[Reader-list] Communiqué from an Absent Future

Amit Basole abasole at gmail.com
Tue Jun 22 11:09:05 IST 2010

Apropos this excellent piece below, for those interested, a short  
piece I wrote on the university struggles going on in Europe and  
America: http://sanhati.com/excerpted/2377/


On Tue, Jun 22, 2010 at 2:10 AM, Jeebesh <jeebesh at sarai.net> wrote:

Communiqué from an Absent Future


Like the society to which it has played the faithful servant, the  
university is bankrupt.  This bankruptcy is not only financial.  It is  
the index of a more fundamental insolvency, one both political and  
economic, which has been a long time in the making.  No one knows what  
the university is for anymore.  We feel this intuitively.  Gone is the  
old project of creating a cultured and educated citizenry; gone, too,  
the special advantage the degree-holder once held on the job market.   
These are now fantasies, spectral residues that cling to the poorly  
maintained halls.

Incongruous architecture, the ghosts of vanished ideals, the vista of  
a dead future: these are the remains of the university.  Among these  
remains, most of us are little more than a collection of querulous  
habits and duties.  We go through the motions of our tests and  
assignments with a kind of thoughtless and immutable obedience propped  
up by subvocalized resentments.  Nothing is interesting, nothing can  
make itself felt.  The world-historical with its pageant of  
catastrophe is no more real than the windows in which it appears.

For those whose adolescence was poisoned by the nationalist hysteria  
following September 11th, public speech is nothing but a series of  
lies and public space a place where things might explode (though they  
never do).  Afflicted by the vague desire for something to happen— 
without ever imagining we could make it happen ourselves—we were  
rescued by the bland homogeneity of the internet, finding refuge among  
friends we never see, whose entire existence is a series of  
exclamations and silly pictures, whose only discourse is the gossip of  
commodities.  Safety, then, and comfort have been our watchwords.  We  
slide through the flesh world without being touched or moved.  We  
shepherd our emptiness from place to place.

But we can be grateful for our destitution: demystification is now a  
condition, not a project.  University life finally appears as just  
what it has always been: a machine for producing compliant producers  
and consumers.  Even leisure is a form of job training.  The idiot  
crew of the frat houses drink themselves into a stupor with all the  
dedication of lawyers working late at the office.  Kids who smoked  
weed and cut class in high-school now pop Adderall and get to work.   
We power the diploma factory on the treadmills in the gym.  We run  
tirelessly in elliptical circles.

It makes little sense, then, to think of the university as an ivory  
tower in Arcadia, as either idyllic or idle.  “Work hard, play hard”  
has been the over-eager motto of a generation in training for…what?— 
drawing hearts in cappuccino foam or plugging names and numbers into  
databases. The gleaming techno-future of American capitalism was long  
ago packed up and sold to China for a few more years of borrowed  
junk.  A university diploma is now worth no more than a share in  
General Motors.

We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow.  And the jobs we  
work toward are the jobs we already have.  Close to three quarters of  
students work while in school, many full-time; for most, the level of  
employment we obtain while students is the same that awaits after  
graduation.  Meanwhile, what we acquire isn’t education; it’s debt.   
We work to make money we have already spent, and our future labor has  
already been sold on the worst market around.  Average student loan  
debt rose 20 percent in the first five years of the twenty-first  
century—80-100 percent for students of color.  Student loan volume—a  
figure inversely proportional to state funding for education—rose by  
nearly 800 percent from 1977 to 2003.  What our borrowed tuition buys  
is the privilege of making monthly payments for the rest of our  
lives.  What we learn is the choreography of credit: you can’t walk to  
class without being offered another piece of plastic charging 20  
percent interest.  Yesterday’s finance majors buy their summer homes  
with the bleak futures of today’s humanities majors.

This is the prospect for which we have been preparing since grade- 
school.  Those of us who came here to have our privilege notarized  
surrendered our youth to a barrage of tutors, a battery of  
psychological tests, obligatory public service ops—the cynical  
compilation of half-truths toward a well-rounded application profile.   
No wonder we set about destroying ourselves the second we escape the  
cattle prod of parental admonition.  On the other hand, those of us  
who came here to transcend the economic and social disadvantages of  
our families know that for every one of us who “makes it,” ten more  
take our place—that the logic here is zero-sum.  And anyway,  
socioeconomic status remains the best predictor of student  
achievement.  Those of us the demographics call “immigrants,”  
“minorities,” and “people of color” have been told to believe in the  
aristocracy of merit.  But we know we are hated not despite our  
achievements, but precisely because of them.  And we know that the  
circuits through which we might free ourselves from the violence of  
our origins only reproduce the misery of the past in the present for  
others, elsewhere.

If the university teaches us primarily how to be in debt, how to waste  
our labor power, how to fall prey to petty anxieties, it thereby  
teaches us how to be consumers.  Education is a commodity like  
everything else that we want without caring for.  It is a thing, and  
it makes its purchasers into things.  One’s future position in the  
system, one’s relation to others, is purchased first with money and  
then with the demonstration of obedience.  First we pay, then we “work  
hard.”  And there is the split: one is both the commander and the  
commanded, consumer and consumed.  It is the system itself which one  
obeys, the cold buildings that enforce subservience.  Those who teach  
are treated with all the respect of an automated messaging system.   
Only the logic of customer satisfaction obtains here:  was the course  
easy?  Was the teacher hot?  Could any stupid asshole get an A?   
What’s the point of acquiring knowledge when it can be called up with  
a few keystokes?  Who needs memory when we have the internet?  A  
training in thought?  You can’t be serious.  A moral preparation?   
There are anti-depressants for that.

Meanwhile the graduate students, supposedly the most politically  
enlightened among us, are also the most obedient.  The “vocation” for  
which they labor is nothing other than a fantasy of falling off the  
grid, or out of the labor market.  Every grad student is a would be  
Robinson Crusoe, dreaming of an island economy subtracted from the  
exigencies of the market.  But this fantasy is itself sustained  
through an unremitting submission to the market.  There is no longer  
the least felt contradiction in teaching a totalizing critique of  
capitalism by day and polishing one’s job talk by night.  That our  
pleasure is our labor only makes our symptoms more manageable.   
Aesthetics and politics collapse courtesy of the substitution of  
ideology for history: booze and beaux arts and another seminar on the  
question of being, the steady blur of typeface, each pixel paid for by  
somebody somewhere, some not-me, not-here, where all that appears is  
good and all goods appear attainable by credit.

Graduate school is simply the faded remnant of a feudal system adapted  
to the logic of capitalism—from the commanding heights of the star  
professors to the serried ranks of teaching assistants and adjuncts  
paid mostly in bad faith.  A kind of monasticism predominates here,  
with all the Gothic rituals of a Benedictine abbey, and all the  
strange theological claims for the nobility of this work, its  
essential altruism.  The underlings are only too happy to play  
apprentice to the masters, unable to do the math indicating that nine- 
tenths of us will teach 4 courses every semester to pad the paychecks  
of the one-tenth who sustain the fiction that we can all be the one.   
Of course I will be the star, I will get the tenure-track job in a  
large city and move into a newly gentrified neighborhood.

We end up interpreting Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “The  
philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the  
point is to change it.”  At best, we learn the phoenix-like skill of  
coming to the very limits of critique and perishing there, only to  
begin again at the seemingly ineradicable root.  We admire the first  
part of this performance: it lights our way.  But we want the tools to  
break through that point of suicidal thought, its hinge in practice.

The same people who practice “critique” are also the most susceptible  
to cynicism.  But if cynicism is simply the inverted form of  
enthusiasm, then beneath every frustrated leftist academic is a latent  
radical.  The shoulder shrug, the dulled face, the squirm of  
embarrassment when discussing the fact that the US murdered a million  
Iraqis between 2003 and 2006, that every last dime squeezed from  
America’s poorest citizens is fed to the banking industry, that the  
seas will rise, billions will die and there’s nothing we can do about  
it—this discomfited posture comes from feeling oneself pulled between  
the is and the ought of current left thought.  One feels that there is  
no alternative, and yet, on the other hand, that another world is  

We will not be so petulant.  The synthesis of these positions is right  
in front of us: another world is not possible; it is necessary.  The  
ought and the is are one.  The collapse of the global economy is here  
and now.


The university has no history of its own; its history is the history  
of capital.  Its essential function is the reproduction of the  
relationship between capital and labor. Though not a proper  
corporation that can be bought and sold, that pays revenue to its  
investors, the public university nonetheless carries out this function  
as efficiently as possible by approximating ever more closely the  
corporate form of its bedfellows.  What we are witnessing now is the  
endgame of this process, whereby the façade of the educational  
institution gives way altogether to corporate streamlining.

Even in the golden age of capitalism that followed after World War II  
and lasted until the late 1960s, the liberal university was already  
subordinated to capital.  At the apex of public funding for higher  
education, in the 1950s, the university was already being redesigned  
to produce technocrats with the skill-sets necessary to defeat  
“communism” and sustain US hegemony.  Its role during the Cold War was  
to legitimate liberal democracy and to reproduce an imaginary society  
of free and equal citizens—precisely because no one was free and no  
one was equal.

But if this ideological function of the public university was at least  
well-funded after the Second World War, that situation changed  
irreversibly in the 1960s, and no amount of social-democratic heel- 
clicking will bring back the dead world of the post-war boom.    
Between 1965 and 1980 profit rates began to fall, first in the US,  
then in the rest of the industrializing world.  Capitalism, it turned  
out, could not sustain the good life it made possible.  For capital,  
abundance appears as overproduction, freedom from work as  
unemployment.  Beginning in the 1970s, capitalism entered into a  
terminal downturn in which permanent work was casualized and working- 
class wages stagnated, while those at the top were temporarily  
rewarded for their obscure financial necromancy, which has itself  
proved unsustainable.

For public education, the long downturn meant the decline of tax  
revenues due to both declining rates of economic growth and the  
prioritization of tax-breaks for beleaguered corporations.  The  
raiding of the public purse struck California and the rest of the  
nation in the 1970s.  It has continued to strike with each downward  
declension of the business cycle.  Though it is not directly beholden  
to the market, the university and its corollaries are subject to the  
same cost-cutting logic as other industries: declining tax revenues  
have made inevitable the casualization of work.  Retiring professors  
make way not for tenure-track jobs but for precariously employed  
teaching assistants, adjuncts, and lecturers who do the same work for  
much less pay.  Tuition increases compensate for cuts while the jobs  
students pay to be trained for evaporate.

In the midst of the current crisis, which will be long and protracted,  
many on the left want to return to the golden age of public  
education.  They naïvely imagine that the crisis of the present is an  
opportunity to demand the return of the past.  But social programs  
that depended upon high profit rates and vigorous economic growth are  
gone.  We cannot be tempted to make futile grabs at the irretrievable  
while ignoring the obvious fact that there can be no autonomous  
“public university” in a capitalist society.   The university is  
subject to the real crisis of capitalism, and capital does not require  
liberal education programs. The function of the university has always  
been to reproduce the working class by training future workers  
according to the changing needs of capital. The crisis of the  
university today is the crisis of the reproduction of the working  
class, the crisis of a period in which capital no longer needs us as  
workers. We cannot free the university from the exigencies of the  
market by calling for the return of the public education system.  We  
live out the terminus of the very market logic upon which that system  
was founded.  The only autonomy we can hope to attain exists beyond  

What this means for our struggle is that we can’t go backward.  The  
old student struggles are the relics of a vanished world.  In the  
1960s, as the post-war boom was just beginning to unravel, radicals  
within the confines of the university understood that another world  
was possible.  Fed up with technocratic management, wanting to break  
the chains of a conformist society, and rejecting alienated work as  
unnecessary in an age of abundance, students tried to align themselves  
with radical sections of the working class.  But their mode of  
radicalization, too tenuously connected to the economic logic of  
capitalism, prevented that alignment from taking hold.  Because their  
resistance to the Vietnam war focalized critique upon capitalism as a  
colonial war-machine, but insufficiently upon its exploitation of  
domestic labor, students were easily split off from a working class  
facing different problems.  In the twilight era of the post-war boom,  
the university was not subsumed by capital to the degree that it is  
now, and students were not as intensively proletarianized by debt and  
a devastated labor market.

That is why our struggle is fundamentally different. The poverty of  
student life has become terminal: there is no promised exit. If the  
economic crisis of the 1970s emerged to break the back of the  
political crisis of the 1960s, the fact that today the economic crisis  
precedes the coming political uprising means we may finally supersede  
the cooptation and neutralization of those past struggles.  There will  
be no return to normal.


We seek to push the university struggle to its limits.

Though we denounce the privatization of the university and its  
authoritarian system of governance, we do not seek structural  
reforms.  We demand not a free university but a free society.  A free  
university in the midst of a capitalist society is like a reading room  
in a prison; it serves only as a distraction from the misery of daily  
life. Instead we seek to channel the anger of the dispossessed  
students and workers into a declaration of war.

We must begin by preventing the university from functioning.  We must  
interrupt the normal flow of bodies and things and bring work and  
class to a halt.  We will blockade, occupy, and take what’s ours.   
Rather than viewing such disruptions as obstacles to dialogue and  
mutual understanding, we see them as what we have to say, as how we  
are to be understood.  This is the only meaningful position to take  
when crises lay bare the opposing interests at the foundation of  
society.  Calls for unity are fundamentally empty. There is no common  
ground between those who uphold the status quo and those who seek to  
destroy it.

The university struggle is one among many, one sector where a new  
cycle of refusal and insurrection has begun – in workplaces,  
neighborhoods, and slums.  All of our futures are linked, and so our  
movement will have to join with these others, breeching the walls of  
the university compounds and spilling into the streets.  In recent  
weeks Bay Area public school teachers, BART employees, and unemployed  
have threatened demonstrations and strikes.  Each of these movements  
responds to a different facet of capitalism’s reinvigorated attack on  
the working class in a moment of crisis.  Viewed separately, each  
appears small, near-sighted, without hope of success.  Taken together,  
however, they suggest the possibility of widespread refusal and  
resistance.  Our task is to make plain the common conditions that,  
like a hidden water table, feed each struggle.

We have seen this kind of upsurge in the recent past, a rebellion that  
starts in the classrooms and radiates outward to encompass the whole  
of society. Just two years ago the anti-CPE movement in France,  
combating a new law that enabled employers to fire young workers  
without cause, brought huge numbers into the streets.  High school and  
university students, teachers, parents, rank and file union members,  
and unemployed youth from the banlieues found themselves together on  
the same side of the barricades.  (This solidarity was often fragile,  
however.  The riots of immigrant youth in the suburbs and university  
students in the city centers never merged, and at times tensions  
flared between the two groups.)  French students saw through the  
illusion of the university as a place of refuge and enlightenment and  
acknowledged that they were merely being trained to work.  They took  
to the streets as workers, protesting their precarious futures.  Their  
position tore down the partitions between the schools and the  
workplaces and immediately elicited the support of many wage workers  
and unemployed people in a mass gesture of proletarian refusal.

As the movement developed it manifested a growing tension between  
revolution and reform.  Its form was more radical than its content.   
While the rhetoric of the student leaders focused merely on a return  
to the status quo, the actions of the youth – the riots, the cars  
overturned and set on fire, the blockades of roads and railways, and  
the waves of occupations that shut down high schools and universities  
– announced the extent of the new generation’s disillusionment and  
rage.  Despite all of this, however, the movement quickly  
disintegrated when the CPE law was eventually dropped.  While the most  
radical segment of the movement sought to expand the rebellion into a  
general revolt against capitalism, they could not secure significant  
support and the demonstrations, occupations, and blockades dwindled  
and soon died.  Ultimately the movement was unable to transcend the  
limitations of reformism.

The Greek uprising of December 2008 broke through many of these  
limitations and marked the beginning of a new cycle of class  
struggle.  Initiated by students in response to the murder of an  
Athens youth by police, the uprising consisted of weeks of rioting,  
looting, and occupations of universities, union offices, and  
television stations.  Entire financial and shopping districts burned,  
and what the movement lacked in numbers it made up in its geographical  
breadth, spreading from city to city to encompass the whole of  
Greece.  As in France it was an uprising of youth, for whom the  
economic crisis represented a total negation of the future.  Students,  
precarious workers, and immigrants were the protagonists, and they  
were able to achieve a level of unity that far surpassed the fragile  
solidarities of the anti-CPE movement.

Just as significantly, they made almost no demands.  While of course  
some demonstrators sought to reform the police system or to critique  
specific government policies, in general they asked for nothing at all  
from the government, the university, the workplaces, or the police.    
Not because they considered this a better strategy, but because they  
wanted nothing that any of these institutions could offer.   Here  
content aligned with form; whereas the optimistic slogans that  
appeared everywhere in French demonstrations jarred with the images of  
burning cars and broken glass, in Greece the rioting was the obvious  
means to begin to enact the destruction of an entire political and  
economic system.

Ultimately the dynamics that created the uprising also established its  
limit.  It was made possible by the existence of a sizeable radical  
infrastructure in urban areas, in particular the Exarchia neighborhood  
in Athens.  The squats, bars, cafes, and social centers, frequented by  
students and immigrant youth, created the milieu out of which the  
uprising emerged.  However, this milieu was alien to most middle-aged  
wage workers, who did not see the struggle as their own.  Though many  
expressed solidarity with the rioting youth, they perceived it as a  
movement of entrants – that is, of that portion of the proletariat  
that sought entrance to the labor market but was not formally employed  
in full-time jobs.  The uprising, strong in the schools and the  
immigrant suburbs, did not spread to the workplaces.

Our task in the current struggle will be to make clear the  
contradiction between form and content and to create the conditions  
for the transcendence of reformist demands and the implementation of a  
truly communist content.  As the unions and student and faculty groups  
push their various “issues,” we must increase the tension until it is  
clear that we want something else entirely.  We must constantly expose  
the incoherence of demands for democratization and transparency.  What  
good is it to have the right to see how intolerable things are, or to  
elect those who will screw us over?  We must leave behind the culture  
of student activism, with its moralistic mantras of non-violence and  
its fixation on single-issue causes.  The only success with which we  
can be content is the abolition of the capitalist mode of production  
and the certain immiseration and death which it promises for the 21st  
century.  All of our actions must push us towards communization; that  
is, the reorganization of society according to a logic of free giving  
and receiving, and the immediate abolition of the wage, the value- 
form, compulsory labor, and exchange. Occupation will be a critical  
tactic in our struggle, but we must resist the tendency to use it in a  
reformist way.  The different strategic uses of occupation became  
clear this past January when students occupied a building at the New  
School in New York.  A group of friends, mostly graduate students,  
decided to take over the Student Center and claim it as a liberated  
space for students and the public.  Soon others joined in, but many of  
them preferred to use the action as leverage to win reforms, in  
particular to oust the school’s president.  These differences came to  
a head as the occupation unfolded.  While the student reformers were  
focused on leaving the building with a tangible concession from the  
administration, others shunned demands entirely.  They saw the point  
of occupation as the creation of a momentary opening in capitalist  
time and space, a rearrangement that sketched the contours of a new  
society.  We side with this anti-reformist position.  While we know  
these free zones will be partial and transitory, the tensions they  
expose between the real and the possible can push the struggle in a  
more radical direction.

We intend to employ this tactic until it becomes generalized.  In 2001  
the first Argentine piqueteros suggested the form the people’s  
struggle there should take: road blockades which brought to a halt the  
circulation of goods from place to place.  Within months this tactic  
spread across the country without any formal coordination between  
groups.  In the same way repetition can establish occupation as an  
instinctive and immediate method of revolt taken up both inside and  
outside the university.  We have seen a new wave of takeovers in the  
U.S. over the last year, both at universities and workplaces: New  
School and NYU, as well as the workers at Republic Windows Factory in  
Chicago, who fought the closure of their factory by taking it over.   
Now it is our turn.

To accomplish our goals we cannot rely on those groups which position  
themselves as our representatives.  We are willing to work with unions  
and student associations when we find it useful, but we do not  
recognize their authority.  We must act on our own behalf directly,  
without mediation.  We must break with any groups that seek to limit  
the struggle by telling us to go back to work or class, to negotiate,  
to reconcile.  This was also the case in France.  The original calls  
for protest were made by the national high school and university  
student associations and by some of the trade unions.  Eventually, as  
the representative groups urged calm, others forged ahead.  And in  
Greece the unions revealed their counter-revolutionary character by  
cancelling strikes and calling for restraint.

As an alternative to being herded by representatives, we call on  
students and workers to organize themselves across trade lines. We  
urge undergraduates, teaching assistants, lecturers, faculty, service  
workers, and staff to begin meeting together to discuss their  
situation.  The more we begin talking to one another and finding our  
common interests, the more difficult it becomes for the administration  
to pit us against each other in a hopeless competition for dwindling  
resources. The recent struggles at NYU and the New School suffered  
from the absence of these deep bonds, and if there is a lesson to be  
learned from them it is that we must build dense networks of  
solidarity based upon the recognition of a shared enemy.  These  
networks not only make us resistant to recuperation and  
neutralization, but also allow us to establish new kinds of collective  
bonds.  These bonds are the real basis of our struggle.

We’ll see you at the barricades.

Research and Destroy

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Amit Basole
Department of Economics
Thompson Hall
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003
Phone: 413-665-2463
blog: http://thenoondaysun.blogspot.com/

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