The question of what we are to do after March 4 contains several aspects. I will address myself here to one aspect: should we direct the predominance of our fire at Sacramento or at our schools’ administrators?

The Need to Avoid Getting Subsumed into Lobbying

I had the privilege of attending a report-back about March 4 put on by the ISO in San Francisco this past weekend. One interesting theme that emerged had to do with the need to avoid getting all of our energy channeled into lobbying Sacramento. We’ve talked about this question exhaustively in the UC wing of the movement, but I had the impression that things might be different in other sectors.

The UC has reserves and a large pool of money which could easily be reallocated given different priorities, which would radically ameliorate the current crisis and reverse the cuts / hikes of the past few years. But is that the case for community colleges, CSUs, and local public school systems? It was interesting to hear several activists from other systems (at least one from a community college and one from a local public school) say that they thought it was really important to keep the heat on their local administrations and not let the movement get subordinated to an administration-approved lobbying effort. While their institutions may be poor compared to the UC, they felt that there were significant questions of priorities, misspending, and administrative largesse or even possible graft which required greater accountability and transparency.

Short- and Long-Term Success

I agree with this entirely; at the same time, I think it’s important to think of this struggle as a multi-pronged one. Just to stay within the UC system for argumentative purposes here, since it’s what I know best, we can see this in terms of timeframe.

Over the short to medium term, the UC could ameliorate or entirely reverse the fee hikes, program cuts, and reduced accessibility of the last, say, two years by halting construction, trimming administrative largesse, and tapping into their reserves. And this idea is not pie-in-the-sky idealism; perhaps minus the administrative largesse part, big university systems around the country did exactly this to get through the economic crisis last year. UC did the opposite, actually increasing its spending on new construction and loaning around $200 million to the state last year for construction projects.

The fact that they basically got away with this is testament to the complete lack of transparency in the system and UC administration’s willingness to use the state’s fiscal crunch as an excuse to implement priorities which have probably been consciously or implicitly in the works for years. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy, but I do think that UC administration has treated the crisis as an opportunity to starve programs they didn’t really like anyway and expand others.

Nevertheless, over the medium to long term, this movement has a vision of vibrant, free public education for all in California, and this – or even substantive reforms which would put us back on that track and away from the present track – are not really achievable within the current state funding structure. Proposition 13 guarantees that the state will always be too resource-starved to do anything that requires a large infusion of public funding.

Prop 13 is the elephant in the room of the defense of public education fight. It’s not the only statewide factor holding us back, but without overturning or at least radically revising it, the larger goals of this movement, beyond stopping current cuts, are not achievable. I also think that reversing recent cuts is probably easier to imagine than reversing the fee hikes. We could probably hammer UC leadership hard enough that they would cough up more funding for starved programs and campuses by tapping into their reserves and slowing their spending on construction. But we won’t get them to give up that stream of increased fee dollars without an overhaul of the state oversight structure – possibly including the democratic, public direct election of the Regents.

“The Sacramento Question” Is Two Questions

All of this leads me to conclude that we need a nuanced approach to the question of “Sacramento,” bracketing the name because statewide political work is not a single question. There’s a mainstream, reformist view that we need to get Sacramento – that is, the capital legislative apparatus – to fully fund public education. Some people in the movement have this view, but it is probably even more widespread outside of the movement. The “truth” of this view usually resolves into lobbying legislators for more money for education and supporting existing legislative efforts and ballot initiatives, such as AB 656, the gas and oil severance tax, and George Lakoff’s California Democracy Act.

Left and radical forces in the movement are right to reject subservience to this legislative agenda. It might get us somewhere only as a small piece of a much larger strategy which needs to remain focused on developing our own power where it is strongest, in local areas and on our campuses where we can take action and begin to get a sense of our collective power.  But there is a second statewide question: building a movement that could alter the statewide balance of forces, radically revising or overturning Prop 13, ensuring greater democratic accountability for the UC Regents, etc.

There exists no statewide political force capable of articulating this agenda. Certainly the leadership of the Democratic Party doesn’t want to touch the main part of Prop 13, and even if they did, they aren’t politically capable of it; they don’t have a political vision of how the state could be different, and the leading social groups most closely linked with the Democratic Party leadership – Silicon Valley and Hollywood business leaders – don’t want radical change. If we want to fight for that kind of agenda, we would have to be the spark that could ignite a statewide political force capable of articulating it.

In the final analysis I believe building a more just world will require overthrowing capitalism, but though I am a revolutionary I’m not speaking here of building a revolutionary political force. I don’t believe the assembly of that force is on our immediate horizons (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t do anything about it now, but which is to say that I don’t buy the idea that a wave of occupations is going to magically create such a force in the near to medium term). What I’m talking about is a reform-oriented force, though a force which includes people with revolutionary politics. What that would look like, of course, remains to be determined. I’m talking about building a political pole of attraction sufficient to change the debate in the state and create possibilities such as (but not limited to) the overturning of Prop 13.

The student movement isn’t broad enough or large enough to do that ourselves. But I actually believe we might be exciting enough to instigate something like that if we keep the momentum going. It isn’t a given, and it wouldn’t be easy, but it wouldn’t be out of the question, either. Last year at this time that would have been out of the question. The fact of the student movement has in subtle ways already changed the equation of what is politically possible in California.

Therefore, while we should resist being subsumed to a lobbying-oriented Sacramento strategy, we should also avoid making a shibboleth of “Sacramento.” Instead we need to keep in mind some bold questions about what this movement could achieve if we think the next bit bigger than our current capacities.

Postscript: Dynamics and Relationships

There are also some dialectics of this question to bear in mind beyond those that are strategically obvious “above the line.” For us: it’s important to stay involved locally and on our campuses because these are places where we are or can be strong; we can get a sense of positive momentum by changing the conversation, opening new spaces or stopping the closure of space, winning funding-neutral battles, cornering the administration politically, etc.

We need to maintain that sense of momentum, because a movement is precisely a thing that either grows or ossifies and shrinks. Social movements rarely if ever do anything like “remaining static;” ossification is not remaining static, but a form of death-transformation in which we continue to speak of “the movement” long after such a thing no longer exists. This is really a rather depressing form of necrophilia on the left.

For them: a faculty member suggested in an email the administration’s own complicated relationship to the March 4 movement, which I’ll paraphrase. On the one hand, it’s their only chance of getting funding restored in Sacramento, so they want it to succeed. On the other hand, they want a convenient scapegoat if this funding effort fails, and are preparing disciplinary reprisals against students in part for this reason. Obviously – to campus activists, though perhaps not to much of anyone else – the administration is a huge proponent of this notion that the movement should focus its fire on Sacramento. In rightly rejecting this, it would be possible for us to overlook the statewide political question we need to undertake.