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Davis, California

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Column: Retrospective

In my last column, I’d like to reflect on the year and think about what’s next. As the school year draws to a close, it’s worth remembering a parable by Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci pointed out that everyone wants to make history in an instant, to be the “ploughman of history,” but first the fields have to be fertilized. Someone has to be the “‘manure’ of history,” preparing the way for the plough blade in a long and unglamorous slog.

It’s true that there are still fierce glimmers of hope for rapid change. Egyptians are retaking Tahrir Square and students in Quebec are retaking the streets. But in the United States coordinated police repression has successfully eliminated most permanent Occupy encampments, and soon the full fury of electoral politics will be upon us. Now, we are in the manure.

As I argued in a previous column, the debate between Democrats and Republicans will prove to be dimwitted as always. If you’re still reading this, you probably don’t need me to review Mitt Romney’s faults. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, isn’t that much better.

During his term in office, Obama has deported record numbers of immigrants and prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other presidents combined. Overseas, the President has proved to be nearly as warlike as his predecessor, maintaining a growing “kill list” of assassination targets. But, he’s a Democrat, so he gets a pass from bourgeois liberals.

Already, the news has slipped into the mouth-breathing Manichaeanism of the election season. In the pundits’ eyes, nothing happens in the world that isn’t somehow a reflection of the dueling candidates. When dismal job numbers come out, the question is not how will this hurt the working poor but, rather, how will this hurt the president’s poll numbers.

The loss of media attention and the disappearance of squishier Democrats will probably stifle the national Occupy movement for at least a few months.

Still, it’s a form of rank philosophical idealism to assert with certainty that politics will submit to theoretical prediction. The Occupy movement has defied expectation again and again. Perhaps occupiers will storm the Democratic National Convention. We can dream.

But whatever happens to other occupations, the student movement at UC Davis has a blazing bright future. From the ejection of U.S. Bank to the censure of Chancellor Katehi, campus protesters were stronger this year than ever before. And, if past is prologue, a new cycle of struggles will begin again in the fall.

At the moment, though, the current UC Davis administration is fighting back by criminalizing dissent.

The Banker’s Dozen have borne the brunt of this anti-protest strategy, facing years of possible prison time for allegedly obstructing a public hallway. This is an obvious overreach that will quickly blow up in administrators’ faces if it ever goes to trial. In the meantime, we can protest, publicize and put a little more cash in the protesters’ legal fund.

Indeed, events of the fall and spring have shown the power of mass protest. Recently, Ph.D. student Isabel Call was denied doctor-recommended cancer treatment by student health insurance, Anthem Blue Cross. But, when a petition on her behalf went viral, Anthem was forced to change its mind.

Victories like these show that, despite the slowdown in the tempo of the movement, we must maintain what Gramsci called “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

The figureheads of the repressive system we live in maintain themselves entirely through our labor and our passive consent. If we all withheld those, the system would soon vanish like an afterimage.

Begging reforms from administrators and even presidential candidates, however, only leaves them in power to undo them. It’s a bit like the medieval peasant revolts: an army of rebels storms the capitol — to deliver a petition to the king.

Political columns and campus debates won’t bring about change, either. Most of the reactionaries and concern trolls can’t even be bothered to read what the movement has written. If even this minimal effort proves too much, what use would they be if we convinced them? Vigorous argument and vibrant propaganda are necessary but not sufficient to reclaim the university.

Though UC Davis is now instituting the best reforms money can buy, when fees go up this summer and police arrest the next group of protesters, students will think of this year. In that moment, they’ll remember that collective direct action is the most effective form of politics right now, because we are many and they are few.

Thank you for this year.

JORDAN S. CARROLL is a Ph.D. student in English. He can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.

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