ANTICAPITALISM AND ACADEMICS

ANTICAPITALISM AND ACADEMICS

Shukaitis, Stevphen

ON 4 MAY 2003, at New York City’s Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Resource Center, a panel entitled “Anti-Capitalism and Academics” was held to begin addressing the relationship between radical academic and social movements. On the panel were Stanley Aronowitz (City University of New York [CUNY]), Jeanette Gabriel (State University of New York [SUNY]), David Graeber (Yale University), Michael Hardt (Duke University), and Luca Casarini (spokesperson for the Italian organization Disobedienti).

Panelists were posed the following questions: How can theoretical and political issues be addressed in a manner that makes theory relevant to practice? How can radical theory be developed in a manner that avoids vanguardism? How can radical academics become more connected and involved in social movements and struggles rather than existing apart from them? Coming from varying perspectives, the panelists raised some interesting questions and indicated possible directions that might be taken in developing stronger ties between social movements and academia. The following is a transcript of their responses1 and the conversation that took place.

stanley aronowitz: The questions for me are a little mystifying-and the reason they’re mystifying is because I never thought of myself as one thing or another. I happen to have a job at CUNY. And in the course of working there as a teacher and writing stuff I quickly became aware that I was working in a public university. And working in a public university the overwhelming majority of the students were working-class students. The university was perpetually in a fiscal crisis. There were 207,000 students at City University. And the conditions that the faculty and staff at the university faced were shitty. And that part of what the educational process was about was making students, faculty, and staff aware of how the shitty things they were experiencing could actually be dealt with. So my main activity as an activist is to try to organize people around these issues. I’ve always done that. I worked in the steel mill for ten years. I was a union activist. I was a community organizer. And I never thought of myself as having a real separation.

Let me tell you how I used to read. I was a high school graduate, got kicked out of college in the first semester. And I had a job where we worked for forty minutes and we were twenty minutes waiting for the furnace to heat up so we could draw steel ingots into wire. And while the ingots were in the 1700-Fahrenheit-degree oven we had to stay around but basically had a lot of time. Of course the forty minutes we worked got some of us killed, sometimes our arms were chopped-you know what people do in steel mills. But I did a lot of reading while I was in the plant. A lot of my initial reading in American history and theory and so on was in the course of working. And the first political activity I did-the first activist thing I did was to organize a study group of my fellow workers. We read novels. And we sometime read works of theory. None of us had a college education. Most of us had a high school education-some of us never finished high school. And the next thing you knew we were opposing the leadership of our district on issues of union power. It started from a study group. Where I learned that from was from the Bolsheviks. Bolsheviks organized study groups. And I said we should organize-this is while I was nineteen years old, by the way-and we did follow that pattern. And we had about eight or nine of us. And by the time we finished this activity I realized that the distinction between intellectual and practical work was a distinction that I didn’t have to live very much because I started out as a worker. My parents were workers. My grandparents were workers. That’s where I come from. And I still have that orientation. The thing I wanted to say about this is that the best way to connect theory and practice, theory and activism, is to understand that theory is a theory of practice, otherwise it is academic. And I’ve tried in the books and articles that I’ve written, newspapers that I’ve started, the magazines that I’ve started, endless things that I’ve done-is to always understand theory as a theory of practice because that’s the way I’ve lived my life.

And the problem is there are people who are bourgeois intellectuals. [Laughter] No, it’s not funny. [More laughter] Bourgeois intellectuals become radicalized, and largely by reading. And what happens as a result is the ones that become radicalized by reading have to figure out “how do I connect myself to the movement?” Historically the way they did that in the communist movement, largely, was to go into the factories. In the United States there was a big movement to go into the factories, to renounce one’s intellectual tradition-that was a disaster by and large-because after all, they were just bourgeois intellectuals. That’s who they were-mostly you couldn’t change them. Every now and then some of them made out alright either at factories or on ships or other places, but not very often. But more to the point when they become radicalized the typical pattern is, and I think that’s what your question is about-I’m doing this in a little roundabout way-is that they think that because they have the capacity for abstraction, that is, to deal in concepts, that their shit’s made out of perfume. And that’s the foundation of vanguardism. Vanguardism is raising to the level of political theory the view that bourgeois intellectuals have their shit made out of perfume. And their shit’s not made out of perfume. And so what they have to begin to see themselves as are people who can support and help, can run classes, can do a lot of different things in activist and popular movements-but they cannot lead those movements. That is the social democratic wet dream. And it can’t work because what happens as a result is that you get the Russian revolution and all of its distortions. And other revolutionary movements like China’s and Cuba’s are the same kinds of distortions. And I think the problem then is to reformulate the relationship between activists and intellectuals. And I don’t use the word academics-because that’s a job you have-so that intellectuals see themselves as people who address the problem of practice from a theoretical perspective. They can be educators, they can do some writing-they basically cannot run movements. And I think that issue has been raised in very many ways. I don’t try to run movements at all. I try to do what I can do. After many years of my activity, given the situation I’m in, I’ve become fairly modest about what people can do from any position-but I’m particularly skeptical about what people can do from the position of being intellectuals who do not address their intellectual activity to the problems that are entailed in practice.

michael hardt: I’ll just say two words, or just a little bit-and then I’d like to ask Luca some questions. I think the relationship between the Italian experience and the United States might be helpful with this. One thing that seems to me, if I understand that part of the question, is about the perceived gulf between a kind of theorizing that goes on in academic life and practice in the movements. And I think one of the things we have to do is recognize that it’s not that theorizing goes on in one place and practice in another-that there’s a lot of theorizing in the movements, there’s a lot of intellectual activity in the movements, and maybe sometimes not recognized as such.

One of the things that has always impressed me in my experience with the Italian movements is the linguistic creativity of the movements themselves and the kind of theorizing that goes on in the movements. I think it’s true also in the United States and that’s why I thought the comparison might be something revealing. In the Disobedient!, for instance, the theorization of what civil disobedience means, what civil disobedience can mean in different contexts, what multitude means, how it’s different from the masses or how it’s different from the people. And really a questioning of what intellectuality is, what the intellectual can be, what the intellectual can be within the movements, too, not as a single figure but as a function that we all participate in. That’s something that I’d like to ask Luca if he can say a few words about in the Italian context.

Iuca casarini: For me “intellectual” is an old concept-intellectuals who are separate from the movement. For me, there isn’t a division between the intellectual and the movement. For me the movement of movements are a collective intellectual. There are people who work in the factory for an elaborated theory based upon experience. It’s important for me to remember the suggestion from [Subcomandante] Marcos that it’s finished-the rule of the vanguard of intellectuality as separate from the movement. This movement of movements is part of the communication society, part of the collection, the relation of communication technology. In all parts of world on the fifteenth of February [2003] there was one big demonstration. There was not one central committee of the demonstration all over the world, but there was a collective intellectual that decided the sentences, the slogan and so on. And for me there isn’t a separation with the people that study and the people who practice. The practice needs study and the study needs practice. And this idea in the movement of movements makes a collective intellectualthe rule of vanguardism is finished. Separated theoretical work is the first step in vanguardism. This work is abstraction; the practice of the movement is an abstraction for the work of the separated intellectual. This is important for me. We make a new conscience-we are all intellectual, we are all activists. There isn’t a separation for me.

jeanette gabriel: My situation is a little bit different. I teach at the Harry Van Arsdale Center at SUNY, where the IBW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] works with SUNY to provide union apprentices with an associate’s degree program. So all the union electricians in New York City have an associate’s degree-kicking and screaming, most of them. So I teach labor history and economics to the electricians. And I’m also a union organizer for CSEA organizing home health-care workers in Queens and the National Writers Union in New Jersey, and I’ve been involved trying to connect community and workplace-based movements for a long time. So I can’t really address the question of intellectualism separate from activism because I have never come to it in that way. And in fact I made a very conscious decision not to teach traditional college students. The workers that I teach in no way consider themselves to be college students. They have a very negative view of college, and a very negative view of intellectualism. So I try to reach out to them and teach them to become an intellectual without them realizing that they are. I think this question of shoving ideas down people’s throats versus students coming to ideas on their own is a real important one, not just for academia, but also for the movement. I think we could have this same discussion about how ideas are brought across in the movement.

For example, I have two main ideas I want to get across to my students in the course of the semester. One, that there is a class struggle. The other is that there’s a system called capitalism, which oppresses them. The two are intertwined obviously. These are very basic concepts. And we learn a lot of things about the history of the class struggle, but it’s those basic concepts that I’m looking for them to understand. And I seek to develop their own consciousness in the classroom, which means I don’t lecture at them, because that doesn’t teach anything. There has to be a discussion process where they argue with each other, where they argue with me, where there’s a dynamic that the decisions that the class comes to are collective decisions-and not everyone’s going to agree with them, there’s going to be a minority-and that’s the process that needs to take place within the movement. And I think that’s the only way of creating a democratic movement-and I try to create that in my classroom.

Specifically I do it with role-playing. I try to get the electricians to view the world from outside their own experiences. For example if we’re talking about different strikes some of them have to represent the workers, some of them have to represent management, some of them have to represent the courtsand they battle it out with each other. And I always find it really interesting that the students who are on the courts always get frustrated. They say, “the employers are doing a much better job of arguing the position than the workers. I want to rule with the workers but they just can’t argue their position well.” And then we have a discussion about how all our experience in society teaches us to think like employers and not like workers, so that even when we want to defend ourselves we don’t have the tools to do it. And it’s through those kinds of experiences that workers develop a class consciousness about who and what they are. We have to connect what’s going on every day in New York City to the classroom. When the transit workers were about to go out on strike in 1999 my students wanted to know why Roger Toussaint sold them out. We had debates about it. They wanted to know how that affected the rest of the labor movement in New York City. They got hostile with each other and yelled at each other-and that’s all good, because they’re learning to develop their own opinions. I always tell them over and over again I don’t care what the conclusion is as long as you can back up what you said, as long as you analyze what’s good for workers, what’s bad for workers, what’s worked in the past, what hasn’t worked in the past, what’s going to take the movement forward. History has a lot of lessons.

Economics can teach us a lot of things if we can understand how the economic system works. But those are only tools and then we have to add in our own experiences. And when we add in our own experience then we create possible solutions. That’s what teaching has to be. It has to be a process of helping people learn to analyze where the movement should go. That’s what I’m interested in doing with my students. I think this is a problem inside the movement, too. Instead of sort of creating this dynamic discussion within the movement, we have people telling us what’s the way forward. None of us want to be told what’s the way forward. We want to live, we want to feel it, we want to experience it.

I do something in my economics class called “Calvin Monopoly.” All of you who have played “Calvin ball” know where we’re coming from with that. In other words, Calvin ball is from the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip where Calvin makes up all the rules as he goes along. So the whole point is that the students make up the rules as they go on playing Monopoly-so they’re all scamming each other. And the lesson is that this is the way the capitalism system works. There are no rules; everybody is cheating each other all the time. They have a lot of fun and throw paper money at each other-and it’s all about seeing how the system works by experiencing it themselves.

I think that’s really lacking in the classroommost teachers are afraid to give up that kind of control, they want to be seen as the authority figure, they want to believe they have so much to impart to the students that the students don’t have anything to teach them. I’ve learned so much from my students it’s incredible. Once you get them going they’ll tell you the craziest stories about what’s really going on. And then you can talk about it and figure out what the workers movement can do to deal with these problems.

So I think there’s a problem with people wanting authority and wanting power and being afraid to let go and let the dynamics process happen. And there’s a problem in the movement that people don’t feel self-confident about themselves and their ideas enough to really analyze where the movement should go. Every single one of us should be able to collectively sit down and talk about where the movement should go and together we’ll come up with the strongest answer. So I think those are both the things holding us back. And I guess I don’t see the division except that both these problems exist in different ways in academia and the movement.

david graeber: I’m going to start less by talking about intellectuals per se than academics because I agree that the distinction between intellectuals and activists is an artificial one and shouldn’t really exist, but academia is a reality. I’m part of it. I spend a lot of time thinking about its relation to social activism. I think we’re at a historical moment when the role of academic intellectuals is more than anything else to shut up and start learning things. First thing people need to do is to get involved in actual social movements and to start to think about the implications of new forms of practice that are cropping up. I think that in a lot of ways the activists in practice are way ahead of the intellectuals right now. We’re caught in this weird historical juncture. I think what happened, especially in the seventies, is that so much political activity was rooted in campuses and so huge percentages of academics thought of themselves as political radicals, as leaders of some sort of active political movements. Those movements have largely faded away. There are certain exceptions like feminism. We end up in this weird situation where most academics are writing these things that sound like position papers for vast social movements that don’t actually exist. It’s entirely in their heads. And it’s the worst kind, this weird sort of crypto-sectarian debate where tiny differences are fetishized into huge moral oppositions-you’re a bad person if you get it wrong. It’s very, very ridiculous. The immediate reaction of a lot of academics on discovering that social movements were flowering everywhere was sort of fear, contempt, and horror.

The first reaction you got across the board from the media and largely from academics is “Oh, these people are stupid, they’re so dumb-they don’t know anything (like pundits on TV who really understand things) about the IMF.” As academic intellectuals we should be collectively ashamed ofthat first reaction because in point of fact what I did was simply join. Just showed up. Didn’t claim to know what was going on because I didn’t. And just tried to see what was happening. What I quickly discovered was that the forms of practice, like consensus process-these were things that academics hadn’t dreamed of and that have profound implications not only for political action but just for how we should conduct ourselves intellectually, too. It made me realize how the very style of academic thought and debate resembles absurd tiny Marxist sects a lot more than groups that actually get anything done. It’s exactly the reverse of vanguardism; at this moment we should think of ourselves, insofar as we are academics, as learning and trying to reform our practice-intellectual practice-through the lessons that people are learning who are engaged in actual political struggles. My conception of the ultimate relation, which I have given a lot of thought to recently-if we’re not going to be a vanguard what are we?

I’m an anthropologist, and it occurs to me that the idea of ethnography is unusually kind of fertile here. Ethnography has been used in a number of very obnoxious ways. But it’s also something that holds potential-what it’s about is looking at forms of praxis and teasing out the underlying logical, moral principles that might not be entirely apparent to the people doing it. I think those tools are useful. We should be studying forms of resistance, forms of creative alternatives that exist, and trying to extrapolate from them as part of a process of dialogue. Insofar as these new movements will have a role specifically for intellectuals it’s a combination of that ethnographic impulse and a certain type of Utopian imaginary to say, “Well, if you applied the same principles in your political structure to economics, might it not look like something like this?” Sort of tossing things back and forth. So that type of dialogue is the starting point of how one can conduct it. We’re just at the beginning of thinking about what that discourse would look like, how we would really conduct it. I’ve thrown out some ideas previously about how we might be going about this, some directions at least to look at. I think one of the most important ones is to think about what we’re doing somewhat in the spirit of a gift economy. To make a gift of your ideas is to make them translatable and something that people can take away in ways that maybe you didn’t expect. And I think the first thing one has to do in doing that is to phrase them in language that people don’t have to have taken seven years of grad school to be able to understand. That itself is a lot work-it’s hard if you’ve gone through seven years of grad school to remember how to do that. There’s a lot of unlearning to do. Because otherwise it becomes attached to you.

I think there’s a way that everybody in academics is designed around being a “great thinker”-a sort of “great man” theory of history embodied there, much as there is in a sectarian Marxist logic where every school of Marxism comes out of the brain of some great thinker. We need to move away from that and come up with ideas that aren’t ours-ideas that can freely circulate and be useful for other people. One of the first ways to do that is to make them detachable from yourself, is to not make them so obscure, complex, and ambiguous that they need to constantly refer back to you to even understand what they mean. I really don’t have as much answers as ideas of directions that we need to be thinking about going. This project is something that is really just beginning. There’s enormous room for thinking these things out. We just started to explore entirely new territory.

stevphen shukaitis: I think that one of the important things to look at here-which is all the more important to look at because of how uncomfortable such might be to consider-is the role the university plays as a system of stratification in society. Just because one discusses radical ideas or politics within the university system that doesn’t mean that you’ve actually changed the role the university plays in society. So when we talk about radical organizing, about the relation between intellectuals and activism, we have to realize that such entails within it a critique of the relatively privileged position academics have managed to stake out within society. That doesn’t mean it’s the same across the board, as any adjunct will tell you. But unless radical intellectuals are willing to look critically at their own status, at the fact that the a radical reordering of the social world along more egalitarian lines would mean reconsidering our own position, then we have from the very beginning set ourselves off from the very social movements we want to embrace. You know, the dynamics of power don’t change because you’ve talked about and critiqued them; they change because something intervenes in the system that changes them.

One of the most important things that intellectuals can do now is to make information available about important topics in an accessible manner. Take the situation that led up to the most recent intensification of the war against Iraq. Try and find a single book or source of information that explains the functioning of the United Nations. There isn’t one. Do you think most people understand how the United Nation works, with all-important powers held by the security Council? No, I don’t think so. So much writing on the left, particularly by the radical elements, is written in a way that virtually guarantees its marginalization. That’s not how to build or support a mass movement; that’s a dynamic that almost guarantees the exact opposite. And that’s why we have to see our intellectual work as part of a collective project, as something occurring in relation to and in the context of the social movements we embrace, rather than as something that occurs apart from them.

brooke lehman: I wanted to comment on notions of anti-authoritarians doing a lot of this thinking because I feel like the thing that the academy affords is the ability to think through thoughts in a period of time that’s a lot longer than what we usually allow ourselves as activists. There’re so many one-shot deals where you go and hear people speak, discuss it for an hour and a half, and then you leave-you might talk about it on email, but that’s it. So there’s not a whole lot of opportunity to develop your theory. That’s where we have a giant split between activists and people in the academy where it doesn’t need to be. We just have to actually give ourselves the time to do this sort of work and in an ongoing way in study groups and reading groups. That’s largely what we want to do here [at Bluestockings], that’s the vision of this place. I was at the Social Forum in Porto Allegre. At the “Alternatives to Capitalism” event, which Michael Albert did, I was really shocked. The whole purpose of the “Life after Capitalism” event was to have four days to have panel discussions debating different visions of life after capitalism. And his whole thing is Parecon, participatory economics, which I don’t think is the be-all, end-all by any means. But he and his crew were the only people that had a vision-everybody else just had ideology. Nobody was able to have a debate because there was nothing to debate. There was just anarchist ideology and Parecon. There were people saying it was classist to even engage in this sort of visionary thinking, that it really needed to be out in the streets, and it was frivolous to actually have discussions that actually made people do this sort of visionary thinking. I don’t know whether we’re lazy as anarchists; I feel that that’s an excuse. Why can’t anybody come together-sit down for one night even per month and start to develop theory-I don’t think it takes a hell of a lot. I just think that we in the anti-authoritarian left need to do this work if we’re going to be relevant and not have it be in the academy, to have it be in the movement and in politics.

aronowitz: The most obscene thing about American radicalism is its anti-intellectualism. It’s just obscene. And the reason that it’s obscene is because that’s exactly what the system wants us to be. Exactly. The split between activism and intellect is precisely what the doctor ordered to make the system reproduce itself. I spend hours and days doing what you call activism. And at some point I’m lucky because I have this academic job and there are three reasons to have it: June, July, and August. During June, July, and August I really do preserve my sanity and actually do a lot of reading and writing. And I insist on it. When people say “but Stanley you have to come to a meeting, you have to come to union negotiations” (I’m on the negotiating committee of a union of 17,000 people at CUNY). And I say, “fuck yourself-you do it, I’ll be back, I can’t do it. I have to take the time.” Now it doesn’t mean that everybody’s got that kind of time. But the truth of the matter is that the fight for the intellect, the struggle for the intellect is one of the most important ones we have. I don’t think movements can go anywhere without them, without intellect-and I agree with the idea that has been expressed of the collective intellect, the movement as the collective intellectual. That’s really true. But it doesn’t mean simply because you say that that we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of doing some very serious reading and very serious studying, and trying very hard to make ourselves people who can actually represent collectively that kind of fusion-and not doing it on the basis of the old time division of labor. See that’s what you were talking about. It’s about everyone, to a different extent obviously as there’s no equality in this respect, embodying the fusion.

Maybe the only thing I disagree with you about is that I’ve been trying to do this my whole life and I still haven’t succeeded. It’s a lifetime. I live my life trying to put it together-it’s not easy.

graeber: I think in the case of Porto Allegre it always brings home to me that attitude, not only anti-intellectualism but a certain fundamental conceptual mistake a lot of people have that entitlement is a bad thing, but it’s a bad thing because only some people have it. It’s not that it’s a bad thing to be able to sit around and think, the problem with entitlement is that some people have it and others don’t.

gabriel: I think the issues of how we find time to be intellectual is a more complex one than just taking out June, July, and August, especially for us adjuncts who make less money than we would on unemployment. The whole academic world is being transferred into it. So that’s something that if people are really serious about preserving intellectual space then full-timers need to fight for adjuncts instead of pitting themselves against them in order to preserve their privilege, which I know you have not done [Stanley]. Making for intellectualism is a community responsibility-I’m the only woman up on this panel and I don’t think that’s a mistake. I don’t mean that you did anything wrong [Stevphen]. Women who are intellectuals have families, are trying to be activists, and don’t have a lot of time, especially not on a Sunday night to come and have this kind of a chat. We need to make space as a community for people to have time to do intellectual work. And that means it’s not always going to be the guys thinking they know best doing the intellectualizing for us. One of the issues that has been talked about around Bluestockings has been child-care, and I think that’s very important when it comes to making space for people to do intellectual work. You have to take community responsibility for the communityand find time for all of us to engage in that work together.

Copyright Center For Social Research and Education Oct-Dec 2003

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