What Will it Take?

Dear UTA,

I am writing in reply to the very interesting roundtable on US student occupations that appeared in UTA 10. I’ve been involved in organizing as a graduate student and teaching assistant at UC Santa Cruz for the last several years. Last year, I helped organize the September 24 and March 4 walkouts at UCSC; I was an outside supporter of and witness to the occupation of Kerr Hall, one of two main administrative buildings on campus. I’m writing to critique some of the perspectives advanced in the roundtable. This is intended as comradely criticism to sharpen our collective thinking rather than “critical criticism” which seeks to annihilate or disable another perspective.

The occupations that took place at UCSC and other campuses across California last year played a central role in igniting a fightback movement with a dual character – challenging immediate policies of the university and the state while raising broader critiques of neoliberal austerity and academic capitalism. However, occupations did not occur in a vacuum separate from other forms of mobilization. The first occupations of the 2009-10 school year happened on September 24 in the context of a walkout called by an ad hoc group of professors, supported by two campus unions, and built by a general assembly and two coalitions at UC Berkeley. A second, more significant wave of occupations took place in response to a meeting of the UC Regents at UCLA November 18-19 which raised student fees 33 percent. These occupations grew out of a series of actions planned in part at a state-wide conference on October 24. They multiplied in response to a perfect storm in which the Regents’ actions became national news, and when “we are the crisis” went from being a radical slogan to a dramatization of an unavoidable fact.

Describing all this as an “occupation movement” misses the mark in some important ways (I’ll mostly limit myself to student occupations, but looking for a “wave of occupations” across social sectors is also questionable; sometimes the attempt to supersede identity politics and group divergent events as “occupations” hearkens back to a flattening, almost populist approach). Last year in California, occupations and other direct actions (such as library sit-ins) were one aspect of a movement that also used mass mobilizing tactics such as one-day strikes, marches, and rallies and conducted pedagogical work such as teach-ins, tabling, and hosting information booths with snacks.

The practice of occupations in California last year developed along a different line from the occupations of two years ago in New York. At the beginning of last year, most of the people who thought “now is the time” for occupations were close to insurrectionist politics; over the course of the year, a broad political swath of the movement took up occupation as a tactic. The development was not from occupations with demands to demandless occupations, but the reverse. The initial (demandless) occupation of the Graduate Student Commons at UC Santa Cruz, for example, was organized secretly and set up in part along fairly strict ideological lines. The GSC occupation sparked controversy and excitement and played a big role in making occupation central to last year’s tactical lexicon. However, as the organization of subsequent occupations became more democratic, spontaneous, and broad-based, some of these initial ideological commitments were questioned or jettisoned, including demandlessness. A series of library study-ins and UC Berkeley’s Live Week had somewhat different shapes and foci from the occupations; while they reclaimed campus spaces, they did so in an effort to open spaces rather than to close them. Harsh administrative reprisals in several cases thrust the movement back into an unwinnable “war of maneuver” logic.

The roundtable is ambivalent about the question of building a long-term movement. On the one hand, there’s an acknowledgment of the need to build something that goes beyond students or universities as a sector. On the other hand, there is an assertion of exceptionalism and novelty for occupation; other forms of activism are caricatured (often in broad strokes that lump together vastly different approaches, tactics, and tendencies) as deadening, policing, and containing people’s spontaneous energies.

This ambivalence reflects anxieties about where we’re headed. Student activists in the US today haven’t experienced left-oriented movements that have lasted a long time or achieved their underlying goals. The major movements of the past 15 years – global justice from 1999-2001, anti-war from 2002-03, and immigrants’ rights in 2006-07 have all been characterized by flashes of intense activity and lapses into quiescence. It’s tempting to blame a culture of organizing inherited from the New Left which is either deadening or reincorporating people into the apparatus of the administered society; the implication is that if we just change what we’re doing, we’ll succeed.

This analysis misses the most important reasons for the weak, short-lived character of radical movements over the past 30 years: the overarching political conditions of the time. These include major defeats for unions and workers, the increasing power of key sectors of capital, the decline of the social movements of the 1960s, the political hegemony of neoliberalism, several aggressive right-wing initiatives, and tepid mainstream liberal responses which barely halt these initiatives without projecting any forward-looking politics.

In a period of political defeat, it is easy to develop a crushing frustration about the gap that exists between the need for transformative movements and the paucity of actual attempts. We easily fall into two mistakes. First, our analysis is sometimes overly mechanical; historical movements succeeded where today’s movements fail because of some secret to be deduced; all we have to do is wait for the right historical moment, organize in the right manner, and the correct transformations will occur. History is always messier than this, but it is easy to fall into this mistake when we fetishize, for example, “mass democratic decision-making” without asking whether any “masses” are clamouring for any such thing. (At UC Santa Cruz, we tried for a number of months to have general assemblies but found them to be unwieldy, barely reaching beyond the “usual suspects” of campus activism. We had greater success with meetings focused around concrete organizing projects.)

Second, it’s possible to fetishize spontaneity and novelty– the self-activity of spirit. Many factors came together last year beyond audacious actions (and a presumable “propaganda of the deed” effect). Yeoman-like organizing played a big role: tabling and outreach, having lots of conversations with people on campus, turning disengagement into passive support and passive support into active support – all within a background context in which dissatisfaction and discomfort had reached a certain pitch. Radicals need new approaches to get to the root of this moment, but we also need fortitude to survive a dim historical moment. We need to orient ourselves for a struggle that will develop over years: neither frustration (“throwing our bodies upon the gears of the machine”) nor manic optimism (capitalism is collapsing, and a wave of occupations taking place now is already the seed of a new world) are sufficient perspectives.

Adam Dylan Hefty

Santa Cruz