Carl Sagan on marijuana
Dogmatism is nurtured by abstract truths which become habitual ways of thinking. As soon as you put such general truths into words you feel like a high priest in the service of his god.
– Abdullah Öcalan
Back in 2002, the US journal Green Anarchy published a critical article of the Zapatista movement, including a judgment that seemed to express the author’s worst fears: “The EZLN are not anarchist!” In the piece, the Zapatistas were depicted as “vanguard nationalists” and “reformists” who were denied the privilege of calling themselves anarchist by the anarchist license commission — even if the indigenous rebels never asked to be called such.
The EZLN responded to the article — although, as Subcomandante Marcos made clear, few Zapatistas are willing to engage in arguments with “insignificant elements along an ideological fringe” and even fewer of the EZLN’s militiamen and -women are concerned with the judgments of “people whose greatest virtue is spreading their lack of understanding and knowledge around in newspapers and magazines.” But Marcos decided to reply to the article anyway as it was a clear example of “good old colonialism”:
This attitude, though hidden behind thin veils of objectivity, is the same attitude that we have been dealing with for 500 years, where someone else in some other country from some other culture thinks they know what is best for us, more than we do ourselves.
Positions as the one taken by Green Anarchy are neither an exception nor a thing of the past. Certain elements in the “anarchist” milieu still like to criticize in a similarly short-sighted, poorly informed, dogmatic and sectarian manner the struggles of the peoples in the Global South, wittingly or unwittingly reproducing the logic of colonialism in the process.
I am writing this piece in response to a recent article by Gilles Dauvé, who slanders the Kurdish movement in Rojava in much the same way. A similar piece, based on equally dubious ethical and logical grounds, was published by the Anarchist Federation in London. It is important to emphasize that, although I will be responding specifically to the poorly informed critiques of the aforementioned articles, the issues I am raising here are far more important for the anarchist movement in the West than for the Kurdish or Zapatista movements themselves, which do not need any judgment or approval from some privileged ideological purists elsewhere.
My main concern in writing this article is that the colonial mentality and profound dogmatism of certain individuals and groups in Western anarchist circles are symptomatic of a deeper crisis in the organizational and imaginative capacities of parts of our movement. This issue should therefore be a matter of serious debate. If we fail to have such a conversation, we risk marginalizing ourselves and transforming our movement into a self-centered subculture that is incapable of connecting to the outside world. This, in turn, would make Western anarchism fade away as a historical relic that proved to be mostly impotent in its efforts to challenge the status quo.
Not to judge, not to lose our heads
This is the presumption Dauvé’s article starts with: we are not to judge the Kurdish movement, but we should not lose our heads admiring it either. So far, so good. But despite this claim of objectivity, the author ends up doing precisely what he tells us not to do: he applies the concepts and standards of Western political thought to the Rojava revolution and rules that it does not fit into his preconceived category of a “social revolution.”
Those anarchists (and they are not just a few) who do support the struggle for democratic autonomy in Kurdistan are reminded not to “lose their heads.” Their support is depicted as a sign of “spineless” radicalism because it does not adhere to God-knows-what puritan dogma. This is an interesting form of “anarchism,” I would say, if we consider the richness and diversity of the anarchist tradition. Apart from the patronizing discourse, it’s interesting to examine the facts and claims of these supposedly righteous and clear-headed armchair revolutionaries.
Dauvé’s claims can be summarized as follows:
As the same criticisms are often leveraged at other movements of similar character, including the Zapatistas, challenging these particular points has a relevance that extends far beyond Rojava.
The dignity of the nobodies
“Never again a Mexico without us,” is one of the slogans marking the ideological essence of the EZLN. The indigenous people in Chiapas were unknown, unimportant and forgotten, left by the wayside for hunger and disease to finish them off. This is why the Zapatista uprising of 1994 is often referred to as “a war against oblivion.” This oblivion was never and still isn’t an accidental one: it is a deliberate product of racism and colonialism, both external and internal, which devalues the life and the suffering of the people of the Global South to the extent that they often do not exist for the rest of the world.
When this silence was broken in 1994, the Mexican government and the mass media realized the power of information and imposed a media blockade that was relatively successful in erasing the presence and achievements of the Zapatistas from mass consciousness in Mexico and abroad. In a similar vein, the revolutionary struggle of the Kurds was largely omitted from the global media (at least until the iconic struggle for Kobani), and the repression and aggression they face from powers other than ISIS continues to go unmentioned.
Both the Zapatistas and the Kurdish movement are a threat to the status quo because they offer and put into practice alternatives that are actually working. The danger that stems from the very existence of such successful examples has led to their persistent elimination from the mainstream media and the public debate — and, indeed, to a constant assault by reactionary forces on the ground. To claim that these movements exist by the grace of greater powers simply because they do not bother anyone is ludicrous.
Moreover, to state that these movements are left to do what they want because they are not a threat to state and capital is extremely offensive to the memory of all those who have been killed, prosecuted and dispossessed by the Mexican, Turkish or Syrian governments over the years. Both movements have been vigorously persecuted and remain so. Tens of thousands have been displaced. Dirty warfare and direct military confrontation were and continue to be used against them. Since both Rojava and Chiapas are rich in natural resources, Dauvé’s claim that they do not really interest capital and that this is why they are left to themselves is directly contradicted by the facts on the ground.
Image by Devrimci Anarsist Faaliyet (Revolutionary Anarchist Action), showing comrades from the DAF marching in Kobani holding a banner that reads: “We are all Kawa in the fight against Dehak,” referring to the Kurdish legend about the uprising of the oppressed.
The revolution that reinvents itself
“Walking and asking questions” is the core principle that the Zapatistas defined in their effort to move beyond predetermined and narrow conceptualizations of revolutionary struggle. The Zapatistas see revolution as a process in which the people build their freedom from below and learn to govern themselves in the process.
This principle rejects the traditional Marxist-Leninist notion of the historical vanguard and immunizes the revolutionary process from authoritarian tendencies “in the name of the revolution” — a contamination that was all too common in the state-socialist regimes of the 20th century. In the very same way, the revolution in Rojava is construed as a process, not an application of ready-made formulas.
The eager use of Western terminology and the attempt to classify the Rojava revolution accordingly end up giving the impression that the real reason why these supposedly critical “anarchists” are skeptical is simply because some unknown brown people are refusing to follow the instructions of their Cookbook. Of course, all this is done without any practical evidence because it turns out that these “anarchists” might have read the Cookbook but are somehow awful cooks.
To take just one important example, Dauvé’s analysis of what he calls the “liberal” structure of the Rojava cantons is based purely on his narrow reading of the Social Contract — the framework law of the cantons — but fails delve deeper into the parallel system of direct participation that accompanies it. Interestingly enough, he claims that the social structure in the Kurdish cantons has not changed, which contradicts all factual evidence and direct observation by journalists, scholars and activists who have actually visited the cantons.
Without any doubt, these structures of democratic self-governance are under development, with many issues still to be addressed and plenty to learn. However, they do reaffirm the basic principle that true liberation can only be lived and applied here and now through the self-organization of the people.
State, nationalism and capitalism
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), as the leading force in the Rojava revolution, has recognized the integrity of the Syrian state and proposed democratic confederalism as a preferable model for the country as a whole after the overthrow of the regime and the defeat of ISIS. This is a reflection of the ideological shift that has taken place within the Kurdish movement over the years, away from its initial emphasis on the creation of an independent Kurdish state. In Öcalan’s own words:
The call for a separate nation state results from the interests of the ruling class or the interests of the bourgeoisie, but does not reflect the interests of the people, since another state would only involve the creation of additional injustice and would curtail the right to freedom even more.
The Kurdish liberation movement now considers the state to be a patriarchal, hierarchical and exclusionary set of institutions. There can be no better evidence for the PYD’s real intentions than the granting of equal rights to all ethnic groups in the three cantons, as well as their representation on all levels of government and their active participation in grassroots democratic structures. As the Kurdish activist and scholar Dilar Dirik explained in her speech at the New World Summit in Brussels last year, the solution of the Kurdish issue was not to set up a new state, as the state was the very problem to begin with.
Dauvé argues that, secretly, the Kurdish movement has not abandoned the idea of a nation state at all, but simply rephrased it to sound less authoritarian. Yet a strange paradox remains at the heart of this argument: it is not at all clear why the Kurdish movement would adopt a libertarian anti-statist disguise in order to achieve the secret objective of founding an independent Kurdish state — taking on the extremely difficult task of organizing popular power while it would probably have been much more easier to acquire recognition from the international community as an actual nation state than as a decentralized system of confederated communes.
As for the anti-capitalist nature of the Rojava revolution, the economic system of the cantons is based on three main pillars: the cooperative economy, the open economy, and the private economy. The cooperative economy, which focuses mainly on agriculture and small-scale production, is central. It is based on communal ownership and self-management and often operates outside the monetary economy. Some of the lands were collectivized after the big land-owners left the region following the PYD takeover. Private companies are allowed, but they have to work together with the administration and abide by the social principles of the revolution.
The so-called open economy is based on foreign investment, which unfortunately remains necessary for the development of the region’s scarce infrastructure. There are, for example, no oil refineries in Rojava, even though the Cizire canton has large reserves of petrol. The idea is to attract foreign investment — but only at the price of respecting the social nature of the cantons. The local economy will be developed on the terms set by the inhabitants of Rojava and their assemblies, not by Western capitalists. The industry that will eventually be developed in Rojava should be under direct workers’ control, or at least this is the expressed intention of the PYD officials.
According to Dauvé, the revolution in Rojava is not anti-capitalist because the “proletarians” have not seized the means of production and private property is still allowed. This is a laughable statement, considering that the “proletariat” in the classical Western sense does not exist in Rojava. Here the author once again illustrates the limitations of a purist class analysis based solely on the outdated and inapplicable realities of 19th century industrial Europe.
Not a women’s revolution?
“The subversive nature of a movement or organization cannot be measured by the number of armed women — nor its feminist character,” states Dauvé, who goes on to claim that the whole idea that the revolution in Rojava is also a women’s revolution is based purely on the image of the all-female YPJ militias that became famous during the heroic defense of Kobani.
Of course it is true that we cannot measure the feminist character of a movement simply by the participation of women in armed conflict. Yet this is precisely why Dauvé should have done more research before slandering the Rojava revolution for not being feminist enough. He briefly mentions that women are guaranteed 40% participation in the communes and that all public positions have a dual character — one man and one woman. But what the author misses is the social analysis that is actively transforming gender relations in the whole of Kurdistan.
In his book, Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution, Abdullah Öcalan emphasizes patriarchy as the central element of oppression that has produced all forms of hierarchy and domination. He argues that our civilization is based on three forms of domination over women: through ideology, through force and through the seizure of the economy: “From this relationship stem all forms of relationship that foster inequality, slavery, despotism and militarism.”
The practical expressions of these ideas in Rojava are numerous, and they include the ban on forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence and discrimination, and most importantly, putting women’s issues solely in women’s hands. Women have their own assemblies that have power over women’s issues and that can impose their decisions on those of mixed assemblies if they believe they concern or negatively impact women.
The international human rights lawyer and advocate for women’s rights in conflict, Margaret Owen, describes the developments in gender rights under the PYD administration in a very positive light. She highlights the all-woman party Star Union and the guaranteed equal participation of women in all spheres of public life, including “associations, political, educational, medical, military, police, social and financial services.” With the so-called Women’s Houses, the movement has also developed a system of protection against male violence.
From sectarian impotence to revolutionary creativity
Blinded by frustration with their own marginality and isolated by the incapacity to adapt their ideas to reality and to build a social force that is actually capable of challenging capitalist modernity and the nation state, some Western anarchists still prefer to retreat into their own ideological ivory towers and claim superior knowledge and righteousness through empty statements about the “spineless” radicalism of other people — especially those in the Global South.
Clearly, such sectarian positions negatively affect the ability of “anarchist” groups in the West to actually produce radical and meaningful alternatives to capitalism and the state. It ends up restraining the revolutionary anarchist ideal in the chains of an arrogant self-serving dogma that ultimately renders these groupuscules impotent in their supposed ideological purity.
This is the crisis we face in the West — and it does not promise a better future if sectarian elements in our movement remain incapable of reinventing themselves and finding new and creative forms of struggle and organization. The latter, I believe, is much more important than the flamboyant “revolutionary” rhetoric that, in some Western anarchist circles, seems so sadly separated from practice.
Petar Stanchev is finishing a degree in Latin American Studies and Human Rights at the University of Essex. He has previously lived and studied in Mexico and has been involved in the Zapatista solidarity movement for four years.
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!
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
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.
Statement and photos by Occupy LSE — Free University of London.
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.
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
2) Workers’ rights
3) Genuine university democracy
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.
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