We are faced with an eruption that no one can yet explain, an eruption that does not yet have a name. But we need to stop and ask ourselves: how did we get here? And now that we are here, is what is happening at universities across the world something real, a true rupture with the present order?
The 00's destroyed our dreams. The horror of September 11th in New York was quickly translated into the global horror of the neoconvservative agenda. We saw wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that could not be stopped by millions of people marching in both Washington D.C. and Tehran, in Islamabad and Mumbai, in Palestine and Israel, in Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Lagos and Istanbul. The anti-war movement became our iconic moment of revolt and the living nightmare of defeat.
With environmental devastation looming, no health care and the temerity and fear we learned in the Bush years, the future seemed a grey haze. At the same time, the housing market was booming, invincible. Credit flowed freely. Gas prices decline from the near $4 a gallon we'd seen earlier in the decade. Students had the promise of finding, if not equal prosperity as their parents, something approximating the middle class life they'd grown up in, or seen generations of Americans fight for.
We had two options.
One, we could try to get jobs that might secure that kind of life. But the only people making money were the ones who knew how to cheat the very system that promised a fair chance for all. That's what the guys at Enron proved to us, what Bernard Madoff's $65 billion investment scheme proved to us. That's what real estate agents making a quick buck off of loans they knew would fall through proved to us. And that's what the CEO's of banks who gave themselves raises in the midst of the biggest economic downfall since the Great Depression proved to us.
Playing by those rules revolted us.
So we chose to go to school, more because we thought we should than because we knew what we were doing. Some of us went to develop our love of the sciences, the arts, philosophy, politics, and literature. But we knew that these degrees -- even in the sciences -- didn't mean we would find a fulfilling job where our skills would be put to their full use. Our degrees held no promise of economic stability or anything more than a stamp on our way towards the next round of education, skills training or a new career.
The economy no longer needed just our bodies, or even a specialized set of knowledge or "intellectual" skills. It needed us to become highly adaptable, more professional, yet more relaxed, more personable, ready to work with people in different parts of the company, newly emerging companies, companies in different countries. This economy needed us to switch careers when jobs moved overseas, shut down or became obsolete to those who hoped to make a profit from us.
It required us to learn how to design web pages in a week or become a "leader" in our office. Fewer of us became the workers caught in the cogs of the machines. We became the baristas who had to smile while we spilled espresso on ourselves, graphic designers who checked our email in between the digitalized images we mistook for our own art, restaurant servers who knew the ins and outs of organic wines we couldn't afford, dotcomers who worked twelve hour days in our "casual-fun" offices.
To learn the new skills in the university would mean more loans, more work-study jobs or shit jobs in the world and more checks cut to the university itself. It would mean more time in limbo, between the comforts of youth and the promise of a joyous transition into adulthood.
And then in September of 2008 the economy went into freefall.
We lost our jobs, our friends or our parents lost their jobs. We didn't know how the fuck to pay back credit card debt we'd accumulated in the delirium of the housing bubble. For those of us in school, or thinking of going to school, the cuts to public education annihilated our last illusions of so-called prosperity. The crisis took away all ideas that our generation had a future comparable to that of the last generation.
In 2009 those cuts to public education symptomatic of the 00's became monstrously visible. In the past few months, we have seen library hours reduced, writing programs shut, tuition raised, cultural services destroyed and schools go on furlough for weeks at a time while funds continue to pour into stadium and police station renovations, the business schools and executive pocketbooks. We have seen office workers on furlough, custodians and service workers laid off.
We are angry but many of us feel powerless. As we have said, the defeat of the anti-war movement and the consequences for those who have had to flee -- or stay behind -- in Iraq and Afghanistan constitute the fundamental trauma of our generation, acknowledged or not. Traditional activism: marches, rallies, signing petitions, calls to Congress did nothing to stop the right-wing agenda. And while we may have put momentary hope in Obama, and stood in awe as America elected an African American president, we have become increasingly disillusioned by his refusal to fight for health care, environmental standards, for ending the wars abroad, indeed for a better world.
It is easy to feel powerless.
Yet what the older generation may not yet understand is that our generation's problem is that we do not lack ideals; we suffer from an excess of them. We are not unaware of important causes, we are starving for a way to realize them.
So companies prey on our starvation. They offer us a product to satiate our need for community, for purpose. We take our ideals and become the generation of Whole Foods-shoppers, Prius-drivers and American Apparel-clothes wearers. We show off our causes gladly on our Facebook page and on our t-shirts. Not only have we been sold our ideals back to us in the form of the shoes we buy and the coffee we drink, we are conscious of how our very passion is being co-opted. And still we do it, because we crave an imaginary community over no community.
Some will say that as long as we must buy things in this economy, why not buy whatever is organic, fair trade, sweatshop-free, environmentally friendly, free range? Do we need to support the most corrupt of companies and their labor practices?
We do not hope to answer those questions. Rather we need to acknowledge that the real problem is this: consumption is now framed as a question of what causes we support, what communities we are involved in. This is the opposite of the commodity fetish that hid social relations beneath the veneer of objects. Now commodities must advertise the social relations we wish to be part of.
Businessmen like Douglas Atkin are well aware of this, and his "The Culting of Brands" compares cutting-edge marketing strategies to the creation of cults centered around products (Mac, Harley Davidson, World of Warcraft). Commodities now provide us with an illusory feeling of community and social being in an imaginary realm, rather than in the concrete, material one. This economy tried to dress up our alienation in slogans of creativity and sophistication. It was no longer those in power who drove business, rather it was the customer, it was us. Consumer-generated ads that looked like video art projects hardly fooled us, but were at least more interesting than the old commercials on t.v. Business slogans made fun of consumerism, allowing us to ease our conscience and buy what we wanted.
Facebook is the model commodity of this fading decade, since it exposes both our desire for community and the reification of that desire at the same time. Our collective desire is now visible in the shadowy, inverted form of the things we buy, talk about and watch on t.v.
If the 60's and its tragedy in America revolved around the desire to extend popular struggle to issues of race, gender, orientation and environment, we are being resold that dream as farce.
Thus, it is easy to feel powerless, not merely because we are disenchanted with traditional activism and its results, but because our desire for collectivity has been displaced onto the realm of things, away from our material existence. We do too many things to show we care about this world; we do everything except come together to change it.
So now that our education and our very future are at stake, what do we do?
We can join the Facebook groups, wear the t-shirts and join the old student organizations and march at the rallies. We do not discourage any form of resistance at the same time that for many of us, these means no longer feel sufficient. Unlike some past radical movements, we say that no one should be discouraged from getting involved in struggle however they feel is right.
For those of us who are students, we need to understand our powerlessness and what role the university plays in both fostering and challenging it.
The university serves two main purposes which are antagonistic. First, the university allows for people, including people from disadvantaged backgrounds, a chance to "compete" in the economy. The university has allowed people to enter into the economy and carve out niches where before none existed. It is now easier for women, African Americans, Latin@s and Asian Americans to enter the workforce with a marketable skills set, at the same time that real equality remains distant. This dispersion of knowledge is one of the university's more progressive functions, yet it is the very aspect of the university that is now under attack.
The second role of the university is to serve to consolidate inequalities and funnel a generation of privileged students into the roles their parents occupied. By excluding people through test scores, economic and racial background, it cuts itself off from its mission of universal education. By handing out degrees, it gives a silent wink to employers that you are an obedient, pleasant, functioning member of society, and may have some skill set they can capitalize on. By prioritizing management and business departments, by funding only the scientific research that promises to produce the next great weapons, anti-depressant or supercomputers, it limits our capacity to create the world with our creativity. The university, in its links to the economy, channels our labor into only the most "practical" of endeavors.
There is no reconciliation between these two poles. The university must allow entry to more students at the same time that it excludes. This antagonism will continue to play itself out. What we are seeing now is a heightening of the tension between the roles the university plays. Its exclusionary side will gain in dominance unless we can adopt a new vision of the university.
We must therefore remember that the university has a third function as well, one almost now forgotten. The university's role, in spite of the cynicism that now attends such a claim, has been to create a vision of society and of political participation. It is this dream which we cannot jettison in our rush to overthrow the old order of the university. We can radicalize this dream, so that the university becomes a place in which the creation of new worlds takes place, a space in which new modes of social being develop and divisions between workers and students evaporate. For those of us who have been organizing with workers, faculty and other students, we not only know that such a space is not only possible, it is happening right now.
Therefore, we can and should accept the university's most radical goals: universal education, the affirmation of all areas of human knowledge and the creation of free beings. If we can affirm these things, it becomes easy to show how the university fails miserably on its promises. If we focus only on tuition hikes, worker layoffs, or cuts to class offerings, we allow the university to rebound and gain back some of the ground it has lost. If we simply wish to destroy or save the university, we only play into its ongoing antagonism. By affirming these radical promises of universal education, the affirmation of all areas of human knowledge and the creation of free beings, we can show how the university's link to the economy undermines its very foundations. We can show that only a student and worker run university could fulfill the dream spawned at its inception and carried on by generations.
However, to realize this dream, we believe we need a new model of how to relate to one another, how to organize and how to partake in our common being. One that is not based on the leadership and party-politics models we are wary of, nor one based solely on the radical past of the 60's. We have great examples of solidarity among students and workers from that decade and others, but these examples, if given too much of our focus become nothing but monumental history, dead weight. We must create a new language, a new vision of the world, a new poetry.
For some of us, there are important touchstones outside of traditional activisim to imagine this type of coming-together:
1.) The WTO protests in Seattle & elsewhere that saw unions, environmentalists, feminists and students come together not out of a forced unity, but in a joyous uprising against the economic order.
2.) Worker occupations & community councils in Argentina in the wake of the 2001-2 economic collapse. By taking over factories that bosses threaten to shut down, workers saved their jobs and ran their workplaces for themselves. They did not ask permission, they took control of their workplace themselves! Neighborhood councils organized to help people hit by the economic collapse through barter, exchange, free services and solidarity.
3.) Some aspects of the anti-war movement, especially where it was not co-opted by any one group or "leaders" discouraging direct action. We were encouraged by the broad-based and global support for the movement and the antagonism to the American war machine and the economic system that drives it.
4.) Direct takeovers of space, direct takeovers of public resources. We have the example of the landless peasants of the MST in Brazil who take land left unused in order to grow crops and create a new life. We have the example of Bolivians who recaptured their water system from those who would make a profit of it, and who ran it for themselves.
5.) Student occupations throughout the 00's, and especially the recent ones at NYU, the New School, Vienna, London (LCC), Santa Cruz, CSU Fullerton, Heidelberg, Zurich, UC Berkeley and more. Takeovers of education to create a university for all, not simply those who can afford it.
The common points in these 5 touchstone moments are as follows:
· coming-together without the illusion of unity
· direct action and occupation of space
· the organization of councils & assemblies to make decisions, the rejection of leadership models
· a broad vision & solidarity across traditional lines that divide
· joy and community as well as rage and protest
If we are to build a student movement, we must conserve the past at the same time that we move beyond it, by working through its failures. In this regard, we have more to learn from Argentina in 2002 than Paris in 1968, more to learn from Seattle than Berkeley, more to learn from the anti-Iraq war movement than the anti-Vietnam movement, more to learn from Santa Cruz in 2009 than the Students for a Democratic Society.
We need songs that are more Outkast & Janelle Monae and less Bob Dylan, more the Arcade Fire and less the Beatles, more TV on the Radio and less Joan Baez, more Lil Wayne and less Marvin Gaye, more the Knife and less the Doors.
We need poems that don't repeat the shrunken dreams of the language poets or the now-xeroxed images of Kerouac and Ginsberg. We need a language born of our crisis, born of us.
We need art and literature that is one part David Lynch, one part Marc Danielewski, one part Basquiat and one part Matthew Barney. And we need to burn it and create our own from the ashes.
We should stop expecting everyone to participate only through direct action or on the other hand only through traditionally-organized channels. Our vision must be as broad as possible.
We need to support unions, workers and faculty if they need our help; we cannot wait for them to contact us, we must go to them. We are not so arrogant as to believe that we can create a new world alone.
We need festivals and occupations and discussions and university stoppages, impossible demands, not only sit-ins, teach-ins, one-hour walkouts, manifestos and passive resistance. We must no longer ask permission to be students, to take joy in our youth and share our lives with each other.
We need not demand everything or demand nothing. We must demand the very things that will expose the universities' ties to this economic order and make their bureaucracies collapse.
We invite you to reject these premises or accept some of them. We encourage you to debate them, try them out, discover you own and share them with others. No matter what happens, you are placing yourself within the event horizon of this movement. You are recognizing that something new, amazing and overpowering has occurred. Something that doesn't yet have a name.
When a moment like this happens, like the moment before you realize you are in love, everything changes. The world is thrown into confusion. The most important things you believed in before seemed petty. You want to give yourself over to this new, thrilling event. But you are afraid. You realize how much easier it is to stay entrenched in all the habits you've clung to for years. Yet you realize that if you love, you cannot be passive. You must remake your life itself in order to follow love to its end. So you take the risk, like a throw of the dice in the void. Finally you say to yourself, yes I am in love and yes I must fight for my love, no matter what comes of it.
And there are those of us who have also said: yes, I am in love with this movement and yes I must fight for this movement, no matter what comes of it. This event without a name.
For those of us who have made that decision, tossed those dice, all we can say is this: there is more ecstasy in this world than in the one we left behind. There is more ecstasy because, like falling in love, the old world means nothing now, because what you thought was impossible suddenly becomes the very thing you can throw your arms around, lose yourself in, speed off with to the far edges of the earth.
And if sweat is soaking your face, if your fingers are shaking, if your lips have gone dry, if you are more confused and excited then ever, ask yourself this: Am I perhaps in love with this movement as well?
And if we can venture a tentative name for our love, a name that belongs to none of us as individuals, yet belongs to all of us, together, it would only be this: We are the crisis!