Toronto strikes back against neoliberal education

By ROAR Collective On March 20, 2015

Post image for Toronto strikes back against neoliberal educationThe university strikes in Toronto are a powerful articulation of an emergent student and academic staff movement that is growing on campuses globally.

Article written by various rank and file members of CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903. Photo by Daniel Kwan.

As we enter now into the third week of strikes at two of Canada’s largest universities — the University of Toronto and York University — we believe this is a vital moment to reflect upon the aims shared by members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 3902 and 3903, representing over 10,000 teaching assistants and course instructors with the majority of them graduate students at both University of Toronto and York University, and to explore the larger structural issues that led to strike actions at both campuses.

We contend that the casualization of academic labor and the commodification of education must be seen as components of the larger framework of the neoliberalization of state and society. This is seen quite sharply in the demands put forth by members of both CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903. The authors of this piece are a collective comprised of rank-and-file members from both CUPE locals. Our aim is to provide an analysis of the present situation with united voices, exploring linkages between these specific articulations and the ways in which our strikes are situated on the horizon of a growing movement.

While the particular details of each local’s bargaining position are specific to existent relations within each university, upon brief reflection it becomes remarkably clear that the foundational concerns raised in each case are symptomatic of the neoliberal restructuring of the university system, and indeed, of society at large, and represent a concerted push-back against austerity and the casualization and precarization of labor within and beyond the academic institution.

In conjunction with increasingly assertive organizing on the part of adjunct faculty across the continent, with a second round of student strikes about to kick off in Quebec, and with student occupations taking off across the Atlantic inLondon and Amsterdam, these concurrent strikes have become increasingly powerful articulations of an emergent student and contract labor movement growing across university campuses globally.

Sparking the match

CUPE 3902 at the University of Toronto was the first to declare the strike, on Friday, February 27, with York joining shortly thereafter. The University of Toronto strike deadline had been set months prior, but the employer had delayed bargaining until the very last minute, when at 3am, after a marathon negotiation session, it tried to push through a lackluster deal which the membership would swiftly and decisively reject.

The tentative agreement offered by the University of Toronto included minor wage increases, some limited financial allocations available by application for those in the final years of PhD studies, and several modest improvements in the language of the collective agreement, but it did not address the substantive issues members had entrusted the bargaining team to negotiate. In fact, written into the deal was the employer’s assertion that CUPE 3902 does not have the mandate to negotiate on either of the core matters which membership had authorized it to negotiate — an increase in the overall guaranteed minimum funding package of $15,000 per year, and a reduction or remission of tuition fees for graduate students beyond the funded years.

Given that teaching assistant and course instructor work is a requirement to fulfill more than half of that funding guarantee, this was widely seen as a political attempt by the administration to limit graduate students’ capacity to deploy our collective power as unionized workers and address the terms of our relationship with the university holistically.

In response to this insult, CUPE 3902 members raised picket lines at all three University of Toronto campuses the following Monday, and were joined by CUPE 3903 at York the very next day. Similarly, York’s offer also evaded the union’s core bargaining points, which included tuition indexation for all members, job security for contract faculty members, and a reasonable funding package for graduate assistants.

Tuition indexation ensures that every dollar added to graduate tuition fees is met in kind by additions to graduate student compensation. This was already won through a protracted strike in 2000-’01, and secured for all members of the local, but York’s administration recently reinterpreted the language and now claims that it only applies to students already under the collective agreement, excluding incoming students. As a result, the tuition fees of international graduate students increased by a whopping $7,000 in 2014.

A second core demand at York is for an increase in the guaranteed minimum funding to Research Assistants and Graduate assistants, currently set at $9,000 per year. In a city such as Toronto, in which the Low Income Cutoff (LICO) is set at $23,000, it is clear that guaranteed minimum funding at both universities leaves graduate students struggling substantially below a livable income.

The financial enterprise of knowledge production

The systemic indifference of university administrators towards the experience of graduate students and course instructors reflects the extent to which institutionalized knowledge-production has become a financial enterprise. In fact, this indifference marks a class conceit particular to the neoliberal moment. As David Graeber argues, the neoliberal university is exemplary of the emergence of a modern class alliance between financial elites and corporate bureaucrats, which he terms the professional-managerial class; a class position which university administrators have increasingly come to occupy over the past few decades.

Alongside the casualization of academic labor that marks diminishing prospects for the attainment of tenure-track professorship and replacement with highly insecure and poorly compensated adjunct teaching positions, there persists a hiring spree of senior administrators with progressively higher salaries and compensation packages emulating that of corporate executives. A brief glance at the Ontario Sunshine List, which shows the annual salaries throughout the past decade of any publicly employed person making over $100,000, reveals the bloated and rapidly increasing salaries of administrators at both universities.

Meanwhile, the ratio between senior administrators and tenured faculty is decreasing dramatically across universities in Ontario. This exemplifies an ongoing trend in which universities have become sites for the reproduction of the professional-managerial class; a reproduction that we emphatically insist comes at the expense of the political place of labor in our society.

The form this class reproduction assumes is unequivocally corporate. Universities are constantly engaged in orienting their policy outlook to the private interests of investors and shareholders, where “revenue shortfalls” and “budget surpluses” dictate policy, albeit without any change in employee working conditions either way, as the conditions of our current strikes reveal. After all, although U of T reported a budget surplus of $200million last year it refuses to negotiate the value of its guaranteed graduate funding, which hasn’t seen an increase since 2008. Meanwhile the average salary of a University of Toronto dean has risen by $20,000 since then.

Prioritizing “fiscal responsibility,” often at the expense of educational quality, universities are becoming technocratic financial institutions in all but name. Consequently “asset management” and “market value” have come to signify the quality of research and education on offer, both of which achieve popular mass consumption in the form of global institutional rankings, themselves evocative of corporate performance reviews.

And yet for all their pomp and “prestige,” such global indices belie the exploitative conditions that await international graduate students whose untenable economic position at our universities exemplifies the extreme edge of precarity experienced across the graduate student population. The often undervalued contributions graduate students make as cutting-edge researchers and contract education workers are essential to the international prestige of these institutions, and indeed, their very functioning.

The pedagogy of student indebtedness

Another crucial dimension in the reproduction of the neoliberal university is student indebtedness. With tuition fees increasing well above the rate of inflation on an annual basis in Ontario (by provincial law, universities can increase tuition by up to 5 percent per year), and with meager stipends that fall well below the poverty line, graduate students and course instructors are often forced to debt-finance the completion of their degrees.

As one CUPE 3902 union member succinctly puts it, when we speak about precarity in the university, we are primarily speaking about debt. Exemplary of a neoliberal strategy beginning in the 1970s, the right to a publicly funded education is increasingly being substituted with easy access to credit. And although the university is not a primary issuer of student loans, it plays a formative role in the financialization process by intentionally fostering mass student loan debts. Thus it is through student debt that we can more clearly discern how the university articulates and produces a larger neoliberal order based in the reproduction of financial capital.

Most importantly, student indebtedness designates a pedagogical dimension of the neoliberal university, one central to the reproduction of the professional-managerial class (or, more accurately, the sensibilities associated with this class). That is to say, in the name of their professionalization, students are taught through their debt to reflect on their status as human capital, or as University of Toronto administration has termed its students, “Basic Income Units.”

In order to acquire the habit of valorizing themselves through personal “investment” in their (unforeseeable) futures, they are taught to make an enterprise of themselves, engaging incessantly (and anxiously) in acts of self-marketing. As such, an audit-culture is instituted in the neoliberal university through an ethos of indebtedness whereby student-debtors are incessantly interpolated as manager-professionals split between the contrarian injunction to embrace risk and the prudent warning to take precautions against making bad investments.

Whose university? Our university!

At a recent solidarity rally outside the administrative offices of the University of Toronto, thousands of graduate and undergraduate students together chanted “Whose university? Our university!” With blinds tightly shuttered and campus police standing guard at each locked entrance, our voices rang in unison so that we might be clearly heard, if not seen, by the administrators cloistered within.

While our respective strikes are but a beginning, the terms in which they are articulated show clear linkages with a wider global struggle to reclaim the university as a public space for free and guaranteed accessible education for all. In this sense, the fight of striking student union members at the University of Toronto and York University for increases to the basic funding package, tuition relief and/or tuition indexation, and improvements to overall working conditions, cannot be separated from the wider global struggle for broad structural transformation within the fiscal and pedagogical governance of the contemporary university.

Students in Canada have been at the forefront of the struggle for high quality accessible education for all, with the 2012 student strikes in Quebec a telling example. The struggle of Quebec students against austerity challenged multiple aspects of neoliberal governance within and beyond the university setting. As striking Quebec students in 2012 articulated opposition to both proposed tuition increases and the sweeping northern development project Plan Nord, this movement cannot be separated from the struggle against the exploitation of land and resources, and the ongoing internal colonization of Indigenous territories. Indeed, in 2012 lines of solidarity were produced between Indigenous and student activists articulating an overall critique of neoliberal restructuring in all sectors, and a shift toward alternate visions for the futurity of political-economic relations.

The momentum of the present movement is escalating rapidly. Our own administrations have taken hard offensive lines against our unions necessitating prolonged strikes, while concurrently, Quebec students from 24 student unions across six Montreal campuses have declared a second wave of student strikesbeginning March 21. From the picket lines on Keele, Mississauga, Scarborough, and St. George campuses in Toronto to the occupied Maagdenhuis (the main administration building of the University of Amsterdam), one thing is clear: resistance against the neoliberal regime within and beyond the university setting is growing, and it transcends the bounds of academia.

At present, we need solidarity across all universities and workers’ unions, whether through active participation in pickets, the launch of mirror strikes on other campuses, or the drafting of strong letters of support. CUPE 3902 and 3903 members must escalate our tactics in solidarity with supporters within and beyond the city of Toronto, and demonstrate the extent to which our labor is fundamental to the effective functioning of the university. Following a victory regarding our specific aims, we must ensure that any “back to work” agreement does not end in the abandonment of this wider struggle.

A victory for striking graduate student workers will signify a decisive step toward the reversal of neoliberal policy and provide an example and a source of inspiration for others moving forward. The momentum for a campus-based global anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal movement is strong at present. Our moment is now. We invite you to join us on the picket lines, out on the streets, and inside occupied administrative buildings. Together, We Strike to Win!

Authors:

Jennifer Gibson, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
George Mantzios, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
Sardar Saadi, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
Behnam Amini, MA student in Social and Political Thought, York University
Gülay Kılıçaslan, PhD student in Sociology, York University

 

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Blockupy protesters crash ECB housewarming party

By Jerome Roos On March 19, 2015

Post image for Blockupy protesters crash ECB housewarming partyThousands converged upon Frankfurt to block the celebration of power and take the resistance to austerity into the heart of the European crisis regime.Photo: final protest in Frankfurt on Wednesday (via Commune of Europe).

On Wednesday, the European Central Bank celebrated the official opening of its new headquarters in Frankfurt. To mark the occasion, more than ten thousand protesters — united under the Blockupy banner — converged upon Europe’s financial capital from all corners of the continent. Organizers declared that they intended to “take over the party and turn it into an articulation of transnational resistance against European crisis policies and their catastrophic consequences, especially for the people in the European south.”

The German state, in turn, mobilized one of the country’s largest-ever police forces to protect the ECB and make the constitutional act of public protest next to impossible. As in previous years, Frankfurt was on lock-down — and it is not difficult to understand why: EU authorities have long been adamant on insulating the central bankers from any form of popular pressure whatsoever. The ECB, after all, is supposed to answer to the markets, not to the people. Just consider the career trajectory of its president, Mario Draghi, who used to be a managing director at Goldman Sachs: it does not take a trained political economist to figure out where his allegiances really lie.

The Blockupy organizers could not have chosen a more appropriate date for this year’s demonstration. The launch of the ECB’s new headquarters symbolizes practically everything that’s wrong with the European project today. As the Eurozone fell into its never-ending crisis in 2008 and the ECB — as a member of the Troika — imposed life-wrecking austerity measures from Athens to Dublin, an ostentatious 185 meter tall glass and steel skyscraper quietly arose along the river Main. Surrounded by a large fence and castle moat, activists point out how the “intimidating architecture of power is a perfect symbol of the distance between the political and financial elites and the people.”

At an estimated cost of 1.4 billion euros, the searing twin towers — appropriately designed in the postmodern architectural style of deconstructivism — now stand tall as a shining beacon of the new Europe: impersonal, unaccountable and thoroughly anti-democratic. From these commanding heights of monetary and financial control, the ECB has already deposed several elected governments, imposed disastrous reforms and austerity measures, and proposed to pump a mind-boggling 1 trillion euros into the Eurozone’s morally bankrupt financial sector. In the meantime, it is squeezing the Greek government to neutralize the leftist challenge emanating from Athens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: The new ECB headquarters (Norbert Nagel, WikiMedia Commons)

Many EU scholars still tend to euphemistically refer to this technocratic detachment as a sign of the EU’s “democratic deficit.” They will point at the ECB’s lack of “input legitimacy” and argue for greater parliamentary control over its governing board. What such scholars often fail to observe, however, is that the ECB’s democratic deficit has been inscribed into its very role and mandate. As a central bank without a state, the ECB is anti-democratic not by fault but by design. Its much-vaunted “independence” from national governments is in reality a cover for its deliberate insulation from popular pressures and its structural interdependence with private financial interests.

Needless to say, the onset of the crisis has only led to a further escalation of the ECB’s political interference. To give just one example: a number of letters have recently surfaced revealing the full extent of the blackmail deployed by Draghi’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Trichet, at the height of the crisis in 2011-’12. In his communications with the governments of Ireland, Greece, Spain and Italy, the then-president explicitly threatened to cut off emergency credit lines if the governments in question refused to abide by a set of deeply unpopular market reforms and austerity measures that had been drafted up, word for word, by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels and Frankfurt.

This outright blackmail was but the tip of the iceberg. While some people may have heard of Trichet’s letters in the news, few are likely to know about the ECB’s more arcane policies, like the securities markets program (SMP) or long-term refinancing operations (LTRO) through which the ECB effectively bailed out Greece’s private creditors by socializing the country’s debt. Likewise, some may have read about the ECB’s decision to embark upon quantitative easing (QE), but few are likely to understand what this means in practice: namely that the central bank will now start subsidizing private banks to the tune of 60bn euros per month even as millions of Europeans languish in poverty and unemployment.

The fact that there is no widespread public outcry over such blatantly anti-social moves just goes to show to what extent the architects of the Eurozone have succeeded in de-politicizing monetary policy, insulating ECB technocrats from open criticism and allowing them to systematically favor the interests of private investors without ever having to face meaningful opposition. The ECB itself actively cultivates this apolitical image. Two weeks ago, Mario Draghi — just moments after threatening to cut off Greece’s credit if the country’s government fails to comply with the ECB’s bailout conditions — straight-facedly declared that “the ECB is a rule-based institution, not a political one.”

Of course it was a blatant lie. Central banks are profoundly political institutions. For one, they can create money out of thin air — which is precisely what the ECB is doing right now with its expanded assets purchase program. If you can create money, you get to decide how to spend it. And once you start creating 60 billion euros per month, such decisions obviously have redistributive consequences. One option would have been for the ECB to simply transfer bundles of cash to ordinary European citizens in order to counter the social consequences of the crisis and stimulate aggregate demand. Instead, the ECB is using its money-creating powers to buy up toxic assets from private banks and lend the same money back to them at ultra-low interest rates.

According to the official narrative, this monetary stimulus is supposed to re-start private lending and bring about a lasting recovery. But the reality is that very little of this money will ever find its way to ordinary people. As long as growth remains elusive, private banks will be fearful of investing in productive activities and will be much more inclined to divert their capital into the same type of speculative high-risk/high-return investments that caused the crisis to begin with. Unsurprisingly, this is precisely what has happened in the US and the UK. Why else would US stock markets and the London property market be at such record highs in the midst of a protracted economic slump?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: plumes of smoke hang over Frankfurt (via x-pressed.org)

From the looks of it, the world is already witnessing the inflation of yet another series of massively destabilizing and potentially catastrophic asset bubbles, this time fueled directly by central bank intervention. The ECB’s decision to pile in on this dangerous game of quantitative easing, and to do so in such extremely anti-social fashion (maintaining the austerity thumbscrews on the periphery while at the same time refusing to ever consider public debt cancellation or progressive fiscal transfers) reveals the deeply politicized character not only of the ECB but of the EU’s neoliberal project more generally. And this is precisely why Blockupy is such an important initiative.

Not only do the demonstrations in Frankfurt serve to re-politicize the ECB and its monetary policy; they are also laying the groundwork for the emergence of a transnational movement against the rule of finance, bringing the resistance to austerity right into the heart of the European crisis regime. Blockupy shows that this is no longer just about a debtors’ rebellion in the periphery. When the bankers looked down from their towering edifice on Wednesday, they saw plumes of smoke rising across the skyline. This is not irrelevant. By forcing the ECB governing council to significantly scale back its housewarming party, the protesters have successfully disturbed the celebration of power. Now the great challenge that lies ahead is to actually start disturbing its exercise.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JeromeRoos.

 

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Why we occupy: LSE students mobilize for a free university

By ROAR Collective On March 18, 2015

Post image for Why we occupy: LSE students mobilize for a free universityStudents at the London School of Economics join the budding movement against the neoliberal university by occupying the administration’s meeting room.

Statement and photos by Occupy LSE — Free University of London.

Why we are occupying

We have have occupied the Vera Anstey Suite, the central meeting room of the university administration, to demand a change to the current university system.

LSE is the epitome of the neoliberal university. Universities are increasingly implementing the privatised, profit-driven, and bureaucratic ‘business model’ of higher education, which locks students into huge debts and turns the university into a degree-factory and students into consumers.

LSE has become the model for the transformation of the other university systems in Britain and beyond. Massive indebtedness, market-driven benchmarks, and subordination to corporate interests have deeply perverted what we think university and education should be about.

We demand an education that is liberating — which does not have a price tag. We want a university run by students, lecturers and workers.

When a university becomes a business, the whole of student life is transformed. When a university is more concerned with its image, its marketability and the ‘added value’ of its degrees, the student is no longer a student — they become a commodity and education becomes a service. Institutional sexism and racism, as well as conditions of work for staff and lecturers, becomes a distraction for an institution geared to profit.

We join the ongoing struggles in the UK, Europe and the world to reject this system that has changed not only our education but our entire society. From the occupations in Sheffield, Warwick, Birmingham and Oxford, to the ongoing collective takeover of the University of Amsterdam — students have made clear that the current system simply cannot continue.

We are not alone in this struggle.

Why Occupy?

In this occupation we aim to create an open, creative and liberated space, where all are free to participate in the building of a new directly democratic, non-hierarchical and universally accessible education: The Free University of London.

The space will be organized around the creation of workshops, discussions and meetings to share ideas freely. Knowledge is not a commodity but something precious and valuable in its own right. And we hope to prove, if only within a limited time and space, that education can be free.

This liberated space should also be a space for an open discussion on the direction this university and our educational system as a whole is heading. We want to emphasise that this process is not only for students, and we encourage the participation of all LSE staff, non-academic and academic.

We base our struggle on principles of equality, direct democracy, solidarity, mutual care and support. These are our current demands which we invite all to openly discuss, debate and add to.

1) Free and universally accessible education not geared to profit

  • We demand that the management of LSE lobby the government to scrap tuition fees for both domestic and international students.

2) Workers’ rights

  • In solidarity with the LSE workers, we demand real job security, an end to zero-hour contracts, fair remuneration and a drastic reduction in the gap between the highest and lowest paid employees.

3) Genuine university democracy

  • We demand a student-staff council, directly elected by students and academic and non-academic staff, responsible for making all managerial decisions of the institution.

4) Divestment

  • We demand that the school cuts its ties to exploitative and destructive organisations, such as those involved in wars, military occupations and the destruction of the planet. This includes but is not limited to immediate divestment from the fossil fuel industry and from all companies which make a profit from the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine.

5) Liberation

  • We demand that LSE changes its harassment policy, and to have zero tolerance to harassment.
  • We demand that LSE does not implement the Counter Terrorism Bill that criminalises dissent, particularly targeting Muslim students and staff.
  • We demand that the police are not allowed on campus.
  • We demand that LSE becomes a liberated space free of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and religious discrimination.
  • We demand that the school immediately reinstates the old ethics code and makes it legally binding, in line with the recently passed SU motion.
  • We demand that the school ensures the security and equality of international students, particularly with regards to their precarious visa status, and fully include them in our project for a free university.

In Amsterdam, a revolt against the neoliberal university

By Jerome Roos On March 8, 2015

Post image for In Amsterdam, a revolt against the neoliberal universityThe student occupation at the University of Amsterdam speaks to a deepening crisis of higher education not just in the Netherlands but across the globe.

Image: David Graeber speaks at the Maagdenhuis (by Malcolm Kratz).

For three weeks now, the University of Amsterdam (UvA) has been shaken by a wave of student protests against the neoliberalization of higher education and the lack of democratic accountability in internal decision-making. Last week, UvA staff joined the rebellion, declaring their solidarity with the students and threatening further actions if their demands are not met. With the university’s main administrative building — the Maagdenhuis — now occupied by students, the governing council has been forced into an awkward position: will it honor the demands of the academic community for greater democratization, or will it continue to obey the neoliberal logic of bureaucratic financialization?

While the struggle at UvA has been mostly local and national in character, the implications of the issues raised by its students and staff reach far beyond the borders of the Netherlands. Higher education is in crisis across the developed world. Structurally underfunded, severely over-financialized and profoundly undemocratic, universities everywhere are increasingly abandoning their most crucial social functions of yore — to produce high-quality research and educate the next generation of skilled, conscious citizens — and devolving ever more into quasi-private companies run by an utterly detached managerial elite.

To make matters worse, these managers — rather than focusing on improving the quality of education or streamlining internal decision-making processes to free up as much time and as many resources as possible for knowledge-transfer and research — are actually being paid six-sum figures to push around insane amounts of pointless paperwork, forcing destructive workloads and unrealistic expectations onto increasingly precarious staff, treating students like simple-minded consumers and impersonal statistics, and putting immense pressure on highly talented researchers to spew out mind-numbing amounts of nonsensical garbage just to meet rigid quantitative publication quotas that completely fail to recognize the social and qualitative dimensions of scholarly work.

The protesters at UvA thus find themselves at the front-line of what is essentially a global fightback against the commodification of higher education and the steady reduction of knowledge and learning to an increasingly unaffordable consumer good. In many countries, this neoliberal logic has resulted in dramatic tuition hikes and budget cuts, combined with the metastization of a culture of top-down managerialism, creeping bureaucratization and the systematic precarization of academic labor — with all the attendant consequences of rising student indebtedness, the proliferation of work floor bullying, and deepening anxiety, depression and burnout among university staff.

Interestingly, it has been precisely the countries where this neoliberalization of higher education has proceeded furthest that have experienced the most spectacular student protests in recent years: from the Penguin Revolution in Chile to the Red Square movement in Québec, and from the campus occupationsin California and the recent student debt strike at Everest College to the student riots in the UK. The Netherlands, still 10 years behind the curve, has long been eager to catch up with its neoliberal counterparts. Witnessing the recent student revolts in these countries, it should probably have known better not to push this logic too far. As Polanyi famously argued, there is a limit to how far you can go in commodifying the commons. At some point, the commoners will rebel.

In this sense, the counter-movement now stirring in Amsterdam may well be a harbinger of what is yet to come. Ewald Engelen, Professor of Financial Geography at UvA and a renowned critic of financialization, was only partly exaggerating when he referred to the Maagdenhuis as “the most interesting place in Western Europe right now.” After years of suffering in silence, the academic community here has finally risen up to reclaim their own university, with staff and students joining forces not only to demand a radical change in the way research, teaching and higher learning is funded and organized, but developing exciting new methods of participatory self-governance in the process.

So far, the administration has refused to take any concrete steps to meet the students’ and staff’s demands, but it is already clear that it has suffered a resounding ideological defeat. Suddenly, the critique of financialization, bureaucratization, top-down managerialism and the lack of democratic decision-making has made its way onto the eight o’clock news and onto the front-pages of all the leading newspapers — no mean feat in a country as thoroughly neoliberalized and depoliticized as the Netherlands. A handful of rebellious students have effectively jolted their teachers into action, and the academic community, once atomized and apathetic, has quickly sprung into a state of collective self-organization. Suddenly, there is resistance.

Those who make the university have reclaimed its administrative heart. A large banner calling for direct democracy now hangs in front of the rector’s office — the managerial elite is nowhere to be seen. As this budding movement grows in strength and spreads to other universities in the country, new horizons are rapidly opening up for further protests elsewhere. While the next weeks will be crucial in determining how far the movement can go, those who have been lucky enough to catch a whiff of the bottom-up changes blowing through the UvA can be forgiven for being hopeful. All these years, the neoliberal university quietly bred its own nemesis — now let’s rejoice as we join in the rebellion.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @JeromeRoos.

 

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Selma and the legacy of the US civil rights movement

Martin Marches

9 March 2015

Over the weekend, President Barack Obama headed an official 50th anniversary commemoration of “Bloody Sunday.” On that day, March 7, 1965, hundreds of civil rights marchers demanding the right to vote were set upon and beaten by police as they marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma, Alabama, heading for the state capital, Montgomery.

Obama’s ceremony was a political farce, a state-sanctioned exercise aimed at sanctifying a corrupt apparatus with the blood of those who made great sacrifices—in many cases, the ultimate sacrifice—as part of the civil rights movement. While many thousands of ordinary people attended, the commemoration was presided over by representatives of the corporate and financial elite, including 100 members of Congress of both parties, as well as George W. Bush, who left office the most despised president in US history.

The event was designed to obscure the significance of Selma, the civil rights movement as a whole, and the trajectory of American politics during the five decades since.

The repression meted out on “Bloody Sunday” was one episode in a campaign of police violence aimed at crushing protests against the system of Jim Crow segregation in the American South. Southern blacks faced a raft of discriminatory measures, such as the poll tax, that effectively disenfranchised them.

While the specific aim of the civil rights movement was to end racial discrimination, it was part of a wave of social conflict that engulfed the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. It came only a few decades after the explosive battles out of which the industrial unions were formed in the 1930s. It was followed by powerful workers’ strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the urban rebellions against discrimination and poverty, and the mass protest movement against the Vietnam War.

American capitalism was in deep crisis. The underlying momentum for the civil rights movement was imparted by the immense social struggles of the working class. The masses of workers and youth, black and white, who participated in the civil rights struggle saw it as one component of a broader social movement, carried out in the face of bitter resistance from the ruling class and its political representatives.

The form the struggle took was complicated, however, by the abstention of the AFL-CIO trade unions, politically aligned with the Democratic Party and American imperialism. The Democrats, based at the time on an alliance between northern liberals and southern racists, worked for a protracted period to undermine all attempts to end legally enforced racial segregation. The unions avoided any actions that would disrupt their political alliance with the Democrats, including blocking efforts to organize black workers in the south.

In the face of the social upheavals of the period, however, the American ruling class reluctantly moved to grant legal reforms, including those enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson five months after Selma. A number of significant social reforms were also enacted during this period, including Medicare and other anti-poverty programs.

The reforms wrenched from the ruling class during the 1960s, however, marked the last gasp of liberal reformism in the United States. The American ruling class responded to the deepening crisis of the capitalist system with a two-pronged strategy. Beginning in the 1970s and escalating in the 1980s, it carried out an unrelenting assault on the working class. Jobs were destroyed, living standards were driven down, public services were slashed.

To better carry out this offensive, the ruling class worked deliberately to integrate a small minority of the African American population into positions of power and privilege. Particularly after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—who, while remaining within the framework of the Democratic Party, had begun to focus his attention increasingly on the issues of social inequality and war—a section of the civil rights establishment was brought into the apparatus of state power. This included the likes of Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and John Lewis, now a congressman, who was among the leaders of the 1965 Selma march.

During his 1968 election campaign, Richard Nixon called for giving a section of the African American population a “piece of the action.” As president, he initiated a program of “black capitalism.” He signed an executive order to form the Office of Minority Business Enterprise in March 1969, declaring that its aim was to “demonstrate that blacks, Mexican Americans, and others can participate in a growing economy on the basis of equal opportunity at the top of the ladder as well as on its lower rungs.”

Affirmative action, promoted by the Republican Nixon and then adopted as a central plank of the Democratic Party program, was aimed at bringing forward—in business, the military, local government, the police and academia—a privileged layer that would identify with American capitalism and facilitate the assault on the working class as a whole. Black nationalism became an ideological means for the restructuring of class rule on the basis of identity politics.

What have been the consequences of these policies? While the system of Jim Crow segregation was ended, the social position of the majority of black workers today is worse today than 50 years ago. According to official statistics, a third of African Americans live in poverty and hunger. Unemployment and underemployment are pervasive, in the northern states as much as, or even more, than in the south.

These conditions are fundamentally an expression not of racism, as claimed by the Democrats and their periphery, when they acknowledge the social crisis at all, but of class oppression.

This is evident in Selma itself. The town’s population has fallen sharply over the past 50 years, while median income is a shocking $22,418, one half of the already low figure for the state of Alabama as a whole. Even by the government’s own insultingly low threshold for poverty, 41.9 percent of Selma falls below it.

All of this is overseen by an African American mayor and police chief, and a City Council and school board that are overwhelmingly African American in composition.

Selma is hardly unique. The poverty rate in the city of Detroit, which has lost almost two-thirds of its population in recent decades, is even higher than in Selma. The city has been run by a predominantly African American political establishment for decades. A similar dynamic is repeated in city after city throughout the United States.

Obama, the first African American president, represents something of a culmination of these processes. The lies and demagogy in Obama’s Selma speech cannot conceal the huge class gulf between the government he heads and the self-sacrificing workers and youth who led the fight for civil rights. They fought for equality. He represents privilege.

In his remarks, Obama quoted the immortal words from the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal,” but he presides over a level of inequality previously unheard of in American history.

While Obama spoke of the need to “honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod, tear gas and the trampling hoof,” he stands at the apex of a military-intelligence-police apparatus of immense brutality, which carries out a virtual reign of terror against working class youth of all races.

Just last week, the Obama administration announced its decision not to charge the police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri last August. Over the weekend, another unarmed young man was shot dead in cold blood by police in Madison, Wisconsin.

In his Selma speech, Obama noted the abysmal turnout of one-third or less of eligible voters in recent elections. “What’s our excuse today for not voting?” he asked.

He did not, and could not, answer, but there is a powerful “excuse.” Through bitter experience, millions of workers are beginning to conclude that there is no difference between the two big business parties, nor, for that matter, between the big business politicians of whatever skin color.

Perhaps the biggest lie of all is Obama’s claim, echoed by the many liberal and “left” organizations orbiting the Democratic Party, that the “unfinished business” of the civil rights movement is defined by race.

At the time of the Selma marches, systematic, state-sanctioned racism was a major factor of American political life. Even then, however, racism was subordinate to, and a product of, class rule. It was used as a means of dividing workers and preventing a unified struggle against the capitalist system.

In relation to the explosive class battles of the time, the trade unions, the civil rights establishment, the array of middle class organizations worked to obscure the fundamental class issues and maintain the political domination of the ruling class and its political representatives. The basic question then was the need to forge a revolutionary leadership to unite the working class against the root cause of repression, inequality and war—the capitalist system itself.

Fifty years later, the fundamental class questions are all the more evident. While racism still exists and plays a role in American life, it is now accompanied by the state-sanctioned identity politics that serve a similar purpose: to pit workers against one another and block a united movement of the working class. As we enter a new period of working class upsurge, the burning question remains that of leadership. The “unfinished business” of Selma is the building of the revolutionary leadership of the working class needed to carry out the socialist reorganization of society.

Fred Mazelis and Joseph Kishore

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/09/pers-m09.html

26A cafe: resisting capitalism one tea at a time

By Joris Leverink On March 7, 2015

Post image for 26A cafe: resisting capitalism one tea at a timeIn the consumerist Valhalla of central Istanbul, the 26A collective provides a glimmer of hope that there is still an alternative to capitalist society.

A “lotus flower in the mud.” This was the image that came to mind when Özlem visited the 26A cafe in Taksim for the first time. The comparison rings true now more than ever, on this cold and grey January afternoon, with the heavy rain outside turning the streets into fast flowing rivers while we enjoy our hot tea in the warm and cozy interior of 26A’s newly renovated Kadiköy cafe.

“I was very impressed the first time I saw the Taksim cafe. When I entered I saw a place built by our own hands. It was very pretty. Very amateurish, but very pretty,” recalls Özlem Arkun, 28, who agreed to meet with me despite the bad weather and her busy schedule as mother of her 6-month-old daughter Toprak.

Together with her partner Özgür Erdoğan, 30, Özlem is keen to share the story of 26A, a collectively run cafe occupying two different locations in Istanbul; one in the heart of the city’s booming shopping district surrounding the famous Taksim Square, and another in the neighbourhood of Kadiköy, on the Anatolian side of the city.

Özgür explains that the initiative to start up a cafe was inspired by the belief that many people want to escape from the control capitalism has over their personal lives, but that often they don’t have anywhere to turn to due to lack of an alternative. The idea was that, “if we create a space based on the principles of sharing and solidarity, the people can see this as an inspiration and get in touch with us.”

As a young father, Özgür hopes that the model of 26A can encourage people to detach their lives from capitalism; to get together and organize themselves independently, horizontally and free from the oppressive forces of capitalism, which not only facilitates the economic exploitation of the people, but also causes the cultural degeneration of societies and communities wherever it spreads.

The tea is always ready

The story of 26A began in 2009, when a group of political activists were looking for a new place to organize themselves — a public space where they could welcome people, explain their ideas and intentions and which could be a social experiment to see whether it was possible for them to live in a collective while generating funds needed for sustenance through the cafe.

They soon found a location in one of the back streets of Beyoğlu — Istanbul’s central neighbourhood which is home to the city’s historical Taksim Square and the busy Istiklal shopping street — which was owned by an acquaintance of one of the members. Situated in a rough neighborhood where the Turkish mafia owned several buildings, and with a local police station just a few doors down, the 26A cafe was up for a difficult start. Most of the time, the small group of five comrades that had collectively set up the cafe were doing little more than drinking tea, watching movies and waiting for customers.

Priority was given to tea, and they made sure always to have a fresh pot ready for the odd chance someone might walk in. In Turkey, where tea functions as the glue that binds society together, businesses can be made or broken over a cup of tea — and the comrades were very well aware of this. “Even when we didn’t have any customers, we always had good tea,” explains Özlem, “And besides that we were always inviting the people we met to come to our cafe and handing out free soup to the people after demonstrations.”

Unsurprisingly, in these early times the cafe was nowhere near to sustaining itself, let alone generating enough income to support the political actions of the collective or to cover their costs of living. If by the end of the day they had sold twenty cups of tea it was considered to be a good day. Besides working in the cafe the comrades were thus forced to work odd-jobs as cleaners, hotel receptionists and waiters to keep their ambitious project alive.

Over the course of the first year, the cafe became known among leftist, anti-authoritarian and anarchist groups who started to frequent this “oasis in the desert,” and slowly but surely it started to fill up with people attracted by its cozy interior, its political beliefs and/or its organizational structure that opposed all forms of hierarchy and exploitation.

Functioning without a boss and without anyone taking home a salary, but rather working on the principle that “everybody gives what they can, and take what they need,” the cafe soon acquired fame as one of the few places in the consumerist Valhalla of down-town Istanbul where one could escape from the oppressive forces of ever-encroaching capitalism.

“To know is to be cursed”

In 2009, Merve Arkun — Özlem’s younger sister who was 19-years old at the time — traveled from Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city situated on the country’s Aegean coast, to Istanbul in order to attend an anti-IMF demonstration. After the protest, she and a couple of dozens of comrades went to the 26A cafe where a big table was set out to share a meal and discuss the day’s events.

For a few years Merve had been wondering how it would be possible to live in a crowded commune, not just with four or five people like she had been doing in Izmir, but rather with forty or fifty people — living, working and struggling together. What she experienced that day in 26A was like a dream come true.

It didn’t take long for Merve to make up her mind and move to Istanbul in order to join the 26A collective. “When I first took initiative in 26A it was very exciting because it was the first time I was involved in such a project,” she remembers. “It was exciting because when I joined I was still in a phase where I wasn’t sure if it was possible to live like this.”

As time passed she, just like many other comrades who had joined the collective by this time, became more and more part of the project, and at some point she realized she couldn’t do without the collective anymore. “There’s a phrase we often use [in Turkey], which is ‘to know is to be cursed’,” she says smilingly. “In a way, joining the collective is like this: because now that I know that I can live freely in the collective, I never want to work under a boss again.”

By now, almost six years after its foundation, the 26A collective has grown from five to fifty people, the majority of whom are not only working but also living together, in communal houses spread across the city. In 2011 the collective opened a second cafe in Kadiköy — originally intended as a second-hand bookshop/library, but after its most recent renovation the books have disappeared and the addition of a professional kitchen (entirely built by the members of the collective) has turned the place into a little bistro. A third cafe which was opened last year in the working-class neighborhood of Kartal had to be closed recently due to post-Gezi financial struggles and a concentration of most of the political activity in the city’s centers.

The youngest member of the collective (after the six-months old Toprak, of course) is 14 years old, while the oldest is 50-plus. All together they share the same dream of a world wherein noone is exploited and forced to sell their labor. Maybe their model is not yet an alternative to capitalism, but at least, in Merve’s words, “it’s showing that another way is possible.”

No meat, no Coke

The 26A cafe started as a project to transform people’s lives, and the way to do this is by setting the right example. Decisions in the collective are made in the weekly assemblies, where everyone has a say in matters concerning the running of the cafe, the assigning of funds for specific projects and anything else that might come up.

In the early days of 26A, one of the comrades — who happened to be vegan — brought up the issue of whether or not meat products should be sold in the cafe. After a lengthy discussion (not selling meat would be yet another economic challenge), it was collectively decided that the menu ought to be 100 percent vegetarian.

From the very start it was also clear that all Coca Cola products should be banned from the cafe. Due to the company’s exploitation of its workers and its role as a symbol for global capitalism, Coke products cannot not be found on the menu. Moreover, everyone bringing with them a bottle or can to the cafe will be kindly requested to either dump it or drink it outside. “For six years no Coca Cola has entered this place,” conveys the 18-year-old Gizem Şahin with a certain amount of pride.

According to Gizem, who joined the collective two years ago when she visited the Taksim cafe to grab a bite to eat after a demonstration and the next second found herself working there, the most important role of 26A is that of a “barricade against capitalism.” She continues: “26A is a place with no waiters, and no customers; with no workers and no bosses; without an oppressor and without any oppressed. It’s a place of sharing and solidarity.”

This ideal of sharing and solidarity extends far beyond the physical limits of the two cafes. The members of the collective can nowadays be found in faraway places like the Syrian border, where they have set up camp to express their solidarity with the Kobani resistance; the Anatolian heartland where they support the struggle of local villagers against the construction of hydroelectric powerplants; and in many universities and factories across the country where they fight against all forms of institutionalized education and the exploitation of subcontracted workers.

The seeds have been sown

A quick look around the Taksim cafe leaves little doubt as to where the collective has drawn its inspiration from: a big flag and a bunch of posters of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) cover the walls, while bags of Zapatista coffee are stacked in the kitchen. Özgür mentions the indigenous rebels from Chiapas, Mexico as one of the examples for the 26A collective, as well as the Spanish revolution of 1936 and the worker cooperatives that started emerging in Argentina after the economic depression of 1998-2002.

“But to be honest,” he adds, “we haven’t heard of any other examples that are similar to our experience. Ours is a total communist model: we don’t get paid for our labor, we don’t take salaries.”

During the Gezi uprising in the summer of 2013 many of the comrades of the collective were out on the streets to support and participate in the protests directed at the authoritarian rule of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, while at the same time the cafe doubled as an infirmary for injured protesters, a resting place for those needing a break from the actions on the street, and generally a safe haven for anyone fleeing the ultra-violent police that were patrolling the streets around Taksim Square. Not a single piece of food was sold as long as the popular insurrection continued. Rather, everything was given away for free in solidarity with the protesters.

During the Gezi events strong bonds were forged between 26A and other cooperatives, both at home and abroad, such as the resisting workers of the Kazova textile factory in Istanbul and the Vio.Me workers’ collective in Thessaloniki, Greece. Although still very informal, it’s connections like these that are a first step towards realizing the future plans of the 26A collective. Instead of focusing exclusively on the cafe, the comrades view it as part of a bigger project in which the creation of an alternative model of organizing labor in society occupies a central place.

“If we talk about five, ten years later, we dream about many places without a boss, many cooperatives where there is no distinction between consumer and producer,” Özgür explains. “It’s very important to have a network of these cooperatives. When we look to the future we see it’s important to have a many of these places and [for us] to get in touch with as many of them as we can.”

Whatever the future brings — whether the collective manages to expand into other branches of the economy by establishing a bakery, a solidarity clinic or a textile workshop, or whether a government crackdown brings the project to a preliminary ending — the seeds have been sown and the example has been set.

The members of the collective have shown that this is not a game for them, but rather an essential part of total struggle to restructure the very foundations of society. While sipping my tea in this “amateurish, but very pretty” environment, I too, am overcome by a revolutionary spirit and filled with hope that one day baby Toprak will reap the fruits of the collective’s struggle.

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist, editor for ROAR Magazine and columnist for TeleSUR English. You can follow him on Twitter at@Le_Frique.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/03/26a-collective-cafe-istanbul/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Barcelona en Comú

…the city as horizon for radical democracy

By Manuela Zechner On March 4, 2015

Post image for Barcelona en Comú: the city as horizon for radical democracyBarcelona en Comú, the municipal movement formerly known as Guanyem, has opened up a new set of intertwining horizons for radical democracy in the city.

Image: people signing the Guanyem manifesto (via Guerrilla Translation).

With all eyes on Syriza, Podemos and the Troika, the focus of attention among the left these days is the possibility to reclaim democracy at the state — and,inshallah, at the supranational — level. Yet at the same time, somewhat less visibly, there is a new cycle of struggles for democratic governance unfolding at the level of the city.

One such municipal movement and platform is Barcelona en Comú (Catalan for ‘Barcelona in Common’, formerly Guanyem Barcelona). Pioneering new ways and words for approaching the city as common(s), Barcelona en Comú opens possibilities for a politics rooted in everyday experiences, social relations and spaces of reproduction.

A story of intertwining horizons

In 2011, the 15M movement exploded the political horizon in Spain and inaugurated a cycle of struggles around spaces and institutions that have been growing and transforming ever since. This story consists of many episodes and sub-scenes and its ‘making of’ is far beyond a linear story. The mobilizations have produced some internationally visible effects, such as the occupation of squares or the recent success of Podemos, the radical left party that emerged in early 2014 and won five seats in the following European Parliamentary elections, now the strongest force in opinion polls. The two-party system that had Spain in its paralyzing grip since Franco is now done.

In the spring and summer of 2014, drawing from the social intellect and processes that fueled the post-15M struggles and experiments in radical democracy, a strategy to win municipal elections was being imagined in Catalonia: “Guanyem Barcelona.” By the summer, this civil society and social movement-shaped platform had launched is call to fight the corrupt austerity politics of the ruling Partido Popular (PP) and the local Catalan government.

The murmurs quickly became a steady roar, and within just over a month, Guanyem collected 30.000 signatures to support the project. Hundreds of people joined the platform and got involved in its working groups, envisioning a long and complex process. As the model proliferated across the peninsula, similar “Ganemos” structures soon emerged in Malaga, Madrid and other cities. Once the signatures confirmed that there was enough backing for a grassroots-shaped candidacy, representatives of the platform in Barcelona got to work and proceeded to register the new political party.

Yet here comes a small curious side-plot. The party register lies with the ministry of the interior. Handing in their paperwork, Guanyem were met with a surprise: an obscure Catalan city councilor had registered the name “Guanyem Barcelona” two days ahead of them. The man soon appeared with an offer: let me be in charge of coordinating all platforms in Spain and I will hand back the name. This was ludicrous not just because it is blackmail but also because the local Guanyem/Ganemos initiatives are autonomous.

There was also ample evidence for the illegitimacy of this registration — the man had given up a false address, Guanyem had papers from previous dealings with solicitors that mentioned their name — so the real Guanyem filed an appeal. While this kind of sabotage is not uncommon in the Spanish political landscape, the odds seemed to be against the desperate city councilor. Yet the interior ministry, run by the PP, sided with him and rejected Guanyem’s claim.

So Guanyem re-launched itself as “Barcelona en Comú” in February 2015, having now grown into a full-fledged municipal movement. Their confluence with a series of local left parties has been assured and the collectively drafted electoral program is currently open for evaluation and online feedback. Ready for a hot spring, Guanyem is now Barcelona en Comú, entering a new phase with new challenges.

Methodology and organization

There’s a lot to tell about the methodology of Barcelona en Comú, as its radical democratic approach comes with a host of tools, techniques, mechanisms and structures for enabling municipal politics from below. Amongst those are various levels of assemblies (neighborhoods, thematic areas, coordination, logistics, media, communication, etc.) and online platforms (for communicating, voting, working). The initiative’s organigram looks more like a washing machine or a particle accelerator than a flat or vertical hierarchy.

That’s quite appropriate, because politics and organization are spun around on a daily basis here, reconsidered and reconfigured in an intense experiment in collective thinking and acting. All of that happens without prescriptions, instructions, funding or lobbies but with lots of heads, hands and feet at work: not your typical ‘smart’ and regulated participatory process.

Starting without a recipe, however, does not mean that the initiative is not inventing its own terms, conditions and practices. The most inspiring example of such innovation is the Guanyem code for Political Ethics, which was discussed, annotated and ratified at an open working weekend in October 2014 — with some 300 people present and many more following and commenting online. This ethics code outlines the platform’s basic compromises as concerning representation, auditing, accountability, financing, transparency, professionalization and corruption, and applies to anyone working within it.

At the level of policy proposals, thematic working groups (health, migration, culture, tourism, work, economy, urbanism, gender, local governance, education, information) have taken on the task of formulating position papers that feature minimum criteria and proposals for each area. These will be negotiated with the other parties (ICV, EuIA, Podem Barcelona, Procés Constituent und Equo) that joined Barcelona En Comú in a common candidature.

Barcelona En Comú is also an experiment in creating, accessing and valorizing common infrastructures and resources. It has very few material resources at its disposal, but it manages to create new forms of access to existing resources, opening doors to council infrastructures with new legitimacy and collective claims, as well as valorizing grassroots and self-run social and political infrastructures. This gives the ‘common’ in its name a very concrete significance.

A laboratory of social intelligence

Since its inception, Guanyem Barcelona has grasped the role of neighborhoods as protagonists of change. It is clear that Guanyem learned much from movements such as the PAH — the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages, Spain’s strong and popular housing movement which also emerged from Barcelona — that have built their strength through processes of networked proliferation of local groups, each of which is singular in its political leaning, social-affective texture and style. Neighborhood groups are a crucial space for developing analyses and mobilizing the collective strength to enable feedback and contagion effects between local processes and the platform’s thematic groups as well as its coordination committees.

In the winter of 2014-’15, each of the neighborhood groups worked on a diagnostic document concerning their area. These were drawn up in open meetings and analyze problems and propose measures at the local level. In the document from my neighborhood, Poble Sec, the domains addressed were urbanism; health; economy; work, precarity, inequality and poverty; information society; governance and participation; culture; migration; housing; tourism; and education.

Proposals range from the re-appropriation of public space to the opening of health centers and services for old people, to supporting small local businesses and forms of solidarity economy, creating an adult education center and more free WiFi spots, encouraging participatory planning and translation, supporting self-run cultural and social spaces, generating more council housing and changing the areas’ planning permissions, and so on.

These local assemblies are spaces of encounter between people from divergent walks of life, bringing together different levels of expertise and experience — local and technical knowledge being worth the same. They constitute an immense gathering and reshaping of knowledge driven notably by an ever more downwardly mobile middle class. This is both a strength (there is huge potential in the mobilization of these knowledges and social fabrics) and a risk (it will be a challenge to maintain a plurality of subject positions and escape the “tyrannies” of the middle class).

Interplays of proximity and difference

The current political-institutional crisis forces us to re-imagine the political and social as spaces of collective action. The city is a space of experience and acting we know and participate in daily, not only symbolizing but also embodying our social common. While it’s the key layer between the square and the parliament, between the 15M and Podemos, its importance is not just a matter of scale: politics in the city has a potential to propose radical new methodologies for thinking proximity and difference in organizing. It has the power to explode binaries and contradictions between the street and the state, the micro and the macro, and even the local and the global.

With the focus on the municipal, to take back institutions (social rights, infrastructures, democratic mechanisms), spaces (vital, social and representational) and autonomy (over social wealth, territories, the everyday) becomes something very tangible and concrete. What would we like our school, our square, our homeless shelter to be like — not any homeless shelter, but the one here, in our street? There is immense power in proximity and situated knowledges in the city, making the question of self-determination concrete without necessarily passing through issues of identity, be it national or subcultural.

Self-referential claims to territory are hard to sustain in the face of the heterogeneity of interests, needs and lifestyles that shape the post-industrial city. At its best, the city is a multi-layered and agonistic convivial space that can do without sovereignty or identity, the strength of its local processes being that they build commons without losing sight of others and elsewheres.

The city’s social and historical DNA

What does it mean to think the city as a process driven by difference, and to trust that it can be collectively reclaimed? The city has much to do with the history of democracy, going back to the ancient Greek polis, but also with the history of colonialism as enabling large centers of states, and with the development of capitalism in the growth of the modern city. The city has long served as a technology for making difference productive, from the crudest to the most subtlest of ways: how to think the city — and democracy — beyond patriarchal, colonial and capitalist genealogies?

Three social and historical processes are key in this regard: displacement and eviction from the land, the history of colonialism and slavery, and the subjugation of women. Beyond intersectionalist box-ticking, these are inevitable starting point for imagining a radically different city — an experiment that tries to get closer to the root of the problem with democracy and the city.

The first of these points concerns the hegemonic claims that cities have held over the rural: the contradiction between city and countryside is no less strong than the one between labor and capital. Here we enter the problem and perspective of ecology, but also that of class: with industrialization, cities have become spaces of relation and life whose capacity of equality and sustainability have been ever decreasing. The need to re-imagine the ecology of the city goes far beyond smart-city models and urban gardens. In Barcelona, there is a multitude of cooperatives and initiatives concerned with sustainable design, agriculture, recycling, squatting land, alternative trade networks — they can be a starting point for addressing this level.

Secondly, we must face the question of citizenship in relation to the city anew, attempting to redefine social rights in relation to social reproduction and the post-industrial city. Other models of rights and responsibilities, departing from shared vital spaces and commons, are key here (such as the Latin American buen vivir, taking up affirmations that nature and community too are subjects of rights). Even if at present questions of rights and citizenship are the state’s business, it’s not too early to initiate a re-thinking of the political subject starting from the webs of relation, interdependency and difference of our cities.

This brings us to the third interrelated point: grasping the city as a space of social reproduction and the role of care and commons therein, and rethinking the subject of politics. On the one hand,  it also means rethinking the urban subject more generally, thinking access to rights beyond andocentric and anthropocentric models that privilege wage-labor and individual, independent human subjects.

Towards an intersectionality of struggles

Even if precarity and unemployment have steadily eroded the supposed normality of stable wage labor, we are still far from valorizing the reproductive labors and commons that sustain the city. In this regard, ‘Cuidadania‘ is a neologism that Spanish feminist movements have put into circulation to re-frame citizenship (‘ciudadania’) as a matter of care (‘cuidado’). The city is a battlefield par excellence for this. On the other hand, it obviously concerns the need to break with politics as a club of privileged subjects — not just a matter of quotas but of transforming political culture more generally.

Addressing these overlapping levels requires not just debate and good policies but also a careful labor of mobilization and composition in order to produce what, with Angela Davies, we might call an intersectionality not of identities, but of struggles. The municipalist movements face this challenge both with respect to their own composition — who is speaking for whom, can this be more than a rebellion of disenchanted white middle classes? — as well as to which issues will be prioritized.

Here it needs to be clear that politics is not a moral playing field and that strategic decisions do not always look as pure as some would wish. However, priorities must not be betrayed in the long run: En Comú will certainly face situations similar to those presently faced by Syriza. Its success will be down to the strength of its transversal composition, its ethical frameworks and the movements.

What is exciting about Barcelona en Comú is that it understands not just how to think strategically but also in terms of process and relations. For the transformations necessary for producing radical change — change that works on the root of problems — need to be relational. As David Harvey puts it:

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization.

That is why the right methodology for working in and on the city is one based in process and ethics, starting from difference and productive heterogeneity, able to do without unitary identity, moralism and monocultures of knowledge. Barcelona en Comú sets out some key coordinates for this work while at the same time building transversal connections. It has, irrevocably and regardless of eventual electoral results, opened up yet another swath of horizon.

Manuela Zechner is a researcher, cultural worker and translator.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/03/barcelona-en-comu-guanyem/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29