#occupyprint has an amazing collection of art from Occupy movements around the world. The above is focused on CUNY and the transformation of higher ed there and around the country, but others are far punchier. On a meta-level what I find important about these is the way they demonstrate the kind of creative work people will do virtually for free in order to support a cause they believe in. They draw upon cultural signs and meanings and make pithy, coherent arguments and observations about what are otherwise massive, historical social (trans)formations.
In his book Age of Extremes Eric Hobsbawm diagnoses the explosion of student rebellions in the 1960s as being caused by the rapid influx of students into higher education which created, “an inevitable tension between these masses of mainly first-generation students now suddenly pouring into universities, and the institutions which were neither physically nor organizationally and intellectually prepared for such an influx” (300). Hobsbawn puzzles over why this would cause resentment, however, as many of these students were therefore able to indulge in what, for their parents, was a privilege, arriving at the thesis that, since going to university was no longer its own reward, “the constraints it imposed on young (and generally more impecunious) adults were more resented. Terry Eagleton, in After Theory, builds upon this materialist interpretation of events:
Middle-class society had been reckless enough to set up institutions in which young, clever, morally conscientious people had nothing to do for three or four years but read books and kick ideas around; and the result of this ludicrous indulgence on society’s part was wholesale student revolt. (26)
We live in very different times. I keep meaning to write a longer piece considering Henri Lefebvre’s Everyday Life in the Modern World and the, in retrospect, quaint problems that existed for leftists in the 1960s. I’ve started this narrative many times, most coherently in this blog post over a year ago. As I mention in that post, the left of the time was really puzzled about how to push the revolution forward. After all, for the most part (at least for white folks) the gains of capitalism were being shared more equitably. It was hard to bring the moment to a crisis when most working people were relatively comfortable, at least compared to the previous decades.
The New Left and New Right, therefore, found common ground critiquing the stifling bureaucracy of the welfare state, the apparent treadmill of modern life, and the lack of serious points of conflict which would advance western society beyond what appeared to be a dominant consensus of the possible. For the left concepts such as alienation and cultural hegemony became all the more important because they pricked at the subjective problems that still pertained in a situation of apparently objective prosperity and agreement. It was a reasonable strategy at the time, if only because the economic determinism at the basis of leftist political theory had been arrested by progressive taxation, rising wages, a slight thickening to the strands of the social safety net, and a general sense that things were good. It is hard to tell people whose parents never owned a home, a car or household appliances that the system was flawed or lopsided when they find themselves blessed with these new accouterments.
Of course, the foundation of this was always debt. Taking on debt was one of the keystones of this modern life. As Bethany McLean and Joseph Nocera point out in their book on the financial crisis, All the Devils are Here, the 30-year mortgage is a very rare financial instrument, found in very few societies. McLean and Nocera’s unfortunate focus on the risk this entails for lenders overlooks the broader historical context: before risk was a problem for lenders, it was a problem for borrowers. After all, even if your payment was low, your ability to pay it was still reliant on your having a job. Programs like unemployment insurance and social security, as well as a general agreement among monopoly capitalist corporations and monopoly labor organizations that productivity gains would be met with wage increases on a basic level, all made it seem more feasible to commit to something like a mortgage - particularly when that mortgage was likely on a house in the suburbs which would require you to also buy a car or two to get to work, again using loan money.
I admit that I don’t know as much about the proportion of people who took on debt to pay for university during the first few post-war decades, but the simple act of not working, of concentrating on school primarily, likely incurs some amount of debt. I do know that, in this era, there was far more public support for institutions of higher education. As an index, Doug Henwood points to
The University of Virginia, one of the so-called “Public Ivies,” got 33% of its budget from the state in 1989; that was down to 12% in 2009. Tuition accounted for 19% of revenue in 1989—and 31% in 2009.
As a picture of the downturn in public support for higher ed, this index (starting in 1989) likely captures it in the middle of its freefall. The main trend, as Hobsbawn put it, was justified by the idea that, “the modern economy required far more administrators, teachers and technical experts than in the past, who had to be trained somewhere” - the implication being that, even if there was more public support, it was in the service of people doing essential work, whose education would go towards helping them secure gainful employment after completing their three or four years, in Eagleton’s phrase, kicking around ideas.
The New Left approach to this, as periodized by Perry Anderson among others, was to focus attention on cultural politics instead of issues around class per se. Another way of thinking of this is that the economic inclusion of a wider swath of the population had an ideological effect. This ideology was born of a real, material change in the proportion of the population that could enjoy the promises of bourgeois existence.
Around the 1970s some these trends began to reverse. Most importantly, wages began stagnating for most workers, the tenuously public medical care system was slowly privatized, and public financial support for higher education began to lapse. Debt filled the void on all counts, all in the hopes that, with time, the middle class standard of living would again be possible. Productivity rose fairly constantly, but all of the gains went to the top 1-10% of the income distribution. Credit cards, student loans, and, most recently, home equity loans helped to ease the stress of stagnant incomes, exploding health care costs, and rising inequality. Plenty of other people have documented this general trend and few weeks ago, the rhetorician in chief said something to this effect, saying, “for many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over this harsh reality” (though they are just words, words words.)
In the blog post I mention above, my focus was on the need to rethink the politics of culture and its relation to the economy as a whole. Namely, there is no longer a need to focus on the more metaphysical issues of capitalism and alienation in an era when the system no longer functions materially. Instead, the focus should be on the false perception that these material benefits still adhere - the ideological (and behavioral) hangover of the Fordist exception. For the last 30 years, the payoff of work, education, and debt have shifted such that, while there is still a wage premium for higher education, for most workers it is still just a slightly less precarious condition than that of the high school grad. While the entire segment of workers under 35 has seen a 68% decline in their earnings from 1984-2009 (over 65 saw an increase of 42% during the same period), college grads in that age group have seen a 10% decrease in their earnings over just the past 10 years. When this lack of earning potential is compounded by the increased personal indebtedness that comes from a collapse of public support for higher education, In the words of Malcolm Harris - who so ably compiled these figures in a blog post in October:
When we look at the divergence between productivity and earnings, it’s clear that each day is a worse day to be a worker. If you throw in the student debt explosion and unpaid internships, we should be able to figure out approximately when it started to become a generally bad time to be born in America. No wonder, then, we’re seeing a national (and global) youth uprising. Student strikes in California and Quebec have already incurred police violence and are threatening to spread. The occupy mobilizations are getting geared up to escalate, just as authorities are doing the same. The current generational gap is less cultural this time around than it is material, and anyone who thinks the occupations or student strikes will stop soon should check the stats.
In short, contrary to the national discourse about college costs, the issue isn’t necessarily the rising cost of tuition or even the rising level of indebtedness, but the lack of any real - much less stable - employment opportunities which would help to justify paying that amount or taking on that level of debt. Arguably, this has been true for at least a generation, but the economic collapse has brought it all to a head: material circumstances have halted the ideological inertia that allowed for a peaceful transfer of wealth from the lower and middle class upwards. The postwar system where higher education and higher personal debt (i.e. investment in your future) were buffered by rising wages and stable jobs has finally come crashing down.
While the anarchist principles (and principals) behind the movement might resist seeing it as a revolt by people who are merely upset that they can’t get hold of the middle class comforts they feel they were promised, a permutation of this seems to be a key driver of both the mass occupiers and its public supporters. Mike Konczal parsed the data several months ago in relation to the We are the 99% tumblr blog, finding the median age of posters was 26 and the most mentioned words are jobs, debt, work, college, and student. Simply scrolling through the more recent tumblr for Occupy Student Debt reveals a similar pattern: people went to college, took on loans, and now find few job prospects.
A recent Pew survey finds public support for the movement is divided along party lines, but there has been an important shift in the perception of two aspects of this postwar ideology. First,
Roughly three-quarters of the public (77%) say that they think there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations in the United States. In a 1941 Gallup poll, six-in-ten (60%) Americans expressed this view. About nine-in-ten (91%) Democrats and eight-in-ten (80%) of independents assert that power is too concentrated among the rich and large corporations, but this view is shared by a much narrower majority (53%) of Republicans.
Even ten years ago, I imagine this question would have garnered something closer to the 1941 response - and that even that 60% 1941 response would have been lower in 1961. On the other hand, despite the virtual unanimity among Democrats on this question, it doesn’t seem to translate into a realization that their president is part of that very problem (more on this in a moment).
The other shift is on the ultimate question of the Protestant Ethic (outside of the debt and rising social consumption norm we’ve been enculturated to accept): does hard work lead to success? In 1999, 74% of people agreed it does; that is down to 58%. Among independents and Democrats, this has shifted almost as much over just the past nine months. [#s for independents in brackets below]
Democrats are now evenly divided over whether hard work leads to success: 47% [56%] say most people who work hard can get ahead, while 50% [42%] say hard work is no guarantee of success for most people. In March, 56% [64%] said hard work leads to people getting ahead while 40% [36%] said it is no guarantee of success.
Taken together, it is clear that, despite the radical roots of the protest, there are some fairly mainstream, middle class concerns here. People aren’t asking for a free ride, just for a decent shot at entering the rat race. While some radical commentators - according to Konczal - lament their lack of imagination, the circumstances remain open and ripe for further development. On the one hand, while people might have been drawn to the occupations by these conventionally framed bread and butter issues, the culture of the occupations themselves opens the possibility for a much broader range of discussions - and a new way of engaging in those discussions. As a recent Nation piece (titled “Thank you, Anarchists”) summarizes it:
Through the Occupy movement, these assemblies have helped open tremendous space in American political discourse. They’ve started new conversations about what people really want for their communities, conversations that amazingly still haven’t been hijacked, as they might otherwise might be, by charismatic celebrities or special interests.
This was part of the design of the occupations and the general assemblies that helped run them. As David Graeber put it in an early interview with the Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein:
It’s pre-figurative, so to speak. You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature. And it’s a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you’re protesting.
In other words, the framework of the occupations themselves allowed for people who might have been drawn there by these conventional, mainstream concerns to experience a broader understanding of what might be possible and even how society might function in a different way. While actual occupy-ers represent a small proportion of US society, they are likely a larger proportion (and important spokespeople) among the fairly volatile demographic in question.
But perhaps more importantly, it is patently obvious that the current administration either doesn’t understand even the conventional concerns - or it is deliberately trying to co-opt the populist outburst for a cause that, if successful, will likely only amplify those concerns. Exhibit #1 of this is the recent parry on college costs led by Obama and Arne Duncan. As stated above, the relatively conventional concerns are not about college costs per se, but about the lack of jobs which would help to defray those costs.
I plan to expand further on both the problems of college costs and other emergent issues in higher ed (on this blog, and on the blog I am working on with my colleague Bryan Alexander); as well as outlining how Obama and Duncan take the financial logic of neoliberal culture for granted as they propose solutions. This is particularly the case in discussions of labor in higher education, where they both seem to have absorbed the worldview of wall street bankers as told by Karen Ho in her ethnography of Wall Street, Liquidated. The ideology she finds well entrenched there is that cutting workers is always a good thing. In looking at the relationship between corporate downsizing and the share price of its stock, she found “a complete divorce of what is perceived as the best interests of the corporation from the interests of most employees” (3).
What was so arresting about Wall Street’s approach to corporate downsizing was its celebratory tone, its rejoicing in the very fact of corporate restructuring. Throughout the mid-1990s, countless financial news articles demonstrated what seemed to be a new “structure of feeling.”
Another way to say this would be that the economic benefit of downsizing labor became such a reflexive ideology among the people playing this game, they made it a rule of thumb that anyone cutting jobs was on the right track and should be followed and rewarded with stock attention.
With their take no prisoners, “I’ll fire all the teachers if I have to” approach, they mimic this financial logic in only slightly more thinly veiled ways than people like Michael Bloomberg - who famously said a few weeks ago that his solution to the education crisis was to fire half the teachers, keep the good ones, and make the rest teach twice as many students (evidently, a program he sees doing little to change the effectiveness of the teachers or the environment of learning for the students involved.)
But by his logic, cutting teachers - maybe replacing them with technology or making them more productive using it - is the go to answer among this set. Duncan used this approach in his turnaround schools in Chicago, an approach, it has recently been revealed, that failed miserably. Only 1/5 of the schools caught in the turnaround dragnet - the penalties of which could mean firing all the staff, making them apply for their jobs again, and virtually destroying the institution and institutional memory - are performing in good standing 10 years after the program was instituted.
While there is a lot of nuance to the models on offer - like Western Governor’s State and by no means is there not a lot of room for innovation and improvement in higher ed and its relation with technology - but it is ludicrous to think that the answer to Occupy’s concerns is slashing teacher ratios, privatizing public schools, and/or asking students to continue to pay the same amount for a completely different college experience (one whose credential is increasingly of indeterminate value anyway). In public, Obama says he doesn’t want to be firing teachers, he wants to be hiring them; but behind closed doors, he tells university presidents they need to make their current faculty more productive (most likely by replacing full time faculty or union supported teachers with some hybrid model of non-tenure and complementing them with some for profit online vendor.) Not only would it not address the main concern - jobs and the need for employment in order to afford college - but it would exacerbate the problem.
For right or wrong, college has become a right of passage. While it is a somewhat unmitigated good - even Obama and the administration says it doesn’t matter what the degrees are in, just that there is a strong completion rate - it has also become a thing many average, middle class kids see as a serious time to grow and explore their freedom as young adults. It helps job readiness and gives them skills they will need, but it is also marks a sort of turning point, a final sprint to the peak of individual development and independence. That no job is waiting on the other side is a sincere and deeply felt disappointment, particularly with the debt coming due. But it will be a severe shock to tell students it must basically be a formulaic, rote procedure in skills training and vocational learning for managers instead of electricians - they still have to pay for it, but they’ll have no “college experience.” Students won’t accept this, particularly when, out on the street they are receiving as many job offers and they are experiencing the exhilarating feeling of learning more about their culture and even discovering the ways it has been - and can be - shaped in a new way. This is likely why there has been almost no movement on the occupy student debt movement: jubilee at this point would mean there is no government lever to hold over the heads of these protesters, particularly once they discover that they have far less than nothing to lose (in some cases -$100k or so).
There are a lot of laudible and creative programs for how to revise what higher education means, many which take into account deep shifts in the culture and practices of the latest generation of learners and teaching tools. But transforming this in a constructive way will take time. As it is currently understood, there is no way to quickly transform higher education (or what college means in all its social, emotional, historical complexity) into something that would be palatable to the students(former, current and potential) in question. Most of them would rather have a say in the process, rather than having the new terms of what college means dictated on high by governments, states and the private lobbyists bent on opening the federal teat to the next round of corporate engorgement of the taxpayer dime.
In ten years, what college means will have shifted significantly. Schools, students, teachers and faculty that value the educational mission must take account of the shifting seas and tack accordingly. While dropping anchor will do nothing, we can ready our ships in other ways to come out standing. One of these is resisting the persistent, battering hail of the neoliberal storm: labor-replacing technology is the key to our success, no matter what the learning outcomes.
In some ways, I’d be interested to see what the response to Occupy would be if Obama and Duncan started getting their way: my sense is the addictive conviviality of the trench would eventually be far preferable to the droll, promiseless experience of debt peonage made possible by Kaplan and University of Pheonix. The niche they fill right now is vital: more community colleges and public universities are needed to aid those students (along with more and better public education from preschool to High School graduation, health care and other vital supports that make learning possible at all.) But currently, their incentives (like the CDO traders and subprime mortgage sellers before them) are all misaligned. We have a basic, overdetermining system of inequality, which they are taking advantage of - not to end it or make it better - but to milk it for all they can before the pipe runs dry. Once they’ve desiccated its corpse, they will move on and we will be left with an empty shell of an education system at every level- 150 years of institutional formation swept aside in a mad rush for the next big score. If you really want to anger the people who support #OWS, let them know that’s your plan. It could be the best thing for the movement since Bloomberg cleared them out of the park.
[PS: I’m adding links later, for the last few paragraphs, but if you see a claim that needs backing, please comment and I’ll make sure it is attended to ASAP.]