Questions for a New Movement

Against the Current, No. 145, March/April 2010

Adam Dylan Hefty

PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES IN California during Fall 2009 saw the eruption of a movement to defend public education — and more broadly, public services and goods — from an onslaught of cuts and fee hikes in the wake of the 2008-09 economic downturn and federal and state budget cuts.

In many ways, the situation affecting California public universities is not new; the crisis is rooted in contradictions at play since the 1970s. Activists particularly at smaller, “non-flagship” campuses have used terms like “neoliberalization,” “privatization” and “corporatization” to describe what’s happening in their universities for several years.

Now the global economic downturn and the state fiscal crunch, combined with funding and restructuring priorities within the university systems themselves, have created a perfect storm that generalized and intensified at least three major dynamics: austerity (budget cuts, leading to worker furloughs and program cuts), decreased access (fee hikes, lower enrollment, and less availability of classes), and privatization (the public university’s increased reliance on student fees, private donations, and bonds for operation and expansion — and the effect this has on educational priorities).

There have been local and campus-specific struggles around these issues for years, and the idea of a statewide movement had been raised before. Before Summer 2009, however, nothing had coalesced beyond the campus level. The announcement of widespread cuts affecting not only University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) campuses, but community colleges, K-12 public education, and public health and social services triggered recognition of the severity of the situation.

The Movement Is Born

The initial catalyst for action was the call for a statewide walkout by UC faculty on September 24. The rest is (very recent) movement history. Unions and student groups throughout the UC system joined the call for the 9/24 day of action, and thousands protested around the state. Several building occupations and sit-ins, with various rhetorical and tactical foci, built a sense of ongoing struggle beyond single days of action. Actions began to take place on CSU campuses and at a few community colleges as well as throughout the UC system.

On October 24, the new movement came together as such at a statewide conference at UC Berkeley. Simply bringing together hundreds of activists from many UC and CSU campuses and some community colleges and K-12 education activists was a huge success, though the democratic process and resulting conference action plan were messy and to some extent unsatisfying for many.

The next statewide action coincided with the UC Regents’ meeting at UCLA, November 17-19. (The CSU Board of Trustees also met that week.) While the Regents voted to hike student fees by 32% over the next year, student protests made national news, with another wave of occupations and a blockade preventing the Regents from leaving the UCLA campus for several hours. Ongoing face-offs continued until shortly before winter break.

This very short thumbnail sketch of many events that transpired in a relatively short time period is worthwhile in order to take a look at where the movement stands now, as activists look towards an even larger strike and day of action planned for March 4 and beyond.

After the events of Fall 2009, this movement sees itself as a movement and as a force to be reckoned with. We realize that we are up against powerful forces in the state and structural logic that make our work very difficult, but we share a hope that we can have an impact on the course of events. Of course, this hope is not a constant; many of us wrestle with depression and despair over the state of our universities and the world. But generating enough hope to keep people looking forward is one of the first tests we face, and this new movement has met that test so far.

An expanded core of people think of themselves as active participants, and many are devoting extensive time and thought to it. Furthermore, the movement has entered mainstream political discourse in contradictory but important ways. In justifying a new proposal for a constitutional amendment to shift state funding from prisons to public universities, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff said, “Those protests on the UC campuses were the tipping point.”

Of course, Schwarzenegger’s proposal is politically problematic, suggesting a move towards prison privatization which maintains the logic of widespread imprisonment and treats prisoners as so much human detritus, and it may be more of a rhetorical stance than a serious policy proposal. It isn’t anything that the movement can endorse; the governor’s 2010-2011 budget restores some funding to UC and CSU, but deepens cuts to social services and public transportation.

Nevertheless, the fact of this proposal means that we already have shifted the political discussion and to some extent the balance of forces in the state, even as we continue to lack a statewide political voice with accountability to movement concerns.

We face some problems as well. On September 24, the movement was constituted by a broad range of forces within the university, principally union members, professors, and students (both undergraduates and graduates). Most of the actions after October 24 suggested that it had become essentially a student movement. Although unions bused members to UCLA for the Regents’ meeting and many professors remained active, the initiative had passed to the students, particularly to those most committed to direct action and especially occupation tactics.

Tensions emerged, particularly between some professors and the direct-action/occupation wing of the student movement. While the mobilizations around the Regents’ meeting were quite successful in garnering media attention, establishing a sense of a growing movement around the state and making the Regents pay a political price for their decision to raise fees, the rallies accompanying these actions were in many cases smaller than their September 24 counterparts. This reflected to some extent a narrowing of the movement.

Occupations: Beginning of A Balance Sheet

One particular question has been the centrality of occupation as a tactic. My own thinking on this question has changed as the movement has developed. Initially, when fellow activists raised the prospect of an occupation at UC Santa Cruz in Spring 2009, I thought that an occupation would have been  premature. I felt an occupation might make sense only after a movement had already been built with the support of a majority of students, staff, and teachers on campus.

If a mass movement was frustrated in its attempts to win change through other avenues, I thought, it would support militant actions such as occupations, but to use these tactics without first building a movement with significant support struck me as unnecessarily polarizing, possibly alienating some potential allies. It’s fair to say that some polarization and alienation did accompany this past Fall’s wave of occupations, but the occupations also had positive effects.

For much of Spring 2009 and even up to September 24, activists had a hard time generating much hope that collective action could change the seemingly inevitable dismantling of large parts of the university. Many wondered what a march or rally — or even a one- or two-day strike — could really accomplish. UC Santa Cruz in particular has been no stranger to campus activism and protest over the past few years, but a similar dynamic pertained throughout the state.

While the logics of particular occupations varied, and some of them foundered upon significant tactical blunders and political errors, occupations created a sense that something was happening outside of routinized channels of protest. If the first two or three occupations had been isolated occurrences, probably their contradictions would have outweighed the excitement they generated. However the idea of occupation spread geographically and, critically, developed along diverse tactical, strategic and political lines.

While the first set of occupations intended to interrupt business as usual by shutting down a campus space, several subsequent occupations, such as library occupations and UC Berkeley’s Live Week, attempted to open up closed spaces within the university for discussion and community use. The first few UC occupations relied on a theory of “demandlessness,” a notion that presenting demands to the administration or the state (which would ignore them or agree to a few minimal demands only to later renege anyway) would be futile. Instead, occupiers argued, we should focus on the creativity of the space opened up by occupations.

This logic, sometimes presented in flowery situationist rhetoric, was initially rather unintelligible for much of the campus community. Later occupations around the state issued lists of demands ranging from a broad vision of a democratic restructuring of the university to the resolution of specific local grievances. I don’t want to present these shifts as an uncontroversial or a transparently progressive story of an “evolution” of occupation politics; in fact, these exact questions (“hard,” locked-down occupations vs. “soft,” permeable, occupations and sit-ins; demandlessness vs. strategic use of demands) are points of great contention within occupation circles. The point is, rather, that the politics and practice of occupations have been able to shift quickly in response to criticisms and re-thinking; therefore, it would be unfair to characterize occupations as a static tactic.

On the other hand, the drawbacks of an occupation-centered strategy remain, some of which lie outside the control and intentions of the occupiers. Several key activists who have been involved in occupations acknowledge and in fact foreground the need for a broad movement that is not reducible to occupations.

Nonetheless, occupations tend to take a lot of time and political energy, not only on the part of the occupiers themselves but also on others who need to figure out how to relate to specific occupations and rise to the defense of activists facing administrative and legal consequences. Occupations are by nature splashy, and they tend to divert attention at least momentarily from other movement activities.

Throughout this discussion I’ve tended to refer to occupations-in-general, which makes them sound more coordinated and less messy than they actually are. Every occupation involves a series of tactical decisions, and sometimes, in particular instances, those decisions turn out badly; then, the movement as a whole has to defend itself. (Of course, on the flip side, occupations also force administrators to make a quick series of tactical decisions which also have a likelihood of error; administrative over-reaction can play a role in galvanizing sympathy for an occupation and even for the movement as a whole.)

Furthermore, as students radicalize, there can be a kind of group-think that develops around the question of who is down for ever-more “radical action,” the term used in the CA student movement for direct actions involving high levels of militancy and risk. To my thinking, the term is somewhat incoherent. Radicalism involves going to the origin or root of a problem; our analysis and strategy could be described as radical if they do this.

A high-risk, militant, direct action is “radical” to the extent that it is strategically sound and gets us to the root of a problem identified in our analysis; if it misses the mark in these respects, it is not so radical. Similarly, a tactically low-risk action, such as flyering or marching, could serve radical ends if it flows from a precise strategic understanding and a coherent analysis. Some occupation-related discussions have fetishized tactical readiness (“can we take and hold a given building”) over organizing actions that flow from a strategic power analysis of the situation. In its worst moments, this can lead to a dynamic where collective activity is less than the sum of individually thoughtful parts.

To the extent that administrators use police to respond to occupations, a logic of repeated skirmishes takes hold. Many of the people we need to be key participants in this movement — including union members, teachers and many students — have neither the stomach nor the legal status for teargas-laden battles and possible arrest. A heavy police response to occupations can constitute a big mistake on the part of university administrators, creating a rift between administration and faculty. But it’s important for the movement not to allow itself to become a series of such skirmishes.

The recent history of direct action politics in the United States since Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests confirms the common-sense idea that battling it out with the cops isn’t for everybody. If there isn’t a space where a broad range of people feel safe participating, the movement’s breadth may shrink.

I would argue that occupations themselves do not constitute a strategy, even though some occupationist thinkers have argued otherwise. The simplest version of this notion — articulated on a few occupation-related blogs shortly after September 24 — was that, in the context of an economic crisis in which capitalism ceased being able to reproduce a palatable daily life, the idea of occupation would spread across society. This was one sense behind the catchy slogan, “Occupy Everything.” This strikes me as an insufficient strategy in a couple of key respects.

First, it overextends the notion of crisis into a vision of short-term sharp collapse. This seems unlikely. Clearly the old model of “growth neoliberalism” is in crisis; in fact, California’s current economic and political conundrum may be something of a testing ground for competing notions of what comes next: “austerity neoliberalism” vs. attempts to revitalize the public sector to some extent. But the idea that capitalism itself has entered a terminal crisis, or will soon be so weakened that it could easily be replaced with small bands of friends operating on the basis of mutual aid, owes more to the kind of post-apocalyptic fantasy that seems all the rage in Hollywood these days than to serious analysis.

Unfortunately, even with a small rash of occupations spreading around the world, left-wing ideas and politics remain out of general conversation and out of imaginative reach for most people. We need to rebuild a Left in this country, including social movements and some kind of public Left politics.

Secondly, this occupation-as-strategy notion overestimates the present reach of radical ideas and the ease with which they might spread. Radical ideas and even some practices may gain a cultural, generational, regional cachet without being easily generalized. Statements of international solidarity and the proliferation of occupations of various sorts, from the University of Vienna to the California Valley Miwok Tribe’s occupation of a foreclosed home, can be oversold under the sign of a globalized “occupation movement.”

Occupations are a useful tactic for the student movement; they can excite people, get quiescent “armchair leftist” students involved in the movement, and sometimes positively affect the balance of forces within the university. But they constitute neither a royal road to radical social change nor a shortcut to mass-level anticapitalist consciousness. They must find a place within a larger strategy. The more sophisticated approaches to the idea of occupation as a strategy do acknowledge this, while arguing that occupations can open a new political space.

Mass Movement: Easier Said than Done!

If occupation-based organizing constitutes the most visible and charismatic pole of the movement, general assemblies on various campuses and an infrastructure built out of the October 24 conference — focusing on regional and city-wide networks organizing for March 4 — attempt to encompass and expand the breadth of the movement.

There seems to be somewhat broad though not universal consensus that one principal task for the movement right now is to broaden itself as much as possible. It needs to include union members, faculty, and students who aren’t prepared to participate in highly militant actions, the forces who brought together the movement on September 24. And many activists have called to broaden the movement even further.

At the October 24 conference, a contingent from Southern California made a passionate case that our understanding of the need for public education has to be linked with the struggle for immigrants’ rights. In the aftermath of Schwarzenegger’s proposal, many have suggested that we need to make common cause with prisoners’ rights advocates against privatization. And consistently, activists have wanted to connect with local, community struggles fighting privatization and austerity, in the community colleges, K-12 public education, and with respect to other public services. Finally, the movement in California has inspired organizers elsewhere around the country to attempt the organization of a national day of action for March 4.

Clearly, many ways of broadening out the movement would be useful, and we should broaden our thinking even where organizational fusion or close coalition work are not necessarily in the cards. In my judgment we have not yet achieved a stage of generality where extensive joint work is possible with immigration or prison rights activists.

In the case of prison rights, certainly the Schwarzenegger proposal should give us the opportunity for some joint forums and thinking about how our struggles might intersect and/or get played against one another. If the initiative turns out to be a serious legislative proposal in something like its present form, that opportunity for joint work may be extended. Perhaps even more importantly, we need to deepen our own thinking about the way public education relates to other public priorities in the state and how race and class function in public conversations around those priorities.

There is a contradiction here between a kind of populism — the idea that these cuts impact everyone, and fighting them requires that we transcend our differences — and an understanding of how the more vulnerable are differentially impacted anytime public goods are cut. This also relates to simmering, racialized conflicts that have broken out several times in the movement around questions of leadership, priorities, political analysis, independence and working together.

Broadening the movement within the UC and CSU communities is an immediate necessity for March 4 and beyond. But how? What is holding the movement back from being broader? I suspect that the sense that occupations are the movement, rather than one facet of the movement, plays a role, but on the whole this is probably a secondary factor. More significantly, we need to realize that while an expanded core of people who think of themselves as movement activists is a good thing, a successful movement also includes a lot of people who at least initially think of themselves as followers. There are many more who will actively support a movement and come to actions and events if they are convinced that the movement has a “plan to win,” a readily communicable strategy that can plausibly lead to achieving concrete goals.

Of course, what would constitute winning — and what the goals of the movement are — are both up for debate to some extent. In general, the movement shares short-term goals, such as stopping the fee hikes, declining accessibility, program cuts, and privatization. Achieving these goals — or at least staunching the bleeding — is possible over the short term even within the current state budgetary cycle. Within the UC system, for example, the current austerity program is as much or more a consequence of priorities than the state budget crisis.

While other universities around the country have frozen new construction projects and dipped into their reserves to fund current programs, the UC actually loaned money to the state to finance new construction projects, refused to tap its reserves, and has hired an increasing number of mid- and top-level administrators over the past 15 years. The university has chosen to promote programs and facilities that tend to draw private-sector funding and has been willing to starve many programs that do not draw such support.

These misguided priorities could be reversed, and UC funding and fees could be restored to pre-crisis levels. (CSU, and even more so the community colleges, have much less room to maneuver outside the parameters of yearly state budgets.) Nevertheless, over the medium- to long-term, maintaining high-quality public education in California will require a reversal of decades-long trends of public sector disinvestment.

Furthermore, many movement activists have a vision of what the movement is about that goes beyond stopping cuts or maintaining the university as it is and has been; there’s recognition of the need to envision a more deeply democratic, more truly public and universal system of higher education.

Having a plan to win does not mean always focusing on the smallest, most easily achievable goals at the expense of anything bigger. Getting a few crumbs while universities and other public institutions around us are dismantled would be a Pyrrhic victory. Having a plan does mean that we need to be able to tell a story about how we might win and how we will recognize we are making progress.

Neither “occupy everything” nor a proliferation of assemblies, coalitions and conferences constitute by themselves a compelling plan to win. We need to base our strategy around a power analysis of the university and the state as well as the conjuncture, although I cannot develop this analysis in detail here.

It’s worth observing that the Schwarzenegger proposal constitutes evidence that, despite some missteps, the movement made the right choice when critics said we were wrong to focus our protests on campus instead going to Sacramento. We concentrated our energies on campus, where we have the most power and could garner the most support — and the whole state, including Sacramento, heard us. Although neither Schwarzenegger’s solutions nor others already proposed or in the works from various major state political figures represent the aspirations of our movement, they are a sign that we are having an effect.

Two-Pronged Strategy: University and State

Looking at March 4 and beyond, what is our strategic focus? The October 24 conference agreed to leave the particulars of March 4 mobilizations up to each campus — a somewhat controversial decision, since many activists wanted to push for a statewide higher education general strike. As a compromise, March 4 is being described as a “strike and day of action.” At the moment, the focus seems to be mainly along the “day of action” or “week of action” model: activists want March 4 to be a mobilization which will dwarf September 24 and the protests around the Regents’ meeting in size and scope.

What do we hope to achieve with a large, militant mobilization March 4? What do we hope the build-up to March 4 will allow, and what new possibilities will the mobilization itself bring forth? Of course large mobilizations are almost always positive for the causes they endorse, but we need to re-imagine this particular mobilization in the context of the institutions we are engaging and challenging

Certainly many hope to pull off a more-or-less general strike that would grind daily university business to a halt throughout the state, forcing administrators and politicians to accede to the demands of the movement (or, to accept autonomous, activist-led spaces within the university). Others seem to think that this goal, while ideal, may not be realistic — particularly given union contracts that forbid most campus workers from striking; instead, we should think in terms of a “week of action” that would be broader and more protracted than the one around the November Regents’ meeting.

The movement needs to face a few major strategic questions. One is developing different strategies on the campus, regional, university-system and state levels. In the UC system, for example, a “corporate campaign” of the type unions have used against large, intransigent employers could be quite effective. This would require identifying key decision-makers in the UC system and understanding the relationships upon which they rely in order to take actions that would build increasing pressure on key UC Regents and administrators. (This is tricky, since UC administration has been very consistent about passing the blame on to Sacramento, an approach which seems initially plausible to much of the broad public.)

The movement needs to resist calls to divert its energy into a primarily lobbying-centered strategy. That said, it’s important to think about the various proposals currently in the works — some are worthy of critical support; some  might diffuse the energy we have developed without addressing root problems. Schwarzenegger’s proposal clearly falls under the latter category. A couple of more positive endeavors — being enthusiastically supported by some movement activists — include George Lakoff’s California Democracy Act, which would change the budgeting process in the state legislature from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority, and AB 656, which would establish an oil and gas severance tax to fund higher education.

Both these measures could have positive effects, but it’s important not to treat either of them as silver bullets. The rhetoric around the California Democracy Act sometimes tends in this direction. The two-thirds majority rule, brought in as part of Proposition 13, is certainly undemocratic; eliminating it might help to smooth out one of the many bottlenecks in California’s budgeting process. However, it’s important to recognize that Democratic leaders have voted along with Republicans for many of the policies that have created the present situation.

Furthermore, getting rid of the two-thirds majority rule really only chips away at the edges of Prop. 13, the heart of which is a system of determining property tax rates which has systematically starved the state for resources. Even a serious medium-term policy approach to these problems would require a thorough overhaul of Prop. 13. The mainstream of the California Democratic Party does not want to touch this issue. But can we be the catalyst for something at the statewide level much broader than ourselves? Any work the movement does in regards to other ballot measures and bills should bear in mind this broader sense of what it will take to get somewhere worth getting.

Finally, we need a better way of debating strategic questions. Activists’ blogs and small collectives sometimes ask these questions in sophisticated ways, yet they do not have the ability to implement strategic decisions. And general assemblies and conferences rarely have sufficient levels of preparation — such as a small number of well-developed proposals to be deliberated, with clearly counterposed goals and tactics — that would allow them to function strategically. The movement needs a better infrastructure that doesn’t merely generate more meetings for already taxed activists.

The student-based defense-of-higher-public-education movement in California has already shown itself as a force. Now a new phase begins. The strategic questions are tough ones, and we don’t have well-designed vehicles within the movement to ask them collectively and find answers that have both democratic legitimacy and the strategic coherence of a basic organizing plan. Strategic direction may not be the easiest thing for a student movement to achieve. Certainly a diversity of strategies as well as tactics can sometimes play a positive role.

In any case, these are the issues we have to face. The state’s powers-that-be have taken us seriously; we should consistently take ourselves that seriously as well.

ATC 145, March-April 2010

1 comment

  1. The campaign to support the adoption of the California Democracy Act now has a “single-user” petition form that can be downloaded from the Web (link below) printed, completed, and mailed in to the campaign “from the comfort of your own home,” that we are trying to disseminate widely (the objective being to “go viral” with it by way of a “chain mail” method of distribution as the preferred approach) to help us qualify this important initiative for the November ballot or that, alternatively, can be downloaded for just your personal use or — if you have the means to do this –uploaded to one of your Web pages for other users to download themselves, instead.

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    Restore Democracy and the Principle of Majority Rule to California Governance

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