Donya Alinejad, a member of the Dutch group Internationale Socialisten, reflects on the occupation at the University of Amsterdam. She argues that if the movement is to win, it must not just formulate answers, but also struggle for the power to implement them. This article was originally published on roarmag.org
I confess, from the first time I was awkwardly hoisted in through the back window of the occupied Bungehuis, I was already in love. Since the cleaners’ strike and occupation of the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam in 2011, I had started to see the university in a whole new light: as a site of impressive struggle. I was hopelessly enamoured.
Today the Maagdenhuis is occupied, and the standard historical comparisons to the legendary occupation of the same building by students in 1969 abound. Of course I see the romantic appeal of claiming this as a kind of revival of that rebellious spirit. But I’m much more inclined to see the Maagdenhuis in the context of the more closely connected and recent struggle at (and for) the VU.
I guess you could say I’d rather think of today’s movement as my first love reincarnate. And as one of those who have been in the thick of the talkings, thinkings, emailings, complainings, exaltings and general hangings around within the spaces of this longer-running thing, I’m picking this moment to get some stuff off my chest. After all, true love can withstand the honesty of critique, right?
So here’s how I see it. The reason why most of us realise that the Maagdenhuis movement is particularly potent and inspiring is that we see that it’s about fundamentals. What started a few short weeks ago as a voice of protest coming from a single university department at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) has since deepened out the public discussion towards the urgency and proportions of what is truly at stake here: the meaning of the university, the societal future of public institutions in an age of austerity, and the right to self-determination or self-governance of those who perform the core tasks at such institutions.
But if this burgeoning movement is to live up to its potential, it must not only formulate its own answers to these fundamental questions. It must also become a struggle for the power to implement those answers. To reach this goal, it needs masses on its side, an enemy to be against and a shift in subjectivity. I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t necessarily sound “likeable”, but bear with me.
Before our eyes, the humanities protest against cuts and reorganisation not only spread to the rest of the UvA; the message also resonated so strongly with students and staff at other Dutch universities that solidarity statements and new branches of the movement constantly continue to pop up. The overall story echoes recent voices of those working in healthcare, secondary education and the legal sector in the Netherlands as well. That is, governed by a managerial elite and on the long path towards defunding, these institutions are becoming increasingly corporatised, undemocratic, bereft of their core public functions and even downright exploitative.
The brave students who kicked things off last month not only ignited a popular protest against these problems, they also took up the task of imaging an alternative vision for the contemporary university and thrusting it into the realm of the thinkable. Poignantly calling themselves the New University, student occupiers started out in February by occupying — with the support of Amsterdam’s squatter movement — the monumental Bungehuis in the city centre.
This is the building where the affected humanities are housed. And it is also the building that the UvA executive board announced, just a day after forcibly evicting the students, was being sold off and refurbished as a luxury spa and hotel complex as part of the Soho Club’s chain of exclusive private clubs and hotels. This move, of course, only worked to stoke existing public outrage over the eviction and the board’s approach of ignoring the students’ arguments while criminalising their actions.
The occupation of the Bungehuis was indeed more than an Occupy-style move of taking over a space for deliberation and alternative programming and living. There were clear demands formulated towards the UvA’s executive board. The New University was envisioned to include greater distribution of power over substantive decisions among staff and students, transparency and control over finances, and acceptable working conditions.
But there was also something else that pervaded the early formulations of demands, protest slogans, broader message and sentiment of the movement: that it was time for the executive board of the UvA to step down from their positions and be replaced by democratically elected representatives of the academic community. There was a will for a transfer of power to us, the students and staff of the university. In other words, a fundamental shift in the balance of forces. It is telling of the current direction of the movement that this point has now all but disappeared from the horizon.
We’re now in a situation where the university staff (a few administrative staff but mostly faculty members) have joined in solidarity with the students’ occupation, as well as formulated demands and set up working groups around various themes. These informal leaders are now deep in talks with the board about setting up committees that will undertake investigations of finances and propose more democratic structures. The question is not whether all this is progress from where we started. It is. The question, rather, is where we ultimately see this approach leading. This question becomes all the more pressing as the tide of (positive) media attention ebbs, and the matter of how, when and if to end the occupation is raised by those involved.
What the Maagdenhuis has in common with the VU in 2013 — more so than with the 1969 or later occupations of the building — is that university staff play a significant role. The position of staff is key in both cases, predominantly because it lays bare the unequal relations between management and themselves. If something is clear to those staff who have been involved with both these cases, it’s that the steady expansion of the precariat must be understood not simply as an accident of “efficiency”, but as a policy that affords managers greater control to push through further cuts and reforms. For me, learning this lesson has shed new light on how to proceed.
In today’s Maagdenhuis, strong faculty support lends a degree of credibility to the student protest through the academic status of the scholars. But more importantly, the threat of employee action at the university opens up a whole different can of worms for those at the top. After all, the legal and political openings for strike action are so narrow today in the Netherlands and elsewhere precisely because strike action is so devastatingly effective in applying pressure on employers. So much so that they have historically promoted and institutionalised restrictions on this right itself.
Yes, the co-option of trade unions is an extension of these restrictions. However, this constrained environment is also precisely the reason why trade unions are the last hope for effectively organising pressure from below in the workplace. Apart from this, university staff are better positioned as a heavyweight contender for university boards than students are because the former tend to make lifelong careers at the university, and therefore have both longer institutional memory and greater vested interests. In short: we have the motive and the means.
Add to that the particular conditions. One, lessons were learned by those most active in union organising back at the VU, and so the pitfalls have been marked, the sleeping giant has since been roused and the groundwork laid in advance for a well-resourced union campaign on universities as a sub-sector. This is thanks in large part to the progress made within the union through the struggle at the VU — the most active members have moved into the members’ parliament and union sector board of the FNV, the largest public sector trade union in the Netherlands, and are thus well positioned for campaign-building and securing support funds.
Two, there’s a movement for the democratisation of universities the likes of which we haven’t seen.
And three, the Dutch electoral left is practically non-existent – so there’s everything to be gained in fighting back against austerity policies. This is an opportunity to democratise university governance structures by vying for the power to control them ourselves, rather than launching piecemeal workplace lobbies on each issue. It’s also an opportunity to galvanise a strong, new, bottom-up union movement led by its members and embedded within a lasting social movement for political change higher up, from whence the familiar cuts and policies are being pushed down on us all.
Look, I know, even with the wind in our sails it’s hard work. To initiate any worthwhile (strike) action takes mobilising a broad base within the university. This means actively reaching out to all corners of the university — every department and faculty — to engage them in the movement via the local issues they’re already convinced of, and with the steps they’re willing to take at any given stage. And in this vein, let’s seriously consider: are the Occupy-style general assemblies we’re using — fashionable as they are — the most effective for the purpose of broad mobilisation?
This question is a practical one that doesn’t even begin to touch on the issue of how effective the consensus-seeking principle actually is as a model for democratic political engagement. The way the form plays out, it perpetuates certain hierarchies by disguising them. The least subtle examples of this are the denial of the existence of unelected/informal leaders, and the impediments to participation for those who don’t have the freedom (to manoeuvre within their temporary contracts) to put off work for long hours of assembling day after day.
Content-wise, the assembly discussions consistently focus on preparing communication with the board. The progression has been into deeper discussion of the preconditions for meeting the demands. And so the large-scale discussion on the formation of advisory committees is promoted. But such discussions are somewhat inward-looking and perhaps esoteric in the eyes of possible newcomers, while moves to become more inclusive would no doubt sacrifice detail.
Ultimately, it seems to me that this fledgling experiment in democracy should also include experimentation with a range and combination of decision-making forms that suit the purposes of the wider movement. Why feel principally or self-evidently bound to the assembly format if it isn’t necessarily proving to be the most useful for meeting certain goals?
It’s probably high time to think about whether focusing most of our limited resources on maintaining the occupation of the building — sacred as it has become — is the most effective way to grow as a movement. Or whether we might be better off preempting another eviction or a fade-out by already starting to relocate our focus; not only by transporting the spirit of the Maagdenhuis to the faculties, but building sustainable and active organisations there.
Important ongoing initiatives to activate staff like the United Faculties Rally held on 20 March, and the current move to openly link up with other collectively organised elements of the public sector, are crucial steps towards rooting ourselves in more than one place and forcing accountability at multiple levels, inside and outside the university.
It’s unfortunate that the movement has started shying away from putting our targets in the spotlight. Louise Gunning, the chair of the executive board, was in the hot seat for long enough for the rest of the board to have reasonably sacrificed her to save themselves. Had we capitalised on her already deep unpopularity, the movement may have succeeded in forcing her resignation. The difference with the current situation would have been that, instead of talking with a strong and unified board, we could have had a major intermediate victory and resumed with the same talks with a divided board, and thus from a position of greater relative power.
Just in the same way as the image of the 1% was so effective as a counterpoint to the 99%, having a common enemy works for political imagery in the public eye, and in setting up actions with a clear meaning. But it’s more than just a cynical device. It also helps apply pressure in a targeted way. The board has successfully used this moment to slink back into the amorphous entity behind the scenes that it was before the students first called the authority of its members into question. Rather than showing the confidence to control the message, we’ve helped them disappear from the spotlight out of our fear of being accused of not playing nice. The point is not to stop at Gunning or Dymph van den Boom, but to make her exemplary of the problem, and to demonstrate how to locate and go after the Gunnings and the van den Booms in power.
The reluctance to polarise perspectives and confront power surely has to do in part with the historically engrained Dutch political tradition of compromise-making. But I also have a suspicion that academic staff in particular might be faced with a somewhat painful shift in political subjectivity. It seems most of us still haven’t made a break with the general understanding (an image that’s still strong in the wider public as well) of academia as constituting a community of knowledge producers, a place where all parties have the same interests and live in basic harmony despite some minor differences. As past experience has shown, this is unfortunately not the case. And this is something that’s also become increasingly clear to me in my own current workplace within the UvA.
In the course of the past year, my colleagues and I went from a small group of disgruntled colleagues meeting surreptitiously and warily in a classroom, to holding open meetings attended by a majority of staff. Because we set up this structure and collected grievances in advance of the Maagdenhuis movement’s rise, becoming activated by the developments was a pretty smooth and coherent process. We already knew what our concerns were and immediately recognised how they matched up with the central demands of the wider movement. The continued result is that for the first time, every staff meeting that management has held recently includes a moment where the conflict of interest becomes apparent.
Whether it’s about how we are evaluated, or the need for greater support for staff, or the communication of new policy, the underlying tensions become clear: evaluation isn’t simply done with the interest of improving quality but used as a punitive measure against us, staff are required to meet higher demands but without additional investment (because: the black box called “budget”), and new policy is communicated from the top down despite staff having voiced their opposing views. Having a sound local collective has noticeably emboldened us to start to expose these essential discords, and it can’t die out from one day to the next with an eviction. This is a hopeful preface to a possible broader awareness about the nature of the relations we’re in when working under management prerogatives.
So if you ask me, we need to put the effort into organizing with our sights set on larger goals and plans, and beyond ad hoc assembly agendas. We need to use our resources to work on wide mobilization and use the most effective means to get that done. And we need to continue to shift this balance of power in our favor. Coming May Day in the Netherlands will be a moment to align the struggle at universities with the political weight of a democratising trade union. The action-oriented parts of both these forces are working towards this moment. Lets make this the last time history has to repeat itself in the Maagdenhuis, and go down forever as the ones who finally won.