Harvard and Occupy

by Neal on February 29, 2012

It has been three months since Occupy Harvard pitched tents in Harvard Yard. Although the tents and geodesic dome that served as an information center are gone, a network of activists calling themselves Occupy Harvard remains active, and other groups of leftist activists who have been working on campus for years are gearing up for another semester of struggle.

The latest fight places the Harvard Corporation against a coalition of students and librarians. In 2009, following the financial crash and a drop in Harvard’s endowment, the Corporation executed an aggressive round of layoffs that hit Harvard’s 4,600 clerical and technical workers who are members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW, AFSCME Local 3650), especially hard. In late 2011, the Harvard Corporation announced that it would redesign the university’s library system in a new attempt to cut costs.

Rumors began to swirl that hundreds of jobs could be at stake, and workers and students have organized the No Layoffs Campaign to combat the Harvard Corporation’s austerity package. The campaign unites activists from the rank-and-file group of clerical and technical workers called Reform HUCTW, undergraduate activists who are members of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), and activists from the network of graduate students who are still organizing as Occupy Harvard.

There is no doubt now that the library struggle will dominate our attention for at least this semester.

Occupy Harvard and Campus Activism

Because HUCTW remains close to the administration and has largely stayed on the sidelines of this fight, the rank-and-file union activists have taken a leading role. They have already organized several high-profile demonstrations in Harvard Square against the coming layoffs, and their organizing work has been complemented by the work of SLAM, which is organizing undergraduates to participate.

Sizing up the organizing impact of Occupy Harvard is more difficult, especially since it would be fair to say that Occupy Harvard exists in two senses. On the one hand, there is a sense in which all Harvard activists identify with the Occupy zeitgeist that has inspired so many. In this sense, Occupy does not describe an organized movement but rather a basic political outlook centered around resistance to all forms of austerity and plutocratic control of supposedly democratic or liberal institutions.

On the other hand, there is a concrete network of activists who identify as Occupy Harvard, a network that does not include all activists on campus. In the first few weeks of Occupy Harvard in November 2011, a striking division became apparent between the mostly undergraduate activists in SLAM who had been organizing at Harvard for years and the graduate students, many of whom were coming together for the first time as activists at Harvard.

Two debates, one procedural and one programmatic, contributed to this division. These debates dominated Occupy Harvard from the beginning, when it was still in its secret planning stages and involved no more than 25-30 activists. The procedural debate occurred in part because SLAM has operated for years with a decision-making process that depends on strong friendships and shared organizing experience. SLAM’s membership was reluctant to adapt the consensus and general assembly model which characterized other occupations. In contrast, many of the graduate students were enthusiastic supporters of the consensus model, and in the meetings held in the days leading up to the occupation, they pushed to leave as many decisions as possible to the General Assembly (GA) to be held on the first night of the occupation.

Although friction developed around these procedural questions, the programmatic debate was more significant. Occupy Harvard began during the middle of negotiations for a new contract for campus custodians represented by the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU). SLAM activists hoped that an occupation would be used in part as a tactic to win a new contract for campus workers. Many of the other activists, however, were opposed to developing a list of demands. Ultimately, the graduate student activists grew to a majority in the pre-occupation planning meetings and initial GAs, and a list of demands was rejected in favor of a list of suggestions for what a “university of the 99%” would do. Following this decision, many SLAM activists distanced themselves to some extent from the occupation and continued to organize in support of the custodians.

It is important to note, however, that even in the beginning, Occupy Harvard’s decision to reject a set of demands had little practical significance. Its most committed activists continued to work with SLAM and SEIU and participated in the actions organized by these groups that ultimately won a strong new contract for the custodians.

Nevertheless, this division has had a significant impact on the organizational form of Occupy Harvard and the activist scene here. In the weeks since this division emerged, Occupy Harvard has continued to develop as a close group of graduate student activists. It held a widely publicized and successful teach in and continues to advance its educational impact through a series of “think tanks,” informational sessions, and GAs. Especially for graduate students, it has also functioned as an entry point to activism and protest on campus.

At present, the librarians’ struggle has brought these groups back together again into a developing alliance. Both groups have participated in the protests in Harvard Square and in front of campus libraries. These have been remarkably large and exciting demonstrations. In one at the beginning of February, more than one hundred demonstrators walked from Harvard Square to the Yard and encircled the office of President Drew Faust. To anyone familiar with the toxic liberal-technocratic politics that pervades Harvard, such a dramatic use of direct action this early in a campaign is a hopeful sign.

So far, the most aggressive action in support of the librarians’ struggle has come from Occupy Harvard, which seized the café within Lamont Library for the week of February 12. This occupation was planned in secret by a core group of graduate student activists who did not consult their regularly held GAs or other activists on campus. Ironically, this was exactly the same approach that SLAM had advocated in the pre-occupation procedural debates in November but was rejected. This tactical approach taken by Occupy Harvard provides further evidence that it is taking on a more organized form as a group of graduate student activists. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The café occupation almost certainly required secrecy, and it has had a positive impact on publicizing the No Layoffs Campaign and has been warmly received by most librarians.

In the coming months these three activist groups – Reform HUCTW, SLAM, and Occupy Harvard – will continue to work together to fight austerity and develop a worker-student movement on campus. At the present moment their relationship is fairly strong, and decisions are made internally by each group to plan semi-autonomous actions, to which the other groups come out in support. No more organized decision-making procedure has been developed, and it is unclear whether the present situation even requires one.

Occupy and the Future of the Left

On a more theoretical level, the experience at Harvard raises questions for the whole anti-austerity movement and for the American Left. Because local occupations have faced many of the same debates as Occupy Harvard, and because, especially in colder climates, they have moved away from mass demonstrations and towards a winter of planning and reflection, the conditions exist to replicate what has happened at Harvard so far. That is, a core group of activists may begin to organize under the Occupy name. This has significant implications, first for who organizes under the banner of Occupy in the future, and second for what we call anti-austerity politics. Both of these issues are strategic questions – they address how anti-austerity politics is organized and conceptualized.

The Harvard experience demonstrates how Occupy may transform itself from the rallying cry of a whole movement of activists into a specific group operating in alliance with other pre-existing groups. If similar developments are playing out across the country, will the Occupy’s that reemerge in cities and on campuses in the spring and summer reflect the input of a broad community of activists and leftists, or will they instead be directed by real but limited networks of activists and groups?

Furthermore, if Occupy nationally heads in a similar direction as it is at Harvard, what are the implications for using the term Occupy to describe the whole anti-austerity movement? Should Occupy as a concept replace or even coexist with self-identification as a leftist, a socialist, or as a social justice activist? Is Occupy ultimately a tactic, to be superseded by a rejuvenated conception of the Left? Or is the Left as a concept increasingly irrelevant, to be replaced by a new army of Occupiers?

These issues are especially significant to socialists, since they raise additional questions of prioritization. Does it make sense to conceive of Occupy as a movement on par with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s or the labor movement in the 1930s? Should the majority of our time be invested in building Occupy or in building a multi-tendency party or many pre-party organizations? If unaffiliated activists and leftists who make up part of a future American vanguard continue to identify and work as Occupiers, it might make sense for us to continue to work within local occupations. But what if Occupy’s become concrete networks separate from other activists? Does it continue to make sense for us to prioritize building them?

I have described the experience at Harvard in order to explore how these questions are being faced on our campus. The Harvard experience is not a negative one – there have been disagreements and divisions, but these are normal parts of a difficult struggle to answer difficult questions, and no one has all the answers.

Our goal is to develop a strategic direction for anti-austerity politics and to articulate a positive vision of a post-neoliberal system. The Left (and here I admit my own desire to preserve historic identifications as part of this strategy rather than identifying as “an Occupier” first and foremost) is in a unique position today. After 35 years on the margins, it finally faces the pressures and challenges of politics as Lenin defined it– something that begins when millions of people are involved.

In the next few years, the Left will have to decide what organizational shape it will take and address the challenges and opportunities presented by the historic and largely spontaneous demonstrations that began last fall as Occupy Wall Street that multiplied and flourished in cities, towns, and campuses across the country. Our answers may be the first step on the path back to relevancy.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Binh March 19, 2012 at 12:56 am

Today’s occupiers are in many respects like yesteryear’s wobblies — itinerant revolutionaries, willing to risk arrest and jail time, although this probably does not apply to the graduate students of Occupy Harvard.

I don’t see Occupy and pre-party organizations as counterposed. The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party arose on the basis of loosely knit circles of friends and co-workers; in today’s context, there’s no reason why every working group in every local Occupy couldn’t have a socialist or two.

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