'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Some Reflections Upon March 4 

As I live in Sacramento, and co-host a public affairs program on KDVS 90.3 FM, the UC Davis campus radio station, I am in a fairly good position to comment upon the eruption of student protest after the UC and CSU systems substantially increased fees and reduced class offerings. After the protests in the immediate aftermath of the fee increases in late November, and the subsequent ones that took place last week, I had the opportunity to interview students who participated in them.

My impression is that the protesters are disproportionately women and people of color, and that they have taken prominent roles in the movement, contributing significantly to its radicalization. This makes sense. Many of them have entered the UC and CSU system through admission preferences that favor people from lower middle class and lower class backgrounds, preferences put in place after Proposition 209 eliminated any consideration of race in admissions. They have a strong awareness of the consequences resulting from the evisceration of health, education and welfare programs in the communities from whence they came.

Many of them are also students in the liberal arts and social sciences, parts of the university that are no longer in favor because of their perceived lack of economic utility. Such students have developed the capability of placing their experience within a theoretical context, one that draws upon ethnic studies, women's studies and sociology. Beyond, this, one hears echoes of Guy Debord and Naomi Klein in their comments, especially in relation to the colonization of the university as part of a broader colonization of of everyday life and the urgency of challenging the depoliticalization and depersonalization associated with the capitalist spectacle.

Marx is therefore a feature of the movement more in terms of their experience than in theory and practice. The students are acutely aware of what Marxists would describe as the proletarianization of the middle class. They recognize that they are being required to pay huge sums of money for an education that will qualify them for jobs that pay less and less. Upon leaving school, they will be shackled by student loan debt for years. Some, as noted in a comment to one of my earlier posts on this subject, are being forced to choose between having enough food to eat and paying for the cost of their education. They are, in effect, in the forefront of this proletarianization process, and they are just beginning to resist it.

Of course, this is not true of all students. 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. Protesters have already established connections with unions and educators in the K-12 system. Not surprisingly, neither the faculty nor the administration within UC have been very helpful, although it may be different in CSU. 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, although the activists themselves have extensive backgrounds in past efforts in furtherance of women's rights, gay rights, immigration rights and anti-imperialism. They recognize the interrelationship of these issues with what is transpiring within the university and state government. Racial incidents at UC San Diego and UCLA confirmed their perspective and provided an unanticipated synergy for their efforts by interweaving themes of economic exclusion and racial intimidation. 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.

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