Revolutionary Desire

Whither Occupations?

Posted in Essays by deterritorialization on January 17, 2010

Anyone who was at the New School in April 2009 recalls the ferocity with which hundreds of heavily armed police agents brutally repressed the second occupation of the closing Graduate Faculty building. A temporary moratorium on the building’s destruction had been won a few months prior in December, when the building was first occupied. New School faculty and students univocally expressed not only disdain but contempt for the university’s president, Bob Kerrey, who supports the U.S. occupation of Iraq and has a long history as an agent of U.S. imperialism (most notably for his ordering of the massacre of Thanh Phong in Vietnam).

The December New School occupation itself harks back earlier that month to the occupation of the Republic Windows factory in Chicago, the first factory occupation in the U.S. in a very long time and a direct inspiration to many of the New School occupiers. Republic Windows workers, who were being laid off, were denied significant back-pay which the company owed them, so they seized the factory and defended its machinery in order to raise their demand. The workers eventually won their back-pay but not their lost jobs, which they were fortunately re-offered by the company which bought the factory. Few far-left organs however, pointed out that despite the success, the workers had neither demanded nor won the right to keep their jobs. For some time, the only clear outcome was that workers would be given the back-pay they wrested out of their bosses hands as only a slap in the face to accompany them out the door. Yet the occupation was uncritically celebrated as a success. [1] Why do we need martyrs?

First New School Occupation, December 2008; Image credit: Internationalist Group

At the New School in December, the only significant unifying demand was for the resignation of the imperialist scoundrel Bob Kerrey. There was a list of demands, but the only real concession granted in the negotiated settlement—aside from amnesty, which is not insignificant but rather fundamental—was a bit more time of keeping the building open. In fact, around the same time, New School students faced announcements of thousands of dollars of tuition increases for the following school year. The occupation seemed to waver between reformist demands for accountability and transparency and none at all.

The Bob Kerrey Issue was merely a pretense for us to take this action. For some the immediate generalization was to other New School issues, the broader reality of the neoliberalization of the university, and to capitalism most of all. We don’t know what this opened up for others involved in the occupation, but for us the generalization was immediate, thorough and deliberate: Kerrey’s highly public crisis of legitimacy gave us the opportunity finally to go on strike from all the myriad forms of production we live every day and to give ourselves over to occupation. [2]

This radical spirit infused many just as the apparent “victory” left many wondering what had been won materially. The optimism of successfully defending the occupation against police and security attacks and the amnesty won combined with the widespread confusion as to why Bob Kerrey still held his post. To those with a structural perspective, like Marxists and anarchists, the Board of Trustees’ unanimous support of Kerrey was the link to the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. Kerrey: “I don’t fear any vote that the faculty could take” [3]. What Kerrey does fear, as evidenced by his slander of the second occupiers as “terrorists”, is not votes but action. Thus, another occupation was launched on 10 April.

The reprisal was almost immediate. No demands were met, no negotiations were made. Hundreds of police, including counter-terrorist forces as well as a SWAT team and other divisions, swarmed on the building, beat and arrested students outside (who were not occupying), and hauled away everyone inside. By the time many got to the scene in order to support the occupation, police and confused bourgeois were all that were left in the area.

NYPD Thugs Prior to Attacking Second New School Occupation; Image credit: glutenfreeandy

A number of factors made April different from December and prevented its success. First, the initial occupation was significantly smaller and less publicized. Threats had been publicly made but no specific plans of action were distributed. Many students who wanted to be involved were left out of the loop in the interest of secrecy. The obvious influence of texts like The Coming Insurrection on the action allows the occupation to be soundly criticized for conspiratorial vanguardism—in its planning and execution, not in its occurrence. Perhaps the only thing which saved the first occupation was the moment during which outside supporters succeeded in forcing their way into the building to join, defend and rejuvenate the inside. Partially because of the time of day and limited initial numbers, and mostly because of police repression, this did not happen the second time. Instead, our hopes and our classmates’ bodies were crushed under the microfascism of the baton and the orders of Bob Kerrey. Let us call this repression what it is: military action. That this is Kerrey’s speciality is no coincidence.

In the days immediately following the arrests, there was a march and rally to defend those students who had been arrested and suspended unjustly. In fact, nothing came out of this march, despite that it drew several hundred amid a very angry mood on campus. During the march, word spread that the suspended students would be allowed to finish the current semester before facing their disciplinary charges—a partial reprieve was treated as a victory. More actions could have drawn more support and won more victories. Regardless of the limited sympathy for the occupation, there was virtually none for the administration’s orders and the police’s brutality. The problem was one of organization and structure. The administrative response was, of course, swift and designed to fill a purely affective need. Mass meetings were called which accomplished nothing but equal distribution of blame between the unarmed students and the armed police (who even had a helicopter!).

Talk spread that there would be a united-front style defense committee formed. The so-called “Student Action Defense Committee” did almost nothing aside from a theatrical “sit-in” in the campus courtyard which in fact drew far less students than a normal day would. Some attended a Radical Student Union meeting thinking it was a united front meeting. We were led to believe the RSU would help carry forward the fight—which to some extent it did—but most of its efforts were wasted in press conferences and organizational meetings. While the RSU was open to anyone who wanted to attend its meetings, its focus was certainly aimed at building itself up. There was no clear perspective that the charges and suspensions could be dropped—by those who were willing to fight.

One result of the second occupation on the New School campus was widespread demoralization. Students were divided between those who supported the occupation and those who did not. What was clear was that the Kerrey administration (or the Trustees who support him) and the police had successfully executed a military-style removal of students from an academic building. For a time, undercover cops stood alongside the security guards who check student IDs at campus building doors, writing down the names of students recognized and known for political dissidence. Did they hold my card too long?

Police barricades remained dormant on campus for months after the occupations, waiting for another disturbance. One can surmise that their chemical weapons and guns were similarly within reach. (In fact, tear gas was used on students trapped inside the second occupation as they tried to leave but were prevented by police. This was first denied and subsequently confirmed.) The FBI investigated (fruitlessly!) students at the school for terrorist activities. New School security guards surrounded Radical Student Union meetings and harassed (through arbitrary and redundant ID checks) anyone who attended. Students even commented that the extra ears in the room made it quite difficult to openly plan militant action to defend the police’s victims. Some made it seem that action would be planned secretly outside the meetings, but a whisper is only a hope; a battle cry must be promulgated.

In some ways, the call was spread beyond the walls of the New School, just as it had originated elsewhere, whether in Greece or in Chicago or in the hearts of all those who desire to resist and end oppression and exploitation. Students in California, particularly but not only at the University of California, have also engaged in a wave of many occupations. There were some partial victories but many partial defeats. Momentum, there, though, has grown rather than subsided, due in part to the working-class character of many of the affected schools, as well as the statewide nature of the cuts. Again, though, occupation is conceived variously as a tactic toward achieving tangible goals (as for example in Joshua Clover’s “Five Axioms for Action at UC Davis” which argues for “one action, one demand” as a means of increasing odds of success) and as a means without an end, with no demands at all.

Occupy the University: Reconsidering the Local,” by Micha Cárdenas, approaches universities as sites of the production of knowledge, a perspective with ties to theories of immaterial labor. This production of knowledge does not have to be monopolized by the capitalist vulchers. Instead, revolutionaries should see political struggles as active production of new forms of knowledge. “Political struggles are in themselves a form of knowledge production where social actors form ideas about contemporary society, power, and social change and then test those ideas out in the street.” The value of political action, then, is not necessarily its impact on “class consciousness” in the Marxist sense (that is, the awareness of “objective” interests which are always contradictory and never cleanly represented subjectively) but rather in its capacity to produce new knowledge, to produce knowledge that can help meet the needs of the oppressed. There is something quite similar to Wark’s notion of the “hack” as the production of production in this “science of the oppressed.” It is necessary, though, while engaging and defending such a perspective, to push it in a more radical political direction.

University occupations are an example of the direct linking of knowledge production and the interests of the oppressed; they are also (or can be) communisation in practice. In this sense, occupation is not just a tactic (as Marxists would have us believe) but a principle of producing communist social relations in the here and now. In this sense, an occupation is “successful” when it aims at freeing one space from wage labor, the state, and the commodity form. When occupation as a principle aims at generalizing these new social relations and spreading beyond the limits of the space in which they erupt, it must also consider its effects on the struggles outside these walls.

Demands are alternately conceived as a principled necessity, as by the Trotskyists with their tenacious Transitional Program, and a betrayal of principle, as by some ultra-leftists and anarchists. Demands should rather be thought of as a tactic which can support (or hinder) the principle of communisation. At the New School, the demand for the removal of president Bob Kerrey served to generalize the first occupation and widen its doors to many who did not conceive of their project as one of communisation at all. Those of us who see occupation as a direct incursion against private property and support it accordingly must fight alongside those who struggle for limited demands and not yet social revolution.We must fight next to them in order to convince them of the necessity of the total destruction of the state and capitalist social relations, and we must fight to convince them that occupations they engage in are a first and major leap toward this. We should raise demands when doing so would carry forward struggle, either locally or internationally: Drop all the charges and suspensions! Cops out of all schools! Never again can we bear the shame of dropping a fight when our comrades are arrested, charged and suspended—not because we are afraid, but because we are strong. Carry the struggle forward, letting no comrade fall down or behind. Occupy everything, but do so with the understanding that defeat can be disaster, whether locally or internationally. Let those of us who advocate communisation be clear that success is not the meeting of demands, while we recognize that many we fight alongside do not share our perspective.

All power to the occupations!

Students and workers need a general strike!


[1] The Trotskyist groupuscule the League for the Revolutionary Party offers one notable exception in their article “Lessons of the Republic Windows Factory Occupation,” fingering to some extent the rest of the left’s complicity in spreading over-celebratory misinformation. Interestingly, the LRP is forced to point out that in Argentina “long-term occupations challenged property rights and plainly showed the workers’ capacity to run production without traditional bosses.” Yet when workers have the means of production in their hands, as in Chicago, the LRP’s only solution—stemming from a confused commitment to the Transitional Program and the associated demand for nationalization of failing industries—is for the workers to beg or demand of the bourgeoisie that its state reappropriate the helm of the industrial ship once again. Why, one may ask, should the workers give up the closing factory at all? Why should they demand a new exploiter?

[2] “A Case Study of Occupation as Non-Event,” in The New School Occupation: Perspectives on the Takeover of a Building,” 9-10. [PDF mirrored here.]

[3] New York Times, “New School Faculty Votes No Confidence in Kerrey.”


5 Responses

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  1. deterritorialization said, on January 17, 2010 at 11:43 PM

    As I was pulling together the material I used to write this article, I realized that the LRP no longer links to their statement on the second New School occupation, which I wrote in April 2009, when I was still a supporter of that organization. Since April my perspectives have changed dramatically. However, for posterity, I am posting the statement. It still seems to be one of the few such pieces which mentions the tuition hikes at New School and raises a corresponding demand. Coincidentally, rising tuition is something which can at times go unchallenged by “demandless” occupations.

    The statement on the LRP website, which has been either been removed from or never added to the subject and chronological indexes:

    The statement in its original form, mirrored here in PDF format:

  2. Joshua Clover said, on January 18, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    Just to note: I myself am not an advocate of demands. In the essay you link to: “We have no right to chant “Whose university? Our university!”if we don’t mean it. You can’t really say “Whose house? Our house! Can I have a cookie?” If it’s your house, it’s your cookie. If we really mean that it is “our university,” we should not be asking and we should not be negotiating.”

    I certainly am not committed to the logic of “winnable” demands and some appearance of political legitimacy within the context of the present political sphere. But, and perhaps this is an idea we share, I think it is infinitely disastrous to have a laundry lists of demands, the very discussion of which can effectively end an occupation. For myself, I don’t really believe in the efficacy of winning concessions so much as coming to realize the power of staying in the room, and to experience the first steps of autonomous self-determination by a group and the radicalizing capacities therein.

    Demands, if they must be conceived of, are for me conceived of as an unfortunate necessity toward this situation. In terms of outcomes, we will be given nothing. If we seem to have been given something in negotiations, it was actually taken by the force of our militancy and refusal. It will surely be taken back unless the militancy and refusal are continued and generalized.

    • deterritorialization said, on January 19, 2010 at 5:10 AM

      Joshua, thanks for your reply. In fact, I think we agree quite a bit. The 2009 NYU occupation (fortuitously within walking distance of the New School’s twice-occupied Graduate Faculty building) was widely criticized for its long list of demands. Some were appropriately local, such as recognized collective bargaining for the graduate student union, but others such as Affirmative-Action style scholarships for Palestinian students were genuine tokens of solidarity but generally viewed as unwinnable demands. That so many people saw the demands as basically unwinnable served to stop them from realizing the power they actually could wield if the struggle had been broadened (or simply continued after the occupation was beaten). Perhaps if the demands had not been so wide-ranging and distant the suspensions and arrests would seem less like accomplished facts and more like minor setbacks toward a broader goal. Then perhaps there could have been more struggle, perhaps even more occupations, rather than a press conference or two. (Press conferences seem to be a key way arrests/suspensions are unwittingly ratified by those seeking to fight them but failing to realize the need to mobilize broader masses in order to do so. This is something I have noticed at both New School and NYU, where press conferences would be called, and often times under the auspices of more militant action.)

      I also agree that militancy and action, rather than demands, are what wrest concessions from our enemies. I also believe that these concessions are, like all the basic conditions of life, impermanent and facing daily threat under capitalism. I would caution, however, that there are those (ultra-lefts?) who see the reforms won through struggle as setbacks rather than gains. I think there is some truth to this perspective as well, in that all gains won through struggle can be turned against us (consciously or unconsciously) as weapons. While I do think that this must be stressed and re-stressed, we must also be aware that demands are not only an act of communication with power but also with the rest of the powerless who have not yet arisen. Demands won through struggle show not necessarily that power is prepared to meet demands, but that militant combat can be an effective way of making the changes which interest workers, students and the oppressed.

      Finally, and this is a bit embarrassing, but seeing your comment made me aware that I cited your piece in a sentence which is by any account nonsensical. I am editing it a bit to correct this but mentioning it in the sake of honesty.

  3. Joshua Clover said, on January 19, 2010 at 8:28 AM

    Hey, thanks for the response. I dunno if the above has been edited or not — my memory’s not that good — but for me, I wouldn’t say I believe in “one action, one demand” to “increase the odds of success.” I think that axiom is a useful sort of scissors to cut the knot of endless discussion re demands, and continue on to other topics. I’m not sure what “success” looks like, but it isn’t measured in demands, yeah?

    • deterritorialization said, on January 19, 2010 at 4:46 PM

      That part was there before. It was unfortunately worded but I did not try to edit my original formulations aside from clarity. It seems I poorly summarized your perspective which now seems more appealing to me than when I wrote the piece.

      What is success? For us it seems that success is not to be measured exclusively in terms of the gains we win along the way, since we both seem to be fighting a much broader struggle. But many who fight with us do not see their engagement in this way. For them, I think demands can serve as a roadmark of “success” which is of course a meaningless word in the larger scheme and long term life of capitalism.

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