The Emptiness of Liberal Morality
Or why non-violence discourse is destructive.
There is a growing commentary critiquing the blind discursive commitment to non-violence that permeates many aspects of on-campus resistance in California. FN1 In the wake of the assaults on Chancellor Birgeneau’s on-campus mansion, the hegemony of non-violent discourse was threatened and some insight into where constituent interests lie was provided.
On the one hand, we have an administration committed to violence — monolithic in its hierarchy and monopolization of force. On the other, is a loose consortium of students, faculty, and workers with some intersecting interests and goals. The former, the administration, has a clear goal: to support the privatization agenda being forced down the student/worker/faculty throat by any means necessary. The latter group has no unified ‘plan,’ ‘goal,’ or consensus about what is possible.
Is the administration at UC Berkeley really committed to violence? Of course it is. The modern University system is fundamentally a system of political control. If human existence in the United States is structured through power relationships that originate in language, law, family, and other social constructions, then the University is strongly implicated as a powerful institution that defines these structures and enforces the interests of capital and the state. The structure of higher education is such that it mediates the conditions under which individuals can enter into the economic, productive, and social structures in society. The University represents the state’s continuing interest in regulating human life and developing people as a national resource. So is it surprising that UC Berkeley and its chancellor are willing to deploy the police, the office of student conduct (and threats of suspension, expulsion), and students’ academic success to enforce the policies created by President Yudof and the UC Regents which seem to be rubber stamped by administrators at every UC Campus.
While the UC system is quite willing to use any type of coercive force available to enforce policies, a debate is emerging within groups resisting the policies. Of course there are the general self-styled pundits and internet commentators who always know what the ‘best’ strategies are for people whom they share no sympathies or affinities, but who can always criticize. Those commentators are irrelevant. What is more distressing is the growing discontent exhibited by faculty as students and workers continue to respond to increasing UC initiated violence with escalating militancy.
Professor Wendy Brown, long involved with resistance to UC privatization, issued a statement on behalf of the UCB faculty, saying, “Neither round of violence is intrinsically justified and neither justifies the other. We (faculty) are not having debates. We’re condemning what happened at the Chancellor’s house just as we condemned the police violence outside Wheeler on November 20th.” This position amounts to approval of UC initiated violence because it ignores the more pervasive, consistent, and insidious violence perpetuated by UC policies and structures while raising the actions of a small group of individual demonstrators to the level of violence practiced by heavily armed riot police. Or this position shows that the Faculty is committed to the University as a system of social violence which directly benefits professional academics.
Even more disturbing, however, is the personal-opinion section of Professor Brown’s statement. She wholeheartedly swallows the UC administration’s line that the arrests were justified because students were planning a concert.FN3 While this interpretation is facially ridiculous, it is also demonstrably false.FN2 When police executed a secret operation to arrest students participating in a soft occupation of Wheeler Hall, they did so in a way that disregarded their previous agreements with students and purposefully attempted to undermine students’ academic success. The UCPD confiscated students’ belongings forcing some to miss their final exams and deadlines for assignments. They carted them off to jail for misdemeanor charges should lead to a citation and release. All of this was at the order of the Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard, a cowardly excuse for a student advocate, and Chancellor Birgeneau.
The UC showed its commitment to violence with the Friday morning arrests. They not only lied and cheated students out of their momentary liberty, but they implicated students’ life chances. The arrests were conducted in a way that potentially threatens students’ ability to successfully pass through the University system which implicates their social value to the state and capital. This is a policy and tactic that implicates the individual student’s complete exclusion from social participation. This policy is not limited to the surprise arrests. The Office of Student Conduct is busy issuing formal disciplinary investigations to students involved in all aspects of organizing on campus. What is emerging is a policy directed at excluding critical voices from the campus community, to ensure the uninterrupted functioning of the UC system as a form of regulation dedicated to maintaining human beings as resources for capital.
But this is something that Professor Brown (annual 2008 salary of $176,000) and her colleagues will find difficult to understand. To this class of professional academics, resistance to power and confronting state violence with militancy is something best left to social movements in non-Western states who provide a fertile ground for research and distant commentary. When the target of such resistance is an institution like UC, close to home and critical to faculty’s privileged social position, that support quickly drops off.
The effect, however, on the resistance movement as a whole is potentially severe. The discourse concerning violence in the local and national media is created by the UC administration and reinforced by faculty commentators. Student voices are essentially excluded from participating in the message. The media discourse is a process that discredits and excludes those students who are willing and able to put themselves at personal risk to oppose UC violence and, at the same time, creates an environment of fear, erecting a barrier to growing resistance and including new people. When the faculty, who were once styled as student allies, shows that they cannot be trusted to support students in the face of administration lies and violence, then it is harder and riskier for students to take necessary and militant action.
Another great harm in this ridiculous focus on non-violence is the tacit approval of all kinds of state-sponsored brutality that slink below the high-minded and privileged pacifist discourse. The UC is presumed as inherently legitimate when it practices violence–a presumption that is occasionally rebutted–and students are presumptively de-legitimated when they deviate from the ‘proper student activist’ caricature. This image is painfully apparent in the aftermath of the attacks on the Chancellor’s house. The governor called participants terrorists, without knowing who did what or what actually happened. UC Berkeley announced the presence of a criminal element that must be excised from the student body like a cancer. Faculty unthinkingly signed onto these official positions, not even considering that the UC was lying or mischaracterizing the incident despite a proven track record of lies and spinning media messages. Subsequently, a faculty member who was actually there proclaimed that the administration was actually lying.FN4
The environment the becomes one where true resistance is crushed from all sides as students wonder how they can produce a response commensurate response to UC violence without breaking the unwritten rules of proper protest. The answer, of course, is that they cannot. The UC is proven to be just as volatile and violent as any other state apparatus, and any real confrontation can only devolve to violence. What is missing, however, is a true commitment to opposition as UC brings all of its resources to bear on crushing individual students in the hopes of crushing resistance in general. The UC is showing great skill at splitting and co-opting the different groups engaged in organizing against its policies. Allowing this to continue is a sure route to defeat.
The prescription to this problem is a refusal to identify as student, faculty, or worker and to align interests along these distinctions, which the UC relies on to force through its agenda. It is no longer possible to enter the struggle from an ‘objective’ standpoint. Adhering to objectivity is impossible, as the objective point of view originates from the very structures victimizing students and workers at UC. Any claim to non-partisanship is a commitment to supporting UC Privatization and state power generally. Truly remaking the UC system into a public and open institution will require great risk, great expropriation of space and property, and will elicit the most violent reactions from the UC Administration and the State of California generally. To think differently is to not only misunderstand power relationships and structure of social regulation, it is to stand on the side of state violence.
FN2: Statement from the Student Advocate’s Office.
FN3: Disturbing but not surprising. Professor Brown was on the front line of the Wheeler Hall occupation accusing students of provoking police violence even as students were being brutalized for merely being present on the scene. Ali Tonak commented in Behind the Privatization of the UC, a Riot Squad of Police, saying:
They have a warped understanding of how power works. They think that calming people outside was keeping the people inside safe, when it was really the opposite: the only thing that was keeping the folks inside safe was people being rowdy outside. In the end, the negotiators were doing the job of the state.
FN4: Statement from Daniel Perlstein, UCB Lecturer.
The full text of Wendy Brown’s email:
What a group of cops did on November 20th was beyond the pale and inexecusable. The students were non-violent; the police were violent.
What the hooligans did at the Chancellor’s house last night was beyond the pale and inexecusable. It is also unacceptable to say he and his wife were in no danger. I challenge you to say that when an angry chanting crowd is throwing rocks through your windows in the middle of the night.
Neither round of violence is intrinsically justified and neither justifies the other. We (faculty) are not having debates. We’re condemning what happened at the Chancellor’s house just as we condemned the police violence outside Wheeler on November 20th.
End of general faculty view. I will now give you my personal view of the arrests on Friday morning. In contrast to the peaceful and relatively responsible occupation during the week, some of the occupiers were planning a concert to which they hoped to draw a couple thousand people and which had no provisions for crowd control, fire regulations or substance controls. It could easily have resulted in anything from the whole building being trashed to kids being trampled to death. It was also likely to come into conflict with a final taking place in Wheeler Auditorium at 8 AM the next morning. The posters invited people to stay “until the cops kick in the door.” I don’t know what naivete or hubris or pure stupidity led the organizers of this event to imagine this was really going to happen. Frankly, between those plans and then the desperate cry to the faculty that went out to the faculty following the arrests– for bail, for assistance in reducing sentences, for rides back to Berkeley from Santa Rita, for retrieving backpacks from Wheeler, and for lenience on paper deadlines, I feel like we’re dealing with 10 year olds. It’s tedious, it’s infuriating and its wasting a lot of valuable time and energy while the greatest public university in the world is slipping away from us. It is also not lost on any of us that the number of students involved in this bullshit is remarkably tiny but that it has and will continue to drive away many other students who at one time were eager to become activists on behalf of the preserving the University of California. Indeed, what is striking in the anonymously forwarded garbage below is that there is not one mention of saving the university, only excitement about violence. The “cause,” if there ever was one, seems to have disappeared.