Sunday, November 24, 2013

Why Calculus Won't Bring Social Justice: The false consciousness of the intellectual class

Background on the AFSCME 3299 ULP strike and UAW 2865 sympathy strike
On November 20, 2013 my union, UC Student Worker Union UAW 2865, went on strike for the first time in nearly ten years in sympathy of AFSCME 3299, UC service workers, who were illegally intimidated. AFSCME 3299 represents over 22,000 campus cooks, janitors, and gardeners, and medical center patient care workers. They are among the lowest paid workers in the university and are mainly people of color. They went on a one day ULP strike to protest a pattern of harassment and intimidation that appears to be very systematic in nature - in others words a calculated attempt at shutting down worker self-agency and resistance to pay and pension cuts that was unilaterally imposed on them. AFSCME workers in the UC Med Centers are also fighting for safe staffing levels, which the university has taken a hard line against despite the Med Centers making more than $400 million in yearly profits and patient deaths as a direct result of lack of safe staffing levels.

My union was only able to strike in support of AFSCME (and workers rights more generally) because of a successful bid for leadership by a reform caucus called AWDU, which grew out of the student movement at the UC in 2009. AWDU took control of the local in 2011. We entered contract negotiations in the summer of 2013. The AWDU dominated bargaining team let our contract expire on November 5, 2013, despite protestations from the more conservative members in the union and on the bargaining team who were aligned under the caucus USEJ (pejoratively called "the admin caucus" due to their history of conciliation toward administration and their paternalistic relationship with the UAW international - which is a perfect example of business unionism.) 

Letting the contract expire was a strategic decision. Under the contract the union was subject to a "No Strikes" clause, that had prevented us from going out in sympathy for AFSCME 3299 in their strike in May 2013. As such, the union was hamstrung in its ability to stand by service workers in solidarity. Six months later and the UC hadn't budged on safe staffing, wages, or pension issues. Fighting along, service workers were subject to illegal intimidation and threats. 

It is our hope that standing together we are stronger, and that by going out in sympathy and shutting down some of the academic work that the university relies on to function that the university might think twice about violating basic rights of workers again. AFSCME 3299 has been an ally of the student movement and we want to stand with them. 

The letter
The day before the strike a UC Berkeley lecturer in the Math department sent a letter to his students that has since become very popular in the internet. In this letter the lecturer not only says that he will be crossing the picket line that day, but that he will be teaching the discussion sections that his striking grad student workers canceled. 

The e-mail reads a bit like stream of consciousness at parts, and actually contradicts itself at times. But style and structure aside for now, the piece engages in an oversimplification of the educational process while simultaneously obfuscating the strike and its context. 

He actually says, "the reason for me taking this decision is extremely simple", the decision being to cross the picket and to scab on his grad student workers, and the simple reason: education is the most important thing in life and furthering your education isn't selfish, on the contrary it is a way of "helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning."

Politics, and specifically the social context of the strike, is "very big, very complicated." 

By overly complicating and refusing to actually engage with the reasons for the strike (these were never mentioned, UC service workers were never mentioned) while over simplifying and actually misrepresenting education he manages to make an already marginalized group totally invisible in his argument while framing the argument in such a way as to make the next day's class infinitely more important than the cause of the workers who don't even exist in his narrative. It is little surprise then that those unfamiliar with the struggle of the UC service workers and the context of the strike read this e-mail and came to agreement with the lecturer. His framing allows for no other option.

The ideology of the intellectual class
Reading this letter and its modernist take on education and social problems I was immediately reminded of every TED talk I've ever watched. Both represent the self-centered and limited point of view of the intellectual class, or as feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith would call it "standpoint." To these people social problems are merely technological problems. The technology of the future will remove all social ills and bring about "human happiness and meaning" as he says. 

The problem here is that this completely ignores both 1.the facts of the history of technological development and the current state of technology, and 2. the social conditions which maintain and reproduce social problems, and the social nature of technology.

If technology solves social problems then we wouldn't live in a world where we grow more than enough food to feed the entire world and yet millions of people die from starvation, and millions more are malnourished. If technology solved social problems then we wouldn't live in a world where millions are unemployed yet yet our productive capacity is under utilized. If technology solved social problems then we wouldn't live in a world where the Walton Family owns more than the GDP of more than 100 countries, or the combined wealth of the poorest 30% of Americans yet Walmart still can't pay a living wage and benefits to its employees. If technology solved social problems then we wouldn't live in a world where countless people die from diseases and viruses that could be treated and cured, but they don't have access to these treatments or cures because it would undermine corporate profits and violate intellectual property rights.

The barrier to social problems isn't technological, its social. Technology exists in a social world, and as such, access to technology and its products is structured by the social world. It is massively unequal and oppressive. For most work is alienating, exploitative, and not everyone even has access to it. Many find themselves even unable to purchase the goods or services they produce or help produce (especially in higher education). Bigger and better machines won't change that. Biotech, nanotech, space colonization, 3D printing, the internet, none of them can transcend the social context they are embedded in.

However this worldview, that social problem can be solved by technology, creates a narrative that puts the intellectual class on the front lines of fighting for a better world, and while operating within the current social conditions. In this tale social change isn't necessary, all that is needed is that the intellectual class go about its normal day to day activity. This world view allows intellectuals to simultaneously reap the privilege of their social position while relieving their guilt for not doing anything outside of the prescribed norms of the current social. in fact their guilt is not just alleviated, but they are filled with a sense of self-importance that goes beyond the judgement of "not guilty". They are to be the only hope, the saviors of the world. For it is their brilliant minds which will one day bring forth any future utopia. Certainly anyone who is part of making that happen surely can justify huge salaries, great benefits, and most importantly: NOT taking any kind of political risks, like striking.

It is important to mention that not all followers of this ideology have great jobs, or run hi-tech companies. Many are poorly paid academic workers in precarious positions. However, these people are often the product of an educational institution which preaches this ideology fervently. It is no surprise then that Mr. Coward (yes that's actually his name), might be a lecturer, not a tenured professor, who makes less than a living wage, and is actually represented by a union (UC AFT). It would actually be in his best interest to be involved with his union and to be on that picket line, but his worldview has been shaped by an institution that espouses this an ideology which is hostile to indifferent to his real position as an exploited worker who exists in a world of contradictions, a world in which the technology of today could solve world's ills if the social relations of today would just let it.

I actually had a UC Davis professor say to me, if you are looking to change the world you are in the wrong field. She showed in this comment that she understood that social problems need more than technological solutions (I would hope so of a sociology professor!), but she also showed a narrow view of the limitations of the capitalist division of labor. There are no jobs that will change the world. Jobs exist to produce profit which then becomes more capital, therefore as Marx said, the more we work the we more we are immiserated. 

Social change doesn't come from within this relationship. Social change happens when people break the confines of the norms of work and society. It is the strikes, occupations, boycotts, and insurrections that create the social revolutions that have brought more justice to the world. There are no jobs to change the world. And more importantly: no one ever brought about social justice through learning calculus. 

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