Anti-Capital Projects: questions & answers

A text explaining why the use of occupations to fight austerity at the University of California in 2009.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 10, 2012

Why Occupation?

Why occupation? Why barricades? Why would an emancipatory movement, one which seeks to unchain people from debt and compulsory labor, chain the doors of a building? Why would a group of people who deplore a university increasingly barricaded against would-be entrants itself erect barricades? This is the paradox: the space of UC Berkeley, open at multiple points, traversed by flows of students and teachers and workers, is open in appearance only. At root, as a social form, it is closed: closed to the majority of young people in this country by merit of the logic of class and race and citizenship; closed to the underpaid workers who enter only to clean the floors or serve meals in the dining commons; closed, as politics, to those who question its exclusions or answer with more than idle protest.

To occupy a building, to lock it down against the police, is therefore to subtract ourselves, as much as possible, from the protocols and rules and property relations which govern us, which determine who goes where, and when, and how. To close it down means to open it up – to annul its administration by a cruel and indifferent set of powers, in order that those of us inside (and those who join us) can determine, freely and of our own volition, how and for whom it is to be used. The university is already occupied—occupied by capital and the state and its autocratic regime of “emergency powers.” Of course, taking over a building is simply the first step, since our real target is not this or that edifice but a system of social relations. If possible, once this space has been fully emancipated, once we successfully defend ourselves against the police and administrators who themselves defend, mercilessly, the inegalitarian protocols of the university, the rule of the budget and its calculated exclusions, then we can open the doors to all who wish to join us, we can come and go freely and let others take our place in determining how the space is used. But we stand no chance of doing so under police watch, having sat down in the building with the doors open, ready to get dragged out five or six hours or a day later. Once our numbers are sufficient to hold a space indefinitely, then we can dispense with locks.

Our goal is straightforward: to broadcast from this space the simple truth that, yes, it is possible to take what was never yours, yes, it is possible for workers to take over their workplaces in the face of mass layoffs; for communities where two-thirds of the houses stand empty, foreclosed by banks swollen with government largesse, to take over those houses and give them to all who need a place to live. It is not just possible; as the current arrangement of things becomes evermore incapable of providing for us, it is necessary. We are guided by a simple maxim: omnia sunt communia, everything belongs to everybody, as a famous heretic once said. This is the only property of things which we respect.

If possible, we will use this space as a staging ground for the generalization of this principle, here and elsewhere, a staging ground for the occupation of another building, and another, and another, for the continuation of the strike and its extension beyond the university. Then we can decide not what we want but what we will do. If we fail this time, if we fall short, so be it. The call will remain.

Why Now?

It is true that the upcoming vote at the Regents meeting – an almost certain ratification of the 32% fee increase proposed by Mark Yudof and the UC Office of the President – is merely the latest in a long litany of insults and injuries. But it is also the moment where the truth of the UC is undeniable, where its ostensible difference from the violence of the larger society vanishes. The hijacking of student fee money for construction bonds tells, in capsule form, the larger story of our enchainment to debt: credit card and mortgage debt, student loans we will spend our lifetime paying off.

We want students to see this increase for what it is: a form of exploitation, a pay cut from future wages at a time when widespread unemployment already puts those wages in jeopardy. Let’s be honest: aside from all its decorations, university study is a form of job training. We pay now in order to attain a better wage in the future. It is an investment. But the crisis of the university and the crisis of employment means that, for many, the amount they pay for a degree will far exceed the benefits accrued. We could, at the very least, conclude that it is a bad investment.

But stepping back for a minute, what would it mean to restore the public university to its former glory as an engine of class mobility, as a sound investment in the future? It would mean the restoration of a system which, while ensuring that some individuals, here and there, ascend the rungs, also ensures that the rungs themselves remain immovable. The best we can hope for is that different people will get fucked next time. There is no escape from this fact. The university can’t be made accessible to all without the absolute devaluation of a university degree. To save the university means to save poverty, pure and simple. It means to save a system in which some people study and some people clean the floors. . . The same goes for the entirety of the education system – there is no way to reduce the inequality in K-12 education without a total transformation of society. The schools are designed to produce this inequality. If they were equally funded and equally administered and we still lived in a class society, then the education received there would be meaningless as a claim on future livelihood. There has to be an underclass. This is the truth of education. And it is the one thing we are supposed to never learn in school, the one thing which, despite all the gestures of solidarity, divides the campus student movement from the most exploited university workers.

This is why we must seize these spaces – spaces that were never ours – and put them to new uses. If there is any value to the university it is its centrality as a point of transmission, an instrument of contagion, in which struggle is broadcast, amplified, and communicated to the society at large. If we achieve this or that reform along the way – save wages and salaries, lower fees – this will make us happy. We understand how meaningful such achievements are for the people who work and study here. But we also understand how meaningless they are for the society at large. Sometimes saving the university is a stop on the way to destroying it. There is no insoluble contradiction, then, between us and the larger movement. We are one face of it.

Why No Demands?

First, because anything we might win now would be too insignificant. Countless times past student struggles have worked months and years – striking and occupying buildings and mobilizing thousands upon thousands of people – only to win back half of what they had already lost, a half that was again taken away one or two years later. But in any case, we are as yet far too small to win anything on a scale remotely close to the mildest of demands – a reduction or freeze of student fees, an end to the layoffs and furloughs. Even these demands would mean only a return to the status quo of last year or the year before – inadequate by any but the most cowardly measure. If we set our horizons higher – free education, a maximum salary differential of, for instance, 3 or 5, a university managed by faculty and students and workers – then we must realize, immediately, that nothing short of full-scale insurrection could ever achieve this. And if we were strong enough to bring the existing order tumbling down around us, why would we stop short and settle for the foregoing list?

The process of negotiation – the settlement of demands – is a dangerous one for a movement. It often signals its death. We have no illusions about this. We understand that, if we were to become powerful enough, and if we remained steadfast in our refusal of all negotiation or settlement, someone, some group, would step in and begin negotiating for us. There is no avoiding that. Once we become a threat, then the bargaining will begin. If the first or second set of demands seems a worthy terminus, then we have a piece of advice. Become a threat first. You just might win something. But you’ll never become a threat by determining to fight over the crumbs.

The whole theory of demands as it currently exists seems to rest upon a fundamental misconception. The demand is never really addressed to the existing powers. They can’t hear us – everyone knows that. And, in any case, they’ve never responded to petitions or requests, only force. The real addressee of the demand is on our side, not theirs. A demand defines those who utter it; it sets the limits of the struggle, determining who is and who is not in solidarity with a given fight. And such demands are, invariably, bound to exclude some party or group. We recognize, of course, that they can be useful in this respect – useful as a means to constitute and unify body in struggle, but this body can only be partial, fragmentary, divided from further support. Some groups attempt to get around this problem by making their demands an eclectic laundry-list, but such solutions always end in absurdity. This is why we make no demands. Because we want to be in solidarity with all who are oppressed and exploited. We will not say who they are in advance. They will define themselves by rising up and standing with us.

Why This Building?

Well, it’s perfect, isn’t it? As the UC levies students with ever-steeper fees and drives workers further into poverty in order to continue with its inglorious expansion – football stadiums, high-tech research centers, new administrative buildings, $1.35 billion in new construction during a supposed crisis – we can see no better target than one of the nerve centers of this strategy of accumulation, one of the routing points of this logic which privileges buildings over people. Capital Projects indeed. Even if the university is not, in a strict sense, profit-seeking like a capitalist corporation, the leveraged transformation of ever-greater levels of personal debt into new buildings, the congealation of our living activity into dead matter designed to react back upon us, to become the newest labyrinth of our unfreedom, is nothing less than a little blazon of the project of capital itself: capital which is nothing if it is not growth, expansion, multiplication, investment, and which continues along this path without the slightest regard for human needs. This is no less true of the UC, which will grow and build at any cost. Any growth is good growth, as the front page of the Wall Street Journal tells us. Gross Domestic Product knows no qualities. A pile of guns is the same, to it, as a pile of anti-malarial drugs. It is a system which must grow or die, which requires more and more resources and energy, more and more workers, regardless of what this work is doing. This is why no patchwork of reforms and technology and consumer morality could ever address the growing ecological crisis – a crisis, at base, of a system which knows no limits. And so we take our stand here, at the Office of Sustainability, Real Estate Services, Capital Projects. We will not create more of what people do not need. Not today. Here, in this building which coordinates the acquisition of property and the optimization of real estate assets, we refuse to be subordinate to the logic of accumulation. And we call upon all of those in solidarity with us to take over other spaces on campus, in their communities, to take over their workplaces, to refuse the rule of things, the rule of dead matter. It is easy enough. Countless buildings lie ready for the taking. We can, all together, chant Whose university? Our university! And we can really mean it.

Originally posted: November 19, 2009 at Anti-Capital Projects