Beyond Zombie Politics:
Because we care about justice, democracy, and sustainability we shouldn’t “save” the UC
“…being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening. I listen to them.”
Much has been made of UC president Mark Yudof’s revealing analogy between the university and a graveyard. Yudof recognizes that the university must be radically restructured. Higher education’s traditional position within the political economy has become untenable as fiscal constraints mount and competing needs grow. The university’s constituents, as Yudof notes, deny this reality, therefore he compares them to a city of the dead. They are not listening to compelling realities.
A broad coalition of faculty, students, staff, administrators, and alumni has rejected Yudof’s position on the state’s budget crisis, which they have deemed disingenuous, arrogant, and disrespectful among other things. Perhaps his statements and actions as of late are all of these and more.
Even so, Yudof’s pithy commentary was far more realistic than anything the self-described defenders of public education have offered so far. It is worse than unfortunate that virtually no one has taken his cemetery metaphor seriously. It is self-delusional and self-defeating.
If we hope to build a democratic, accessible, education and research system, whatever it may look like, the so-called defenders of the university will have to deal much more honestly with the reality of Yudof’s cemetery metaphor, in ways that Yudof isn’t even prepared to face yet. (We say “build” rather than “save” or “defend,” because we believe that the first order of business in any discussion about the future of higher education in California must be to recognize that as it stands the system is amazingly unjust and inaccessible.)
Acknowledging the truth; in its current form and function, and in the historical sources of its fantastical growth, it is not possible to save the UC or defend its major contours. It is a dying institution. We must accept this and recognize it as a reason to forward our own radical visions of reconstructed institutions of educational and knowledge production in relation to wider crises confronting us.
So far, however, the underlying basis of opposition to UCOP’s acceptance of specific austerity measures (formulated in cooperation with UC board of Regents, the governor, and many of the state’s corporatist leaders) seems to be based on the notion that there is nothing fundamentally insolvent about the status quo. Rather, UC activists claim that the university (and the state in more general terms) is experiencing a crisis born out of chronic “mismanagement” combined with a temporary economic downturn. As one catchy but incorrect slogan circulated around UC Santa Cruz put it, “THEY make the crisis.”
“THEY” do not make the crisis. Many of us incorrectly ascribe more power and vision to the elite than they actually possess, pretending that they hatch shock and awe treatments upon us after careful planning from their boardrooms and country clubs. In doing so we simplify and temporally delimit the nature of our society’s crisis. We put blame on “them,” the Gerald Parskys, Richard Blums, Mark Yudofs, and Arnold Shwarzeneggers of our time and flee from our own responsibilities and powers. There is no singular crisis, and the crises we face have no single instigators. We should cease to confuse the aggressive and opportunistic plans of the elite with the underlying troubles facing the economy, our political system and environment.
The most sophisticated analyses blaming “THEM” are quite compelling and point to the state’s dysfunctional tax formula, the budgeting process, and opportunity costs (like the prison boom of the last twenty years), combined with the global economic downturn that has hit California particularly hard, combined again with years of cronyism and scandal at UCOP, creating deep mistrust from the legislature which has cut funds in response. All of this conspires against the university community, according to those who would “save” the UC. Programmatic cuts, salary furloughs, increasing privatization of the budget and research operations, student fee hikes, and other proposals are vehemently opposed under the assumption that this is part of a coherent strategy by the state’s elite to bring about a neoliberal revolution within the state’s educational system. It may very well play out like this here and now, but there’s something deeper at work here.
Slogans such as “save the UC,” “democratize the UC,” and “defend public education,” have proliferated as a result of this analysis. Unfortunately, this kind of politics is bound toward defeat, if not now than certainly over the long-term, that is to say in over the next couple of generations, which is the scale of time we should be thinking in terms of if we are really speaking about collective politics instead of self-interests. Opposition to the president, the Regents, et al. has so far been, modifying Yudof’s quip, a politics developed by the living dead, by zombies.
Whereas Yudof the cemetery keeper sees the UC’s defenders as immobile corpses, a more accurate appraisal is that they are zombies, in denial of their own condition, unwilling to submit to reality, and therefore incapable of finding a new way to live, but still wandering in a daze, clinging to their former lives, comforts, identities.
Defenders of the university are promoting zombie politics because they refuse to recognize the root causes and depths of California’s fiscal crisis. There will be no “economic recovery” over the long-haul. Even if there could be we are confronted with the ethical question of whether we should even hope for an “economic recovery” given what this would mean for the continued expansion of global capitalism and US empire, the exploitation of the working class and reinvigorated exploitation of the environment. The dual disasters of an unfolding global ecological and social crisis that is unraveling the material and political grounds upon which the university (and all other dominant institutions in California’s peak capitalist system) depends calls into question the possibility of a future for a system that is organized around killing the human and natural base upon which it grows. Zombie politics also refuses to recognize the moral question of the UC’s legacy to the world. UC is not a beneficent institution engendering of life and democracy. UC is in fact a key contributor to the existential crises we face.
The UC’s budgetary problems are a microcosm of wider economic and ecological difficulties facing virtually all large-scale organizations during this time of deepening crisis for global capitalism generally and California’s preeminent status within American empire specifically. To expect that the UC can be returned to an idyllic era of major state financial support, low fees, high salaries, new campuses, bigger and better labs, and an ever expanding roster of PhDs, increasing and diverse student enrollments, etc., is to expect that an unsustainable institution that has been built by a wildly unsustainable economy, that has depended significantly on US imperial ambitions, can somehow be made permanent in all its most self-deluded grandeur.
The zombie analysis fails to recognize the following facts:
The global economic crisis is not a “recession.” It is not part of the “business cycle,” nor a Kondratiev wave. Rather, it is the first iteration of what will be a deepening decline of a world capitalist economy based on hydrocarbon energy which is no longer available in recoverable quantities capable of sustaining previous levels of growth. Economic shrinkage is already happening in no small part because of this post-“peak” moment for oil, gas and coal. No society is more dependent upon these carbon fuels than California, the suburban model par excellence, built up upon its own now extinguished petroleum deposits, its Central Valley a petrochemically powered agricultural plantation, its major cities absurdly impossible without automobiles, its industry irrevocably dependent on what was once thought to be inexhaustible and benign. The likelihood that a “technological breakthrough” will allow Californians to produce even a fraction of the energy we now consume within the same frame of time in which we are exhausting recoverable oil, gas, and coal deposits is at best hopeful thinking. At worst it is an example of exactly the kind of bizarre ideological faith in technological progress that the UC has a been a hotbed of spreading for over a century.
Simultaneous to this immanent exhaustion of our society’s energy supply (on which all economic activity and therefore wealth and state funds depend) is the concomitant destruction of ecosystems and the disruption of previously stable and slow changing patterns in climate and biological processes. This is the ecological angle of the crisis, and it is already bringing about the catastrophic loss of biodiversity and the collapse of the planet’s capacity to reproduce the “nature” upon which “civilization” lives. Rather than representing solutions to the ecological crisis, the quest to transcend hydrocarbon energies with “green” technologies (solar cells, wind farms, tidal generators) or a “sustainable” capitalist political economy (cap and trade carbon markets) represents a deepening of the crisis. Our society’s fixation on technological fixes reveals our refusal to change our behaviors, to honestly address our own greed, and question our material affluence. Rather than approaching the crisis as a political issue —how we concretely relate to the world’s masses of poor and exploited— and as a question of values, we flee into the fantasy that somehow our lives, in their gross material incarnation, can continue on, more or less unchanged. We fight for an extension of consumerism and disposability as the status quo.
The specific effects of the global ecological crisis and how it will impact California in a direct sense are difficult to predict. Things we can be sure of, however, include the drastic decline of precipitation in the American West, leading to the collapse of water supplies upon which California’s urban and agricultural regions are entirely dependent. The disappearance of water means the decline of California’s agricultural economy which will have a rippling effect across industrial sectors. It will also mean the shrinkage of major urban areas such as Los Angeles or San Jose. Industry, as the major consumer of water in urban areas, will wither. Climactic shifts in the average temperatures in an upward direction are already leading to mass deforestation across Western North America. Droughts, fires, wind erosion, invasive species, and other factors are already destroying ecosystems in California and the wider hinterlands it exploits.
Beyond California and the national borders ecological problems are even worse; extractive industries (with their headquarters often in the USA) operate even more intensively in the global south. Given that California’s dramatic rise as an unrivaled core region of global capitalism has been critically dependent on the state’s ability, via US foreign policies, to profit from the expansion of US empire, in both its war making and “productive” economic forms (e.g. Iraq, maquiladoras), and given the unsustainable nature of these state-led and corporate-led adventures, just in environmental terms, how can the continued expansion or even maintenance of California’s hyper-wealth, upon which the current university system depends be expected to continue?
The continued existence of institutions like the UC must be deeply questioned. We live in an era of unraveling American empire. The predominance of this nation in economic terms is disappearing due to imperial over-reach, as well as the rise of new centers of capitalist accumulation. Given California’s starring role in the late 19th century and mid-20th century expansion of US empire, and the benefits the state reaped from this, how can it be expected that the relationship of domination which has made limitless growth of the state possible continue into the future? Why defend this status quo, even if in an indirect sense?
Of utmost importance for those who would “defend” or “save” the UC is the question of the university’s instigating and facilitating role in US empire. The UC has been a scientific, technological, and political instrument for the creation of everything from weapons used to enforce US dominance, to technologies enabling the vast enclosures and exploitations of peripheral regions. For example, one of the UC’s greatest institutional achievements has been the creation and expansion of the state’s unique agricultural economy of industrially organized neo-plantations, highly mechanized, but also dependent on the exploitation of racialized immigrant labor, utilizing enormous petrochemical inputs and demanding gigantic engineered water projects and a global system of distribution which has undermined more localized crop farming.
Exporting this model of agriculture, first to the US South, and then to the global south was pursued in earnest by both “natural resource” scientists as well as economists working within the halls of UC. This system of agriculture is an indisputable cause of the ecological crisis, to say nothing of the social trauma it has inflicted continuously on the rural economies it penetrates, reorganizes, poisons and despoils. Furthermore, imposition of this system on peripheral regions has been a major cause of social and political instability in regions from Chile to India. Now in a logical extension of this disastrous combination of science and industry the UC finds itself at the cutting edge of newer, more dangerous forms of enclosures of nature for capitalistic exploitation – genetic engineering, biotechnology, biofuels, etc. Does it makes sense to speak of “defending” an institution that takes on these expressly capitalistic and predatory research agendas aimed at enclosing life itself?
The UC and California’s contribution to war making is another concrete example. As the site of the largest armaments industry on the planet, California companies build missiles, war planes, tanks, UAVs, and almost every conceivable weapon, and some that, because of state secrecy, are unconceivable. As the state’s leading research institution, UC’s intellectual workforce has provided billions of dollars in contracted research services for the production of advanced weaponry since World War II. Contrary to common opinion this is not a sideline aspect of the university. It is not an unfortunate tangent that so many “defenders” of the UC characterize it as.
It is one of the university’s core functions to manage nuclear weapons laboratories, design high explosives, study aerodynamics of rockets and jet craft, fine tune the logistics of war fighting, conduct applied research on biometrics, targeting systems, autonomous killing machines and whatever else it takes to serve the state’s military industrial complex. That an uncanny number of UC Regents, especially the chairmen, vice chairs, and key committee heads have so often been the CEOs of companies like Lockheed Martin, URS, or Homestake Mining is profoundly significant and cannot be shrugged off.
The point of this random description of the economic and ecological crisis and its roots in the political-economy of California, and the UC’s central role in as an instigator of all of this, is that not only should we reckon with the UC’s many, many undesirable aspects, but we must recognize it as its own gravedigger. The UC has actively aided and at times even instigated in bringing about social, economic, and ecological transformations that far from improving life for the majority, have actually made life more difficult and uncertain. The unsustainable-ness of the UC isn’t an unfortunate and correctable set of shortcomings, no, it is the UC’s single most important contribution to the world. Capital and empire have so over-exploited and destroyed the world’s resources and peoples that we have reached a crisis moment in which we either will make a rapid transition away from capitalism and the nation state, or else we will be nothing better than zombies. From its very inception on a gentle hill overlooking the Golden State’s Chrysopylae, the UC has grown in violent expansionary tandem with its corporate and military corollaries.
Ah, but it’s not this simple….
If this is all true, why would anyone call for “saving” or “defending” the UC. The answers are quite obvious; parallel to or in the process of serving capital, the state, and the military in their quest for empire and limitless growth, the UC has, especially since the 1960s, been a site of genuine progress and creative, democratic innovations in science, technology, arts, humanities, and the social sciences. No one can deny the importance of the educational benefits accrued by attending UC or its equivalent. As so many say, it really does help millions become more democratically attuned citizens. It does have a positive impact on our lives. Some of the technologies it brings into being are arguably “progressive.” There are reasons why so many fought to open up the university and make it accountable to a broader range of publics.
But to recognize this requires that we also acknowledge how the UC became a more socially beneficial institution. Social movements fought for access, affordability, and justice in higher education. Movements to “open up” the intellectual possibilities of science, technology, and the humanities were partially successful over the past fifty years. A wider public was able to be involved, and what they would be involved in wouldn’t just boil down to knowledge production and education for corporations and the military, but to new constituencies however they were defined.
From the black freedom movement to feminism and ecology, movements pried open universities across the United States and transformed them at the same time. However, the UC that was forged in this struggle was not a sustainable formation. What happened in the post-World War II era was that elites involved in managing the UC recognized that the institution faced a crisis of legitimacy if it continued to marginalize and exclude nonwhites, women, the working class, and a broader constituency of knowledge-industry patrons than Kerr’s limited multiversity allowed for. In order to stabilize the educational system, and to ensure the continued operation of the UC’s core efforts in creating the technologies of empire and enclosure, elites essentially capitulated to the most immediate demands of social movements. They rapidly expanded the university system, allowed for the creation of new departments, new centers, and the stretching of university functions so much so that the university became internally contradictory. Marxists, feminists, and antiracists began openly teaching theories of anticapitalism, liberation, and decolonization in many departments. Whole centers sprung up for the development of labor scholarship or the exploration of ethnic identity.
This solution, as hard as our foremothers and forefathers fought for it, and as much positive change it engendered, was in the end only possible because of American hegemony and especially California’s amazing economic growth and fiscal wealth. Elites were able to cave into demands for justice because the pie was growing. Now that the project of American empire has stalled out, and given the increasing intensity of both economic and ecological crises that will not allow for continued urban growth, capitalist accumulation, and intensified exploitation of labor and the environment on a global level, this solution has become impossible. Thus, “defending” or “saving” the UC is outside of the bounds of reality. It is a zombie politics because it is a position that defends a system that has significantly already killed itself, and may very well kill us all with it.
The political and economic conditions of an ever-enlarging pie are long gone. Certainly a new tax code could do much to alleviate the immediate fee increases and furloughs facing students and faculty, and prevent privatization. Over the long run, however, the contours of the UC as a multi-billion dollar university system plus two multi-billion dollar nuclear weapons labs, is impossible. The form of higher education and research we have is the logical form of a university in an expanding capitalist imperial state. If capitalism and the imperial project are truly hitting political and ecological limits, how can we sustain this university form?
But more to the point, if the university is so heavily inculcated in capitalism and empire, why defend it at all? Is it not our responsibility to take it on as a site of struggle? What does the eager “defense” of the university’s status quo say about the vision, honesty, and goals of those so conspicuously opposing Yudof and his ilk? What does it say about our own comforts and privileges? Why are we so invested in the status quo that we cannot muster compelling alternative visions of higher education and research, counterpoised to that of the Regents, ones that would face the reality of various crises, while also forging ahead with our common democratic values?
It needs to be recognized that Yudof, the Regents, and the constituencies they represent are also deeply in denial. While they recognize a systemic crisis and seek radical changes in university budgeting and structure (giving them an advantage over the “defenders”), the crisis they recognize is not the fundamental one we face. Their attention is fixated on immediate problems. They hold faith in the economic system they stand at the pinnacle of. They believe in technological solutions to the disappearance of carbon-based energy. They hold faith that the ecological crisis is not a severe as many scientists now say it is, but also that its effects will be “manageable.” This too is a dead politics of reforming our totally unsustainable system toward planetary collapse.
What then are the solutions? We offer none. We only offer our disturbing recognition of these problems, and hope that if others face reality we will collectively find a way to step back from the brink, while expanding on those just and sustainable parts of the University of California that were fought for and achieved over many hard years.