Student movements–and society as a whole–would benefit greatly from breaking down the walls between the university and society, and forging concrete connections between student groups and local community organizations.
(Note: This essay should be read as nothing more than a personal perspective and a working hypothesis. There is a good chance that I am not giving enough credit to current student organizing efforts, the impacts of recent efforts, and the complexity and diversity of student organizations that operate in California).
Endless amounts of analysis have been written about how the university is a site of class struggle, of how education is being ravaged by neoliberal reform and privatization, and of how these trends are symptomatic of larger movements in the dynamics of global capitalism. But it seems like hardly anything has been written about the concrete strategic aspects of resisting such trends in an effective manner.
This is the main reason why I have not participated much in student organizing (specifically around things like tuition hikes), despite my identity as a student at the University of California. Whenever I did try to participate, there was a severe lack of purpose or overarching goal; there was vague talk about “resisting tuition hikes” and “empowering students”, but the work I saw being done never seemed to translate into any sort of sustained mass action. The riots of 2009 in Berkeley and the large system-wide Occupy protests in late 2011 were interesting, but didn’t translate into much in terms of a long-term movement, or concrete short-term gains for students, workers, or faculty. Mobilizations against tuition hikes and the administration happened–but they were brief, and organized so loosely that it took nothing more than a vacation break or two to disperse the participants and what little infrastructure they had built up.
So, what do we change about the way we approach student organizing? What kind of strategies should we employ in order to create a substantive, sustainable, and effective mass movement? This is where I look to Venezuela for answers. Regardless of whether you agree with the politics and practice of the chavistas, one cannot deny that they have been very effective at seizing power in Venezuela and using it to enact radical changes in Venezuelan society (a process that is either authoritarian and top-down, or decentralized and bottom-up, depending on who you ask). A key branch of the 20th-century radical left in Venezuela was the students, and I think we can learn much about how to organize from the strategies employed by militant Venezuelan students in the ’60s and the ’80s.
For instance, take this excerpt about students in the late ’60s, who were attempting to radically “renovate” the nature of both the governance and the purpose of the university:
On the practical plane, the student movements engaged in the Renovation sought to develop participatory student organizational structures within the university, in part to resist the traditional elected institutions of the universities (the Federation of University Centers, or FCUs) which had long served as direct proxies for the two-party system. Instead, radical students formed alternative, directly democratic council structures and fought for the creation of a general university assembly. […] While the proposed assembly would have equalized faculty and student participation…it would also and more radically have included university employees and workers on an equal footing. It was in this sense that the Renovation became an “insurgency against the institution”, attempting to break down the walls that separate the university from the society as a whole while being careful to never sacrifice its prized autonomy. In reality, this was a radicalization of the very notion of autonomy itself, one that asserted autonomy from the government while insisting that the university be subservient to the needs of the wider society of which students and workers were a part. (Ciccariello-Maher 2013: 111).
This strategy was wildly effective at turning the university into a center of anti-systemic organizing–so much so that the government eventually resorted to military force in order to shut down various universities.
There are a lot of things here to take into consideration for our own student movements. For one thing, the overarching goal of “democratizing the university” cuts right at the root of the problem: the lack of control that the university’s constituents have over their education and their labor (both manual and intellectual). This strategy also points toward the importance of student groups collaborating more with campus unions–which, in the UC system, are continually engaged in struggles with the administration over salaries, benefits, safety, etc.
But the most interesting aspect of the Renovation, to me, was the idea of “breaking down the walls” between the university and society. I would argue that the University of California is especially guilty of having “walls”; walls which even the most militant student organizations hardly seems to notice. Is it not embarrassing, for example, that UC Berkeley–a place famous for its allegedly subversive nature, and its willingness to challenge systems of oppression and marginalization–is adjacent to some of the most marginalized communities in California, and yet does next to nothing to stand in solidarity with these communities and utilize its resources and labor-power to empower these struggles?
The alienation of campuses like UC Berkeley from surrounding struggles is in stark contrast to the practices of radical Venezuelan students, who continued their strategy of student-community engagement through the ’80s and uniting “student radicalism with a mass base in the barrios,” and coordinating closely with barrio organizations–a collaboration which escalated into widespread uprisings and massive street battles with the military in the late ’80s, and setting the stage for the rise of Hugo Chavez in the ’90s (Ciccariello-Maher 2013: 113-14). This strategy effectively grounded the student movement as part of a larger societal shift–rather than maintaining the focus entirely on student-centric issues, and thus making the the struggle in the university irrelevant to non-students (this is an especially important dynamic at elite institutions like UC Berkeley).
Another advantage to connecting with community groups, beyond radicalizing the organizational efforts of students and making them more accountable to the needs of society, is that such connections can help drastically mitigate the problems associated with the transient nature of students. One huge problem that is continually brought up in student organizing circles is the problem of students not feeling like they have much stake in campus organizing efforts; after all, they will be gone in just a few years. Synthesizing student activism with community activism, on the other hand, can give a sense that the labor invested into such collaborations can be further developed even after an individual is no longer a student. They ground the student into activism that is far more long-term, with people far more experienced, than simply remaining within the walls of the university and engaging in student-specific issues. And in addition, having close ties with groups with more permanent, long-term membership than typical student groups (again, due to the transient nature of students) means that such networks can be a huge asset in storing the lessons and experience of previous students and passing it on to incoming students as living memory.
Universities like UC Berkeley are in an excellent position to engage in student-community networking. UC Berkeley is in a hotbed of radical organizing, surrounded by communities like Oakland, San Francisco, and Richmond, which are peppered with dozens of groups fighting everything from gentrification to police brutality to environmental degradation. Thus, the types of collaborative activities that can be developed are endless: joint projects could be anything from planning a panel event with speakers from both the community and the student body discussing a particular subject, to organizing blockades and sit-ins, to skill-share workshops. Students can go out and work on community projects; community members can come to the university to utilize research tools and access archives. Student groups working on food justice and urban gardens could link up with local food pantries and community garden organizations; campus unions could link up with local fast food workers to plan out mass strike actions; public health researchers could help environmental justice groups study the quantitative effects of local industrial pollution.
All in all, I hypothesize that if students in California replicate this strategy of linking with community groups, and transcending the walls of their respective ivory towers, then we will see a movement emerge that has far more substance, and a much clearer future, than the erratic and unstable “movements” that we have seen in recent years. Furthermore, this strategy could potentially underpin the escalation of the student movement into something that could actually pose a radical challenge to State and Capital, rather than simply presenting reformist demands to an administration which has zero incentive to listen. Hopefully I will be testing this hypothesis over the course of the rest of this year.