Opinion | The Canon

A ruthless deal

The university is a site of capital, a campus with buildings, technologies, and equipment. It is also a site of human capital, a conglomeration of people in whom massive monetary investments have been made. The expensiveness of our own educations is proof enough. Sites of capital have often played a crucial role in generating political change—the innovations of industrial action, sabotage, and strikes were derived from workers conscious of the ability to disrupt the operation of capital and coerce the owner class to meet their demands. By walking out on the job or disabling critical machinery, workers could leverage capital against their superiors.

Despite the memory of the 1968 protests, in which students successfully occupied buildings and achieved their goals, this type of political action is untenable at a university. Unlike a factory, in which the product and the laborer are separated (and perhaps alienated), the students are the objects of production at a university. The university markets the production of knowledge (and prestige) within individuals. To this end, students are very limited in the kinds of political actions that they can take. Unlike workers, who are able to empower themselves through the temporary halting of production, for students, the analogous action is inherently disempowering.

During a strike, workers are not paid—but they will likely make up for those losses in a pay raise or improvement in working conditions, if the strike succeeds. For students, the reduction in productivity cannot be reclaimed. An argument could be made that the experience of the demonstration is itself a learning opportunity, and will provide unique knowledge to the student. However, this knowledge is not of the same “prestigious” type that the university produces. Indeed, the events of 1968 had significant consequences for the perception of Columbia as a productive center of learning—the type of knowledge production on campus was radical and therefore not prestigious. Because of the way that productivity is implicated in the conception of a “student” as an output of capital investments, all political action that harms the operation of capital is by definition self-defeating. 

Consequently, the types of demonstration that have underpinned movements in other domains, such as labor relations, are not reasonably available to Columbia students. Instead of agitating in a way that uses capital against the university, the student body has largely focused its efforts on political statement-making. Student groups use methods such as petitions, performances, and pamphlets to communicate political messages. These are all instances in which student groups produce or present alternative forms of knowledge to augment or even counteract those forms produced by the university in its official capacity as a center of education.

Student groups, recognizing the power of the university as an institution that has concentrated an immense amount of capital, and wanting to lift their advocacy out from the cacophony and into official channels, seek university support. The recent push for divestment is an excellent example. It makes sense that students would wish to see the endowment, with nearly 8 billion dollars of capital, redirected away from fossil fuel consumption and toward some imagined “ethical” future. But again, capital can only be used for the aims of political action through sabotage. This is because capital is fundamentally anchored to the status-quo. Revolution is antagonistic to capital by its very nature. Land, buildings, machinery, and people only have a certain material value—a known price—in the present. The first step to growing value is to conserve value. Therefore, capital has a fundamentally conservative disposition that does not lend itself to progressive causes. The genius of industrial action is that it attacks the conservation of value first. When a strike occurs and a factory shuts down, the value of that factory is immediately diminished. For the owner of the factory, the calculation to meet the demands of workers is therefore based on a conservation of its original value. Progressive demands are thereby converted into capital conservative imperatives.

This reality presents a dilemma for anyone who believes that the university should make political statements, especially statements that implicate capital. In the case of the endowment, advocates for divestment have to justify the likelihood that Columbia will essentially sabotage a principle source of its capital in the name of an imagined ethical action. The dilemma is not just a budgetary question. Unlike the workers who are alienated from the product of their labor, and therefore have the ability to turn capital against itself, we are the primary product of the university.

In this sense, we are actually shackled to that conservative disposition of capital. By sabotaging the operation of capital at the university, we risk diminishing the value of our own personhood. There may be instances in which this self-sabotage may be desirable—but the burden of justification is immense, and the cases are rare. Some might balk at this conclusion, and argue that personhood cannot be reduced to a category of capital. But the material reality of tuition speaks a louder truth. We are willing to pay a small fortune to produce our personhood. We ought not risk the integrity of an even greater fortune to cope with the ethical insecurities laid bare by that ruthless deal.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. He contributes regularly to The Canon.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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