Anomie Soup

Recently I’ve been spending my days working frantically on my book, voraciously reading texts for my qualifying exams and—this is the best, and most exciting, part—talking animatedly about potential dissertation ideas with my colleagues. You could say that, after a two-year hiatus, I love sociology again. The only problem is that it took me getting away from the best sociology department in the country to remember it.

About those colleagues: they are graduate students in sociology from SciencesPo, Paris. They work on a spectrum of topics and come from a range of countries, but as far as I can tell, they share at least one thing in common: they actually seem to like graduate school. We all work in a big, shared office room, and every hour-and-a-half someone announces a mandatory coffee break. We take a long hour for lunch, and in that time, virtually no one brings up how stressed they are about work, how unhappy they are with their advisors, or their bleak job-market prospects.

I’m sure that if I stay long enough, I’ll find a certain amount of disaffection and dissatisfaction underneath the surface. Still, my interactions have raised a previously unthinkable proposition:: graduate school doesn’t have to be miserable. Sometimes, I think the side-by-side comparison I’m constantly making between these SciencesPo students and my compatriots at Berkeley is unfair, since I viewed Berkeley through the lens of extreme depression and I am now seeing the whole world in a sunnier light. Then again, a few of the grad students here have been to Berkeley, and a few Berkeley students have visited SciencesPo, and in both cases, the universal consensus was that Berkeley students seem really, really unhappy.

I can’t actually say that I would have been happier had I chosen a different school—I was probably due for a depressive episode, anyway. But it’s not exactly like Berkeley is set up for thriving. For one, the department is ruthlessly denigrating of collaboration and co-authorship: we were literally told in our introductory pro-seminar, “Don’t ask a professor to write something with you, they’ll say no” and “Co-authored publications count for nothing on your CV.” It’s not the department’s fault that the faculty-student ratios are so far off, but facing a sign-up sheet on a perpetually closed professor’s door, with dozens of 15 minute blocks booked for weeks into the future, doesn’t exactly give you a sense of being valued as an individual. And it doesn’t exactly make me feel great that my adviser didn’t respond to the e-mail I sent telling her I was extremely depressed and considering leaving school, the one where I said I was leaving school, or the one saying that I was thinking about coming back.

The weirdest thing that has occurred to me with a bit of distance is that Berkeley sociology is so damn un-sociological. If I wrote a dissertation that said that a social movement came from a single leader or that wealth comes from individual aptitude, I’d be laughed out of the department. As sociologists, we know that great things come from groups, not individuals. Except sociology, apparently, which comes from lone, isolated geniuses. It’s funny we read so much Durkheim, since you could argue that our dis-integrated department is designed to produce anomie.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite, because I will go back to Berkeley. The activist inside of me wants to go back and to try to change it—to join those other students trying to create some sense of community, perhaps, or maybe even start a “mental health” working group, or something. But as far as I can tell, the people at Berkeley who are happy are the ones who take what they need from the department and then invest as little in it as possible. As a really, really fantastic and inspiring and caring professor told me on a skype call recently, “Don’t come back here until you’re really ready to take advantage of it. It’s not a good place.”

Maybe they should mention that on visit weekend.

Solidarity

“Has anyone here ever been part of a union before?”  No hands go up.

“Does anyone here think they’ll be in a union after they graduate?” Still no hands.

“How about this: who thinks they’ll someday be on the other side of a negotiating table from a union?”  Finally, hands go up, along with a smattering of laughter.

My first act as a Head Steward for United Auto Workers Local 2865—which represents 12,000 academic workers across the UC system—was making a membership pitch to business school students.  It wasn’t particularly successful, but I was optimistic about the broader project of union-building nonetheless. Our union felt like the most vibrant social movement on campus, fighting for public education and a preparing to negotiate a fair contract.  Compared to my previous forays with activist groups, the union seemed remarkably well-run and non-dysfunctional.  I was even excited about going through departments knocking on doors, a chance to confront my phobia of pushing strangers into political action.

My enthusiasm didn’t last long.  I found the apathy of my fellow graduate students disturbing and disheartening.  After all, for once I wasn’t trying to get people to help the animals or save the planet, but just to take a few simple actions to benefit their own bottom-line.  And, as it turned out, the union wasn’t quite as harmonious as I thought.  The endless internecine bickering between different union caucuses—taking place as the real foe, the university, prepared to screw us massively in contract negotiations—was off putting.  And, of course, I was wickedly depressed.  In August of this year, I resigned from my post as Head Steward without completing my term.  I’m not sure if, in those seven months, I convinced a single person to sign a membership card.

That was the end of my time as a union organizer but not, as it turned out, the end of my involvement in the union.  My decision in October to leave Berkeley meant abruptly dropping my position as a Graduate Student Instructor, which in turn was covering my fees for the semester.  Technically, I was legally entitled to two weeks of paid leave, which would just barely put me over the threshold at which the university was obligated to pay my tuition.  But none of the administrators I talked to mentioned this fact.  A few weeks later, a bill arrived: $7,500—full tuition, without even partial remission to compensate for the five weeks I had actually worked.

I had no energy or willpower for a fight against the UC bureaucratic juggernaut, and reluctantly resigned myself to draining my savings to pay the bill.  But a steward in our department asked if he could look into the situation, and I acquiesced.  I wish I could say I was an active participant in the process that followed, but in truth, I did virtually nothing.  On the other hand, a union activist—one with whom I hadn’t exchanged more than a few words with in months—held who-knows-how-many meetings with the administration.  Eventually, the department caved and my bill vanished.

Being me, I of course feel slightly guilty about this favorable outcome.  Couldn’t that money have gone to something better?  But I guess that’s why we have unions: to fight for us, as workers, when we can’t or won’t fight for ourselves.  I joined UAW 2865 because it fought for grand causes like re-funding public education or reducing income inequality.  In the end, though, solidarity for me has a less sexy, but no less important, meaning.

November 9th and the Changing Repertoires of Activism

The reports are just rolling in, and boy, has it been enlightening.  A few weeks ago, the University of California Police Department released a report determining that the real source of problems at Berkeley on November 9th was that police weren’t allowed enough “force options”—particular, pepper spray. Shortly thereafter, a quasi-independent review board at Davis came to a somewhat divergent conclusion that, there, the use of pepper spray was “objectively unreasonable.”  And, after seven months of painstaking research, the Berkeley Police Review Board has closed the book on November 9th by declaring that campus police “may” have violated campus norms and procedures.  One wonders: isn’t a “possible” violation of the rules usually the starting premise for an investigation, not its end point?

Of the lot, I think the Edley/Robinson report to the UC President comes closest to saying something interesting about November 9th—which is ironic, because it was the only report which wasn’t tasked with investigating what happened on November 9th.  One thing about the report stood out to me in particular.  Early on, the authors note:

Although we began this project by addressing “protest” activity generally, we soon realized that the central challenge before us related to civil disobedience… It is only when demonstrators engage in civil disobedience—the refusal to comply with laws or regulations as a form of protest or as a means of drawing attention to the demonstrators’ message—that more complicated and controversial issues arise (5)

I think the authors are on to something.  Policing “protest” at Berkeley isn’t complicated, because most of the 50-or-so registered “protests” at Berkeley are sanctioned, contained, and, ultimately, totally meaningless.  The issue, really, is about how to deal with certain kinds of protest tactics that deviate from this predictable norm.

In a sense, I’m grateful that the authors called what we were doing “civil disobedience.” After all, immediately after November 9th, Chancellor Birgeneau sent out an e-mail claiming that we hay “betrayed” the legacy of the civil rights movement.  Now, by calling what we did “civil disobedience”, they are now implicitly connecting us to that tradition.  For me, at least, civil disobedience immediately conjures the image of black college students in the deep south, sitting patiently at a segregated lunch counter, bravely bearing police harassment and violence in order to dramatize injustice and spur legislators to action.  It’s an overly generous comparison, and while I’m not sure we’ve quite lived up to it, I’ll take it.

There’s only one problem: what we were doing on November 9th wasn’t civil disobedience, it was direct action.  While for Occupy Wall Street activists and their ilk this is all fairly obvious, I think that the difference between “civil disobedience” and “direct action” is crucial for understanding what happened in November, and why things ended so badly.  And, because it relates to my current research interests, it seems like a good starting point for a brief excursus into the sociology of protest repertoires.

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Activists like to think of social movements as strategic actors, cleverly adapting innovating new tactics to achieve their goals.  In truth, though, activists tend to resort to the same narrow range of tactics—like marches, demonstrations, and petitions—over and over again, while ignoring a host of theoretically possible other ways to express dissent.  These “repertoires” of protest tend to vary coherently over time and between countries.  As the late sociologist Chuck Tilly demonstrated, prior to the 19th century people “protested” by acting directly to address the problems they perceived.  If a group of people thought bread prices were too high, they would riot and seize the granary.  If they didn’t like a tax on tea, they’d throw the tea into the sea.  If you were pissed off at your feudal lord, you’d burn down his house.

In early 19th century England, though, this changed.  Protesting moved from the realm of the material to the symbolic: instead of acting directly, people sought redress indirectly by making appeals to powerful external actors.  The rise of what Tilly calls our “modern repertoire” of contentious politics, then, is closely tied to the rise of democracy.  Although civil disobedience might seem to be much more radical than an orderly march, it still follows the same basic logic of other actions in that repertoire.  Even if CD by nature emerges from a frustration with the ineffectiveness of institutional political acts, like voting, it still requires a belief that the system as a whole basically works.  You don’t do CD unless you believe that elected representatives will eventually be responsive, if only you show—through breaking the law—that your particular cause is an important one.  The paradox of civil disobedience, then, is that it simultaneously reinforces the legitimacy of the political system even as it trespasses one part of it.  The black students carrying out sit-ins were violating one particular law, but in so doing they were validating “The Law” and the representative-democracy from which it flows as the appropriate way to address it.*

Since the 1960s, CD has become an increasingly routinized part of the protesting landscape.  In annual demonstrations against nuclear power plants, for example, demonstrators will often arrange with the police beforehand, making their own inevitable arrest an integral part of their message.  But this is only part of the story of how protest tactics have evolved in the last few decades.  Although “direct action” never really disappeared—strikes, for example, are in some respects direct actions—I believe (and, hopefully, will someday empirically document) there has been a major upsurge in this tactic.  The “direct” shutdown of the WTO meeting in Seattle, 1999, is a visible example, but projects like “guerilla gardens” started in abandoned lots or Food Not Bombs’ free meals from discarded food are also “direct actions.”  The demise of state-socialism has, I think, effected a change towards anarchist models of organizing that prioritize these kinds of tactics that attempt to immediately, and directly, change society.

This is a major shift.  As John Rawls suggests, CD only makes sense if you believe you live in a “nearly-just society”; DA, on the other hand, is a tool for those who believe that the whole system of representative democracy is broken and the best we can do is work around it at every turn.  And, of course, while the lines between CD and DA are always fuzzy, the two entail profoundly different ways of relating to the police.  As David Graeber notes:

Those carrying out a ‘civil disobedience may willingly surrender themselves to the police; even if they don’t…they act in the full expectation they will wind up in jail…Direct actionists, in contrast…are trying their best to get away with it (Direct Action: An Ethnography: 205).

In short, for the civilly-disobedient, the police are an integral part of the script of a protest; for the direct actionist, they are a hazard.

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A charitable reading of the Edley and Robinson report is that the authors are trying to return us to a previous model in which civil disobedience was, well, civil.  After all, within Occupy, it has often seemed like the tacit understanding between police and protesters engaged in CD—you let us break the law, and we’ll let you arrest us and face the consequences—had broken down.  After November 9th, I found myself wondering why no officer ever bothered to ask me if I would submit to arrest peacefully.  In this respect, Edley/Robinson—with its call for mediation and dialogue—seems like a step in the right direction.

But would it have changed anything?  For better or for worse, on November 9th, we wanted to “get away with it”—not make a statement through getting arrested.  We weren’t setting up an encampment because we wanted to dramatize the irrationality of the university’s rule against encampments.  Nor were our tents a publicity stunt to get legislators to wake up and pay attention to our concerns.  We were making a direct intervention into the operation of the university, attempting to create a real (not just symbolic) alternative to privatization and austerity.  Had the university attempted to mediate, we probably would have ignored them; had they asked us if we wanted to be arrested, we likely would have said “No.”

A lot of occupiers like the way that DA “heightens the contradictions” within our system, forcing authorities into a binary choice between letting protesters do what the want—whether occupying a public space or starting a farm on nominally “private property”—or engaging in spectacularly stupid acts of repression.  The point, though, is that not everyone realizes this is happening.  People like Edley/Robinson continue to believe that they are dealing with a variant of classic civil disobedience, and so they’re confused as to why activists aren’t playing their part.   Sociologically, it’s a fascinating moment, in which there are not just divergent opinions about the issues we’re protesting about, but also different conceptions of what these protests actually are.  For protesters, though, it’s bad news, as the police and some elements of the administration seem to have picked up on the fact that the only way to stop direct action is to beat people into submission – which is why, for all it’s reasonableness, the Edley/Robinson report will be completely ignored.

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* Of course, this may reflect the fact that – were they to do anything more radical – the violence against them would be even more extreme.

Quick Hits on Berkeley Sit/Lie

On June 12th, Berkeley’s City Council will vote on a “sit-lie” ordinance intended to prevent un-housed, homeless, and otherwise indigent people from sitting on city sidewalks during the day.

This is a terrible idea. The ordinance would turn what is at worst a minor inconvenience for those of us with a low tolerance for disorder into a social problem that demands city resources. Apparently, a similar ordinance in San Francisco has led to the police repeatedly ticketing a tiny number of older homeless people over and over again. I didn’t come to Berkeley to study homeless and I don’t consider myself an expert on the issue. But, through my work with Food Not Bombs in People’s Park, I’ve learned a thing or two about Berkeley’s long history of conflict over public space and the various “publics” that use it. Being unable to attend the City Council Meeting tomorrow, I offer a few quick thoughts:

1) We will always have the homeless (if we choose to). One of the most important ideological tricks that the right has played on us—and the left increasingly accepted—is the notion that “we will always have the homeless”. It’s a clever way of reframing the debate that refocuses us away from addressing the root causes of homeless towards trying to figure out how to manage what is reframed as a set of inevitable nuisances. But this framing is belied by reality: as Teresa Gowan documents in her (much recommended) “Hoboes, Hustlers, and Backsliders”, homeless as a large scale social phenomenon virtually disappeared from the 1930s to the late ‘70s, only to expand rapidly in the Reagan years.

Unless you believe that, over a five year period of the early 1980s, Americans suddenly started using lots more drugs, had a lot more mental illness, and became much less willing to work, it’s difficult to explain the sudden explosion of homelessness in terms of individual factors. Instead, we should remember that we, as a society, chose to de-institutionalize the mentally ill, slash social programs, skimp on services for returning veterans and ignore the impacts of globalization on the working class—all contingent factors behind the inevitable rise of homelessness. The nuisances of homelessness are not something imposed on us from the outside, but something that we have systematically created for ourselves.

2) This should be obvious but… Very, very, very few people in Berkeley are homeless because the want to be or have chosen to engage in the behaviors—like panhandling—that come with it. I say this because Berkeley’s homeless include a particularly uncharismatic element: street kids who—I am often told—have “chosen” their situation out of a desire to travel, avoid work, or fight the man. Most people of the white-liberal persuasion are willing to give a pass to homeless Vietnam Vets (and maybe even older African-American vets) but cannot abide crust-punks flying signs that ask for money to buy weed.

I get it: many of Berkeley’s un-housed community do not fit our image of the deserving poor. But, having interacted with scores of homeless people in the course of my research, I have only met two who claim to be homeless by choice—and neither of them panhandle. There is very little romantic about life on the streets: accessing basic services for shelter or healthcare entails endless degradation, and, for many, the meal we serve as Food Not Bombs is the only food they’ll get in the day. Ultimately, of course, we should try to break down the grouping of the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving”, but in the meantime, we should remember that there are hidden histories of abuse, disempowerment, and marginalization that lead people to sit on sidewalks and ask for spare change.

3) You can go elsewhere. They can’t. Thanks to my background, experiences, and identity as a white, heterosexual male, I am lucky enough to feel comfortable virtually anywhere in Berkeley, including in spaces occupied by homeless people. I acknowledge that others may not, and maybe for good reasons that, for aforementioned reasons, I can’t entirely understand. When I have raised the notions of “urban clearing” or “revitalization” with my classmates—expecting that they would be similarly horrified by the prospect—I’ve been surprised by the number of people who support them. They resent that places like Telegraph Avenue or People’s Park are, to them, uncomfortable and unsafe spaces.

And so I offer a somewhat insensitive retort: you can go elsewhere, they can’t. Homeless people don’t come to Berkeley to partake in some romantic sixties counterculture. They’re here because they won’t starve or freeze to death and the police are slightly less likely to harass them than in San Francisco. Berkeley is as close to a haven for the homeless as exists in our society. While that might create inconveniences for the rest of us, we should acknowledge that we can go be white privileged people and not get harassed by police or panhandlers pretty much anywhere.  I’m not suggesting that those in favor of Sit/Lie should move elsewhere—although I would note that there are an almost infinite number of neo-liberal, gentrified-as-shit law-and-order hellholes where you could go and not be regularly confronted with the after-effects of welfare-state retrenchment—but arguing that maybe you could just go to virtually any street in Berkeley other than Telegraph Avenue.

4) And jeez, we are Berkeley after all. I came to Berkeley expecting to find a progressive utopia. I’ve been sobered on this image by some vigorous baton thrusts and the realization that, like virtually everywhere, Berkeley is wracked by tensions between business and community, between tolerance and order, and between ideals and reality. But Berkeley is still special: a place that has in the past bucked and resisted national trends to criminalize homelessness, militarize the police, and run the poor and marginalized out of town. There are lots of places with Sit/Lie ordinances; there is only one Berkeley.

For interested, the Berkeley City Council can be reached at: lmaio@cityofberkeley.info, dmoore@cityofberkeley.info, kworthington@cityofberkeley.info, jarreguin@cityofberkeley.info, swengraf@cityofberkeley.info, gwozniak@cityofberkeley.info, lcapitelli@cityofberkeley.info, manderson@cityofberkeley.info. I’ve already received several personal replies, so if you are at all inspired, please contact them before tomorrow night. For those of you who tend to think no political action ever works and everything is 100% fucked, I would note that Berkeley activists have been successful in defeating similar ordinances in the past.

The Long Haul

After a fall spent trying to make some social change, this spring I’ve withdrawn into my more comfortable habitus: reading about social change.  I’ve been particularly drawn to stories about the Civil Rights movement, perhaps because I’ve been desperate to remind myself that change does in fact happen every once in a while.

Most recently, I read Doug McAdam’s, Freedom Summer, which chronicles one of the most pivotal moments in the trajectory of 1960s activism.  Frustrated with their inability to draw significant attention from the white, Northern liberals they needed to pass Civil Rights legislation, the black activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee hatched a plan to bring hundreds of white students from elite universities to the deep south for voter registration.  Confronted with poverty and racism that white Northerners had previously ignored, the volunteers were profoundly radicalized. As McAdam charts, Freedom Summer volunteers went back to school in the fall and were pivotal in launching the movements that defined the New Left and the latter half of the 1960s.  Case in point: Berkeley legend Mario Savio, future spokesman of the Free Speech Movement, was a Freedom Summer volunteer.*

McAdam caught up with the activists twenty years later and found that, contrary to the popular narrative about ‘60s radicals, most Freedom Summer volunteers did not “sell out” or turn conservative.  Continuing political engagement, though, came at a price. When the ‘60s were over, the activists felt like they were coming down off of a years-long “freedom high”.  Even those who wanted to fully reintegrate into mainstream society struggled to maintain “regular” jobs or “normal” relationships.  There are some political experiences, it would seem, that you just can’t shake.

This spring, I think many activists could relate: I, for one, am suffering an “occupy hangover”.  Not that my experiences could possibly come close to those of the Freedom Summer volunteers.  I can’t even entirely relate to those who, this past fall, quit their jobs to move to encampments or who spent hundreds of hours in General Assemblies. Nonetheless, as a wise comrade recently posted on facebook, I miss knowing that the encampments were there, that there were thousands of people out there who shared my concern for the state of the world and my desire to do something about it.  Not that there aren’t still protests and demonstrations: I’m excited for May Day and inspired by the creativity and boldness of yesterday’s Occupy the Farm action.  It’s just that, no matter how many people come out for them, the sense of infinite possibility, of existing in a moment of real historical import, has disappeared, crushed by police batons, dishonest media coverage, and the realization that too many people still don’t give a damn.  Looking back at blog posts from the fall, I’m almost embarrassed at the optimism, the naivety: it’s part of why it’s been so difficult to write (the schoolwork doesn’t help either).

My search for a meaningful, post-occupation place to put my energy brought me to where it almost always does: feeding people.  In February, I started volunteering with East Bay Food Not Bombs, which serves over a thousand meals a week, almost entirely from food that would otherwise go to waste. My previous image of Food Not Bombs was one of self-involved hipsters; in East Bay, though, FNB is a fabulous amalgam of squatters from Oakland, remnants of Berkeley’s various communist parties, self-described homeless-activists, and some elderly women who, despite visually fitting the church-ladies-in-soup-kitchens stereotype, have repeatedly assured me that that they are anarchists.  There are limits to the political change that can be accomplished with free food, of course, but in an age where even the most meagre of public benefits are becoming a “privilege”, serving a no-questions-asked vegetarian meal feels radical enough for me.

It helps that, with Food Not Bombs, I’ve been plugged into a community of activists which existed long before Occupy and, I imagine, will persist long past it. Five days a week, we serve in People’s Park, only three blocks away from campus but a no-go zone for most students, who are wary of its residents.  A few weeks ago, I was invited to a “People’s Park Oral History Night” at a local infoshop.  There, a long-haired man in his 70s shared how he and other students seized the park from the university in 1969, declaring it a “liberated” space that would serve as a haven for the dispossessed and a launch-pad for organizing against “The War”.**  “In the 1960s, there were thousands of us”, another old activist said.  “In the ‘90s”—when the university tried to retake the park and activists fended them off in five days of rioting—“there were hundreds.”  Now, he admitted, “There are only a few dozen of us greybeards left.”

And yet, somehow, these activists have stayed committed.  They survived Reagan when, as Governor of California, he declared martial law in downtown Berkeley, and they survived Reagan when, as President, he dismembered the welfare programs they fought for in the 1960s.  They were pissed off when Bush went to war brazenly and openly, and they’re pissed off that Obama is doing it covertly.  The costs of their dedication are obvious: most everyone I talked to has led a difficult life, one in which they traded in financial stability and social acceptance for “the cause”.  And, in the end, they have few tangible victories—other than a couple-acre park that most everyone in Berkeley seems to hate—to show for it.

Hearing their stories made me feel guilty to have taken a pause to focus on my studies after only a few months of activity.  But when I told this to the other activists that night, they all said I have nothing to be ashamed of.  People cover for one another; when one person steps back to take care of him or herself, there’s another at a point where he or she can step forward.  The community is always active, even if we, as activists, have to focus on ourselves once in a while.  I was reminded of how lucky I am to be in a place like Berkeley, where there are older activists to show me that this isn’t just a passing phase, even if there are a few days, months, or even years where I’m behind a desk and not out on the streets.

As if to drive the point home, the next day I learned that one of the Food Not Bombs volunteers was part of Freedom Summer back in ’64.  Who knows what he did in the intervening forty-seven years; but now, he comes down to People’s Park almost every day, wearing a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, and serves food with a bunch of anarchists.

It seems more than a coincidence that infoshop where the event was held is called the Long Haul.

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* Fun fact: the interview report for Mario Savio’s application to be a Freedom Summer volunteer describes him as “not very creative” and “one of those average people”.

** There is only one war in Berkeley: Vietnam.

Flushing Public Education

Here’s an exciting topic for a blog post: bathrooms.  News of the imminent arrival of seventeen shiny new graduate students to the sociology department somehow got lost in the University of California bureaucracy, so for the first five weeks of school, none of us had keys to the departmental bathroom.  As a result, we had to go downstairs to the first floor of Barrow’s Hall, where the classrooms and a public bathroom are located.  That’s the undergraduate bathroom, and let me tell, it’s disgusting.

Presuming that UC Berkeley undergraduate students are not any less hygenic than their peers at Oxford or Princeton, I could only presume that the bathrooms here get cleaned less often.  Sure enough, when I asked around I was told that janitors were hit hard by the last round of budget cuts.  But it’s not the same all around.  My housemate works in the Chemistry Department; he tells me that one group of labs, with private funding from a medical foundation, has daily cleanings of their bathrooms (at the behest of their donors), while the bathrooms for labs relying on public monies are cleaned less frequently.

The state of our facilities is a broader reflection of the pernicious, day-to-day injustices of a system undergoing privatization.  Some of the classes held in our building are so overstuffed that students have to sit in the hall, catching glimpses of the professor through the doorway.  I have graduate friends who have let three, five, ten extra students into the sections they teach—students who desperately need the classes to graduate, but for whom their TAs will not see a single penny added on to their $16,000-a-year stipends (a bloated wage brought to them by a public sector union, of course!).  Not yet convinced that the budget cuts have gutted the UC system?  Try this: my housemate rolls a dice to determine which problem from a given assignment he will grade, since there aren’t enough graduate assistants to actually grade the entire assignment.

All of these things make me pretty angry, even though I—especially now that I have a key to the clean faculty bathroom—am not a victim of any of them.  Given that the wider masses of undergraduates here are, and are facing an 81% increase in tuition over the next four years, I would think that Berkeley students, of all people, would be throwing Molotov cocktails by now.  They aren’t.  In fact, Thursday, the first campus “Day of Action” against austerity—held in the same place where the anti-Vietnam War movement started, on the same liberal campus—was a complete flop.

I can’t help but think that UC Berkeley students are apathetic because they are victims of a divide and conquer strategy.  The irony of public education is that it’s so damn unequal.  The scientists want nothing to do with the humanities, because the former are sitting on big government grants they don’t want to share.  Another chunk of the population knows they shouldn’t complain, because they’re jut lucky not to be at Cal State, where budget cuts are really hurting.  And as for the graduate students, why should we care—our bathroom gets cleaned.

Bike Co-Op Blues

Two weeks ago, I bought a bike.  I was committed to buying a used bike—seeing the carcasses of cheap, mass-produced bikes around Oxford scared me off of new ones—but was also wary of purchasing something from Craiglist and feeding into Berkeley’s rampant bike theft.  I lucked out, though, and found a store that refurbishes old bikes.

The dated Schwinn road bike I bought needed some repairs before I drove it off the lot (so to speak), but I was assured they would be done in a week.  I gave it an extra day, and called to see if it was done.  No one answered, and their voicemail box was full.  After waiting another day, I decided to just go to the store—no easy feat since, given my lack of a bicycle, I had to walk three miles.  I arrived to discover that, in the last week, they had done absolutely nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  After pointing this out to the mechanic on duty, he set to work, promising that he could recable it by the afternoon.  Again, though, I played it safe, waiting until the next day to call and see if it was done.  Once again, no one answered, so once again, I trekked to the shop.  At this point, the bike was even less rideable than the day before; shortly after I left—I was informed—the mechanic disappeared, and he wouldn’t be back for a few days.  The staff member who was there proceeded to try to convince me to take another bike—in this case, a run-down children’s mountain bike—but I passed.

This is, you might say, no way to run a business.  But here’s the catch: the store from which I bought my bike isn’t a business, at least in the conventional sense.  It’s a workers-owned cooperative.  The idea behind Recycle Bike is a great one: take the abandoned bikes left by students every year and give them at low cost to people who need them.  Unlike some of the other anarchist-inspired cooperatives I’ve visited, both the store’s customers and workers are a racially and socioeconomically diverse bunch.  In short, there was nothing not to like about Recycle Bike—except, as it turned out, that it kind of sucked at providing bicycles.

Community-run cooperatives do not have a monopoly on inefficiency.  Despite the faith Americans place in financial incentives and free markets, I’ve had plenty of bad customer experiences at for-profit businesses.  But, to some extent, I expect it there—businesses that exist to make money, not serve people, tend to be better at making money than serving people.  Cooperatives like Recycle Bike, on the other hand, combine a commitment to helping people with humane labor practices and a lot of good intentions—and yet, somehow, these things concatenate into dysfunction.  It’s a paradox I’ve experienced with many a leftist movement: a tendancy for innumerable positive qualities of the individuals participating to lead to outcomes that are somehow much less than the sum of their parts.

I did eventually get my bike.  Ultimately, I just showed up and refused to leave sans wheelsThe guy who performed the final tune-up was so kind and apologetic that I couldn’t help but feel bad for my frustration.  I rode home, my faith in humanity restored.  At least until the chain fell off.

The Strange Species

It is fall and I am back on an American university campus, which can mean only one thing: I am surrounded by undergraduates.  It’s most obvious at 9:55 a.m., as I look out the window of my office to see hordes of dazed-looking late-teenagers staggering to class, clutching textbooks and coffee cups.  The lampposts on campus have blossomed with fliers advertising everything from Taiko Drumming to public interest internships; if you missed those, you’ll hear about them from various aggressive leafletters if you mistakenly stray within 200 feet of the campus center.  In the evenings, Memorial Glade is divided between intramural ultimate Frisbee teams and sunbathers enjoying the last few weeks where they can even pretend that their reasons for wearing a bikini involve getting a tan.

Frankly, it’s all so familiar—the autumn air, the mad rush between classes, and the fact that I’m studying sociology—that I can’t help but imagine myself here a few years prior, as an undergrad myself.  In fact, I practically saw myself the other day, walking among four members of the Cal Marching Band heading towards the stadium for afternoon practice.  They were carrying an assortment of trumpets and trombones, proudly sporting “Beat Stanford” t-shirts and wearing their marching band hats.  Clearly, they were blissfully unaware that—regardless of the university—being in the marching band is totally not cool.  Truly, these are my people—or at least, they would have been.  I am not going to join the Cal Marching Band, but for a second, I wished I could.  I am surrounded by temptation: opportunities to relive the glory days—or maybe, just to acquire some of the positive memories I never got around to creating.

But, unfortunately, I also remember how, as an undergraduate, I found it was a bit strange when graduate students joined groups clearly not meant for them.  Don’t they have friends their own age?  On one occasion at Princeton, my preceptor asked me to explain “The Street” to him.  “What a ridiculous question”, I thought, “How can you be a student at Princeton and not know about ‘The Street’?”  Now that I’m on the other side of the divide, though, I get it.  I wake up in the morning, run, and head into my office, which I leave only to re-caffeinate or attend class.  When I’m done, I go to my house off campus.  I’m happy with my routine—it makes me feel like an adult—but as a result, I have no idea where the undergrads here go to party, or to study, or to socialize or… hell, I don’t even know what campus looks like after 9 p.m.

I find this unfortunate because—despite the complaints bandied in our graduate student lounge about “those kids” filling our classes and competing with us for library books—I believe that undergraduates are the lifeblood of any university.  That’s not to say that the critical output of a university stems from its undergraduates, only that the university as a place and an institution and a culture depends on them.  There are, after all, no graduate student theater troupes, graduate student activist groups (beyond our union), or even graduate student parties.  There are just atomized groups of us holed up in our departments burrowing deeper and deeper into our specialities.  The figurative glue that holds campus together—the people who, quite literally, travel between our parochial ivory towers on a daily basis—are our younger peers.  And yet, even as I write exultations about their role, I haven’t actually had a single conversation with one during my time here.

The rigidity of the unofficial and unspoken separation between graduates and undergraduates would be easier for me to accept had it not been for my time at Oxford, where both sets co-mingled in the college in a way that, a few years prior, I would have thought highly unlikely.  I miss that.  I am, when all is said and done, two years older than a senior—hardly an unbridgeable rift, but one that, as I advance up the ladder of academia, I am sure will grow.

UAW Local 2865

Here’s a quick primer on how the University of California (and California State University) is completely fucked.  This year’s state budget is cutting $650 million from a system already emaciated from a 20% cut last year, with a bonus $200 million in cuts if revenues come short of projections.  Tuition has risen 67% for residents in the last five years, but it hasn’t been enough to prevent reductions in course offerings as well as the axing of various support services.  Although this agenda of privatization started long before the present economic downturn, the current rhetoric of austerity and “shared” sacrifice is providing good cover for the destruction of the world’s finest public universities.

I knew all this before I came here.  In fact, at other schools I had been warned that the Berkeley was “on the border of collapse” by some professors with ulterior motives.  What I have seen so far seems to debunk that claim: by and large, the university appears to be educating students and conducting research, if not undeterred, at least undaunted.  Still, though, the cuts are visible.  The department sent out an e-mail today noting that, because they have been forced to cut classes, there won’t be enough graduate teaching positions for all who need them.  And on our library tour, our guide informed us that it was still up-in-the-air as to whether the libraries would be open on Saturdays (though, here the cuts might be a blessing in disguise).

This is all pretty real, you might say, given that I have tethered my future livelihood to the continued existence of institutions of higher learning.  And so, today, I did what millions before me have done in the face of an assault on their livelihoods: I joined a union.

I would love to hear the story of how this came to pass, but Berkeley graduate students are represented by the United Auto Workers (yes—the guys from Detroit).  Admittedly, I have my doubts about the efficacy of what the UAW is trying to do.  Given that the root of the problem is California taxpayers who have decided that education should not be a public good, feuding with the university administration—who probably don’t much like the cuts either—over the size of our medical insurance co-pays feels a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  It doesn’t help that certain unions, like that for California prison guards, are part of the problem.  But, to be honest, I didn’t just join the union to be an anti-neo-liberal activist.

Ever since I decided to pursue a career in academia, I’ve been acutely attuned to how little value most people place on my chosen field and profession.  I see this not just at the macro level of politicians deriding intellectuals and cutting higher education budgets, but also on a more quotidian scale.  It’s evident in constant questions about “What are you ever going to do with that?” and casual remarks about how I am putting of the “real world” for another six years.  I’m not so self-absorbed as to equate this with true persecution.  Rather, it has all simply added up to the realization that most people don’t quite get the point of studying sociology.

And that’s why I love being in a union.  I am a worker.  I have moved on from the passive consumption of being a student to the active production of new knowledge.  What I produce is easily as real and valuable as the spreadsheets of an investment banker or power point slides of a management consultant, even if I am not renumerated like them.  While I still have grandiose aspirations for what I will eventually do with my degree, for the time being, what I really want people to acknowledge is the simple fact that I have a job.  And how can anyone deny it, when I’m represented by UAW, the granddaddy of unions?

There is power in a union.