Monday, November 28, 2011

a few unexpected subjects of class struggle – notes on recent university strikes

An entirely new word is being put forward by an entirely new subject. It only has to be uttered to be heard.
- Rivolta Femminile

Our universities are fraying at the seams. At schools throughout California, across the UK and in New York, we've seen waves of protest this November, including student walkouts and class cancellations unimaginable a month ago. As I write, another UC strike approaches, with others likely to follow over the coming weeks and months.

Our unsettled present is extraordinary, and unexpected. That much is clear to all. But there are different kinds of surprise, different reasons for shock. Some, particularly those speaking on national television, seem surprised above all at the severity of police attacks on our bodies and our encampments. They're shocked at images of seated students casually being pepper-sprayed, or at the unrelenting baton blows endured by those of us who linked arms around a small circle of tents. How, they ask, could such violence be visited upon students, especially when they acted non-violently, only wanted to set up a few tents, and issued little more than anodyne calls for universal public education?

Without question, we reply, the violence was severe, disproportionate, and hideous. Many of us are still hurting, and those videos are sickening. But those with whom I've spoken, those who endured violence, aren't particularly surprised at what they faced. After all, it's all happened before. At every single anti-privatization protest that's occurred in northern California since the fall of 2010, university police have shot pepper spray at students. Last year, a cop pulled a gun on a group of us. Our friends have had their hands crushed on police barricades, their ribs bruised and fractured by baton blows on the highway, and their partially-clothed bodies dragged from sleeping bags at five in the morning, first into the cold air and then to cold cells.

We knew what they were prepared to do to us. We just didn't know anyone would care this time. And neither did our assorted chancellors and police chiefs, who treated the initial round of protests in the same viciously perfunctory way they've treated other, recent actions. They are now shocked at mounting calls for their resignation; while we are surprised by – and at times unsure how to use -- our mounting collective power.


In navigating the current sequence of university protest, we've leaned heavily on each other, and have looked for words, however imperfect, from other sites of struggle. In particular, students in the bay area have followed, and have joined, recent uprisings in Oakland, from the street actions in response to the police murder of Oscar Grant, to the mobilizations this fall in defense of the Oakland Commune. When the encampment at Oscar Grant Plaza was raided last month, dozens of university students participated in the march back to the Plaza, enduring waves of tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets. The following day, we joined thousands in retaking the Plaza and declaring a city-wide general strike for the following Wednesday. During the strike, students marched down Telegraph from UC Berkeley, and then, with tens of thousands, marched to shut down the Oakland port.

These mobilizations in defense of the Oakland Commune gave university students a striking vocabulary of resistance, a repertoire of text and image that we've drawn upon and revised in shaping recent campus actions. In Oakland, the image of the mass assembly was sutured with the term “general strike” – each of us had seen the picture of the evening assembly framed with the phrase: “strike while the iron is hot” – so, at UC Berkeley and UC Davis, the moment our assemblies expanded beyond the boundaries of our quads and plazas, we similarly called for general strikes.

It's worth asking, however, just how general these strikes have been, and relatedly, whether our strike calls have been properly-tailored to their political moment. Some on the left have accused us of misusing the term general strike, of diluting the meaning of the phrase insofar as absenteeism hasn't been universal. Their point is well taken, of course: we haven't yet organized a full-scale shutdown of a city or sector of social life. Many in Oakland went to work on November 2, while nearly all university employees (excepting instructors) carried out their jobs on November 15. Nevertheless, these strikes have been remarkably widespread and effective; they've blocked, for a time, the operations of particular industries and institutions. And our repeated use of the phrase general strike seems to have enabled, and rendered legible, certain important dimensions of these events – dimensions that other terms (i.e. shutdown, blockade, boycott, or student walkout) would have failed to capture or set off.

To call a strike general is to give it a predication that puts off, or qualifies, all particularizing predications it might otherwise be given. A general strike is not a strike carried out by a clearly-demarcated body of workers; it's not called in order to effect some particular change of policy or economic practice; in terms of tactics, the general strike is promiscuous, embracing flying pickets, occupations, wildcats, mutual aid, and widespread sabotage. A strike is general only if its limits are unsettled, expansive, indistinct: if it gives birth to unexpected subjects and sites of struggle.

Our recent strike actions are perhaps most notable for their expansive quality, for how they've inspired and enabled surprising lines of struggle. In calling for a general strike throughout the city of Oakland, for instance, those gathered at Oscar Grant Plaza didn't necessarily know they were calling for the shutting down of Oakland's port, since the shutdown was planned in the days following the strike resolution. Nor did they know that, a few weeks after the successful port action, a new call – for a general, west coast port shutdown on December 12 – would be crafted and endorsed by assemblies from Portland to Los Angeles. The call for a citywide general strike released a contagion at the ports that has not yet subsided.

A similar logic of contagion has animated recent university struggles. On November 9 – a statewide day of action for public education – university police attempted to repress with force a small encampment at UC Berkeley. Students (and a few faculty members) formed soft blockades around the tents and endured two rounds of severe baton blows. While the tents were ultimately taken from us, our numbers grew throughout the day and we were able at night to hold the Sproul steps and plaza – space enough for a mass general assembly. There, we called a November 15 general strike of higher education – a call that was taken up, to an uneven degree, at other university campuses. Students at UCLA established an encampment, while those at Davis held a mass rally on the 15th, which led into an extended building occupation. When they were forced out of the building, they established an outdoor encampment. The images of Lt. Pike casually pepper-spraying students as they surrounded this encampment have gone viral, just as the general strike call issued last week by the Davis assembly has set off a rash of solidarity actions throughout the state, set to intensify in the coming days.

Both Berkeley and Davis' general strike calls have been criticized for casting too wide a net. Why not call for campus-wide, rather than system-wide, strikes, we've been asked? While it would be easy enough to simply say in response that the expansive calls have enabled a kind of campus-to-campus relay that may have been foreclosed by more narrowly-tailored calls, it's also worth noting that narrower calls might have fractured our assemblies. At Berkeley, an initial call for a system-wide UC strike was challenged by CSU and community college students, who pushed for an expansion of the call to all of higher education. Similarly, students from other UC campuses edited the strike call so that it would be more legible on their home campuses, while activists with Occupy Oakland worked to compose a supplementary call to encourage east bay residents – students and non-students alike – to march up to UC Berkeley for the November 15 general assembly. What these anecdotes reveal is the cross-sectoral heterogeneity of our assemblies – a heterogeneity that effectively disallows more conventional, narrowly-focused strike calls.

The openness of our assemblies and encampments to all is a large part of what makes them politically effective. Not only does this openness compel those who keep up the encampments to face the need for ever more meaningful forms of mutual aid, thus allowing our encampments to become actual sites of social reproduction, this openness also strengthens regional solidarities. The lesson of the 1969 TWLF strike at UC Berkeley – which succeeded only when east bay municipal workers initiated a sympathy strike – is that student movements are most effective when they are supported by, and coordinated with, social struggles outside the universities. Campus administrators are aware of this fact, and work assiduously to re-assert, through various disciplinary techniques, the political disarticulation of students from non-students. Most recently, at UC Berkeley, we've been informed by our chancellors that we might be able to keep a few tents up on Sproul if we can figure out a way to ensure that only students will sleep in them. We've yet to honor this grotesque declaration with a response.

Our insistence that occupations remain open to all and that everybody should have the capacity to reproduce their lives, free of financial exchange, within and beyond the bounds of our campuses, is not capricious; rather, this insistence is aligned with the politics of recent university struggles, insofar as these struggles have challenged prevailing, privatized regimes of social reproduction. It's worth remembering, for instance, that one of the demands advanced by the Wheeler occupiers in November 2009 was that the university renew its essentially rent-free lease with the Rochdale student housing cooperative. Or that a recent makeshift tent on the lawn in front of Sproul Hall bore a sign that read: “affordable student housing.” Ours is a struggle for autonomous social reproduction, and as such, it shares much with revolutionary feminist movements.

In The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James call for strikes in the sphere of social reproduction, rolling refusals of unwaged domestic labor that bear certain resonances with recent university strikes and occupations:
We must get out of the house; we must reject the home, because we want to unite with other women, to struggle against all situations which presume that women will stay at home, to link ourselves to the struggles of all those who are in ghettos, whether that ghetto is a nursery, a school, a hospital, an old-age home, or a slum. To abandon the home is already a form of struggle, since the social services we perform there would then cease to be carried out in those conditions, and so all those who work out of the home would then demand that the burden carried by us until now be thrown squarely where it belongs – onto the shoulders of capital.... The working class family is the more difficult point to break because it is the support of the worker, but as worker, and for that reason the support of capital. On this family depends the support of the class, the survival of the class – but at the woman's expense against the class itself.... Like the trade union, the family protects the worker, but also ensures that he or she will never be anything but workers. And that is why the struggle of the woman of the working class against the family is crucial (41).

What Dalla Costa and James indicate in this passage is that strikes in the sphere of social reproduction, while similar to 'conventional' labor strikes insofar as they directly counter exploitative forms of work discipline, appear different from such strikes in two crucial, and seemingly contradictory, respects – first, that they seem to directly undermine the survival of working class subjects, and second, that they carry with them the promise of liberating the working class from the requirement to labor in order to survive. If we translate this analysis into the university context (something that Dalla Costa and James also do, at times, in their essays), we can see certain resonances with recent student strikes. On the one hand, such strikes appear self-defeating, as evidenced by the ubiquitous refrain that a walkout in support of public education is a self-contradictory gesture. How, we are asked, can one defend public education by refusing to teach class or to attend lecture? On the other hand, such strikes appear to promise the liberation of the student from her social and economic role: such liberation would entail the abolition of student debt; the decomposition of hierarchical relations between students, professors, and university workers (which we saw hints of during the November 15 open university); and ultimately the realization of her capacity to live free of the requirement to work for wages.

What we saw with the open university at Berkeley on November 15, and what we will likely see in coming days at Davis, was a form of learning that emerged out of our collective refusal to participate in official university schedules. Our strike gave us time to meet together and to discuss, without the usual formalities or hierarchies, theoretical questions of direct relevance to our lives. This experience confirmed for us the falsity of the notion that a strike in support of public education is self-contradictory – now we know from experience that a better form of education is possible, that it lingers in the shadows of our universities, and that only through concerted strike actions will it reemerge.

If the open university made apparent the fact that we don't need grades or rigid course schedules in order to learn, in doing so it implicitly showed what these administrative forms accomplish: the sifting, training, and credentialing of future workers. Of course, we've known this about the universities, at least unconsciously, since the student movements of the 1960s, during which activists insisted that universities existed to train the next generation of technocrats and managers, and thus to enable the reproduction of capitalist social relations. This “reproductive” function of the university has itself been reproduced into the present, to be sure, but now there is another, more direct and consequential way that universities reproduce capitalist social relations – namely, through the saddling of students with massive debt burdens. As George Caffentzis has recently argued (in writing as well as at a workshop he convened at the Occupy Cal open university):
Student debt is a work-discipline issue because it represents a way of mortgaging many workers’ future, of deciding which jobs and wages they will seek and their ability to resist exploitation and/or to fight for better conditions. The overarching goal of capital with respect to student loan debt is to shift the costs of socially necessary education to the workers themselves at a time when a world market for cognitive labor-power is forming and a tremendous competition is already developing between workers. Employers’ refusal to massively invest in education in the US is not, in fact, a misreading of its class interests as theorists like Michael Hardt maintain. It is the result of a clear-cut assessment of the new possibilities opened up by globalization, starting with the harvesting of educated brains as well as muscles from every part of the world. Capital’s strategic use of student loan debts to enforce a harsher work-discipline and to force workers to take on more of the cost of their reproduction makes the struggle for debt abolition one that necessarily affects all workers. Accepting student debt is accepting a class defeat...

Caffentzis here offers us essentially half of the story of how student loan debt reproduces contemporary capitalist relations – the half pertaining to the reproduction of labor-power. The other half of the story – the story of how student debt enables the accumulation of capital – has been gradually filled in over the past two years through a series of open letters written by Robert Meister. Meister has shown how those who govern the university profit from rising student debt levels (both because student fees finance lucrative building projects, and because university regents have a stake in for-profit education firms), as well as how student debt – which now exceeds a trillion dollars nationally – is increasingly bundled and profitably traded by the financial services industry. Such debt now fuels a speculative bubble that is threatened by the specter of mass student loan default.

There are two ways that ongoing university struggles have begun to, and could yet more effectively, counter the reign of student debt, and thus directly impinge upon the reproduction of capitalist relations: first, by halting increases in tuition, and even perhaps rolling tuition levels back, we'd deactivate the primary cause of rising student debt burdens. At the UCs, we've already effectively stalled tuition increases this year, and seem to have turned back the 81% fee hike proposed by President Yudof. Further strike actions would allow us to put on the agenda the reduction of student fees. And second, by formulating and disseminating a call for mass, coordinated student debt resistance, general assemblies in New York and California have already encouraged hundreds of debtors to sign a pledge of refusal, and thus have made possible a future debtor's strike. Ongoing university struggles could make thousands of student debtors confident enough to brave default, knowing that legions of other debtors in defiance would have their back.

Given that these are the stakes of current university struggles, it's not terribly surprising that our strikes and encampments have been met with such severe police repression. But each time we're struck, we return again, stronger than before.

We're new subjects of class struggle, uttering unexpected words with ever more confidence.

Unexpected Sub Zine


  1. As always, keen, inspiring, beautiful.

  2. A few comments (#5 is most important):

    (1) the reflections on domestic labor are excellent

    "The call for a citywide general strike released a contagion at the ports that has not yet subsided."
    Can you point to specific empirical documentation on this? From what I understand, the port's operations were interupted for less than 12 hours.

    "Our unsettled present is extraordinary, and unexpected. That much is clear to all."
    Who is the 'we' here? Only the US and UK are mentioned, nothing about the 'general strike' in Portugal last Thursday - much less, say, universities, police, and struggles in China, or, gasp, Africa. It would seem that international solidarity is key to effective change, otherwise we risk really limiting our possibilities and strength by succumbing to priveleged self-absorbed navel-gazing.

    1,131 pledges to Occupy Student Debt;
    only 998,869 to go.
    (1,184 FB likes:

    (5) I wonder whether the 'expansive' rhetoric actually risks exageration and burn out. The idea that "each time we're struck, we return again, stronger than before" (or, as others put it in oddly violent sexualized language, 'screw us and we multiply') is more a hope than a description of reality. There is no innate logic of repression->movement growth, and to carry on with such dictums is blind optimism.

    In fact, getting beaten can also lead to burn out, by protestors and supporters. We should also consider the possibility that the outrageous brutal police actions drew out broader public support but such support may wear out and decline if the pattern continues. People get used to seeing reports of violence on their tickers, and images of Lt Pepper's Sunday Afternoon are funnily disturbing at first and then numbing.

    While we'll get nowhere without dreaming (King, Lennon, etc), and while the 'naive idealist' caricature is used by conservatives and reformist progressives for condescending dismissal of activists, exagerating levels of success and support and invoking innate logics of repression-resistance does us no favors in strategically imagining and putting into practice broader change.

  3. thanks for the thoughtful comments -- i'll just go point by point:

    2) the claim about contagion was mostly in reference to the fact that assemblies up and down the coast have endorsed the call for a west coast port shutdown on dec. 12. from what i've heard, the organizing is going well. the port actions are spreading, even if they are not continuous.

    3) i absolutely agree about the importance of international solidarity. that particular line was circumscribed as it was because the actions in new york and the uk are self-consciously tied to the occupy movement, and to university struggles in california. the limit of the sentence was meant to reflect a real limit of our political practice and practice of internationalism at the moment. for instance, while people in CA are following the uprisings in chile and portugal, and particularly in egypt, only very recently has the possibility of taking concerted actions across these national lines been seriously posed.

    4) we're sharing it around out here! we'll probably see in a few months how likely this pledge is to set off a debtors strike....

    5) this makes sense to me, absolutely. the essay is addressed, primarily, to people who are in fact exhausted and tired from the beatings of a few weeks ago. so, it's meant to have a somewhat inspirational effect in this moment. but generally, yes, the real effects of police violence, including the possibility that this violence will scatter or exhaust movements, should be taken seriously, and the piece doesn't really do this in an adequate way, i agree...

    thanks again for the interventions. a.