UC Stanta Cruz. where the Graduate Student Commons is still occupied as I write:
This is a brilliant text for one simple reason: it says flat out a large number of things which are simply true, concerning the fundamental bankruptcy of the public university and of the society whose decay it has helped to perfect with a thousand sophisticated branches of knowledge and a thousand techniques of social engineering. The current economic collapse, the defeat of the US oil-grab in Iraq after the needless loss of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, and now the extension of the war in Afghanistan are only the most visible hallmarks of this decay, which has crept into daily life on every level, from the most pragmatic to the most subjective. Check this bit out to get the tone and the basic angle of attack:
We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow. And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have. Close to three quarters of students work while in school, many full-time; for most, the level of employment we obtain while students is the same that awaits after graduation. Meanwhile, what we acquire isn’t education; it’s debt. We work to make money we have already spent, and our future labor has already been sold on the worst market around. Average student loan debt rose 20 percent in the first five years of the twenty-first century — 80-100 percent for students of color. Student loan volume — a figure inversely proportional to state funding for education — rose by nearly 800 percent from 1977 to 2003. What our borrowed tuition buys is the privilege of making monthly payments for the rest of our lives. What we learn is the choreography of credit: you can’t walk to class without being offered another piece of plastic charging 20 percent interest. Yesterday’s finance majors buy their summer homes with the bleak futures of today’s humanities majors.
The anonymous text goes on to cover a long list of societal failures in excruciating detail. What it calls for — as you could guess from the shortest excerpt — is nothing less than a revolution. I’m not going to disagree. But because this moment and this movement are so important, I am going to take issue with one aspect of what I consider to be an otherwise perfect analysis. This criticizable aspect comes only after a series of remarkable arguments that have to be taken on board in order to get to the heart of the question:
The university has no history of its own; its history is the history of capital. Its essential function is the reproduction of the relationship between capital and labor. Though not a proper corporation that can be bought and sold, that pays revenue to its investors, the public university nonetheless carries out this function as efficiently as possible by approximating ever more closely the corporate form of its bedfellows. What we are witnessing now is the endgame of this process, whereby the façade of the educational institution gives way altogether to corporate streamlining.
This is true. What we are witnessing with the current economic crisis and the collapse of state budgets is the culmination of the neoliberal program, i.e. the end of the welfare state that was instituted in the 1930s and strengthened again in the 1960s, and consequently, the beginning of the full-scale precarization of the former middle classes in the US and in Northwestern Europe, as it has already occured in countless countries of Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, after their subjection to bankers’ techniques for the extraction of value from public institutions and infrastructures. To destroy any democratic critique of this process — and to open up another lucrative private market in the same blow — it is necessary for capitalist logic to destroy the public university. The real-estate bubble and its deflation, which finally delivered a wake-up call to the general public, is at the same time serving as the pretext for a decisive round of privatizations that seek to finish the job, and eliminate any resistance to the appropriation of the entire public sector. That this extreme makeover of the former welfare state will undoubtedly be fatal to the entire system, threatened with climate change and also with the looming revolt of all kinds of peripheries and underclasses — seems not to matter one whit to the people in charge. Precisely because to a large extent, there is no one in charge. The logic of capital has not only pervaded the hearts and minds of those who benefit in any way from it – the very middle classes produced during the postwar period by welfare-state entitlements – but it has also sedimented itself in a very large number of technologies, laws, bureaucratic procedures, organizational models and operational goals, whose inertial force is tremendous and still serves as a powerful tool in the hands of those elites who are, in small numbers, very conscious of what they are doing. Yet all this, immense as it is, hardly removes us of the obligation to think and to act intelligently, strategically, in what is clearly a dangerous situation.
The knot of the text comes when it attempts to define its own speaking subject: the students whom the university educates. Not coincidentally, this is the passage that introduces the call to insurrection — yup, that’s the word, right here in Amerika — which takes up most of the third part of this extraordinary text:
The university is subject to the real crisis of capitalism, and capital does not require liberal education programs. The function of the university has always been to reproduce the working class by training future workers according to the changing needs of capital. The crisis of the university today is the crisis of the reproduction of the working class, the crisis of a period in which capital no longer needs us as workers. We cannot free the university from the exigencies of the market by calling for the return of the public education system. We live out the terminus of the very market logic upon which that system was founded. The only autonomy we can hope to attain exists beyond capitalism.
Now exactly here, I want to ask the question: how can anyone accept this idea that the function of the university is to reproduce the working class, without distorting every meaning of the words, “working class”? The working classes of the university are the janitors, the food-service people, the maintenance men and women, the day-care staffers and receptionists, all the people stuck in increasingly exploited and precarious positions. Even when they do the same jobs at night or at odd hours scattered over the week, the students aspire to be trained as scientists, engineers, technicians, health-care professionals, government officials, middle and upper managers, and cultural ideologists (a category in which I would include both artists and teachers). The difference between them marks the common consciousness and it has to be addressed, even at a time when the objective distinctions between students and workers are blurring. It is true to say that the United States, like all countries that have undergone full-scale neoliberal regime change, no longer has any essential need for its traditional working class, since industrial work has been largely outsourced, automated or delegated to immigrants under conditions of extreme exploitation facilitated in many cases by lack of citizenship papers. But it is false to say that the neoliberal societies do not need the “human resources” produced by the university. They do, crucially, to maintain their advantages in what they themselves define as the Darwinian struggle of each country and indeed, of each corporation against all the others. The present aim of the Republicans – the neoliberals – is to save money on taxes, to open up new markets for education and research while continuing to exploit the remaining (and hardly inconsequential) public budgets, and to exert further discipline over its future middle-management cadres by placing them under even more intense threats of joblessness and inability to pay their enormous student loans. In other words, they want to complete the program first launched in the age of Prop. 13.
Why then, in such a brilliant text, do we get such a major mistake of class analysis? Undoubtedly because from that point forth, it is very easy to lapse into an outdated concept of revolution, wherein everyone dons a black mask and engages in a sweeping orgy of destruction that will send the existing system up in flames and allow the rise of a new one from its ashes. Now, does that appear likely? Has anyone studied what Homeland Security has been preparing for in this country for the last eight years? Has anyone observed the massive deployment of police, National Guard, secret service and Army personnel armed with so-called less-lethal weapons at the recent G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, or at the RNC in St Paul last summer? Above all, has anyone noticed how successfully agents-provocateurs have been used at all these kind of events since the anti-globalization movement brought street demonstrations back to the Western countries at the turn of the millennium?
The “Communiqué from an Absent Future” marks the return of an insurrectionalist spirit to the United States, where it has not been seen on any large scale since the 1970s, with the brief exception of an important moment in Seattle. This spirit should be put to good use by everyone. If the current movement goes anywhere, some rioting in the streets is gonna happen, and a lot of occupations. But no one should kid themselves that student riots are going to change the system. What students can do, from their own class position, is both to reach out to the hyper-exploited working classes toward whom they are, in effect, precariously sliding, and at the same time, to help to radicalize all those around them in what has become the central institution for the reproduction of the neoliberal hegemoney, namely the contemporary research university. This will require inventing original techniques of radical action that can’t be neutralized and made into a pretext for fascist reactions. Strikes that shut a university down — as has already happened for a day in the huge UC system — can also open up space for questioning what the uses of the university could be in a different society. Writers, media makers, performers and artists, whether inside or outside the university, can use this moment to go further, to dig deeper into our hearts and minds and desires, and to lay the basis for a long-term, broad-based, constructive refusal of the literally insane and dangerous system that has taken root in the US over the course of the last three decades and especially the last ten years.
If the former role and glory of the public university under the welfare-warfare state is definitively over, then what can it become in the future? Wouldn’t the best way to shut down its current operations be to convince all those inside it that the way it is operating is a travesty of all its potentials, including those inscribed at the heart of every academic discipline? Why not shut it down with an excess of transformative intellectual and artistic production that would have a huge insurrectional advantage, namely that it could not be stopped by police armed with truncheons and stun guns and less-lethal weapons that they are just dying to use? In the absence of a deep, problematic delegitimation of neoliberal capitalism and the invention of new ways to run a complex society, which transparently appears as the most urgent thing for all of us to focus on, the real revolution will never come. Yet the way things are going, with climate change and planetary civil wars looming on the horizon, all of us are mortally threatened by the absence of that revolutionary future.
Download Communiqué text as printable pamphlet here