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Same Shit, Different Side Of The World: We Are The University, Auckland Aotearoa/NZ

February 18, 2012

Due to neo-liberalism’s inherent lack of imagination, tinpot Tories the world over have been salivating at the sight Ding-Dong Davey Cam Cam’s everything-must-go, bargain basement sale of the few public services left in the hands of the people that pay for them. “But my friends want them mummy” squeals the little lord. Anyway, a couple of UfSOers met with the fine people of We Are The University (WATU) in Auckland, Aotearoa/NZ. One of the most handsome of their number, Prof. T. Jones, has sent us a summary of what has been going down up there. Is that right. Where am I…

 

Goodbye I, hello we: a personal narrative of the birth of a student movement

 

Perhaps it’s a symptom of an urban campus cleaved in twain by a major transport artery.

Perhaps it’s the organic result of a national culture that lauds the Ordinary and ridicules idealism.

Maybe I’m a cynic.

But up until recently I thought that a dynamic, exciting, critical and united voice on campus in New Zealand was an impossibility. Until the 14th September.

As a postgraduate student who has been haunting the uni for longer than I care to admit, the apathy and isolation of student life at Auckland has always seemed inexorable. Add to the generally self-interested malaise of life on campus the atomised and unfriendly culture of my “home” department, and I understand very well the feeling of students who just want to get their job ticket and leave the university forever. An interest in critical theory and modernist literature does not have employers lining up. I have despaired often at the prospect of having to give up the work that I love and towards which I’ve put a large chunk of myself, achieving, arguably, a bit of learning and skill. The fact that being an undergrad at Auckland was like walking into a frigidarium did not fill me with confidence that I could find a sense of sorority and solidarity in my experience of the university.

Reading nostalgic accounts of the great student movements and intellectual cultures of the past always filled me with a sense of alienated dis-ease with what the university is today, in reality. Not for me the long nights in dingy cafes discussing the finer points of Foucault’s genealogies; no solace or clarification would be found through impassioned discussions of Lacan’s theories of the unconscious in some basement at 4am; no one with whom to lean towards a nearing of the potential of Deleuzian thought: these experiences of experimental and communal intellectual horseplay, crucial to a well-rounded apprehension of critical principles, lived in books, in an impossible past. The age of Kafka, of Dostoevsky, of Bloomsbury and the Beats was over, not to be resuscitated. These eras were a dream, a half-remembering of times not had, an unrealisticidealisation of the unifying and nurturing potential of the student experience, thought I.
I could have my study, but I could not eat it too.

Until 14th September.

I watched with great interest the student protests against cuts and corporatism in London. I stayed up all night on countless occasions to watch events unfold over the internet, often crashing my browser with the strain of 150 open tabs, monitoring Twitter, Facebook, Livestreams, traffic cameras, blogs and critical columns in progressive independent media.  I had been stirred into enthusiasm for the principles of informed dissent and direct democracy evident in the student protests of 25th November, 10th December and 26th March. While the winter of discontent raged, I was having my own summer of web content, observing the uprisings in London and globally, like Tiny Tim at the window, moved and optimistic, but with no immediate outlet for confronting the things about my own national context which are witheringly unjust – economic inequality causing rampant poverty, increasing and frankly frightening erosion of civil rights, cuts to vital services for those most in need, all having lemon juice squeezed into them by a wantonly destructive right-wing government intent on furthering the same sort of proto-fascist neoliberalism which is currently decimating the very bedrock of democratic society, and which has been creeping out its mindlessly cruel and entirely banal reform agenda for the last 30 or so years. I was heartened on the one hand by watching the creative rhizome of resistance spreading around the world. But I was also, necessarily, excluded from those struggles, except insofar as they became for me a form of cathartic desublimation as I observed them from the void of my critical dystopia across the seas. Stuck in Auckland, watching, with nothing to offer but the pseudo-active tweetery and remote commentary of an armchair in New Zealand.

At the beginning of this year, I took a postgraduate paper in social theory, in my second home of Sociology. In this class I was able to meet a few other students who felt as I did about the experience of life at the University of Auckland. A few of us formed a group aimed at discussion of how to use critical theory towards creative practice. Our goal became the re-enfranchisement of students into the politics of the university and, by extension, society at large. These others, I found, had also been watching the world, also had theory-based analyses of why the three bedfellows of the apocalypse, that is, patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism, are the greatest threats there are to an equitable and authentically liberated future civilisation. The group is process, the group is a moving-towards and, as such, was slow to collate and find paths through the social mire towards our goals.

We spent many hours discussing our parameters, going back and forward on points of process and range and function. Many times it felt like circling the drain, bordering upon Sisyphean beard-stroking. We could see movements and groups whose aims and actions we wished to emulate (the University for Strategic Optimism being among these), but felt that perhaps New Zealand was not at its tipping point yet, or that our campus culture was past the apathetic point of no return. As we narrowed our goals and focused our thoughts and plans it became clear that what was required was a new consensus at uni, one geared not towards the job ticket, but towards the educational institution as a radically indispensible social good. The university, we saw, needs to be so much more than the banal sausage factory that has been the experience of so many of us.

In August, an opportunity was presented to us which revealed a path towards the re-vivifying of a politicised consensus on campus. Nominations were closing for the 2012 editorship of the weekly student rag, Craccum. We decided to nominate one of our number, Tom, for this role, with precious little hope that the frigid student body would thaw to our stated goals of radicalising the publication as an inclusive resource, a reforming of student media as a critic and conscience of society and the scholarly experience. Ten days later saw us discover this not to be the case.  Students from all quarters who had been feeling the same creeping unease and alienation flocked to the polls in response to our intensive campaigning. When the results came in, we found that our wild stab in the dark had found purchase in the hearts of the unheard, the students who’d moved beyond dick jokes and proud apathy. In short, Tom won. Emboldened and newly involved by this coup, we continued to expand and network with other groups and individuals towards a reclaiming of our space at uni.

On the 14th September, during, but not officially affiliated with the Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA) Human Rights Week, some students had organised a teach-in in the basement of the library, a yawning network of halls and lecture theatres. Talks were arranged with prominent and progressive lecturers in Law and Sociology. Banners were sewn and painted, readers on analysis and dissent furnished and over a hundred students amassed themselves around the halls to discuss, out loud, together, the stories that their innards had been feeling.

After Dr Mohsen Al Attar had spoken rousingly on the divide between integrative and formative education, the soft and hard wars waged upon students by way of student debt and the crushing of dissent on campuses; and Dr Campbell Jones on the neoliberal system’s attacks upon student and staff democracy and their wider effects on social consensus. After these talks was planned a period of discussion on the role of the university in society and a screening of video of the day’s events at Victoria University of Wellington, where students had gone in their hundreds to deliver a letter of complaint to their Vice Chancellor Pat Walsh requesting a halt to the support of plans to remove automatic membership of student associations, among other wilfully atomising policies in the name of capital. They had experienced the long arm of discipline, being punched and pushed down the stairs of their registry building by security guards (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiYbund_msA). The group congregated in the library basement were incensed by this display of how the increasingly centralised management sectors of universities in New Zealand respond to disagreement.

When our own campus security told us to leave, we declined politely and continued to have our discussion, a discussion long-overdue, a liberation of those half-perceived feeling of wrongness through the realisation of our common goals and grievances. Security told us that if we didn’t leave, the lights would go off by computer in fifteen minutes. Twenty-five minutes later saw our discussion illuminated still. Presently, someone came and told us that we had been locked inside the building. Guards were positioned at all of the exits, taking photos of students through the glass doors. We had a talk about our plans in response to this kettling and intimidation.

(It was not the first time that guards had been dispatched to follow students around with cameras. Weeks earlier, some students had gone to the Courses and Careers day to hand out fliers raising awareness of the increasingly draconian corporatist policies of the university. Tertiary Education Union (TEU) members were boycotting this day in protest of attacks by management on academic staff’s working conditions, key to the proper functioning of the university as a site of academic freedom and, accordingly, social progression. The leafleting had been in solidarity with these staff and had been met with stalking behaviour by guards ordered to follow and photograph those perceived as threats on this day.)

Back to the basement. We decided collectively that if anyone was going to control the doors to our space, it would be us keeping them out, not them keeping us in. It is our university. We are all too cognisant of the thousands upon thousands of dollars that we’ll be paying off for years to use this space. Whose uni? Our uni.

So the doors were barricaded with the conveniently-sized-and-weighted seats strewn around the hallway. We sent out messages over the internet appealing for support on the outside, which came. As did around 50 officers of the Auckland City Police. We learned later that two students on the outside had been arrested for trespass. One on the grounds of their own university, the other across th road on a public footpath. When we knew that the police were planning to break into our library, we repaired to one of the lecture theatres and discussed our plan to leave peacefully on request. Tom, ever the forward-thinker, brought in loo roll and set it up by a bin at the front of the room. I for one am glad that it didn’t come to using it, though, as he was quick to point out, we would have been bloody glad to have it had we decided to hold the room for any length of time.

In due course, the police broke through our barricades and entered the lecture room. Officer Good Cop, calling himself “the Friendly Face of Policing” came in and span some pretty funny Python references.

(“Who’s the leader?”

“We are the university, you can speak to us collectively.”

“Ah. An anarcho-syndicalist commune then…”)

After some negotiation, we agreed to leave peacefully on the understanding that no penalty would be meted out to us. We left in unity. On the way out, one of our number was picked off and arrested for wilful damage, for the cracking of a window that had occurred in an earlier skirmish with security. In solidarity with this student and the two others who had been taken into custody we marched through the central city to the police station to demand their release.

(“RELEASE THE PRISONER!!” – Tom)

This was a good first lesson in the power of unity and signalled a rebirth of critical dissent on campus. We saw first-hand the force with which uni management was prepared to crush resistance to their cynical machinations. Most of us had never been involved in this sort of action, and though intimidated by the heavy-handed actions of security and police, were also incensed and encouraged into defending our principles, if anything more strongly.

A week and a half later, a follow-up action occurred which compounded further our intent to dissent. Around 300 students stormed and occupied the top floor of the Business School, financed in part by its named sponsor, inveterate profiteer Owen G Glenn. We held the space for five hours before Police were once again called onto our campus and peaceful dispersion was effected. A fuller account of this day can be found here: http://wearetheuniversity.org.nz/?page_id=66. Students have also occupied a University Council meeting to decide on fee rises and taken part in many actions supporting other groups.

For me though, it was the 14th September that signalled the end of lone rumination, the end of intellectual isolation, the end of seeing university as a place of atomised factory-farmed essay-writing and debt-racking and not much else.

The 14th September was the day that students at the University of Auckland united to begin the process of casting off the shackles of profit-driven fast food education. The day when we stood up and found, to our pleasant surprise, that the dissent in our hearts resonated across the minds of others, that idealism is alive and that the collective imagination of the university has real potential for making meaningful change, that we are all the university and that it falls to us to defend it against the attacks based in the greed of its managers and the right-wing government who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. “I” no longer exists in relation to the university. It is we. We are all the university, and we will defend it.

 

It is not a symptom of a city campus.

It’s not the national culture that lauds ordinariness and quashes idealism

And I really don’t think I have the pessimism to be a cynic.

It is the oppressive corporate takeover of the university that divides us, that conquers us.

Until now.

 

Visiting Professor T. Jones

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