Reanimating Histories of Struggle as Weapons against Neoliberal Individualization – An Interview with Don Kingsbury
Reflecting on the building occupations at UC Santa Cruz in 2009-2010 and cross-pollination between student and worker struggles, Don Kingsbury highlights the need to excavate and reanimate histories of radical movements. Under the conditions of academic precarity, and against the neoliberal privatization of the general intellect, Don calls for turning communities of necessity into communities of resistance.
CW: Could you tell me a bit about your political background, particularly in relation to university organizing?
Don: I had a very peripheral involvement with the Minnehaha Free State in Minneapolis in the late 1990s. I was also involved in the Arise! Collective – a community resource center and infoshop that was located on Lyndale but has since folded. We did a few events at Arise! in connection with the Free State. We even tried to do a couple teach-ins at the U [University of Minnesota, where I studied for my undergraduate degree]. And then I had three months of really intense activity—where I got arrested [at a sit-in at the Free State] and dealt with court and legal hassles—and then it kind of petered out. It was kind of the all-too-familiar trajectory of undergraduate activism: where you become incredibly intensely involved with a particular issue for a relatively short, intense period of time, and then because of the lifecycle of the quarter or semester, you end up having by necessity to do something else the next time around.
Getting involved with university organizing came very late—not until grad school. I did stuff when I was an undergrad because a lot of my friends were grad students in CSCL or CSDS. They were trying to organize a union, and so I tried to do stuff helping them, talking to undergrads. But, it really wasn’t until I became a grad student and started seeing the administrative machinations of the university that I started being interested in those questions. I think that it was during the time I was an undergrad, my tuition doubled. Those were the Mark Yudof years. And when I came up here [to the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC)] and saw that Mark Yudof was named president of the UC in my second year of grad school, alarm bells started ringing. The pace of privatization here in California has been much more intense than it was during my time in Minnesota. Maybe I feel it more acutely at UCSC than I did at University of Minnesota [U of M], because the Twin Cities campus is the flagship of the U of M, whereas Santa Cruz is this kind of place on the fringe where all sorts of weird stuff happens. So, we don’t necessarily have the same sort of buffering that a place like Berkeley or UCLA has. So, I think it was having to do the labor of being a teaching assistant that is what got me first working on university struggles.
When I was an undergrad, actually, a lot of my work was off-campus: with Arise!, with Anti-racist Action. I had been in Anti-Racist Action since high school, and following but not participating directly in the Love and Rage Federation and things like that. So, my position as a social activist or a worker always came before my status vis-à-vis academia, and then once that became my identity—as an employee of the University [of California] as it was stream-lining and privatizing—I became more involved out here.
CW: Have you maintained connections between your off-campus organizing and your on-campus organizing?
Don: To the extent that I’ve been able to maintain organizing or activism, it’s become more university focused—just because pursuing a PhD takes up the entirety of your life. It also has to do with the particularity of Santa Cruz as a town. There’s a particular set of struggles in Santa Cruz versus the surrounding areas: Santa Cruz is very gentrified. There’s a lot more lip service to the sorts of progressive causes that we would have to fight pretty hard for in Minneapolis, but that lip service is often just that: liberal window dressing to make people feel good about shopping at Whole Foods, or something along those lines, while they continue to price out people of color from being able to live in the area. So, a lot of my student activism on campus has been working with undergraduates who are from these backgrounds that they would never have been able to afford to live in Santa Cruz. So, it will be young Chicano and Latino students from the surrounding areas or from Southern California who are trying to save those institutional spaces for Ethnic Studies, for example, while at the same time also carrying that burden of being a first generation college student—which is pretty hard. But my organizing has focused on campus, at this point, just because of the schedule.
CW: Have there been many symbiotic connections with any off-campus organizing, such as with the anarchist community in Santa Cruz?
Don: I would say probably more between UC Santa Cruz and Oakland than between UC Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz. A lot of the people who were involved in the 2009-2010 struggles on campus here have since graduated and moved to Oakland, and become involved in Occupy Oakland. Some of the people actually moved to New York and were involved in some of the first waves of Occupy Wall Street. These are folks who are going to be involved in the struggle no matter where they go, wherever there’s a struggle to be found.
Towards the end of that ‘hot’ year when there were many occupations and student mobilizations on campus, when campus was shut down by students, there was a significant fragmentation of the movement and a lot of debate about how useful it could be to focus on the university as, not only the terrain of a particular struggle but also the target of a struggle. It was always the goal of the sort of factions that I was involved with to take things off-campus. Working on the university is important but it’s still a narrow site in the larger kind of schedule of things that need to be done. So, the analysis that we started putting forward towards the end of the university struggles that year was: the university is one terrain amongst many, and we need to move forward, that is, off-campus. There were some adventurist, macho sorts of things that happened, like, window breaking sessions and things like that. But it wasn’t until Occupy took off around the country, and especially in Oakland, that a lot of people who were working here in UC Santa Cruz took root someplace else. Some of these kids were also from Oakland, so they had organic roots to that community. And some people moved to Oakland because it’s one of the few affordable places to live in this area.
CW: Do you see some of the lessons learned from that 2009-2010 struggle on campus being carried through by those people into their organizing with Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street?
Don: I should preface all this by saying that, for a number of reasons, I haven’t been involved in any sort of planning or organizing capacity in Occupy Oakland. So, everything I’m saying comes from a few degrees of separation: hearing comrades talk about the debates or reading communiques. I should say, from that perspective, I am seeing a lot of the same problems and a lot of the same debates come up again. A lot of it has to focus on race and gender. There’s a certain unwillingness to engage in conversations about race unless they happen in a particular type of disavowal of race language. It seems that the same people can only have discussions about race and gender when it’s in a language that is sufficiently anarcho for them. And, frankly, a lot of white kids getting very offended and touchy when you might want to talk about race privilege or gender privilege, which is a perennial problem among white activists and white self-declared revolutionaries. They want to be recognized for doing their thing, for being one of the good guys, and when someone calls them on anything, they can react quite violently, quite reactionarily.
I’m seeing some of that. This is the question we’re constantly having to face: how does race cut through and undercut or enable movements to enact change? Oakland, I think, has been the most successful place where the issue of race has been tackled in the US, in terms of Occupy. And that, I think, has to do with the rich tradition of struggle in Oakland. But, again, that’s just watching from afar.
CW: Are there any particular instances of Occupy Oakland’s dealing with race well that you’re thinking of?
Don: I’m thinking of stuff that has been put forward by the Raider Nation Collective and by Advance the Struggle. I think a lot of it was that Occupy Oakland, in many ways, you already had an ongoing movement around police brutality, police occupation of poor communities and communities of color, the Oscar Grant debacle was ongoing. And so, you already had people very aware of the fact that the police were an occupying army in the city of Oakland, that ‘open season’ essentially has been declared on young men of color in Oakland. There’s been a lot of organizing by people of color, and by allied white people, such that the ground upon which any Occupy Oakland franchise was going to be set up already had that ongoing trajectory in place.
Connecting Radical Pedagogy and Movements
CW: Taking this back to the university, thinking about when you were a grad student, did you have opportunities to teach your own classes? If you did, I wonder if you tried any kinds of radical pedagogy approaches, and if you were able to connect students with movements outside of the classroom?
Don: In terms of pedagogy, I’ve always tried to base my work on a more dialogic, Freirean model—to try to be reflexive, learn from the students, and enable each student to contribute. I’ve always tried to start out by letting students know that I come from a particular historical trajectory—I’ve got this experience, that experience—and essentially let them know that I’m not objective and I’m not God. I challenge them to challenge me, which is unfair, I realize, because there’s obvious power asymmetries there. But, from the very beginning, I try to have a conversational classroom that always draws lessons to ongoing politics in the real world. For example – one of the fields in which I teach is Latin American politics — I was teaching a summer course during the coup in Honduras [against President Manuel Zelaya, in 2009]. I don’t know if this is radical pedagogy or just good pedagogy, but we had to radically re-configure the class’s syllabus from that point on to talk about the history of US intervention in Central America, in particular. What was going to be a weeklong unit within the class became the rest of the quarter, essentially. So, being reflexive to the needs of both the individuals in the classroom and history itself is something I’ve always tried to do.
But I will say that, more and more, it doesn’t seem that students are prepared for that. And it can be a lot to ask somebody to reverse an entire lifetime of schooling and participate. But it is a challenge we cannot not take up. It sounds so Foucauldian, but sometimes you have to train them to be free subjects, or something like this. And it doesn’t always work. It often doesn’t work, frankly. You’ve got to be willing to try and fail, and try over again. I’ve had some really heartening experiences with introducing students to either starting in activism on campus or in university issues or in encouraging students to seek out other organizations, including the student who became involved in Occupy Oakland and who attended my dissertation defense, and said ‘thanks.’ I got weepy. That’s always been something that I’ve tried to do. Because so many of my friends are involved in activist organizations of various stripes. I feel like I’ve been fortunate enough to have a pretty rich network of people involved in particular struggles. Some of these people are former students, and now they’re friends.
One of the things about Santa Cruz: even though it is, like much higher education, entering into a sort of ‘high school-ization’ process, where a four-year degree is just something that’s part of what passes for a middle class credential, a thing that is necessary to advance one rung higher on the pay scale. So, students treat it as such. Even though they’re essentially paying for it and opting in to it and it’s ostensibly optional, they still feel in many ways coerced or scrutinized in the same way that high school and middle school was for them. But some students still seek it out; they still have this sort of romanticized notion of higher education that I did. And a lot of these students choose Santa Cruz because it’s produced this rich activist history, and it sells itself on that rich activist history, even while pepper spraying students. It still wants to think of itself as a sort of ‘Left Coast hotbed of dissent.’ So, it could give it a self-selected demographic that students will come, ask me what my activist background is, and ask me for my help with that sort of thing. Sure, like any academic I have a particular analysis and perspective that I try to impart – some nefarious attempts to convert, if you will – but for the most part the impetus comes from the students themselves. And I don’t think it could be any other way.
CW: Back during that 2009-2010 period when campus protests were really intense, when you were involved, did you have any interactions with undergrads through the classes you were teaching in ways that connected them with that on-campus organizing?
Don: Yeah, definitely. I was teaching something called CORE. At UC Santa Cruz, students are all housed in sort of residential colleges; it’s kind of an English system. So, there’s the University of California, Santa Cruz, but within that there’s Merrill College, Porter College, etc. the CORE classes are essentially intros to the university for first-year students organized by their residential college. The first day of class in 2009 was actually the day that students occupied the graduate student commons. There was a whole day of protests planned before and after the ‘planned but secret’ take-over of the building, and student organizers had called for a general strike at the university. The other CORE instructors and myself conferred and decided together to convene our classes but to use that time to explain why the strike was happening and give them the option to join us and go to the picket lines – introduction to the university, indeed! This was when students were facing a potential 32% hike in fees and tuition.
So, it was a rather sobering first moment, to say: ‘welcome to your first day of college. I want to let you know that my job is at stake, and you or your parents are going to have to pay 32% more.’ Basically, to lay down the rather dire situation that they were entering—but of course, we found out that they were all quite aware of the situation already! They were all products of California education: they had been treated like shit in their high schools. Their high schools were crumbling around them, and some of these were the better high schools in their cities. And then they go to the UC, because they didn’t have any idea of where else to go but they knew they had to go to college. They get to college, and I didn’t have to prime the pump very much. I mention to them: ‘this is what is happening,’ and they all knew, immediately, instinctively.
And we went down to the march. I didn’t force them to go – couldn’t and wouldn’t – but I had about half of them volunteer to head to the pickets. Thinking about it now, not only has there been a kind of compass reference of growing up in ‘crisis, crisis, crisis,’ but also a lot of these students were involved, or had family members involved, in the 2006 student walkouts around that ugly Sensenbrenner anti-immigration bill that saw huge mobilizations on May Day especially across Chicano and Latino communities in the US. San Francisco and Los Angeles—which are where we get a lot of our students from—are two locations where we had mass high school student walkouts. Some of these students, they had this kind of in the background. Even if they didn’t participate, it was still sort of seeded in their consciousness.
So, this is on the students’ very first day of college. And I remember the last building that was occupied that year, at the other end of the year, in spring quarter. I had not slept for 48 hours. I was doing jail support and media liaisoning outside of the building. The police came in. It was very emotional: watching the police beating up on students and comrades, friends and professors, as I’m on the phone with the reporter describing the scene – the university police and administration had effectively blocked access for anybody, and especially reporters, to get onto campus that morning – I was effectively the eyes for the reporters at that point. And then I get off the phone, the situation goes back to somewhat normal, and a couple of my students walk out of the building and say, ‘hey Don, how’s it going?’ I had no idea that they were even inside of this occupied building, but these were kids that, just two quarters before, we were talking about cosmopolitanism in their CORE class.
I’ve had a lot of students who I’ve taught—and a lot of them taught me. It’s interesting how this works. I had students who, at the time of teaching, they didn’t stand out as activists or revolutionaries or even particularly dedicated students. But, then I’ll see them at, like, the port shutdown at Occupy Oakland last year. ‘Oh, woah, what are you doing here?’ They say something like, ‘thanks!’
Cross-pollination between Student and Worker Struggles
CW: That’s really cool to hear about building those kinds of relationships-in-struggle between undergrads and teachers on campus. Those can be powerful. In a way, undergrads are going through this kind of capitalist reproduction process. And we as teachers are engaging in capitalist production: producing their labor power, through our waged employment. It’s a moment where, through those relationships, we can oppose both reproduction and production at the same time. I’m interested to think about ways that those relationships can be developed more, both during those sort of uprising kinds of times, and also during more normal times, like in the classroom or in other organizing forms. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Don: Again, I can plead the sort of specificity of Santa Cruz, in that there is a self-selecting group of people here, and there’s a community that forms in and around activism here that combines off-campus and on-campus. That community kind of reproduces itself in a way that bridges the inevitable four-year lifecycle of campus organizers.
The administrators and bureaucrats of the unions—not only of grad student unions but of clerical workers and food service workers—the leadership of, for example, SEIU is quite bureaucratic but the rank-and-file members and field organizers are at every picket, every protest, working with students and trying to fuse fights for living wages and health care with anti-budget cut and anti-austerity battles. So there’s a lot of grassroots and wildcat solidarity that, I think, has to do with both the institutional matrix here at Santa Cruz and the fact that California is one of the few places in the United States where you have seen some innovation in the past twenty years and some inroads in the organized labor movement. Everywhere else you’re seeing pushback, while here you’ve got Justice for Janitors, UFW, really expanding what it means to be a worker in the traditional, union sense. And I think that that has allowed for a degree of solidarity and cross-pollination that we haven’t seen elsewhere, perhaps.
At Minnesota as an undergraduate, for example, I always had the impression that the relationship between workers and students was always mediated by the university, by the employer—maybe because there haven’t been the kinds of face-to-face connections that we’ve had here at UCSC or the institutional connections that we’ve had through unions or a student-worker coalition for justice, like the one here on campus that does a lot of great work both through the Community Studies, American Studies, and Latin American and Latino Studies programs, because a lot of the people who work on this campus are people of color who may not speak English as their first language. So, there’s a dedication to the principle of keeping the struggles that we study alive in the present.
Now, all that said, as the University is cutting programs, the first program they cut was Community Studies. The American Studies faculty essentially threw down the gauntlet to the University, because the University has been starving them for funds. [The faculty said to the University:] if you’re not going to give us the funds to have a department, we’re not going to have one. And the University called their bluff, and so now the American Studies major is cycling out. Its tenured faculty persons are being pushed to other departments. Latin American and Latino Studies remain strong, because the University wants to get credit as a ‘Hispanic-serving institution.’ But, it’s come at the cost of some lecturers not having their contracts renewed when they reach normative retirement age, and that sort of thing.
Again, the sort of constantly trying to maintain connections between students and the people who work on this campus as fellow workers is something that, I know, myself and a number of other graduate students and faculty have been dedicated to. We also had the benefit as graduate students of being unionized ourselves [with the UAW], and UC Santa Cruz got a reputation for being one of the most ornery, radical chapters of the UC UAW. Last year, the activist element was able to basically take over our union. Before that, there had been some Detroit-installed Democratic Party boosters, basically, running the union forever. A number of people started a campaign and took the union back. I was only able to help with that campaign by doing a couple of nights of phone-banking and attending a meeting at Berkeley to throw my vote down, but there were people who, likely, sacrificed their careers in academia in order to make it happen. I don’t wish them any ill-will or ill-luck, but that’s part of the problem: the artificial timelines we have to face to finish within normative time here can mean that if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to only focus on your studies. And so, we have martyrs who are still breathing, in a sense. It’s impossible. That’s no way for a movement to keep alive. That’s something that’s all too common in the US, and maybe particularly in university struggles.
Excavating and Reanimating Histories of Struggle
CW: Do you feel like precarity, and sped-up career guidelines, is one of the biggest limiting conditions and obstacles to anti-capitalist organizing at universities these days?
Don: Yeah, I think that one is huge. I think, also, as the capitalist system is itself restructuring and we don’t know what it’s going to look like four months out, the university is also restructuring, and I think what will be absolutely vital, and will be continually difficult to do, will be to create lines of solidarity. There’s a seeming contradiction among university radicals, the conclusion of which is that you can’t be anti-capitalist while effectively campaigning to protect your privileged position. That’s a non-starter. There is a history and tradition of struggle in the United States, but it has been refracted so many times over by institutionalization, political expediency, and too much focus on institutional ‘small-d’ democratic politics. So we have to build that history of struggle. We have to excavate it and reanimate it. The Quebecois students right now [in 2012] have a long history of struggle. They’re able to articulate their movement onto that history of university struggles that are also linked to movements for sovereignty and autonomy—the student movement has been part of that struggle for the past thirty or forty years, back to the 70s. As a result, it seems that [students] get a degree of public support that we only tend to get here in California when the administrators and the police go apeshit and start clubbing people and get caught on camera. There’s not a sort of ready-made sympathy [in the United States], which might be linked to the post ‘60s demonization of student protest, but which I think also can be traced to the affective results of austerity and economic restructuring at a popular level. What I mean is, you hear a lot of people—and it’s not just the trolls on message boards and newspaper stories—who think that ‘university students are mobilizing to protect their own privilege and so why should I care?’ That’s huge and it shouldn’t just be dismissed as conservative contrarianism.
The enforced precarity: there’s not just the precarity of having to finish your work in a particular amount of time, often with no funding, but also, we [graduate students and faculty] got into this game to study a particular thing. We have a passion; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. No one goes to school for 15 years just to get a ‘good job.’ There are other elements academics have to navigate as a worker, a revolutionary, an activist, and so forth that don’t only have to do with the administration’s constraints. But, the administration is always one of the biggest over-determining factors.
CW: A couple times you’ve mentioned the importance of being a part of a longer history and stronger culture of struggle and solidarity. You mentioned that for Occupy Oakland and also for the Quebecois students. Do you have on thoughts on how that kind of strong historical radical movement culture can be built?
Don: In some sense it’s by not calling yourself ‘radical,’ and just actually being a radical is a first big step. Did you see that joke free school flier in New Orleans just put out? It’s like an anarchist version of The Onion. It has classes like: ‘How Not to Be an Asshole,’ and things like that. I don’t know that that would be such a bad idea!
A lot of how to build the culture is what we in the US are doing now. After a generation of a culture of individualization, of demonizing any sort of collective identification – of essentially unchallenged neoliberalism – I think that it’s starting to happen again. Even Republicans—even Mitt Romney [in the 2012 presidential campaign]—have to speak out against ‘banksters’ and ‘crony capitalism.’ It’s being bastardized and manipulated, but it’s part of the public discourse at this point, in a way that was just unimaginable during the Clinton years. And so, I think it is being built. You build it by building it, and only after the fact do you recognize that it’s being constructed. Part of it is that you build that culture through victories and defeats.
CW: Are there any particular movements or struggles happening now in the US that you find especially inspiring?
Don: Moving people into foreclosed homes that Occupy Homes in Minneapolis [and elsewhere] is doing: that’s a way to create those bonds of solidarity. When you have people trying to prevent other people from getting kicked out of their homes. It humanizes people, connects them to each other. But, also, it has a function of exposing ideology. If you think about, in the US home ownership is one of the central sorts of ideological supports of the bourgeois family: ‘I’m the breadwinner. Man’s home is his castle.’ I’m using gendered language because it’s a very gendered phenomenon, but it’s also the core nucleus of the individual economic unit in the United States. But, I think when a community gets together and tries to protect a family from being kicked out of its home, it, one, allows people to still live and not have to live out of their car, but, two, it exposes the collective nature of all these individualized identities and units. Like, without the support of your community, you can’t have that home. The idea that you’re a self-sustained, self-reinforcing individual that possesses your family and your home—and that you can completely cut yourself off from the community at large, from history, from the world—that’s one of the key supporting myths of neoliberalism.
With the Occupy phenomenon last year: any time you see people protesting explicitly against capitalism in the United States, and turning out thousands of people, it’s heartening. And I think that it’s something that we often lamented not seeing in the United States: ‘it could never happen here.’ That’s why so many anarchists and radicals fall into this pornographic infatuation with street protests and battles in Greece or wherever. Rather than paying attention to Greece and Spain for the importance of the crumbling of what was supposed to be the next natural step of capitalism, they obsess over a few of dudes throwing rocks at cops, dress it up in high theory, and retreat to their enclaves of the like-minded on the internet, in niche publications, or in the neighborhoods they are (perhaps unwittingly) gentrifying.
Turning Communities of Necessity into Communities of Resistance
CW: Speaking of ways of combating the extreme individualizing tendencies of neoliberal capitalism, thinking about academia, you just got your doctorate, so what are you doing next? As you are inserting yourself into the academic ‘market,’ are you thinking of how you can continue to be a radical organizer while also working within this kind of individualizing, competitive academic world? How can you avoid having your radical movements be recuperated into that?
Don: I’ve been joking, because I went through the paces of the job market last summer as well and got no callbacks at all. So, my joke this year has been: I really, really want to sell out, but nobody will buy me, so I’m fucked! Put better, under conditions of consolidated capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited by the wage relation is not being exploited by the wage relation.
Part of it also has to do with the nature of the beast of being, not just an academic, but someone who studies the philosophy of social movements in Latin America, and after having been effectively in college since 1998, with a couple of times off here and there, I can’t think of what else I would do. So, yeah, I’m looking at the job market, trying to find an academic position. And, you know, ours might be the last generation of people who can even have the faintest of hopes for a tenure-track position. I mean, how not to get sucked back into the beast…?
So, there are two ways, both of which mediating who I am and who I’ve been. I’ve been politicizing myself and the world since I was in middle school. It is in my DNA, and it is why I got into academia in the first place. So, I know that I’m always going to be involved as best I can. Two, I always follow the example and move into the space that’s opened up by the students and other protagonists themselves, because they’re always going to be resisting something. For example, sometimes students not doing their homework is just students not doing their homework, but sometimes it’s also resisting normative pressure to become a particular type of subject. So, you always try to follow their lead and contribute to their struggle how you can. Their struggle might not always be something recognizable as something you could slap onto a picket sign or a slogan.
I’m always looking for those moments of resistance, rupture, escape—and I try to learn from them. That’s just something I’ve been driven by since I was an undergrad. Allah willing, if I actually get a job, the danger is not only the very real one of being defanged by institutional pressures, but also of ending up in a Marxist ghetto, associating with the one other sociologist or anthropologist and four lit professors who can talk about Marx. One has to avoid that as well, comforting as it may be. And you try to build communities of struggle from communities of necessity or accident. In late spring of 2009, before the cycle of struggles that began in fall 2009, sitting on the back porch with a bunch of friends, all TAs, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers, complaining about the administration, complaining about the reforms that were coming down the pipeline, saying, ‘hey, we need to start thinking about this programatically, and we need to start doing more than complaining, because this is a structural condition that we’re facing, and we’re not special or unique flower petals that are the only people on the planet who have had this thought that this is a ruinous situation and something needs to be done about it. We need to link up with the forty other conversations that are happening in Santa Cruz right now of people who are complaining about what the administration is doing.’ And that’s effectively what we did. And it turns out that some of those other forty conversations were having much more advanced, much more radical, and much more tactically adventurist conversations than we were.
So, follow the lead of resistance where it happens. And, turn communities of necessity into politicized communities of resistance. Because it would be foolish to think that you’re going to move to a place where everything’s okay. Part of that is a lesson I learned when I lived in Minneapolis, which is to hang out with your neighbor and kick the soccer ball back and forth, and build organic links like that. Living in Minneapolis, my neighbors and I had more conversations after I stopped shoving ‘Free Mumia’ posters at them everyday. We ended up talking about Mumia, but it came after I started playing soccer, essentially. That doesn’t mean you should be ninja-like and crypto about your intentions and what you care about. You also need to care for each other, and this applies to the university setting as well, where the people you share space with for a limited period are also in precarious situations, are also facing budget cuts, are also having to do with their own personal anxieties in academia, because academia feeds our worst thoughts about ourselves. You have to have an ethic of care and to care for each other, as well as to push each other to do better and to challenge each other to do more.
Workers Schools against the Privatization of the General Intellect
CW: A lot of the other people who I’m interviewing are also just finishing grad school or in the last year or two of it, and are also facing this precarious academic life. One person I talked to, who was a UAW organizer at NYU, and is out-of-school now, trying to get a job and having trouble at it—he was saying that some of us, instead of trying to hang on, and struggling in that contingent hell for years, maybe we should ‘rise out’ of academia and try to do intellectual work in some other way while still remaining involved with radical movements. Do you have any thoughts on that, maybe connected with what you’re saying about having an ethic of care for each other, perhaps some way to maintain links of solidarity and care across precarious radical academics who are either within or outside or on the boundaries of academia?
Don: Yeah, that’s something I hear a lot of. In some ways, I think it comes from necessity. Personally, I don’t think that I could emotionally handle the constant rejection of going out on the job market, putting everything into preparing materials, year after year after year. So, I’m setting myself a limit of five or six cycles, and no more, and then try to find something else. And I think that modes of intellectual production are very rapidly changing, and they are changing more quickly than the institutions that we currently inhabit can respond to—just because the universities are these very slow-moving mammoths.
But in these changes, unfortunately, it looks like ‘traditional’ and rather bourgeois models of intellectual life are proving more robust and adaptable than more recent uses of the university as a tool for egalitarian social engineering. I’m thinking here of the intensification of the self-promotion required to be successful in academia, but which also works on the terrain of the so-called ‘new media’ (social networking, facebook, twitter, ‘the blogosphere’), that reinforces the myth of individual genius and allows for the emergence of academic superstars and other intolerable types. So when I say ‘intellectual production has changed’ I don’t mean that space has been opened for the recognition of more collective – that is to say, honest – forms of meaning and knowledge making. If only! Rather, the neoliberal university does its part to enclose the commons by reinforcing a one-way and individualized dynamic in the relationship of knowledge, from discourses of ‘consumers’ (students) and ‘service providers’ (increasingly adjunct faculty), to the increased implementation of public-private ‘partnerships,’ to, finally, the enduring figure of the standout talent of the sacred individual academic. Even if the persons in question are not aware of it. Especially if they’re unaware of it, though there are inevitably no shortages of persons that are all too eager to take up the role of the most important person in the room.
All of this is reinforced as the neoliberal university adapts to the new media environment. These ‘new’ forms of communication and production are actually quite familiar in that they privatize the general intellect – as if the collective work of struggle and thought can be centered on a particular individual genius – writer, analyst, poet, etc. And these are the sorts of relationships that we need to not reproduce outside the university.
I think with the sort of networks of free schools and unschools that are emerging and have been around for a while: yes, I would love to be a part of them. The examples in early 20th century Latin American trade unionism, where you had Workers Colleges that would be set up outside of factories. This is the sort of thing I was doing in Venezuela when I was there, which was teaching for Misión Ribas (which is a high school equivalency program in the barrios around Caracas). So, I worked my day job and, then through connections that I made with students at that job, I went and taught in this non-traditional high school—essentially in somebody’s living room, in an illegal settlement.
I think especially as public higher education disappears more and more, there’s going to be more need for more organic workers schools, to use the old language. That’s something that we’ll link into. But, the problem is, again, it comes back to this sort of structural barrier: you know, we still need to pay rent. Some of us are getting to that age where we want to have kids. Whether we have kids or we adopt kids, more radicals need to be involved with bringing up the next generation. And it’s daunting to think about that when you’ve got no hope for employment, even precarious employment.
Minneapolis has a long, rich tradition of co-ops and co-op battles, free schools and these sorts of autonomous networks. Santa Cruz has that too. Minneapolis has actually been more successful than Santa Cruz in that some people have been able to create co-op networks and sustain themselves through those networks. I think that, out of necessity, some of us might be finding ourselves in non-academic settings doing that sort of thing, because I don’t think any of us are going to just stop, being like, ‘oh, academia didn’t work, so I’m going to just stop thinking critically.’
CW: Thinking about this kind of stigma against talking about, or admitting, that you’ve left academia—this kind of ‘dropout’ stigma—it would be cool to work against its individualizing effect by networking with each other and creating some kind of solidarity league of ‘riseout former academics’ or something.
Don: Yeah, I like queering that language too: the ‘riseout,’ not ‘dropout.’ I’m gonna start using that.
CW: Do you have any last thoughts?
Don: I’ll be excited to see what comes out of this. This last year, I’ve been really focused on finishing my dissertation, because of the time constraints. So, I hadn’t actually thought of these questions until you sent me the email. As somebody who has spent a lot time being political and becoming political, and so I was shocked that these questions that used to occupy my time I hadn’t thought of in a year. I think that says something about the ecosystem of the university, and how, even against the best of intentions, it can quiet these questions. So, thanks!
This interview with Don Kingsbury was conducted on June 4th, 2012. Don writes on contemporary Latin American politics and critical theory, and he currently teaches in Toronto, Ontario.
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