Against Academic Alibis: The Best Education is the Struggle – An Interview with George Ciccariello-Maher
Summary: The author of We Created Chávez, George Ciccariello-Maher, draws on his experiences in the “cauldron of resistance” of Oakland, CA to speak on the relations between education, organizing in universities, and struggles against police and prisons. Against academics’ use of alibis, such as ‘changing the world by teaching,’ to legitimize anything they do as a contribution to radical movements, he calls for academics to more clearly distinguish between their jobs and their political work.
CW: Could you say a little about how you got involved in radical organizing, particularly in relation to universities?
Geo: I was radicalized in the post-Seattle moment. By post-Seattle, I mean that I was not radical at the time that Seattle happened, and I was at the very beginning of developing political consciousness. I was living out of the country, actually, when it happened, in Spain. Observing what happened in Seattle was part of what began my process of radicalization, as did living in Spain. I did work with the Communist Party while I was living there. Wheels started to turn, so that when I returned to the United States the next year, I was ready to be mobilized in a political way. I did university organizing toward the mobilizations around the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec City. That was probably my first real, major organizing experience. That was 2001. After that, I lived in England for two years, and did anarchist and anti-war organizing there with the sort of Tute Bianche current in London, which was called WOMBLES at the time, and in an anti-capitalist collective in Cambridge where I was living. This was all prior to moving to Berkeley and engaging in organizing there.
That’s the general trajectory, but one thing to say about that is that very little of that was university organizing. I was involved, obviously, in and with students a lot of the time. But the organizing was rarely centered on university struggles. We were engaged in the squatters’ movement in England, and when some of our comrades were essentially expelled or suspended from Cambridge, we entered a legal struggle against that. That was obviously a university question: of whether or not the university could discipline students outside of what we considered to be its proper realm. There were the beginnings of movements while we lived there against fee hikes in the English system. But, in general, we weren’t engaged in student struggles. And when I moved to Oakland that continued.
I was at a public university undergoing cuts and fee hikes, UC Berkeley. And yet, I’ve always been skeptical of organizing in the student realm. This isn’t to say that this organizing shouldn’t happen. But, I think we need to not take it for granted that, because we are students or because we are faculty, our organizing should occur on the university level or in the student realm. And much less—and this gets to the broader pedagogical question—should we assume that we are changing the world by teaching. I think that hegemony is an important concept that Gramsci provided us with, but I think hegemony is also an alibi, which allows people to legitimize anything that they do as a sort of contribution to radical struggle. Ultimately, understood in that sense, it is completely compatible with liberal understandings of, you know, ‘every little bit helps,’ or ‘think globally, act locally.’ My political organizing is always tinged with a bit of skepticism about that.
So, when the student struggles emerged, especially at Berkeley in late 2009 and into 2010, I had been more directly connected, and remain more directly connected, to struggles in Oakland around the death of Oscar Grant, anti-police movements, and mobilizing around those. [Read his dispatches on Oakland here.] When the student occupations popped off, I was in and around and involved in those, and knew folks that were more directly involved in supporting those. But also, I had an eye to, on the one hand, connecting directly to community struggles, overcoming this divide, and on the other hand, connecting struggles at top-tier universities like Berkeley, downward to the state university level in California, and onward down to the community college level.
The way that student organizing has been able to move vertically into community colleges is one of the more powerful things that it can do, because when you do that, you move beyond the very limiting elite demands to simply oppose cuts or fee hikes and to demand the privilege of being at a top-tier university for low cost. These are opposed to understanding the broader questions of access, broader questions of the ethnic cleansing of these elite universities, and the way in which struggles need to be understood in a much more broad fashion.
CW: I’m interested in knowing more about how the organizing you are engaged with made those connections across the campus/community divide and also across the strata of the education system. How did your organizing make those connections?
Geo: From the perspective of the Oscar Grant struggles and the anti-police struggles, a lot of it had to do with attempting to mobilize radical students into those struggles. Recognizing the fact that student struggles are a powerful accelerant, they mobilize and create young organic intellectuals overnight. And that, in a way, provides a sort of feeder for other struggles. That is not without its difficulties and problems. But, part of the question was one of drawing students who are mobilized through student struggles to broaden their horizons and enter into these struggles in the community, struggles against police. It’s a lot easier to oppose fee hikes and budget cuts than it is to oppose the systematic function of the police in communities. To put it differently, it’s a lot easier to stand for something that pertains to you, that affects you directly, and that you think you deserve, than it is to stand for and protect those who maybe don’t look like you and yet are subject to everyday violence by the state. So, I think there’s a question of drawing people in to transform consciousness, but also to provide the basis for these struggles to continue, linking these struggles together in their constituencies and in their practices.
I wasn’t directly involved in proliferating student organizing between the different campuses, but just in the Bay Area there was always a powerful interplay between the UC system, on the one hand, and especially SF State in San Francisco and Laney College in Oakland. The close proximity of these, the historical legacy of these: Laney was home in a lot of ways to the Black Panthers, and the Laney Black Student Union was always involved in drawing together these questions of struggling against community oppression, on one hand, and budget cuts and state funding, on the other.
CW: You mentioned the rich tradition of struggle in the Bay Area. Do you feel like that made conditions for organizing in the Bay Area kind of exceptional?
Geo: I think, yes. But, I think that exceptionality isn’t always positive. Organizing in the Bay can be very frustrating because there’s precisely a sort of glut of radical organizations. There’s also a glut of ostensibly radical individuals in non-profits and all these things that use radical rhetoric but that operate to uphold the existing state of affairs in the city and in the area. And so, there are just different factors to struggle against. I think, rather than seeing, for example, what’s going on at Oakland today and the Occupy stuff as a result of the exceptional nature of the area, I don’t think that actually gets to it. I think it was a result of the struggles undertaken.
For example, I think that the struggle around Oscar Grant was fundamental for the development and radicalization of Occupy Oakland. Not just because it provided an example, but because people transform in struggle. And the way that organizers were transformed in that struggle took specific parameters. One: it was a struggle against and outside of sort of the legitimate boundaries of what struggles are understood to contain. In other words, it was a struggle in which people ran by and surpassed their own organizations, surpassed the police, surpassed the rule of law. And they essentially brought change in the street—forced the state to act in the street. That’s maybe a bit ephemeral, but at the same time it was a struggle that involved the kind of vicious critique against those institutions upholding the structure: the non-profits and everything.
Those participating in those struggles and those critiques, in a way, created a whole generation of people that were ready to do so again. So, even on something as minute as permits: the experience of permitting and the permitting structure during Oscar Grant was then directed and reflected in the fact that Occupy Oakland always refused to permit. Whereas, there were many occupations that were willing to believe that the cities were going to give them the permit and that would help their Occupy flourish. Occupy Oakland knew perfectly well how the permitting game worked: the fact that it was used to twist the arms of organizers, and it was used to shut down struggles rather than to allow them to function. So, all of these things contributed to a sort of cauldron of resistance that was really powerful.
CW: You’ve been involved in some radical intellectual collectivities outside of the university, such as Bring the Ruckus. How has your involvement in those connected with on-the-ground movement building and organizing?
Geo: Those things weren’t intellectual per se, although I’ve always been engaged in organizations that, for the most part, take theory and writing seriously. This gets back to the point about not assuming that our point of intervention is the university. It’s completely obvious to me now, because I’m at a private university that has essentially zero struggle going on. There is no foothold for struggle. There is no basis for struggle. We could try to create struggles but that would actually be doing sort of acrobatics in an attempt to justify university struggle when that’s not necessarily the struggle we need to be engaged in. The more pressing and strategic struggles are those around police murder on a daily basis, ‘stop and frisk,’ against policing and the prison industrial complex. Which is a long way of saying that the organizations I’ve been involved in, while theoretically nuanced and strategic, have been in a large part outside of the university.
The point has been, not to say ‘where am I and therefore where do I struggle from?’, but ‘what is the most strategic place of intervention at this moment?’ We do that through theory; we also do that through practice. The role then, as sort of organic intellectuals, is to read history, to read our present, and to attempt to identify strategic footholds on which to build these struggles. To engage in those struggles, to learn from those struggles, to put those learnings down onto paper. The Raider Nation Collective did this very well. Bring the Ruckus was a national organization that did powerful anti-police and immigration work across the country, but was very good at documenting these struggles and moving from practice to theory and back. In a sense that someone like Frantz Fanon would see it: the point is that those practices in those struggles are education. The point is not to say that ‘education is the university therefore when we struggle over education we do so in the university,’ but that the best education is the struggle. And that therefore we need to be careful not to separate out either our struggles or our intellectual work from that basis.
CW: How do you negotiate your roles as both working within academia and the university while also working in a kind of radical collective?
Geo: I think, first and foremost, academia is a job, and I think our first fuck-up is when we forget that—when we think that it’s, like, the expression of our species being, or when we think that education is the future. I teach at a university in which students go here, they study, and then they go get a job. Of course I think it’s great to engage in pressing them, in making them look at things a little more critically, and definitely seizing onto a few of them and pulling them in a more radical direction. But, I would be fooling myself if I confused this with my political work. Unfortunately, people fool themselves everyday by doing precisely that, and I think, as I said earlier, it’s an alibi to not do actual political work, to not engage in struggle.
Now, the good thing about the job that is academia, if you can hustle it these days—which is increasingly difficult—is that it gives you time, it gives you resources, and it gives you access to a certain platform. So, if you want to make political commentary that contributes to a struggle, for better or for worse, having a PhD or a university position, makes people more likely to listen in the press and in the public. It makes you privy to certain debates, and it puts you in the center of certain conversations. These many times are alienated from other conversations that need to be engaged in: more practical conversations of organizing. But, as a complementary side of the struggle, they’re powerful.
This is a long way of saying that I think we need to be more direct about separating our jobs from our political work. And I actually think that when we don’t do that it leads to a sort of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism that I find less than useful, even though I can sympathize with why people engage with it. In other words, I don’t support anti-intellectual attacks on the fact that organizers are also academics, but I think that many organizers who are academics, or many academics, the way that they understand their own function is part of the reason that people engage in anti-intellectual critiques of them. Because they’re too uncritical about this. I think if we’re organizers, we need to realize that organizing is our primary function, and that intellectual work can be important, but especially separating more intellectual work in that organizing from academia is an important distinction. That is to say, when you write something that you think is important, that isn’t necessarily your job. Rather, your job is to stand in front of some students and say some words, or your job is to publish a certain number of things in academic journals. But, there are several different elements of this function that we need to separate out.
CW: In doing that intellectual work for and with movement actors who are not in academia, do you have any advice, tactics, or lessons from your own experience on how to make those kinds of collaborations effective for building the movement while avoiding allowing your movement’s work to be recuperated into academic careerism? How do you avoid the potential pitfalls of doing intellectual work for your movements while using academic resources to help you do that?
Geo: One thing to say is that you, of course, need to be doubly aware of the fact that intellectuals or academics are in the room. As an academic, you have to be especially aware of what possible elements of alienation might exist between yourself and those you’re organizing with. You want to be at pains to not take up too much space. Be at pains to speak in a different way: to not allow academic language—which I think is different from intellectual language—to pollute the way that you do organizing when you are talking to people, and to not use language as a weapon to make you the most powerful person in the room. That’s on the level of sort of self-critique and self-control.
These issues get difficult especially when you’re engaged in university struggles, because there the relationship between your job and your organizing is much more difficult to separate out. You may identify with certain elements. I saw this a lot in the student struggles at Berkeley, where some faculty didn’t necessarily realize that they were faculty. I don’t want to make that an absolute thing. But, they weren’t sufficiently cognizant of or attentive to the fact that they did not live the daily life of the students, and that they were not in all the meetings, and that they did not do the organizing on the ground level. I think one of the dangers is that you think that you’re doing organizing on the ground level, and you mistake advocacy for organizing, or you mistake releasing a statement for the work of organizing. Then, you run the risk of mis-stepping. And mis-stepping can involve supporting the wrong organizations, taking the wrong side of a struggle, and the most dangerous of all—and this occurs in all levels of organizing, in the university or not—is thinking that you are legitimized as a spokesperson for those struggles. And maybe you are on the basis of your organizing, but more often than not, I think these things are overstated.
Just like in the Oscar Grant struggles, non-profit organizations stepped up and said, ‘we are the voice of the community. We are the ones who can legitimately say what the community needs, wants, etc.’ So too did a lot of faculty step up during some of the student struggles and speak for the students, in ways that actually demobilized the struggle or undercut the struggle or, even worse. There was a student occupation, a well-known occupation now, of Wheeler Hall, and faculty served on the negotiating committee and thought that they were helping the students by negotiating an end to the occupation. The response of many of the students occupying was that, ‘well, we occupied for a reason. We didn’t occupy to seek an end to the occupation. An end doesn’t constitute a victory.’ So, there’s this sort of paternalistic idea that the faculty were helping the students out of a dangerous spot, and that helping them escape without arrest was as much as they could do. But, the point wasn’t so much a question of whether that was the right judgment or the wrong judgment, but the fact that the faculty felt themselves to be in a position to speak for the students by virtue of their knowledge or whatever.
[For Geo’s more detailed account of the Wheeler Hall occupation and faculty betrayal, see “Occupy Everything!: Behind the Privatization of UC, a Riot Squad of Police.”]
George Ciccariello-Maher is a writer, radical political theorist, and currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He has written many academic articles and political dispatches, and published a book, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke, 2013). This interview was conducted on June 6th, 2012.