The University and the Ruins of the Present

Our $800 fee hike is the direct result of an unstable global financial system.

As of the Regent’s meeting vote on November 18th, UC tuition has gone up over $800. A year at UCLA, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Davis and Irvine now costs over $11,000 when in 2000 it cost $3,429. That means if you make $10 an hour, you’ll have to work 80 more hours next year, or if you’re a Freshman, take out $2,400 more in debt before you graduate. The tremors of the economic crisis continues to spread, and our chances of getting a job we want with our degrees becomes more and more slim. This is our future...

How can we understand this tuition hike in the context of broader social conditions? We find ourselves in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. 2008 was a shock to the economy as a whole and will no doubt render the world we lived in before unrecognizable. Overproduction of and speculation on real estate, the creation of unsustainable financial tools to be invested in, rising mortgage, credit card and student loan debt -- all of these created a crisis in which banks couldn’t lend, people couldn’t pay their bills and abandoned their homes, and states and governments ran out of money to spend. In order to cope with the massive problems caused by the financial crisis, governments around the world have responded in two major ways: austerity measures and debt financing.

Austerity: the Dialectic of Too Much and Not Enough

A certain narrative frames tuition hikes as the result of problems with the university budget and the lack of money coming in from the State of California. At one level, the problem is not a lack of money, but a question of how it is prioritized. Billions of dollars flow through the UC system. This money gets directed away from raises for workers and undergraduate education and goes to executive bonuses, new police stations and expensive graduate student housing. Let’s also not forget that the State of California spends more money on prisons than education. Public spending in general has expanded over the neoliberal period, funding such endeavors as bailouts for the largest banks and war in the Middle East. The logic that would posit the budget cuts and fee hikes as the necessary results of the economic crisis are therefore false. The University has, from this perspective “too much.”

Yet at another level, we can see a long term-trend towards a defunding of the public sector by governments and the implementation of austerity measures. These measures involve cutting funding to social services, such as hospitals and libraries, public transportation, and of course, education in order to compensate for a lack of money coming in from elsewhere. What this means is that in order to deal with the problems caused by bankers, speculators and stock brokers – those who brought on the financial crisis – governments place the burden on students, forcing them to pay more for their education. The university seen from this perspective, will continue to have “not enough.”

Debt and its False Master

The other pole of austerity is debt financing, meaning the use of bonds and loans in order to pay for an economic system in ruins. This occurs at a national level – the US government deficit has expanded exponentially since the Clinton years – and at the level of the individual seen in the expansion of consumer debt.

Because of this economic crisis, we have seen how governments, even with austerity measures in place, still can't afford to fund the public sector fully. Therefore, they prop it up artificially by selling bonds (to countries such as China, Japan or Germany). In other words, the public sector continues to rely on an increasing amount of debt and growing national budget deficits.

Furthermore, the lack of public spending that comes with austerity measures displaces the financial costs of an education onto students, and this often means increased personal debt – student loans, credit cards. In turn, student loan and credit card debt become complex financial instruments that investors speculate on, recreating the very dynamics that created the 2008 collapse in the first place.

The University as a Ruin to Come

How does the university function within this economic collapse? A university degree used to promise a middle class wage for those who could get in and graduate. Tuition could be seen as an investment in a secure future. Whereas once the university specialized workers for a growing economy, in the era of postfordism and the eclipse of full-time salaried jobs, the promise of a university degree is breaking down. The university prepares us for jobs that have vanished. The university becomes more and more about labor discipline, the need to create a subjectivity which internalizes the demand to be hirable, the self-fashioning of human capital. We learn to become adaptable workers, capable of entering into the changing needs of the system, people who see social life through the lens of adding all our experiences to a CV.

Against the Wall

While these disciplining forces are at work, we have seen a different type of trend within the university: the emergence of vibrant student struggles all over the world. Since 2008, there have been waves of student occupations and blockades against austerity measures and other key student issues. This November we have seen occupations at British universities against the tripling of student fees and the closure of high schools across France in support of the general strike against pension reform.

One might say that once the economy “recovers,” all will return to normal – fees go back down, and austerity measures be reversed. But what if, as thinkers such as Gopal Balakrishnan, David Harvey and Robert Brenner have argued, we have reached the limits of capital? Debt, austerity and the fluctuations of the economy show us that the kind of growth we have known since the end of World War II in America is no longer sustainable. It is the private sector itself that is now propped up by consumer and government debt: a permanent bubble economy, an unsustainable economics. What if this is not one more crisis to add to the ash heap of time, but the burning away of the ashes themselves?

The Situation is Excellent

Students have historically catalyzed and supported broader movements: in May 68 in France, in Mexico City in 2000 and in Greece in 2008. Student struggles are indicative of larger social and economic dynamics, bound to them and capable of transforming them.

One path to take is retrenchment – to pull of the cap over one's eyes so as to not see the monster, walk dejectedly across the ruins This is no option. There are no easy answers for how to resist; we have no idea what to do, but we will do it. Reworking our struggle will be our education, the ruins will be our friend. Because of this, we say: “there is great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.”

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