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.)

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