Summary — This interview explores such questions as: How can leftist movements be built across social divisions on campuses? What can we do to break radical theory out of its capture in academia? Can we create institutions that are embedded in movements and that provide alternatives for radicals who get stuck in precarious academic life?
Universities as Spaces of Political Struggle
ClassWarU: Could you say a bit about your background and how you came to become involved in radical organizing in and around universities?
James: I attribute my politicization to having progressive parents who were moderately involved in the New Left and women’s liberation movement in the early 70s, and to becoming involved in political punk and riot grrl scenes in high school. I attended college at a state university in the midwest in the late 1990s. The use of affirmative action policies in admissions was under attack and I participated in a coalition of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates that worked to defend the policies. I was also quite involved with the local chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops, which connected me with the broader labor movement. When I began working on global justice and other issues after graduating, I quickly began to realize how much operating on campus had shaped my assumptions about how to organize. On campus, posting fliers in a few key locations could usually ensure a decent turn out for an event — but you need to approach things differently if you’re operating on a city-wide level. When I decided to go to graduate school, I specifically sought a university with a graduate student union, for the economic benefits, and also because I wanted to continue to work with the labor movement. As a graduate student I did what I could to support the political work of progressive and radical undergraduates, through my teaching and through doing support work for student organizations.
CW: How do you identify yourself politically? How do you think that has affected your approach to organizing at universities?
James: I identify as an anti-capitalist and I “came up” in anti-authoritarian radical circles. I believe in anti-oppression politics and intersectional analysis. That is, looking at the ways that race, gender, class, and other forms of social domination reinforce one another. However, I’m interested in trying to synthesize the best of many different left traditions. Strategically, I think it is crucial to emphasize organizing on a mass scale. While I see significant benefits to some forms of prefigurative politics, I think our movements need to think critically about how to balance exemplary intra-movement practices (like consensus) and counter-institutions with constantly winning over more and more people. I think — at least I hope — that this makes me open minded about organizing strategies and organizational structures. I try to evaluate them based on what results they actually produce.
CW: What do you think makes the university unique as a space of political struggle?
James: Well, I think since the 1960s, universities have been one of the primary locations were certain groups of young people first come into contact with radical ideas, and where many of them develop political consciousness and begin developing organizing skills. This isn’t too surprising, considering the university is one of the few national institutions in which leftists have had significant influence in recent decades. These days, of course, there is a fight over what can and can’t be taught, especially at public universities — curriculum fights.
Universities have also been important sites of labor organizing. Faculty salaries and conditions have been under attack for two decades, and this is symbolic of bigger shifts in the status and treatment of “professionals” under neoliberalism and knowledge-capitalism. And recently, of course, tuition, financial aid, and student debt have become huge issues — the mass demos in Quebec being the most obvious example.
So, universities serve to reproduce radical movements themselves and they are also important sites in the contemporary economy, where workers are trained for knowledge intensive jobs and where faculty, staff, and students are all fighting over how social wealth should be distributed.
Building Movements Across Social Divisions on Campus
CW: I’m interested in your experiences trying to connect undergrads to radical organizing with grad student unions. I wonder what you see as the potential of that kind of cross-positional organizing for building anti-capitalist kinds of movements in universities, and what obstacles you see to that.
James: You have a couple of points of interaction: classroom interactions and outside-of-the-classroom connections. I think there are good potentials for grad students looking out for and getting a sense of potential organizers and activists amongst undergrads, if the grad students are teaching decent classes that allow you to get into real critical discussions, to read some Marx or Bourdieu or Foucault, etc. I’ve made some good connections with students and felt that I’ve been able to do some kind of mentoring in that relationship. So, I can suggest to a student who is making good comments in class, say, ‘hey, stop by my office hours,’ and that opens up a door for seeing where they’re at, what they’re interested in, what they’re thinking politically, giving them some references, some books to check out.
In a number of cases, that spun out into campus activism collaborations that I’ve been a part of. One of the most successful collaborations that I had was creating a Disorientation Guide. This is a pretty common facet of campus organizing — creating a little booklet or zine that helps key new students in to ongoing campus political campaigns, gives them contact info for progressive student groups, etc. The best one I ever saw was at Concordia University, where they produced a day planner that began with about 40 pages of important information about campus struggles, how to practice safe sex, etc.
Both through the teaching relationships and these kinds of projects that can help build connections with different campus movements, it creates these sets of connections and relationships that can cross the boundaries of undergrad, grad, and faculty. So, when something like a graduate student employee strike comes up, there are already connections, and the graduate student activists know which undergrads to go to, and things like that.
Graduate students also fulfill a good role of forming a bridge between undergraduates and faculty. I think it’s more challenging for faculty and undergraduates to step outside of their roles of teacher and student. But that can be really powerful when that does happen, when you can have moments where you have faculty and students talking to each other, both in opposition to the administration or something going on.
One of the things that went over pretty well at my university was working off of the cognitive capitalism and the Edu-Factory stuff, such as Nick Dyer-Witherford’s article on “Cognitive Capitalism and the Contested Campus.” I was trying to share that and popularize it with undergrads to get them thinking of themselves as workers — help them understand that, as undergrads, they are deep in class struggle, and it’s around the cost of their production as laborers. Who is going to pay for them to be produced as workers with the skills needed in high tech capitalism? At least among some of the lead undergrad activists, that started to make sense.
They were facing tuition hikes of 5% a year, every year. They were taking out more and more loans, and no one was giving them very useful ways of thinking about what was happening. Parents are just saying, “Education is a good investment. You have to suck it up.” Now, with some of the discussion around the insane tuition and debt crisis, and the huge expansion of internships—the demands of doing two or three years of unpaid internships—the labor side of this equation is becoming more and more clear.
There’s potential to build on that, to build that kind of campus coalition of the left, across these divisions based on that new analysis of who workers are, what it means to be the proletariat these days.
CW: Could you say a little more about how you spread those ideas of cognitive capitalism? Was it through workshops or meetings or…?
James: One way was with that Disorientation Guide. Another way is to speak at meetings or rallies held by student organizations that are fighting tuition hikes, for more financial aid, or around other campus issues. Also, faculty can assign readings that get to this, where there’s a week of talking about what it means to do work and thinking about undergraduates as workers or people being prepared to be workers. Courses on labor history can start out with the students themselves, locating themselves as workers. Courses about knowledge production, digital humanities, etc, can jump into these issues fairly easily by talking about the economics of producing and transmitting ideas today, and about how immaterial labor is monetized.
CW: What about the potentials of coordination with unions on university campuses?
James: In the late 1990s when John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO, there was a concerted effort for the big unions to connect with college students — to get them into internship programs like Union Summer, send them to organizing trainings, and support the anti-sweatshop organizing. Personally, I benefitted from that a lot. But sadly, it seems like those intentional, national scale efforts have mostly fallen by the wayside.
One thing that I’ve seen repeatedly is that campus unions will expect student activists to do solidarity actions in support of the union whenever they ask. But, they don’t expect to have to support student initiatives in return. But there are plenty of things they could be doing. What if campus unions created some kind of campus social center? If they’re paying for space for an office somewhere, they could have space for a radical library or infoshop, a meeting space that student groups could use in addition to the union.
Recently, the best student-union connections I’ve seen have been the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Student-Farmworker Alliance (SFA). The CIW has a clear strategy, and they’ve set up a really clear structure with the SFA. The farmworkers planning strategy in Florida transmitting that toexperienced organizers heading up SFA chapters in different towns, who in turn connect with students, help them develop organizing skills, and build these powerful teams of folks that put pressure on major tomato purchasers like chain restaurants and grocery stores. They just had a big victory with Trader Joes.
James: I don’t want to suggest that insight about the best way to wage political struggles on campus always flows from the oldest to the youngest, from faculty down to undergraduates. It’s often the case that students are more connected to struggles at other campuses and other parts of the world, more willing to take dramatic actions that then pull the faculty into doing something. And in that situation, I think its incumbent on the faculty and allies with more power to defend student activists from disciplinary actions. (Of course that goes both ways. If faculty are attacked for what they are teaching, students need to have their backs against the administration and the campus right. This has been coming up more and more with faculty critical of Israel lately.)
I also had an amazing conversation a few years back about campus struggles at another university. There was a split in the campus left there, where there was a solid core of undergraduates who were committed to taking time to expand the numbers of campus activists. There was another group of students centered around some radical graduate students, who were excited about some of the militant student demonstrations and occupations in Europe at the time, and were pushing for taking some risky actions immediately.
So I asked my undergraduate acquaintance what she thought of these tactics, and she said, “Our group’s not down with that adventurist bullshit.” I was impressed with her analysis and confidence in her own experience and knowledge of social movements to be critical of these folks who were older, supposedly more advanced in their thinking because they were graduate students, etc.
I think the challenge she was pointing to is figuring out how your actions can push an envelope of militancy that can excite people and open new conversations, but not be so abrupt and alienating that it just kind of depletes and crashes the campus left, or the sympathy for student organizers, that’s already out there.
Building New Institutions
CW: As someone who has been organizing for over a decade, how do you feel about the potentials for anti-capitalist organizing at universities? Is that terrain of struggle still worth engaging or should we abandon that terrain and create our own institutions for movement-based education, or both?
James: Certainly both. I think that it would be totally foolhardy to intentionally abandon the university as a terrain of struggle. Basically, in the 80s and 90s and 2000s, the university was one of the institutions in which there was a considerable left presence, that hadn’t become completely dominated by the right. I think in the last ten years the right noticed that and they’ve been working very hard at pushing the radical left out of the universities. I think we do need to fight to hold onto that space, for a number of reasons. I think that universities are one of the places that are key sites for radicalizing one set of the US population. If we do understand intellectual workers, creative workers, affective laborers as important components of the working class in the United States, which I think they are, then this is part of their training, part of their development. And, it’s a place in that development where there are opportunities to help people think critically about what they are becoming, what they’re asked to do, what they’re place is in society. So, we need to fight to try to hold onto those, and to be really smart about the educational sphere. I think that it’s a place where people learn to become activists and organizers. We need to really expand that and to do that more systematically—to get this practice in and have people come through those experiences, so they have skills when they’re finished also.
Because the right is already successfully pushing a lot of people out of the academy, I think that we need to fight to maintain that presence within, but that certain people who are being pushed out, need to turn that negative into a positive. Instead of desperately clinging to the frayed edges of the university—like being an adjunct and working at four different universities in one semester, running around crazy, and not having time for the research or mentoring you meant to do in the first place—if that’s the only way you can stay connected to the university, it might be better to say, ‘okay, I’ve been pushed out of the university,’ and think about how those people can use the education they’ve received to try to build the other kinds of institutions that the left really needs. And these kinds of institutions can complement the kind of work that happens in universities.
I think that one of the problems that arises from the fact that so many leftists collected themselves in the university is that there’s a disconnect between all the different functions required of radical intellectuals and the kinds of work they actually end up doing. Because of the job requirements and professional expectations of the university, we have a lot of people developing new radical theory. This is crucial work, but there hasn’t been enough effort put into distribution of these new ideas and strategies. There hasn’t been as much of the work of interpreting, of taking ideas from the level of high theory and making all kinds of people understand them. There hasn’t been enough work trying to make the ideas of the left hegemonic because so much is focused on creating new work, new scholarship, that is in conversation with all these other academics.
My hope is that some of those people pushed out of the university can start to do community education projects, radical think tanks, movement schools along the lines of the Brookwood Labor Center, Highlander Center, the Rand School, and other radical education centers that the Old Left was good at creating. They had to create institutions like that because most Old Left intellectuals couldn’t get jobs in the universities.
We also need more people doing tours, doing more popular press writing—all of the tasks that are more about transmitting the ideas and popularizing them, rather than reproducing them and fine-tuning them within the university. I basically think that there’s plenty of work for radical intellectuals to do, and the real challenge is just figuring out how we can support ourselves financially at a modest level and have some kind of stability in our lives in order to do that work outside the context of the university.
Bridging Movement-embedded Institutions with University Struggles
CW: Do you have any ideas for how these institutions—outside of the university involved in popularizing these ideas—can be bridged with universities? Do you have thoughts on, not just communication, but also coordinating in a way, building relationships, and also grappling with imbalances of power and money that universities already have?
James: Perhaps one way to help provide start-up costs to these non-university institutions would be for the organizers to get paid speaking gigs at different universities, to transfer some of that money around. If you could have some kind of a think tank or movement school, then you could have faculty who do have academic jobs basically donate a sabbatical. If they’re being paid by their universities and they’re on sabbatical, then they could go teach and do collaborative intellectual work at centers that are outside the university. That would inject new ideas into the movement schools, but it might also be a huge relief for isolated radical faculty who don’t have a lot of intellectual community at their specific university — to spend a few months in a place totally dedicated to creating practical movement knowledge.
At the same time, I think that it’s absolutely incumbent upon radical faculty to think about what they are preparing their students to do. You have these humanities programs, like American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, etc., and I think there’s a train wreck here for the undergraduates who major in some of these departments. There’s not a clear sense among the faculty of what these students are going to do when they finish. For some there’s a sense that you get a BA in American Studies so that you can get a PhD in American Studies. But there are no jobs for PhDs in American Studies—so the whole train breaks down. And certainly not everyone with a BA in American Studies is going to go into a PhD program. That’s that old-fashioned thinking — pre-crisis thinking — by leftist academics that are just trying to reproduce themselves in the university.
Instead, faculty need to think about what skills they are actually inculcating in the students, and about what kinds of mentoring and advising they are giving them.
The unions could work on that angle too, thinking about specifically where they’re recruiting their staff. That’s not the only place where unions should be recruiting staff — I think developing member organizers is crucial. But especially if you’re looking at schools that are first-generation-to-college schools, then unions can be looking at sociology and ethnic studies programs, and specifically pulling out smart kids that have a connection to working class communities, immigrant communities, and that want to be doing some of this work, to put them back into doing that work in a really productive way. Think about how much effort business schools put into getting their students internships and jobs with brokerages, consultancies, etc. Efforts to get radical students jobs pale in comparison, and that is a real missed opportunity. It’s inexcusable, really.
I think there are a huge number of students coming out of college who want to be doing progressive work who easily could be pushed into doing radical work. But, the left needs to create programs to put them in. Look at how many people apply for Teach for America. It’s insanely competitive; you have to come out of Harvard in order to do Teach for America these days. A lot of students would want to do it even more if they saw that, along with doing the service work, these internship-type programs help them develop a radical political analysis, and, you know, do the communal living thing (if that’s what they’re into). It’s about creating the resources to actually build those opportunities.
I think there are some organizations on the left that overlook and write-off some of those folks, because they prioritize organizing the structurally most oppressed. But, I think the Left needs everyone we can get. They need to be thoughtful about not stepping on each other, and about people with more privilege not automatically taking up leadership positions. But to overlook some of those folks coming from more privileged backgrounds is a complete waste we can’t afford.
There’s a lot of organizing labor that you can get out of the middle class, people who have some economic base, some support from their parents. If there are all these kids doing unpaid internships for two years at some shitty magazine, like Vice Magazine or something, a lot of them could do that year or two of living off their parents and put that effort into all kinds of great community organizing type programs.
I don’t at all mean that the left should use those young people instrumentally. We see too much of that already. That’s what SEIU and some of these other unions do. They recruit eager young progressives and radicals straight out of college knowing that they’re going to work the shit out of their organizers and they’re going to have a huge turnover rate. They’re just going to dump them after a year. I think people have such a bad experience with those entry-level staff organizer jobs that they don’t want to stay on doing political work. They’ll go on and do something else. It’s like an externality in union organizing. There’s a burnout factor that some of these unions are creating and then they’re not paying the cost in terms of what the movement loses from burning out and pissing off eager progressive young students.
So I guess I’m saying, the left needs to be smarter about managing its own human resources. I feel like there’s just a bottleneck in terms of money and capacity to get this stuff off the ground. That’s what I want to puzzle through: how can we start small with programs that can generate some revenue, so you can keep expanding them? How can we do all kinds of educational, health care, and service work that has a radical analysis to it?
If we could get programs like that going, plus movement education centers and think tanks, and improve the game of the academic labor movement, then I think we would really be getting somewhere. We’d at least be thinking more expansively about all the different roles radical intellectuals could play.
‘James Anderson’ has been organizing as an anti-capitalist student and worker in the US for over a decade, and he is currently working as an academic in contingent positions.