Berkeley’s March Forth

by zunguzungu

I’m still sort of processing what I think of the march 4th protests, not only because I’m selfishly busy with other stuff, but because “the movement” is getting too big to coherently generalize about, and the vividness of the small pictures (like my peeps on the left) can take away from the greater importance of the national big picture. This is a good thing, I think, though it means there really aren’t any easy answers or opinions. The many people who act like there is anything simple to say about what is happening are being simplistic (and though mindlessly denouncing and mindlessly supporting are equally mindless, I sure feel like I’ve seen a lot more of the former).

So this post is me thinking things through (if you want my take on the larger situation, you can read this). But most of American Leftist’s take (thanks Richard) seems very right to me, both as a single event and as a development within the larger movement:

“…Protesters on March 4 encountered a class divide between themselves and students from wealthier backgrounds who objected to the disruption of school. There is a class conflict emerging in the university that mirrors the larger struggle occurring outside of it…neither the faculty nor the administration within UC have been very helpful…Both are so bound to the university as an institution, and the neoliberal assumptions upon which it operates, that they are incapable of providing meaningful assistance.

“If forced to characterize the movement, I would say that it is an ideologically liberal one increasingly relying upon anarchist practice. It is liberal, because the emphasis is upon increasing social mobility through the restoration of financial support for existing educational institutions…But it appears that most students participating in the protests are motivated primarily by the recognition of their proletarianization arising from the fee increases.

“The movement finds itself compelled to adopt anarchist practice because of the inflexibility of decisionmakers that could, if they wanted, address their concerns. Anarchism has been the predominant organizational approach on the left on West Coast for nearly 20 years, as demonstrated through the direct action associated with radical environmentalists, the global justice movement that took over the streets of Seattle in 1999 and the shutdown of the financial district in San Francisco upon the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Student activists, well versed in this tradition, are utilizing horizontal methods of decisionmaking when undertaking actions and engaging in outreach. It is consistent with their belief that it is essential to provide a voice for people that have historically been denied an opportunity to shape their lives and the world around them.”

It’s a real problem that opposition to the administration’s privatization schemes is coming from two very different places: anti-capitalist opposition to the basic structures of production and reproduction — from which position, the university and freeways need to be destroyed — and adherence to the principles of social welfare capitalism by which freeways and universities are fundamental media of social mobility, and as such need to be defended from the corporatization project of the administration, regents, and Sacramento. The distinction on March 4th was very clear: I marched from Berkeley to Temescal along Telegraph avenue with a whole bunch of heterogeneous marchers, the police clearing the streets in front of us (and more or less “with” us), and after I and my liberal wishy-washy “remake the university” friends went back to the business of training American workers for their places in the American capitalist order, the anarchists got down to the business of occupying everything:

It was an impressive display. And while I’m not sure such actions are the wisest in terms of long-term strategy, you have to understand why it’s come to this. The police were not actively hostile on March 4th, but the administration’s attitude towards dissent has been, without exception, to blame it on off-campus anarchists and treat it through military logic. This video (at 0:33) doesn’t give anything like the whole story, but it will give you a sense for what the sort of people who refuse to be shut out of the decision-making process (and we have all been shut out of the decision making process) are faced with: be ignored or be arrested.

Still, while there are causes for which I would have walked out onto a freeway and stopped traffic — I participated in direct actions in DC in the days before the invasion in 2003, for example, and would again – I’m not sure this is one of them. My commitments to the university do not include or imply a complete opposition to the capitalist structures of our society, and I don’t want to pretend that they do. Which is why I’m concerned that this kind of rhetoric, for example, from Anti-Capital Projects, is so irreconcilable with the reasons I and a lot of marchers marched:

“A freeway, in this sense, is merely one of the most visible forms of the lines of force that cut up our cities and, in turn, our lives, that butcher them according to the logics of race and class, money and property. How can we see these arteries as anything less than instruments for the formation of a controlled population, instruments in the successive waves of urban centralization, white flight, gentrification? They are checkpoints and blockages – massive pours of concrete, of labor, erected to determine who gets to go where and how…Some people have counterposed the occupation of buildings to the freeway takeover on the grounds that the former challenges property directly, that a building can be emancipated, communized, turned into a liberated zone for care and conversation, planning, learning, fun and eating and dancing…Still, the obvious point here is that you can’t communize a freeway. You can only destroy it…We will have to learn to do this well, to shut down the flows and pours of capital and labor. Those who oppose this action on the grounds of a theory of property or value miss the fact that property is not a thing; it’s not matter. It’s a social relation, a form of interaction between people that is mediated by objects and signs. By commodities and commands. The freeway is no less a part of this relation than a university building. At the most abstract level, ours is a world in which there are bodies and there are values. The freeway is an instrument for circulating the former according to the self-expanding imperative of the latter. Buildings have no intrinsic value beyond this circulation – beyond the inbox of bodies and the outbox of values. As such, we must learn to attack not only the immediate place of production but its apparatus of circulation as well. We must learn both to destroy and to emancipate.

This is a coherent intellectual position, and I respect it, but I don’t particularly share it, especially because I don’t see these people making effective affective appeals to people who are not already committed to some form of fundamental revolution. “Occupy Everything” is a great slogan, but it’s also become an in-group marker that locks people out, and what happened at the end of the day — after I had gotten off the bus and back to the work of being a university employee — marks a useful way of differentiating the two. Of course, as I said, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing that “the movement” is fundamentally at odds with itself. We shouldn’t necessarily be afraid of diversity, you know, and just because the phrase “democracy is messy” has been co-opted by Rumsfeldians to mean “we get to kill people in Iraq,” there’s an underlying truth to the sentiment. As Angus Johnston puts it:

“The contemporary American student movement isn’t an organization or a political party. Nobody was screening March 4 actions and giving out credentials. There was no seal of approval. This was a grassroots event. Nobody had the power to impose a common agenda on the events, because the events weren’t coordinated or conceived by a central body. Anybody could mount an action on March 4, and just about everybody did. That’s how social movements roll…That diversity is a reflection of the vigor and vitality of the movement.”

I think everyone who took part in those events has a different perspective on them, and if “the movement” is to amount to anything, it will have to come from building collective practice out of common goals where we find them, both respecting our fundamental differences and finding ways to make common opposition to the administration into effective organizing. I’m not particularly optimistic. The loudest voices of the people actually doing things tends to be so focused on complete upheaval as to make them unrepresentative of the majority of people with skin in this game, who are, by and large, not doing things for this reason. Yet while a police sponsored protest march will never provoke the kind of change that’s necessary, “occupy everything” as a slogan will simply not draw people out of their inaction. I’m also not particularly pessimistic; one of the hopeful signs is the willingness of some of the more vocal anti-capitalists to acknowledge the youth of this movement, the growth it needs to do. And the intransigence (and general tone-deaf blundering) of the administration is so profound that they radicalize more and more people with tone-deaf email and police brutality at a time. So maybe the two sides are coming closer together.

And on that last note, Scott Saul’s piece in The Nation on the life and times of Mario Savio — the man who took off his shoes before standing on a police car so as not to dent the roof — has a lot of relevance for what’s going on here. As he puts it:

“…thirty years of conservative counterrevolution have made even some campus progressives yearn for the leadership of Clark Kerr, the “Machiavellian Quaker” who pushed through (in retrospect) a stunning public investment in higher education. In October labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein launched a UC Santa Barbara teach-in on the crisis of public higher education in California with a paean to Kerr’s “forgotten legacy.” Savio saw Kerr as a bureaucrat who believed that history had ended; Lichtenstein claimed him as a “visionary” who believed that “mass higher education” was “the key to a dynamic, harmonious society based on skill and knowledge”–and who secured public financing for a history-making expansion of the UC system, adding three entirely new campuses and greatly expanding another, while holding to the principle that no students should have to pay tuition to attend the university. Speech may not have been free in Savio’s time, but public higher education largely was (at least for the predominantly white young people tracked into the system): Berkeley undergraduates in the fall of 1964 paid only $220 per year in fees, or around $1,500 in today’s dollars. By the standards of our age, the administrative Kerr of 1960 was a brazen utopian, predicting that Americans in 1984 would have a four-day workweek and 50 percent more income, and imagining a vastly more equal economic order in the United States.”

“By contrast, the current UC president, Mark Yudof, has been intellectually uninspired, politically clumsy and administratively heavy-handed–a combination that has alienated faculty, staff and students, and left the UC system reeling from the $600 million slashed from its budget by the state. [ZZ: for example. And.] Even Savio, who accused the university of being an “autocracy,” might have been dumbfounded when Yudof publicly claimed “emergency powers” as his first response to the budget crisis; when he appointed no faculty with recent experience in an undergraduate classroom to a much-heralded “Commission on the Future” of the UC system; and when he saddled students with the bill for the budget gap, raising undergraduate fees by 32 percent (to $10,333, up from $3,429 a decade ago).”

(Also, from the world of face book testimonial, this, and this).