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Student Action Doesn't Work

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Photo: Dylan McAteer
Photo: Dylan McAteer

In light of the upcoming student mobilizations on March 24th, it seemed like this piece, written for the February 4th CFS-sponsored “Day of Action” warranted posting.

It was written in collaboration with other members of Maritime Anarchist Initiative:

It’s that time of year again – time for another “Student Day of Action”. One might be tempted to ask, “What’s different this year?” The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) calls for events of this sort, in which students march with identical mass-produced placards and listen to boring speeches, over and over without any of their demands being met: Tuition hasn’t been frozen, let alone decreased; loans haven’t become grants, etc. This would seem to imply that something in the tactics they employ is flawed – but the issue is deeper – the demands themselves don’t get to the root of what’s wrong with universities. A “free” university in capitalist society might not cost any money, but it wouldn’t be liberating.

Knowledge is power; particularly for the class that decides what will constitute “authentic” knowledge. The university is one of the institutions which produces this “authenticity”, this “authoritativeness”, etc. Unsurprisingly, it does so in the interests of the class that controls it.

In a capitalist society the universities are controlled by the capitalists. On one hand, there are some relatively obvious shapes this takes , for example from McGill’s research in fuel explosives conducted at the behest of the military, or Dalhousie’s investiture in the tar sands. On the other hand, the university also plays another, less obvious, role in serving to produce a peculiar type of capitalist subjectivity, the student.

“Modern capitalism [...] allots everyone a specific role within a general passivity. The student is no exception to this rule.”
                                        -On The Poverty of Student Life (1966)

       To begin, students can’t be understood without critically examining university’s relationship to patriarchy, colonialism, and class. While there might be the temptation to skip over the first two on the flimsy basis that they’re “in the past” current circumstances compel us to take at least a moment.

       While Canadian universities as a de jure matter accept women and trans* people as students, the recent Dalhousie “DDS Gentlemen’s Club” fiasco speaks volumes about the environment the university produces and the students in turn produced that environment on at least two levels. There is the obvious first dimension, in which the university continues to foster virulent misogyny. Likely, no further elaboration is needed on this point.

       Secondly, however, there is the reaction of the “good” “liberal” (and “radical”!) students who respond with shock and horror. “Expel them!” Expel them indeed, but to where? Out in to the howling wilderness where dwell those who lack university degrees? To the “badlands” of the general population where half of all Canadian women are survivors of sexual violence (canadianwomen.org)? This points to a concern not for women, but a particular class of women who inhabit the university and share a certain upward mobility, and for an ideological cohesion among a layer of university educated professionals who ought to be beyond the almost anachronistic seeming sexism of the “Gentleman’s Club”. No, the sexism of the university is not meant to be so blatant, and is meant take more acceptable systemic forms, wherein it acts as quiet gatekeeper keeping women (and especially racialized women) in disproportionate poverty, wherein it carries out the academic and ideological work of pathologizing trans* people, justifying imperialism, and so on.

       None is this is to impugn the motives of protestors calling for the “gentlemen’s” expulsion. Rather, it is simply to point to a limit of making demands as students to university administrators. Such a strategy, taken in terms of patriarchy as a whole, carries with it the seeds of its own defeat. 

       Similarly, beyond the fact that every university in Nova Scotia, for example, sits on unceded Mi’kmaq land (which, to be fair, is something difficult to get “beyond” given that it’s rarely if ever officially acknowledged), the university continues, unabashed, a colonial mission that is “civilizing” and genocidal. In its civilizing guise, the university affirms western ways of knowing and hierarchies of knowledge. Not only does this means delegitimizing traditional forms of knowledge, but also serves to elevate the “good native” who participates in its project against the “uneducated native” who either refuses or is excluded. Of course, participation is no guarantee of safety. This is demonstrated aptly by the case of Loretta Saunders, whose murder gave SMU administrators occasion to publicly feign horror while resolutely ignoring the content of her work concerning generalized violence against Indigenous women (mostly outside of the university).

       Coming, now, to the question of class – impossible to divorce from these former issues – we come to the heart of what makes students and “student action”.


       Students represent an investment of capital. Just as a factory assembles a piece of equipment, the university produces doctors, lawyers, anthropologists, and so on. Similarly, just as the production process in a factory makes humans into workers as they assemble parts, it makes humans into students as they become whatever role they will fulfil afterword. Crucially, just as workers’ action is effective precisely when the role of worker is rejected in refusal to work (as in a strike), so too student action is effective when it ceases to mean taking action “as students”.

       However, just as workers in working produce their own means of life (no work means not only no wages, but also no production of the “stuff” one would buy with wages), students too have incentive to keep their heads down – more, in fact, than the vast majority of workers. Students, should they conduct themselves appropriately, are offered a ticket to that class of highly privileged workers who enjoy home ownership, relatively high pay, iPhone 5s, and all the creature comforts denied unskilled (and unruly) labour. Tending to come from this class background to begin with, most students have particular drive to “make it” since they have no idea how to survive as “working poor” (ie most workers).

       This tends to breed a strange type of conservatism. The CFS, for example, will make endless demands concerning the particulars of tuition, of students’ rights, of inclusion of various minorities, but they will never demand an end to their special privileges and the role the university plays in drawing a line between the “haves” – with upward mobility, access to networks of patronage, etc. – and “have-nots” - toiling away at Burger King with only the CFS’s “well, we’d love it if you could afford tuition” as condolence.

       Thankfully, there is a counter-example in Québec student struggles. While by no means homogenous (the opportunist Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec tend to behave essentially like the CFS), students in Québec have offered a hopeful path for struggles elsewhere in Canada. Essential to their in their tactics, strategy, and vision is that these struggles have challenged the very notion of what it means to be a “student” – both immediately, and in their ideas about a future society.


        At their core, the most advanced sections of the Québec student movement organized themselves counter to the hierarchical norms of university life. On one hand, this was most conspicuous in the role of general assemblies, which are the highest decision making bodies of the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), which in turn was the leading organization within the 2005 and 2012 student strikes. While some of these assemblies were open only to students at a particular school, or people who shared a particular identity (political, racial, etc.), many, like the neighbourhood assemblies which emerged in Spring 2012, were open to anyone.

        By cutting out the bureaucracy, the professionals, and so on, general assemblies modeled a form inimical to the rigid order which divides (degree-granting, PhD holding, etc.) authorities from those who take orders.

        Less obvious was the role of affinity groups, small closed groups of friends acting autonomously, typically in concert with the general assemblies. So, for example, while a general assembly might agree in principle that shutting down a given bridge is strategically useful, the tactical nuts and bolts of such an (illegal) activity can’t be effectively worked out in an auditorium of people who may be strangers.

        While the university is premised on shallow relationships, affinity groups demand a degree of closeness. One doesn’t need to trust a professor, but only accept that they’ll grade fairly. One doesn’t need to love a classmate, but simply be able to tolerate their interventions. To make a plan for a militant action and risk arrest in carrying it out however, a high degree of unity is necessary.


        Organizational methods alone, however, are not enough. It’s quite possible to participate in all sorts of anti-hierarchical organizing without ceasing to be a good student or disrupting the business of the university. Therefore, further steps are necessary.

        As the name would suggest, both the 2005 and 2012 student strikes were characterized by mass refusal to attend classes, write papers, take exams, etc. Simply, refusal to do the things that make students students. This activity (or lack of activity)­ is doubly important in that it not only lets students step “outside” the limits of their day-to-day roles, but practically provides the time necessary to take on other activity.

        In 2005, a key form of this “other activity” was occupations. Students took over the physical buildings of their schools, and opened them up. The former schools ceased to be places for students, professors, and administrators and became organizing hubs for struggle against the schools themselves. At Cégep du Vieux Montréal, a college particularly well known for its radicalism, this included a bar, daily general assemblies concerning the organization of the space, free workshops and classes, and more.

        In 2012, when police acted decisively and violently to prevent occupations, blockades and public disruption became one of the defining aspects of the strike. Rather than simply attacking the functioning of the universities, the whole operation of capitalism in Québec was challenged. Thus, the limits of a specifically “student” struggle were challenged, and the contested ground was widened to include Québec society more generally.


        Of course, even these tactics, by themselves, are not enough (and, in the Québec case, were not enough). There is no reason that occupations, disruptions, and strikes can’t be used by slick would-be politicians as chips in a negotiation. Big business unionism, as exemplified by the Canadian Labour Congress and on which the CFS models itself, is happy to lead strikes, as long as it is ultimately leading strikers right back into the workplaces they left. Ultimately, to break out of the cycle in which we’re stuck of protest – reform – erosion of reform – repeat (although that’s a best case scenario, since often no reforms are won at all), we need a guiding vision of something else. In the case of the 2012 student strike, that vision was articulated in documents like Share Our Future – The CLASSE Manifesto, and countless speeches, pamphlets, and conversations imagining an end to capitalism, and its replacement by new forms of life rooted in directly democratic participation and community control.

        In case it’s not clear, that doesn’t refer to a directly democratic or community controlled university, but to the whole of society. The fact is, it’s only in the context of such a society that such a university could exist, and it wouldn’t really be recognizable as a university at all. Without such a society, no university will be anything but what it is now. For that reason, students society by changing the university, and can’t change the university without society being changed. Therefore, if students want anything more than a few extra boxes of Kraft Dinner a semester, they need to face reality: Student action doesn’t work. Refusing to be a student is the first step.

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1977 words


A few errors in there . . .

A bit of half-arsed copy editing - excusable maybe in the rush to produce the original pamphlet in time for Feb. 4th, but which ought to have been corrected before posting here.

In case of confusion, the second paragraph of the main text should read:

"While Canadian universities as a de jure matter accept women and trans* people as students, the recent Dalhousie “DDS Gentlemen’s Club” fiasco speaks volumes about the environment the university produces and the students in turn produced by that environment on at least two levels."

Which, y'know, I recognize is also a bit of a run-on. Apologies.

The second last sentence of the pamphlet should read:

"For that reason, students can't change society by changing the university, and can’t change the university without society being changed."

Again, sorry if either of those mess-ups fostered confusion.

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