The University of California Does Not Exist: Conflict, Cancellation, and New Horizons for (Collective) Digital Workplace Disruption

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A wave of wildcat strikes continues to spread across University of California campuses. They began when graduate student-workers at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) refused to submit Fall 2019 grades, demanding a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA). UC student-workers earn an average $21,900/year salary and pay on average between 40% and 60% of their wages on rent, which is considered “rent burdened” by the US Bureau of Housing and Urban Development.  At UCSC 11% of grad students have experienced homelessness. The UC administration responded to the strike with draconian measures, including police repression and firing 80+ graduate student workers – many of them parents or international students. In response, UC campuses in Santa Barbara, Davis, San Diego, and Berkeley have all initiated strike actions as of March 16, 2020. 

The COLA movement has exposed a chain of precarity that plagues undergraduate students, graduate students, and lecturers across the UC system. While the Teaching Assistant (TA) strike tactic exacerbates the fundamental tensions between UC management and one campus sector, mobilizations have drawn support from all three: the precariat. UC undergrad students leave their campuses with an average $22,000 of debt and high rates of depression. Roughly 44% of undergrads experience food insecurity, and 5% experience homelessness. Lecturers, who make up about half the UC’s primary course instructors, receive an average $19,000/year salary – $5,000 below the poverty line – and predominantly labor under 9-month contracts. About a quarter are on government assistance programs, such as food stamps and medicare. 

Yet, recent events have fundamentally altered the terrain of struggle. The Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent move to online education has opened a new terrain for fighting against the UC’s extraction-based model. The outbreak has only accelerated the inevitable end result of the strike wave – the move towards digitalization. While the UC Regents, campus bureaucrats, and the financial interests behind them offer a facade of foresight and planning over the future of the university, they are, like the entirety of the capitalist class, reactive to workers’ struggles – the real protagonists of historical change, including technological advancement. They are conservative by nature, because facilitating drastic change could put their privileges at risk, in which they thrive at the expense of millions of people living in precarity in the status quo. The UC system has spent the last decade liquidating the futures of millions of undergraduate students, graduate students, and lectures. And now it no longer exists. 

The UC Extraction Model and Peak Info 2020

Italian autonomist philosopher Franco Bifo Berardi introduced the term cognitariat to describe how the move to an “info labor”-based economy has social corporal and psychopathological consequences. For Bifo, capital’s move to commodify knowledge work has been facilitated by a collective displacement of pleasure and desire into work as a result of hyper alienation in late capitalism. He proclaims, 

It seems that in human relations, in daily life, in affective communication, one finds less and less pleasure and less and less reassurance. A consequence of this dis-eroticisation of daily life is the investment of desire in work, understood as the sole space of narcissistic reaffirmation for an individuality used to seeing the other according to the rules of competition, that is, as a danger, an impoverishment, a limitation, rather than a source of experience, pleasure, and enrichment (Berardi, 2005).

In his text “Futurism and the Reversal of the Future” (Berardi 2009), Bifo argues that the cognitariat is a new frontier for extractive economics – its lineage can be traced to European colonization of the planet in the name of resource extraction. He declares:

The bio-info machine is no longer separable from the body and mind, because it is no longer an external tool, but an internal transformer of the body and mind, a linguistic and cognitive enhancer…The Machine is us… Machines have made it possible to displace fast, to penetrate the bowels of the Earth, to exploit underground resources, occupy every visible spot with the products of technical reproduction. While spatial colonization was going on, the external machine could move onto new territories, and a future was still conceivable, because future is not only a dimension of time, but also a dimension of space. Future is the space that we do not yet know and are to discover and exploit. When every inch of the planet has been colonized, the colonization of the temporal dimension has began, – i.e. the colonization of mind, of perception, of life. So the century with no future has began. (Berardi, Futurism and The Reversal of The Future, 2009). 

Historically, US Empire has relied heavily on extract-export models from Global South territories, in which US-based corporations operating in peripheral countries extract raw resource materials and export them to the US core where they are manufactured and sold in the commodity market. The Latin American feminist movement offers some of the richest analyses of the current extractivist model throughout the continent. But extraction in the Global North recently has evolved to include another model: import-extract. While the previous model saw firms such as Kennecot, Anaconda, JBS-Swift, Ford, and United Fruit Company, among others, exploit labor and extract raw resources from abroad, the new model imports cognitariats (human beings) from abroad and integrates their labor into an increasingly accelerating info-extraction economy. Silicon Valley and the University of California system are at the avant garde of that model. Roughly 40 thousand of the UC’s 285,000 students (about 15%) are international – about 30,000 coming from China, India, Taiwan, and South Korea alone. 

While Silicon Valley entrepreneur-technocrats have built upon the “California Ideology” to push for what Cornell University Professor Ray Craib calls “right-wing-escape imaginaries” – such as floating computer coding labs 12 nautical miles into the Pacific Ocean to evade US labor law and taxation code – the UC’s very status as an academic institution, rather than a factory, allows management to maneuver around labor law without relying on the Burning Man-esque adventurism of their Silicon Valley counterparts. The common sensical line in the UC: They are not workers, but students in training. Yet, their funding comes directly from and their research goes directly towards corporate firms, such as Qualcomm, Facebook, ViaSat, Cymer, General Dynamics, or the US Department of Defense. In the case of undergraduate students, they pay to work! If international, they pay $15,000/quarter to work. And they pay $20/day to park; $20/day to eat. The UC’s extraction-based logic shows no end. And student-workers are paying with their mental health too – demand for mental health services on UC campuses has increased three times the growth of enrollment over the past decade. Students knew from their own experiences within the UC system – the future was absent. 

The UC’s ability to extract has hit “peak info” after a decade of implementation. The initial move to intensify extraction met rage across the UC system. In 2009, UC President Mark Yudof took advantage of the global economic crash to orient the UC full-throttle down a neo-liberal course of privatization. A shock, Yudof announced a 32% tuition increase for the following year. Across the UC system, the cognitariat responded with a flurry of building occupations under the call “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing.” 

The occupation wave lasted for about two years and spilled into the nationwide Occupy Wall Street (2011) phenomenon. Amidst the occupation wave, a group of dissident graduate student-workers sowed the seeds for what became a statewide militant caucus, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU).  AWDU began making demands of their existing UAW 2865 trade union leadership to play a stronger role in the Occupy Everything movement by escalating with a strike call. But it never came. In the end, the liberal position won out and busses of UC cognitariats from throughout the state ventured to Sacramento to yell and scream into the air. More militant cognitariats stayed home and set out to lay an infrastructure for what we see culminating today – the long 2009. Their analysis was simple: the UC crisis cannot be resolved within a neoliberal economic framework. In fact, it is the product of it. We had no future within the UC system, nor outside of it. 

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 work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow. And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have… The university has no history of its own; its history is the history of capital.  Its essential function is the reproduction of the relationship between capital and labor. (“Communiqué from an Absent Future,” 2009) 

The whole system was sick, and it still is! 

UC Occupy Everythingprotests, “The system is sick,” UC Santa Cruz, 2009

A decade-long manufactured crisis followed during which UC administrators used the institution in a Ponzi-like fashion. The number of UC administrators earning salaries in excess of $174,000/yr nearly doubled since 2012— from 5,931 to 9,640 (SF Chronicle). Currently, over one thousand UC administrators earn more than $190,103/yr — the salary of the California governor. Making matters worse, there are roughly twice as many UC administrators as there are faculty (The Economist). Adding insult to injury, in 2017 UC President Janet Napolitano’s office was found to be embezzling $175 million. With a budget larger than that of many states (The UC is largest employer in California; California is the sixth largest economy in the world), the UC has consistently demonstrated its uncontested loyalty to its managerial class while sacrificing the lives of undergraduate students, graduate students, and lecturers –  they have profited off the precarity of the cognitariat. The UC administration’s ability to extract from the cognitariat could only go so far. The rapid spread and militancy of the COLA movement demonstrates that they have now hit peak info, and there is nothing left to extract.  

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Covid-19: Class Cancelled! Class War!

On March 12, 2020, UC campuses announced a move to online courses for Spring 2020 quarter. The call responded to the Covid-19 outbreak, which the World Health Organization had just declared a global pandemic. With Silicon Valley companies waiting in the wings, video conferencing software company Zoom provided the entire University of California with Pro licenses at a cost that has not been made public. This private online platform also allows for host firms (like the UC) to record all content on its platform. At UC San Diego, undergraduate students responded swiftly with a petition demanding tuition reduction – especially for facilities and maintenance fees geared towards physical spaces they will no longer be using. The next day, UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla casually announced the administration’s decision to maintain full tuition cost for Spring 2020. The petition, which currently has over 21,000 signatures, hosts a comment section that serves as a repository for cathartic rage amongst students and parents alike. 

“Another predatory monetization. Typical dog shit business model,” says one. 

“I am paying for my daughter who isn’t even able to use the campus freely? What the hell am I paying for? Refund the fees, the tuition is costing us enough,” says another. 

“I’m already in debt because of the biased and predatory loan practices of the UC & US Department of Education – this education should be free! Lowering them for spring 2020 is the least you can do,” says one more. 

“It’s ridiculous to ask us to pay that much price for online classes. Especially because these professors have no clue how to teach online classes yet and so we are paying for them to be their guinea pigs,” says a fourth. 

“Can’t the undergrads get a little tuition COLA?!” says a fifth. 

They are a step away from demanding free tuition, as they rightfully deserve!

Like the crisis of 2008, Covid-19 and the global economic crisis to follow (the shock) will provide the pretext for institutions like the UC to fundamentally restructure themselves. Universities nationwide have been experimenting with shifting classes online. In 2013, San Jose State University (SJSU) President Mohammad H. Qayoumi oversaw the most dramatic transition – he re-branded SJSU as a testing ground for massive open online courses. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, SJSU slowly piecemealed this transition in collaboration with the for-profit company edX. Professors in the SJSU Philosophy Department refused to teach an edX course recorded by a professor at Harvard. Across higher education, Humanities and Social Sciences (H&SS) have been at the forefront of the resistance to digitization. 

But education is just a by-product of the UC system. The UC’s real purpose is to oversee the exploitation of cheap labor, both cognitive and manual, in its hospitals and labs – where big pharma, agribusiness, big 5 arms producers (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics) and the US Department of Defense all have invested billions of dollars. No more students on campus; no more protests and disruption of capital flows; no more administrative responsibility to provide things (like health care, affordable food, and affordable housing). By facilitating such a mass transition to the digital realm, UC administrators relinquish responsibility to our physical well being. In recent history, students and faculty alike have identified the move as one of various offensives against the H&SS disciplines that have pushed them to the peripheries of academia and, in some cases, obliterated them. Administrators have prepared us for the transition with a discourse that slithers between austerity and a trendy marketing ploy: “digital humanities.” In the case of the UC, administrators are well aware of a vibrant anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, and decolonial intellectual tradition that thrives in H&SS – a tradition that happens to be fundamentally opposed to their technocratic profit-seeking worldview.

UC administrators imagine the digital sphere as a way to silo and eradicate critical intellectual thought and defund the H&SS disciplines. They have the opportunity to remove these disciplines from having a physical presence on campus. Those of us affected feel this. But this dichotomy need not exist, and the inevitable move to the digital need not be understood solely in terms of the administration’s narrative. In fact, the cognitariat has much to gain by declaring autonomy in the digital space.

  The COLA movement has established an autonomous multisectoral, statewide network for direct action and mutual aid – and it continues to advance in the virtual realm. The UC cognitariat is now confronted with two clear choices: 1) we can let the UC administration seize the narrative of the move to digitalization; or 2) we can reclaim the digital experiment on our own terms and move closer to the other university that is possible, a student-worker run university with an unapologetic commitment to providing resource and recourse to those in our community who need it the most. We are hitting a peak in a struggle over meaning – a true war of position. The future is no longer absent! 

”I’m Gonna To Start a Revolution from My Bed”: Laziness and Upending the Knowledge Economy

Covid-19 did not invent the “digital humanities,”  an intentionally amorphous term to refer to the use and/or study of computer applications to topics related to the humanities. Digital humanities funding has largely been allotted for interdisciplinary, collaborative studies. However, some humanities scholars (for instance, Elizabeth A. Wilson) have described these efforts as just another way for STEM disciplines to dominate the production of knowledge. There is danger in reifying science and technology; in making STEM seem like a way to produce “value-neutral” knowledge for the humanities while disregarding issues of corporate-university collaboration and surveillance. The digital humanities is thus a mechanism for disciplining digital users across campuses. Even with these dangers, digitization of the humanities could mean more collective exchange between people as the UCs are beginning to understand during this current pandemic; however, the “digital humanities” have largely been used as a means to devalue labor while importing some of the worst aspects of the digital (i.e., surveillance, private data sale, etc.). The UC downplays these aspects of online courses and “humanizes” the digital through “emotional interfaces.” It simultaneously makes digital the human through mediating social relations via engineered devices. In online courses, the teacher acts as custodian to the Western (or colonizer) model of the human while expecting students to conform to norms of obedience, including new norms online (i.e., to be interactive, to manage time online, etc.).

We are taught that obedience is a marker of humanity. Those who are disobedient are dehumanized and cast away (ie. fired) from the UC community – having to fend for themselves amidst a pandemic without stable employment, housing, nor food source. “You’re fired!” said UC President Janet Napolitano, a loyal establishment Democrat who only echoes the social Darwinist logic of her so-called political rival, President Donald Trump. 

The cognitariat’s mandate to work has become ever more evident since the calls for quarantine. While other service industries have shut down and the Trump government has even hinted at universal basic income, UC administration has assured us that the extraction will go on amidst the spreading plague. They have deluged us with daily announcements of Zoom workshops and digital best practices FAQs. UCSD’s EdTech recently announced its keepteaching.ucsd.edu website, a digital headquarters for transitioning the cognitariat by the Spring 2020 start date, March 30. It feels surreal to balance between the overwhelming doomsaying and end-of-humanity scenarios being transmitted throughout the media, and UC management’s jingoism for work. 

Herein lies our chance to challenge colonial definitions of the human. European colonizers have long prided themselves for their mental and cognitive supremacy over the colonized. This legacy can be seen in early eugenics and race psychology of mental testing that, in various forms, continues today. Our move to the digital can disrupt the model of the human (as in both “humanities” and “humanitarian”) by disconnecting from exploitative (cognitive) labor. By fully embracing the COVID-19 quarantine, we can put ourselves in our own cognitive quarantine. The possibilities for disruption are myriad. We can pause teaching to tend to our children and pets rather than prioritize UC productivity. We can just never login to Zoom. We can fall sick from the system. We can hack into online classrooms and make them public so that the valorization of UC education would quickly deteriorate as classes become a social forum rather than repositories for “banking” pedagogy. We can lend our cognitive and affective capacities to resolving urgent problems faced by our unhoused neighbors living in tent cities and our childhood friends recently fired from their jobs as dishwashers. We could do this all collectively and coordinated rather than isolated and willy-nilly.

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The COLA strike has already spread, and the UC cognitariat has a unique opportunity to refuse work at all levels. We can not only refuse to teach, but to do research as well. But urging academics to withhold their labor can be difficult because we are so susceptible to two paradoxically compatible ideologies: one that reinforces a savior mentality, and another that values investing in self-interest and development. While saviorism leads us to believe in our power to save and shape others (for instance, by talking to one’s students beyond the contracted hours per week; providing advice and emotional support), our investment in ourselves leads to a commitment to isolationism, self-mastery, meritocracy, and intellectual elitism. This is not the cognitariat’s fault, but it is rather a symptom of the structure of our training beginning in graduate school. With a tight academic market, the pressure to publish is readily on the mind of graduate students. In order to compete in the job market, grads tend to think that they must “focus on themselves” and repeat the (bad) habits of the academic industry, such as time management, professionalization, and objectivity. It is not simply academic elitism that is the problem, but the embeddedness of academics in an infrastructure that benefits the vectoral class, or those who turn information into private property. If we expect the academic labor situation to change, we must challenge the structural and ideological investments which sustain the university. 

Since the vectoral class, which includes some UC administrators, lab managers, corporate investors, and more, accumulates capital through turning information into private property, we can resist them by explicitly rejecting copyright and intellectual property more generally. Such a move could create space for a new university that does not support itself through the hoarding of knowledge. This new approach to university knowledge production could provide an education of plagiarism and theft that threatens the “intellectual creativity” produced in the university for market gain. In addition, this approach to knowledge work could support a culture of collective resemblance rather than the pseudo-individualism that lays at the foundation of intellectual property. In other words, instead of worrying about the originality of our work, which breeds often unfair competition between intellectuals, we could realize that much of academic work resembles one another, furthering the possibility of cooperation. 

This is thus a call for communal habits over habits of industry; a call for work refusal over labor reform. Work refusal is dangerous, but so is work. Burnout, food and housing insecurity, and workplace hazards are obvious examples of this. And UC student-workers and Lecturers already know these markers of precarity all too well. In this time of mass social distancing and quarantine, we have a unique opportunity to take back laziness – to rescue it from being an epithet and reclaim it to be a celebrated, and collectively lived, habit. 

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Paul Lafargue, a French-Cuban physician, journalist, and husband to Laura Marx (Karl Marx’s daughter and an innovative socialist intellectual in her own right), differed from contemporaneous 19th century socialists because he did not value work or so-called progress. After being in-and-out of prison and in-between jobs, Lafargue wrote, “The Right to Be Lazy,” one of the first influential essays against the ideology of work. For Lafargue, the (lazy) bourgeoisie imposed moral justification of labor as part of human nature upon the hardworking proletariat, who began their “addiction” to it. Following Lafargue, we need not wait to embrace the collective benefits of laziness, as in a worldwide class revolution, and we need not buy into capitalist notions of progress. This does not mean abandoning industrial, or even digital, technology, but instead recognizing the detriment of competition and the threat of exhaustion. 

We must refuse to work for our own health and future. As the COLA movement shifts its eyes towards online disruption, laziness through low-effort hacktivism or slacktivism has become more pragmatic than ever. Although online activism has been disparaged throughout the years, it is nonetheless a powerful tool for collective resistance, especially under constraints. Furthermore, such forms of activism are typically more accessible to disabled cognitariats than certain forms of in-person activism, such as marches. Moreover, online disruption has more potential to disrupt capital flows than any amount of speak outs or rallies. A strike is a tactic for disrupting capital flows by withdrawing labor. It is not a symbolic gesture, nor protest, nor pedagogical moment, nor does it require a physical presence. In fact, the less the better! 

UC Faculty have already begun circulating a statewide pledge of uncooperation and digital workplace disruption. It reads: 

We hereby announce our intention to withhold or redirect labor as long as UCOP continues to expose the UCSC students to such harm. We recognize that the withholding or redirection of our labor may take multiple forms. Some of us may choose not to cooperate with the mandate to use University-sponsored online technologies for teaching; some of us may choose to devote a portion of our classes to strike-related issues; some to withhold service from university committees; while others may pledge to withhold final grades until the UCSC students have been reinstated. 

Kudos to them! May a hundred lazy-asses bloom!

Conclusion

While the abolition of work may seem like a pipedream, the current crisis has created new opportunities for resistance and recompense from the state. We are experiencing a crisis of infrastructure and the reinvesting of (at least some) state funds to the public rather than to private interests. What if we were to take that further? What if we were to extend this societal hiatus, at least until we have a workable health and education system that meets our needs rather than those of capital? What if we were to fight for the automation of our work while simultaneously fighting for a Universal Basic Income? Automation cannot be taken out of its historical and material context, since automation has rarely excised exploitation from the labor economy. Many cognitariats are now realizing that we cannot fethishize our work nor our tools given the amount of surveillance endemic to video conferencing and educational technology. 

A COLA would certainly be life changing for many graduate students! But, we believe that there are some issues to consider before accepting a cost of living adjustment as the endpoint for cognitariat resistance. First, the current cost of living is already expected to change with the threat of COVID-19 and subsequent economic recession. Second, like other reforms, UC administrators can take it away, or it may just fail to resolve the myriad other concerns that graduate students have regarding their well-being. Third, like welfare, COLA may be given to a select few (for instance, perhaps only  TAs with a 50% contract); or only TAs in general. Finally, the fight for COLA downplays the possibilities for abolition. One such possibility is making itself known through abolitionist university studies, which attempt to collaborate with “movements that seek to dismantle universities’ fixedness within the afterlives of slavery and ongoing forms of accumulation by dispossession in order to invigorate a new epistemic approach to social possibilities today.”. Such moves toward abolitionist studies and praxis include the historical examples of Oberlin College in the 1830s and the contemporary example of Pu’u Huluhulu University. A call for abolitionist studies paired with refusal to work could lead us to new conceptions of the future. 

We have spent our lives confronting a problem of futurelessness that no COLA, no matter how big, can possibly resolve. While we fight unabashedly for COLA’s immediate material gains, we also see this struggle as a means to accumulate experiences building a mutual aid infrastructure amongst our peers, breaking down the hierarchical and meritocratic academic structure, demystifying the logic of institutional power, and empowering ourselves to take collective risks together. These are all necessary skills and experiences for advancing a movement truly committed to COLA4ALL, or a world without precarity.

As of now, the UC administrators impose their vision of a future that exists only for some, but not for others. They rely on biopolitical divisions. But it is not working. Now, cognitariats are fighting to survive.  They are participating in a broader global push to break down divisions between students and prisoners; paid employees and non-wage laborers; citizens and the undocumented, cognitariats and manual laborers, etc. The ivory tower does not exist. The University of California does not exist. We are food insecure TAs; we are unhoused and indebted undergrads; we are lecturers without health insurance who have now lost our part-time restaurant job that we relied upon to supplement our below-poverty-line wages. We are hundreds of thousands living precariously in the UC system, and we are choosing to fight for a life worth living!

Troy Araiza Kokinis is a PhD in History and Lecturer of Latin American Studies at UC San Diego. Troy will spend time in quarantine cooking empanadas, kettlebell training, reading the cannon of Selma James, and suntanning when the weather is right. Davide Carpano is a PhD candidate in Sociology & Science Studies at UC San Diego. Davide is excited to use time in quarantine reading, perfecting a family pasta recipe, rethinking his relationship to time, and going on bike rides. CJ Valasek is a PhD candidate in Sociology & Science Studies at UC San Diego. CJ is using this “undisciplined” time writing poetry, reading the Qur’an, and watching films about labor strikes. All three participate in the COLA4ALL movement.

Author: Guest

We are legion.

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