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Overwhelming stupidity

I was very happy to see this response from the newly-formed coalition at Berkeley to the stupid College Republican bake sale. As College Republican groups have been doing for years, the Berkeley group decided to sell cupcakes at different prices to people of different races to make some kind of facile point about affirmative action.  The thing about the Republican stunt is that it’s stupid, and intentionally so, which makes it difficult to know how to respond. The coalition, as it turned out, had the right strategy – ignore the ten racist wankers with cupcakes, and organize a few hundreds students, mostly of color, in a striking demonstration of their visibility on Sproul Plaza. Don’t engage with the idiots, just show how pathetic and marginal they are.

I was happy to see this successful response, because the response from the University administration had been (predictably) useless, and the response from Student Government (perhaps not quite as predictably), also awful. Read more↴

Defending the right to mediocrity

As many of the people involved in the inspiring protests in Wisconsin are teachers, and as teachers’ unions are the right-wing’s favorite target for union-bashing, the protests have inevitably brought attention to the increasingly toxic American discussion of education. A number of protesters and spokespeople have made arguments rooted in praise of teachers, focusing on their hard work and dedication to students. While this looks like an argument that would have popular appeal, I think  in the long term this kind of argument has had perverse and damaging effects. The more that teachers defend their profession with descriptions of noble self-sacrifice, the more people seem to believe that teachers’ self-sacrifice is a necessary condition of quality of children’s education; and then, of course, the way to improve education is to increase the suffering of teachers. This is, I think, part of the explanation of why, whenever politicians praise teachers, what they are actually saying is “let’s fire all the teachers and pay them less.”

On a slightly more general level, the moral defense of teachers is appealing because it fits with the model of education as salvation which is so popular in America (and increasingly so in the UK). This also probably means that it ends up reinforcing this model, which is unfortunate, because the model is damagingly individualist, in two ways. Read more↴

Are the liberal arts free enough?

By formal disciplinary classification, I’m a political scientist, so I was at this year’s American Political Science Association meeting. As well as attending a number of panels on political theory, and giggling at what the “science” side of the discipline is studying, I went to a number of panels about the political challenges facing universities. This included Cary Nelson, President of the AAUP, talking about the association’s call for tenure for all “long term” teaching staff. This is good as far as it goes, but that doesn’t seem to be very far; Read more↴

Terrifying and insane, or, coalition government

I’ve recently returned from a month in coalition Britain, and I’ve been trying to figure out how, if at all, the general ideological tenor of the country has changed. Certainly Radio 1 is much more reactionary than it used to be; I think it’s managed to get worse every time I go back to the UK, but, now, with a new Tory government, it seems to be on a full-bore rush back to the DLT-days of the 80s. Well, actually, that’s not quite right, and the truth is possibly more disturbing: the Radio 1 of the 80s was about DJs in their 40s and 50s broadcasting for their patronizingly imagined younger audience, but today’s Radio 1 is built around young people patronizing themselves (and I know pop music isn’t that exciting at the moment, but surely there’s no excuse for Biffy Clyro).

Even as emotionally invested as I am in Radio 1, though, the reactionaryness of the coalition is obviously more worrying, although it does occur to me that there is a way in which New Labour was more neoliberal than the coalition are. Read more↴

For a new economism

I was reading Brown’s Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy last week in order to teach it, and it occurred to me while doing so that many of my students were born not long before Clinton was elected; in other words, they have lived their entire lives in a period when the broad coordinates of neoliberalism were accepted by the mainstream left as much as the right. A consequence of this, which became apparent during discussion, is that the pre-neoliberal liberal democracy that Brown identifies as an object of left nostalgia, doesn’t really exist for them (indeed, I don’t know that exists for me as much except vague memories of the miners’ strike and Merseyside’s universal hatred for Thatcher when I was growing up). I wonder if this hasn’t contributed to the increasing irrelevance of the left: an appeal to nostalgia for something that is increasingly unavailable as an object of anything at all, least of all nostaligia. Read more↴

Too much Alinsky, not enough Lenin

Saul Alinsky apparently used to ask new recruits to his organizing efforts, “what are you organizing for?” And they would respond by saying that their goal was to help the poor, or get housing for the homeless, or whatever it might be. Alinsky would shoot down all these concrete goals, insisting that “you are organizing for power.” I like that; but Alinsky wasn’t terribly clear about what power actually meant, and this failure to think about power has had some pretty terrible consequences for the American left, especially in the very particular way they’ve adopted or adapted Alinsky’s methods.

This confused me when I first moved to the US; looking for the left in the Bay Area it seems at first like there’s no there there. The general left-wing sentiment in the area doesn’t seem to be matched by the existence of left-wing organizations. It turns out that that’s not quite right; it’s just that these organizations aren’t political organizations but are, rather, community organizations and non-profits. Some of these have radical rhetoric and a revolutionary pedigree, but they all share the weakness of the Alinskian (non-)understanding of power, where power is not conceived of as something that could be appropriated collectively and used creatively to common ends, but where power is something someone else (the state) has, and the limit of collective action is to force concessions from those who do hold power.

The limitations of this lack of understanding of power were starkly illustrated in an event in last week’s walkout at Berkeley. Read more↴