An Occupy Wall Street round-table chaired by Jeremy Varon: what I said at the New School’s UPSS conference

The UPSS (Union of Political Science Students) organised a conference, “New Political Movements”, and asked me to be on a round table on student occupations and OWS.

(Rough notes:)

A week or so ago, hundreds of striking students fighting austerity measures and tuition hikes were kettled for three hours in broad daylight in between two parts of their campus, then fined $444 each, by riot police in Québec, for failing to obey an injunction ordering them back to classes. The situation is Québec is being described as completely unprecedented, a sensation of general student and high schoolers’ strike in 184 student unions. In a return of a factory strike style use of physical demarcation, the strikers wear a red square; power has responded to this unification hysterically, no one displaying one has been allowed on campus for two weeks now. A fascinating detail consists of some non-striking students having forced the university to re-open classes and render protest on campus illegal; circumstances the University itself finds highly vexing. I’d just like to see a show of hands: who thinks the UQO students in Gatineau, in Québec, are going to win? The question, I think, is whether in this case occupation represents the next strategic step. This panel is convening on the subject of student occupations, in their multifarious applications, but I think it does well to open like this with a mention of action in Québec much more reminiscent of the tactic of the flying picket. Not only because it draws out yet another potential identity between the erstwhile factory and today’s university, but because it calls into question a certain reductive hierarchy of radicality, with occupation at its peak.

I’m taking some of these thoughts from Élise Thorburn, a collaborator like Jeremy in the journal for Occupied Studies I’ve started up and edit with Hannes Charen and others, and I just want to slip in here before I begin, a call for submissions to complete our second volume. Élise is organising a conference at her university in Toronto entitled the University is Ours: a Conference on Struggles within and Beyond the neoliberal university. I urge you to go!

The Université du Québec en Outaouais events notwithstanding, it is probably best to start things a little bleakly: there’s nothing worse for politics than the demented optimism of unjustified pride in a movement barely there. If the university was once a hotbed of revolutionary ambition, it too seems to have suffered the same fate as the broader culture.  That students were at the fore of a movement that brought the French state to the brink of collapse, for example, is almost unimaginable to those of us who came of age during “the plagues of Reagan and Bush”. I’m born too late and in the wrong place to have studied at an institution that provided foot-soldiers for Québec City and Seattle, but I gather that organizing towards those convergences took place overwhelmingly away from campuses. They have generally ceased to be hubs of radical agitation in the last four decades, though display some signs — in recent years — of this changing. To lament this is not to suggest that the university is somehow outside of the broader political economy and therefore to be expected to be a key source of challenge to the status quo. But neither do we want to dismiss how universities remain institutions where a certain amount of experimentation is still possible, where some opportunities still arise to enter into engagements “discontinuous with the universalizing telos of capital”.

California student fightbacks in 2009, and UK equivalent in 2010, were largely, of course, defensive efforts to preserve the status quo in the face of bold new incursions from the right. We face (says James Butler) “the increasingly paranoid and securitised institution of the university – which sees itself as a concentration of resources, a treasure-house in which potent ideas can only be unlocked by possession of the right credentials.” But also: signs that it might be possible to transform the university. Three nodes: alone, nothing much, but together, potentially enabling of broader forms of reclamation.

  1. new forms of assembly that have emerged as efforts to challenge the top-down governance structures of our universities.
  2. “militant” research strategies have been engaged as new ways to radicalize the production of knowledge
  3. Efforts have been made to wrest academic knowledge production from the hands of corporate publishers

You will note that none of these prefigurative forms of fightback against the neoliberalization of the university requires an actual occupation. They express the ideal of free education, where, of course, the word ‘free’ exploits its double meaning in English to the full. And as James, again, who was with me in the Oxford Education Campaign, says, “Free education is not something that can be achieved by resisting the most recent steps in the long march towards total marketisation, but by moving against the institutional frameworks that determine what education should contain, or should do – which are so deeply embedded in the notion of marketable ‘skills’ and corporate box-ticking that they’ve become a seeming ineluctable condition of education for those of us inside those institutions. A truly ‘free’ education requires first, and above all, an act of imagination which refuses to be conditioned on the premises of education as it already exists.”

I want to make a distinction before closing between gratitude an ingratitude. Faced with the sometimes less than eager character of the solidarity action students have been able to attract, the reluctance and the reservations divers anti-capitalist political formations seem to harbour about alliances with students, the undeniable suspicion of students’ traditional ‘labor’ allies the embarrassment of organized communities, and the benign mirth of classic conservatives, I think we have to consider how the occupation of a university has sometimes somehow become a wholly recuperated gesture of gratitude. Sometimes half-baked projects amount to tactical missteps, ad one pays for such errors politically. The grateful occupation is the occupation that isn’t really worthy of the name. Indeed, students are sometimes delighted at their own impunity, which is dangerous when combined with their university-derived desire to repeat or emulate the annexation of educational space … their unconscious desire to have a purer, absolutely non-public zone within which to self-educate. It is a misunderstanding of education, let alone of occupation, but it is completely understandable given the tricky status of the university today: simultaneously an exciting locus for the circulation of struggles, a last vestige of the possibility of engagements discontinuous with the logic of capital, and also a disciplinary machine, a factory floor for the production of hegemonic ideology.

Crucially, we must remain ungrateful. So what then, is the ungrateful occupation, and how can we seriously work towards configuring the ideal of the autonomous university whilst undertaking one, if indeed we should undertake occupations? I think in theory the ungrateful occupation is the starting point for throwing wide open the doors of education. It takes education too seriously to be grateful for the privatized, instrumentalized, marketized travesty of it. It dares to think of what it might mean to ‘free’ education. The ungrateful student understands not just that she isn’t getting a good deal, that in the neoliberal university she is labouring for the production and reproduction of herself in the image of capital and class conflict, but also what George Caffentzis describes when he calls the repayment of student debt deeply immoral. The ungrateful occupation rejects the idea that education is a privilege, but, crucially, takes the task upon itself to prove the point conclusively. If education is the most precious thing we have, that is also to say that its captive simulacrum, however important and prized, cannot come before the struggle for its liberation. The Québecois students are now facing the “problem” of having to be graded after only 7/13 classes in the semester. But they are also demonstrating in a pretty inspiring way their willingness to fight for a university worthy of their attendance.

I saw in Oxford the euphoric flooding of anti-austerity students incensed by the proposed tripling of fees into an old stone University library, part of the Bodleian, and central symbol of elite academic enclosure. Around the country, too, UK student occupations became key spaces for participation in organizing anti-cuts demonstrations and marches which attracted numbers unprecedented since the opposition to GW Bush’s opening world war.

The space of occupation does not have to be the university itself. The Really Free School in Bloomsbury, and the Bank of Ideas, near Finsbury Park, the May Day Free University in Madison Square Park, were germinal instantiations, I think, of the autonomous university as well as occupations or what would more usually be called squats. To close with one last quotation from Pierce Penniless: “What would it be to posit a space in which the logic of acquisitive concentration was itself rejected?”

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