–Jean Paul Sartre / Czechoslavakia: The Socialism that Came in from the Cold
It has come to my attention that thousands of University of California Berkeley students have taken to the streets in protest of massive budget cuts set to take effect this Fall. Students across campus have expressed their outrage through arson, sabotage, and vandalizing property. Most detrimentally, these budget cuts will lead to increased tuition costs for all students attending the University. While the grievances of the students are legitimate, in that I believe public education to be a right for all citizens in a functioning democracy, I do not agree with the methods employed to express these grievances.
Unlike the sabotage of property that took place in the anarchist movement in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War and the destruction of property during the Civil Rights movement, the destruction of property during the Berkeley protest were mere expressions of rage against the idea of increased tuition costs. The rage of the students is rational yet their actions are irrational. The sabotage of years past was founded on firm principles which were rooted in a long tradition of classical liberalism. Young anarchists in 1920’s Boston did not smash the machines in the factory because they were simply against the lowering of their wages. More importantly, these anarchist followed through with the “propaganda of the deed” because they hungered for a principled critique of advanced state capitalism, a system whose structural inadequacies gave rise to the injustice that they so much deplored. These individuals understood Twains message when he said “don’t let schooling interfere with your education”. They could make the distinction between a tactical approach and a principled approach.
If one examines the situation unfolding at Berkeley University through this lens it is quite easy to see that their criticism of the recent budget cuts is missing a dimension which if it were considered would fundamentally change the character of the movement. That absent dimension is political in nature. Listening to the rhetoric of the students they make reference to the fact that they are against the budget cuts in education yet they ignore the system of advanced state capitalism that has created the space for such misfortunes like this to occur. What if the government obeyed the wishes of the protestors and decided not to cut funding for education? Would that remedy the situation? Or would it just bury the instruments of exploitation? And would this burial signify the death of an institution or a veritable sowing of the seeds for a new, more refined, more authoritarian institution to emerge? These are legitimate questions we must ask ourselves if we wish to approach this situation both in an analytical and critical manner.
Watching the protests in Berkeley strike me as highly reminiscent to those equally envenomed protests in May of 1968 in Paris, France. Much like the students of today these young students expressed their discontent toward President de Gaulle and what they viewed as totalitarian governmental policies. Their spontaneity, their lack of a principled critique of the structures that they felt were responsible for the injustice in their society ultimately led to the dissolution of the movement. Ominously, the protests of today bear the same marks of spontaneity and un-preparedness insofar as it relates to establishing a cogent, macroscopic argument against the powers that be. If these flaws in the current movement are not acknowledged and corrected I believe the students of today will be left to endure the same fate as those ambitious French students in 1968. The students of today are upset that their lives are not flowering within the coordinates that their masters have given them. They are oblivious that the problem isn’t that which exists inside the coordinates the problem is the coordinates themselves. As Sartre proclaimed they must not try to fix the “machine” of advanced state capitalism by asking for nothing more than a leveling of the current budget. To the contrary, they must “seize and destroy” the machine for until they have the intellectual courage to do this they will forever remain cogs in the wheels of manufactured illusions.