Revolution: A qualitative transformation of a system or systems. Revolution need not be violent nor instant. More often, revolution is a slow and steady process of quantitative change strategically pursued in order to reach the vantage point at which a wholesale alternative based upon different values may be instituted.
Radical: From the latin “radix” meaning “root”. A radical solution, person or organization is one that recognizes and strikes at the root of an issue rather than simply addressing symptoms.
There is a spectre haunting universities- the spectre of high student turnover.
The most common argument I’ve heard from students sympathetic to activism on campus regards the impermanence of any campaigns being waged. Given that most students graduate within four to five years, most activism at SUNY Stony Brook dissipates as seasoned activists leave- diplomas in hand.
The unfortunate outcome of this observation, even for dedicated activists on campus, has been the hobbyfication (yes, I just invented that word) of legitimate political action. Student activists recognize that currently they have four years to mess around with campaigns and then they’ll shove off to be wage slaves in the “real world”. They relegate activism to extra-curricular status and, ultimately, have nothing much to show at the end of their time here. Students who are not activists also beg the question: “What do you really expect to accomplish by the time you graduate?”
This is not a trivial concern, as unfortunate as this may be for the rest of us. It contains, though, a degree of pessimism which is unwarranted. This is not an insurmountable obstacle. Firstly: student activists who recognize the problem and wish to resolve it can do so with just a bit of brainstorming and some effort. Secondly: student activists who recognize the problem but do not wish to resolve it confuse me. If you recognize that in the current circumstances you can do little to effectively build power, why do you continue to pursue campaigns which you ultimately do not believe will work? Is it guilt? Is it self-image preservation? Is it masturbatory activism? I imagine it’s a little of all of the above.
I’m going to frame this from the perspective of the newly formed SUNY Stony Brook Radical Student Union (RSU) and its demands. This blog is not meant as a representation of the RSU, it’s merely my personal opinions on the matter. First I’ll break down the demands (and therefore the issues facing students). Next I’ll dig into strategy. Finally I’ll talk about structure.
The RSU focuses on issues that are directly relevant to Stony Brook students. We reject the privatization of the SUNY system, demand full state funding of public education and free admission. These are obviously not demands that can be successfully won in four years. They are demands, however, that impact students beyond their time at the university and greatly mirror a broader political debate over the existence of the public sector in general and the encroachment of the private (corporate) sector on our lives. Given the numbers on percentage of children who out-earn their parents enough to reach the next tax bracket, chances are many Stony Brook graduates will eventually be sending their children to state universities. Not planning on living in New York? No problem. The austerity measures taken here are taking place internationally. The struggle here mirrors struggles everywhere. Good luck avoiding it.
If students generally do not care about the subject it is because it hasn’t been brought to their attention comprehensively. The argument of the apathetic campus is a tired one. It’s sort of like making observations about slavery while standing in a plantation and resigning yourself to the fact that things will never change. It’s a fallacy. This concept that things that haven’t happened yet will never happen is a pesky disease that needs to be stomped out immediately. It’s unmerited and moreover it’s stupid.
So here we have three obstacles surrounding the issues that the RSU has taken up. One is that this is a campaign that needs to be fought over a longer period of time than we would like. Two is that this is a campaign that requires the coordination of people across New York state. Three is that this is a campaign that needs to root itself in a community that needs to be familiarized with the issues.
The last two obstacles can be addressed simply through strategy. We’ll start with latter, first.
If the issues being addressed are ones that need to be comprehensively (or at least basically) understood by the student body then it stands to reason that we most consider how students receive their information. There isn’t one clear answer. Unfortunately, students don’t learn 99% of what they know from bathroom graffiti, otherwise this would be a snap. Most of what occurs on a campus is culturally/socially transmitted. We learn about events, accidents, incidents etc. that go on at Stony Brook from our friends and Facebook. The revolution, then, is social before it’s political. It shares a beer and a cigarette before it builds power to take power. We should be utilizing social networks (real ones, not digital ones) to gradually build our message. While this starts off slow, it expands exponentially given the proper cultivation.
Too many times, activists attempt to spontaneously spring a mass “movement” from scratch. They do very little base building and jump off the high dive with the hopes that the masses will be there to catch them. If we understand revolution to be a gradual process, though, we know that we have to cultivate our base. We need to be patient and self-critical. We need to produce comprehensive literature on the subject for those students interested enough to read it, but we must also spend ample amounts of time on conversation for those who aren’t. Ultimately, though, we need to make friends. I don’t mean that superficially, either. We’re not looking to make friends simply to recruit them to the cause. I certainly haven’t extended a hand to anyone I personally found insufferable. It’s friendship, though, that builds a reliable network of supporters and activists. It’s friendship that creates dialogue that people actually listen to and learn from. Take your time. Build your base.
The former obstacle is a little more difficult to surmount. We’re in luck, though! The crisis of public education is so great that international, national, state-wide and SUNY-wide networks of activists have sprung up. It’s as simple as getting in contact and keeping in contact. We have to work with others to coordinate actions, share literature and information and thrive off of one another. We must see their victories as our victories and their failures as our failures. We have to understand ourselves in the context of a broader movement.
The very first obstacle (and the one which began this post) is addressed in the structure of the RSU.
Formerly we organized without any structure. We were a random assortment of students gathering whenever we could to haphazardly throw together rallies, events and literature. This obviously wasn’t working.
The structure of the RSU lends itself to fixing the four-year problem. The core/member dichotomy creates a system in which members who wish to take on more responsibility are given the resources needed to more fully comprehend the issues, tactics and strategy behind the RSU. It’s literally designed to produce leaders. It’s also designed to reduce organizational disarray. Formerly we had students of varying degrees of commitment making decisions. While this is often viewed as “democratic” we actually viewed it as the direct opposite. Any student could walk in, influence the trajectory of our organizing and then stand aside claiming no responsibility, taking no tasks etc. They were granted full representation without having a drop of stake. Now, students who want to help shape the organization and its campaigns must also take on some of the responsibility. This isn’t a burden, though. In fact: it’s an opportunity. Members who decide to become a part of the core are given meaningful and fulfilling tasks and more influence. They’re able to learn experientially about student activism and organizing.
With a little bit of persistence on the part of the current core, there’s no reason that a handful of each freshman class at Stony Brook can’t be cultivated and integrated into the core and thus adding to the longevity of the campaign and the organization.