Students in California Fight Back Austerity Attacks
On March 4, 2010, following months of draconian budget cuts and furloughs in the higher education system throughout the United States, a national day of action was called by a variety of organizations across the political spectrum, including a number of leftist organizations, but also anarchists. The slogan adopted was "save education", a deceptive way of framing the issues at stake, as it is used to contain the student movement within the illusion of democratic reformism and also to characterize the cuts to public education as ‘particular' or unique, as if this was the only sector under attack. This is why there is often an improper framing of the question as being one based on a political emasculation of education. In fact, the crisis in education is a direct result of the deepening generalized crisis of capitalism and the student struggle needs to be understood in that context. The proper positioning of the student struggle in the larger class conflict is vital to understanding the dynamism of the struggle as capitalist contradictions are further exacerbated. It is also important to understand the weaknesses, limits, but also potential of the student movement, if it is to achieve that potential to the full.
The background: the economic crisis
It should serve as no surprise to anyone that California is the scene for the more numerous, well attended, and concerted actions by the student movement. California is home to three higher education systems: University of California (UC), California State University (CSU) and California Community College-(CCC) with CCC serving as the largest higher education system in the world. These three systems share 160,000, 433,000 and 3,000,000 students respectively - or roughly 10% of the entire population California. The state's severe fiscal crisis, a $20bn deficit - the largest both in the state's history and of any other state in the nation, has resulted in cuts across the state as the government frantically tries to stave off defaulting on loan payments. The situation in California is so severe that top financial leaders like the head of JP Morgan Chase have characterized California's fiscal situation as worse than that of Greece - a country wracked by internal instability and increasingly dire financial woes. This situation has led the Sunshine State to straddle the three higher education systems with increasingly drastic cuts. For the 2009-10 school year, across these three systems there was a total budget cut of $1.7bn - divided among the three systems roughly equally but with each system finding their own ways of adjusting to it. UC and CSU increased their respective tuitions by 30% and have instituted pay cuts and furloughs for their employees, while the CCC campuses are cutting classes, to a point where students are unable to enroll in classes necessary for transfer or graduation.
This situation is especially toxic when taken in conjunction with the debt that often weighs down graduates from these higher education systems. The California Postsecondary Education Commission, a government institution, stated in 2007 that "rising tuition and fees and increased cost of living are putting a squeeze on lower-income to upper middle-income families, causing students and parents to incur substantial debt." It's notable that this was written in 2007, before the financial crisis and the tailspin the economy has been spiraling in since. At the time of the report, the average debts for graduates from California's higher education systems were $12,459 for four year institutions and $9,214 for two year institutions. That's not the end of the story, however, as often times these loans are further compounded by Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students (PLUS), which are taken out by parents to pay for their children's education, and which were averaged at $12,066 and $12,742, respectively. This allows for quite a range of debt burden for the multitude of students in the California's education system. On the whole many graduates will leave school already facing interest payments on the loans they accumulate from their years in college, which often adversely affect not just the students but also their families, who take out loans on their behalf.
It is in this framework that the class nature of the cuts to education begins to take shape. The rising cost of education, manifested in the most vulnerable segments of the student population as increasing debt burden, and the budget cuts compounded with that rise are part of the generalized and direct assaults on the working class' living standards. Education functioned for many as a means to achieve a better material condition and the public education system in California was once one of the most accessible. The mechanism of student debt is used to incorporate the student population into the state apparatus and deter radical action. In many ways, today's student loans relegate the student to a modern form of debt slavery and this condition tends to encourage docility. As the crisis of capitalism deepens, it is the working class that is asked to bear the brunt of these austerity measures so as to weather the storm of the capitalist crisis. This is repeated throughout the economy. As the reality of the crisis shatters the rose-tinted glasses of even the most optimistic bourgeois economists, the working class is again called to take the force of the recession through layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, and cuts to the social wage, as the present assault on public education illustrates.
This situation isn't just limited to the United States. Austerity measures are being called throughout the industrialized world, and public services like education are routinely targeted as avenues for rescuing the ailing capitalist economies. The assault on education in California is directly connected to the attacks against the working class on a global scale. In Greece, a country weighed down with a $419bn debt, Prime Minister George Papandreou has described the economic crisis as a "wartime situation." This has unleashed a new round of massive cuts which the working class has to absorb through increased taxes and deep cuts in public services. This has exacerbated an already volatile social situation within Greece. Their student movement, set off in late 2008 by the police murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, set off a cascade of open confrontations with both the police and, in some cases, the unions. The student demonstrations were not confined to students alone, often reaching into work places and complementing strikes against the increasing attacks against the working class.
Weaknesses and potential of the student movement
Out of this global situation arises the California student movement. The movement is best understood not as a single entity but as a constellation of movements. Although there are many different ideas present in the student movement, many of the student organizers are inevitably inexperienced and often times student actions fall into the camps of labor unions. With the budget cuts directly affecting the constituency of workers on individual campuses, the labor unions are in a power play with individual campus administrations to maintain their heretofore established influence on the campus. Students are mobilized by the labor unions, often through groups on campus promoting supposed "worker-student" solidarity and are then funneled into actions designed to promote a union agenda - hence the popular slogan at student protests "We have the power/What power?/Union power!" Beyond symbolic, and innocuous, protests on individual campuses, the unions and their allies in the student population also promote an electoralist agenda which calls on students to write to their legislatures in Sacramento and lobby for a reversal of the budget cuts. These demands are often framed on a mystified notion of the university and, through the promotion of the union apparatus, derail the class nature of the crisis itself. They ignore the fact both that the State of California is simply unable to provide funding in the face of a massive deficit and that restoring the budgets of the various higher education systems would necessitate cutting from other sectors serving the state's population: this is neither here nor their for the narrow framework of union chauvinism. Spinning off of this framework is a camp of student leaders calling for an empowerment of the unions but through the use of a highly ideological racialized rhetoric which actually seeks to replace class with race. I was recently at an event with proponents of this idea where one of them talked about "reframing the debate in order to understand that anti-blackness gave rise to capital." The rhetorical focus is "anti-blackness," but this is expanded along a hierarchy of the oppressed and is used as a form of analyzing the education crisis as a racial crisis. This framework is incredibly reactionary as it actually exacerbates divisions within the student movement along racial lines. This group is marginal in their numbers but influential insofar as to their ability to tap into divisions fostered by the ruling class for over a century in order to quell class solidarity.
There are, however, students who break free from this and recognize this dichotomy as two bourgeois manifestations fighting over the scraps of an ailing system that extends beyond the university proper. These students function along broadly anarchist/communist lines and favor a variety of tactics often decried by unions and their supporters as being too incendiary. A popular tactic is one of building occupations and various forms of confrontational protest such as attempting to seize highways. An accepted slogan of this camp is "occupy everything, demand nothing" and they are heavily influenced by Situationism. They also draw a certain inspiration from the Greek student struggles in their self-described assault on "commodified life" (though when we consider that the Greek students also described themselves as belonging to the "400 euro generation" - ie those who have to survive on $550 per month - we can only wonder how much access to "commodities" they really have!) Theoretically, this grouping is closest towards grasping the educational crisis as being part of the permanent crisis of capitalism. The foundation of their slogan is that capital cannot afford any concessions, it cannot afford any reforms and therefore what remains is to take over what exists and reorient it for use by all. This group, while very good at getting publicized, is still a very small fraction within the developing student movement.
These divisions run deep and are highly fractious in the increasing momentum of the student movement. A popular organizational form arising on campuses are general assemblies and these have varied in their makeup. Often depending entirely on who put them together, they're dominated by any of the aforementioned camps and it becomes very difficult to make headway into presenting a dissenting opinion. This is again due to the inexperienced nature of the many of the students getting involved in this movement and this allows more seasoned union bureaucrats and their supporters to turn these spaces into platforms for their organizations.
However, many students are increasingly aware of the opportunistic elements within the movement. As the contradictions of capitalist democracy are progressively exposed through the sheer arrogance of its representatives and their inability to make any sort of concession, much of the discussion within the freer general assemblies has moved towards ideas of student-worker solidarity beyond the union and the legislature. A certain ambivalence still exists on the question of strikes and more militant working class action, but there is a noticeable increase in the radicalization of the student population since the March 4 event.
There is an increased interest in reaching out not just to workers but also to high school and middle school students and their teachers. This was successfully pulled off in the Oakland March 4 rally in which upwards of 1000 students walked out of their schools and participated in a rally - many of the speakers had never spoken in public before but they, children really, were yelling into the bullhorn about the destruction of the public education system. There is a lot of potential power within the California student movement because, despite the efforts of those who would derail the class nature of the crisis, there is an increasing number who reject the entire discourse and seek out other explanations. There is a rising understanding that the problem facing students is not a problem of mismanagement, but deep systemic crisis that affects the entire world.