Eric Newstadt centers his defense of the Canadian Federation of Students on a definition of neo-liberalism. Newstadt explains that “the state has been instrumental in the creation and imposition of neoliberalism” and on this basis claims that “it is likely to be a vital agent in progressive change down the line.” However, because Newstadt is so focused upon making change at the level of the state, and because he sees large, powerful bureaucratic organizations like the CFS as the only way of creating such change, he completely misses the substance of my critique. This critique concerned the CFS’s role in demobilizing activists at the grassroots level of the student movement.
Newstadt’s claims that the CFS doesn’t play a role in manipulating electoral processes and staffing decisions at the local level are flatly contradicted by the CFS’s own documents. During the lead-up to the de-federation campaign at Simon Fraser University, a CFS-BC staff person accidentally leaked a campaign plan that listed the names of current elected officials and staff and where their next staff positions at various student organizations were to be. According to this document, parts of the Federation do actually attempt to play a role in influencing hiring and elections at the local level. Newstadt characterizes what many have considered interference in student elections as simply helping to build a strong organization in your spare time. But those involved have much more at stake: they directly benefit from the outcome of the vote since the organization provides them with long-term and high-paying jobs. This is not invented controversy. It’s a serious concern for student activists worried about the democratic integrity of their student associations.
Newstadt dismisses grassroots activism as some kind of “post-Marxist” organizing model instead of seeing it as fundamental to challenging oppression. He argues that neo-liberalism produces apolitical students. However, taking a moderate position on tuition does nothing to actually change a student’s level of engagement. Reworking our processes so that our organizing is collective and democratic means that we take seriously the everyday work of trying to get rid of oppression. This type of organizing differs from both the alienating individualism so prevalent in neoliberal capitalist culture and the disempowering bureaucracy of the CFS. It’s no easy task because it means trying to organize a group of people that for the most part has no understanding of collective power. Part of this work involves meeting people where they are at through on-the-ground mobilizing. It also means bringing people into a culture of collectivism and democracy.
Missing from Newstadt’s analysis of neo-liberalism is a look at how the development of capitalist globalization also changes the possibility of radical social change within current state formations. The left has seen time and time again that changing leaders at the top does not alter the socio-economic position of themost marginalized and exploited including indigenous and poor communities. While having left governments in power is better than having right wing ones, it is vital to keep the process of changing social relations at the forefront of our political analysis. We desperately need to move away from organizing models that mimic the state’s message that “we will do it for you.”
Instead of reinforcing appeals to the state, we need organizing that builds people’s individual and collective capacities. As part of a vision for social change, we need to challenge exclusion through organizing that allows people to change their relationship to what Newstadt calls the “capitalist logic.” Although Newstadt believes the CFS should talk about capitalism, this would require the CFS to move toward organizing in a way that is in direct conflict with capitalist globalization – something I’m afraid remains unlikely. How will students regain their dignity if someone says they will change the world on their behalf? This is the underlying message in Newstadt’s account of the CFS’s government relations program, which he holds to be “solid and responsive.” But as bad as this estrangement is, its even worse when people say they will make changes and then fail to do so. This is how workers, students, and marginalized people lose all trust in state relations in the first place. Part of this means rethinking the exclusion that happens in bureaucratic structures and how they reproduce the “capitalist logic” we are trying to fight.
Where could the CFS begin? I don’t think it’s a matter of changing the focus of campaigns or hiring more “experts” to engage in research. Instead, the CFS needs to prioritize the ongoing, democratic, and mass participation of students in its structures and campaigns. The CFS is often conflated with “the student movement.” In fact, the CFS is an organization made up of elected representatives who are student bureaucrats at the local level. These bureaucrats make up the “rank and file” constituency that CFS leaders and the CFS bureaucracy relate to. These campus-level leaders often centre their organizing in various electoral parties and are rarely interested in building the kinds of grassroots movements against war and oppression, or for campus democracy and restructuring of the curriculum, that are so important to building a left student movement today.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t vibrant student activism happening on campuses. Student activists involved in Students for a Democratic Society at the University of British Columbia organized a week long “Resisting the University” conference in February of 2008. As of April 2008, two CFS locals in BC and one in Nova Scotia have voted to leave the organization. These developments make it all the more pressing that student activists have a plan for they would like to see replace the CFS. For their part, student politicians working with the CFS should continue to pressure the organization to be more democratic and supportive of grassroots organizing. We desperately need national activist coordination across Canada. Student activists need to envision a different kind of organization in the here and now instead of waiting for the CFS to reform itself. In BC, where I live, student activists need to form a provincial student activist coalition that, from the start, asks what needs to be done differently and how it will be more effective. This could start with regional conventions as well as caucuses. Despite Newstadt’s claims that the CFS is a grassroots organization, it is sorely lacking in the kind of positive support for democracy required by student movement formations. Instead of defending the CFS, in its current form, we need to support initiatives for genuine control from below, encouraging collective, non-hierarchical decision making, and practicing consistent solidarity with the struggles of all oppressed people.