Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Call for Disassembly

From anti-capital projects:
No more General Assemblies • No more Statewide Conferences • No more Days of Inaction

The fiasco of the Oct. 7th “sit-in” demonstrates the utter bankruptcy of the General Assembly: a political form more effective than tear-gas or billy-clubs in bringing an action to a close. In our fight against the university administration, we have ceded our power to administrative mechanisms that are little better.

How is it that an institution widely regarded last year as farcical came to assume ownership over the university struggle, to assert yet again its supposed sovereign power to broker all meaningful decisions? How can we assure that the General Assembly never again comes to assume the power to neutralize, silence, and demobilize? How can we finally demystify the GA’s absurd self-presentation as a space of democracy, participation and openness?

It is tempting to think that the failures of the General Assembly are those of personality, ineptitude, and opportunism. As we all know, the GA is run by a small clique of “socialist” organizers and future politicians who follow a political script unchanged, in its unflagging failure, since 1983. These are people who have, at every turn over the last year and a half, opposed proposals for direct action, or deferred them to some never-arriving future moment when they have “built the movement.”

Because of the very events last year -- ones that were compelled to bypass the GA simply to proceed with planning -- it is now impossible to hold a day of action that does not, in fact, feature action. The GA’s call for a sit-in was an acknowledgment of this fact, and of last year’s successes. But the organizers of the GA only conceived of the October 7 sit-in, it is now obvious, as a masquerade intent on borrowing the charisma of last year’s events in order to shore up their failing political project. They had no actual desire to sit-in or occupy the library, and so the millstones of circular proceduralism -- the canned speeches, irrelevant proposals, votes on whether or not we would vote on taking a vote -- were hauled out to crush any spirit of actual resistance in the crowd, to preempt any discussion of the potentials of the present moment, or to address the practical, ready-to-hand exigencies. Were we going to stay in the space? Were we going to let the police surround us? Would we call for support from fellow comrades, make preparations for an extended sit-in? None of these things were discussed until it was already too late. Rather, we talked about what we wanted to do next week, next month, next year. Seeing the “action” for what is was -- a meeting about more meetings -- people fled in droves. The facilitators were doing the work of the administration and its hirelings for them, and none of the hammer-and-sickle icons stamped on their faces could disguise this fact. Watching from the doorways, the cops smiled and ordered pizza.

The problems with the GA are structural and ideological, and no change of facilitators will make this form work within the present political landscape. The GA is a failure because it assumes, from the start, principles of unity, majority rule and sovereign decision-making power that are incompatible with the university struggle as such. We do not need an assembly (usually composed of fewer than 50 people) to vote on what “all of us are doing” -- we need a political form based upon collaboration and affiliation, whose basic communicational unit takes the form of “This is what we want to do. Will you help?” Those who worry that this will mean a fragmenting disunity should realize that there are different forms of acting-together; there is a spectrum of consensus and dissensus, and not all forms of unity must resemble liberal-democratic parliaments.

In any case, the unity of the GA is a false one: many, many people on campus do not identify with it except as a form of alienation, an external imposition. It is a protocol that assumes, in advance, what is and is not possible. It guarantees “plans” at the lowest common denominator, whose main function is not to be disagreeable -- we must ask, is this a tenable platform for real struggle? Obviously not. We must overcome the hollowness of this small, anodyne plurality. Not by wandering away, atomized and dispirited, into the evening that had so recently promised so much -- but by abolishing the General Assembly that stands in the way of that promise, of real struggle.


A related point concerns the “statewide coordinating committees” -- these are bodies that have, at the highest level, done nothing but call for various “days of action.” What action? When will that be decided? What counts as “action” -- another meeting to plan another day of action?

The situation here is much the same: when did we cede our power to a group of 30 people to establish the timeline for the university struggle? At what point did we agree to confine our political agitation to preappointed days, always too far away, the better to be ignored by our antagonists with their tuition bills and billy clubs?

Political struggles have rhythms, carried forward by alternating waves of optimism and despair, attack and counterattack. Actions occur on certain days and not on others, until, perhaps, one reaches a prerevolutionary moment. There is no avoiding, at least for now, the day of action. But we can be choiceful and artful and strategic in deciding when and where we will fight. We can investigate the relationship between the actual, affective rhythm of political antagonism -- the state of the struggle -- and the abstract calendar laid atop it by the coordinating committee. How does the current calendar interact with the real temporality of our movement? Does it augment or diminish its power? What would have happened in the Spring of 2010 if there had been no call for the March 4th Day of Action, a day into which people poured variously exaggerated expectations? It was a good hook for journalists and other semipro chit-chatters to hang their hats and hopes on. Wouldn’t it have been better to begin building from the energy of the previous semester, without hesitation or loss of momentum? Certainly there is a power to coordinated, multi-sector and multi-campus action. The general strike model is a good one. But the days of action have, so far, produced diminishing returns as a statewide or national education movement. We shouldn’t sacrifice the possibility of contestation for a “grand day” which never arrives. It is unclear that many successful general strikes have been called by coordinating committees. Such strikes, when they do not last for merely a day or so, when they really direct their power at capital and state, are built from the bottom-up, by resonance, contagion. We were more effective in the fall of 2009 during the Regents’ Meeting, when multiple campuses rose up, despite the absence of a statewide committee.


Once again, the UCOP has proposed a further fee increase of as much as 20%, a year after they voted in an increase of 32%. Will we stop them? Or will we hamstrung by the politics of failure?

1 comment:

  1. UC Berkeley’s recent elimination of popular sports programs highlighted endemic problems in the university’s management. Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau’s eight-year fiscal track record is dismal indeed. He would like to blame the politicians in Sacramento, since they stopped giving him every dollar he has asked for, and the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means.
    A competent chancellor would have been on top of identifying inefficiencies in the system and then crafting a plan to fix them. Competent oversight by the UC Board of Regents and the California legislature would have required him to provide data on problems and on what steps he was taking to solve them. Instead, every year Birgeneau would request a budget increase, the regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, and the problems just piled up to $150 million….until there was no money left.
    It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste and inefficiencies in the system. Faculty and staff have raised issues with senior management, but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau engaged some expensive ($3 million) consultants, Bain , to tell him what he should have been able to find out from the bright, engaged people in his own organization and the academic senate..
    From time to time, a whistleblower would bring some glaring problem to light, but the chancellor’s response was to dig in and defend rather than listen and act. Since UC has been exempted from most whistleblower lawsuits, there are ultimately no negative consequences for maintaining inefficiencies.
    In short, there is plenty of blame to go around. But you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. An opportunity now exists for the UC president, Board of Regents, and California legislators to jolt UC Berkeley back to life, applying some simple check-and-balance management principles. Increasing the budget is not enough; transforming senior management is necessary. The faculty, students, staff, academic senate, Cal. alumni, and taxpayers await the transformation.