Saturday, February 27, 2010

Unfettered by stifling bureaucracy.

An anonymous submission -- Ed.

The student-worker Movement should heed the lesson of November 20th: disruption of ‘business as usual’ at the University through direct action is instrumental to the Movement’s successful resistance to the Regents’ project of privatization of the University of California. For the experiences of Fall semester 2009 demonstrate that it is primarily through direct action—as opposed to delegating our authority to spineless, impotent politicians, whether in the Democratic Party or self-styled student leaders—that the Movement realizes its collective power. And it is only through the local exercise of this collective power—unfettered by the stifling bureaucracy of a political party or the institutions of the University—that the Movement can effectively press for and implement the fundamental change it demands at the University and even its host society.

A brief review of the November demonstrations and actions underscores the potency of direct action.

On November 18-19, students, staff, and faculty spent long days on the picket lines, chanting and marching in circles … while hordes of scabs walked right by the strikers. The Movement’s act of defiance—the workers in striking, and the students in walking out and supporting the striking workers—quickly turned into an alienating experience. Ironically, students and workers were disempowered by an action that should have been empowering. Those on the picket lines chanted, over and over again, that the University of California is ‘Our University!’ But those words rang hollow; indeed, it was as if the striking students and workers were foreigners in a hostile land—the disconnect between Us and Them could not have been stronger. ‘Whose University?’ The chant was not rhetorical—the University certainly did not belong to students or workers.

Instead of impressing upon the strikers the power of the Movement, the strikers’ actions underscored the Movement’s weaknesses. Instead of mobilizing the sympathizers of the Movement, the picket lines only seemed to identify the scabs. Seemingly notwithstanding the test of reality, the Movement’s faith that students were interested in fundamental change at the University dissipated and morphed into defeatism. Sensing defeat, those on the picket lines could only shame those who so callously ignored the struggle of students and workers. While it is undeniable that many students refused to cross the picket lines on principle and in order to show solidarity with their fellow students and the University’s workers, it is also undeniable that the picket lines failed to generate the leverage the Movement needed to prevent the Regents from approving the proposed fee increases and to accede to workers’ demands.

The failure of the picket lines to effect a sufficiently major disruption of the University’s operations notwithstanding, it is beyond question that it is a worthy display of solidarity for students to stand beside campus workers in their struggle for a decent existence, and in so doing to communicate to the University and the community at large that students and workers have an identity of interest; to reject the capitalist logic that the furtherance of students’ interests must come at the expense of workers’ interests, and vice versa; to proclaim that any economic system that creates such an antagonism between students and workers is perverse and unworthy of perpetuation. Indeed, such demonstrations of student-worker solidarity in themselves are acts of resistance to the Administration, because they are a visible rejection of the Administration’s vision of the University in which students and workers are competitors for finite resources, a myth that expediently neglects to recognize that there is a third party that preys upon both workers and students—the Administration itself.

But conventional picket lines will only advance the Movement so far. In the employment context, picket lines may be sufficiently effective to compel the employer to accede to employees’ demands, for when there are no workers, there are no profits. But it is clear that the victory of the movement for fully-funded public education will require more. The theory runs as follows. Not only must the University’s workers withhold their labor, but the students—consumers—must also simultaneously withhold what they possess—their own selves; that is, the students must mentally disconnect themselves from the institution that does not serve their interests, must regard the managers of the knowledge factory as an illegitimate authority. Yet the negative act of withdrawal alone is insufficient; there must be a complementary positive act of application, a translation of abstract principles into concrete acts—a transformation of the dead space of the University into living, communal space governed by those who study, work, and teach at the University. This principle was clearly elucidated at Wheeler Hall on November 20th.

The November 20th occupation of Wheeler Hall—delivering the promised ‘escalation’ of the student-worker struggle—resuscitated the deflated hope of the Movement. By expropriating Wheeler Hall in the name of students and workers, 43 activists gave real meaning to that heretofore empty phrase—‘Our University.’ The Administration could continue ‘business as usual’ while students and workers peacefully picketed, but the gears of the knowledge factory came to a grinding halt when this small group of activists claimed Wheeler Hall. The direct action of a small group of the student-worker Movement—itself but a fraction of the campus community—threatened the Administration’s authority more than any of the mass demonstrations in the Fall. Why? Because the occupation denied the Administration’s managerial control over the campus, publicly declared that control as illegitimate, and created a space students governed themselves.

The Administration’s response to the November 20th occupation of Wheeler Hall is an indicia of the tactical efficacy of direct action. The first two days of action in November provide an illuminating counterpoint. In characteristic Ivory-Tower Liberal fashion, the Administration was dismissive of the picket lines and mass demonstrations. This should come as no surprise—the picket lines did not significantly disturb the Administration’s control over the campus; the picket lines did not challenge the Administration’s prerogatives. By and large, the picket lines took place within the bounds of acceptable protest, as delineated by the Administration. By and large, the students on the picket lines played the traditional role of the Liberal student activist, relying on the power of words in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to effect change. The Administration could deal with this familiar student tactic—weather the storm and barrage the media with the narrative that the Regents’ fiscal decisions are but the inevitable product of the State’s ‘budget crisis.’ While these contradictory narratives competed in the marketplace of ideas, the Regents approved the proposed fee hikes, ensuring that privatization is the fate of the public University.

The November 20th occupation, however, eliminated the comforting distance the Administration usually enjoys between protests and their sphere of control; the occupation didn’t just bridge that gap, the occupation created its own sphere of student control exclusive of the Administration’s. When, by claiming space, the occupation brought the student struggle to the Administration, the Administration’s usual patronizing amusement gave way to frenzy and paranoia befitting the most reactionary of dictatorships. The Administration could not co-opt the occupation; there was simply no possibility that the Administration could bring the occupation within its framework of control. Thus, the Chancellor called in an army of riot police to quell an incipient crisis with revolutionary potential.

By virtue of eliciting this response alone, the occupation was a success because it put the Administration on public display and exposed it for what it truly is: an illegitimate authority, created in the image of a private corporation, that subordinates the interests of students, workers, and even faculty to its project of privatization; a bureaucracy with entrenched interests, whose primary mission is to perpetuate its own existence and expand the scope of its power. The November 20th occupation also served a line-drawing function: the disconnect between the Administration and the Movement manifested itself in physical terms, neatly divided by metal barricades with students and workers on one side and riot police representing the Administration on the other. The riot police’s violence—sanctioned by the Administration—against demonstrators only reinforced the antagonism between the students and the Administration.

Moreover, the occupation served a valuable function in physically manifesting the struggle of values underlying the privatization of public education. The violence on the barricades only made clear that state violence undergirds privatization, thus exposing neoliberals’ vile hypocrisy: in service of the poor, the state must offer nothing; in service of property, the state provides repressive violence against the dispossessed (in this case, the state employed violence to silence those whom privatization is disinvesting of a public good—affordable education). The police violence at Wheeler Hall also shattered the illusion that UC Berkeley is encapsulated in the metaphorical ‘bubble,’ somehow isolated from the cold realities of the ‘real world.’ Even if there is a kernel of truth to the ‘bubble’ hypothesis, the violence of the riot police effectively destroyed the protective barrier insulating the campus from ‘reality’—or, at least for that segment of the student population willing to step outside the bounds of permissible discourse. Also, the Administration’s violent reaction to the occupation proves that the Administration regards the Movement as a significant threat to its authority.

Since the occupation represented a fundamental challenge to the Administration’s legitimacy as the managers of the University, the Chancellor’s violent reaction to the November 20th occupation of Wheeler Hall should have come of no surprise to anyone who has a basic understanding of power. What was truly unforeseeable was the spontaneous coalescence of students, workers, faculty, and community members on the outside, on the barricades. Underestimating the solidarity between the occupiers and the students on the barricades, the Chancellor’s militarization of campus actually served to foment the uprising. The crowd of supporters grew ever larger as the army of riot police swelled. This unintended effect of the massive police presence represented a complete defeat for the Administration, as students’ presence on the barricades signaled that their interests were aligned with the occupiers, the ones whom the Chancellor attempted to turn into campus pariahs. Equally potent was the proof that the students in the Movement are so dedicated to their cause that they are willing to stand in defiance of the Administration in the face of riot police, willing to risk their personal safety for the continued existence of the public good.

Lastly, we must analyze how the Movement responded to the crisis generated by the occupation of Wheeler Hall and the violent confrontation of police and the occupiers’ supporters. Instead of acceding to the Administration’s authority, students ‘on the outside’ rejected it and did so in a more direct fashion than the two previous days of demonstrations and picket lines. Students put themselves in the line of danger to support the occupiers to the extent of suffering physical harm. Students spontaneously coalesced into flying columns to barricade and defend all possible exits from Wheeler Hall. In short, students—heretofore complete strangers alienated from one another in the bureaucratic University—related to one another in ways they never had before: cooperatively for the achievement of common goals.

November 20th also serves as a strong reminder that direct action itself is a movement-building tool. It is a living demonstration of the Movement’s power; it reveals to the uninitiated or previously uninterested student that another reality is possible at the University, one in which the student actually feels alive. Magnetic-like, the collective pulse of the action draws in those who are disaffected by the bureaucracy of the decision making apparatuses of ‘democratic’ mass organizations and by the dilution of radicalism in the illusory quest for ‘consensus.’ Direct action provides an outlet for those who want to see immediate change where they study, work, or teach. It is democratic in the sense that individuals (or small groups) can contribute to the Movement without subordinating themselves to the police power of ‘leaders’ within mass organizations, who, for the purpose of party building or making the movement palatable to so-called ‘moderates,’ attempt to restrain those who desire to manifest their radicalism through direct action---the unfortunate result being a homogenized movement that is too cautious to act for fear of alienating the apathetic student body, yet whose unjustified caution itself breeds apathy and ensures the perpetuation of the status quo. Direct action is democratic for another reason—there is no script that participants must follow, there is no master narrative that so-called leaders impose on the action; instead individuals and groups can contribute in ways they determine are appropriate. November 20th provides an illustration: the initial act of resistance functions as a call for others to engage in direct actions; it allows ‘observers’ to become ‘participants’ and in this way the original action becomes something much larger and more powerful than it originally was. Direct action grows the Movement in an organic way, on principles of voluntary cooperation.

At an otherwise miserably apathetic campus that despicably finds solace in censored memories of the Free Speech Movement of 1964, November 20th witnessed a rare event at UC Berkeley: powerful displays of resistance—a vibrant exhibition of unstifled life in an environment strangled by a bureaucracy that functions to cultivate national resources—human capital—that government and private enterprise will consume. Through this collective resistance, the Movement came to life. Individuals cooperatively worked and associated, and in so doing, not only overcame the alienation born of the dreary reality of the modern University, but also created a sum—a Collective—with a power that individuals could experience directly, a power that actually transformed UC Berkeley on the 20th into an environment where a future worth living in started to look possible. The crisis generated by the occupation, and the Movement’s response thereto, forged a new consciousness in the Movement, one that is more cognizant of the gravity of the student-worker struggle.

The November 20th occupation radicalized segments of the student-worker Movement in the most profound way. On that day, the Movement took and held space. On that day, a small section of campus was actually ‘Our University.’ If the Movement intends to make March 4th and the days of action beyond a success, then the Movement must find ways to tap into and amplify the spirit of resistance that overtook UC Berkeley on November 20th.