Madeline Lane-McKinley and Jeb Purucker: Master Plan Critique

Editor’s Notes: The premise of this essay is a critique of how the student left appropriates and historicizes the Master Plan. The essay is co-authored by Graduate Students (and comrades) Madeline Lane-McKinley and Jeb Purucker and is one of many articles written for a March 1st zine at UCSC. -CB

“We are paying more than ever before and getting far less in return.”  This is the line repeated ad nauseum by well meaning students and professors across the UC system.  At UCSC, it is the argument at the center of the “Teach the Budget” curriculum being disseminated in lectures and sections.  But it also an admission that we have already lost the battle.

Still, the statement is not exactly false: tuition has tripled over the past decade while services, TAships and whole departments have been – and continue to be – slashed left and right.  To speak of this process in terms of the widening gap between the price we are paying for our education and the value we are getting in return, however, is to conceive of the problem through the same logic that Mark Yudof and the privatizers use to raise our tuition in the first place.

While opposition to what is being called the ‘privatization’ of the university is definitely growing, so far this growth has been largely through internalizing many of the basic contradictions of the system that we are trying to oppose.  And it is in this sense that the Student Left – in its response to a crisis – produces and perpetuates its own crisis.

On the one hand, we say that higher education is a right, or that it is a public good that should be provided by the people of California free of charge.  On the other hand, we say that the measure of the brokenness of the system is the degree to which what we are purchasing from the university is overpriced.

The local constellation of anti-privatization at UCSC is “Teach the Budget” – a comprehensive curriculum which has supplied Teaching Assistants, Staff, and Faculty with a lesson plan for addressing the budget cuts in undergraduate courses – and it is by no means exempt from this internal crisis of the Student Left.  While “Teach the Budget” has undoubtedly raised the campus’s level of awareness of the budget cuts, and has ostensibly “radicalized” many of the graduate- and undergraduate students who comprise the current student movement, it is nevertheless a very clear distillation of what is now rendering the anti-privatization movement ineffective.

Here, it should be useful to elaborate the generic narrative of the ‘budget crisis’ at hand, which is premised on the “Master Plan for Higher Education” – a document from 1960, in which the current system of public universities in California was set up.  Signed by then Governer Pat Brown, the father of current Governor Jerry Brown, the plan held that a robust system of higher education was something that benefited the entire state, and that access should be provided for all qualified Californians free of charge.  The result of this was a “boom” in California: the concentration of well funded research universities contributed to the explosion of the Tech sector in northern California and Aerospace  in the south.  This is no small part of what made California the eighth largest economy in the world.

Then, according to this generic narrative, tragedy struck.  Sometime before 1978, Californians allowed themselves to be convinced that taxes are unequivocally evil and the result was Proposition 13.  This law capped property taxes and made it impossible for the legislature to raise future revenue without a 2/3 majority.  This was part of a broader tax revolt of the late seventies that would bring Ronald Reagan to the White House and Margaret Thatcher to Downing Street.

Trends continued, and by 2004 Governor Schwarzenegger and the leadership of the UC and CSU systems were ready to consider a dramatic revision of the 1960 master plan.  The deal they signed, called the “Compact for Higher Education,” involved the universities agreeing to accept smaller portions of their budgets from the state, with the understanding that the shortfall would be made up by heavier reliance on private sources of revenue—grants, investments, and, importantly, tuition.

This basic story leads to an easy diagnosis of the problem.  Sometime between 1960 and 2004, we as a society changed the way we think of the value of an education.  In 1960, a university system was valuable as a public good that benefited the people as a whole.  Now, we think of our degrees as commodities that we as individuals purchase from a university that is increasingly indistinguishable from a private corporation.  On this logic, the value of an education should be more or less quantifiable on the market: we can get upset about tuition increases insofar as they raise the sticker-price of an education above what that education will bring in return, but we can’t be opposed to fee hikes in principle.

According to this stock narrative, the solution to our current predicament is relatively straightforward: we need to build a social and political movement that can reverse this trend of privatization.  We need to get back to an era when we as a society valued universities as part of the commons and was willing to pay enough in taxes to maintain them.  We need to return to that great, utopian master plan; we need to undo the travesty of neoliberalism.  What could be more obvious than this?

However, while the simple solution of this generic narrative of ‘crisis’ provides an easy means of “radicalizing” students, it is nevertheless the sort of naïve and ahistorical thinking that is ultimately dangerous to the Student Left.  An account of how we moved from valuing education as a public good to thinking of it as a private commodity may be a coherent narrative, but it is by no meas a history.

More precisely, this story is the mythological underpinning of the dominant, programatic strain of the current Student Left.  The narrative of ‘crisis’ which seeks its solution in the Master Plan, that is, absurdly romanticizes the document as an alternative to privatization.  This absurdity becomes immediately apparent as soon as we actually look at what our historical counterparts in the 1960s thought of it.  Here is an excerpt from Mario Savio’s famous 1964 speech, which was one of the foundational moments of the “Free Speech Movement” in Berkeley— a sort of Ur-text of 1960s radicalism:

Well I ask you to consider — if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something — the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be —  have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean — Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!

While the Student Left frequently appropriates Savio as an activist icon – along with UCSC radicals like Angela Davis and Bettina Aptheker – this contrived legacy is, in fact, an erasure of history.  What we have to keep in mind, here, is that the student movement of the 1960s involved a fundamental opposition to the Master Plan.  Today, on the contrary, the Master Plan represents the limit of possibility to our current narrative of privatization as a ‘crisis’; it is the absolute horizon beyond which radical imagination breaks down.

A properly historical account would require that we not think of the distinction of public universities and privatized ones as two opposed ideals, between which we simply have to make a choice.  If our comrades in 1964 already saw privatization built into the structure of the public university, then we have to inquire into the forces that caused this logic to manifest in one way in the sixties and in a different way forty years later. We need to see both the 1960 Master Plan and the 2004 Compact for Higher Education not as opposed principles but as historically specific – and more or less adequate—attempts to address the role of universities in the capitalist society of the day.   What changed between 1960 and 2004 is not simply the ideological value attached to higher education (or to taxes), but rather the objective requirements that capitalism has for universities in general.  The Master Plan cannot be extracted from the context of a post-war expansionary world economy, Keynesian policies of government expenditure, cold-war defense spending and a thriving industrial American economy resting on massive government subsidy to education.  By 2004, the world looked nothing like this, and there is no going back.

In its imperative to return to the Master Plan, the Student Left is by no means unique but is rather part of a broader crisis of thought today.  This is a crisis of historicity, for which the main locus is a troubled historical narrative of the 1960s.  ‘Historicity,’ in this sense, is the experience of history; it is the experience of making history.  To this process, the 1960s has been instrumental in the production of radical subjectivities – but this process must be acknowledged as working within the telos of global capital, rather than against it.

The myth of the 1960s is an originary narrative, according to which there was once a time that can still be returned to – a time that will renew our social movements, and our conditions of possibility.  Historically, the critique of this myth has been an effective strategy of the Right for precluding revolutionary energies and promoting expansionary capitalism.  While the Right has certainly profited from the notion of an “end of history” in the post-soviet era,  this mythologization of the 1960s must be recognized in the political calculus of American Liberalism as well.  In 2008, this is precisely what happened for the Democratic party: between its primary candidates of Obama and Clinton, it was the myth of returning to the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, both now rendered obsolete with figures of “post-race” and “post-feminism.”  This campaign of “hope,” with all its echoes of the 1960s, and its highly manufacted historicity, was counter-revolutionary to the core.

Here, we might interject with a distinction between this liberal tendency of mythologizing the 1960s and the general Leftist line of critiquing the Obama administration and corporatized politics at large.  Such an interjection, however, would miss the point: rather, the Left must now disentangle itself from this myth of the 1960s completely.  While it may be clear, especially at the impasse of another presidential election, that Obama’s campaign of 2008 very much drew from the 1960s as a narrative of nostalgia and pastiche, it should also be clear that this narrative is the mythological underpinning of many far more radical social movements.  Just because we have a critique of liberalism – as merely propogating privatization – we are not immune from this broader historical critique, this crisis of historicity.  As a means of producing a collective, radicalized politics, the Left has been animated by a return to a different, yet all the while mythological notion of the 1960s.  In this sense, the 1960s provides a legacy, a set of icons, a set of slogans – as Marx would have it, “the time-honored disguise and borrowed language” of a previous revolutionary moment.

The fetishization of the Master Plan takes this one step further.  What we are gesturing back to now is no longer even sixties radicalism, but the thing that those much romanticized radicals were already against.  The question that we have to ask is: why this regression?  Why does our historical imagination latch onto this moment and see it as the antithesis of the forces we are trying to combat in the present?  This is a bigger question than can be fully addressed here, but we can perhaps begin to sketch out the elements that an answer might include.

If the Master Plan cannot be disentangled from the moment of post-war expansionary capitalism and the military-industrial-university complex that sustained this growth, then a call for a return to that model of university funding requires not just a return to an older way of valuing education, but a return to an earlier phase of capitalism itself.  Herein lies the naivete of a politics based on the myth-image of the sixties.

This is precisely what many of our comrades in the student movement (and Occupy more generally) are calling for, though usually the military-industrial element to this is shrouded in confusion.  Built into the call for a return to the Master Plan is a broader goal of restoring Keynesian levels of government investment in a range of services and programs for which we as a society used to pay.  What this misses is that the shift away from Keynesian policies is not simply something that bad people (be they neo-liberal politicians or Chicago economists) tricked us into.  The reason that we can’t simply press the reset button on the past forty years of government tax and education policy has to be sought not in political history at all, but in the objective transformations of the industrial base of capitalism itself.

We are used to thinking of the last forty years as a dynamic time for global capitalism.  It has seen fantastic increases in personal fortunes and the extension of capital into every corner of the globe.  But what is becoming increasingly clear is that this “growth” is largely the result of a massive upward redistribution of wealth.  Underlying this whole process is an industrial base which, despite periodic flurries of activity, has been decreasingly dynamic since the early seventies.  When one actually crunches the numbers, the rate of profit in industry as a whole—not just in the United States, but in the world more generally—has been tapering off.  Simply put, the world’s capacity to produce stuff has skyrocketed to such an extent (and so much capital has been sunk in this productive capacity) that the rate of return for each individual capital is suffering. In this context, in order to keep the ship upright, capitalists are now seeking gain elsewhere.

The narrative that we are used to telling, about the policy shift towards deregulation, tax cuts and the enrichment of the ‘1%’ at the expense of everyone else explains very little.  Instead, it  needs to be viewed as the effect of this much larger hollowing out of the profitability of capitalism as a whole.  Any explanation of the crisis in university funding has to be sought here, rather than in some mythologized account of the glorious sixties.

The result of this inability to grasp this historical flat-lining of capitalism leads us to a strange duality in the way we speak of the crisis.   The logic of capital has developed to such an extent that we no longer even have the language to articulate an oppositional politics without resorting to the categories that we are trying to oppose.  This explains the first symptomatic slip of many of our comrades who describe the crisis in terms of the divergence between the price of an education and its ‘value’.  The flip-side of this is that when we do sense that something is lacking in this description of our crisis, the only recourse we have is to an ever receding and mythologized narrative of a time when some other oppositional discourse was still possible. The fact that we have landed on the Master Plan—itself a document that is inseparable from a certain moment in the development of American capitalism— suggests just how totalizing the crisis has become.  The result is that we are constantly bouncing between these two ways of framing the problem, between thinking in a language that takes the terms of capital as eternal and total, and thinking in terms of an equally ahistorical and sanitized image of our own past.  This antinomy defines our present struggle.  It is this opposition that we must now break open.

And that — that brings me to the second mode of civil disobedience. There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!

– Mario Savio: Sproul Hall Steps (UC Berkeley), December 2, 1964