Category Archives: education

What We Communists Want

Following on my last post concerning the danger of reproducing the dismal logic of contemporary capitalism in representations of uneven development, this morning I began thinking about the question of what we communists want.

well-being-map-gallopPart of the problem in trying to think this question today is that utopian horizons have been smashed and discredited by the patent failures of “really existing” socialism around the world during the last half century. But another strong problem is the way in which capitalism has gotten under our skin and into our minds, defining what is possible.

So, if we’re going to insist that another world is possible, what kind of world do we want it to be?  Certainly not the one we currently inhabit. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been doing a great deal of work on the issue of Well Being. Two key facts they mention: since 1970, the UK’s Gross Domestic Product has doubled, but people’s satisfaction with life has not changed; 81% of Britons believe the government should prioritize creating the greatest happiness rather than the greatest wealth.

The NEF has participated in some important attempts to redefine Well Being on a national and international level, shifting the conversation away from GDP, which, as they point out, can be augmented through increased sales of guns and tobacco just as much as through increased spending on education and child care facilities. The projects of theirs that are worth checking out: Happy Planet Index (the “leading global index of sustainable well being) and the National Accounts of Well Being project.

Part of the problem here is that prescriptions for well being can often come across as pretty banal. NEF’s Five Ways to Well Being thus includes a list of actions that seem pretty obvious:

  • Connect
  • Be Active
  • Take Notice
  • Keep Learning
  • Give

They also seem hopelessly oriented to middle class citizens of affluent, overconsuming nations of the global North. It makes sense on some level to target such hyperconsumptionist subjects since the materialistic values that we Northerners have been coaxed to embrace are at the leading edge of destroying the planet through anthropogenic climate change, and our materialism is being disseminated through the global media as the paradigm to which all developing countries should aspire. We have to shift values in the global North if we are to avert catastrophe.

We also need to dismantle the skein of false desires generated by capitalist culture. This has been a dominant preoccupation of the Left over the last century, from the Frankfurt School intellectuals’ dyspeptic critiques of consumer culture, to Thomas Frank’s more recent discussion of the rise of Right-wing sentiments among the U.S. working class in books like What’s Wrong With Kansas?, to Sara Ahmad’s The Promise of Happiness, which discusses the ways in which the imperative to be happy leads to straightened and oppressive definitions of the self and social being.

Despite, then, the importance of this discussion of alternative definitions of well being in the North, it’s important to simultaneously ask what the question of well being would look like from a global South perspective. A partial answer to this question is given in the Vivir Bien project. Growing out of the insurgent Bolivarian movement in Latin America, the project is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

An immediate set of demands on the path to well being were articulated at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.  The People’s Agreement crafted at this conference in Bolivia includes the following demands:

  • harmony and balance among all and with all things;
  • complementarity, solidarity, and equality;
  • collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
  • people in harmony with nature;
  • recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;
  • elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism;
  • peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth;

I’d be very interested to hear what kinds of other models of well being have been articulated by social movements around the globe in recent years. At the beginning or the end of these lists, of course, should come the abolition of capitalism and its drive to ceaseless accumulation, which is of course at the roots of everyone’s unhappiness as well as the threat of planetary extinction.

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May Day Reborn!

The Occupy Movement has revived May Day. For far too many years, this holiday, which was of course also a solidarity-building occasion, has been ignored by the US labor movement. Ironic, given the fact that May Day actually began in the US.

Here’s a bit of the history behind May Day. In 1884, militant unions in the US declared that eight hours would constitute a legal day’s work beginning on May 1, 1886. When workers went on strike at a factory in Chicago on May 3, 1886, police fired into the peacefully assembled crowd, killing four and wounding many others. The workers movement called for a mass rally the next day in Haymarket Square to protest this brutality. The rally proceeded peacefully until the end when 180 police officers entered the square and ordered the crowd to disperse. At that point, someone threw a bomb, killing one police officer and wounding 70 others. The police responded by firing into the crowd, killing one and injuring many others.

Following the Haymarket Affair, eight of the city’s most active unionists were charged with conspiracy to commit murder even though only one was actually present at the meeting. All eight were found guilty and sentenced to death. Commemoration of this day and the outrages against justice that followed quickly became an key element of the international struggle for worker’s rights.

In 1904, the International Socialist Congress called on “all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” The congress made it “mandatory upon the proletarian organizations of all countries to stop work on May 1, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.”

Why was May Day not celebrated in the US? In a demonstration of the complicit nature of segments of the US labor movement, the Knights of Labor (a racially exclusionary organization) caved in to the demand of President Grover Cleveland that the Haymarket Massacre would not be commemorated on May Day. So we now have a state-sanctioned and relatively toothless Labor Day in early September.

Yesterday Occupy revived the suppressed tradition of May Day on a joyous celebration of solidarity and outrage. The day started out for me with brilliant talks offered in Madison Square Park by folks like David Harvey, Frances Fox Piven, Andrew Ross, Drucilla Cornell. The Free University provided a great space to listen to debates about a series of key issues, from the right to the city, to student loans and debt, to the history of the labor movement.

From the Free University we marched down to Union Square, where more speakers and music were on offer. The entire park gradually got jam packed with people. This was a great opportunity to hang out with friends and make connections with activists from a variety of different organizations and walks of life. It was also a moment to revel in the carnivalesque spirit of the Occupy movement. Here are some photos that I think conjure up a sense of the celebratory atmosphere in Union Square:

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Unfortunately, all was not wine and roses. The police refused to allow us to march out of Union Square. As this image makes clear, they set up steel cattle pens in order to box marchers in, and then arbitrarily blocked off exist from these pens when it was time to march. Most of the demonstrators around me, seasoned protesters all, told me that this was in order to demonstrate the police’s power over us rather than to preserve our safety during the march. In fact, once they eventually let us out of the cattle pens, instead of allowing us to march directly down Broadway, where the march had been permitted, the police instead directed us down W. 17th street to 6th Avenue, so that we had to walk through the middle of traffic. This was obviously not a safe situation. Police officers then lined the street and tried to force us onto the sidewalk, despite the fact that our march was permitted. Tempers quickly frayed, and it looked like things were not going to go well. A friend of mine was violently pushed into a pile of garbage on a sidewalk by a group of police when he challenged their attempt to force us onto the sidewalk. Thankfully, we eventually got back to Broadway and the rest of the march proceeded in a jubilant spirit.

Not surprisingly, mainstream media coverage latched onto the scuffles and arrests that resulted from the police kettling strategies rather than focusing on the joyous and constructive spirit of the rest of the day. This article in the New York Times is typical of such a jaundiced approach. Luckily, though, there are other sources of information and reflection about the events of yesterday, including this excellent coverage on Democracy Now, which highlights the international dimensions of the protests.

It was an undeniably great day for radical activism and for the movement for global justice. That said, this May Day was more of a celebration of our collective and potential powers than a real General Strike (which is what many Occupy activists had called for). Much work remains to be done before the dispersed powers of the movement can be collected into a force capable of doing real damage to capital, let alone giving birth to a new world.

But although such skeptical assessments are perhaps necessary, they should not overwhelm the joy of the day. I’ll close therefore close this post with some video clips that capture the ridiculously creative energies unleashed by the movement. First of all, here’s a bit of fancy footwork and wonderful brass music from the Rude Mechanical Orchestra:

And here, to remind us of the history of Union Square and to challenge the Christian evangelical movement on its own terrain, is the Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir:

Last of all, here, once again, is the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, performing the uproarious Smash the Banks Polka:

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Welcome to the Land of Inequality

Teaching American Studies in Torino, as I am for the next two weeks, is an eye-opening experience.  I feel a bit as if I am a native informant, who has to try to undermine the inaccurate views of my students about the United States. One of the foremost of these is the myth that the U.S. is the land of opportunity.

My first class this week will focus on The Monster, Michael W. Hudson’s encyclopedic account of the depredations of the subprime mortgage industry in the U.S. over the last two decades. The industry that, in cahoots with Wall Street banks like Lehman Brothers and using arcane financial instruments like Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) invented in order to profit from the subprime mortgage market, wrecked the global economy.

The sordidness of the subprime mortgage industry is impossible to overestimate. It was run by completely unscrupulous capitalist bosses who purposely targeted working class people of color, people who had finally managed to build up a bit of equity through government-backed mortgage schemes in the decades after the New Deal and the Second World War. Equity, mind you, that was radically less than what the average white suburban family was able to build up in the same period. Here’s an excellent video that gives a sense of the unequal (racialized) landscape of housing in the U.S.:

The subprime mortgage industry targeted working class people of color, siphoning their hard-earned housing equity into an insane Ponzi scheme built on virtually impossible to penetrate financial instruments like CDOs and Credit Default Swaps. The result was a complete crash of the global economy. Here’s a video that very nicely explains how all of these arcane financial instruments worked?

Underlying this crisis of credit reminds us that, of course, the assault on working- and middle-class wages begun by global financial elites in the mid- to late-1970s, led, particularly, by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. As elites clawed back more and more of the wage gains and other social benefits win during the period since the Great Depression and the Second World War, life for the average person became more and more difficult.

What this led to was the financialization of everyday life. The 99%, in the Occupy parlance, were forced to live more and more off credit (and women had to enter the workforce in order to maintain middle class standards of living). Slowly, people came to think of life itself in financial terms, as a kind of risky investment.

One area in which this shift is particularly apparent is higher education, which went from being seen as a right that was provided to the people free of charge through public higher education systems like the City University of New York and the University of California systems, to being seen as an investment that people had to pay for through tuition charges. This was a Faustian deal, though, since it only made sense – if it ever made sense – when the economy was doing well and this “investment” could be payed down quickly after snagging a well-paying job. Now that unemployment is high for young people, high tuition rates in universities (including public ones) seems more like a scam than a just exchange.

There was a good article in the New York Times today about a couple of French economists who have shown that inequality in the US is nearly as bad as it was during the Great Depression. This is no news break to Occupy activists, but one suspects that the American Dream myth is keeping most people in the U.S. in the dark about this fact, not to mention many people around the world, who continue to think of the U.S. as the land of milk and honey. Here are some amazing charts from the article that demonstrate spiraling income inequality:

It will take tremendous push-back in order to turn this horrible situation around. We’re just at the beginning of such efforts, but the Occupy movement has already initiated some very creative and brave responses to the economic crash. Here is a video of folks from Occupy Foreclosures who block house auction proceedings with choral singing:

The pranksters at Occupy also recently produced a beautiful video that, in Situationalist terminology, “detourn”s West Side Story to cover many of the issues I’ve touched on in this post:

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Student Debt Campaign

The last month or so has been incredibly heady and hectic.  I’ve been working with a sub-committee of the Occupy Wall Street movement; this group has been focusing on student debt, which is set to top off this year at around $1 trillion, more than cumulative credit card debt.  It’s been exhilarating working with the Occupy Student Debt Campaign.  In literally a matter of weeks, our small group of students, ex-students, and faculty members drafted a series of pledges of debt refusal using the incredibly creative techniques of horizontal organizing pioneered by the Occupy movement.

These pledges focus on four related demands: forgiveness for current student debtors; free federally funded public higher education; fiscal transparency for private universities; and interest-free student loans.

Taken together, these demands amount to a structural transformation of American higher education, a change that would no doubt also have a strong impact globally given the prominence of the U.S. model of higher education today. 

In addition to the debtors’ pledge, there is also a faculty pledge of support for debtors, and a pledge of ex-debtors to support current debtors.  The former is particularly important, in my opinion, since the spiraling cost of the institutions at which faculty members like myself teach is linked to the student debt racket (although I should add that faculty members see little of this increasing tuition in their paychecks since most of this money has gone to adding administrators).

Last Monday, we launched the Occupy Student Debt Campaign at Zuccotti Park. Although the park is a depressing place in comparison to the vibrant spot it was before city authorities cracked down on OWS, our launch nonetheless brought a large group of protesters to the site and suggested that the Occupy movement is capable of transforming itself in vibrant ways despite the clamp-down on specific sites.

Andrew Ross, who has been a key figure in the group, explained the rationale behind the campaign, talking about how banks, backstopped by the U.S. government, make exorbitant profits from student debt, and how students and ex-students get caught in a trap from which there literally is no exit – since student debtors cannot escape their debt by declaring bankruptcy, since their debt follows them for life, and since their extended families can often inherit their debt if they die before paying it off. Then a student debtor named Pam Brown read the debtors’ pledge of refusal.  I then read the faculty pledge of support.  This was followed by some wonderful guerrilla theater, with a group of graduates being given huge debt burdens at graduation, followed by the arrival of a large check from the federal government offering free public higher education, after which the graduates throw off the chains of debt that were weighing them down.

Our campaign has now topped 1,000 signatures, a nice milestone but only .5% of the audience we hope to reach.  I hope you’ll go to the Occupy Student Debt Campaign and sign one of the pledges, and that you’ll also help spread news of the campaign through your various social networks.

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Lost generations

An article in today’s New York Times offers a powerful and unsettling comment on the video I made several weeks ago in Italy.

The article describes a demographic time bomb in southern Europe, where young people are locked out of the labor market by older generations and victimized by laws intended to increase the flexibility of employment.  Highly educated young people in countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal must live with their parents well into middle age since they seldom succeed in finding well paying jobs.  In many cases, they simply leave their countries, just as the young Italians in the video I shot discuss doing. For obvious reasons, these young people are also not having children, meaning that there are no future generations to support the generous welfare state that their elders are benefiting from.

Interestingly, the article noted that, in this context, protests against austerity measures imposed on the universities are intimately linked to much broader frustrations over the failure of society to create a viable future for these lost generations.

It seems that wherever one looks there are more and more of what Zygmunt Bauman calls “surplus people.”  The problems described in the article are much worse throughout the global South.

 

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Italia Oggi / Italy Today

Here is a short film made with the collaboration of some friends and colleagues in Torino, who reflect on the challenges facing contemporary Italians:

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Letter from Italy

The Berlusconi government seems to be on its last legs here in Italy, but somehow the old Mephistopheles seems to keep controlling the show – apparently bribery as well as arm-twisting has been involved.

Meanwhile, in Torino, where I’m teaching a mini-seminar, students have occupied many of the University of Torino buildings to protest the reform law currently being pushed through by Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini.

Like so many “reforms” carried out by the Berlusconi coalition government, this move is intended to rationalize Italian governance (in this case, of the universities) so that it resembles it more closely resembles that of the U.S.  Ironic, given the fact that our system is in hot water as a result of the fiscal crisis of the states, an issue that gets little press either in Italy or in the U.S.

Italian students are impressively militant and remarkably savvy politically speaking.  The Gelmini reform is couched in terms of efficiency – something which many aspects of Italian life could certainly use.  However, the students argue that the law contains provisions that include privatization of the universities, the cancellation of democratic processes of university governance, precariousness for faculty members, the commodification of knowledge, the creation of toxic hierarchies among university faculty through “merit pay.” Of course, many of these measures are already a taken-for-granted feature of academia in the U.S.

The students in Turin have been quite imaginative in their protests.  In addition to large marches through the streets of the city (you can still block traffic with a march here in Italy, unlike in the U.S.), the students have instituted a rotating series of occupations of different university buildings, and have also climbed on top of the main building housing the humanities, creating quite a stir among the Italian media.

Not so surprisingly, I haven’t noticed anything about these protests in the U.S. media.  It seems it takes violence against a member of the aristocracy (I’m thinking here of the British protestors’ attack on Prince Charles a day or two ago) to make it into the headlines.  Too bad Italy doesn’t have many members of the royalty in the limelight these days.

Here’s a video made by students that summarizes some of the major issues (afraid it’s in Italian):

 

 

 

 

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