University Students and Prisoners: Are We All in the Same Boat?

Posted January 24, 2010

In California today, we are facing an onslaught of austerity capitalism in the form of privatization / private accumulation, funding cuts, and neoliberal prioritization that effects public goods including education, health care, and transportation as well as prisons – hardly a public "good" but certainly a public function.

Are we all in the same boat? If so, some people have been in the bottom of the boat for a while. Now that the boat has sprung more leaks, their heads are barely, inconsistently above water. The question is one of breathing / drowning. Other people have been doing okay on the decks for a while. We’re getting wet; we have something to complain about, and we’re worried that the boat might sink. Some of us think the captain really ought to listen us; some of us are beginning to think we could pilot the damn boat ourselves. (Some of us would like to head for the life rafts, now, and forget the boat.)

Okay, this metaphor is obviously simplistic. It is addressed to a kind of leveling rhetoric that has emerged in sections of the California student movement in the aftermath of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposed constitutional amendment tying higher education funding to school funding, supposedly guaranteeing better funding for higher education and decreasing prison funding without decreasing incarceration.

The Schwarzenegger proposal has forced us to think these institutions and social positions together. Are the social positions commensurate, or incommensurate? Are the institutional positions structurally similar, structurally contradictory, or both? A friend asked me to reflect on this, and here’s an edited version of my response.

First of all, a lot of people have already been thinking about these questions more lucidly than I have, like my friend low end theory. Of course no one is saying that these social positions are made identical under contemporary conditions. But there is a somewhat "leveling, populist" analysis particularly prevalent in the wing of the movement tactically most committed to occupations, though I’ve also heard it among socialists involved in the movement.

A good example of the occupationist version of this analysis is found on Occupy California, the mother of all California occupation blogs:

The university and the prison are the two remaining institutions in this society in which masses of individuals are gathered together for years at a time. They exist as reverse mirror images of each other; the schools, for the privileged, to produce particular kinds of skilled labor; the prisons, for another kind of workforce, the lumpen or surplus population who are not necessary to the economy.

This omits at least the military and certain kinds of healthcare, e.g. nursing homes and mental institutions, not to mention public schools. I do believe that an analysis of the "exemplary institutions" of late capitalism / subjective labor might be very fruitful, but a binary analysis that ends up collapsing two poles is not so helpful.

The university is not mainly about producing an industrial reserve of any sort. Certainly in lean economic times, university graduates may find themselves structurally unemployed. And OC’s analysis tends to suggest that current economic woes will deepen short-term into outright collapse (redux of the 1930s) or stagnation leading towards collapse (the 1970s, ending not with Regan but with 1932).

I tend to think other scenarios are more likely, for example: China emerges as a dominant economic power, the US persists as Europe has for years as a relatively privileged consumer society with lessening global clout, environmental woes force society into a low-to-no-growth model, and ideologically conflict ensues between austerity capitalism (austerity for the masses, modest profits for the capitalists) and some kind of redistributive ideology which has yet to emerge. I suppose this isn’t that much different from the stagnation model, but it’s a bit less immediately sexy.

The OC analysis continues:

The unity we are calling for in the struggle against the privatization of both schools and prisons, and toward their abolition along with all other structures of capitalist society, is not based on some spurious identification between the student and the prisoner. We realize they occupy very different, again, almost opposite places in the social sphere. What we have in common is our becoming increasingly useless to capitalist production; the increasing uselessness of any given person, who might be given a wheel to spin if they show sufficient obedience, and thrown in a cell if not. In either case, to spend our days in a bloodless, alienated, increasingly solitary and disconnected form of life. It is the growing mass of useless people who, during capitalism’s mounting crises—so it’s said—become the proletariat, the class-for-itself that is forced, in order to defend its interests, to destroy the capitalist economic mode.

Honestly, this identification does seem a bit spurious to me. It seems to boil down to a notion that our background identities may be different, but our subject-positions that matter from the standpoint of social transformation boil down to the same thing. There’s also the fascinating way here that what traditional Marxists would define as the formation of an industrial reserve army gets articulated as the formation of a proletariat, which seems to erase the fact that there is actually a substantial employed proletariat in the world; neither the sociological fact of unemployment nor its abstract "logic" is approaching a level of generality that allows us to forget about that. In the end, though, when we apply this logic to actual social struggles, it’s hard to see how this constitutes anything but an updated version of the Communist Party’s old slogan, "Black and white, unite and fight!"

It’s possible to argue that what’s happening in California is an early wave of the struggle between austerity capitalism and an inchoate popular desire for something else. To get past the leveling populism of the OC analysis, we need to realize a few things. We need an analysis of how race is central to the way resources have been distributed and the public is structured in CA over a long period of time. "We are the crisis" ignores the fact that some communities in California have been in crisis for years and years; university students are johnny-come-lately when it comes to crisis. Relatedly: workers of color tend to be "first fired, last hired," while university graduates tend to be "last fired, first hired" in capitalist waves of accumulation large and small.

Racial hierarchies of inclusion / exclusion and division of labor have been central to the structure of the US economy since its founding. And capitalism in California was accompanied, from its very beginning, not only by primitive accumulation of American Indian land and resources, but also by the use of Asian labor as an industrial reserve, i.e. a proletariat which could be and was excluded and removed at other moments. And while we could say that the capitalists used the division between Asian and white / native-born workers as part of a divide-and-rule strategy – certainly they did – it’s also true that the labor movement played a pivotal role not only accepting but leading the charge for Asian exclusion, subordination, and intimidation.

In some respects these history lessons are probably obvious to most casual students of California history. Nevertheless, we need to imagine kinds of alliance that recognize the incommensurability of our social positions and the contradictions in the structural logics that govern them. Otherwise, I worry that the student movement today will replicate the mistakes of the labor movement of the 1800s and early 1900s – perhaps with less violence and more left-liberal goodwill and desire for unity.

It may be that few immediate conclusions follow from this. Some in the student movement have suggested we need to do a lot more to connect with anti-prison or immigrant-rights organizers, and I actually think that might be a lengthy and energy-reducing process that is not where we need to put the bulk of our energy right now. No, this is more about how we imagine ourselves. Sometimes the OC logic is linked to an over-optimism about occupations spreading not just throughout higher education, but throughout society as a whole. Indeed, the slogan "occupy everything" is sometimes used as a way of imagining occupation as a seed of the new world growing inside the old.

If we accept the idea of an incommensurability of social positions (particularly between prisoners and university students, but we could also think of other positions), then it’s likely that self-organization in other milieus will take other forms. I think it’s true that the student movement in California right now is inspiring most people in California who want to see radical social change happen. But we need to imagine how that inspiration works beyond seeing ourselves as the vanguard of the coming general insurrection. The organization of a movement capable of making a difference in the state over the long term will require beginning from a number of different positions, where forms of struggle are likely to look very different, proceed at different paces, require different forms of rhetoric, etc.