[p2p-research] Rebutting Communiqué from an Absent Future (was Re: Information on student protests)

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Mon Nov 16 01:24:02 CET 2009

I'm going to make some comments on student unrest, mostly focusing on how 
students could make positive changes to the university without being 
directly obstructive. So, this mostly agrees with the first half of 
"Communiqué from an Absent Future" and then disagrees with the second half.


Interesting (though sad) to see students becoming uneasy; I just read this 
related item:
"The Great Marginalization: To be Young and Unemployed Forever "

 From one of those articles that were listed:
Before we get too excited though, it is worth understanding the full scale 
of the limitations and obstacles facing this form of communist organisation. 
Islands of worker co-operatives face enormous obstacles in regard to 
competition from capitalist rivals, which due to the inherent nature of 
capitalism are able to command economies of scale, depress wages and drive 
down their product prices, thus undercutting their worker-managed competitors.
   Worker co-ops also require at least a somewhat sympathetic legislature 
and the backing of a mass movement to allow what are, after all, factories 
and machinery simply stolen from the bosses. The question of politics and 
the state is therefore never far away – without a political theory of how to 
deal with the state, such a form of organisation is doomed to the realm of 
idealism, or just random occurrences.

And a deeper issue, as they touch on with "How, for instance, could workers 
expropriate a call centre (even if they wanted to) when there is little to 
expropriate except office space, probably rented by the company, and some 
phone lines?" As Bob Black and others suggest, most work, including call 
center work, is probably related to guarding. Or, I might add, just simple 
competition. If people want information, it is on the web. So why push 
investments on people? Or products? Just to focus on making sure the 
available profits go in your direction?

As long as we have an unregulated market economy, where external costs like 
pollution or harming workers can easily be passed on, then healthier forms 
of free enterprise will have a tough time. For example, if the true cost of 
oil is US$500 a gallon (inclusive of defense spending and pollution and 
health costs), then it is hard for renewable energy to compete. Still, the 
fact that renewable energy like wind and now solar is becoming competitive 
with oil anyway, says a lot about how *inefficient* a capitalistic economy 
without state imposed regulation or equity truly is (because profits are 
privatized while costs are socialized).

So, students are occupying universities?

How about a little more ideology and theory to go with the practice? :-)

Some of this is a good start, obviously, but after this is gets more 
"Like the society to which it has played the faithful servant, the 
university is bankrupt.  This bankruptcy is not only financial.  It is the 
index of a more fundamental insolvency, one both political and economic, 
which has been a long time in the making.  No one knows what the university 
is for anymore.  We feel this intuitively.  Gone is the old project of 
creating a cultured and educated citizenry; gone, too, the special advantage 
the degree-holder once held on the job market.  These are now fantasies, 
spectral residues that cling to the poorly maintained halls. ... We work and 
we borrow in order to work and to borrow.  And the jobs we work toward are 
the jobs we already have.  Close to three quarters of students work while in 
school, many full-time; for most, the level of employment we obtain while 
students is the same that awaits after graduation.  Meanwhile, what we 
acquire isn’t education; it’s debt. ... This is the prospect for which we 
have been preparing since grade-school.  Those of us who came here to have 
our privilege notarized surrendered our youth to a barrage of tutors, a 
battery of psychological tests, obligatory public service ops—the cynical 
compilation of half-truths toward a well-rounded application profile.  No 
wonder we set about destroying ourselves the second we escape the cattle 
prod of parental admonition. ..."

These are some of the people for whom I wrote this last year::
"Post-Scarcity Princeton, or, Reading between the lines of PAW for 
prospective Princeton students, or, the Health Risks of Heart Disease "

Or a couple months back:

But they might also like:

But as the Communiqué says:
The same people who practice “critique” are also the most susceptible to 
cynicism.  But if cynicism is simply the inverted form of enthusiasm, then 
beneath every frustrated leftist academic is a latent radical.  The shoulder 
shrug, the dulled face, the squirm of embarrassment when discussing the fact 
that the US murdered a million Iraqis between 2003 and 2006, that every last 
dime squeezed from America’s poorest citizens is fed to the banking 
industry, that the seas will rise, billions will die and there’s nothing we 
can do about it—this discomfited posture comes from feeling oneself pulled 
between the is and the ought of current left thought.  One feels that there 
is no alternative, and yet, on the other hand, that another world is possible.
   We will not be so petulant.  The synthesis of these positions is right in 
front of us: another world is not possible; it is necessary.  The ought and 
the is are one.  The collapse of the global economy is here and now.

It's always hard to admit the truth about some tragic aspects of unregulated 
military-industrial-prison-schooling-media capitalism, because then we have 
to admit how little power we have as individuals to do anything about it. 
Still, collectively, people can envision alternatives.

A little song I wrote around 1990 roughly to part of the tune of "Let the 
River Run" (sung by Carly Simon in Working Girl), in relation to this stuff:
We make
our company
a community
of lives in harmony
a sustainable future
here and now.

For "company" one could substitute university. :-)

I want to stick this footnote I wrote:
"Why limited demand means joblessness (and what to do about it)"
right in the middle of the Communiqué where that says: "The crisis of the 
university today is the crisis of the reproduction of the working class, the 
crisis of a period in which capital no longer needs us as workers. ... That 
is why our struggle is fundamentally different. The poverty of student life 
has become terminal: there is no promised exit. ... There will be no return 
to normal." :-)

They say: "We demand not a free university but a free society."

And that all makes a lot of sense.

I cited that in a note to some other people when that link was first posted:

But around then, IMHO the Communiqué begins to run off the rails. They've 
got a good handle on some of the problems, but, the problem is, they don't 
have a solution. Their ideology is missing a piece. And when people are 
frustrated, and don't see a solution, the options often at first seem to be 
either just to "grin and bear it" or to lash out. Obviously, they have 
decided to stop bearing it. And they go on to say: "We must begin by 
preventing the university from functioning.  We must interrupt the normal 
flow of bodies and things and bring work and class to a halt.  We will 
blockade, occupy, and take what’s ours.  Rather than viewing such 
disruptions as obstacles to dialogue and mutual understanding, we see them 
as what we have to say, as how we are to be understood.  This is the only 
meaningful position to take when crises lay bare the opposing interests at 
the foundation of society.  Calls for unity are fundamentally empty. There 
is no common ground between those who uphold the status quo and those who 
seek to destroy it."

But it is (relatively) easy to stop systems from functioning. It's currently 
much easier to destroy than to create. We saw that in the latest Iraq war. 
In a couple of days or less, Iraq stopped functioning (such as it was) due 
to the US military. But, it is taking years to replace the order that 
existed before and much suffering has been endured (and women still are not 
as safe on the streets as they were before the invasion), and so Iraq still 
has many years to go to get back to where it was in many ways. Is that why 
that link had the tag by Synnove Mathe of "a great example of collective 
[blindness]"? Because it is just about repeating mistakes of violence from 
the past?

In a way, my efforts at understanding and digital freedom related to OSCOMAK 
etc. have been to prevent two extremes. This is one extreme -- the total 
revolt by below, as outlined here. That is so rare I've not thought in it 
much. The fact is, for very good reasons, without desensitizing military 
training or other deep trauma, most people just don't have much taste for 
ongoing blood and destruction, and that is a very good thing. The other 
extreme is the total crackdown (with nukes and plagues and military robots) 
from above by the formal hierarchy, and that can happen easily and quickly 
because the hierarchy has designed part of itself to do that. Those two 
different types of violence interrelate though, as one frequently justifies 
the other. We need a middle path forward, perhaps informed by knowing that 
either extreme is all too ready to emerge. We need to develop genuine 
sustainable alternatives on that middle path. This Communiqué does not try 
to do that.

I did not see a way to comment here:

or I would have added some links to stuff I've posted here on schooling and 
Or today's screed: :-)

And all those things do agree with there being a deep problem with the 
university system (and other schooling). But, agreeing on parts of what the 
problem are do not mean necessarily agreeing on what parts of the solution are.

For example, there is some part of me that feels the university and 
compulsory schooling problem (and the dysfunctional society they enable) 
will only end when most people just walk away from it (Daniel Quinn develops 
this theme in some of his writing). But, then where to go when you have 
walked away? That is always the problem, especially today with so few jobs. 
Maybe it is better just to build alternative institutions? But what would 
they look like? A big problem with reforming existing universities, whether 
by reason or by threats of disruption, is that it will be extremely 
difficult to get the faculty and legislators to be willing to change their 
mythology about how a high-technology world does work (or should work). 
Thus, perhaps we need an alternative vision; for example:
"Getting Greece and Iceland to be 99% self-sufficient by mass; international 
consortium "

Again from the Communiqué: "We must leave behind the culture of student 
activism, with its moralistic mantras of non-violence and its fixation on 
single-issue causes."

This is where the Communiqué really goes wrong, to imply violence, even as 
they may be right about the problem with a single-issue focus. One can have 
a non-violent approach to envisioning a new university or a new society that 
does not have to resort to property destruction or violence, at the very 
least, to the extent our society is still something of a functioning democracy.

As G. William Domhoff suggests, violence in our society is a not-starter as 
far as true reform:
"Social Movements and Strategic Nonviolence"
For the past 10-15 years the usefulness of an exclusive focus on nonviolence 
has been questioned by new activists. They do not see much use in the 
carefully orchestrated acts of civil disobedience to which it is often 
reduced, where the time and place of arrest have been negotiated beforehand 
with the police. They have come to see nonviolence as primarily a 
philosophy, a religious sentiment, or a moral renunciation of violence, or 
even as a New Age belief in a way to create win-win situations for all 
concerned if there is enough love and understanding.
   However, the strategic nonviolence I am talking about is far more than 
that. It is a strategy for winning in conflicts where there are real 
differences between the adversaries, including class antagonisms. As a form 
of conflict, nonviolent direct action is best understood in terms of the 
same basic concepts that are used to understand violent (military) 
conflicts, because the underlying reality in both cases is the engagement in 
conflict over opposing perspectives and interests. Thus the phrase 
"strategic nonviolence," which is in fact what trade union organizers 
practice through strikes and what civil rights leaders employed through 
sit-ins, freedom rides, and boycotts. It is a form of struggle that is 
focused on prevailing despite the fact that the opponents -- usually a 
government or power elite -- have superior resources and are likely to use 
one or another form of violence if they think it can succeed.
   Although nonviolence is a strategic choice, it has to be employed within 
the context of a larger and more encompassing value system to help members 
refrain from violence in the face of delays, provocations, and violent acts 
by the opponents. Encasement within a value system is also so that opponents 
slowly can become convinced that the challengers will not suddenly resort to 
violence when they think it will be to their advantage. A sudden shift to 
property destruction or armed struggle is not an option.
   For current-day egalitarians, a commitment to the freedoms and democratic 
procedures won by past egalitarians can provide the primary foundation for 
the practice of nonviolence, although some of them also draw upon their 
religious values as well. This democratic commitment has the added virtue of 
narrowing the gap between egalitarians and mainstream liberals. In addition, 
a nonviolence orientation can be sustained by the knowledge that it helps to 
keep the egalitarian movement itself more democratic; it ensures that 
violence-prone dominators will not take over the movement and subvert its 
democratic aims. As many historical cases suggest, the most violent people 
soon rise to the top once the possibility of violence is introduced, and 
they often use their loyal followers to intimidate or kill rivals.
   Most of the people who advocate strategic nonviolence are aware that it 
cannot work outside of what are at least quasi-democratic contexts. It is 
hard to imagine that strategic nonviolence would work for slaves in ancient 
empires, Jews in Nazi Germany, or critics in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It did, 
however, play a role in the abolition of slavery in England and the United 
States, and the courageous activists did have a hand in the transformation 
of the Soviet Union. Still, dictatorships of any kind usually only fall when 
there are disagreements among those at or near the top, or if external 
challenges to the power structure give the oppressed some new openings. 
There are few instances where dictatorships have been overcome internally by 
the oppressed majority.
   But given the freedoms, civil liberties, and voting rights achieved by a 
long line of American egalitarians and liberals, there is no end that could 
be justified by violence, property destruction, or armed struggle in this 
country. Such actions undercut the democratic rights won by past 
egalitarians and play into the hands of the government, which has the power 
to isolate and defeat any violent movement. Furthermore, property damage and 
armed struggle of any kind are overwhelmingly rejected by the vast majority 
of the American people. Due to their appreciation of the freedoms they do 
enjoy, and despite the economic unfairness they recognize and experience, 
average Americans are repelled by violent political acts, whether by right 
wingers or left wingers. If the goal is to build a larger movement that 
connects to a strategy to take over and transform the Democratic Party, not 
just to force the authorities to react to one or another provocation with 
slight reforms, then violence makes no sense. It is therefore both immoral 
and counterproductive for American egalitarians to employ violent 
strategies. Or, as Cesar Chavez used to say about violence when he was 
leading the farm worker's movement, it's wrong and it's stupid.

And, for example, just walking away is a different thing than disrupting 
what is there. And, one can even walk away emotionally from a university, 
like spending more time on peer education and peer production, maybe even 
when one is using the dining halls and getting subsidized by the state or 
parents to be there. For example, one can decide to become a "B" or "C" 
student and slide by formally, picking an easy major, while not taking any 
of it seriously and engaging in extensive self-education and discussions 
with peers about building alternatives; or alternatively one might become an 
"A" student in some other major related to all these issues (urban planning? 
manufacturing? robotic mining?) while also studying about how the university 
system is dysfunctional, and not taking it seriously even as they get their 
"A" grades. Or, students can take a deeper interest in how the 
infrastructure of their university works, not to destroy it, but to improve 
it so it is more sustainable, as hands-on practice for helping the world, 
understanding that university physical infrastucture will still be useful 
after a global societal enlightenment. By all means, take your education 
seriously, but how you relate to schooling (doing your time in a social 
youth prison) is a different matter.

As Thich Nhat Hanh said about people, and would also apply to a university:
"Our enemy is never another person; our enemy is the wrong perceptions and 
suffering within him, within her [or sometime even within ourselves about 
them]. When a doctor sees a person who is suffering, he [or she] tries to 
identify the sickness within the patient to remove it. He [or she] does not 
try to kill his patient. The role of the doctor is not to kill people but to 
cure the illness within them. It is the same with a person who had suffered 
so much and who has been making you suffer -- the solution is not to kill 
him [or her] but to try to relieve him [or her] of his [or her] suffering. 
This is the guidance of our spiritual teachers. It is the practice of 
understanding and love. In order to truly love, we must first understand. 
(pages 89-90) "

Students need to feel empowered to become doctors of the university. How to 
do that may be a difficult thing, involving requiring changing the mythology 
of the university (what I tried to do in writing "Post-Scarcity Princeton"). 
But it is more likely a path to happiness than what is advocated in the 
Communiqué, I feel.

So, what I outline is very different than what they say. They suggest 
"occupy buildings" but then don't given in to a "reformist" concession. I 
say, occupy the buildings, but with new thoughts, not with bodies and 
barricades. :-) Seriously challenge the ideology of the establishment, in 
whatever creative, funny, moving, inspired way you can. And to do that may 
take much study (one reason universities need to get kids out so fast, 
before they get smart enough to resist, so education needs to start from day 
one, or even before the person sets foot on campus. :-) And, frankly, it is 
harder to think about creative non-violent alternatives than to lash out or 
sabotage or blockade. Often, much harder. But, it is ultimately what our 
society needs to do. It is even sometimes profitable. :-)

Onward to non-violently reinventing the university through p2p education, 
comrades. :-)

But, perhaps it is too late? We've seen young people in riots (like Greece). 
And police counters or provocations (like Pittsburg). More riots. And so on. 
Not a happy future -- the US-Iraqization of the world. :-(

It frustrates me, as I'm sure it does others, as I feel I spent decades 
working on at least the beginnings of an alternative way forward, if not 
physical stuff, at least an alternative mythology. I'm sure someone like 
Jacque Fresco, or before him many others (Bucky Fuller, EF Schumacher, etc.) 
could say the same. But, such a huge gap there. Of course, for good reasons 
(to the university :-), I'm not at a university to take part in this. :-( 
And maybe make it a little better.

"Communiqué from an absent future" is such a problem because it gets things 
half-right (outlining a lot of the problem, but not much of a solution). And 
the solutions do not have to be that hard, although it does involve changes 
at the state level:
* give money to parents of kids under 18 instead of to public schools
* a basic income instead of other random assistance programs and employment 
* reducing or eliminating copyrights and patents
* eliminating grades http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/fdtd-g.htm
* letting other changes emerge as needed (like free to the user safe luxury 
electric cars to reduce taxes. :-)
* increased research and development on renewable energy and green materials 
and other sustainable development aspects
* something long-term optimistic, like seasteading and the space program

If there is a need for the legislators to have a demonstration of public 
solidarity to show they are serious about wanting reform, people 
collectively just have to stop doing for-profit stuff for a time, or other 
things that cooperate with systems of oppression they don't like, while 
finding productive things to do with that time. Such a general strike would 
still have an effect, even if, soon, as systems get more automated, strikes 
may not matter as much.

So, for example, don't barricade university buildings, just stop caring 
about grades. :-)
Or, don't fight against the university police, just cooperate with your 
neighbor down the hall to make more free music for the internet under a free 
Stop eating most of the meat the universities offer and eat more vegetables 
instead. Students can create their own online discussion groups and learning 
communities on topics of interest. And so on, as ways are thought of to turn 
passivity into productive activity. There are lots of ways to protest that 
are constructive for both yourself and your community and biosphere. Ways 
that may someday link together and help us transcend the old mythology of 
competition, grading, scarcity, ad so on. All as part of "blessed unrest".

My feeling is that until people are protesting in all these non-violent and 
healthy ways, it is foolish to talk about violent and destructive protests, 
if it were to every make sense (as Domhoff says, it is both immoral and dubm 
given our social context as a democracy). And my feeling is, that with 
enough of this healthy protest, with meat piling up in the university 
kitchens uneaten, with students asking intelligent but pointed questions of 
economics professors knowing they are going to flunk because of it and not 
caring about the bad grade, with university students making free music so 
good that people stop listening to RIAA junk, with students making free 
youtube movies that are good about issues they care about related to 
society, with people talking about and studying alternatives together in 
their spare time, with people making more free cooperative games and 
Wikipedia articles and free software tools, with people making simulations 
of future societies, with all that happening, then this might even inspire 
some of the (tenured) faculty to come oven to the side of the future (and 
even fit it into formal seminars. :-) Once you have a vibrant productive 
student movement, and some faculty on the side of the future, then one may 
see more and more positive change at universities. And it would be more 
permanent change. And it could happen right now. By next year, there could 
be a more enlightened students, more sympathetic faculty, more free 
software, more content on how to make things, more great alternative movies, 
more new dances and plays, more new ideas, more alternative history, more 
progressive blog posts, more comments to newspaper articles, more 
alternative economics simulations, and so on, to the point where these 
sparks produce flames that are enlightening an entire society rather than 
burning it down.

--Paul Fernhout

Synnove Mathe wrote:
> Thanks for this post Michel.
> I'm very interesting in this theme. I have been talking with some of these
> activists, and I recommend to read theirs manifestos, specially for all
> interested in s. XXI ideologies. There you will find "strokes" of the new
> ideologies.
> Bellow I added some interesting links:
> http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/oct/08/communism-university-workplace-occupations
> a great example of collective blidness
> http://wewanteverything.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/communique-from-an-absent-future/
> a very interesting manifesto
> http://www.emancipating-education-for-all.org/
> Hugs
> 2009/11/14 Michel Bauwens <michelsub2004 at gmail.com>
>> ---------- Forwarded message ----------
>> From: Andreas Exner <andreas.exner at chello.at>
>> Date: 2009/11/13
>> Subject: [Commoning] Information on students protests - in English
>> To: commoning at lists.wissensallmende.de
>> Cc: Streifzüge-Redaktion <streifz_red at googlegroups.com>
>>  Thank you very much, Richard!
>> Information in English:
>> 1.
>> Very interesting map of all universities currently (partly) occupied
>> by students:
>> *http://zurpolitik.com/2009/11/10/unsere-unis-eine-karte/*<http://zurpolitik.com/2009/11/10/unsere-unis-eine-karte/>
>> The occupations quickly spread from Austria to Germany. Parallel to this,
>> further occupations appear in Switzerland, the US and elsewhere.
>> 2.
>> Texts in English from the occupation of the Viennese university are missing
>> until now, as far as I see - this is the central website of protests:
>> *http://unsereuni.at/* <http://unsereuni.at/>
>> Some information in English appears on the website of the Academy of Arts,
>> which initiated the occupations:
>> *http://www.malen-nach-zahlen.at/?page_id=264*<http://www.malen-nach-zahlen.at/?page_id=264>
>> 3.
>> On facebook you'll find several groups for students solidarity and
>> coordinated action together with the occupations in Austria
>> Cheers, Andreas
>> _______________________________________________
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