The New School In Exile, Revisited

My memoir of the New School’s 2008 student occupation, from the third n+1 Occupy! gazette:

I arrived at the New School in the fall of 2008 to do a master’s degree in anthropology. Tuition was $23,000 per year—not including room or board–but the opportunity to be in a cutting-edge intellectual community appeased my anxiety about the cost. A little bit.

Tuition was high for a reason: the school, I soon learned, was on shaky financial footing. Founded in 1919 in part by Columbia professors disgusted by their university’s support of World War I, then expanded in 1933 as a refuge for scholars fleeing Fascism and Nazism in Europe, it wasn’t the sort of place that produced the sort of people who turned around and gave their alma mater millions of dollars. The endowment was meager, and the school relied on tuition for revenue.

The New School needed to improve its financial situation and its status, and it was going to do it, like any New York institution, through real estate. They were going to tear down one of the original 1930s buildings and replace it with a state-of-the-art gleaming sixteen-story tower, home to studios for designers and artists studying at the New School’s profitable design institute, Parsons, and laboratories (for whom, no one could tell you; the New School offers no courses in hard sciences), retail food vendors, apartments, and–most insulting of all, I think, to the symbolic heirs, as we liked to consider ourselves, of refugees from Fascism–a fitness center. At the time, the building, at 65 Fifth Avenue, was a multi-purpose meeting place where graduate students could read quietly, have lunch in the café, or find books in the basement library. There had been classrooms upstairs, but at that point, they had already been relocated to the minimalist-style building a few blocks away where my department, Anthropology, was crammed together with Sociology. Read more

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The Police As A Proxy For Power, from WagingNonviolence

My piece on police and OWS, published on WagingNonviolence.org:

On Monday night, a student protest at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), began as a peaceful march and demonstration against tuition hikes. But it quickly escalated into a situation where police were pushing students and faculty out of a public forum of CUNY’s Board of Trustees. The incident was terrifying for many of us present, though it fortunately did not result in any serious injuries. The greater damage, perhaps, was emblematic of a pervasive problem in the Occupy movement: the police became a proxy for the “one percent,” and instead of protesters finding ways to directly challenge the powerful elite, they ended up taking their anger out on police officers.

At Baruch, the Trustees were expected to vote on a five percent tuition hike—which they approved almost unanimously. The protesters, who included CUNY students, faculty, and supporters from other universities, learned once they arrived at Baruch that they would not be allowed into the public forum. (Only people who had registered in advance would be permitted, and even then, only 150 spots were allotted. It seemed to me that someone should have looked into this in advance.)

As the protesters pushed their way into the lobby of Baruch, security guards tried to usher them into an overflow room where they could watch it televised, but that wouldn’t suffice. People huddled in the lobby, trying to decide what to do: hold a general assembly to voice grievances about rising tuition, or go into the overflow room. But some people couldn’t give up on the idea of entering the Trustees meeting. They waved their IDs desperately at the security guards, saying, “I’m a student here! Why can’t I go in if the meeting is public?” Soon, a line of police officers formed in front of the protesters. The cops held their batons horizontally in front of their chests.

“Why do you have your billy clubs out?” shouted the students in unison, using the people’s microphone. “This is a school, not a jail. This is a peaceful protest.” Read more

Release America From Its Occupation By Student Debt

One of the issues most prominent on the 99 Percent tumblr blog is the burden of student debt. Unlike other forms of debt, student loan debt will never disappear; it is carried by the debt-holder until he dies and even then can be passed on to a spouse or next-of-kin. And student debt is also a massive industry that brings in significant revenue for banks, collecting agencies (often owned by those very same banks), and the U.S. federal government.

A student debt refusal Working Group has been in the works at Occupy Wall Street for a few weeks now. It is headed by Andrew Ross, a professor of labor studies at New York University who has published several books on free trade economics and precarious labor in a neoliberal world. The idea is to institute a nation-wide debt strike, create awareness about the issue, and fight for a tuition-free (or at least, cheaper) public tertiary education system. Most European nations charge minor fees for tertiary education. This year CUNY, New York City’s public university, is getting ready to raise its annual tuition by about $300 every semester for five consecutive years. In 2009, the University of California Board of Regents raised that system’s tuition by thirty-three percent (against much student protest). Read more

What Will Come Of The American Autumn?

Is one demand enough?

The Arab Spring toppled dictatorships, the European Summer raised awareness about the consequences of austerity measures in Greece and Spain as well as minority youth marginalization in London, and the American Autumn, so far, has at the very least showed the world that Leftist politics are not dead and neither are Americans complacent or asleep.

But what will come of the Occupy Wall Street movement? I don’t think that the organizers or supporters will be satisfied with the movement unless it bears results, though it alone is certainly an accomplishment: thousands of people have marched with OWS, labor unions and universities have become aligned, and occupations have sprung up in solidarity throughout the U.S. And the general assembly, as you know if you’ve seen it, is a beautiful expression of democracy at its most direct and most representative. Every person’s voice is heard while respecting the needs of the group.

As one must-see video explainer about the democratic consensus-building process says, the Occupy Wall Street general assembly is meant to be an end in itself, not merely a means to something different.

And yet, Adbusters sent out an email today suggesting one very specific demand: Read more

The Madness of Occupy Wall Street’s Reason

Someone asked me recently what I thought of Occupy Wall Street, as an anthropologist. I’m just going to sketch out some thoughts here.

The idea of the commons has been made famous in academic circles by Michael Hardt, a professor of literature at Duke who has worked extensively with Antonio Negri and follows the thinking of the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. Hardt has written about empire, the multitudes, and the common, in a triad of books that essentially bring Marxism up-to-date in a post-industrial, networked world. When I look at Zuccotti Park (a.k.a. Liberty Square), I see the commons. I see an effort to imagine, to build, to create a world in which wealth is shared at least somewhat equally among all, and in which all contributions are recognized and valued as long as they benefit the group as a whole.

But wait, you say, don’t you know that socialism doesn’t work? Wouldn’t it be ridiculous, you say, if you were a doctor and you were paid as much as a janitor?

I often recall one very specific detail about Cuba, where I visited for two weeks in 2008 in an effort to bolster my pre-grad school understanding of Marx. In Cuba, plastic is very hard to come by. At the market, for example, plastic bags cost a significant sum of money, so very few people buy them. (Cubans are the original canvas bag carriers.) They also don’t have plastic cups or bottles to drink from. And this is the detail that sticks in my mind: every few blocks, there are informal (though of course the government knows about them) drink stations, where you wait in line for five or ten minutes to purchase a glass of cold, sugary juice with Cuban pesos (during which you chat with your mates in the queue, exchanging news about family and work). When you’re finished, you put the glass back. It gets washed. There is no waste.

Lost your job? Find an occupation!

Protesters boogie down (Disclosure: so did I.)

If there weren’t signs expounding on the evils of capitalism everywhere, you might have thought that the gathering in Zuccotti Park on Sunday, a day after seven hundred protesters were arrested while blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, was simply an outdoor dance party with a free buffet.

But apart from such merriment, most of the people there to support the Occupy Wall Street movement, now in its third week, believe strongly that the occupation make a serious political statement with a clear message. In a nutshell, that message claims to speak against an unequal distribution of wealth wherein one percent of the American population benefits from the capitalism system, while the other ninety-nine percent is exploited. The protesters say that they are that ninety-nine percent and that, unless you are a millionaire, so are you. Read more

How to be an optimist while remaining critical?

Yesterday, a website I write for called Dowser ran a story I did about two initiatives the Obama administration has launched to solve widespread national problems: StartupAmerica and LetsMove!/ChooseMyPlate. I wrote it because I wanted to turn the eye of “solutions journalism” toward government. So many solutions take place at the grassroots level, with private donations and non-institutional forms of collaboration. But, I wanted to know, what is our government doing to make things easier for us?

StartUpAmerica is a promising program that mobilizes innovative platforms like IndieGoGo to stimulate entrepreneurship, but LetsMove/ChooseMyPlate fails to impress me. Neither of these programs is truly large-scale. I felt even more jaded about these initiatives today, when I read Frank Rich’s article in New York Magazine about Obama’s inefficacy in or unwillingness to remove impunity from the bankers who launched us into this economic recession.

As public funding cuts occur nationally, while New York City’s public education and infrastructure systems lay off employees and/or reside in fiscal crisis, the banks continue to enjoy the benefits of an agreement between Wall Street and the White House that capitalist profit goes unchecked in this country. This makes me wonder: are programs like StartUpAmerica nothing more than a cutesy little band-aid on a massive, gaping wound? When government neglects to deal with problems on a large scale, is this how they appease us?

I find it disheartening to look at my own writing in the vein of “solutions journalism” in that way. But how, given the reluctance – no, the refusal – of government to look at the needs of Main Street over those of Wall Street can I celebrate the many grassroots efforts out there to make our cities greener, our economy more robust, and our society more equal?

Perhaps I should be glad that we live in a world where people take the responsibility upon themselves to improve what they see as failing. Regardless of the injustices occurring at the national and international levels, people refuse to deny their own agency and intelligence. And that is why, I believe, we are seeing a surge of social entrepreneurship during this economic recession. It’s an awakening – government isn’t going to save us! We have to do it ourselves.

That all sounds very empowered and forward-looking. Except that, actually, we shouldn’t have to do it all ourselves. We elect these leaders. We pay their salaries. We fork over money from our earnings – our honest earnings – so they can go play oil war in the Middle East instead of strengthening our nation’s education system or investing in green energy.

And so while I continue to be amazed at all the individuals and organizations out there who are taking matters into their own hands – crowdfunding, organizing, creating, innovating – I lament that the most powerful institution we ascribe to is leading us in the other directions: wastefulness, inequality, ignorance, and the same old problems over and over again.