Socialist U: How DSA Can Radicalize Campus Politics

Maximillian Alvarez

There’s been plenty of talk on the left recently about whether or not campus politics are even worth our time. As the dust and debris of American decline continue to bury us; as we struggle to breathe amid ceaseless presidential turmoil, a Republican stranglehold on every branch of government, and an impotent Democratic Party; as our futures are repeatedly foreclosed by inhumane wealth inequality and austerity measures, climate change, the privatization of all public goods, and the militarization of everyday life; are universities really the places to find political answers? Can campuses in today’s higher education system really generate the kind of political actors, and sustain the kind of broad socialist movement, that we so desperately need?

Yes and no. Universities can and should be pivotal sites in the building of a nation-wide socialist project, but they can’t and won’t be as long as the shape of life and politics there continues to be determined by the prerogatives of a thoroughly corporatized higher education system. This is what makes an organization like DSA so important for the future of campus politics.

By their very nature, universities retain many of the raw materials for game-changing politics. But the circuits of production that would allow universities to convert these raw materials into what they could—and must—be have been cut off, slowed down, or rerouted in order to churn out the kind of citizens, practices, debt, and knowledge that largely reproduce the oppressive order of global capitalism. In its current (corporate-neoliberal) form, that is, higher education has become incredibly good at suppressing, co-opting, defanging, and monetizing just about every part of campus life that could yield any politics we could call remotely ‘radical.’ But it is through DSA’s newfound connection to campus life and politics, and vice versa, that we could begin to hack, reclaim, and rework the circuits of this reactionary machine.

This is not to say, though, that many of the prominent leftist critics today who write off campus politics do a good job of examining how and why universities have become such effective participants in the society-wide project of constructing and fortifying the neoliberal order. To be clear: they don’t. That would require that their critiques of universities and campus politics served a more substantive purpose, one that understands the significant role universities will need to play in the multi-front battle to dethrone neoliberalism and replace it with socialism. To be clear: they don’t.

Instead, it has become incredibly fashionable to “drag” universities as a way to build one’s personal, sectarian brand. Trite as it is, it’s incredibly easy to score points and boost one’s profile as a down-to-earth political “realist” by taking shots at campus politics, recasting it in tired, simplistic stereotypes of the ivory tower, high theory, and cohorts of impossibly annoying “social justice warriors” (SJWs). Campus politics, the story goes, is dominated by an SJW mentality that’s more obsessed with “politically correct” language policing, “identity politics,” and signaling one’s virtuous “wokeness” than addressing the kind of concrete political and socioeconomic issues that ‘regular-ass people’ care about.

It’s not that there aren’t serious grains of truth to these complaints—sometimes campus politics are annoying as hell, and there are legitimate reasons to argue that universities shouldn’t be ground zero for a nation-wide socialist movement. But to address these issues demands that we approach them in good faith, as opposed to throwing the baby out with the bathwater for our own self-serving ends. Because the latter option demonstrates a decidedly unrealistic failure to consider how giving up on universities and campus politics ultimately feeds the right’s concerted effort to completely refashion higher education as part of its unending pursuit of racist, sexist, anti-intellectual, planet-destroying, capitalist oligarchy.

Again, though, the majority of those arguments that cite the student-led culture of campus activism as a central reason campus politics shouldn’t be a primary concern for the left often just take this culture as a given, inbuilt quirk of students and scholars these days. There is often little more than a surface-level consideration for how this culture may, in fact, be a complicated product of the operational changes universities have undergone over the past few decades. And there is generally even less consideration for how a socialist project could begin to think about attacking and seizing these operational forces for its own ends.

Hands and rose

But there are other criticisms that we should take more seriously, particularly those that highlight the institutional conditions limiting the broader relevance or usefulness of the political activity taking place on university campuses. Some of these conditions are just built into the basic machinery of higher education itself. Building a sustained political movement on campus is always tough, for instance, when students and grad students are, by design, only around for a few years before graduating, and when that relatively short time is broken up by jam-packed schedules and big winter and summer breaks.

There is so much political potential in the energy and knowledge exchange and interpersonal relationships that campus life generates—and generates in doses far more concentrated than those available in other spheres of adult life. But so much of that potential is regularly wasted by the fact that the wheel is cursed to be perpetually re-invented by new college cohorts that will soon be replaced after they’re spat out into the “real world.”

On the other hand, certain troublesome conditions have emerged through, or have been compounded by, those specific structural changes universities have experienced over the past three to four decades. For example, the consistently high turnover of students and grad students in any given campus community has now become an equal concern for faculty as tenured positions continue to disappear and precarious, underpaid, non-tenure-track positions are the norm. How can we build the infrastructure for a long-term political movement in a place where fewer and fewer of the people there can be sure they’ll be around for more than a few years?

Likewise, the more we’ve replaced public funding for higher education—once considered a public good—with extortionate tuition rates and unforgivable student loans, the more colleges and universities have become lavish worlds apart, inaccessible to more segments of the population. Let’s not forget that a 2017 study found that 66 percent of students at the University of Michigan come from families in the top 20 percent of income earners (with just 3.6 percent of students coming from families in the bottom 20 percent). Are such cost-prohibitive oases of elite learning really where a mass politics should try to take root? And for many students who have signed their futures away by taking on so much debt to attain their degrees, what incentive is there to rock the political boat and potentially jeopardize prospects for the careers they’ll desperately need to pay it back?

We’re only scratching the surface here, though. We haven’t talked about the explosion of administrative bureaucracies (and administrator salaries), the erosion of faculty governance, the administrative co-optation of campus politics via student governments and fraternities/sororities, the college admissions arms race, increasing university dependence on wealthy donors and corporate or military partnerships, etc. There are many, many complex and intersecting factors that have conspired to turn universities into processing plants where tremendous amounts of political energy are neutralized or converted into means for reproducing the status quo. To detail how they work together–or, at times, against each other–to produce these results is a big task, but you get the idea.

Instead of writing off universities and campus politics as lost causes, though, we should be asking: how can we hack and rewire the daily functioning of campus life to produce a kind of politics that could significantly contribute to the building of a mass socialist movement in America? What I’ve tried to highlight here is that the neoliberal university has set up many barriers to ensure—as best it can—that this kind of politics won’t be built on its own grounds or with its own equipment. But such a politics can still emerge on campuses as long as we don’t limit ourselves to using only the university’s tools and playing only by its rules.

To overcome these barriers, campus politics must learn to build outwards from independently operating bodies, like the grad student and faculty unions, along with externally established political organizations, like DSA. If nothing else, such organizations provide the necessary means for combating the challenges of ever-changing, regularly disbanded campus populations. They have demonstrated a much greater capacity than other campus organizations to both maintain and serve as living archives of a movement, institutional memories helping new cohorts tap into and build on past political struggles and accomplishments. This is not to mention that the long-term, nationwide infrastructure and year-long schedule of DSA help to make it an alternative receptacle for graduates whose radical political energies after college are so often tempered and swallowed up by the Democratic Party.

Moreover, an organization like DSA can provide a vital channel for political energies generated on campus to flow outside the approved circuits through which the university co-opts campus politics and structures its demands to what the administration will tolerate. DSA has been and must continue to be a vital bridge connecting campus politics to the needs and capacities of surrounding communities—a means for students and faculty to expand the utility of their knowledge, experience, and institutional privileges, as well as an equally necessary means for the those outside the university to remind faculty and students that the world of the university is never (and should never be) as distanced from the community as it pretends.

Perhaps most importantly, the presence of a robust socialist party on and off campus offers something that the average options for political involvement at universities do not: a systematic politics that understands itself to be fundamentally incompatible with the capitalist spirit embodied in the neoliberal university itself. As opposed to working comfortably within the university’s top-down power structure and limiting the realm of political possibility to what has been deemed permissible by the administrative hierarchy, DSA’s political agenda is, from the beginning, a challenge to that power structure and the forces that justify it. Thus, to build a movement that can alter the university’s reactionary machinery, DSA can and must focus on learning from, providing aid to, and building bonds of solidarity with other marginalized people and organizations whose work, and whose very presence on campus, exposes the machine’s exploitative and discriminatory logic.

This, as we say, is only the beginning. Many of the possibilities for a new intertwining of DSA and campus politics are self-evident, others will be discovered in the process. The point, though, is that, given the obstacles the neoliberal university presents to politics focused on structural change, DSA must not only do political organizing on campuses, it must also help to re-organize campus politics.

Maximillian Alvarez writes a regular column for The Baffler called “The Poverty of Theory.”