Arya Zahedi takes analyzes the All-City Student Occupation at The New School in NYC.
His extreme alienation can be contested only through a contestation of the entire society. This critique can in no way be carried out on the student terrain: the student who defines himself as such identifies himself with a pseudovalue that prevents him from becoming aware of his real dispossession, and he thus remains at the height of false consciousness. But everywhere where modern society is beginning to be contested, young people are taking part in that contestation; and this revolt represents the most direct and through critique of student behavior.
–On the poverty of student life
On November 17th, 2011, the Study Center at 90 Fifth Avenue, an office building leased by the New School University, was occupied by participants in the all-city student assembly in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The building was taken during a march from a student rally at Union Square to Foley Square in downtown Manhattan—where the march was supposed to converge with a trade union march on the Brooklyn Bridge. For eight days the study center was occupied and almost from the very beginning conflicts of political nature began to rise within the occupation.
The occupation was not a specific New School occupation, in the sense that it was not conceived and planned by just New School students, revolving around campus issues. It was planned and organized by the city-wide student assembly and had, from the very beginning, been seen as part of the city-wide movement. The reason for taking the building at the New School was logistical and based on the possibility of its success. The occupation, regardless of outcome, was an incredible learning experience. Most importantly it revealed the many different political tendencies at work, as well as where to move forward. It started in a very euphoric mood. Almost immediately, events were set up and coordination among the various student general assemblies was established. The space was quickly transformed into a educational social space for the entire city’s radical movement. Pushing it further than even making it open to all students, one of the struggles for the occupation from the beginning was to make it open to all people regardless of student status.
General assemblies were conducted immediately. Within the space there were daily general assemblies for the occupation, as well as the weekly all-city general assembly. The people’s university, which was previously held in Washington Square Park, was held there. Teach-ins were organized on a variety of topics, mostly dealing with the global capitalist crisis.
Overnight, the space was transformed from a space where the regular everyday life of student-hood was reproduced. A space where automatons sat staring directly, never talking. It was transformed from this to a space where discussions were taking place, on a variety of topics, not just explicitly political ones. But it became a social space where people could come together to work on projects, discuss topics of the day, organize other activities. The space was transformed into something different. People, who had never said a word to each other, from all over the city, were coming together and working and organizing, as well as organizing the day-to-day necessities of the occupation. A radical cinema was set up, with films running constantly, a station was set-up for silk screening and the making of banners and shirts.
The building was leased by the New School from a front company for one of the major banks. The landlord was unsurprisingly hostile, but his main concern was the fire codes. The president of the university, in contrast to his draconian predecessor, attempted to, take a very liberal handed approach to the occupation.
The occupation was never at any point total. Only the second floor was occupied. The security at the front of the building still had control of the main door. There should be no illusion that it was a total occupation with the freedom to completely recreate the space. It was, from the beginning, a negotiated space—whose existence and survival depended on negotiations with the administration. But that should not take anything away from the achievements of the occupation. Even in its limited form the occupation was an experiment; a temporary attempt at a different form of education, a different form of coming together and learning.
A few days into the occupation, the president proposed to resolve the issue by offering a gallery at the Parsons School of Design. The said gallery is open to view from the street and would make an excellent space for such an exhibit at the New School. The irony of it was lost on many of the students. The New School is an institution that uses some myth of radicalism in order to better sell its commodity. For an occupation to be taken and put into an art gallery said more than people were willing to admit. The offer also came with conditions. Most importantly that non–New School students would have to be signed in and that non-students would not be allowed entry, being the real point that changes the relation. The other was that it would only be open till the end of that semester. With all its limitations, the occupation at the original space was miles ahead of whatever could be done at this gallery. Now, there should have been no illusions that the occupation could have lasted forever, but to validate this new space was another matter all together. What was valuable about the occupation would have been completely missing from the new space. Even the educational activities would have been of a different nature. The new space would effectively turn it into another university event space no different from any other. They even put paper up on the walls so students could write graffiti without damaging the walls, as well as big letters on the window stating [“-uck capital.”] with the F removed. This said more than anything the nature of what was happening. This division brought out the real fractions within the existing student component of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
On the sixth day of the occupation, the president of the university called a “town hall” meeting to discuss the issue with the wider student body. Here was when the dissatisfaction of the student body became clear. This was used as an opportunity by the university administration and certain faculty to use the dissatisfaction of these students against the occupation. They were invited by some students present to attend the general assembly at the occupation that evening where the proposal would be discussed. The general assemblies being open to all, this was a vehicle through which an amazing display of bureaucratic manipulation and political opportunism was performed. It was during this general assembly that all the conflicts came to the fore. Students who had been hostile to the occupation from the beginning flooded the general assembly. Most of the people present, including many faculty members, were there only to vote out the occupation and leave. “For many of us the large attendance was a success, but very soon it became clear that the sole goal of the majority of participants present was not discussion, but a yes vote for the destruction of the occupation. The intention was to disrupt any possibility of dialogue and to frame the voting of the assembly in the manner of representational politics and parliamentary theater.”
The assembly turned quite aggressive and inflammatory. Emotions ran high and differences were expressed. Certain differences were apparent. But what were essentially political differences were once again obscured beneath the veil of identity politics. It was during this assembly that this was manifested in its most blatant and vulgar form. A number of students, from the management and business school, began to scream vitriol at the occupiers. These few students, who happened to also be people of color and women, were accusing the occupiers of being children of wealth (one even screamed that the occupiers were from the Hamptons.) Soon the debate was framed in terms of the space being occupied by spoilt rich white male anarchists. Never mind that the real debate was over students that wanted to be given a privileged place according to how much money they spent and those that wanted to make the space open to everybody. It was two different visions of the space. One of these students even stated that “Why should I pay $40,000 a year to let just anyone come and use this space?” Views such as this were held to somehow be more authentic and less bourgeois than the position that the space should be open to all in society and that the relationship between education and private property should be questioned and rearranged and, in so doing, provide a critique of capitalism as a whole. Once again instead of talking politics, the discussion became one of identity and background. The even remotest answer of any of these challenges only feeds into an already dead end. It legitimizes it by its very discussion. By this time an important factor in the occupation had been altered. By having the main discussion not be around the university president’s proposal, as well as the dissatisfaction of New School students, the occupation was effectively reincorporated into a New School issue and dealing with campus politics.
Something that was shocking about the occupation was how identity politics was used in such a reactionary way. The discourse of race and colonialism was used to defend private property. It revealed the worst excesses of the attempt to talk about these issues abstracted from the critique of capitalism. Although there was a great diversity to those who were participating in the occupation, it was always portrayed as something of a white man’s club. There was an illusion that everything was being run by straight white men. This completely ignored all the various women, people of color, queer people, etc., who were participating and making sure that their voices were heard. It was these comrades that made it a point to organize discussions and workshops such as the “safe spaces” workshop. For these people, it was difficult because while they were struggling to make sure the occupation was cognizant of their interests, they had to struggle with being made invisible and having their voices silenced. “Most who have had problems in the space have consistently returned, recognizing that the politics surrounding the occupation are not solidified, but are instead immanent to the space itself.”
Those who were opposed from the beginning to the occupation used this as a means to disrupt any support from the larger student body. A complaint that was often expressed by students who had some up and seen their study space transformed was “You’ve disrupted my routine.” This complaint expresses something deeper than what may be taken at face value. These people missed the point. For some of the student radicals in the occupation, alienating these voices was a source of anxiety. They could not see that one of the objectives of a strike or occupation is precisely the disruption of the flow of everyday life. It is a critique of this everyday life in practical material form. That is exactly the point that the routine was disrupted. This comes from the typical activist mentality that the goal is to gather numbers into some coherent umbrella and organization, and channel it into a form of struggle which does not cause the disruption and in turn the critique of capitalism at its daily experience. It fears that this approach which causes this disruption will be of some detriment to the “student movement,” which they hope they can build for some day, which never seems to come. Instead they could not realize that in a world of total alienation, it is important for people to become conscious of their alienation, and this does not come with the affirmation of that same alienated existence.
A cry that had become quite an important point was that of “alienating the student body.” While the writing of graffiti in many ways may rightly be seen as infantile, the obsession over it with regards to how it would appear to the outside, especially the wider student body, was revealing of many underlying fears and limitations on the part of many who were obsessed with this point. What many of these people failed to understand that the objective was not to have the space be a space for New School students, but for the larger radical community in NYC to have a space to organize. A radical social center in the heart of NYC was something that the city lacked. It was also an occupied space, that makes its own rules, and more importantly is confrontational by nature. As in most occupations, which are illegal and thereby confrontational, it is a reclaiming of space. Not only is the space transformed, but the people participating in this reclamation are also transformed along with the relations between these people. In this process, the space and the people within are in a constant state of becoming and transformation. Unlike the established society, in these moments the rules are not laid out. There is no blueprint, so there are certain excesses and contradictions. If anything, it reveals how ingrained the ideology of the established society is, that this became so incomprehensible to many. The horror at even the most benign acts of illegality, such as writing on the walls, or drinking alcohol in the space, were obsessed over and used by those with a fear of anything outside their control as a scare tactic. And this caused much confusion within the occupation.
The issue of safety within an occupation, especially within a space claiming radicalism, is of utmost importance. But this, in line with the conflict on graffiti, became a point that was used against the occupation. Discussions of people feeling accepted and safe were used to reaffirm a normalcy that just reconstituted what was struggled to overcome.
The plans of the administration worked. They were successful in using the larger student body against the occupation by manipulating their discontent as well as the divisions within the occupation. A vote was taken and the majority decided to move to the new space. A number of occupants decided to stay in the original space and not move to the new one, recognizing that the general assembly had been manipulated and used against the occupation. This threw many of the occupants who had voted to leave into a panic. Their biggest fear was that they would lose the student body’s support forever. But this was not an issue any more. For the struggle was now beyond the confines of the New School. In fear of their political opportunity being sacrificed, many of these elements who are either close to or members of some of the various left parties began a campaign of demonization of the students who had denounced the general assembly and remained. Accusations of vanguardism, ultra-leftism, and conspiritorialism were thrown at this faction of the occupation. This was clearly a process of red-baiting in order to save their own places in the future administration. But it succeeded it revealing political differences. It revealed their confused position. They profess revolution and radical thought, but in the face of something which they cannot control or predict, they retreat into the arms of the stability that they know. They chose to be closer to the administration and present themselves as the good and rational radicals as opposed to the unpredictable anarchists with their disdain for decency and private property.
These students include those who hope to gain future prospects as academics writing about their student radical days and hoping that events like the occupation will make for good publishing material. Then there are those that hope to become the leaders of the “student movement,” which will then give them good political clout in the future. Often these students are involved with one of the various left-political parties and toe their line. They carry hopes of resurrecting a dead form, which was decrepit even in its heyday. They hope to create the student movements of Europe and Latin America and in so doing wrest demands. They hope that in this process they can position themselves as being representative of “the political will of the student movement.” Their hope rests with the idea that this student movement can then attach itself to labor and follow the trade-unions into the sunset.
The experience of the occupation with all its shortcomings and contradictions was an incredibly positive experience. It is in the aftermath of this that we can better see our position in the struggle and where the fractures lay. For eight days a radical social space existed where a new type of learning was taking place. Where even if angry and shouting, people were having discussions that allowed them to think about the world they live in in a different way. It also brought people together, and even in the aftermath it pushed people together who saw that they had political commonalities that they may not have known before. People who had previously not known each other became comrades.
The manipulation from outside by the administration as well as the opportunism of many of the student “radicals” inside the occupation helped clear some of the illusions with regards to student politics. It presents with regards to the movement on the campuses the limits of certain activity, and the way foreword to move beyond into something else. The central division that has now arisen on the university campuses in the aftermath of the occupation is one tendency that wants to affirm a student identity in the hopes of building a “student movement,” and another, which sees its future only in the supersession of this identity, and advancing the struggle to a higher phase.
All these events have now laid out a clearer situation on university campuses throughout New York. The influence of the various student unions, as well as the various left organizations invariably are the main obstacle towards radicalizing the situation on the campuses. By constantly channeling the struggle towards appropriate means they invariably slow down the momentum of struggle that attaches it to the struggle outside of the campuses. The fascination with building a student movement is the hope of expressing its “political will.” This embodying of the representation of the student body is a hope to be in the position of mediator that can provide this representation. Like the trade unions in the work place as well as the left parties this role must be critiqued as well as the administration and the bosses. This activist mentality is what invariably points towards restoration before things have even gotten rolling.
At the New School, perhaps because of the pretensions towards critical thinking, the role of the left organizations is not as direct, but the same role of mediation which is held up for struggle exists through the various student unions and well organized assemblies. Some of these people are members of left organizations, but they don’t do open recruiting on campuses. Yet, many of those that still fall into this line ideologically (for this obsession with democracy and form is nothing if not ideology) have a presence. On the campuses of the City University of New York, the situation is slightly different, if not more serious.
This attack should not be confused with organizing on university campuses. The university is a major place where various forms of social reproduction and capital accumulation take place. So to organize at the university is as important as organizing at the workplace or in the community. But these forces build an obstacle to any meaningful organizing on the campuses, and turn it into a waste of time content with playing the same game, one that will hopefully teach the proper skills and lessons for a career in administration and management. At a time when the role of trade unions is becoming more and more apparent to workers, these students hope to build at best a large scale “revolutionary” student movement, invariably reproducing a form which has long been shown to be superseded.
The “poverty” of organizing around the student identity was realized long ago; to attempt to resurrect an archaic form is to attempt to play catch up with history. It is an attempt to get to a point that the working class seems to need to go beyond. The attempt to build an official student movement, with official representatives, places an obstacle before the real movement of history. The objective of the critique on campuses is to expose the manipulations and maneuverings of petty bureaucrats and would-be professional activists. To expose at all points the limits to our movements both outside and within the movement itself. The attempt to build a movement with a political will that can be clearly articulated, with demands that can be clearly realized, is to fail to understand the necessary flux of history, particularly in high times of struggle. Its results almost always amount to decapitating the real movement, in favor of an orchestrated one. “This method of organizing is one that they are unable to and refuse to transform when confronted with a movement that is against of any form of leadership or representation.”
They know that the struggle today is not in the affirmation of a student identity. Not in the struggle to liberate her student-hood, but to struggle against the existence of student-as-student, as much as worker-as-worker. There needs to be carried out a struggle that does not point to a self-managed democratic alienation. Where the alienation that affects students is not pointed to the increase of a few more tables to study at, or for private school students to struggle for what public school students have lost long ago. To do so is also to misunderstand where we are at historically. Alienation cannot be overcome through alienated modes of struggle.
The organizational question is one of central concern, the shortcoming of the militant is the belief that this question has already been resolved, one has only to realize it. It is quite an historical irony that those who choose to be the standard-bearers of a tradition obsessed with overcoming “trade-union consciousness” seem to do nothing but reify this consciousness and create an obstacle to going beyond it.