I Believe in the Strike

I keep whipsawing between the dire hopelessness of the Democratic Party and the insurgent possibility of the waves of striking grad students in California and all I know is that in the end I think only the latter contains the power through which to forge a livable future.

To work in academia is on some level to put one’s faith in institutions. Our industry is dominated by them: membership in an institution, whether by employment, matriculation, or informal association, is a prerequisite to being taken seriously as a teacher and researcher. Woe betide the “independent scholar,” on whom there always rests the stink of illegitimacy—so the narrative goes. For all the substantive critiques of institutions produced by academics, we ultimately seem to have failed to imagine our own material structures beyond them.1

Politics in this country is also dominated by institutions, particularly in the form of political parties. The past twenty-four hours have not seen the total extinction of the Sanders campaign, but Biden’s resurgence has been an object lesson in the potent power of institutions, those congealed agglomerations of capital, to drive public will, to foreclose certain possible futures, to extinguish hope.

The dream of the Sanders campaign has always been necessarily that one can change an institution from the inside. This is true of the Warren campaign as well, but has been an explicit message of Sanders: we will take down the Democratic establishment through the establishment’s own technology, that is, representative voting. This dream is not gone but it seems to me severely diminished.

And so I return to the strike. Right now, grad students across the University of California systemm are standing in brave solidarity with their comrades unjustly fired by Janet Napolitano, president of the UC system and former Director of Homeland Security, a champion of institutions if there ever were one. These students, these workers are fighting for basic human dignities our institutions refuse to grant us. They are recognizing their labor power and they are wielding it in the cause of justice. And no matter what station one occupies in academia—as a grad student and worker, as a contignent faculty member, as a staff member, as a tenured faculty member, as literally anyone other than a boss—their fight benefits us all.

Academia rests on cascades of exploitation, wherein the exploitation of one level justifies the exploitation of many others. Artificially low grad student pay legitimates artificially low faculty pay. This is a cycle that the UC system openly acknowledged, in so many words, in a pathetic attempt to cover their asses regarding the strike.

What is beautiful about the strike is that it is a raw display of labor power fighting back. Striking grad students are undercut at every turn by institutions ranging from their own campuses to their own corporate unions.2 I have no hope except in believing that they will win—that we, the workers of academia, will win.

I don’t know how much longer I will be allowed to call academia a career. I say “will be allowed” because fundamentally the choice to continue with my research and teaching is out of my hands. I will attempt to secure gainful employment as a faculty member, but statistically I will not have a permanent contract, or I will simply not be able to secure a job at all. This is the game every grad student, most faculty, and many staff members play. It has become the naturalized state of affairs. I reject it utterly.

I reject it because, as Miriam Posner wrote on Twitter just an hour or so ago, any power in an institution, indeed any political power more generally, comes from us. Those of us on the ground. The power to change academia, to remake it in a vision of justice and not exploitation, rests with us.

This is what 2020 has taught me. You can put your trust and faith in institutions to do what you hope is the right thing. Or you can recognize your own power, and how that power only amplifies in solidarity with that of those who work alongside you. You can see how that power can move across real material divisions to produce new forms of solidarity that benefit all of us.3

That’s why I believe in the strike.

  1. Another conversation we need to have is how to nourish intellectual pursuits outside university structures in ways that still allow for people’s material flourishing, which is to say: how can we disarticulate teaching and research from institutions and still make sure teachers and researchers can put food on the table? 

  2. Thanks to my friend Spencer, who’s part of these strikes right now, for reminding me how the UAW is attempting to wrest power away from striking grad students, even going so far as to mimick strikebreaking techniques on the part of the universities. 

  3. The power of the strike is perhaps in its virality, as France has taught us. My dream now is of a general strike: one that demonstrates concretely how academia is interconnected with exploitation across all industries and along all registers. 

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