THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT, while fading from the popular press, is perhaps only now being thoroughly metabolized in the fussier corners of academic thought. This seems fitting when we consider Hegel’s philosophy of history, which helps legitimate the university’s function as a sacred space for slow and deliberate contemplation and academic freedom. Hegel would have it that phenomena such as Occupy are only fully understood when they have worked through their formative contradictions, dissipated their energies, and reached their conclusion. The owl of Minerva flies at night, in other words, but Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience tolls not the witching hour of the Occupy movement so much as the doldrums of mid-afternoon.
We are still far from the historical perspective required to properly absorb the world-historical commotion that was, and still is, the Occupy movement. W.J.T. Mitchell admits as much: he starts with the disclaimer that these essays, which were originally published together in Critical Inquiry in mid-2012, attempt to explain a movement “still in process and whose outcome is unclear.” Subsequent events have justified this caution. While in the summer of 2012 it made sense for Mitchell to claim that “everyone agrees that Occupy Wall Street changed the conversation in the mass media from deficit reduction to economic inequality and joblessness,” this view already requires revision in the wake of October’s Tea Party tantrum over Obamacare and ensuing shutdown of the federal government, which cost American taxpayers billions of dollars.
“If journalism is the first draft of history,” W.J.T Mitchell begins in the book’s preface, “the following essays might be described as a stab at a second draft.” A second draft, but not a final one.
For the three academic contributors to this volume, “disobedience” was and remains the watchword of the Occupy movement. The term appears in the subtitle of the Occupy trio of essays written by anthropologist Michael Taussig, political theorist Bernard E. Harcourt, and Mitchell, a scholar of visual culture. As Harcourt suggests in his essay “Political Disobedience,” Occupy inaugurated a new form of dissent. Unlike the civil disobedience practiced during the US civil rights movement, or more recent environmentalist rallies at refineries and sit-ins at proposed Keystone XL pipeline sites, this new kind of political disobedience does not appeal to institutional power for protection, nor to right any wrongs. Instead, acts of political disobedience outright reject the legitimacy of the prevailing political order.
Like the Occupiers themselves, the three contributors wish to be clear about what exactly is to be disobeyed: a neo-feudal capitalist plutocracy that has and will continue to wreak havoc on the planet’s climate, destroy the middle class with crushing debt, generate calamitous booms and busts in the economy, and force taxpayers to subsidize the bonuses of the same crooked bankers that stand on their necks. The Occupiers, Harcourt observes, are those who refuse to remain subservient to this order. In this context, “disorder” might also be understood as the deconstruction of the current economy and simultaneous construction of viable alternatives. The stakes of OWS lie with the outcomes of this disordering. While it is important to claim the positive results of political disobedience, the Occupy movement ultimately failed to disorder a Wall Street conspiracy to extract and expropriate public wealth, a conspiracy so defiantly disinterested in concealing itself that it’s almost breathtaking.
This is not to say that Occupy Wall Street was a total failure. The Occupiers exposed a disturbing fact about American democracy today: any demonstration of self-governance that dares to imagine alternatives to global corporate plutocracy is so threatening to the interests of the imperial state that the benefits of violently dispersing peaceful protesters outweigh the costs to the legitimacy of its authority. OWS thus called into question any lazy notions of “American democracy,” “free speech” and “freedom of assembly.” According to Mitchell, this is one of Occupy’s important achievements. OWS was a slogan-stuffed movement, and activists consciously engaged powerful language reversals meant to repossess terms like “democracy,” “occupation,” and “public space.” As the movement for a more just society continues, Mitchell writes, the redefinition of terms initiated by Occupy slogans will continue to be an important site of struggle.
Mitchell identifies the rhetorical trope of occupatio in the Occupy struggles, “the tactic of anticipating an adversary’s arguments by preempting them, taking the initiative in a space where one knows in advance that there will be resistance and counterarguments.” In recent American history, the bloviators of the Right have rushed to be the first to set the terms and stakes of debate. But Occupy sought an entirely new terrain of debate entirely, rejecting and inverting the terms of corporate capitalism to achieve a general shift in economic discourse.
Although Mitchell sees the conversation-change as “anything but radical,” for remaining limited to speaking about inequality and unemployment, the physical occupation was more promising. “The Occupy movement,” Mitchell claims, “is a dramatic performance of the rhetoric of occupatio,” reasserting the common space as “a battleground where the possibility of democracy and revolutionary change is contested.” He compares the visible struggle at Occupy sites to that witnessed in the 1960s, with mayors like Rahm Emanuel and Michael Bloomberg reprising the role of Birmingham’s Bull Connor. The
spectacle of police brutality, including the effort to cover up the spectacle, paradoxically has the effect of amplifying the message of Occupy, making its statements about the actual conditions of political and economic corruption even more emphatic and irrefutable.
Physical violence, in other words, made a difference, as politically disobedient confrontation exposed the utter cynicism of the ruling class.
Harcourt — no less enthusiastic than Mitchell or David Graeber about the new spaces for contestation Occupy opened — reminds us in his essay that our corporate-sponsored charade of a democracy is underwritten by the increasingly violent repression of dissent. Of course Harcourt would not be the first to observe that neoliberal capitalism depends on discipline, surveillance, and confinement of some citizens at the expense of providing basic civic services for others. Indeed, forms of disciplining the population have become nakedly more authoritarian through the rise of the prison-industrial complex. Pennsylvania politicians, for instance, have recently shown themselves willing to allow dozens of Philadelphia schools to close even as the state breaks ground on a $400 million prison.
Facts such as these now fail to surprise anyone with enough wits to gather their news from non-corporate media. But even for the most jaded of civil liberties watchdogs, Harcourt’s case study of neoliberal governance in Chicago still manages to stun. Rahm Emanuel comes out looking particularly bad: Harcourt goes into great detail regarding the ways the Chicago mayor “successfully exploited, in record time, the fear of [2012 G8 and NATO] summit violence to increase his police powers and extend police surveillance, to outsource city services and privatize financial gains, and to make permanent new limitations on political dissent.” After scaremongering with talk of “professional anarchists and rioters” that would descend on the city like a plague of locusts, Emanuel persuaded the Chicago City Council to rubber-stamp a city ordinance that gave him the power to command a force of hundreds of federal agents sent by the DEA, FBI, ATF, DOJ, and state and county law enforcement. The ordinance also allowed Emanuel vast expansion of the surveillance capabilities of the Chicago police. Since City Council did not impose sunset provisions, these changes were, in effect, permanent.
Sticking to the neoliberal playbook, the ordinance allowed the mayor to negotiate agreements “regarding planning, security, and logistics” that indemnified private corporations carrying out these services. This meant that potential lawsuits taken out by citizens for abuses of private security agents would be paid by the citizens themselves, not by the contracted firms. While Emanuel prepared to stand off against the city’s teachers, who would strike later that fall, over his proposed austerity measures for the city’s education system, the police department spent a million dollars on riot control equipment for the summits. The most cynical of all of Emanuel’s proposals was the elevation of fines for resisting arrest, including the passive resistance of protesters engaging in civil disobedience, from $25 to $200. Fortunately, this attempt to muzzle dissent was the only one of the mayor’s provisions not to pass City Council. Instead, Emanuel attempted to crush Occupy demonstrations under the weight of bureaucracy, enacting new restrictions on sound equipment, banners, and placards at demonstrations that leave unwitting peaceful protesters vulnerable to fines and arrest.
This is the order that the Occupiers and their allies disobey: a police state that favors outsourcing its brutality over educating its citizens or ensuring their freedom to assemble. “We will continue to politically disobey,” Harcourt writes, “because the levels of social inequality in this country and the number of children in poverty are intolerable.” The success of this disobedience was forcing Emanuel to show himself for what he is: a mayor willing to suppress democratic dissent by any means necessary.
The unwritten premise of the three essays in Occupy is that we live in the anteroom of an authoritarian police state. Or that perhaps, in a Borgesian twist, we have been living in one for some time already. Just as allegations of a “Jewish menace” abetted the power grabs of the Nazis, the “terrorists” and now “anarchists” of the 21st century provide an alibi for the US security-industrial complex to retrench in practices that, while subtler than 20th century totalitarianisms, are even more effectively internalized and agreed upon by the dominated domestic population. The public’s laconic initial reaction to the revelations of Edward Snowden offers proof that most Americans, like Winston at the end of Orwell’s 1984, have come to accept the state’s scare-fueled propaganda and gradual elimination of civil rights in exchange for a false sense of “security.” They already love Big Brother.
Daring to oppose police repression and buck this public inertia, the defiantly energetic spirit of dissent that characterized OWS is therefore political disobedience of the most necessary and noble kind. This exuberance is the subject of Taussig’s poetic essay “I’m So Angry I Made a Sign,” the anthropologist’s brilliant interpretation of the movement’s maxim to “occupy everything.” He breaks with codified academic and journalistic writing by subverting the ethnographic practice of field writing known as “thick description,” weaving together first-person reporting, his emotional responses to his experiences, and the text of some of the poignant placards he admires at Zuccotti Park: “Mr Obama / tear down / this wall.” “They piss on us and call / it trickle-down.” The half-baked scribblings of a diarist bleed into broader analyses of the phenomenon, allowing Taussig to capture some of the affective energy of the movement:
Welcome to Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone. I recall Paris, May 1968: people said they lived in that zone for months, didn’t sleep, didn’t need to. Out of nowhere a community forms, fueled by the unforeseen chance to fight back. Decades drift away. Decades of Fox News and Goldman Sachs. Decades of gutting what was left of the social contract. Decades in which kids came to think being a banker was sexy. When that happens, you know it’s all over—or about to explode, as once again history throws a curveball. Once in a lifetime, the unpredictable occurs and reality gets redefined.
Taussig certainly conveys a more nuanced picture of the occupations than the self-censoring corporate journalism that he and Occupy’s other supporters rightly decry, and the essay is among the most moving accounts of Occupy to appear in print. His vision of Occupy may be idealized, but his musings also manage a sort of dialectical flair for reflexive critique that preempts any accusations of overly romanticizing the movement:
The ideals of the radical hipsters from Brooklyn with their web-savvy culture are being tested like never before by these homeless men who seem uninterested in what the hipsters stand for, yet the whole point of OWS is homelessness.
Like almost everybody else, Taussig uses the word “hipster” with casual contempt but without much specificity. He seems to deploy it as shorthand for young, privileged, and high-minded liberals who fancy themselves ahead of the cultural curve, and who remain at an emotional and material remove from any vulnerability that would inspire real political commitment. What he doesn’t mention is that perceived “hipsters,” even those blogging gadflies whose interest in Occupy was limited to its potential cultural cache, often find themselves haplessly ensnared in the spiritually dead center of the contemporary neoliberal economy. By now the word “hipster” is freighted with such a confused spate of referents that it seems to have become useless in any form of critique more probing than a hissy fit. Indeed, as demonstrated by a recent elegiac New York Times essay on the “ruining” of Paris by “hipsters,” the term has finally collapsed into a synonym for “bourgeois.” The word is nevertheless still useful for examining undercurrent frustrations in the Occupy movement, particularly the relation between soaring income inequality and urban gentrification.
Throughout the 20th century, slurs that maligned Italian, Irish, and other immigrant groups made audible the tensions of assimilating new Americans into established urban enclaves, while simultaneously obscuring the common cause of the working class. Somewhat similarly, the culturally constructed figure of the “hipster” has been summoned to fill the voided space reserved for a personified hate-object in urban America, ultimately distracting the conversation from the causes of present-day urban strife: the widening gap between the rich and the poor that has caused some affluent cities to expel their middle and working classes and others to descend into the downward spiral of joblessness, abandon, and blight-flight. Yet numerous as their visibility makes them seem, for every richster there are hordes of his cultural countertype toiling away in the shadows: those precariously employed, heavily indebted twenty- and thirtysomethings that Occupy brought out of the woodwork.
The emerging class consciousness of the creative and cognitive proletariat is the subject of Gerald Raunig’s meditation in Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity. The book provides deeper context to the discussion about the relation between OWS and the resistance to market hegemony over every aspect of our lives, including the once protected space of the university. As Raunig explains, millennials who decide not to pursue careers in tech or finance — increasingly the only fields that offer any credible potential for upward class mobility to college graduates — and opt instead for creative careers, find themselves mired in precarious, part-time, and freelance contract work. These young workers are seduced by the siren call of what Miya Tokumitsu calls the “do what you love” mantra sung by the elite of the techno-creative sectors of the economy. The slogan, she asserts, is “the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism,” one which encourages young workers to participate in precarious, low-wage, and unpaid labor by disavowing the fact that secure, well-paid, and enjoyable work remains the privilege of the upper classes.
Other theories have abounded regarding this “emergent” precariat class, but Raunig corrects the notion that “affective, cognitive and communicative labor” are fundamentally new. The precarious conditions of affective labor that once marked the feminization and racialization of income inequality have simply been extended to the realm of cognitive and creative work. What we learned from Occupy’s politics of visibility is that now white men with bachelor’s degrees are just as subject as everybody else to the market’s voracious appetite for post-Fordist, low-wage affective labor and piecemeal cognitive work.
Though its implications extend to other spheres of the economy, Raunig’s analysis applies specifically to cultural work, where the change has been most evident. He follows Frankfurt school theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who described the “culture industry” of the 1940s as one in which management repressed the creativity of workers by confining them to desks, meetings, schedules, and workflows. The contemporary state of affairs, Raunig explains, expresses a reversal of this model, in which
the freelance entrepreneur has become a hegemonic pattern […]. Somewhat cynically one could say that Horkheimer and Adorno’s complaint about the loss of entrepreneurial freedom has now been perversely addressed: the creative are released into a specific sphere of freedom, of independence and self-government. Here creativity becomes the imperative, flexibility becomes a despotic norm, the precarization of work becomes the rule.
In this framework, Raunig explains, the worker’s time cannot be divided between work and leisure. In order to overcome inefficiencies it created when it organized work around homogenized time and localized place in the factory, capital now replaces homogeneous factory time with the fragmented time of contemporary cognitive labor:
for instance, a time of a poorly paid or unpaid internship, a time of looking for work with or without pressure from the employment office, a time of preparing new projects, a time for unpaid practices of self-organization, a time for paperwork, a time for electronic correspondence, a time for brief regeneration, a time of training and continuing education, a time for socializing — whether in direct communication or through social media, a time for developing networks, a time for unpaid sick leave, a time for dealing with bureaucracy, and sometimes several of these at once.
New technologies have aided this infiltration of work into leisure time. Merely consider the commercialization of social media, or the requirement of owning a smart phone for on-call availability now listed in many job postings. Freelance workers must also constantly engage in “networking” and self-marketing in social settings not only to advance their creative work, but simply to obtain it.
Since the imperative of flexibility means that workers must always be, at least partially, “on” the job, the precariat class is encouraged to turn scrupulous, managerial attention to the efficiencies of private everyday life in order to accommodate the encroachment of work into all of these fragmented times. In the techno-utopian idiom with which Silicon Valley veils its deep commitments to these neoliberal restructurings of work and leisure, this constant attention to self-efficiency is called “life hacking.” Now used to describe behavior modifications that optimize one’s productivity, such as the “pomodoro technique,” the phrase “life hack” is in fact a perverse conflation of the figure of the creative, antiestablishment “hacker” with a political “hack” who has surrendered personal freedom and integrity in the service of an ideological agenda — in this case the aggressively conformist practice of round-the-clock self-management.
The sore subject of postindustrial gentrification is also directly addressed in Raunig’s analysis. City planners and real estate agents have responded to capital’s demand for cheaper cognitive labor by attempting to glamorize precarious life as an urbane and desirable modern lifestyle: “The discursive enforcement of the modulation of creativity permeates all social fields and the most diverse geographies. It is accompanied by campaigns based on hollow propaganda terms like creative entrepreneurs, creative clusters, creative districts, creative cities.” Richard Florida’s “creative class” Kool-Aid, which pours lavishly from the Atlantic Cities, is imbibed en masse by city officials desperately scrambling to attract investment by being called the next “tech hub.” It is, however, a bitter brew for working class residents of the neighborhoods being “revitalized” to make way for startup capital and the hip restaurants and boutiques their employees require, not to mention the coffee shops hazy with the glow of laptops, where freelance cognitive laborers work alone, together.
The concentration of workers in space and time under the factory roof once provided the structure of both production and resistance to capitalist exploitation in the form of trade unions. Raunig suggests that a different institutional site is responsible for the organization of the precariat class and the incipient modes of resistance that congealed at the Occupy encampments. This site is the university, or as Raunig calls it, the “modulating university” — his term for the emergent corporatized industry of post-secondary education.
The modulating university represents the synthesis of Foucauldian “disciplinary” institutions with Gilles Deleuze’s notion “control society.” While disciplinary institutions like the army, church, and school established regimes of control that are internalized by the subjects they regulate, this regulation becomes diffuse in control society, which acculturates individuals to become interchangeable “dividuals” by applying a corporate management mentality to “modulate” or self-administer all aspects of their life. The modulating university blends these two modes of control, administering the “remodeling, modulating, reforming and deforming of the self” in corrupted educational institutions.
The contemporary university, Raunig argues, has taken over for factory discipline in molding a workforce compliant to the demands of the market. As Raunig tells it, the university sold out its benevolent, Humboldtian mission of enlightened reflection — if it ever existed in the first place — to the management class when it became an accomplice to the regime of finance capital that has strengthened its hold on power in the US and Europe. This is because the university, functioning as what Louis Althusser called an “ideological state apparatus,” has now fallen so far under the sway of market logic that it has begun to lose even the appearance of self-government. That is, university boards of managers and trustees are increasingly populated by MBAs rather than academics. Last year’s scandal at the University of Virginia, which saw popular president and renowned scholar of social inequality Teresa A. Sullivan deposed by a cabal of Trustees led by a Virginia Beach real-estate developer, offered a salient case in point. Her detractors pilloried the president for insufficient devotion to “strategic dynamism,” a buzzphrase of management theory that means precisely nothing to a career academic.
The entire meaning of a university education has also been subject to market takeover, where “curricula and choices of studies are channeled in the direction of ‘labor market needs.’” The escalating control of education by corporate interests, in other words, means that education is now expected to supply job training instead of skills and space for critical thought. In all disciplines, “marketability” has become a principal consideration of academic study and a performance of self-legitimation that students and scholars are constantly required to rehearse to receive scholarships, research funding, program admission, and university employment.
As Raunig sees it, academics largely took the hijacking of the university lying down, preferring to game the changing system so as to guarantee their own job security rather than concern themselves with the future of education. “We cannot understand all these aspects of the transformation of the universities by looking only at the assaults by authorities that come from above and outside,” he writes, “We also have to consider a certain degree of subservient self-government.” Academics bought into the cutthroat, get-ahead CV-whoring that now defines the culture of the modulating university. As Raunig observes, “the construction of life in the form of an academic resumé increasingly turns into measuring life.” Free inquiry and the “life of the mind” have thus given way to an industry of “knowledge production” that is quantitative rather than qualitative.
Blame for the university’s cooptation falls even more damningly on the undisguised alliance between the educational–industrial complex and finance capital: “Forcing students to incur debt is a proven method of combating students’ resistance and inserting them into the system of ‘life-long learning’ which requires perpetual retraining and therefore, tuition and debt service.” The beatings at Berkeley and pepper spraying of peaceful UC Davis student-protesters only emphasized the university’s subservience to the forces that Occupy opposed. The essay trio by Mitchell, Harcourt, and Taussig registers the embarrassment some professors feel over the university’s obsequious role as henchman to the financial and policing orders that were the star villains of the Occupy movement. Nevertheless, the academy as a whole remained distant from the struggle.
Raunig suggests two strategies for resisting the modulation of the contemporary university, which both fall under the rubric of “desertion.” First, he urges “the development of precarious forms of autonomy within the institution,” a strategy that seems to encourage both organized faculty rebellion and individual “micropolitical” initiatives. He calls on faculty — especially tenured professors — to refuse to pass along market-think and institutional pressures from above, to strike against “creativity-destroying apparatus” of peer-review and ranked journals, and to reject the “established hierarchies” of academic publishing by trying “new forms of sociality in publishing.” Presumably, he refers to free and open-access venues that are less constricted by convention and market-driven meritocracy. It does not seem to trouble him that perceived dilution of scholarly standards would likely hasten the market-driven assaults currently being waged on the humanities. Raunig’s second, more promising mode of desertion recommends the “founding alternative formations of knowledge production” outside the university, such as the self-organized collectives he mentions throughout the book. The Public School project, begun in Los Angeles in 2007, offers a particularly inspiring initiative in this latter mode of desertion.
Raunig also calls for a new politics of parrhesia, or saying-everything, inspired by the Cynic philosophers, who lived “in the midst of the world, against the world, with the horizon of an other world.” He relates the philosophical activism of the Cynics’ parrhesia to the new forms of activism on display at Zuccotti Park, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, and Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. Echoing Mitchell, he believes these new activisms “speak clearly by taking the empty promise of ‘public space’ at its word.” Though often identified as the movement’s weakness, Raunig, like Mitchell, identifies the importance of rhetoric to the continued struggle for more just societies.
Diogenes of Sinope, the original Cynic, might also be considered the original Occupier: he supposedly slept in a ceramic barrel and lived an acetic life as a reproach to a society whose values he believed corrupt. Described by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk as the “philosophizing town bum” whose public acts of nudity, urination, defecation, and masturbation were meant to destroy the sacrosanct ideals of his time, Diogenes’s political disobedience was particularly hardcore. By enacting their philosophy through their actions, the Occupiers — like Diogenes and Jesus Christ — publicly tested “deviant modes of subjectivation.” Though Raunig does not suggest that public lewdness will save the 99% from the extension of “modulation” to all aspects of daily life, he advocates the Cynic practice of the “aesthetics as existence.” To bring about more humane forms of living together, we must take up the mischief of pronouncing and living what is regarded as an obscenity amid the efficiency-worship of late capitalist culture: not all aspects of life must bend to “efficiency” as defined by the market.
Naysayers believe Occupy was a failure for allowing the camps to be cleared without having achieved anything or made any coherent demands. But this is only partial reckoning with Occupy’s legacy. Hundreds of local, grassroots movements for democratic activism were inspired to take change into their own hands, with diverse interest groups joining to support the Chicago teachers’ strike against Emanuel’s austerity reforms, and to oppose the aforementioned school closings in Philadelphia. Occupy Sandy also proved more effective than FEMA or city authorities in initial responses to Superstorm Sandy. More recently, voters in New York City also handed an overwhelming victory to an unapologetically progressive candidate, Bill de Blasio, whose “tale of two cities” campaign stump speech marshaled the rhetoric of OWS, even if he kept his distance from the two-year anniversary of the Zuccotti Park occupation. While these offshoots and after-effects may have achieved less grandiose goals or strategized within or alongside more traditional representational politics, they proved that resistance to the administration of precarious life is still, for the time being, very much within our grasp.
Finally, as McKenzie Wark wrote in October 2011, Occupy also turned the vectors of high-speed banking and big data against the corporations that use these media to bypass representative government. Ordinary citizens flooded the networks of circulation with images of solidarity against a “rentier class” abstracted into the metonymy “Wall Street.” Occupy thus made visible the solidarity of a formidable block of North Americans with oppressed people’s uprisings around the world.
It was this global solidarity that mattered most, and from which inspiration ought now be drawn. There have been many movements that drew strength from the images that circulated of Occupy and its tactics, including rebellions that did voice specific demands. The Québec student protests of 2012 and the ongoing Brazilian Free Fare Movement are but two examples. Perhaps most promising has been the continuation of a movement that long precedes Occupy: the Chilean student protests, which began in 2006 and resumed again in August 2011, just before the eruption of OWS. Students in Chile now wield significant political power: protest leader Camila Vallejo has been elected to Congress, while former Socialist president Michelle Bachelet has been swept back into office on a campaign platform that includes many of the students’ demands for reform.
It has been decades since a powerful student movement attempted political change in the US. But the events in Chile, together with the increasing absurdity of the American student debt crisis, suggest that similarly vocal and organized opposition to the student debt machine ought to become the next front in the pursuit of economic justice. As members of Strike Debt recently wrote in Dissent, $12.4 billion would be needed to cover yearly tuition at all private and public universities in the US. It seems like a lot, but only until one is reminded that such a sum pales in comparison to the $83 billion of annual taxpayer money that has subsidized the top 10 US banks. Meanwhile, the banks continue to collude with the education industry to press an entire generation into lifelong debt service. One can only wonder: how much longer will Americans stand for this sort of extortion?
President Obama has paid lip service to the student debt crisis, but remains subservient to Wall St. interests. Instead, rookie Senator Elizabeth Warren has been the principal, and often sole, advocate in Washington for indebted students. Warren has called the $1.2 trillion in total student loan debt “obscene” and “morally wrong.” The first bill she introduced to the Senate this past May, the Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act, would have given students the same interest rate that the Fed offers to banks. The bill never left committee, probably because the government itself is in on the game, capturing an estimated $51 billion from its student loan programs last year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Efforts by progressive senators to extend bankruptcy protection to private student loans have also faced an uphill battle, even in the Democratically-controlled Senate. The Protect Student Borrowers Act, introduced in December by Senator Jack Reed and cosponsored by Dick Durbin and Warren, takes aim at the other party in the debt racket: unlike Obama’s toothless proposal for debt-rating higher-ed institutions, the progressive bill would actually force educational institutions participating in the government’s direct loan program to assume an amount of loan risk based on the portion of its former students who are in default. The President and rank-and-file Democrats have remained unenthusiastic.
Perhaps what is needed to capture the President’s and lawmakers’ attention are student marches on the scale of those in Chile and Québec. Tenured faculty who truly cared about students’ well-being and learning conditions might be jolted from their apathy into acting in solidarity, perhaps by striking on behalf of students’ demands for fair access to higher education. Occupy’s rhetoric of general political disobedience foreclosed this type of singular demand. But for students, now it is time to make one.
Adam Morris is a writer and translator living in San Francisco.