Interview by D.S. Mattison
On November 28th, 2011, Canon editor, D.S. Mattison, sat down with Marianne LeNabat, a PhD student in the Philosophy program and occupier, to get her perspective on the movement, its stakes for the future of the country, for the future of the New School, and for the future of academia in general.
First of all, what is your involvement with the Occupy New School movement? What are some of its founding tenets? How did it get organized?
This started among the students several weeks before the occupation. We were meeting to discuss issues that were pertinent to us: tuition, which goes up by 5% every single year at the New School, student debt, the Occupy Movement in general, and the student movements that are going on at Davis, at CUNY — all over the country. We were getting together to discuss issues both internal to the New School and that put us in connection with other student movements around the country and the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which, when we first started meeting, was still gathered in Zuccotti Park. We started having general assemblies. Our first one was in later October, early November. We started having regular meetings to determine how to strategize how we might address these issues and also to talk about the logistics of how we were going to participate in these other student struggles around the city and in this week of action that was planned and on the day of action, November 17th in particular. So there were all of these meetings that were taking place and at some point it was decided that in addition to participating in these marches on the 17th that there would be an attempt to occupy a space. As our president’s email spelled out, that ended up being precipitated in the moment by the fact that the police completely blocked the student march that was supposed to march from Union Square, down 5th Ave., to Foley Square, where all of the unions were gathering, where other students were gathering. It was completely blocked by the police at 14th St. and it just became almost a natural thing to go into the building at 90 5th Ave. where a few students were already on the inside and had dropped a banner saying: “We’re occupying this space. Come inside.” Initially the police stood and blocked the entrance to 90 5th Ave. and would not let people in. I was there with a faculty member who was showing her ID and saying, “You have to allow us access to this building. This is our building and our condition of entry is having a valid ID, which we do. You’re the police; this is a private space. It’s not for you to block us from this space.” Finally after about forty-five minutes to an hour the police moved away from the front door when I believe they were told by the New School, possibly by the president, possibly by the head of security — I don’t know — to move aside and to let people go into the building if they so wished. In other words, it’s interesting that the police a) blocked this march b) blocked people from entering a private building to which they have a right to access. But when all that dust settled people went into the 90 5th Ave. building and that’s when the occupation started.
On the 17th?
On the 17th.
Were you a “point-man”of this operation? How was it structured among the students?
I was not in the working group that decided that it might be a good idea to have an occupation, but I was part of the broader meetings that were taking place, in which there was a fluid conversation about what to do, especially what to do on the 17th, and also what to be doing in general. For example, some of us attended the Town Hall with President Van Zandt put on by the GFSS or USS. Other people were making posters or reaching out to other students in other divisions. At some point one of the working groups that had spun off from the New School general assembly was strategizing what to do on the 17th in particular and some people thought an occupation would be a good idea and that’s what ended up happening. The New School general assembly that was formed and which started meeting well before the occupation — the occupation was meant to be an all-city thing — it was meant to be open to all students and it was open to all students — that was something that was negotiated on the very first night with President Van Zandt: any student would be allowed to enter the occupation. In fact, the intention was to have it open to all students in a looser sense, in other words, those who would be students, but are excluded by the high cost of tuition. The idea was for it to be a public space of education accessible to all in precisely the ways that universities are not because of financial issues. The New School General Assembly was a body that preceded this occupation and it was New School specific. It was a gathering of New School students in the Lang courtyard at 2pm on Wednesdays to discuss these student issues. That body is completely independent from the USS and the GFSS.
Throughout this whole movement have there been lines of thought or certain thinkers that people are intoning? Is there any type of discourse about previous revolutions and/or occupations? Is there one party line?
Definitely not one party line. In fact there’s been a lot of difference of opinion. Continuity with other student struggles is something that is more apparent. CUNY had meetings in the space at 90 5th Ave. strategizing what they were going to do on Monday the 21st when their board of directors, or maybe trustees, were meeting to raise their tuition by something like 30% a year for five years. So they had strategizing meetings in our occupied space. Also people from the New School and the 90 5th Ave. Occupation went to support the CUNY students on that day where there was police violence taking place at Ba-ruch. The Occupy 90 5th Ave. set up a website pretty quickly [http://allcitystudentoccupation.com/analysis] and one of the first posts was a statement of solidarity with the students at Davis — because that was right at the time they were pepper sprayed by the campus police. Definitely there’s been a tangible sense of solidarity with other student movements. We had a speaker, Olivier Besancenot, a French, anti-capitalist, presidential candidate actually. He talked about how students in France are looking to student struggles in the United States, including our own. So that’s been very tangible. There’s also been, to a lesser degree, connections to Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Movements in general. But you know, as far as ideological lines go, there’s a tremendous difference in it and that came out in the transition from 90 5th Ave. to the Kellen Archive space. There were people who are fervently anti-capitalist and there are other people who have a more liberal analysis. There are many different stripes of non-violence even. You know, is graffiti a form of violence? There are different opinions about what kind of relationship we have with the administration. Nobody wanted to antagonize the administration, but some were more concerned than others about being led around by the administration or, not co- opted by them, but just so endorsed by them that we’re becoming manipulated by them.
Do you have your own opinion about faculty participation throughout this movement?
There have been a couple members of the faculty who were participating in the meetings we started having at the New School several weeks ago. There was a big march late September — the one where 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge and another on October 5th I believe — the walk-out that happened at school. And there were a number of faculty who participated in both of those. I think that’s great. I think that their participation is completely genuine and stems from a shared concern about academia: the future of academia; the current course that academia is on; the future of student debt; the future of tuition. They have our concerns also. And there’s been a negotiation of their participation in these meetings and these student uprising activities because they don’t want to paternalistically guide things, but they have a common sensibility with us, and so they’ve been willing to step back at times and step forward at times. Meanwhile when there was that split in the occupation — some people moved to Kellen and some people stayed at 90 5th Ave. — the professors also had a sort of mediating role. They wanted to make sure on the one hand that there was no brutal police activity taken against the students because that’s been a very common feature of student protests of late…
Sorry to cut you off, but of all student protests, right? In our editorial meetings we have been concerned with people saying that this is unprecedented, but the protests at Kent State, and the movements of May 1968, etc., have all had this feature.
Oh yeah. I think that is something that is generally known by people — that I was speaking to any way. There’s a history to this, which includes killing. But at the same time there are some great articles written about how the pepper spray incident at Davis, for example — I mean that was campus police — and how post-1999 when those Seattle WTO protests were happening pepper spray went from a tactic that was reserved for riot control and usually in war zones to being used as a mode of response to a non-violent civilian demonstration. That’s a shift. That’s a shift that I think happened in the last 12 years. That cop pepper sprayed these students who were sitting down and resisting non- violently. Granted in the ‘60s they were shooting people at Kent State but, you know, that was the National Guard, not the campus police. I do think that the use of excessive force is on the uptick right now. Another example I would cite of that would be the way that the police have been treating the press. So when Occupy Wall Street was evicted the police grounded news helicopters, forcibly pushed media, reporters, etc. out of the area, and/or arrested them if they didn’t comply. That’s something that I think is a departure from the last 20 years.
What do you think the stakes are for these police officers? What do you think is in it for them to act this way towards protesters?
Well I think that the police is one of those organizations of strict hierarchical control where it functions on the basis of individuals not using good judgment and rather following orders. What is interesting is that these are the orders they are being given and so they are following them and in the meantime there are other people who are actually defecting from the police. There’s an Occupy Police twitter feed movement of police officers who are refusing to participate in the physical attacks on non-violent protesters. There’s a retired police captain from Buffalo who came down to Occupy Wall Street after it was dissolved and stood there with placards and protested saying essentially to the police, “Watch Inside Job and then come talk to me. Let’s not be complicit with a bunch of bozos stealing the economy and running away with the political system.”
What do you have to say to those pundits who say that this is just a bunch of Marxist b.s.? Why do you think Marx is always connected to these kind of movements?
I haven’t heard that so much as a criticism as I’ve heard, “These people have no idea what they’re doing and they have no message.” I have found that that put down is much more prevalent among pundits and among the media than it is among actual people. The way in which this movement has attracted people is absolutely astounding.
Let me rephrase. I have heard this Marxist criticism from intellectual right wing people more than the right wing generally. Can you speak directly to this?
I mean the whole red scare thing has a long history in the United States dating not back to just McCarthyism but prior to that in the 1920s and 30s. That was the specter that was raised when there were labor struggles happening in the beginning of the 20th century — the 40 hour work week — there have been red baiting and red scares going on in this country as long as there has been such a thing as socialism. On the other hand, I’d say that these suspicions are therefore correct insofar as they’re going to define socialism as broadly as, say, a right wing pundit defines it. I mean Milton Friedman, not a right wing pundit, but a right wing economist of the Chicago School, defined public education as socialism. He thought that anything whatsoever that intervened in the free market was socialism. By that definition then, okay fine, this is a socialist movement, but that’s just a goofy definition. What’s interesting about the Occupy Movement and the Student Movement is that it’s actually not identifying itself as Marxist or as socialist or as anarchist or as any particular political strife. They are addressing concerns and problems that are so glaring and so obvious that they don’t even need to align themselves behind a particular political banner because student debt is just that egregious. I mean you don’t have to be a socialist to criticize the fact that people are coming out college with six figure student debt, which they cannot renegotiate the payments of, and which they will probably never pay back.
Have you heard of this call for all students to default at the same time? If so, what do you think of it?
Yeah there’s a petition circulating that once it reaches one million signatures the idea is that people will stop paying — not default — but stop making their student loan payments all at once. There is another related move organized by a young woman, whose name I forget, to form almost a union and go on a tuition strike. I don’t think that these are identical pushes, but I think that there are quite related. There’s already recognition that even if you get a million people to do this you’re mostly — because of the way the system’s set up — putting yourself at tremendous risk. Even if it’s a million people the risk that you’re incurring is enormous. And this is just the question of how do you get something done politically? How do you use direct action to get something done in the political sphere? It’s extremely personally risky and there has to be a certain critical mass for it to be effective, and even when you have that critical mass a lot of the time you’re not effective. These are risks associated with politics, and people have been brought to this point because they have no choice. They just cannot live like this. They can’t afford this. That’s when that risky political activity becomes more attractive — there’s an astounding number of people — I think it’s 40% — of students last year in default on their student loans. That’s astronomical. At that point why don’t we just turn this around and say we’re doing it deliberately and try to capitalize on that moment to renegotiate the terms by which education is being sold to us?
What about the fact that Obama is trying to negotiate to forgive student loans after 20 or 25 years of payment?
What’s interesting is that he already drafted a proposal, but the one thing that remains sacrosanct in the discussion that he’s opened up is that you must pay back all of that money. The anti-student debt movements that have been going around of late have been going back down to the root and questioning the very commodification of education and the commodification of student debt. That’s something that we should be talking about.
Definitely. We have a crisis in academia now where we’re turning out more academics and there’s no jobs to pay for those academics, yet the very idea that we’re turning out all of these academics says that we want more people to be in academia. It’s almost as if academia is its own ideology that needs to perpetuate itself. In America part of our new American dream is that everyone has a four year college education, which doesn’t actually do much except for pay professors and deans. It doesn’t necessarily help these kids out or their parents. So it seems that we have a lot of restructuring to do on multiple levels.
No, you’re right and the fact that now everybody has to get a four-year BA means that it doesn’t provide you with a particular competitive advantage any more and the fact that everybody goes and gets a four-year BA is a reflection of the fact that there are no jobs — there are no manufacturing jobs. There is no other way of making a living. You have to work your way into some sort of service economy or intellectual economy in order be employed at all and so everybody effectively has to go to college and if not just college then a graduate program and in order to do so they’re expected to finance it completely on their own or with their parents’ help. $50,000 a year is a lot of money to someone who’s earning a decent income in their middle age as well.
Definitely. One could also argue that just a four year education from anywhere is not the same as a four year education from somewhere. For example, I studied Religious Studies at Berkeley and I was getting job offers for things that were completely not related just because I went to Berkeley. So if you go to a small school you get an education, but none of the cultural clout that one of these larger Ivy league-type schools, which are becoming increasingly harder to get into and pay for, provides. It’s once again the problem of “the old-boy club,” which we see in the catch phrase, the 1%.
The UC system is a particularly acute example because it was a very high quality education in a public system and was far more affordable than other places around the country. And now they’ve doubled tuition in the last 6-9 years and they’re proposing to increase it by orders of a greater magnitude in the future. So that’s where these student protests are coming from as well you know. And this is a really important bastion of that struggle because of the very high quality affordable education.
Now let’s go back to the New School. Is there an irony to the fact the New School is as corporate as it is now in contradistinction to the tenets it was founded upon?
Neither of the foundings — the first one with the Columbia professors who were ejected because they refused to sign loyalty oaths during WWI and the second, the founding of the University in Exile — were explicitly of economic dissent, whereas in the current movements the economic issues are inextricable from the political issues. Part of the problem is that we’ve completely re-naturalized capitalism and re-naturalized certain economic functions so that people are no longer allowed to criticize, for example, how high their tuition is because the answer is: we have no choice; those are our costs. People are no longer allowed to criticize the level of taxation of the wealthy versus the poor. We have no choice. If we do otherwise the economy will dry up. Yeah, it’s ironic that the New School now has this political culture and economic culture where students are unable to be at all effective in their input into the institution. The students have been clamoring at the New School for years and years and years about tuition, about the rate of compensation for RAs and TAs and there’s been very, very little movement, and when there has been a little movement it’s sort of a handout from the administration to us.
And the difficulty for us is that it’s hard to get a comparable education anywhere else, especially if you want to do something like continental philosophy or political theory.
Yeah the New School is an amazing program — on an academic level it’s absolutely amazing. It offers things that other schools don’t offer and that’s why people come here. That’s why I came here. It’s got its own vibrant intellectual culture, which is absolutely fabulous. But you know the fact that it’s a private school and the fact that it’s 95% funded by tuition receipts as opposed to — because we have so small of an endowment — is an argument for why I think students should have more input in how the university is run. In fact, you know, that our small endowment is often touted to us as a reason why our tuition is high and it’s touted as though we’re proud of the fact that the New School wanted to remain independent — it didn’t really want to function on a big endowment like other schools like Columbia — and so that’s something to be celebrated…. There’s sort of that invocation that happens an all of that is true, but when the New School was first founded and when it was first running as the University in Exile and prior to that General Studies, it didn’t have those exorbitant tuition costs because it didn’t have such an enormous professionalized bureaucracy standing separately from the academic part of it and it didn’t have these aggressive, corporately modeled expansion plans. So that’s just kind of a misnomer right there: our small endowment equals why have to pay $35,000 tuition a year — that’s nonsense.
Agreed. And you’re currently ABD [all but dissertation] correct?
How much has tuition gone up since you started at the New School?
I actually have been collecting figures on this. My tuition has gone up by approximately just under 5% every year that I’ve been here. So it’s gone up a total of 30%. Healthcare has gone up by a total of 30%. Fees have gone up by a total of about 50%. I can give you all those figures.
You got your MA here as well?
No I got my MA in Philosophy (concentration in Logic) in Canada at the University of Alberta. And I in fact would not have come here to get my MA because it would have put me $60,000 in the hole, so I did it in Canada where the tuition is not only lower to begin with, but I was also given a subsidy to do it there.
What is your current concentration?
Political philosophy and in studying these movements in particular.
Do you have a few thinkers you focus on?
I am very much inspired by Arendt. I’m critiquing and in dialog with most of what has been written over the 20th century under the heading of “critical theory.” Beyond that I have a chapter on Rousseau — the idea of a chapter on Rousseau — that haunts me. I’m definitely engaging with Hobbes. I am trying to tease out some notion of collective action, which I think remains drastically untheorized in political theory, but which is precisely the kind of thing you see manifesting right now in Occupy Wall Street, in the student movements. It’s precisely the issue of: how do we take action as a group? And I find that that’s a moment that goes scandalously overlooked in most political writings.
Find further information at the following sites:
Original website that was erected: http://allcitystudentoccupation.com/analysis
Related website operated by students with frequently updated posts: http://reoccupied.wordpress.com
NYU article about the occupation: http://nyulocal.com/city/2011/11/21/inside- the-new-school-occupation
Our former blogger Candan Turkkan’s blog with posts about the Occupy movements and additional sociological topics: http://unconsciousawareness.tumblr.com