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.


11 thoughts on “The University as a Site of Struggle: On Occupying in a Midwest College Town

  1. Excellent piece. We’ve had similar results to your own in our small city in Missouri/small university, a large group now distilled down to an affinity group. Which isn’t that bad, but as pointed out in the piece, little movement building does occur, even it’s even possible. Really interested in H4, basically holding the GA to work best as a temporary structure, which seems in my experience to be more or less correct.

    I will take up a minor issue though, and contend a little with the straight-up assertion that democracy in general is liberal and mainly concerned with individual negative liberties as politics; I certainly think that’s true of liberal democracy but I think Occupy attempted participatory democracy. I would instead say, and pick up a thread I think is within the piece, that in many cases that worthwhile attempt failed (sometimes miserably) and it did backslide into a liberal expression of democracy. For too many it became an eternal soapbox. I don’t know if that’s surprising from a cultural standpoint, though. Not only are people in the US just used to that kind of democracy, a lot of people have been effectively silenced within the existing political process and found what they saw as an outlet within the GA structure. I’d be willing to say most of us engaged in it a time or two over the past year and a half. But in general, great comments about the way the GA can tend to operate.

    I’ve been on the lookout lately for thoughts about and experiences with small town/non-Coastal radical organizing, so I was very glad to see this pop up in my TL. I’ll make sure to distro this to my comrades, really well worth the read. Thanks!

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  3. Extremely interesting. As somebody at Occupy in New York, with which I was extremely disappointed and unhappy and has served to embitter me even more towards the current state of the American left, I find your commentary extremely interesting.

    Any sort of assembly or meeting was just as draining over here as they were for you, it’s just that they were kept alive by other bustling activity partially because the park was a staging area for impromptu “snake marches” where most of the “interesting” interaction with police took place. Also, we received mail, most of which was ridiculous, but some of which was cool, scary or touching, so that added some pizzazz.

    In the long run I would agree that if anything came of occupy it was the distillation of the some affinity groups. Whether or not you really want to wear that as an achievement is up in the air. All in all, the experience mostly just drove home that many people from older generations of lefties, namely hippies and other baby boomers, have allowed the American left to totally fester and are unprepared to provide any substantive leadership going forward. But also, I do feel that I meet more radicals who are up-front about their political persuasions and who are substantively involved in real projects in their communities post-occupy, and some lefties from older generations have told me (when they find out that I was at occupy and I start trash-talking it) that it meant a lot to them to see it happen and that they were sad that I thought so poorly of it. So, who knows?

    Finally, as someone who really only care about theory/wants to do scholarship for the rest of their life and who currently makes money by other means, let me just say that I have given up on the American academy for a number of reasons, and don’t plan on trucking off to grad school any time soon. It’s good to see someone talking about how to do better in that context, but I am sadly left without much faith on that front.

    In any event, thanks for the post. I have been considering writing something about occupy recently since the dust seems to have settled and enough time has passed that maybe we can shed a little light on what happened, unlike what was going on at the time when everyone was just spewing bullshit and it was impossible to tell what it was all about or what was happening. Regardless of whether you have convinced me to put pen to paper about it, it’s heartening to see somebody still beating the war-drum.

  4. you oughta check out if you’d like to see some kind of alternative that’s been around in Seattle for about five and a half years.

  5. Thank you for posting such an informative piece on the Occupy Movement. I may have missed it, and if so, please direct me to it, but what is the goal of your proposed movement at Universities, and what do you believe to be the solution to the challenges you state? The constant and consistent rise in tuition has long been a sore spot, that I have internalized only. Therefore, I will not and cannot throw stones at individuals or organizations that attempt to make change, but nor is it possible to offer support unless there is a clear, unified goal that will benefit the students, their parents (or financial supporters) and will not negatively transform – what I like to call – the ‘university-bubble’, which remains one of the purest (not pure, by any means) time capsules society offers. Perhaps my response does not fit your posting, and please know that my intentions are not to incite or inflame, but to sincerely gain an understanding of your movement that – for a short while – captivated the worlds’ attention.

  6. I really enjoyed your post! I have written about Occupy as well, ( but about it’s reflection of ‘V’. It seemed that here, NYC where I live, the movement was unstoppable. Unfortunately ultimately it seemed aimless as well… after a while that allowed for it to flounder without resulting in any one taking them seriously (despite even the lawyers guild and unions getting involved) In NYC they rejected political interference as well, which was very unlike the local Tea Party movement… and even that died down.

  7. Third Coast, you have thought through these issues very well. The experiences in Occupy Wall Street in New York were not fundamentally different. You hit the target when you wrote:

    “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.”

    Occupy did change the national conversation, and we should never underestimate that — there will be no progress without that change in conversation. But that is the only the first of many steps. Actions, and bodies in the street, effect change, not talking. The GA format did become a fetish, even in Zuccotti Park at Occupy Wall Street, where I spent much time.

    What signifies for me that transformations have barely begun was the lack of resistance, even acceptance, for corporate cooptation of Occupy Wall Street. More than once, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream set up a booth in Zuccotti Park and dispensed free ice cream. As people queued for the goodies, I would tell them that Ben & Jerry’s is owned by Unilever, the European equivalent of Monsanto and they were allowing themselves to be used by the same sort of giant multi-national corporation they were supposedly fighting. The response was a collective shrug of the shoulders. Free ice cream trumped political principals.

    I am not reducing Occupy Wall Street to this anecdote — there was so much good in it. And the vicious state repression speaks volumes of the threat Occupy’s message represented. But speech has to be followed with persistent action – that is what a movement is. Without a movement, there is no change.

  8. There’s no better example of why the “Occupy” movement fizzled than your post which — in my opinion — is drowning in muddled obfuscation. And I mean that in a nice way. If you REALLY want a better democracy (because we all know a perfect democracy will never exist), get the lobbyists out of our Government (which Obama promised and hasn’t delivered), and get the power back into the hands of the people and not our current political elite. The system and structure are already there, you just have to be willing to hold EVERYONE accountable, whether liberal or conservative, left or right, democrat or republican. When you start looking the other way when your guy is in power (Bush or Obama), then your efforts are doomed.

  9. Reblogged this on Nomad Scholarship and commented:
    This is a nice post-mortem analysis of an Occupy set at “a large ‘public’ university in Michigan.” The essay touches on a number of things but there are two main themes: analysis of the GA, and the future of campus organizing. To the first point, the authors thoughtfully dissect what didn’t work with the GA model. They examine it in specific terms of their particular group dynamic as well as in the context of the larger, general consensus-based model of direct democracy. This is a deeper analysis that Wendy Brown offered, though I don’t fault her since it was one small part of a larger interview. And it is a far better nuts-and-bolts interrogation of Occupy than David Harvey offered in his fluffy few pages–for which I do fault him as he had the space of a book to look into the matter.

    As to the second point, the authors “believe that university campuses are logical and essential sites of struggle.” Toward that end, they offer their thoughts on how university administrations quell revolutionary potential through the bureaucratic apparatus. They subsequently offer some thoughts on how to make campuses more potent sites of struggle, including some direct calls to us academics to stick our necks out.

    In the end, I found this essay far more informative and valuable than any of the other Occupy pieces that we have read.

  10. “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” -Einstein

    Let’s start with what is a “GA”? First rule of using an acronym in print: first iteration, you spell it out. There is a lot of jargon here. It may be great shorthand amongst yourselves, but LOUSY for communicating to the outside world. One of the main purposes of jargon is to exclude non-members from a given group. That’s exactly how it comes across. I came to this site looking for information. I am instead frustrated and still mystified, and very aware that I’m not in your club.

    “In Occupy Oakland, there was initially a dialectic between subjectivization in the streets and containment in the GA…” Say what? This couldn’t have been stated in simple, concrete language? -Using short, blunt, but most of all, EFFECTIVE, Anglo-Saxon words?

    This has hobbled the entire Left in this country since I was a youngster, and I’m almost 60. The Right has effective propoganda, whereas we only have impenetrable philosophical discussions, compounded by sesquipedalian latinate verbiage. The 1% has non-stop, wall-to-wall propoganda organs, blaring emotional arguments 24-7, and the opposition can’t even be bothered to sully itself by learning basic rhetoric.

    Lots of facts, lots of philosophy, but no emotion. -But emotion is the hook for most people. The Right knows this. The 1% knows this. The Fascists and Communists both used to know this. -And as far as I can tell, the American Left is totally bloody oblivious to it. Want to get people to care about their student loan debt? — Tell them this: In Denmark, not only is tuition free, but college students are payed a living wage by the government to attend school.

    See? It’s not the factoid itself, it’s the emotion it evokes. I bet you would have people’s attention for a few minutes, at least.

    One last thing. Total democracy happens between informed equals. Respect for one another demands the fairest rules of order you can find. If you are having unproductive 3-hour meetings, they need more structure. -And if there’s nothing solid already on the agenda, DON”T CALL A MEETING.

    Hope any of this helps. Good luck to you. You are fighting the good fight.

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