Academic Freedom: Within or Against the University?

The Fly-Over Infoshop

Any investigation of a concept involving the term “freedom” should begin with a note of caution. The term has a key role in the Orwellian “newspeak” of contemporary culture, and in most cases, when it is more than a meaningless stimulant for propaganda, it has become reduced to a shallow conception of “choice” detached from concrete struggles for the improvement of peoples’ lives. So in approaching the concept of “academic freedom” today, it will be helpful to reflect on the meaning(s) of freedom, more broadly construed.

In a classic essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin, using the terms “freedom” and “liberty” interchangeably, distinguished between freedom from and freedom to. The former referred to the freedom from coercive authority. This is the freedom one has when left alone to manage one’s own affairs, make one’s own choices and mistakes and fashion one’s own goals. By contrast, the latter concept, freedom to, is the ability to realize values, desires or potentialities in the world. In Berlin’s essay, ‘freedom to’ fares poorly, since, he argues, an orientation toward providing the conditions for the realization of values is premised upon the notion that the grand values – justice, equality, fraternity and so on – are ultimately reconcilable. Berlin decides, in absence of evidence of their reconcilability, that the protection of the first, more narrow, form of freedom is likely the best we can do.

“Academic freedom,” as it has usually been conceived within the liberal University, has implicitly agreed with Berlin on this point. The freedom of the tenured professor has been the freedom from the threat of censorship and from interference with the selection of topics for research. This fact is revealing. It suggests an awareness that free inquiry poses a threat to concentrated power, and that the institutions and agents of power have a certain interest in shaping or, indeed, repressing such an endeavor. The cost of this freedom is an obedience to the institutional rules and state laws in which the professor is situated. The professor, protected by the institution of tenure, inherits the potentially contradictory position articulated by Kant in his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” Enlightenment, for Kant, is “the emergence of man from his self-imposed tutelage,” and yet, should that ‘emergence’ come into conflict with the given laws, the would-be enlightener has a duty to separate thought from action: “argue all you want, but obey.” To put the matter plainly: knowledge that is dangerous, that calls into question the actual power relations of the society from which it is generated, must remain mere knowledge.

For a time, the identification of academic freedom with mere “freedom from” was perhaps justifiable. One could, perhaps, have had faith that, as long as the truth was being written and uncovered, its general acceptance could be guaranteed in due course. This progressivist faith is a widely, if unconsciously, held justification for the separation of critical knowledge and action. Those academics producing critical knowledge believe they are contributing, “in the long run,” to the betterment of humanity, and consider their academic freedom to also be a freedom from the expectation of immediate political implications for their work. Both the State and the People, it seems, must be held at arm’s length for the truth-seeker.

We submit that this progressivist faith is not merely untenable today, but is actually perverse. To the ears of those of us raised within ecocidal neoliberal Empire, saying one’s work is “for the long run” is equivalent to saying “let them eat cake.” With each new round of climate studies, we learn that the date of the apocalypse – whether in the form of ocean die-offs, ice cap melting, desertification, and so on – has been moved forward. We’ve stopped thinking about “the apocalypse” as something in the future, to be guarded against or averted, and come to see it as our own social environment, a slow motion train-wreck with which every existing institution, by virtue of its continued existence, has learned to collaborate. The University is no exception.

The University, as an institution devoted to any task so noble as “education,” likely no longer exists. Like the word “freedom,” the word “education” has been reconstructed as an ideological tool for reproducing Capital. What was once the University is now the Edu-Factory, an elaborate job-training center for a precarious, post-industrial economy, in which it is to one’s economic advantage to pretend that whatever one does, one does it not for the money, but out of some drive for personal fulfillment. The expectation that one has “failed” at life unless one finds personal fulfillment through a career has created a situation in which, in order to “succeed,” students must sever their desires from anything that can’t be fulfilled through a career. Education is no “leading out” of self-imposed tutelage, but rather “leading in” to a society of generalized human sacrifice to an economy that no longer demands our mere labor, but also insists we pretend to love it, by any pharmaceutical means necessary, lest we be cast out as “negative” or “downers.” Education is not actually preparation for economic life, but is in actuality a student’s first job, productive of surplus value for the banks who finance it through the decades of debt-peonage that come as its cost. “The University” as a place of higher learning is a fantasy in the minds of professors and their acolytes. The institution of tenure is the dream-world in which it is spun. Elimination of tenured positions within the university divests this fantastical idea of its material force. Graduate students can see this in a way that those professors insulated by tenure or its prospect cannot.

Within this context of the ever-shortening march toward ecological devastation and the wholesale transformation of the very nature of the University, in other words, the context of the historical refutation of any progressive assumptions about the relationship between the production of knowledge and the transformation of society, academic freedom as the mere “freedom from” outside intervention in research programs is morally vacuous. As long as the professor is caught in the split position of the Kantian enlightener (“argue all you want [with your colleagues], but obey [administrators]!”), her freedom is as irrelevant to the crises we face as is the freedom to choose between one of two corporate-sponsored political parties.

How could it be otherwise? In 1969, in a speech at UCLA, Angela Davis offered an alternative impetus for knowledge in society:

Of course knowledge has to be capable of transcending mere material necessity. It ought to be capable of transcending the present political and economic situation. But for what? Should knowledge be cooped up in a vacuum which is unrelated to human reality? My position is that knowledge has to transcend the immediate political reality for one purpose: for the purpose of transforming it.

Davis here presents us with a vision of what might be an “academic freedom to” – a conception of academic freedom that is not content to merely be left alone by the censors, but actually sees its own fulfillment in the process of reshaping the world in light of the truths it has discovered and fashioned.

One might protest: for this critical knowledge to animate struggle, academic freedom from interference with research must be defended as an ideal in itself. Clear threats today to this liberal conception of academic freedom no doubt exist. The case of Steven Salaita recently being hire-fired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and, a few years back, Norman Finkelstein’s falling out at Depaul are telling exemplars. Focus on these outstanding cases, however, risks occluding the ways in which the kind of academic freedom suggested by Davis is prevented by even the ideal state of a freedom that remains merely, well, academic.

Social struggles today have thankfully broken with the notion that there is a single “revolutionary subject,” be it workers, students, People of Color, or whatever other identity candidate has been inserted into the subaltern position of the dialectic. No one’s interests are meaningfully served by a society in which the conditions for life are destroying the conditions for life as such. The economic linkages that financialization has formed between every institution, means that disruption anywhere has the potential to create a ripple effect anywhere else. This means that knowledge-workers in the University, rather than seeing themselves as, at best, lending support to more “real world” struggles elsewhere, must transform the University itself into a site of struggle. Reflecting on the fact that the University today occupies a role in “developed” societies analogous to the factory in the early-to-mid 20th century, the Edu-Factory Collective writes:

What was once the factory is now the university. Where once the factory was a paradigmatic site of struggle between workers and capitalists, so now the university is a key space of conflict, where the ownership of knowledge, the reproduction of the labor force, and the creation of social and cultural stratifications are all at stake. This is to say the university is not just another institution subject to sovereign and governmental controls, but a crucial site in which wider social struggles are won and lost.

“Freedom” becomes an ideological weapon when its meaning becomes detached from the concrete struggles of those who would act freely. When freedom is reduced to a simple concept, whose presence or absence can be verified by bureaucrats with a checklist, it has been lost.

A non-trivial conception of academic freedom relative to our actual situation must begin from the understanding that knowledge meaningfully related to freedom must transverse the realm of the conceptual. This does not necessarily mean it must relate to concerns outside the academy. If the academy is itself a key site of reproducing an oppressive society, it is more important than ever that research and critique be focused on the University itself. Freedom within the academy has to entail resistance to the existing academy, action against the prevailing society informed by critical prognoses of it. It is in the process of challenging structures of power that one’s own thoughts become concrete, and that one learns how to see through the veils of concepts serving to separate academics from the experiences of others. Freedom in our context can only be realized when knowledge is put to work against those institutions intent on celebrating and protecting partial or mutilated forms of freedom.

The only meaningful academic freedom today would be that freedom found within an academic insurgency against the University in its present operation. Every course engaged in critical knowledge production should take as its object of study the University itself, and its complicity within the current social and ecological crises. The supposed neutrality of the University, its image as insulated from the power of the economy or politics, needs to be unmasked. Both inside and outside its walls, the University is an institution for the reproduction of class relations and the unceasing destruction of the commons. Any other understanding of it arises from the self-deception of the privileged and the PR of administrators. It is therefore just as much the proper target of the struggles through which freedom, academic or not, can be realized.


First Fall Semester Debtors’ Assembly at SIUC: A Critique of the Student Debt Regime

By Nicholas Smaligo and James Anderson

How did the student debt regime come to be?

The question was posed as the first debtors’ assembly of the fall semester got underway on Southern Illinois University campus.

The following analysis is derived from the talk that took place at the beginning of the assembly held September 17, on the third anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

To begin, we pose as a problem the $1.2 trillion cumulative student load debt supposedly owed to the government and financial institutions and the almost 30 grand graduates owe on average in student loan debt.

Student loan debt is a relatively new phenomenon, and a product of what we call the prevailing debt regime.

Just a few decades ago, prior to the advent of this new regime, accumulating debt in and as a result of attending college was virtually unheard of. The University of California charged only $647 in tuition annually in the 1960s, and there was little need or even the opportunity to go into massive amounts of debt.

After World War II, when the GI Bill provided free tuition for veterans, higher education could be seen as a public good and a way for empowering the population to create a better world with ideas and ideals in mind. This is not to say that the United States government had such aims in mind for its massive investment in higher education. But a significant shift to conceiving education as a personal career opportunity occurred after and as a response to the social movements and organizing of the 1950s through the 1970s.

During the 1960s especially, the structures of governmental authority were challenged to their core. In every segment of American society people were questioning authority and acting on that questioning of authority.

In the South people eschewed appeals to politicians and took direct action for desegregation. In the workplace workers went on wildcat strikes unauthorized by formal union authorities. Women’s movements challenged patriarchy with consciousness-raising groups, consensus-based decision-making and direct action. Students were also breaking down the structures of authority within the University, and connecting the smooth function of everyday life in the United States with the function of an imperial war machine that was killing millions of people in Vietnam.Siu protests

The university here in Carbondale even closed under pressure from mass student protests in May 1970. Historian and journalist Allan Keith, who was a graduate student at SIUC at the time, later documented events during the tumultuous period in his book “SIUC’s Days of Dissent: A Memoir of Student Protest.”

The university became one hotbed of what those in power call ‘civil unrest’ or ‘chaos,’ but from the perspective of people that are trying to struggle for a better world, it was really just a hotbed of democracy.

The popular desire for direct democratization did not go over well with everyone, however, especially not with those who benefited from the authority structures that prevented people from having a say in the decisions affecting their lives.

Ronald Reagan vowed “to clean up that mess at Berkeley,” which was the home of the Free Speech Movement that started in 1964. Reagan proceeded to hike tuition and fees as governor, and using the University of California as his ideological target, set the course for large-scale privatization of education.

This was an important moment in the use of debt as a political tool. It was the initial step in constructing the regime of debt we live under today.

Reagan recognized the connection between forcing students to purchase their education as a pricy commodity and obtaining their obedience. These conditions would eventually lead to people pursuing education in order to get a job to survive and pay off loans. The conditions consigned the intention of learning about the world in order to change it for the better to the extreme margins of University life.

Reagan was just one politician, but his political reaction typified a growing trend.

The infamous “Powell memo,” sent by Lewis Powell Jr. to the Chamber of Commerce in 1971, further illustrates the felt need on behalf of the ruling class to tame the University. Powell referred to the college campus “as the single most dynamic source” of the attack on the “free enterprise” system.

In his concluding thoughts on the problem of the University campus, Powell fallaciously assumed that every position must be put on a continuum of moral equivalence – even the position of those imperialists and capitalists who kill and exploit others. His conclusions foreshadow the rhetoric of Fox News by claiming the problem is that University discourse about the “free enterprise” system is not “balanced” enough, and he recommends a propaganda campaign for influencing the discussion.

In the memo, Powell also urges no reservations in attacking those within academe critical of the system, like Herbert Marcuse, and “others who openly seek destruction of the enterprise system.”

Marcuse, then professor of philosophy at the University of California San Diego, recognized in his 1972 book, “Counter-revolution and Revolt” the impending efforts to beat back revolutionary democratization through counterrevolutionary organization. Marcuse observed how “bourgeois philosophy” once proclaimed the importance of education for a better humanity. In contrast and as of his writing, he noted how the Council of Higher Education had been “called upon to study the ‘detailed needs’ of the established society,” to know what sort of graduate students to churn out. To make the “the university ‘relevant’ for today and tomorrow,” he argued, “means presenting the facts and forces that made civilization what it is today and what it could be tomorrow,” which requires effort to halt the “repetition of domination and submission” by recovering “knowledge of its genesis and of the ways in which it is reproduced: critical thinking.”

But defenders of domination had different ideas about what needed to happen with respect to education and democracy.

The conclusions of the Trilateral Commission, a think-tank founded by David Rockefeller in 1973, offered further evidence of why critical questioning and disruption of institutional authority could not be tolerated. The commission issued a report titled “The Crisis of Democracy,” citing the failure of institutions, and universities in particular, in fulfilling what was assumed to be their task – “the indoctrination of the young,” as the report stated – deemed necessary for social order, control and “democracy,” doctrinally defined.

These reactionary ideas were generated in response to the democratizing efforts of social movements, many student-based, geared toward challenging concentrations of power. The breakdown in the structures of authority and the reactionary response is the beginning of the story of the student debt regime. Debt today has tamed the university. It has sucked the life and the relevance out of thought.

Those in power continually invent new snares in response to uprisings and escapes of those they control. It is the responsibility of each generation to grasp the trap in which they have been caught. Today, we need to break the power that debt has over our lives. There are a number of reasons why we need to do this, but we’ll focus on just one: the relation of debt to climate change, which David Graeber has already pointed out.

To be sure, the climate catastrophe we are facing is directly related to the way the economic system is organized today.

Illuminating the implications of that ensuing catastrophe, a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found that “the current trajectory of global annual and cumulative emissions” of greenhouses gases remains “inconsistent with widely discussed goals of limiting global warming at 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level.” The IPCC report stressed necessary “changes in human behaviours” – human habits of course conditioned by the institutions in place and the forms of social control enabled by them.

Debt, as a mechanism for social control, prevents people from really solving problems that people as a whole are causing, like Anthropogenic Climate Disruption, our present-day existential threat. Students can go to school and learn about how we are condemning species to extinction while disrupting the climate at an unprecedented rate and destroying the conditions for any decent civilization. However, most who go to school and learn this also accumulate sizable debts they must pay off; they are thus compelled take whatever job is available.

But who has the jobs? Easy answer: the people with all the money. The people with all the money in this context are the people who are benefiting from things being exactly as they are, or from making them worse and more exploitative. So our debt in this case actually limits our ability to address the problems that are really facing us as a generation.

Debt constitutes a kind of oppression, and it is a form of oppression not always readily recognized as such. Paulo Freire once wrote that those who are oppressed “must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exist, but as a limiting situation which they can transform,” and that “perception is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for liberation.”

Liberation from the hegemony of debt requires overcoming the contradiction embedded in the social relations that constitute it, which cannot be resolved in the realm of ideas alone, as important as the imagination is for thinking beyond what exists and about what could be.

One participant in the debtors’ assembly said people should think about “opposing that oppression,” which is what the Strike Debt movement “for economic justice and democratic freedom” is endeavoring to do. The Rolling Jubilee project that just abolished $4 million of student debt owed by almost 3,000 people in the US, and the Debt Collective with the call to “Organize, Resist, Reimagine,” are likewise attempting to oppose the oppressiveness of the reigning regime.

Prior to the assembly, some students also mentioned the People’s Climate March taking place September 21 in New York City with 250,000 expected participants and many unsanctioned direct actions anticipated.

If the interlocking oppressions connecting climate destruction with the debt regime and the related crisis of real democracy at the university are to be challenged, those involved in the September 17 assembly at SIUC seemed to suggest future debtors’ assemblies and direct actions on campus – and on campuses across the US – are needed.


Nicholas Smaligo is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He is the author of The Occupy Movement Explained: From Corporate Control to Democracy, published by Open Court.

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

Photo of Carbondale street protest circa 1970 provided by Allan H. Keith.

March Against Debt at Southern Illinois University Carbondale


After two assemblies  were held over the course of two weeks outside the Student Center on Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus, giving people space to share stories regarding debt and how it has impacted their lives, participants decided to have a “March Against Debt” and “Mobile Assembly” on Friday, April 25.DSC_1769

Following some initial analysis in pithy speech form that Friday afternoon — and a few performative theatrics — people proceeded to march. They chanted, “Ho, ho. Hey, hey. We don’t owe. We won’t pay,” “Bring out your debt! We’re not dead yet!” “Corporate power – that shit’s sour,” and simply “Strike Debt!” as they made their way through SIU’s Faner Hall and later the Communications Building.


DSC_1853As folks gathered around at Morris Library, an activist defined and denounced  “creditocracy,” rule by the creditor class, and called for collective debt resistance, following the lead of the Strike Debt movement, an Occupy Wall Street offshoot. Publicly assailing the extant “fantasy world of the rich and powerful, a finance capitalists’ wet dream,” like a flier from the previous assembly put it, the march reached its counter-hegemonic climax as participants moved through the Student Center. It ended with an assembly where the indebted and indignant reclaimed space again on campus for conscientization and continued mobilization.

Why We’re Sitting In at WashU (and We’re Not Leaving)



I’ve learned many things in my four years at Washington University in St. Louis—not all of them in the classroom. For example, before I became a student at Wash U, I had never heard of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private sector coal corporation.

In St. Louis, Peabody ingratiates itself to the local community by posing as a benefactor of the arts, charitable corporate ‘citizen,’ and hero tackling “energy poverty.” It all sounds pretty good until you realize that Peabody Energy is the world’s largest private sector coal corporation whose business model propagates climate change and destroys communities. Peabody’s list of crimes is a veritable laundry list of social and environmental injustices: the destruction of mountains in West Virginia, the forced relocation of Navajo and Hopi Indian tribes in Black Mesa, Arizona, being a major supporter of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which have been strong advocates of controversial legislation like “Stand Your Ground” laws, the destruction of Rocky Branch, Illinois through aggressive mining and logging, and the distortion of democracy here in St. Louis by striking down a city-wide ballot initiative.

Peabody CEO Greg Boyce also holds one more distinction: member of the Washington University Board of Trustees. Since Boyce was placed on the board in 2009, students have been actively organizing against Peabody Energy’s presence on campus. We have demanded that Boyce be removed from the Board of Trustees and that the University change the name of the “Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization,” a research entity to which Peabody and Arch Coal donated $5,000,000. We have met with the Chancellor — multiple times. We have dropped banners at coal events, peacefully disrupted speeches by Greg Boyce on campus, marched through campus and taken our demands to Peabody’s headquarters. We have protested with residents from Black Mesa, collected signatures for the Take Back St. Louis ballot initiative and rallied with the United Mine Workers in their fight against Peabody.

But, five years later, Boyce is still on the board, the name of the Clean Coal Consortium remains unchanged, and Chancellor Wrighton continues to stand behind Peabody Energy. Indeed, just this week he emailed us saying, “your opinion that peabody energy behaves in an ‘irresponsible and unjust manner’ is not one that I share.” The Administration has successfully used a “deny by delay” process by holding town hall meetings and developing task forces around renewable energy and energy efficiency while ignoring the role that coal plays on the campus.

Thus, like many campus divestment campaigns across the country, we are at a crossroads.

We’ve decided that it’s time to escalate to let Chancellor Wrighton and Greg Boyce know that we’re running out of time and we’re not going to back down. We are engaging in a sit-in of our admissions office to tell Chancellor Wrighton that our university can no longer legitimize destructive fossil fuel corporations. By having Greg Boyce on the Board of Trustees and hosting the “Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization,” the University is propagating the lie that coal is clean. But people who live in the communities where Peabody mines, including Black Mesa and Rocky Branch, know that coal is never clean.

Escalating on campus is scary. We know it is going to be divisive. We know our Chancellor fundamentally disagrees with us. But not escalating is even scarier. Not escalating means Peabody continues to destroy communities and our climate. And that’s a risk we cannot take.

Let Wash U know that you stand with us by signing our petition here:

Written by Caroline Burney, Senior at WashU

Die-in for Divestment at SIU-Carbondale

Die-vest #1
A group of students and Carbondale residents staged a “die-in for divestment” on the steps of the Coal Research Center on the SIU Carbondale campus early in the morning on April 16.Die-vest #2

Protestors held a banner that read “Fossil Fuels are Killing Our Future,” and laid their bodies down on the steps of the building, blocking the entrance. Their aim was to draw attention to SIU’s institutional support for the coal industry, which is accelerating climate change, polluting water, air and soil, and destroying the lives of communities both in Southern Illinois and around the globe.

The action was in solidarity with the ongoing sit-in at Washington University, now in its eighth day.1

Students at Wash U in St. Louis are demanding their university cut ties with Peabody Energy, a St. Louis-based company and the largest coal company in the world. Peabody is currently expanding its strip mining operations in Southern Illinois, threatening the community of Rocky Branch, just south of Harrisburg.2

Residents of Rocky Branch have called for the support of activists and anyone opposed to the coal industry. The elderly residents are on the verge of having their homes destroyed by a strip-mining operation in their backyards. But they aren’t going without a fight. Judy Kellen, a 74-year-old Rocky Branch resident who has become a vocal opponent of Peabody, expressed her support for the Wash U sit-in. In a video-letter, Judy had this to say about so-called “clean coal”:

If all this scientific work that they do in trying to burn cleaner coal or whatever – if that were put into other forms of alternative fuel that would be so much better than what they’re doing right now. Because all they’re doing is putting a bandaid on a bad situation. And when you’ve got a deep cut, a band aid is not going to take care of it. And chancellor, it would be advantageous to the future if you would cut all ties with Peabody. And students, you’uns are doing exactly the right thing, what you’uns need to do, because as long as you stand and fight for your rights, then maybe people like Peabody can be brought to their knees where they will do things that are right for the future of the country, the future of the kids.3

Judy’s message hits home here in Carbondale, too. The Coal Research Center provides support for so-called “clean coal technology” – a contradiction in terms, as shown by the residents of West Virginia, Rocky Branch, and other frontline communities endangered by coal extraction. The problem with coal is not just the burning, but the very process of digging it out of the ground, which today involves not just dangerous mine-shafts, but also strip mining and mountain-top removal. These processes cannot be made “clean” – they must be stopped.

During the sit-in this morning, a worker at the Coal Research Center insisted to us that the center did not receive any private funding. This is not true. ComEd, owned by Exelon Corporation, granted the university $25 million dollars “to support clean coal programs and projects.” The Coal Research Center is devoted to supporting these projects and encouraging institutional research to produce new coal technologies.4 As state funding dries up for higher education, corporate funding, offered through grants and donations, plays a larger role in determining research projects. In other words: the kind of knowledge SIU is producing is skewed by the interests of corporations profiting from the destruction of the earth’s eco-systems – and the corresponding loss of human life.

A 2010 study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force determined that fine particle pollution from existing coal plants was expected to cause 13,200 deaths that year, in addition to causing “an estimated 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year,” as “emissions continue to take a significant toll on the health and longevity of millions of Americans.”5 Further, “low income and minority populations are disproportionately impacted as well, die to the tendency of companies to avoid locating power plants upwind of affluent communities.”6 The coal industry has reaped huge profits, while poor people and people of color have had to deal with the pollution.


People are dying, and the time to stop institutional support for fossil fuel research is now. We are in solidarity with the students of Wash U, the residents of Rocky Branch, and people all over who believe that another world is possible.

Shut down the Coal Research Center!

Divest from fossil fuels!

Corporations out of the University!



1.; see also this piece about previous convergence of activism and art at Wash U to push for fossil-free investment at the university:
2.; see also
3. See Judy’s video letter here:; see also this short documentary, entitled “Judy’s Rock”:

Report-back from the first SIU Debtors’ Assembly

Photos Provided by Jake Haines Photography

Photo Provided by Jake Haines Photography

By Strike Debt Carbondale

We held a Debtors’ Assembly on April 10 outside of the Student Center on Southern Illinois University campus. Inspired by Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, our only plan for the assembly was to come with some personal stories about how debt affects our lives and our visions for the future, and to invite others to share their own thoughts on these topics.

Speaking at the assembly, one organizer confessed that during the planning, he found himself at a loss as to what kind of “personal story” to share at the assembly.

So he called his mother.

Mom taught literature at a junior high school in rural Illinois for more than 20 years. She also raised two kids, with some financial help from grandma, a little from dad and a lot from loans.

Stress, mom said, is inseparable from debt. It weighs you down; you feel it in your neck and back. Debt impresses itself onto our lives and our bodies through stress. This is one of the ways debt limits and controls our actions, thoughts and desires. It changes us; we are less alive because of it.

The assembly against debt sparked recognition of that disciplinary function. We are wrapped in promises that are impossible to keep, owing our futures to banks whose power we abhor. The choice seems stark. Either we live out our lives as indentured servants, or we challenge the very principles that undergird this capitalist creditocracy.

“For me, what I like about this sort of collection – this collection of people that are also indebted – is that I can begin a transformation with myself and along with others to receive my debt as not a personal source of shame or guilt or embarrassment, but as a source of a sort of collective outrage,” said Philip Brewer, a graduate student studying philosophy. “I think that’s a really important emotion. That we need to be outraged at the creditor class that has fundamentally indentured thousands, millions of students. Our future has been erased.”

The university, an increasingly financialized capitalist institution, demands exorbitant tuition dollars from students while it sucks surplus value out of its workers. On average, graduate student workers at SIU pay more than two months of their salaries back to the university in fees. This means that even with a stipend, grad students often have to take out loans, promising to work in the future as a condition of going to work today.

Photos Provided by Jake Haines Photography

Photo Provided by Jake Haines Photography

Mitchel Morden, who helped coordinate the assembly, said he isn’t as directly afflicted by debt because he “sold his soul to Uncle Sam,” serving in the military, which paid him. But, Morden said, he understands the importance of consciousness raising and solidarity in the face of such a sweeping “systemic problem.”

The aim of the assembly was to create a space in which students could concretely understand the systemic problem of debt through sharing and listening, while at the same time creating a disruption in campus life: a moment when school is interrupted so some real learning might begin. Toward the end of our assembly, spirits were so high that we decided to do it again next week, and to bring more of our friends. Our hope is that a regular, public assembly held outdoors will seduce the shy and become a body out of which new relationships are formed across ages, disciplines and employments.

We think the time is ripe for a new round of student struggles, and the issue of debt needs to be front and center. The debt assembly is one tactic that we hope will contribute to a movement of students and teachers looking to one another, and taking both their lives and the university back from a class of creditors, administrators and corporate investors, whose capitalist logic has erased the very idea of education and foreclosed on our future.