Before the Fall: Possible Futures for Anti-Austerity Movements

We’re pass­ing through a low phase in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia – a lull that par­tially par­al­lels those fac­ing orga­niz­ers from Madison to New York. The rebel­lious energies so evi­dent recently seem scat­tered these days, dor­mant. The uni­ver­si­ties are quiet. And the forces that had gath­ered in city parks and squares, most mas­sively at Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza, are largely absent. The encamp­ments are bro­ken up, the assem­blies dis­solved.

It’s hard to know whether this is sim­ply a period of incu­ba­tion, from which another, sim­i­lar wave of class strug­gle will soon emerge, or if this moment of rel­a­tive inac­tiv­ity is allow­ing for the recom­po­si­tion of our forces, our alliances, the ways we take action together. If the ter­rain of strug­gle we now encoun­ter has been remade by the past year of action – by our effec­tive acts of oppo­si­tion, by new forms of state repres­sion and co-opta­tion, and by our own mis­steps – how can we most effec­tively inter­vene in the shift­ing polit­i­cal force fields we’re com­ing to inhabit?

As we offer our­selves a bit of relief from the inten­si­ties of the past year – as we heal, main­tain ties, and work through it all – it’s worth col­lab­o­ra­tively think­ing through these ques­tions. Strug­gles against aus­ter­ity in Cal­i­for­nia, which I’ve par­tic­i­pated in and tried to think crit­i­cally about, can provide a con­crete con­text for this kind of reflec­tion.

While many of us have been tak­ing a rest, politi­cians have been active as ever. The recently passed Cal­i­for­nia state bud­get is, as in pre­vi­ous years, crush­ing. It short­ens the amount of time peo­ple can remain in the work­fare pro­gram, reduces the program’s work exemp­tions for peo­ple with young chil­dren, cuts pay­ments for and lim­its access to child­care, reduces fund­ing for in-home sup­port­ive ser­vices, and guts pub­lic health care pro­grams. In com­bi­na­tion, these cuts con­sti­tute a sev­ere attack on work­ing-class women, and there­fore on the class as a whole. The undo­ing of wel­fare, child­care, and in-home ser­vice pro­grams fur­ther pri­va­tizes and deval­ues car­ing labor, and thus imposes increas­ingly impos­si­ble bur­dens of domes­tic and waged work on all those, par­tic­u­larly women of color, who have been denied finan­cial reserves.

Aus­ter­ity is still the order of the day. For all the class strug­gle that’s been staged in the streets, plazas, and uni­ver­si­ties this past year, and despite what we’ve accom­plished, those who gov­ern and man­age cap­i­tal are still effec­tively mak­ing it harder for work­ing peo­ple to sur­vive. And no par­tial, uncer­tain vic­to­ries in the edu­ca­tional sec­tor should allow us to lose sight of this stark real­ity.

There are a num­ber of ways to make sense of the effects this year’s state bud­get will have on stu­dents and cam­pus work­ers. The basic story is that, rather than sim­ply cut­ting once again the bud­gets of schools and uni­ver­si­ties, the state has made these cuts con­tin­gent upon the poten­tial fail­ure of the com­pro­mise tax ini­tia­tive this Novem­ber. If the ini­tia­tive passes, we’ll have a tuition freeze in the Uni­ver­si­ties of Cal­i­for­nia, and a year with­out sig­nif­i­cant cuts in other sec­tors of pub­lic edu­ca­tion.

That we may have another year with­out under­grad­u­ate fee hikes in the UCs, and with­out cuts to schools and col­leges, should be under­stood as an effect of recent rounds of uncom­pro­mis­ing stu­dent protest, includ­ing the cas­cad­ing strikes and encamp­ments that shook California’s uni­ver­si­ties last fall. These protests demon­strated to the state and to the UC Regents that fur­ther fee increases would come with a cost, and helped build sup­port for the orig­i­nal Mil­lion­aires’ Tax, of which the cur­rent tax ini­tia­tive – formed out of a com­pro­mise between the gov­er­nor and the pres­i­dent of the Cal­i­for­nia Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers – is a pale copy.

While we might be inclined to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity of a year with­out cuts to pub­lic edu­ca­tion as a vic­tory, albeit an uncer­tain one, there are other polit­i­cal dynam­ics shap­ing the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion that make for a murkier pic­ture. Gov­er­nor Jerry Brown, in tying the fate of stu­dents to his tax ini­tia­tive, is work­ing to co-opt and neu­tral­ize stu­dent move­ments – move­ments that oth­er­wise could fur­ther dele­git­i­mate state insti­tu­tions enact­ing and enforc­ing aus­ter­ity, and even poten­tially set off, as in Que­bec, a period of gen­er­al­ized social unrest. This fall, it will be incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult for those active on cam­puses to resist pres­sures to put our energies into cam­paign­ing for the tax ini­tia­tive, despite the fact that rel­a­tively lit­tle of the rev­enue would go to edu­ca­tion (much is slated to “pay down the deficit”); that the ini­tia­tive includes a tem­po­rary, regres­sive sales tax; and that elec­toral cam­paigns force us to engage on a ter­rain and in a mode of strug­gle that work to our dis­ad­van­tage, in com­par­ison to cam­pus-based direct action and mass orga­niz­ing. As we recently saw in Wis­con­sin, social move­ments that allow them­selves to be entirely diverted into elec­toral pol­i­tics risk mas­sive demor­al­iza­tion, defeat in both elec­toral and non-elec­toral domains, and the fray­ing of bonds forged through col­lec­tive strug­gle.

Still, the pres­sure to par­tic­i­pate in the ini­tia­tive cam­paign will be intense, since the effects of a defeat would be so sev­ere. In addi­tion to the cuts that would be trig­gered, the initiative’s defeat would make edu­ca­tional pri­va­ti­za­tion appear all the more inevitable, allow­ing those push­ing fee hikes and pen­sion reduc­tions to invoke the “will of the vot­ers” in sup­port of their efforts. The UC Regents, for instance, are rumored to already be con­sid­er­ing a 20% fee hike (approx­i­mately $2,500/year), which they’d try to imple­ment in the event that the tax ini­tia­tive failed. And the ini­tia­tive very well could fail, espe­cially if, for instance, the Euro­pean debt cri­sis inten­si­fies, and the eco­nomic depres­sion in the States sub­se­quently deep­ens.

While we have lit­tle con­trol over broader eco­nomic dynam­ics, we can still pre­vent our move­ments from being co-opted and neu­tral­ized by the gov­er­nor. We could, for instance, explic­itly reject the elec­toral process as a pri­mary ter­rain of strug­gle; along the lines of the move­ment of the Indig­na­dos in Spain, we could orga­nize a series of walk­outs and occu­pa­tions in Octo­ber tied together by the slo­gan: “There’s no vote against aus­ter­ity.” Alter­na­tively, we could pri­or­i­tize local strug­gles whose out­comes will not directly be affected by the fate of the tax ini­tia­tive. At UC Berke­ley, for instance, the admin­is­tra­tion is attempt­ing to move up to six hun­dred staff mem­bers to a build­ing located miles away from cam­pus – a move explic­itly designed to spur work­ers to resign rather than endure degraded and iso­lat­ing con­di­tions of employ­ment. In sol­i­dar­ity with work­ers orga­niz­ing against their dis­place­ment, we could hold dis­rup­tive actions at the build­ing to which they would be relo­cated. We could also link up with the move­ment to defend City Col­lege of San Fran­cisco, which appears to be tak­ing shape in response to the threat of dis-accred­i­ta­tion and clo­sure levied by a recent audit – an audit per­formed by a body with ties to edu­ca­tional pri­va­tiz­ers and for-profit col­leges. Given how imbri­cated the var­i­ous sec­tors of pub­lic edu­ca­tion are in Cal­i­for­nia, all stu­dents have a stake in the fight at CCSF, which has the poten­tial to gen­er­al­ize strug­gles against tuition hikes and course reduc­tions.

Even if stu­dent move­ments suc­cess­fully avoid get­ting directly caught up in elec­toral cam­paign­ing, it’s con­ceiv­able that their more rebel­lious edges might be worn off by the specter of the Novem­ber elec­tion. There’s a dan­ger that stu­dents might be haunted by the imag­ined judg­ment of “the vot­ing pub­lic,” that we might take on this phan­tom as a kind of super­ego, avoid­ing actions that could upset a pro­jected voter or make them less sym­pa­thetic to the cause of pub­lic edu­ca­tion. And there’s plenty of rea­son to think that vot­ers in Cal­i­for­nia are inclined to be unsym­pa­thetic: in recent decades, they’ve passed a num­ber of reac­tionary propo­si­tions, includ­ing 13, 209, 8 and 36.  While Gov­er­nor Brown may be con­fi­dent that vot­ers’ pre­sumed clas­si­fi­ca­tion of stu­dents as mem­bers of the “deserv­ing” mid­dle class will ensure pas­sage of this year’s tax ini­tia­tive, stu­dent activists ulti­mately have lit­tle to gain from attempt­ing to fill the role of respectable defend­ers of exist­ing edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions.

While higher edu­ca­tion has his­tor­i­cally been under­stood, with some valid­ity, as a marker and repro­ducer of mid­dle class sta­tus, col­lege is no longer a guar­an­teed ticket to a sta­ble, decent pay­ing job. Increas­ingly, it offers to the degree-holder lit­tle more than decades of indebt­ed­ness and pre­car­i­ous employ­ment. Our gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents is fac­ing a process of pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tion; and rather than cling­ing to a fan­tas­ti­cal “mid­dle class” sta­tus, defin­i­tively refuted by eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tions, we should act in sol­i­dar­ity with, and with an eye towards, the work­ing class from which many of us hail and into which we’re headed. As we plan another round of protest, let’s con­cern our­selves with the per­cep­tion of the broader class, those fac­ing another dev­as­tat­ing round of aus­ter­ity, rather than with the sanc­ti­mo­nious vision of those who fear and resent the plea­sures and pos­si­bil­i­ties of work­ing class strug­gle and mutual aid – plea­sures that many of us expe­ri­enced last fall at the Occupy Oak­land encamp­ment, and dur­ing strikes on our cam­puses.

While things have been slow this sum­mer, we’re still here; and if the recent past is any indi­ca­tion, another upsurge is likely immi­nent.  As we attempt to deter­mine the shape com­ing strug­gles will take, the expe­ri­ence of the past year can give us con­fi­dence that direct actions, cou­pled with mass orga­niz­ing, have the poten­tial to gen­er­ate wide­spread par­tic­i­pa­tion, open up new cen­ters of grav­ity, and offer us lives less con­sumed with the anx­i­eties of debt, work, and uncer­tain futures.

Author of the article

is an assistant professor of History at the University of Michigan and a member of the Michigan Society of Fellows. She has published on struggles in the sphere of social reproduction for LIES, Reclamations, and the South Atlantic Quarterly, and is currently working on a book project about anti-colonial and class struggles on the British and colonial Indian railways between the 1840s and 1920s.