Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cutting Class Against Class Cutting

I referred, in my previous post, to the budget crisis facing the UC system. Starting today, until Nov. 20th, there is a system-wide strike action to protest the measures proposed by the Board of Regents - which include fee hikes, job cuts, fewer classes - the usual, predictable stuff that follows calls for budget cuts.

I generally teach sections on Thursday, but naturally I will be canceling them for tomorrow. But I wanted to impress upon my students why this strike represents not a waste of their education (in terms of time and money) but rather is central to it. That it is, in fact, a much better, more productive use of their time and money than a corporatized educational system would ever want them to have. So I drafted a "statement" (it's more an analysis) of the strike in terms of some of the ideas we've been discussing in class. Hopefully, it'll get them to see theory in practice, in real time! I'm posting that statement below.

There is, however, one thing that I left out of the statement but have been wanting to write about for a while now. I returned from Oberlin a couple of weeks ago and, as usual, it got me thinking about the direction of the school in terms of student, staff and faculty demographics, the presence of critical social justice programs, academic and otherwise, and the general ways in which the institution represents itself - and how all this is balanced against financial/budgetary concerns. My visit, in conjunction with all that's happening at the UCs, made me think about a letter I wrote to the Oberlin College student newspaper, when I was a Senior.

I'm not going to re-produce that letter here because it is probably not contextually appropriate to post outside of the institutional arena. However, in brief, the letter was a critique of how certain kinds of education and intellectual praxis got valued, were deemed as productive and hence worthy of institutional recognition, while others became marginalized as "not a real major" or got reduced to extracurrical activities. Of course, this isn't a new phenomenon, nor is it any way limited to Oberlin. In fact, Oberlin probably does a better job in supporting and recognizing social justice and intellectual praxis more than other institutions. (Now that I have some distance from the institution, I can say that. No, I'm not going soft...) Of course, that doesn't imply that Oberlin's getting it all right. The institution can undoubtedly be doing much more and much better, and it is just as vulnerable an institution as any other to the dangers of corporatized education (where institutions self-consciously produce themselves in the image of capitalism).

I have begun to joke often about how, in a capitalist system, I am an inefficient, unproductive worker. But the truth is: this is in fact true and it's not very funny. As an inefficient, unproductive worker, my labor is expendable. And this is true not because of the nature of my labor (i.e. research/teaching) but because of what academic formation my labor is attached to - i.e. humaities/social science. Were I an academic in an engineering or medical or law program, I'd be a "good worker." The point I'm trying to make, quite simply, is that as the plot of the global financial crisis thickens, critical intellectual work is going to more and more devalued so that programs like Ethnic Studies will no longer be "financially viable." We will either completely disappear, or be "absorbed" into other programs. (Institutions generally articulate this as "looking for creative ways to collaborate with other departments across campus." I've heard this statement once too often.)

I'm not exactly sure where I was going with this other than to say the UC strike and others nationwide are just the start. I think we have a big fight on our hands against numerous entrenched interests - one that I am both apprehensive about and very excited for. Perhaps the revolution is really coming! 2012?!


The UC Strike as an Educational Moment

The UC Board of Regents is meeting at UCLA from Nov. 18-20th to vote on the following issues pertaining to system-wide budget cuts:

o An additional 32% fee increase over the next two semesters.
Should this fee increase go through, the cost of a UC education will have increased three-fold since 2000.

o Laying-off an additional 2000 workers.
These cuts are likely to predominantly affect service and support staff at the UCs.

o Continuing with furloughs, cutting classes and critical student services.
This implies paying more for fewer/limited services – fewer classes, larger class size, limited library hours, limited access to student support services, etc.

In response to these potential changes, there is a call for a system-wide strike and for a mass protest – involving teach-ins, and sit-ins/sleep-ins – from Nov. 18-20th at UCLA, where the Regents are conducting their meetings.

Tomorrow’s sections have been canceled as a response to this call.

Canceling class does not represent a de-valuation of education, or a waste of the time and money being invested by you and your families towards gaining an education. Nor is it an opportunity to “slack-off.”

Rather, this strike/protest is a crucial site of education – of knowledge acquisition, production and practice. For, if we think critically about this event, we will clearly see how the discourses and practices of subjugation, exclusion, discrimination and resistance that we have been investigating in class with respect to immigration, citizenship and nationality are reproduced here in the context of education.

Thus, this event is in fact an integral part of the education that your time and money are being invested in.

The following are some of my thoughts about the educational and political significance of this event, and hence the need to respond to the call for a strike:

Access to Education:
o From the perspective of this class, thinking about the protest in the context of access to education is imperative because it raises issues of systemic exclusions and discrimination with respect to race, class, gender and sexuality.

o More than just a catch-phrase: One seldom hears college or university administrators argue that access to education must be limited, regulated and controlled. Indeed, everyone touts the imperative of “access to education.” Yet, policy changes made by educational institutions, especially higher ed institutions, almost always make education generally less accessible with a few token examples, perhaps, of how the marginalized and disenfranchised continue to be recruited and supported within their hallowed halls. Financial and budgetary concerns almost always trump issues of access and support, rendering “access to education” no more than a mere catch-phrase.

o Systemic discrimination: This is an example of systemic or institutionalized discrimination (i.e. de fact, not de jure, discrimination). For there is rarely ever any evidence that an effort is being made to balance budgetary imperatives with the imperative of education as a public, not private, good. That is, education becomes more deeply entrenched in systems (primarily capitalism) that are founded on exclusions and exploitations of the many by a few, and merely gets “re-designed” in order to be made more inclusionary and multicultural, without actually questioning the deep-rooted violences and exclusions that produce the system itself.
• Think about how conquest, slavery, indentured labor, (neo-)colonialism, imperialism, militarism, globalization, etc. have all been deployed to support the capitalist economies of the U.S. and Europe at the cost of indigenous and Third World lives. Think about the questions we’ve been discussing in class – Who can own property and who is property? Whose labor is wanted and whose lives are expendable? Whose lives does this “labor not lives” trope serve? If inclusion and multiculturalism are supposed to transform the evils of discrimination and exclusion, why do sweatshops, slave labor, indentured labor etc. still constitute the majority of domestic and global labor formations?
• The transformation from “old capitalism” to “new” or liberal capitalism does not represent systemic transformation. It only represents a transformation of the discursive practices and images propagated by the system.
• This is true of education systems as well.

o Rhetoric of Elitism: Too often we hear higher education and intellectualism being derided as “elitist.” This is an example of how discourse gets used to sustain systemic discrimination. So, for example, think about the contradictions between the rhetoric of education as elite, and anti affirmative action rhetoric. If higher ed is, in fact, elitist, and thus of little use to “real Americans” or “American values,” why is there so much opposition of affirmative action practices in education? In the context of these discourses, who is seen as the truly worth and deserving subject of education?

For all these (and many other) reasons, access to education is always a crucial issue (a site for consciousness-raising and resistance) regardless of whether budgetary or other similar concerns are in play.

Labor not lives:
o As mentioned above, 2000 jobs are likely to be cut system-wide, presumably affecting service and support staff the most. Oftentimes, the workers most affected by such cuts are low-wage workers, immigrants and people of color.

o Lay-offs are an excellent example of how these bodies are needed only for labor, but their lives (the quality, the possibility of leading an economically and socially stable and secure life) are expendable. When times are good, more labor is hired to serve our interests. When times are bad, labor is cut, once again to serve our interests. (“Our” here includes the people who benefit most from the institution, financially and intellectually – i.e. students, faculty, administrators, etc. It also refers to a more general “our” – i.e. those that have a stake in maintaining the institutional and larger societal status quo.)

o Yet, not only do these constituencies regularly support and join student strikes, globally, that aim to resist and transform systems of subjugation and violence, but often times their own activism is the inspiration for student movements. Think for instance about the TWLF and the various solidarities that the movement built and benefited from. Or the AsAm Movement, in general.

o Access to education and economic security are not in fact distinct issues. In fact, they mutually constitute each other. Not only do they both affect the same communities, but the exclusions and subjugations they produce are dependent on each other and are crucial to serving capitalist desires. Think about the vicious cycle – lack of educational access leads to de facto employment discrimination leads to economic insecurity leads to…?

Productivity of a Strike:
o When deciding whether to participate in a strike we are often compelled to make various economic calculations, weigh costs against benefits, etc. We wonder: Will I lose my job? How much will I lose in wages? Or, as a student one may wonder, why am I being denied an education when the strike is about access to education?

o Yet, to strike is to recognize that the capitalist system (or in this case, corporatized education) counts on the fact that, for all these reasons, one will not strike. This is precisely how systems of subjugation are intended to work – they count on a paralysis of action brought about by immediate needs versus the possibilities for future, long-term gains.

o This is why strikes are so productive, because they reveal the weakness of the system itself, and bring its founding ideologies into crisis.

o To strike, then, is productive not because it brings about a complete over-haul or dismantling of the system, but rather because it, metaphorically, puts a mirror up to the system to reveal its weakness and cracks, and disallows the system from reproducing its violence without hindrance.

These are some of my personal reasons for canceling class and joining the strike tomorrow.

As students of UCSD – as a constituency that has a stake in what the UC system values and how it functions – but also as Ethnic Studies students who engage in the intellectual-political project of the this field, you are highly encouraged to participate in this strike in whatever ways you deem appropriate.

Social justice projects like Ethnic Studies owe their emergence to, and should remain accountable to, working class people, immigrants, and people of color. This is a possibility represented by joining the strike.

This should begin, however, with educating yourself about the various constituencies involved in the strike, the various debates surrounding it, etc. Here are some web-sites to help you get this going:

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