Drawing on his extensive research on the history of universities, Mark Paschal debunks mystified views of higher education. Instead of relying on overly sophisticated theories that are tough to popularize, Mark recommends focusing on what attracts people to universities: opportunities to make better lives for themselves. We can create autonomous universities with a kind of vocational training more in line with historical materialism than the humanities—to learn skills for taking over empty buildings and holding down city blocks for radical causes. To connect such organizing with the informal networks that already exist in marginalized communities, rather than presuming that the knowledge and skills gained in universities can be useful in struggles, learn others’ modes of communicating and ask questions about how we can be useful. Since the fucked-up-ness of the capitalist university-prison-industrial complex can seem overwhelming, rather than merely trying to illuminate the problems, we need physical interventions that demonstrate viable alternatives. To inspire a mass exodus from universities, we must continue to struggle within existing institutions—such as through strikes and occupations—while we create autonomous universities that force the dominant ones to confront their own limits.
From New Left Nostalgia to Occupy Everything: Debunking Mystified Views of University Education
CW: I just read your piece on “Our University?” and your student debt piece “A Framework for Student Debt”, and I find that your work is offering a much-needed critical, historical account of universities.
Mark: It’s something of a strange thing. There’s so much mystification built up around the idea of education—like, education in the abstract is such an amazing thing, according to everybody. People don’t really look at what education means, what it is, what it says. People forever have been saying, ‘it creates passive subjects,’ and stuff like that, but that seems to miss the totality of what’s happening with university education. It’s amazing that I’ve had a pretty good response to what I’ve been writing, and other people have written things similar to this before. But, for whatever reason, many people want to say, that ‘we need to go back to something, that we can and should go back to something, and that there is something marvelous and wonderful about education’—completely weird, mystifying moments of the 50s and 60s. People don’t really interrogate any of that. It’s just this natural assumption that everyone should be going to college. I think the New Left had something to do with that, in the 1960s—the idea of creating a culture at the university level rather than at the level of struggle. It’s a bit more complicated than this, obviously, as the university was embroiled in struggle throughout the 60s. However, the early 70s was a period of institutionalization that made pedagogy in the university a site of struggle to create a culture, rather than thinking about struggle, class conflict as a place to create a culture. That was something new that really transformed the university in the 50s and 60s, and that leads into this idea, it’s very easy to flip that, ‘everyone should be going to university then. It’s what you have to do. It’s the greatest thing ever.’ Very strange.
CW: Can you give a little background on your own radical formation and how you got into radical thinking and organizing around universities?
Mark: I come from a moderately conservative, Pentacostal Christian background, true believer style. I went to undergrad at a Pentacostal School, ironically enough, called Vanguard University. In my Senior Year, I sort of left Christianity. The questions I wanted to ask were different from the questions we were asking there. The questions I was asking were already formed out by the answer that I would be giving: Jesus. So, I turned and started to look at Christian anarchy and Liberation Theology as my gateways. I had to make a living, so I was working in random places. Eventually, I decided I was going to go back to graduate school. My whole life I’d never known there were radicals. I didn’t really know how to get in touch with radicals or radical organizing. Music was really my introduction to radical politics, so that was the only way I really understand how to be in radical politics—the whole hardcore scene, post-punk stuff and all that. I really wanted to be involved in some way. I felt like I needed to be doing something, so I thought, ‘well, I know a lot of radicals who are in the university, so that’s where I’ll go and that’ll be some space where I can figure out what’s going on and what to do.’ So, I moved from Los Angeles out to Durham [NC], and met some people there, and up to Connecticut, and I finally moved back out to the West Coast. I was sort of a Marxist-anarchist, something. I was excited to move to Santa Cruz, because there was a big protest scene, and there were a lot of people, not just protesting, but attempting to take the university—back in 2004-2005—shutting down campuses. It was a pretty radical place. Then, my first year here, some other people and I spent a lot of time talking about, ‘what’s going in the university? Why aren’t more people protesting? We’ve got all these fee hikes, all these things going on. And then, the collapse of the financial system; there has to be something more going on.’ And that conversation was happening at a number of other places: at Berkeley, at NYU, seeing what was happening at other universities around the world, especially in Austria and the Greek situation. There has to be something more to it than simply going to class. Talking about radical politics can’t be the culmination of what we are doing here.
At the time, I was going to do my dissertation on the political economy of San Francisco. So, I started looking into the relationship between Stanford and UC Berkeley and the financial and engineering sectors of San Francisco, the creation and building up of San Francisco. And then the occupations happened in 2009. A number of faculty at UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley straight-up condemned the students—radical faculty members—like, ‘you guys don’t know what you’re doing. You’re doing this wrong. Occupations and things like this aren’t going to get you anywhere. You have to demand things and you have to go through protests. You’re just antagonizing people. It’s clearly not how change happens.’ There were a number of criticisms, but that then didn’t go anywhere beyond that. Rather than saying, ‘you’re not doing things the right way, here are some other ways to think about how to do things,’ it was just silence after the condemnation. I thought that was a very strange thing to do. You guys are all radicals. In your memory, you have this idea of the 60s, but that didn’t really change anything. It tried to change institutions internally, but that clearly has a limited shelf life. So, in conversations with my advisor, talking about this research that I had been doing on Berkeley and Stanford, he was like, ‘maybe you should think about doing a history of higher education, the story of higher education.’ ‘Oh yeah, I can do that.’ So, I’d done a presentation for the London 2010 Historical Materialism conference, “A Brief History of Two Occupations.” Surprise! It turns out, occupations had been happening pretty much constantly since the late 1960s. It’s just that it’s not in our historical memory. There have been thousands of students who have occupied buildings for ethnic studies and other things over the course of the last 40 years. Pretty much every other year in the last 40 years there have been occupations of things. But, people have no memory of that. So, the idea that this is a terrible tactic and doesn’t get you anything, that holds no water whatsoever.
So, it continues to come up, in talking about tuition, that ‘this is just a bunch of greedy bastards in the administration, and they need to get our priorities right, and if they can only get our priorities right, we can go back to this glorious time of state-funded higher education in the ’60s. Berkeley in the 1950s.’ But, that doesn’t seem to be something that we necessarily want. That was funded by the Cold War. It’s not trying to show that a return is simply not possible because of a few conservative politicians. It’s endemic to the purpose and transformation of higher education itself. So, that’s sort of a brief synopsis of how I’ve come to be where I am, and what my subject matter has come to be.
How to popularize radical organizing? Focus on what attracts people to universities: training to make better lives for ourselves, in common
CW: In talking with other people, one issue and challenge that we’ve identified for organizing around universities, and radical organizing generally, is that we have a lot of good critiques—we can make some very sophisticated critiques of the university in capitalism—but we have trouble popularizing these critiques. We have trouble translating that sophisticated theory into a kind of language that can circulate with a wide audience, so it can become useful for on-the-ground organizing conversations. I’m wondering, in light of that challenge, could you say a little about what you think are some of the most important elements of this history of higher education in relation to capitalism? And do you have any thoughts on how to popularize this kind of historical critique?
Mark: This is actually where I see the purpose of my own work when I (graduate, or have people to work with so I don’t have to graduate, depending on what happens – rather than saying this last part, can we just say “finish”? That way I don’t have to deal with calls from family and in-laws, which would be nice). I think that there’s a tendency on the part of people organizing to wonder why more people aren’t interested in the things that we’re interested in. ’How can people be so apathetic? Why aren’t more people joining us?’ I’ve long been convinced that that’s the wrong way of thinking about ‘the people’. That leads to questions where it’s someone else’s responsibility to come to my point of view. That’s not a solution that anyone could ever have. ‘Maybe if I dressed better. Maybe if I smelled better. Maybe if I smelled worse.’ It makes all these things subjective. We have very sophisticated theories and long, complex, historical studies, but then when it comes time to asking questions based on them, we’re so used to asking questions within a sophisticated framework that we sort of neglect why it is that people come to the university, or why it is that people are attracted to the university in the first place.
I think that one of the interesting things about the sophistication of theory and this idea of creating this culture of dissent and this culture of radical organizing is that if you look, historically, at the university, up until the 1860-1870s, only 1% of the 16-24 year old population ever went to universities. In the US, people in the Midwest and the West were fundamentally opposed to university education. Farmers and the working class had no use for it. They thought that it taught people how to dissociate from the communities that they were from, in favor of this bureaucratic way of life, entering into the elite class, and forsaking your roots. It was only when university education in the 1880s became fundamentally about training rather than about the spread of these ideas, whether it’s, at the time, upper class ideas, and now with radicals in the university, it becomes about oppositional ideals. Not surprisingly, debt swept over the Midwest and South throughout this period and you were beginning to see a real consolidation of land and the formation of corporations in the 1880s and 90s. There’s been so much emphasis in Leftist university alternatives—and in the practice of being a Leftist in a university—on criticism and in the realm of culture, but that has never been why most people go to university. From the start, I think the alternatives miss what it is that attracts people to the university in the first place. If people aren’t interested in them, if people are interested in learning how to make better lives for themselves, through training that’s going to allow them to get into the job market or to give them skills with which they can do something that takes them out of the job market, whether it’s being entrepreneurs or whatever it is, then maybe we should be focusing more on that.
I think that people talk about Occupy all the time because it was a very hot subject for a bit, but right now in the United States there are about 15 million more or less empty buildings littering the landscape. That’s a tremendous number of buildings. There’s also around 22% real unemployment and underemployment. So there are a lot of buildings being unused and a lot of people who are unused. Capital has sloughed off tremendous numbers of people and of real estate and buildings. If we want to participate in the radical transformation of society, it can’t be through a sophisticated enough theory; it’s gonna have to be through people re-claiming private property, taking private property and making private property common.
Learning for Communist Life: Autonomous Universities with Historical Materialist Vocational Training
I feel that what learning institutions could be, if we’re going to have institutions of learning—which I think we have to at least for a little while, as a sort of transition—I would want to think about training around a sort of commune vocational training: to learn carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, sewing, cooking, gardening. Plumbers and electricians make more than academics do, at this point. There are obviously trade schools that people can go to. But, you don’t get the historical development of the vocations and of homes, of gardens. You don’t get the economic and political developments and how these things interact with larger transformations taking place within capital and outside of capital. Ideally, people could get the skills to build things themselves, to build things in community with others, to hold tools in common with other people.
There are institutions like the Oakland Tool Lending Library, things like that that allow people to share tools and resources. Lots of anarchist houses have tools and have the ability to work on some of these things, but that’s not spread out generally through a generation under 60 years old. At this point, if you tell people, ‘you can build your own bookshelves,’ they’re sort of perplexed and amazed that such a thing is possible. It’s one of the easiest things you could possibly do, but that too has been so mystified: the ability to do anything yourself has been both bourgeoisified and also mystified—’why would you possibly do something yourself? It’s cheaper to do it this way, better to do it this way.’
Looking historically at the university, people haven’t been attracted to the university for the ideas that are held within it. In fact, students have always found that they can’t get the ideas that they want inside the university. They had to create their own instruments external to the university but internal to the larger campus of the university. So, for example, Harvard and Yale, back in the 1600s and 1700s, there was rote memorization, learning as a steady, supposedly unchanging curriculum. So, students formed their own secret societies, in order to discuss and debate and find the education they wanted, to hone themselves. And that was the only place they really read books.
They didn’t read books for their schoolwork. They copied books for their homework assignments, but there are all these studies done on library use for all these schools up to the 1930s; students didn’t check out books—elite students, poor students, students going to becoming bureaucrats or lawyers. Students didn’t necessarily do the things that we think students have always done. There’s no love of learning that, like, fostered a light in the bosom of people’s hearts. There was for some students, but for the majority of students, even when it was 1% of the population who was going (though I’ll stress that it wasn’t the 1% as we currently use the term), they weren’t going because, ‘I just love to be around ideas.’ Who has time to love to be around ideas back in the 1800s?
It was only when education had a practical, concrete relationship to the present and future of people’s lives that they did really take it in. There wasn’t a mad grasping to have, like, ‘oh finally we can have vocational skills and humanities.’ When the humanities first started in the 1880s and 1890s, it was a conservative attempt to hold onto classical training. University attendance in the 18-24 year cohort didn’t reach 5% until after 1900. Most people didn’t particularly care for that. Universities thought they could attract students if professors could be entertaining—which is what some of the best professors learn, that, ‘I need to be entertaining, otherwise, who the hell is going to come to this class? Why take philosophy when you can take engineering?’ So, we have all these ideas about how amazing education is, why it’s so useful. But that hasn’t historically been what has attracted people to the university. If we could frame these vocational ideas inside of a larger radical project, that’s what I’d like to do with my life. I think that seems more in line with how people always used the university, rather than these mystified ideas of what university education should be.
CW: In your correspondence, you mentioned this idea of how you’re interested in creating autonomous learning institutions that are more along the lines of a kind of historical materialism than the humanities. Could you say more about what that would look like and if there are any concrete examples of that?
Mark: I don’t know that there are any concrete examples of what it is that I would want to do. If you look back at workers’ education in the early 20th century, I think that there are some resonances, as workers tried to think about, ‘how do we take over factories? How do we run these factories ourselves? How do we create the tools that we want to be able to create?’ There were a whole slew of workers’ schools that came to exist. In the early 1840s, there were a few in England. By the end of the 19th century, there came to be more. There’s a great story of a liberal-radical workers’ school that was set up, and the students in England were like, ‘fuck this, we’re going on strike. You’re not giving us the education we want. It’s too parliamentary. There’s no radical action involved.’ So they went on strike, and they couldn’t get what they wanted, so they started their own workers’ school. I’m forgetting right now what that was called, but it happened around 1912, associated with the Pleb’s League. They would teach themselves accounting, mathematics, history, and especially economics. This was back before political economy had split off into the social sciences. So, they’d teach themselves the political economy of the situation they were in. Also, working people didn’t go to these schools unless they were workers themselves. So, they would try to take what they were learning back into the factory or wherever it was they were working. There were other people who were at the same time creating technical schools. These weren’t usually radicals, but industrialists looking to increase the technical knowledge of the working class. So, you begin to get middle management and shop-floor stewards. Both of those were very attractive to people: the idea of worker-led, worker-initiated, worker-created education—Work People’s School in the US and Work People’s College in Minnesota…
CW: In Minnesota, the IWW is putting on a new Work People’s College…
Mark: Yeah, they started with a bunch of radical Scandinavian people, and after splits with the Socialist Party. Big Bill Haywood got thrown out of the Socialist Party. They allied themselves with the IWW and they became for a long time the official school of the IWW. Tremendous story. They went into a period of decline after the 1930s. But, again, there was a bunch of workers who determined what it was they wanted to learn. Typically, history was the most favorite subject, but also economics and accounting. The situation then was obviously different from the situation that’s the basis of today: burgeoning industrialism, the idea of taking over shop floors and things like that. Now the idea seems to be much more about taking over worn-out urban infrastructure—given empty buildings, given full buildings.
What seems interesting to learn if you wanted to think about holding down city blocks for a radical leftist cause? I think you’d want to have something like Home Studies, or Engine Studies, there’s a whole slew of things you could do. Home Studies would incorporate things like plumbing, bracing a house, framing a house, apartments, electrical work, gardening, cooking, sewing—the basic things that have always gone on in homes—as well as the history, development, and situation of the ecology and economy of how these things work in urban situations. You could also look at low-tech and no-tech alternatives to the currently existing technology—what is appropriate in a given place and a given time according to the technology and knowledge and skill that we have. If you were able to teach a course like that, if many different urban places had courses and institutions that did something like that, you’d have a cadre of people who’d become skilled at that—and because you’re teaching the history of class struggle around all these things, about organizing, how people have organized—what the food riots of the early 20th century were about, how they operated.
I think that one of the things we do now—but there are always these ideas too—is turning these occupied spaces into community centers. But, to me, that seems like a kind of vague idea: what exactly a community center does, how it operates, what it’s for. They haven’t combined knowledge into many concrete ideas. So, there are these vague ideas of social centers, calling back to Italy and Germany in the 70s and 80s, which is great, but for people to go out and put their bodies and health on the line, for large numbers of people who aren’t already committed to the cause, there have to be more concrete things going on than just ‘social centers.’ To develop some of these ideas, I think that takes, first, a relationship of the people occupying to the larger communities that they’re occupying buildings in. But also, second, this idea that we can transform buildings, that we can make these buildings into something other than what they are now, to serve a different purpose—this history of technical and vocational skills, as things that could be taught and then taken over by people. I think that’s one of the ways of going beyond simply occupying or raising critical consciousness of things, which has a very limited shelf-life. Once people have to go out and make their own money and have to buy everything they come into contact with, rather than living in some sort of communal situation. That’s a big problem. So, there are obviously a lot of anarchist and communist communes and squats and things like that, but moving it beyond the squat and moving it beyond the realm of just anarchists and communists and make it a viable way to live in the world, I think one of the ways you can do that is through education in these kinds of Home Schools or Engine Schools.
Building Relationships between Radical Organizing and Marginalized Communities: Ask How Universities Can Be Useful, Don’t Presume
CW: I like what you say about how social centers and anarchist, autonomist projects are often based on a vague idea that doesn’t get seriously addressed, particularly about how people living in the communities living around those spaces can become part of the organizing also. And I haven’t seen many examples of success, except for just a couple examples, such as one in Santa Ana, CA—El Centro Cultural de Mexico—and one in Durham, NC—El Kilombo Intergaláctico. The latter takes a kind of autonomist, Zapatismo approach. I was talking with those folks, and they told me one really important way of framing those relationships with people around them: in marginalized communities, there are already informal networks of cooperation going on all the time, and learning that happens in those networks too. There’s a lot of power in those networks. So, I think a key question is how radical, openly anti-capitalist organizing projects, like social centers and free schools, can connect with those informal networks. Do you have any thoughts along those lines?
Mark: I feel there are a tremendous amount of Leftists in literature and other sophisticated humanities graduate programs – which can often be quite important. That said, I often don’t understand what’s being written in some of their theoretical displays of erudition. ’That looks really amazing but I don’t have a clue what it is you are talking about.’ I think that there’s such a pre-occupation with theory. Obviously, nothing really happens outside theory; you have to have theory. But, the level of sophistication that we get in theory, it tends to overlook the informal networks that do exist and that allow people to get by, and that allow people to elude or escape or make do with their peripheral relationship to the job market, or to the poles of capitalist accumulation, circulation, and production. Being able to work within those informal networks requires Leftists being able to understand and talk these languages that aren’t university-based, that aren’t humanities-based. And that requires getting to understand what that language is. How do you talk when you’re not communicating at a very high, sophisticated level? When you’re talking through what sort of metaphors you use, how do you relate to people?
I begin to talk and I have all these questions that come up in my mind about all this. But, I just think that there’s a reliance on university education that so many of us have, or used to have but that’s sort of fallen apart, and that can be a very problematic thing. What do these skills I’ve learned in the university allow me to do in a sort of communizing way? ’I can talk.’ Okay, well everyone has their experience of struggle, whether they label it ‘struggle’ or not. Being able to translate, which means living in informal circuits.
For example, I have this idea of this school I want to start. I could just go in and just say, ‘alright, I’m starting this in Oakland and everyone’s going to be really excited about it.’ Well, it turns out nobody’s going to come to it, because they don’t know me, they don’t know the people I’m organizing with. ’Why should we be interested in this? We already have these things. I can already work on my car. I can already do my electrical work. Why do I need this school and these institutions that you’re trying to bring into this community? We have no relationship with you. Why would we care about it?’ So, whatever organizing in universities that we do has to be based on organizing that’s already existing, and then not saying, ‘well we’ve been in universities so we have very good ideas about these sorts of things.’ Saying, ‘these are the ideas and these are the skill-sets that we have from this university work and how do we make these skill-sets work in a situation very different from the university. How do we teach ideas and skills that would be interesting, that are useful to people? Rather than coming and saying ‘these ideas are useful now why aren’t you making sense of them’?’ I feel like that’s what I’ve been trying to say the whole time: ’We’ve got these things, you should make use of them.’ vs. ‘How can we make use of the things we have in the struggle?
Moving Beyond Illumination to Physical Interventions: Engaging the Immenseness of the University-Prisons-Policing-Industrial Complex
CW: Speaking about language that we use to talk about university struggles and questions of whether or not it connects with people, generally—thinking particularly about debt, student debt, which has been a big focus of university struggles recently, like with Occupy Student Debt—do you have any ways of thinking about whether and how that way of framing university struggles can resonate with people more widely, particularly people who never get to go to college because they’re pushed out of the education system at a lower level…?
Mark: Or just aren’t interested in going to college.
CW: Yeah, people who ‘rise out,’ and who live in neighborhoods where they have a lot of different concerns, like policing and prisons, other sorts of struggles that might seem, on the face of it, to be disconnected from university education struggles, but I think it would be great if we could figure out how we could link those struggles better.
Mark: Obviously these struggles are linked. We don’t ourselves have to link them, because they are linked. Showing how they are linked—people are already doing that. People like Angela Davis: she’s been showing the links between higher education and states and prisons for a very long time.
Many of her students in the university have been organizing and writing about prisons. There are a number of people doing this linking work—both inside and outside the university, on the ground, establishing these connections. Most rallies that we have at the UC, someone will speak about the prison-industrial complex, and like, how more money is spent on prisons per person than on education, and how that’s wrong.
It’s difficult to think anything beyond illumination. We can illuminate a problem, show that it exists, and show that these linkages exist. We might even be able to show points that might lead to some sort of organizing. As it is, it’s difficult to think beyond illumination, it’s difficult to think beyond ‘this is what the problem is and we’re gonna show everyone the problem, and why are they so apathetic, why can’t they see that these are the problems and we need to change them?’ And you run into this just organizing on campus. Even within the university itself, talking about student debt. I used to sit at a table with a sign that said ‘free brownies’ – you don’t have to talk to us if you don’t want to but you’re certainly more than welcome to —leading up to student strikes and things like that. A number of people would come by and talk, saying ‘why are you guys here?’ They’d be suspicious of anything that’s being given out for free. Some people would just take it and leave—happy to have that happen; made them smile. Other people, we would talk with them, and they’d be like, ‘yeah, we understand that things are fucked up.’ And it doesn’t take a PhD in any particular science to understand that the world is fairly fucked right now.
My experience in talking with students was that they feel there’s not much that can be done. It’s such a massive ball of fucked-up-ness that the only thing that you can do is to try to protect yourself and the people that you are around, like your family and friends. So, yeah, student debt is really terrible, but it happens at such an immense level that it’s hard for people to imagine changing anything. The massive growth of the prison-industrial complex has happened on such a level that it seems like, ‘what could we possibly do?’ You can show us all of these things, and say that these things are fucked up and you can say that ‘we should just not have prisons. If we don’t have prisons, blah blah blah.’—all these answers, all these classic questions. ‘Well, if we didn’t have student debt, then how are we going to pay for universities right now?’ You can’t pay for universities. Universities would cease to exist if we didn’t have student debt. It’s not like we can go back to a time before very expensive labs and dining commons and student residences and janitorial staff; all these things cost money. Outside of the student debt it takes a massive, total transformation of the entire system of life as we know it. That’s a difficult thing for people to imagine how the hell it’d happen. Like, ‘we can show you, all of life has to be changed, now, why don’t you come along with us and we’ll shut down the campus?’ [laughs] Well, what does that do, and how did that make any difference whatsoever?
I feel like that’s the question that a lot of people are trying to work on. There are small answers. And I think that’s part of the point: there can’t ever be ‘an answer.’ It’s difficult. I don’t necessarily want socialism where we seize the state. The state’s such a bloated corpse at this point. It’s like a whale that’s washed up on the shore. ’Yeah, we finally seized the state. Oh shit. It sucks.’ It doesn’t do these dreams that past generations had for what the state would do. I’m sure that some people who have studied the state would say, ‘oh well, it can still do this and this and this… blah blah.’ We live in a time where it’s difficult to think in big answers. For myself, it seems possible only to think of the local, urban level. I tend to feel that’s where education and organizing have to take place. Not in these massive institutions. Organize to de-legitimize. Organize to build bases and infrastructure. But at the end of the day it’s going to come down to things like the Oakland Commune and things like what’s happening in Durham being able to enmesh themselves so much into the fabric of the city that that becomes the answer and the model that people begin to look to. I don’t know what level the police come in. I don’t know exactly what sort of tipping point it would take before people in sort of the larger urban population shift and say ‘fuck the police. We want whatever it is these radical organizers are doing here.’ I do know that that’s not going to happen if we continue to talk like academic graduate students all the time. It seems very clear to me that people aren’t interested in that. There’s still a lot of resentment in many places about college students in general.
It’s sort of hypocritical I guess to say this. It comes like, ‘oh you’re in the university, how can you say these things?’ ‘Well I’m so special because I need to have this space because my ideas are so valuable.’ In thinking, what does it take to transform space and time? It takes the ability to work in space and time. And language obviously is a part of that. Ideas and concepts are a part of that. But, the actual physical intervention in space and time is an underthought part of radical organizing, at least at the university level.
Strikes as Flashpoints: Preparing Ourselves to Seize Opportunities for Building Solidarity
CW: Some of the most insightful writing about physical interventions at universities, I’ve seen, was about the UC Berkeley and Santa Cruz occupations of buildings at the campus. Particularly, I’m thinking of a piece that Jasper Bernes wrote about ‘The Double Barricade and the Glass Floor.’ It’s basically about the Wheeler Hall occupation, and this idea that students and workers, through that kind of radical action, could build relationships across the glass floor, which is a play on the idea of the glass ceiling. So, the glass floor separates students going through capitalist reproduction from workers in capitalist production. Through those actions, students could see their future as exploited wage workers, and workers could see their past and gain antagonism from the students’ antagonism, and through that they could become collectively struggling proletariat subjects together. Thinking about all the spaces in the university where there are those potentials to form relationships in struggle across capitalist production and reproduction, in spectacular instances like occupations and strikes but also in more everyday spaces like the classroom, where teachers are waged workers and students are paying money to learn something but also to have their labor-power disciplined, categorized, and commodified for sale on the labor market. So, I wonder if you have any thoughts about any of that—whether in relation to occupations or the classroom. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on pedagogy that connects with students in a radical way.
Mark: I still think that I’m just beginning to scratch the surface as far as critical pedagogy. The whole idea of my class, I was hoping that it would be for students who had been going to general assemblies—that it would be a place for them to hear something other than the traditional stories about what higher education is. And then, for research projects, students did documentaries, making zines, and some students did research papers responding to prompts. I hoped that it would be a jumping off point for organizing for work that they would be doing over the summer, for the disorientation guides, and then for organizing next year.
This idea of the glass floor, I think that’s interesting. I know that at Santa Cruz, there was a student-worker coalition that came into being around AFSCME’s last strike, or last contract negotiation, which ended up being a strike. Then, the students at UCSC shut down campus in solidarity with AFSCME workers. AFSCME got a better contract than they were being offered. There’s a number of students at UCSC who are interns with AFSCME, who get to work with and get to know a lot of the workers, at least dining hall workers and actual waged employees at the university. There’s not overlapping action and collective action. I wouldn’t say that that’s been a large outgrowth of things like that. It tends to happen more in flashpoint situations. We would always be like, ‘why aren’t more workers coming to the general assemblies when we have them? How do we make the general assembly or these meetings a place where workers could come?’ A few workers who come to many of these things would come to the occupations, but for the most part, most workers didn’t go into the occupation. Most of the people who work for a waged living don’t come into occupied spaces. They get off work and they go home, because they’ve been working all day. I remember when I worked 40 to 50 hours a week, the last thing I wanted to do was spend more time at the place where I worked, regardless of what the reason was for that. You want to go home, to spend time with you families, to not spend time at the place where you worked.
However, at the UC at least, every union’s contract comes up for negotiation this year. So, that also becomes a flashpoint where that glass floor works, and everyone can very clearly see the relationship of all these different workers across the university and the role that undergraduates and graduate student radicals have to play in transforming the ground and the landscape under which the negotiations will happen. So, there are these radical organizing campus shutdowns and occupations, all these things that have happened in the past, that opens a much greater space in which solidarity between all the different levels of the university and the UC can be expressed in struggle, rather than just expressed as, ‘yeah, we support the workers.’ ‘We can’t actually be part of this because it’s not a strike.’ So, when we shut down campus, a few of the workers stay and speak, but most of them go back home.
When it comes to things like strikes, those have to be taken advantage of; that’s when the glass floor materializes. That’s when these relationships crystallize: in struggle. We have to see that opportunity and take advantage of it, because those opportunities don’t always come along. You have to prepare yourself to take those opportunities. That’s happening now at UC and in the UAW. I don’t know if it’s necessarily happening at some of the other union locals. But there are people thinking about, ‘how do we crystallize different relationships in the university in such a way that they can be seized when there’s the opportunity that they can be seized?’
These contracts are going to be a perpetuation of this institution that we don’t want to perpetuate anyway. So, that’s a weird thing…
Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing: Struggle within Existing Institutions while Confronting Them with their Own Limits
CW: Can I ask you a question along those lines? So, considering that contracts, trade unions, business unions, the UAW, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, are problematic, I wonder what your thoughts are on the potentials for building solidarity, industrial unions?
Mark: I’ve been trying to think about how we should understand, not just unions, but also defenses of higher education that we give, in relation to the future of the higher education that we would like to have. The continual defenses of higher education as it has been seem to make it the case that we need to have higher education as it currently exists but it just needs to be funded better. That clearly seems not to be the case. And that happens at all levels—at the union level and almost all levels of organizing. The place where that doesn’t happen is the occupations where they ‘demand nothing, occupy everything’—that doesn’t then go to ‘we want this. There are just these great things in higher education.’ It doesn’t fall into that trap because it doesn’t demand anything. It doesn’t say that we want to replicate this system as it currently exists.
There is a danger I think in abandoning institution-based struggles, just because that’s not what we want to exist. Lots of things aren’t as we want them to exist. I think there’s a relationship in all institutional struggle and autonomous struggle with the formation of new organizing models, new education models. I don’t know exactly what that relationship is yet. I’ve just begun to think about what that means and what that looks like. It seems very obvious that universities cannot continue to exist as they currently exist for very much longer—whether it comes with the implosion of the debt bubble, which then would mean that universities can’t build to the same degree and level that they have. It’s such a top-heavy loaded institution, and everyone’s been talking shit about what happens in universities for at least a century. In most of the entire history of universities, people have been talking shit about the education that happens: ‘it’s not the right education,’ ‘there are no standards,’ and all this sort of drivel people like to spout about ‘how bad things are today as opposed to how they used to be.’
You have to struggle where you are, because class struggle exists everywhere there are classes—everywhere there’s an institute or site of production, there’s going to be struggle. You wouldn’t just want to abandon that to say, ‘oh it’s not what we want, so we’re not going to struggle there anymore.’ That’s not very strategic to think in those terms. If you look at what’s happening in Quebec, or Chile, or Puerto Rico, any place where you see more than 100,000 people coming out, that’s tremendous and you can’t get that if all the work continues to be in the creation of autonomous spaces without organizing within institutions as they are. So, I think that, in Quebec, where you have 100,000 students who transformed into 200,000 people, that only happens within institutions that currently exist, pointing out the failures of things as they currently are.
But, at the same time, there has to be that transition from, ‘we don’t want things as they currently are’ to ‘we also know we don’t want to go back to ten years ago.’ I think the history of higher education tells me that you can’t just demand these new things in the education system and say, ‘so we want it to be like this.’ There are too many vested interests: faculty, administration, alumni, parents, state sponsors, and private industry sponsors. There’s too much inertia in the university to transform it like we want it to transform. History seems to show me that university transformation happens through the de-legitimation of universities as they have existed, and the formation of new institutions, whether they’re academies or universities. Institutions as they exist don’t reform themselves. They reform themselves when they’re confronted with their own limits on what they could possibly be.
I think that we’re getting to that in a lot of these student movements and union movements, so it’s a matter of framing that issue, framing that this is the limit that universities, as currently constructed, have reached. I don’t want to imagine them continuing to exist. It doesn’t mean that I stop organizing. It means that we’ve reached a limit, not a boundary. We’ve reached a limit point, which necessitates not just free schools—there are some valuable things about free schools, and there are some limitations about free schools too—but there has to be people in precarious positions saying, ‘we need to do something other than what we’re doing right now.’ I think it’s probably going to be graduate students and undergrads, at least as far as university education, more so in the creation part of it. In the time you have as an undergrad, it can be very difficult to organize. You’re only there for a few years, 2 years if you transferred in from a community college. These students can be involved in the creation of new education models that can then arise as viable alternatives—that are doing something different than what it was universities were doing beforehand.
The de-legitimation, the limit-point that we’ve reached with university education—if you look at protest universities, [and I talked about this in the Reclamations/edu-factory piece], it’s like the Italian Renaissance: universities are dead; they do things totally wrong, scholasticism is not necessary for our own time. ‘We can’t even get jobs in these universities. We’re going to absent ourselves from those universities.’ They created academies. They weren’t teaching academies; they were for study, for the perpetuation and discussing of ideas, and they eventually became universities. In the North, in Germany, with the Reformation, you had a similar sort of thing: ‘As Protestants, we can’t teach in these Catholic institutions, so we have to absent ourselves from them. These institutions have run their limit.’ The Catholic scholastic institutions were no longer able to provide the education or bureaucracy for that Catholic world, because that world was in crisis, it was disintegrating. So, they created their own academies, their own places to produce the knowledge that they wanted to produce, that they thought was more appropriate to their time. And then, through doing that, they were able to find allies outside of their own institution, and the rest is history. Universities, like the University of Bologna, which had been the best law school for 400 or 500 years, tried to keep a middle-path in between Protestants and Catholics, and it became a mediocre institution. The University of Paris sided whole-heartedly with the Counter-Reformation, with the Catholic side, and it only rose in prestige as it became one of those sites for the ideological production of anti-Protestant ideology. But, they had to make a choice: ‘we can’t continue doing the things we’re doing.’ Scholastic knowledge in and of itself is useless. There is this new knowledge, Protestant, Reformation knowledge that has to be taken into account. And we have to create knowledge in accord with this danger. So, that was one way you could transform.
Or you could transform and say, ‘the Scholastic way of doing things is attached to a dead world. We can’t do that anymore.’ The universities now, however, are so massive and so enormous that, other than breaking them up into smaller campus units or something like that, it’s difficult to think about the future for the university when the limit or the dead-point is staring us in the face.
For a Mass Exodus from Universities: Push their Limits, Show that Viable Alternatives Exist, Strengthen Communal Networks
CW: Well, I’m pretty convinced that we need to start some kind of autonomous university alternative. It seems like a lot of people are taking this route, through free schools and the occupy movement starting popular education projects—for instance, recently the Paul Robeson Freedom School started up in Brooklyn, and there’s a Free University in Occupy Wall Street. It seems that some of what you’re pointing to is the need for a more clear proposition of what this alternative is, and to actually make it happen. Getting back to the questions about connecting with informal networks of cooperation in communities, and figuring out how to make that alternative university in a way that connects with those networks and also with social movements around issues in those communities, such as housing, police, prisons…
Mark: Yeah, and it’s not only, ‘how do you make this sort of wealth of theoretical knowledge available to these informal networks?’ but how do you make the wealth of practical, vocational knowledge available to the theoretical networks. And I’m interested in both. I think that this idea of ‘free education,’ when it’s university graduate based, it tends to be more built around ideas and built around sharing these theoretical interventions in people’s lives. I don’t know why I would be interested in a theoretical intervention in my life unless I was already convinced that I needed that theoretical intervention into my life. So, any attempt to create a new autonomous university has to be built around a shared knowledge of these informal networks—being able to work on the place that you live, being able to work on the things that you possess with other people, while also allowing this theoretical work that we’ve been doing to continue to flourish, and to flourish in new ways because it will be exposed to new networks of knowledge. I think that’s where that has to go. It just can’t be an idea of taking the humanities, these theoretical studies, and sharing that, and wondering why people aren’t coming out in droves and we’re not seeing the transformation of mass consciousness because of that. Who’s going to be interested in this? You’re only interested in that because you’ve been exposed to these theoretical ideas in such a way that they make sense for the situation that you live in.
CW: One kind of strategic question is about: how do we convince other precarious academics, grad students who are coming through the university and who are facing, or anticipating facing, a job market where they have a 60 or 70% chance of being a permanent adjunct. How can we push the limit of the university—how can we make that limit more apparent, and motivate a sort of mass exodus from precarious academic work? There are different parts to this question, but one is, how can we create alternative ways for potential precarious academics who think of themselves as radical intellectual laborers to continue to do radical intellectual work in a sort of alternative institution without feeling like they’re stigmatized for ‘dropping out’ of academia, while also having resources to live?
Mark: I am of the opinion that you’ll never be able to convince people—there’s not an argument I could present that would say, ‘these are the numbers; you’re probably going to fail, so you should come and join us.’ I know that when I was entering the university, I still think that if I were to go onto the job market in the more traditional way, I would be one of those people, [said sarcastically] ‘cuz I’m special, I’m great, look at the work I’ve done: people like it.’ That’s clearly not going to be the case. But most people tend to think that they’re going to be the exception. I’ve been told my entire life that I’m special, that I’m brilliant, that I’ve always been the smartest one of my friends, blah blah blah blah. So, in some ways, you have to give up on this idea that statistics or numbers are going to be able to convince someone. The way you convince people is through viable alternatives that are actually practical and working. I think that, only until those things are built, are we ever going to be able convince people not to give their labor to this thing that already exists.
This is the weird thing about radicals in the university, is that it’s difficult sometimes when career matters are weighed in decisions to do things. It’s like, ‘I can’t do this because I need to get a job.’ That’s true; yes, I totally understand that point. There’s lots of reasons why that’s the case. But, there’s also 22% of the working age population that doesn’t have a job. You find these networks and you find these ways to perpetuate yourself, as a person, without jobs. So, part of that has to be getting over this fear of not having a job. It seems weird that radicals would have to get over this fear of not having a job when almost a quarter of the population doesn’t. Like, who am I that I’m so special that I need full employment? ’Because I need to be thinking, like my brain is so valuable and the ideas I have are so useful to the movement as a whole that it’s a travesty if I didn’t have employment.’ Needing to get over that idea. I don’t live in a communal situation necessarily, but I have a lot of people around me who share things back-and-forth and work to make the lives that we have as good as we possibly can. Aren’t those communal networks the whole point of the organizing? There are alternatives to the job market as we understand it, already, but we can’t really see those until they crystallize. So, it falls to those who can have the opportunities and initiative to create some alternatives, to show that these alternatives actually do exist and they’re practical. Because I think it’s difficult for people to grasp; they’re stuck in the argument based on ‘you’re probably going to fail. It’s never going to work. It’ll work for some people but it’s not going to work for the majority of people.’ I feel that that’s so much the argument that we tend to make, that ‘these things are going to fail.’
Organizing at the campus level should be about illustrating the limit as it exists through student debt. Brian Whitener and Dan Nemser’s article, “Circulation and the New University,” is very good at showing the circuits of capital circulation, how they exist in the university, and how they’re clearly not very sustainable. It’s all built on the premise of student debt, the precarity of the academic job market. All of these things can be shown in student and worker struggle at the university level. But, until there’s some viable alternative that people can vacate for, it’s not going to amount to very much.
For an example of a potential viable alternative, I recommend talking with Mike Neary about The Social Science Centre (Lincoln, UK). They’re actually working on an alternative.
Mark is a graduate student at UCSC and is on the editorial board of Viewpoint Magazine.