Occupy Actions: From Wall Street to a Campus Near You?

The Occupy Wall Street movement and the mobilizations of the ‘indignant’ in Europe have sparked solidarity actions in many places around the world. October 15, 2011 was a massive day of action that included over 60 marches in Spain, a huge demonstration of over 100,000 in Rome and Occupy actions in cities and towns across North America and in many other places.

This international movement draws on the audacity and creativity of Occupy Wall Street. It also has important precursors in the protracted mass mobilization of Chilean students against neoliberal education policies, the movement of los indignados (the indignant) who launched protest camps in numerous cities and towns beginning in May this year, in the militant mobilizations in Wisconsin early this year against attacks on public services and public sector workers’ rights (which included the occupation of the state legislature building) and in the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Protests of the ‘indignants’ in Spain and Greece.

These mobilizations have given a voice to many people who are disgusted with the actions of major corporations and governments since the global economic slump started in 2008. In the past few years, we have seen concerted efforts to preserve corporate profitability, including bank bailouts, deep cuts to social programmes, massive layoffs, perpetual employer demands for painful wage and benefit cuts, the destruction of decent jobs in favour of part-time precarious employment, attacks on union bargaining rights and the increased brutality of the law enforcement apparatus, particularly against migrants, people of colour and the poor.

Agenda of Austerity

The corporate and state austerity agenda over the last few years has compounded the effects of the offensive against the working-class underway since the mid-1970s. Social programs, which even at their height were never adequate, have been deliberately beaten down. Precariousness is a fact of life for larger segments of the population, and those who have always faced it have been driven deeper into insecurity and vulnerability.

It is important to note that the idea of occupation is itself problematic when North America is already occupied land taken from Indigenous peoples. Further, imperialist military excursions mean that occupation is an ugly fact of life for many in the world, including Palestinians, people in Iraq and Afghanistan and others. It is important to note the ugly side of the word, and to ensure we make anti-colonial, anti-racist and migrant rights efforts central to our agenda as we “occupy” in the sense of the democratic and participatory take-over of public or private space, including factories, schools, parks, squares and streets.

The Occupy actions and indignant movements have drawn into activism many younger people who are outraged at the ways things are going and have little confidence in the existing channels for dissent. Many of these younger people have seen or felt the impact of these policies on their own uncertain futures and increasingly difficult present circumstances. Many are understandably cynical about existing political forces, all of which seem to talk without listening, to distort reality and to be bureaucratic rather than democratic.

At this point, it is too early to tell what direction these movements will take and how far they can build a fightback against capitalism’s austerity agenda. Hopefully they will inspire movements that take these concerns and tactics in many different directions, beginning the building of a new left that can defeat the austerity agenda and push for a genuinely just, democratic and ecological anti-capitalism with a deep commitment to fighting all forms of oppression

One possible direction could be the emergence of a new level of activism on campuses, bringing the Occupy approach to the colleges and universities. After all, campuses hold large numbers of young people whose future hopes are being mangled by the austerity agenda, ecological destruction and the state security apparatus. These students are being asked to pay more for an increasingly impersonal education that many see as entirely unsatisfactory. The seeds of the Occupy movement could fall onto very fertile soil on campuses.

Dissatisfaction with Action

It is not hard to find student dissatisfaction on campuses. Many feel stretched to the limit, working long hours for pay to cover the tuition and living expenses. The combination of long commutes, extensive paid work, family responsibilities and a lack of interest in the courses on offer make university a hard slog for many students. Yet they feel they have to be there to have any chance at a decent future, as the job situation for those without post-secondary preparation (college, university or apprenticeship) is extremely bleak.

The difficulty of the situation is compounded by the realization that the job situation is not so great even for those who do graduate from post-secondary education. Students know from the experiences of friends and relatives a few years ahead of them that things are not good out there in the employment world. It is not uncommon for graduating students to add another part-time job on top of the paid work they were already doing through school. The prospect of graduating with a big debt into a job market with few prospects is demoralizing, particularly given that many people also feel that their university experience has not prepared them well for life after their degree.

In Canada and Quebec, this dissatisfaction has not led to a new wave of activism so far, in part because these same students are often quite doubtful that there is much they can do to influence events. For many, the existing channels of protest – such as one-time protests against tuition fee increases, which can seem ritualistic, and choosing between almost identical political parties at election time – seem unlikely to yield results. The Occupy movement is throwing something a bit different into the equation, and that could inspire new hope in mobilizing to make a difference.

The Neoliberal University in the Age of Austerity

The perception that there is something wrong with universities is not limited to dissatisfied students. Administrators, policy-makers and business commentators feel that the system is not offering sufficient returns on investment. The Globe and Mail (October 11, 2011) recently featured a long editorial entitled “Canadian universities must reform or perish” that said faculty are spending too much time on research and not enough on teaching, and called for greater emphasis on measuring performance outcomes in university funding formulae. The Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada came out with a new report called Great Beginnings (September 14, 2011) which raised concerns about the effectiveness of current forms of undergraduate education.

The concerns expressed in these official sources can seem to echo the dissatisfaction of students with the current state of things at universities. However, students should be suspicious of management strategies that focus on intensifying the work of faculty and increasing the use of measures that increase accountability to the administration and funding bodies, but not to students. These reports largely emphasize quality control in the mind factory, but do not question the assembly line process aimed at churning out masses of disciplined graduates for the market.

The aim of the managerial project in the universities is to rapidly complete the neoliberal transformation of post-secondary education, which has several dimensions. The managerial agenda aims to align the universities more closely with business interests, turning out graduates suited to employers’ wants.

It is oriented to the principle of user-pay, using sharp and continuous tuition increases to recover substantially more of the costs of post-secondary education from students. User-pay destroys any sense that education is a public service to which people have a right, rather than a degree-selling business.

As in other areas of the labour market, the neoliberal transformation of universities will mean bringing lean production principles into faculty work processes. One example of what this could mean is creating a lower tier of teaching-only positions that will give teachers no time to pursue research or writing. Another is using teaching technologies to try to make large classes more tolerable. This will also mean greater use of precarious work: part-time and contract faculty hired on short-term contracts with much lower rates of pay and no job security.

Meanwhile, competition both between and within institutions is becoming a central principle of university governance, at the same time as funding becomes contingent on specific government-dictated priorities through the use of performance indicators.

In many places, such as Britain and many states in the U.S., huge tuition increases are serving as the first wave in the latest phase of restructuring. Students have faced massive tuition increases in short periods of time. This has not happened yet in Canada, where governments are still relying on steady ongoing tuition increases, while using state funding to drive the restructuring of the system in a neoliberal direction.

Some of the neoliberal reforms might seem to address student concerns about relevance of their degrees and the quality of university teaching. However, the goal of these measures is to increase accountability of universities to business and state policy-makers, not to the self-defined needs of students. Further, the principle of user pay that underlies this neoliberal shift is going to drive students further into misery.

That is where the Occupy movement holds promise, offering the possibility of a bold rethink of university education and its relationship with the direction of the world. The Occupy movement is daring to ask big questions about the economic agenda, and create processes in which people are encouraged to think creatively while engaging in protest actions. Simply taking over some of the space of the university, like claiming space in the financial district, raises questions about democratic accountability and control.

Universities and Resistance

Resistance to the neoliberal restructuring of the universities sometime takes the form of defending the traditions of post-secondary education against this new technocratic agenda. However, there was no golden age of the university to look back to as part of our opposition to neoliberalism.

Universities developed historically as institutions for preparing a very small proportion of the white male population for middle-class managerial or professional life or ownership or government positions in the ruling class. Over time, others fought their way into these institutions, including women, people of colour and working-class people more generally. Admission to university has been a crucial issue in human rights and social justice struggles of the last 150 years.

Wider layers of people have gained admission to universities, but they have not transformed them into democratic and inclusive institutions. University teaching and research still tend to view the world through the perspective of European culture and history, so that Africans, Asians and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas tend to appear on the curriculum only as they have been captured through that lens. This is obviously true in disciplines like anthropology, history and literature. But it also shapes the natural sciences, where other ways of knowing the world are disavowed and forgotten. Even in a subject like dance, students can be taught about the European origins of particular formal techniques without learning about the breadth of forms of dance expression in different cultures and times.

Indeed, the idea of ‘reason’ as it is taught in universities is grounded in masculine perspectives that set aside the physical and emotional aspects of life, a view of the world less likely to resonate with women who in the dominant division of labour tend to spend more time caring for others and sustaining life. Even the idea that political perspectives only bias research, and that true scholarship is based on ‘disinterest,’ is associated with ruling-class perspectives that take for granted the dominant power relations in society and seek to examine only minor questions within that frame.

Elitism shapes instruction methods, which suit the small proportion of the student population who arrive as self-directed learners but do not help others acquire those skills. It also shapes the graduation process, which dumps students into the labour market without any assistance. This is a problem for many people who do not come from more prosperous families and who cannot rely on personal networks to help negotiate their way into employment, gaining an inside track (most jobs are not advertized and employers tend to hire people they know).

The best defence against neoliberalism is not to invoke a lost golden age of the university, but to work for its democratization and decolonization. This means rebuilding a student movement that can mobilize not only to resist tuition increases, but also to challenge the overall direction of the institutions and to push for real changes to advance equity and social justice. This includes working in alliance with university workers in the fight against the neoliberal restructuring of the post-secondary system, such as the striking non-academic staff at McGill University. Of course, this kind of student movement will also work creatively to support other community fight-backs against austerity and the corporate agenda, including current Occupy actions.

The student occupations during the large mobilization against tuition increases in Britain in November 2010 proved to be brilliant laboratories in which participants could develop new forms of democratic participation and raise big questions about the future of post-secondary education. The Occupy movement has dared to raise the big question of who is profiting from our misery in the age of austerity. If that movement can inspire students to create a new wave of occupations, we can hope to see an agenda of democratization and decolonization to challenge the neoliberal program of user pay, alignment with business and technocratic learning. This is only one of the ways to build on the new energy of the mobilization of the indignant, but it could be a powerful one. •

This article first appeared on Toronto New Socialists.

Alan is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University, an activist in a variety of social justice organizations, and an author of numerous articles and books such as The Next New Left: A History of the Future (Fernwood, 2014).