Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Moving Beyond Campus Politics These Days

To read any commentary on campus politics these days one could be forgiven for thinking it's an acrimonious battle between two forces: the majoritarian New Puritans versus beleaguered Free Speech advocates.  Any casual web search will reveal scores of articles documenting tales of some misanthropic faculty member shutting down the free speech and free thinking of some student or another.  Dig deeper and we find accounts of student groups demanding that their faculty decolonize themselves. Further down we can learn about emotional labour and how women and people of colour are doing a disproportionate share.  This is all then placed in the frame of an epic battle between a crazy marxist post modernist cabal in control of our universities shutting down a small, but vigorous movement for free speech.

Something is really wrong with this picture. It's not accurate. Campus politics are not riven by ultra left students and their faculty mentors stifling free thinkers. Truth be told the lines of adhesion are between student activist and students politicians and university administrators.  Typically it's front line faculty (of all political stripes) who are the targets of this neo-liberal university alliance.

There has been a change in the nature of student and campus politics in which alignment between students and administrators is closer than at almost any other time over the past fifty years.  Of course, collaborationist politics in which student politicians aligned themselves with university administrations is not new - there is a long history of that.  To be fair this is, for many,  a reasonable approach to take. If one is generally pleased with the shape of the world then it is reasonable to assume that one would align one's politics in such a way as to accumulate as much social capital as one can. Yet from the 1960s into the early 1990s campus politics included far more variation and a lot less reliance upon administrators to act as a 'progressive' vanguard.

One can peruse the pages of the 1980s era student newspaper The Ubyssey and find story after story of anti-tuition protests, petitions, and occupations of the president's office and of the Board of Governors meetings.  One can still find the student politicians who are quoted saying things like quiet lobbying works best or that the administration does care about students. But, the tenour of the day found administrators to be opponents, not allies.

The 1970s and 1980s were materially differnt political and socially from our current period. Economically speaking the big post-world war II economic boom had come to and end, left-progressive politics were being out manoeuvred by a new brand of conservative (represented internationally by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Francois Mitterrand and locally by Bill Bennet and Brian Mulroney). At the same time student progressive politics was still being lead by activists who considered fundamental social change possible. This was a politics focused on direct action, mobilizing public protest and using the instruments of governance as tactics to transform the fundamental economic and social nature of society. But defeat has its cost and demoralization resulted in new forms of politics emerging that were less coordinated,  inconsistent , and more libertarian and individualistic.

The post soviet collapse, the irony of the People's Republic of China being a leading capitalist power, and the total annihilation of most progressive social movements leaves little room, it seems, for any kind of politics other than accommodationist. Clearly the official representatives of student voices on university colleges works within the accommodationist mode. Here at UBC it is very clear that the effective student leadership is all about finding accommodations with the university administration. Where they do disagree it more about a matter of degree than kind: for example, not whether there should be tuition fees, but how much they should go up. Even the erstwhile critical protesters are not arguing for expanded democratic practice and fundamental structural change, but rather they ask for alterations and modifications of administrative policies.

The material conditions of the current moment are shaped by low & stagnating wages for the working classes combined with accelerating incomes for the business & managerial classes. In this context the university's ideology of producing leaders obscures the reality that we are producing labourers for the machinery of business. Like most capitalist ideologies the university's promotes an idea of unlimited success. The ideology producing units highlight notions of innovation (turning research into commodities), valuing diversity (the promise that anyone can become a member of the managerial class), failure is ignored by the constant focuses on success (never truly define),  and through all of this a constant messaging to students that their experience, their feelings, their voices are what matters before else.  Like all ideologies - which are simply idea systems tied to structural power- there is a germ of truth in all of this, most especially that one's experience and sensibilities are important - but when the entire edifice that such experiences are premised is falsely constructed it leads to a problematic politics that merely reinforce the hegemonic structures.

Yet, it is the ideology (not the reality) that the mainstream student politics operates within and for some of them the payout is that ideology becomes reality and they are able to leverage their experience of accommodationist politics into positions within the managerial class leadership of capitalism.  The current movement of student politics reminds me of an older debate within the socialist movement: "is the union leadership the right wing of the working class, or the left wing of the ruling class."

Is there a strong countervailing, counter-hegemonic ideology motivating an alternative student politics?  It doesn't really look like it.  Even those activists that present themselves as opponents of the administration remain locked with an individualized politics framed by the ideas of personal power and privilege.  Accommodationists (those in leadership positions who seek accommodations with administrators) and Oppositionalists (those who agitate against administrators, but expect administrators to change policies) are linked through a similar individualist theoretical approach rooted in ideas of intersectionality (though some more explicitly than others).

Many see intersectionality as in some ways a critical, progressive, paradigm. Some even consider it anti-capitalist. All of this is generally correct in terms of the initial formulations and application.  However the deployment of intersectionality in popular practice has reduced the meaning and utility of the theoretical model.  Intersectionality highlights the intersections of differnt personal identities with a notion of power (often framed as a kind of privilege) and how that shapes an individual's experiences and life possibilities.  While some variants of intersectionality root it analytically in Marxist concepts of exploitation and oppression, vernacular rhetoric and politics has rendered it down to just aspects of personal identity, power as privilege, and thereby produces a set of moral principles about the value of particular types of people and forms of speech.

Oppositionalist political discourse is replete with references to privilege that attaches to individuals as a result of their identity. A great deal of the policy changes the Oppositionalists propose are aimed at undermining privilege that might accrue to race (i.e. being white), gender (being male), seniority (being old), or sexuality (being straight).  This is tied to a moral hierarchy that is considered an inversion of the standard power structure in which older white straight men are seen to be unfairly vested with all of the privilege and power that a society might grant.  Even though social class might have been a component in earlier configurations, in the Oppositionalist politics class is simplistically equated with personal income and wealth.  The policy changes that Oppositionalists agitate for involves replacing the actually existing privilege hierarchy with their transitional inverted morally just hierarchy (ultimately the notion of a hierarchy would disappear as the ill effects of privilege are disassembled).

In practical terms Oppositionalist calls to action urge a redistribution of 'emotional' labour (considered to be disproportionately carried by black, indigenous, women of colour), a removal of special privilege based on gender or sexuality or race, and a realignment of proportions of identities on decision making bodies.  This is very much the same demands the Accommodationists make, except the Accomodationists frame their demands differently as a call for 'diversity.'

Both forms of student politics don't fundamentally challenge the operations of the capitalist economy nor the ideology of individualism - in fact, to varying degrees both approaches validate current structures of power while calling for a redistribution of rewards within the context of the existing power system.  While Oppositionalists will decry an over representation of white men in the professoriate, their solution is not to transform the organization of post secondary education but rather that the ranks of the professoriate be rejigged so that historically marginalized groups are more adequately represented amongst the ranks. There is little talk of undermining the very idea of a ranked professoriate.

Accommodationists call for greater diversity within the professoriate. While less insistent about overturning the rule of white men, Accommodationists call for greater diversity amongst the general student body, on governance bodies, and among groups they refer to as role models.  The arguments here are based on the idea that social and ethnic diversity improves general outcomes (such as productively, wellbeing, effectiveness, etc).  While Oppositionalists call for a similar outcome, they base their argument upon a moral claim of equity - that is all groups, but especially historically marginalized groups, deserve equal inclusion in all aspects of society.  The success of these politics are measured by the number of differnt types of individuals found in the various social groups and categories.

Both Oppositionalists and Accommodationists expect power holders to shift the policies and procedures. There are no calls for self-organization, direct action policing of power elites, or independent organization. Rather, both strands of the dominant campus politics call on the administrators to make all the changes.  This creates intersting alliances in which the parties that end up outside of the power of decision circle are more likely to be working class staff and faculty  and the organizations that represent them.

Capitalism is an amazingly resilient and flexible system of exploitation.  Capitalism cares little as to the race, colour, gender, or age of a worker. Capitalists will use such differences if it works to keep workers weak and divided against ourselves.  If they can get an diversity bonus for being inclusive they will.  But adding a bit of diversity to the mix in the centres of power doesn't change the fundamental basis of exploitation or oppression To address the root problem we need a politics that doesn't make accommodations with those in power nor engage in oppositional  tactics that simply targets individuals as proxies for system change.
  • We need a revitalized progressive politics that is not about what is wrong, but rather argues for what can be better.  
  • We need a class politics, not based on subjective identities, but rooted in our common experience as workers in a capitalist economy.  
  • We need to organize collectively to take power directly, not waste time petitioning administrators to act for us.
It is time to build socialism from below.  If we really want a better world we must imagine what a future without capitalism is and build our politics around that.  Pointing to differences between us and celebrating these differences works well when there is no effective progressive movement. It helps us feel good about who we are and gives us grounds for a sense of moral superiority, but it doesn't help build a better world. To make things better we have to find common ground amongst us.   That commonality is the way in which value is extracted from our labour.  This is also our strength - as the grand majority we are the ones who make the economy work, it is our labour that drives the system.  Without us nothing can happen. But as long as we fight amongst ourselves over scraps from the bosses' table, as long as some of us keep trying to curry favour with the bosses, nothing will change. It's time to reject both versions of campus neo-liberalism: accommodationism and oppositionalism.

A future without capitalism is conceivable. We have the power. All we need to do is act upon it.

For a good explanation of exploitation and oppression, that avoids many of the pitfalls of Oppositionalist discourse, see: Abigail Bakan. “Marxism and Anti-Racism: Rethinking the Politics of Difference" in Bakan & Dua (Eds) Theorizing Anti-Racism.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Controversial Events on Campus: a review & reflection

Last man standing. That was my thought as the workshop "Controversial Events on Campus," hosted by UBC's Equity & Inclusion office, drew toward its close. After nearly two hours of conversation the majority of participants were now seated around the edge of the room leaving a lone woman, the moderator, standing  alongside an elderly gentleman with the two of them facing a small group of young men.  Wow I thought - this is a stark example of the problem.

The workshop had begun with an overview of of UBC policies, ideas of free expression, and the standard discussion of the agenda.  Participants, of which there were around 60 or so, were seated in a big circle and the moderator, Dr. Aftab Efran stood at the nominal front of the room. It wasn't long before she had us all in the middle of the room engaged in what she called a "soft shoe shuffle:" a moving conversation that allows all voices to be heard. The process starts with someone making a statement or asking a question and the group either moves towards or away from the speaker according to each person's agreement or disagreement.  It's a facilitation technique that has the potential to work well with a rather diverse set of perspectives.  I am unclear, though, to the extent that this can actually reconcile differences of perspective when they are deep, profound, and fundamentally antagonist to each other.  That said we all seemed willing to give the process a try.

We compliantly shuffled around the room shifting one way or they other through a range of fairly generic topics. The Ubyssey has a nice review of the topics in their article. As time went on people seemed to become comfortable with floating ideas potentially more controversial or provocative. With these more explicit expressions of perspective the room started to clearly subdivde into one larger, quieter, gender mixed group and then one smaller, louder, predominantly young male group.

At one point one of the young men, in response to a question as to why more people don't speak up, said something along the lines of "they have an obligation to speak if they object. We can't respond to what they don't say."

At which point I spoke about how  amongst the Tsimshian peoples on BC's north coast silence is not quiescence nor agreement. Rather, silence and non-participation is a profound statement of disagreement.  The young man interjected "that's just one culture." Without stating it the young man revealed his own cultural bias - the idea that a certain type of speech is universally dominant in a way that removes it from the notion of being 'culture.' Indigenous protocols and governance procedures are, for him, 'cultural' and thereby particular and (I assume for him) problematic and flawed.

To assert one cultural norm - "speak up or forever hold your peace" - over another without any other reason except a bald assertion this is just the way it is is a profound form of tunnel vision. It is tied to a variant of eurocentric thought (say we cay 'culture'?) that aggressively projects itself as the only civilized way of organizing human societies. It's the same set of beliefs that contributed to european elites expanding globally in one of the largest smash and grab operations the world had ever seen. But it takes a certain kind of blind arrogance to ignore the myriad of ways human beings can (and have) organized themselves.

There has to be something profound to learn from a society that has remained socially stable, healthy, productive, and creative for millennia. I don't mean the Europe that languished on the margins of the old world in relative isolation from the centers of cultural innovation until well into the middle ages. I am talking about the world here, a world within which UBC is located. 

UBC is situated on Indigenous lands. That's a legal fact - title has not been extinguished. No treaties have been signed dealing with the land UBC sits on. The young men from the workshop can complain, can say has history has moved past, they might even point to how Indigenous cultures are primitive and people just need to get over it (and cite a person they mentioned at one point, Frances Widdowson, whose published work equates Indigenous societies to the era of savagery).  The material facts, however, challenge their assertions.  The detailed scientific record documents long lasting societies in which massive cedar frame homes existed in the same place for centuries. It wasn't perfect (tell me a human society that was or is ... ), but it was one way that human beings found to live engaged, creative, productive lives that respected an interplay between collective and individual wellbeing. But our young men appeared unwilling to hear the possibility of other ways beyond their own way of doing things.

As a man, as a father of young men, as a university teacher I feel for the angst these young men expressed during the workshop.  But I am pretty sure they have got it wrong. They seem to feel that other people are getting an advantage over them - by other people I think they mean women and people of colour.  But what they are experiencing is in fact having to compete with a group of people who had previously been excluded from the competition in the first place and in comparison, many of them come up lacking (not all, but enough to motivate a movement).

One of the successes of second wave feminism involved dismantling a lot of the barriers that women faced. My late mother, who was a school teacher, used to talk of how she came out to UBC as a young women to talk with faculty in the horticultural program about studying there (keep in mind this was the late 1940s or early 1950s).  They sized her up and said, without even discussing academics, women aren't good horticulturalists, maybe you should consider becoming a nurse or a teacher? Her experience was not dissimilar among women of her generation.  Second wave feminism attacked those false boundaries. Admission requirements (formal or informal) based on gender are no longer supposed to be tolerated. In this context, and despite the expansion of post secondary opportunities, young men are finding themselves at a disadvantage - not becuase of unfair advantages granted to women, but becuase they just don't measure up now that the special advantage of being male has been removed. 

Now before anyone suggests I selling my gender out or that I might be suggesting no young man is smart enough to make it, let me be clear that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that even as the barriers to women's full participation in post secondary are coming down the messaging to young men hasn't yet caught up. The old message implied that being a boy and a young man gave you something a little bit special. The new message is that being a human being in our various and marvellous forms is what makes us special - not the gender assigned to us.  But while young men are still hearing the old whispers about how special they are, they aren't seeing as many special rewards as they might think they deserve.  In fact some of them rather feel like they are being made fun of, dismissed, rated down and discriminated against: but they are not.

And there we were at the end of the workshop with a half dozen young men stading in a half circle facing down the moderator and one elderly gentleman. It was as though they thought that if they expressed their feelings enough times, if they shifted their circle a bit tighter, if they said it loud enough, then all of us sitting quietly around the outside might somehow change our minds and "say you're right, it's so terrible that your special privileges are being taken away." But that isn't going to happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.