The Neoliberal Crisis and the Open University

By now we should all recognize the global economic effects of neoliberalism. David Harvey reminds us that free market policies have led, first and foremost, to a dramatic class realignment in which the relative egalitarianism of the post-World War II era was successfully beaten back, and over the course of the last 30 years, the US (with Europe close on our heels), has become more economically unequal than at any other time since Emancipation. With the powers of the free market unleashed — spearheaded by the most flexible form of capitalism itself, the financial sector — all that stands to challenge this flow of wealth from bottom to top, from South to North, finds itself either corrupted, ignored or kettled. The values of public space, public education, even the very idea of a public good either finds no voice eloquent enough to rise above the commercialized din or find themselves serenaded by the now thirty year old song of TINA (“There is no alternative”). But now, as the full weight of the 2008 global financial crisis settles in — a crisis caused by the reckless greed of the richest people on the planet — the rest of us are facing imposed government austerity that has targeted public higher education. The response has been a global wave of popular protest spreading across four continents.
The protests, street battles and occupations in the UK may be the biggest moment in this global wave so far, producing a downright Brechtian confrontation between student rabble and the prince on his way to the theatre. Meanwhile, police have driven student protesters off the University of Puerto Rico, militarizing the campus for the first time since student killings more than 30 years ago.  These are but two local stories. In the last two years, campus-based protests have appeared in Brazil, Germany, Austria, Poland, Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Japan, the Philippines, California and Puerto Rico (and probably more). Predictably, these protests have been greatest at large public universities, those dependent upon state funds and subsidized tuition to provide a low cost vehicle to the middle class for millions. The protests themselves are often driven by students and faculty in the arts and humanities, precisely the disciplines least capable of justifying themselves based upon cost-benefit analysis or their capacity for sufficient revenue generation.  
In England, the Conservative-led government voted on December 9th to allow the tripling of university tuition, replacing the previously uniform price ceiling with a cost stratified system. Last year in Germany, students occupied buildings to protest the imposition of tuition for the first time.  And at the University of California more than 1900 people have been laid-off, faculty and staff furloughed, and student fees increased by now 40% in a single year. In very real terms, this terrific escalation in the costs of higher education is transforming the most accessible means for individual class uplift and collective knowledge production into an expensive luxury and marketable brand.  Of course, this widening gap is no news to students of color. Central to neoliberalism’s historical transformation has been the degradation of democratic institutions, especially in the form of racial justice and civil liberties. Neoliberalism’s war on the poor, whether in Oakland or Rio de Janeiro, continues unabated and it should remind us that class stratification is always already a modality of racial resegregation.
In a very real way, this global fight for higher education is the fight against finance capital itself.  In London, students marched on the Treasury, chanting, “Tax the banks not students.” In California, protests are directed against the members of the UC Regents, a rostrum of appointed plutocrats which include several major hedge fund managers, the former CEO of Wachovia, and Richard Blum, husband to Senator Feinstein and head of Blum Capital Parters, one of the largest private equity firms in the US. Last quarter, student loan debt exceeded credit card debt as the largest share of American consumer debt as students borrow and borrow to buy their way into the future.
With their future on the line, setting fire to benches or frightening royalty may be the best way to get the student’s cause on the TV. But below the surface, there appear innovative protest practices in which students defend public education by challenging the limits of public space on campus. In California, no less than in Germany or England, building occupations are the order of the day.  Now, students can barricade themselves in a building and shout from the windows, or they can sit-in to shut down the bureaucratic machinery (also largely for media effects). But now there is this third variety of occupation in which students, faculty and staff transform the privatized space of the neoliberal university into an autonomous and democratic Open University. In such occupations, buildings are taken over by students, kept clean, secure and always open, and actively re-imagined as a participatory space in which all manner of social movement education can occur. Freedom may be one long meeting, but you can also webcast your dance party from an occupied lecture hall! So while the photos from the streets of London may look a little Children of Men at times, there is an educational utopia being built by sleep deprived students right now. No wonder this globally wired generation of student activists offer the same chants in the streets of London, San Francisco or San Juan:  “No cuts, no fees, education should be free!”  
Check out the Guardian‘s by-the-minute coverage of the London protests. But don’t just read the blog, click on the links to get into the student activist sites themselves. 
A blog focusing on student activism world wide. 
Reclamations is a journal created by the student movement at UC Berkeley and has been a site of controversy for many reasons, but it does offer crucial insight into what is at stake here in California.

Michael Cohen is a Lecturer in American Studies and African American Studies and Co-Chair of Solidarity Alliance at UC-Berkeley.

Michael Cohen