Intellectuals in a Social Movement
– talk at UCSD lecture series, “Public Culture in the Visual Sphere” –
First of all, thanks to everyone, inside and outside the UC system, who understood why I wanted to come to Southern California just in advance of the March 4 walkout. I want to participate in your struggle, which directly affects me as an inhabitant of the United States. I’m speaking to an art department, but for once I’m going to be iconoclastic. I don’t think this talk should hide behind images. This is going to be about public culture, the basis of it, which is slipping and which will probably turn into something else, for better or for worse depending on what happens.
It’s been obvious for years, for decades, that the existence of public culture in the United States lies under serious threat. Today, when the public character of the university is on the verge of disappearing, when culture is slated to become a definitively private matter under corporate control, to speak of any other issue would be hypocrisy. The taste we may have for politically engaged art, in particular, would turn to ashes in our mouths. I think everyone understands this. The object of our discussion must now be ourselves, the speaking subjects in the room. My point will be that, as intellectuals, we can only define public culture by actions that reshape and ultimately reinvent that which is commonly held to be public. These are speech actions, symbolic actions with consequences, political actions where you can win or lose. They involve a crucial and necessary relationship to social movements, of the kind that are finally beginning to exist within the universities themselves.
Social movements arise in the face of adverse realities, when a state of affairs is felt by large numbers of people to be intolerable. But it is impossible for social movements to take democratic form, or better, to intersect with formal democracy, in the absence of a shared set of beliefs that can be stated as propositions about reality. In a complex society, the role of intellectuals is to shape such beliefs into a coherent analysis, a doctrine. The intellectual, as distinguished from the scholar or the academic, is characterized by exactly this: she produces a doctrine. It’s a big word, an unfriendly one, no one likes it, and we’re not too good at using it on the left anymore; but that’s still the way it works. The fact that in a university, almost everyone concerned is potentially an intellectual, just makes the production of an effective doctrine more difficult and more urgent.
Over the past fifteen years, on both sides of the Atlantic and in both hemispheres of the Americas, a critical doctrine has formed among intellectuals on the left which identifies the root of contemporary social inequalities in a political, economic and governmental program called neoliberalism. What are the main points of this doctrine? First neoliberalism was understood as the erosion of legitimate state power, and therefore of the welfare state, in favor of a free-trade policy appealing to libertarian or even anarchist values but serving the interests of transnational corporations. It then came increasingly to be seen as the ascendancy of finance over industry, in a world dominated by accountants and traders, where all economic planning was done according to the price signals of the market. In a third moment, associated with the governmentality theories of Michel Foucault, it was defined as a variety of political rationality that it is exercised first of all by the individual on him- or herself, through intimate calculations of the losses or gains incurred by every act. We realized that all social institutions were being reshaped to demand these intimate calculations, in the absence of anything public or common. By this point, neoliberalism was being presented as what the anthropologists call a “total social fact.” The idea was consolidated in 2003 when Wendy Brown published her article on “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” The critical doctrine appeared to be complete. The question is, why did nothing happen?
In retrospect, it’s clear that that this critique of neoliberalism remained not only ineffective, but also stunted. It was too clean, too rational. First, it had to be admitted that the neoliberal program could be put into effect by conservative, nationalist and militarist elements within the state, and therefore, that it had no inherent contradiction with very savage forms of racism or imperialism. The re-election of Bush in 2004 convinced us of that. But still there was no broad social movement, in the university or anywhere else in the US, which was quite different in that respect from Latin America and Europe. Only under the pressure of the housing-prise collapse, the financial meltdown and the fiscal crisis of the states, have two crucial elements been added to the critical doctrine, bringing into play the feeling of intolerability that makes people take a stand in a social movement.
The first of these elements is the recognition that unlimited transnational trade and predatory financial management result in widespread proletarianization, extending to the university itself. By proletarianization I mean low wages, shit jobs, variable hours, no long-term contracts, no benefits, no health insurance: a reduction in life chances for millions of people, and above all, the immediate political subordination of those same people to the arbitrary will of richer and more powerful others. Now, this recognition of proletarianization is counter-intuitive for anyone seeking a university degree or exercising that degree as a professor, because a university degree has always been associated with a move up the social ladder. The fact of proletarianization confronts you with the nature of the power at the top, toward which you are supposedly climbing. That is why the second crucial element is the realization that the effectiveness of neoliberal governmentality entails a more or less unconscious identification with the interests and the lifestyle of those who profit from unregulated global trade and rapacious financial management. What I mean is an identification with the ruling class – and the phrase is not too strong today, in this new Gilded Age, when about half the total social wealth goes to the top 10% of the population, and almost a quarter goes to the top 1%. Of course, this identification with the ruling class is a very different condition for the precarious grad student and the tenured professor at the top of the salary range. It’s a deluded fantasy in the first case, a state of objective complicity in the second. But the important thing is, only when this identification becomes conscious, and intolerable, only when it is broken by some kind of demand for substantial equality, can intellectuals go beyond a merely critical doctrine, to join social movements and produce political actions.
So what are these political actions? I want to talk about three kinds of specifically intellectual actions, all of which are happening right now in the UC system. The first is the organization of public debates over the core doctrines that give a social movement form. A public debate is something very different than an argument conducted in a lecture hall or through the mediation of a peer-reviewed journal. A public debate is potentially accessible to anyone. In a complex society, where highly abstract chains of reasoning lie behind almost every important decision, this idea that a public debate should be open to anyone is usually considered simply impossible, wishful thinking, a joke. There is simply no space for such a debate, no space of inclusion. But the contemporary urban university gathers together students and professors, private employees and public functionaries, highly trained professionals, artists, street people, illegal immigrants and dropouts: it offers a unique chance to organize a public debate. Maybe the only American analogue to the urban public space of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with its cafés, monuments, and visible seats of authority, is to be found on the campuses of contemporary universities. The university remains a kind of democratic stage, right up to the point when it’s taken over by robocops and encircled by helicopters, like at Berkeley last November. This means that the university can be the kernel, the proving ground, the experimental heart of a public debate that will then extend outwards to broader ranges of society through an extremely wide variety of channels, from popular media and cultural practices to professional or bureaucratic circuits, as well as the formal arenas of democratic government.
For the debate to be public, it’s crucial that it involve people with various levels of income, from differing ethnic and cultural groups. And it’s also crucial that it involve different kinds of language, different sorts of gestures and feelings, which is where art and literature and poetics can come in very powerfully, if the artists and the poets make the effort, as quite a few of them are doing. To the extent that working people, students, contract teachers, full professors, artists, administrators and the representatives of the super-rich – I mean the Regents – are involved in the current strife over the evolution of the UC system, you have the beginnings of a public debate right here; and for once, it’s emerging with the help of intellectuals on the left, with some orientation toward public culture and substantial equality. So what’s gonna happen? What happens when you carry out a complex debate over equality in public?
What happens, typically, is that the debate overflows. It overflows the limits of collegiality and due democratic process, not only because the students are passionate and unruly, and not only because the police is full of sadists and commanders who know how to use them. It overflows for the exact reasons that are shown in the doctrine, namely that there is a contradiction between the postulate of equality and the binding force of the law as it is currently written. If the situation is intolerable enough to give rise to a social movement, it is because the law is structured so that the usual channels do not work, due process is fruitless, and the face of the existing social order has begun to look like the visors and shields of the police. This is the time for direct action, the crucial move beyond what’s usually considered to be the practice of the intellectual.
Direct action occurs when the collective intelligence of the social movement finds a way to break the law concretely, with simple gestures that can be said to realize in fact what they symbolize in principle: as for instance when a theoretically public building is made into a real site of public culture by an occupation. Of course it can be objected that the Tea Party members believed they were doing exactly that, when they entered the Town Hall meetings to exercise their right to free speech. So there is always an argument and a counter-argument about the justice of political actions that break the law. At this point, the role of the intellectual in defining public culture becomes extremely demanding. She has to determine where to raise her voice and which building to enter, in the closest possible conformity to the clearest and most widely debated doctrine. But what that means is that nine times out of ten, she or he or we are too late, someone else has acted more passionately and rashly and actually done the deed, leaving the field of argument far more messy and confused than one had ever imagined.
Defense, in a social movement, is the most difficult political action for intellectuals, whose job is to speak in public. It means arguing for the people on your side even when they fucked up. It means publicly restating what is intolerable, at a time when the newspapers are full of smashed windows, broken flowerpots and misplaced threats. It also means sustaining all kinds of internal arguments about what went wrong, and why, and how to change it or even how to accept it, how to make it a strategy. Of course there is a limit to the imperative of defense – you can’t defend every sort of extremist act – but by far the most common mistake lies in marking that limit too soon. The movement has to be defended against the rage of its members; but their rage too has to be defended, against those who would make it into an excuse to simply reinstate the law as it is. And defense entails risks — the pragmatic risk of legal or academic consequences, the personal risk of disputes with your friends and comrades and colleagues, the psychic risk of a broken identification with the ruling elites. At stake in this last risk is the struggle against governmentality, against the intimate calculation of individual profit, whether fantasmatic or real. So you can find out a tremendous amount about yourself, precisely at the moment when you accept or refuse to defend someone else’s acts in public.
The success of a social movement is to make all the facets of this struggle, which together are called courage, into something widely admired and emulated, a positive norm, a virtue. Only from this sort of reciprocal emulation can a new legitimacy of public culture be born. We are light years from any such success on the American left today. The Democrats are polite and proceduralist, while the Republicans have opted for a very different strategy, a more irrational and effective one. We need to learn how to make passion political again, because if we don’t, public culture will just disappear. And this has to be done across the spectrum of society. If some full professors, administrators, contract faculty, grad students, artists and drop outs do not find the courage to defend the cause of educational equality against whatever obstacles its expression as a social movement may throw up in its way, then there isn’t much chance for public culture in the twenty-first century.
I want to end by being realistic. There is a real chance for starting a national movement in California right now, in this coming week. What it needs is not just the semblance of a victory, Schwarzenegger backing down, a one-year suspension of tuition hikes and department closings, or any other palliative measure that administrators might offer in a pinch. What it needs is a refusal of the neoliberal market logic and the clear expression of an alternative, by which I mean another way of valuing and respecting human life, one that can be expressed immediately as gesture and voice, but that can also be translated into the kind of detailed technical knowledge-work that people in the university actually do. Stopping the total makeover of the university means running the place differently, not tomorrow but today. It means stopping business as usual, art as usual, engineering as usual, sociology as usual, to find some way of changing your own life and letting other people know it. This is no longer a detail or a good fight we can afford to lose. The thing is that naked exploitation, outright theft, total corruption, religious war and climate change, all these are aspects of a social pathology which is now undeniably reaching toward a peak. The current restructuring of society by means of the fiscal crisis has nothing anymore to do with democracy, it is in fact the elimination of liberal democracy and its replacement by a class society – a racialized class society – backed up by the weapons and electronic filtering devices of a security state. Under these conditions, I ask myself whether one can give up the aspiration to equality and remain a sane human being.
If we succeed in launching a national movement, then people in the universities could go beyond a merely critical doctrine and start working on the positive transformation of society in the directions that a majority of the people seemed to be calling for during the campaign for Obama’s election. That doesn’t mean that anything would change by the action of a magic wand; but it means that a space of possibility would open. Far from being utopian, it’s a matter of being resolved, and going ahead with the social transformation wherever you can, with whomever you can find, even if the formal apparatus of the system remains stuck in contradictions it cannot resolve. This going ahead is not only a way to remain sane, it’s above all a way to become someone different. So this is the third possibility of intellectuals in a social movement: the possibility of an invention.
[after which, much debate ensued]
Protest messages on March 4, photo by Holly Eskew – see more here