Column: Occupy Wall Street: The UC Connection

Over two years ago, University of California and California State University students formed leaderless general assemblies and occupied administrative buildings to show their opposition to fee hikes and budget cuts. Their slogan was “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing.” About a month ago, citizens assembled in Zuccotti Park in New York City to protest increasing economic inequality and the dominance of finance capital. “Occupy Everything” became “Occupy Wall Street” and, finally, returned to our own Central Park as “Occupy Davis.”

Over two years ago, University of California and California State University students formed leaderless general assemblies and occupied administrative buildings to show their opposition to fee hikes and budget cuts. Their slogan was “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing.” About a month ago, citizens assembled in Zuccotti Park in New York City to protest increasing economic inequality and the dominance of finance capital. “Occupy Everything” became “Occupy Wall Street” and, finally, returned to our own Central Park as “Occupy Davis.”

California did not invent the occupation – organized labor began using sit-down strikes around the turn of the last century. Our occupations are not the sole inspiration for the Occupy movement, either. Occupiers draw on political examples ranging from Italian Autonomia to the Arab Spring.

Nevertheless, I believe our student protests and the spreading occupation movement are closely connected as two forms of struggle against free market capitalism.

Resonances between the two movements go beyond rhetoric and tactics – they have a common enemy. Andrew Higgins, a Ph.D. student in history at UC Davis participating in both protests, argues that, “To me the struggle against privatization of the UC system and the fight at Occupy Wall Street are one in the same.”

In order to see these connections, we have to put them into context. In the 1970s, the top one percent faced a crisis brought on by declining profits and the insurgent demands of the working class. This led the capitalist class to begin an ultimately futile campaign to reclaim their former rate of profit by cutting taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, instituting free market policies, deregulating industries, funneling money into speculative schemes and slashing or privatizing the welfare state that had developed in more prosperous times. As part of this strategy, free market partisans allowed Wall Street to run rampant and de-funded public institutions such as the UC system. The decline of public universities and the 2008 financial crisis are consequences of the same disastrous economic system.

With state support cut by nearly two-thirds, UC tuition jumped from $776 in 1980 to $13,218 in 2011. Unless checked, this trend will continue: President Yudof and the UC regents plan to meet soon to discuss an 81 percent fee increase over the next four years. Despite administrative propaganda, these sharp fee increases were completely avoidable.

Much of that money went straight to the top. The number of executives and senior manager positions has more than doubled since 1997 while, in recent years, the UC system has voted for an $11.5 million increase in executive bonuses and salary. As Emma Kluge, an Occupy Davis coordinator, observes, “The UC system represents the larger picture: highly concentrated wealth in the hands of irresponsible people become self-perpetuating at the expense of those who support them.” Just like in the rest of the economy, austerity for UC students and workers means luxury for UC executives.

Sarah Augusto, a Ph.D. student in sociology actively involved in OWS and the student movement, also sees a direct parallel between Wall Street and UC administration: “The regents consistently make decisions that benefit their own financial interests over the quality of the UC system and the well being of its students and workers, just as Wall Street bankers seek to increase their already grossly exaggerated wealth at the expense of the 99 percent.” It should therefore come as no surprise that many among the financial elite are directly in charge of the privatization of our schools. As Higgins points out, “A lot of the time, the regents are the bankers and the bankers are the regents.”

The slow death of our public universities is therefore intimately tied to fundamental economic problems that can only be solved by revolutionary action.

According to Joshua Clover, a professor of English at UC Davis, the conditions that made inexpensive public university education possible – “a demand for highly trained workers that outstripped supply” and “a historically high rate of profit in the real economy”- have disappeared in the last three decades: “For that reason, I don’t foresee any return to the 1960 Compact via some change in the tax structure or argument from the position of justice. Any concessions now would have to be compelled, not requested.” 

What this suggests is that neither the student movement nor Occupy Davis can limit themselves to narrow, reformist demands. When student protesters focus entirely on the price of tuition, or when occupiers limit their demands to things like campaign finance reform, they fail to see that what they are fighting is just a symptom, a reflection of an economic system which collects the wealth of the 99 percent in the hands of the one percent.

Concentration of wealth and the wholesale destruction of public goods like the university system are not merely the result of bad educational policy in California, or even a conspiracy of bankers – they are the logical results of capitalism.

In this regard, then, the slogan of the 2009 UC student protests had it right: it is only through global occupation that we can achieve local change.

JORDAN CARROLL can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.