The University as a Site of Struggle: On Occupying in a Midwest College Town

A short reflection on the meaning of democracy and our experience at Occupy organizing at a large “public” university in Michigan.

Occupy Detroit's general assembly meeting Friday evening in Grand Circus Park.


The three of us first began organizing together under the aegis of Occupy in 2011 at the university where we work (though we were also involved in other regional/local Occupies). While the GAs on our campus initially drew more than a hundred students, our numbers quickly began to decline and we ultimately turned into a sort of affinity group that, while consistently active, became a closed space with little potential for movement building. Looking back, we remain convinced that universities are an under organized space in anticapitalist struggles but that the dominant organizing models, in particular their emphasis on democracy, require some fundamental rethinking. In what follows, we detail our experience with the GA and sketch out some of the reasons why it failed to serve as the organizing space that we had initially hoped for.

The GAs were one of the most visible and emblematic features of Occupy and were frequently celebrated as consensus-based decision-making bodies both based on and dedicated to principles of radical democracy. GAs helped to introduce thousands of participants to numerous practices that, while well known to anarchist organizers and professional activists (facilitation, stack, consensus, committees/working groups, etc.), were unfamiliar to many newcomers. Compared with the dismal charade of “politics” characteristic of the electoral system, the experience of “real democracy” was in many ways captivating. It created widely circulable images of protestors and offered a tangible way to imagine what they were seeking when they themselves refused to issue precise demands. These practices were quickly drawn into the everyday language of Occupy, most often in the form of “prefigurative” politics.

While GAs in New York, for example, seemed to draw large numbers over long periods of time, the GAs on our campus quickly became an exhausting and draining burden. First and foremost, they were really, really long. Open conversations often take a long time and at times can end up doing little more than going over the same ground. At the same time, since we weren’t actually occupying a space on campus, participants weren’t already gathered in the same place for an indefinite period of time—folks had other places to be, struggling to find enough time to study and work to pay to study. Second, as numbers dropped at the meetings, the bureaucratic structures of the GA began to seem a little ridiculous. When there are only 20 people in a room, there simply is not a need for such a formalized structure. Given that our meeting size varied so much, planning appropriately was a problem. Third, in part because we were not holding space, our meetings tended to be unfocused. Too much time was spent discussing demands and formulating principles, and not enough on planning actions. It was frustrating to attend a three-hour GA whose purpose could not be synthesized and which often had no product. Ultimately the long, drawn out, romantically declarative GA felt like a fetishistic performance of what we imagined politics to be.

We see these problems as arising not from inefficient or otherwise flawed procedures that impede the GA’s democratic function but rather from the obsession with democracy itself. Neither “better facilitation” nor “bigger GAs” would have changed the political valence of the Occupy model or, for that matter, the objective conditions of struggle on our campus. Democracy is synonymous with a liberal politics in which politics as such is defined as speech and individual rights take precedence over collective missions. Below we offer a series of hypotheses about how the GA conceived of politics and democracy and lay out some questions that, we think, might help us develop new ways to organize.

Democracy and the GA

Hypothesis 1: GAs are based on the notion that speech is equivalent to democracy and, as a consequence, politics. The structures of democracy that are embedded in the GA form (participation is showing via hand signals or voicing your opinion about a given topic, the human mic and repetition of speech, and so on) will always tend, despite strong disavowals to the contrary, toward a form of politics as speech. The GA absorbs direct action into itself, coordinating and distributing speech acts that come to stand in for the anarchist politics from which the GA emerges. So people talk about how Occupy has “already won” because it “changed the national conversation” about inequality. The premise is that speaking aloud comes to supersede and in a way replace structural change. Talking has to lead to action—the two are intertwined and there must be space for both, but mere denunciation is not enough. In our Occupy, which was not holding space, we spent far more time talking than doing. Meetings can be great, and can generate the social bonds that form the basis of solidarity, but without direct action that potential solidarity withers and dies before it can be tested, strengthened, and deployed.

Furthermore, many of our direct actions—such as interrupting a regents’ meeting or a speech at the Business school with a mic check—in fact took the form of vocal denunciations, of political speech. The most common reaction to the mic checks seemed to be mild irritation. Other than short delays, our speech had few material consequences. In fact, it could be argued that our actions served to improve the university’s image as a “site of free speech.” After we disrupted a regents’ meeting, the president of our university published an open letter to President Obama the next day beseeching him to address the issue student debt. Shortly after that, he appeared on campus for some photo ops. Tuition still increased 2.8% for in-state students and 3.5% for out-of-state students the following year.

Hypothesis 2: Given the dominance of the notion of politics as speech, the GA has a problematic tendency to become the primary site of subjectivization. In its presumptively prefigurative model, the forms of democracy it enables and proliferates come to stand as the embodiment of a coming “democratic” community. But the GA is a horrible site for introducing people to a movement, changing their minds, convincing them to get involved—don’t you want your life to be more like an unending series of 3-hour long meetings? In sites like ours where there is not already a significant level of radicalization (more than 10-20 students and faculty) finding ways of building a group of people to undertake actions and protest is critical. Equally important is having multiple points of entry and forms of involvement. What this means is that the structure of governance (a GA, a meeting, a spokescouncil) ceases to be the place we bring people to try to convince them that they should care more deeply about student debt, go on strike, or occupy a building.

Hypothesis 3: The GA is a weak organizing model because it doesn’t think of itself as an organizing model. This creates a problematic overlap between the “form of governance” and the “structure of movement.” These have to be separated. Take the following three cases. In Occupy Oakland, there was initially a dialectic between subjectivization in the streets and containment in the GA, but once this dialectic broke down (coming to favour the GA over the streets) there was no other structure supporting the movement. In Occupy Wall Street, there was a shift from the GA (form of governance) to a dual model with both a GA and a spokescouncil as a parallel organizational structure. Here, the separation between structure and governance is too pronounced and results in a form of shadow governance—the spokescouncil wields the real power and the GAs turn into performance art. In the Occupy at our university, this overlap between governance and structure led to the group’s transformation into an affinity group. Sensing the hollowness of the GA as an organizing model, we shifted to friendship, which is a firmer organizing structure, but which had high barriers to entry and few points for subjectivization.

Hypothesis 4: The most powerful GAs are tied to actions or called to determine if a group of people is willing to undertake a large-scale action (“large-scale” being a scalar term, depending on where and how many you are). If we stop thinking of the GA as either an organizational structure or as a site of subjectivization, we can then ask ourselves what it is they do well. In our opinion, the GA works best under two conditions: 1) it involves a decision on an action (in other words, it operates not as mechanism of containment but rather in a dialectic with direct action), and 2) the decision and process of making the decision has a profound effect of supernumerary collectivity (even if it is marked by intense disagreements with other participants). This does not require perpetual repetition or a reconvening as a general meeting structure, but is more of a collective beginning for a very tangible, visible struggle. It does not rely on a notion of politics as speech, but rather links speech and action.

Next Steps for Campus Organizing

While over the last few years we have seen significant examples of police violence and repression on campuses across the country (especially in California and New York), university administrations more often engage protesters in less direct ways which are highly effective in generating burnout. The denial of confrontation, which while possibly dangerous is at the same time useful for mobilization, ultimately leaves us inaudible. Coupled with the bureaucracy of endless meetings, the administrative response exhausts enthusiasm for movement building. Changing the university requires bringing a halt to the “business” of its everyday operations, something that will actually require the university to publicly confront protestors. For this to happen on our campus, we will need to build support for more militant direct actions.

One of the challenges to organizing on campus is getting undergraduate students—many of whom are being buried under mountains of student debt—to realize that their degree will probably not result in the comfortable middle class lifestyle that they’ve been told awaits them after graduation. This runs counter to their day-to-day experiences in which they do not yet find themselves in the uncomfortable position of not being able to pay back their loans. In a way, we are asking students to anticipate their own future failure. We need to think through the temporality of what people are being asked to act on and how that impacts participation. This requires a longer term relationship with students that may even extend beyond the time it takes them to graduate. Community involvement needs to include alumni and a more intergenerational approach to thinking the figure of “the student.”

With regards to graduate students and faculty, we need to dispel the notion that your scholarship can be your activism. Participation in university-based activism means material risk for individuals whose careers are tied to the institution in such an intimate way. Many of our colleagues, while championing anticapitalist, antiracist, and feminist politics in their work, routinely fail to participate in an open struggle to change the structures that govern our lives. While our writing and research can feed, nurture, and illuminate our struggles (and vice versa), the two should not be conflated. As scholars, we need to put our bodies where our theory is.

Given the current state of student debt, a vicious administrative class, and the prevalence of idealism and creativity, we believe that university campuses are logical and essential sites of struggle. That being said, the university is a trap—only university-based struggles that aim at generalization, at escaping the university and becoming part of wider social condition of refusal (as in Quebec), will have a shot at avoiding either recuperation or reformism. For us, this implies a two part, long-term organizing problem: first, organizing enough students to form a powerful bloc capable of acting on the terrain of the university, and second, organizing the communities that surround us.