California: Barricades and Beyond
Sunday, March 21, 2010
“With society and its public, there is no longer
any other language than that of bombs,
barricades and all that follows.”
- Antonin Artaud
In the event you missed the news from two weeks ago, a barricade was erected in California, or rather one should say that California itself has begun to turn into a barricade. On March 4th, a staggering number of university students, K-12 students, professors, teachers, school/university employees, and workers from the middle, upper, lower, and working classes marched, protested, picketed, occupied, taught-in, struck-out, and fought back in hundreds of towns and cities across the state to raise awareness about the attacks on public education.
It is not your fault if you did not hear the news yet about what is happening in California. The corporate media in the US did not accurately convey the importance of the events of March 4th to the world, as they did not quite understand what they were reporting. To summarize briefly the day’s events, the entire University of California system, along with the dozens of community colleges and California State universities, were shut down by the most militant student movement seen in four decades. Students took over the universities and reclaimed them as places of learning and growth, rather than of profit and greed. To complement the actions on campuses, tens of thousands of teachers, parents, and school children from all levels of the public education system rallied and held teach-ins across the state to protest the gutting of the K-12 public school system. San Francisco alone saw tens of thousands of young children, rallying and marching hand in hand with their teachers and parents.
March 4th was not the first day of this movement, nor will it be the last. The idea of March 4th as a day to save education was born at a general assembly of student, community, and union leaders in Berkeley this past October. The movement then built momentum for months through actions on campuses, online media, and grass-roots community organizing in schools, workplaces, and public spaces. In the span of four short months, this flurry of social networking and organizing managed to bring together the highly coordinated, militant student movement with families and teachers affected by the K-12 cuts, along with the rank and file of innumerable unions around the state. Yes, the seemingly impossible feat of uniting groups of people often walled off from each other in society has been accomplished here in California. It is a unified movement off various groups and individuals from all areas of the political spectrum.
While the movement has coalesced around the recent and drastic attacks on public education in California tied to the current “crisis,” it was certainly not born out of it alone. This movement is currently channeling over three decades of anger over the attacks on many of the remaining vestiges of public goods in our society, be they safe and affordable public transportation, use of public spaces like parks and streets, or access to healthcare. There are a litany of phrases and monikers one can use to describe the ebb and flow of the economic and political landscape since the 1970s and a diverse range of discursive processes one can highlight to help account for the attacks on our public goods, but for our purposes we need only focus on one thing: neo-liberalism. The idea that the entire sphere of human activity and the space in which it unfolds should be subordinated to the “principles” of the “free market” (which are of course never actually free for everyone, except the wealthy) is a simple definition for of neo-liberalism. From an ideological vantage point, neo-liberals do not believe in the elemental concept of a public good or right, whether it be education or public services or healthcare or clean water – all of these things and activities should be owned and operated privately by an individual (or more likely a corporation) as a part of a market. This means nothing belongs to society as a shared collective good, since of course as Thatcher put it herself, “There is no such thing as society” in the first place.
Neo-liberalism is not solely an economic agenda; it has also taken the form of a political and cultural ideology that has been sold to the masses. What the ruling elite realized in face of diminishing profitability in the early 1970s is that they could convince the middle and working classes that the only thing holding them back from the American dream and the wealth they enjoy was taxes, unions, and illegal immigrants. In the proceeding three decades, taxes have all but been eliminated for the middle and upper classes, unions have been neutered to the point of near irrelevance, and we now have armed citizen-militias patrolling our border. Rather than open class warfare, the ruling elite and political operatives have cleverly convinced the lower classes to simply attack themselves. Hence we have seen communities eager to dismantle affordable education and public transportation and the unions that protect those who work in both venues in the name of lower taxes, despite the sober reality that in the long run they will pay more for these structural changes to society out of their own pockets. Despite these pernicious developments, most people with a basic education will know that since the 1970s the wealthiest class in America has tripled their wealth, inequality between the rich and poor has grown, and the wages of the average American have stagnated. These are cold hard facts. Economic crisis after crisis occurs and it is only the lower classes that suffer during them, while the wealth of a few continues to grow – another fact that cannot be more obvious than during the current Great Recession.
The success of neo-liberalism can be seen in California and by success, of course, I mean how profitable it has been to those who have implemented it. The state of California, which has one of the top ten biggest economies in the world, is facing a budget shortfall of somewhere between $20 and 40 billion. Of course in the wake of the shortfall, K-12 education funding has been gutted in the billions, as is the same for healthcare and state workers salaries and pensions. The once world-renowned UC university system is in self-destruction mode now – broke because the regents decided to gamble UC funds on the stock market (in mortgage market of course) and politicians convinced the public to stop paying for it. To make up for this lack of support, there has been a 32% tuition increase for students, marking a 250% increase in fees over the last decade and a 7000% increase since 1960. The CSU and community college system is fairing no better as they both face cuts numbering in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Thousands of university students are unable to finish degrees they have started in the last few years and tens of thousands more will not even be able to attend a university at any level thanks to the new fees. K-12 classroom sizes are ballooning and tens of thousands of teachers have been laid off. Politicians and the wealthy have decided the one obstacle to restoring fiscal responsibility in this state is teachers, workers and students. In theory, it is a win-win situation for the elite – they do not have to pay to support education, healthcare or society at large anymore and they get to further destroy any bastions of resistance to further privatization, such as unions, in the name of a solution. They do not care that each year in California $50 million is lost in tax breaks to individuals and corporations or that California is only oil-producing state that does not tax oil owned, leased, and extracted from private lands, which would raise billions of dollars in revenue. Facts, such as, in 1980 15% of the state budget came from taxes on California-based corporations is now less than 11% or Prop 13 allows corporations to evade billions in tax evasion or that 30 years ago 10% of general funding went to education and 3% to prisons, whereas now 11% goes to prison and only 7.5% to education are also unimportant – they believe it is better to focus on how students and teachers “should pay their share.”
Fortunately, many people in California have awoken to the fact neo-liberalism is a lie – there is no American dream at the end of the neo-liberal rainbow as the above enumerated situation has shown us. We would not like to be around to witness the final deathblow to the public commons, a concept which has been with us since the dawn of human society. Everyone from third-graders to university students to senior citizens has seen the effects of this ideology in our state and will not be quiet any longer. The regents of the UC system, politicians in Sacramento, and the ruling class collectively have been counting on the population of California to continue to eat away at itself, while they pocket the profits. They have been counting on us to believe there is an actual “crisis” and more “cuts” need to be made. They have been counting on us to attack immigrants and unions and teachers, instead of corporations and politicians. They have been counting on us to believe that we should spend more money on prisons than schools. They have been counting on us not to tie together the cuts in all public goods in our community as emanating from the same source. They have been counting on us to believe that it is ubiquitous consumption and not education and knowledge is what sets us free. They have been counting on us not to unite and strike back. It is certainly time they start to be afraid.
One can actually trace some of this fear in the media over the last few weeks. While much of the centrist media gave a fair amount of coverage to the day of actions, though they certainly were confused as to what was happening – the best example being CNN who cut to a “breaking event” in downtown LA with “thousands of people in the streets,” only to later realize that his “event” was connected to the hundreds of other actions in the country they were already covering, they have dropped the discussion of education in the proceeding days, in order to return to more pressing issues like the Oscars and the daily schedule of Lindsay Lohan. Rather it has been the hard neo-liberal right that has responded in force to March 4th in places like the Wall St. journal (there were no op-eds on M4 in the New York Times for instance). People like Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speech writer, lashed out at the students calling them the “me generation” for their intransigence in the wake of the crisis his friends helped perpetrate. Only a person who worked for and idolizes one of the most vile and destructive public officials since Cicero could possibly construe a movement formed to save public education for everyone in society as “crassest self-pleading.” In the minds of men like Mr. Robinson, who of course enjoyed a nice subsidized education at Oxford, access to affordable education for all sectors of society is not a right; it is a privilege – one afforded to all the Dartmouth/Oxford alumni of the world like himself. Only men like Mr. Robinson can see working class children and students walking hand in hand in the streets demanding the right to receive the same education he did as an act of “gaming the political system.” These ungrateful children should know better – the only people who are allowed to game the system are those with access to trust funds and lobbyists. Like a bitter wounded animal, he and his ilk are fighting to save the legacy of Reagan and Thatcher, and the other monsters responsible for the financial hell we find ourselves in today. They are angry we do not live in the capitalist utopia they claimed would blossom in the 1990s as a result of Reaganomics and the annihilation of the labor unions. They are indignant at the idea that we have the nerve to speak up for ourselves.
Like the millions of other brave souls across the littered historical landscape of social change, we have realized the necessity of a barricade in the fight to change society. We have turned spaces in our universities, classrooms, and towns and cities into a barricade against the violence of neo-liberal agenda. Constructing a barricade has been important because it has allowed us to problematize our predicament and conditions outside of the logic imposed us on by others, to build a strong base for a strong social movement, and to demonstrate to the world that there is a battle being pitched here in California. But the barricade ultimately belies a defensive position – barricades are constructed in a hostile time and space where there is no other pragmatic approach. Ultimately, we cannot simply hide behind barricades and hope for the social and political constellations outside of the barricades to change themselves. We would also be foolish to think the ruling classes will not storm these barricades, figuratively and literally, as they have done repeatedly over the last two hundreds and eliminate any traces of our existence and resistance. To starve off such an attack we must develop a strategy that moves beyond this spatial and temporal condition of barricade, into the world around us and a different future.
What must this strategy constitute? While the following is certainly not a definitive prescription for an overall programmatic approach, these six considerations should be considered for the post-March 4th world. First, there is no movement without growth. The size and depth of the movement at current is certainly impressive, as the March 4th muscle flexing showed (highway stoppages and all), but given the obstacles ahead of us we must continue to build if we want substantial change. This means concomitantly broadening our base of support and synthesizing our message. Attacks on universities cannot be separated from attacks on K-12 or attacks on public transportation and public services. Those implementing such attacks do not differentiate between public goods, neither should we, thus our message should be inclusive, yet concise: no more attacks on all public goods. By synthesizing our message we allow ourselves to solidify our base of support – namely, reaching out to any and all affected by the neo-liberal attack. This means people other than students – like the poor, the working class, and the disenfranchised. A great example of the possibility of uniting such groups was shown in Oakland on March 4th.
Third, the inclusivity and integrity of the movement must not be violated by the agendas of internal or external actors. This means sectarian elements of the radical left, which there is never a shortage, cannot co-opt the movement in the name of their version of history, nor can we let the Democratic party dictate an approach to the strategy as they are largely responsible for the problem in the first place. External attacks to divide and conquer must be starved off, as well, meaning we cannot accept attacks on campus workers in the name of keeping tuition fees down or privatizing prisons in the name of allocating more money for education from the state. Everyone from student governments to the White House will employ the divide and conquer strategy to break the back of this movement and this has to be resisted.
Fourth, cynicism is our only optimism. By this I mean we must not mute the anger of those who have joined the movement and we must not sugarcoat the predicament in the neutral liberal semantics that we often see replicated in the corporate media. There are not “two sides” to this story and the situation is not going to get better on its own. Capitalism has always desubjectivized the violence integral to its functioning, but this is even more prevalent today, hence we are lead to believe things like “crises” just happen and we have no option but make some “hard choices.” It is time we stopped making hard choices that benefit a few and learn to direct our anger. Defining friends and enemies need not be a complicated endeavor: there are those who would destroy public education and other public goods and there are those who will not. By framing the problem on our own terms, we can better determine a way forward and who is coming with us and who is not.
Fifth, the movement needs to build an infrastructure. To channel an important consideration by a fellow activist, Adam Dylan Hefty, the movement must figure out a way to move beyond the university campus and blog universe to continue to incorporate other strata of society. The majority of those affected by neo-liberalism does read blogs and does not know what dialectics are. Activities like student/worker lunches we have seen on campuses like UCSF are a start in this direction, but more needs to be done to link the university and the community. Lastly, we must employ both a short and long term plan of attack. In order to help build the movement, we need tangible short-term goals that are winnable, be they a roll back of university cuts or halting transit fee increases in certain places. Short-term goals will help us convince others to join our movement and ourselves of what is possible, but these short-term battles must always be seen as a part of a larger war – a war we have no choice but to fight and win.