This just read off the roof: anti-capitalism at the New School

A speech critiquing capitalist society and how it relates to university life.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 10, 2012

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency…” – Walter Benjamin

Recently there has been a lot of talk connecting the specific conditions at the New School with the general conditions of society-at-large. You may have heard the material and intellectual concerns of students couched in a radical critique of capitalism, injustice and hierarchical power. On the surface, this may seem abstract and out of touch with the everyday life of students at the university. It may appear as an attempt to shoehorn unrelated “activism” into an otherwise simple administrative matter. However, when we delve below the surface appearance of everyday life, it becomes clear that a generalized critique of society based on the twin logics of capitalist accumulation and hierarchical domination has everything to do with our struggle to redefine our school. The following is an attempt to communicate this relation between the general and particular and to reach out to those students who may feel distanced from last semester’s occupation.

The Logic of Capital

The last 150 years have produced a variety of cogent, but complex, theoretical critiques of modern life. This literature is important to examine and widely available. However, you needn’t spend a lifetime poring over texts to grasp the corrosive and corrupting logic at the heart of capitalism. To glimpse the process of capital at work, just take a look at everyday life. Practically every second of our day is conditioned by the logic of the commodity form. Increasingly, those dimensions of life most social and most intimate are stolen from us by some means, claimed as the property of some anonymous other, then commodified and sold back to us. This pernicious gyre has widened beyond food, shelter, and clothes to include all the fundamental necessities of life like domestic and cultural production, mental and physical health and, of course, education. Where these commodities originate, how they were made and by whom they were produced is largely mystified. This commodity form seems “natural” and given, but it is, in fact, historically contingent and based on a specific organization of society. We are all familiar with the above from our own banal and incessant struggles against the debasement of our humanity.

In order to sustain ourselves in a world dominated by commodities, we must spend the greater part of our lives selling the most intimate of human activities: our ability to create, our time, our thoughts, our movements – in short, our very existence and essence. Eight to ten hours a day, five or six days a week, fifty weeks a year we sell our lives and our labor power for remuneration to feed ourselves. We’re taught to welcome the ingenuity and magnanimity of the bosses when they create useless toil for us. We’re supposed to thank them as they wrench greater control of even deeper aspects of our lives by creating spectacular wants and novel needs wholly separated from any semblance of unalienated human life. We’re supposed to acquiesce when they rape the environment and produce goods which largely save us only the expense of struggle in the short term.

It is we who create value, not them, but once we have produced enough to justify our meager wages, we are compelled to work more to create profits for the boss – an ever expanding surplus; accumulation for accumulation’s sake. The board of directors, middle managers and shareholders reap substantial rewards while we barely subsist and rack up endless debt. To make things worse, the work process is specialized and broken down to the point that each of us makes only one small portion of the final product. Therefore, in addition to being unfair and time-consuming, work is also mostly mind-numbing and spirit-crushing. Whether in a factory, in a store or at a desk, we spend most of our lives laboring for others doing things we don’t want to do. We do this because we’re told it’s necessary and natural. We do this because we want to eat. We do this – in essence – because we want more space in their squalid slave quarters. If we complain we are demoted, reprimanded, fired, failed, medicated, suspended, imprisoned. If we try to get our coworkers together to commiserate about our common condition and wrest control over our lives we face the wrath of the boss and the state.

Of course, this system could not survive without some kind of twisted reward mechanism. The universal commodity form – money – is both an end-in-itself and a means to obtain a degree of social power and prestige within the limits of general unfreedom. In addition to mere survival, in advanced capitalism we are also offered the occasional chance to indulge in the orgy of consumption around which our “leisure time” is organized. However, not only can manufactured needs never be sated, those things which we buy tend to increasingly dominate our lives: the television compels us into abject passivity, the internet and phone mediates our relations with friends and family while separating us socially and spatially, the home becomes an island in a sea of afflicted monads. In effect, we compete to see who can be the most alienated. All this suits politicians and bosses because an atomized, separate, passive populace of worn-out workers and disaffected students is open to all kinds of manipulation.

From Universal to Particular

So you may be asking, how does this critique of everyday life relate to our experience at The New School? Firstly, capitalism is a process whose logic permeates every institutional structure. Our university is not immune, despite its concerted branding as a unique forum for expression and free-thought. In order to increase “social capital” and raise financial capital, the current administration has substituted The New School’s radical legacy with an unyielding drive for expansion that mirrors the infinite accumulation of capitalism. The material resources that we need (study space, a decent library, working computers, etc.) have been sacrificed in order to fund non-educational commitments. Scholarships and oncampus jobs for increasingly indebted students have been cut back as the corporatization of the university advances. The current crisis has made the effects of this process more evident. The illusive directors of our university are connected with even the most immoral of enterprises (a fact so shocking to the liberal pretentions of students and faculty, but wholly in keeping with the irrepressible search for relative surplus value) while our endowment’s growth relies on an all-consuming fetishism of capital and markets. Those divisions of the university that are the flashiest and most profitable have seen increased funding, while those divisions devoted to the primary and historical commitments of the university have been immiserated. The university, despite being a non-profit institution, has been run like a capitalist enterprise, seeking to extract the most profit out of students, assistants and professors alike.

Bob Kerrey’s ousting of the provost is just an expression of the general and inexorable disregard of capital for any semblance of integrity which is distinct from its core tenets. That the once venerable University in Exile is being led by a war criminal paid over a million dollars a year is a bizarre irony. That he is served by lackey war profiteers who will do whatever it takes to increase profits is sadly predictable in a schizophrenic society where social relations between things and material relations between people are at the foundation. Our education has become training for passivity, abject obsequiousness and absorption into a destructive circuit of accumulation that ravages our minds and our world. Our voices have been taken from us, our talent and creativity have been exploited. Our hopes for the future have been subsumed into an authoritarian, hierarchical power structure that reflects the whims of bureaucrats and, in turn, mirrors those structures of domination against which we constantly struggle. In this way, the general conditions of society are made particular. It follows then that action based on an individualized, surface critique of the university is incapable of bringing about fundamental change. It follows then that reform is not an option. In our battle against the administration we must understand our plight and struggle against the general conditions of capitalist society and seek a total rupture with it.

Where to go from here?

We came to the New School for a different kind of education. Our particular interests are varied, but we are all here because we’re deeply concerned about the world around us and want to learn how to effect change. Whether you care most about the environment, social justice, inequality in the “developing world”, hunger, women’s rights, gay rights or racial equality, these particular forms of injustice are but instances and structures of a general logic of political and economic domination. As such, each struggle against one of these is an important blow for humanity. However, we implore you to examine the processes that reproduce such injustice on a daily basis. Join us in discussion and together we will explore the causes and forces of domination. Together we will organize and struggle for true change.

Each of us has his or her own views on what is to be done, but we must trust the sense of urgency that wells up inside us. The ongoing and growing crisis of capitalism is upending and putting lie to the alleged advantages of the “free market”. That job that was waiting for you has gone overseas or disappeared entirely. The scheme to draft us into perpetual debt peonage through seemingly infinite credit has only piled further contradictions onto a conflict-laden system. The house of cards is falling; revealing a lie we were well aware of all along. Capitalism has shown once again its inability to reasonably provide for humanity and within less than two decades following its proclamation of a so-called “end to history”. Our fight at the New School is one of myriad battles taking place around the planet and the stakes are higher than they have ever been. Within our solidarity lies the foundation of a future as malleable and fantastic as the human potential itself. We have nothing to lose but the radical chains that weigh us down. Let’s unite together in our own struggle at the New School as a part of the greatest historical struggle – to make the world itself anew!

– New School Schwarz und Rot

Originally posted: April 10, 2009 at New School Reoccupied