Monday, November 21, 2011

When they kick down your front door, how you gonna come? /
With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm poor. Before I went back to school in 2007 I spent much of the previous decade shuffling around a handful of low-paying, dead-end jobs, getting some degree of satisfaction from working part time as a freelance writer but generally dissatisfied with the shape and direction of my life. In hindsight it's obvious that I had no one to blame for this state of affairs but myself - I made a few precipitous decisions in my early twenties that had great, far-reaching unpleasant consequences. Usually this is the part where someone says, "I made some mistakes but I don't regret anything!" That's bullshit: although I have learned to regard my past with something resembling a sanguine wistfulness (for the necessity of my own fragile mental health, if nothing else), that doesn't mean I don't live every day with a sensation of definite regret hovering somewhere in the vicinity of my conscious thoughts.

That's not a bad thing. Regret is a strong motivating force. Everyone makes mistakes: it is how you react to these mistakes that defines your character.

Being poor tends to clarify and focus your thoughts. I actually read a really great article about this recently in the most unlikely of places: posted a funny list earlier this year of the "5 Things Nobody Tells You About Being Poor." Oddly enough for a humor site like, this is actually one of the best, most astute and completely unvarnished examination of working poverty in America that I've ever seen. One of the reasons it's such an effective article is that it doesn't flinch from showing just how "funny" so many of the daily humiliations of the Poverty Grind actually are. Being poor means your life is essentially a long string of ironic Catch-22s, one after another forever and ever. You get some money from a tax refund? Guess what, your car needs a new timing belt. You want to go back to school? Guess what, the only way to qualify for substantive student aid is to live far below the poverty line. Gallows humor comes with the territory.

So you go back to school and work hard. Even though everything else in the world appears to be crumbling, you still wholeheartedly embrace the belief that education and hard work will allow you to rise up from poverty and to enjoy the fruits of a moderate middle-class life - the fruits of which amount, in this case, to simply living a comfortable life that doesn't require the constant counting of pennies in order to be able to eat lunch. Because we all know that there's no such thing as social mobility anymore. If you're born poor you're likely to remain poor, and if you're born rich it is almost impossible to not remain rich. Growing up we were never destitute in terms of complete abject poverty, but I think it's fair to characterize my upbringing as definitively poor, in money if not in spirit. There were fat times and lean times. We never went without essentials and we always had food to eat, but despite what the Heritage Foundation might want you to believe, being poor in America doesn't mean being perpetually hungry (although that can be a part of it - I've been hungry in my time), and it doesn't mean not owning a color TV. It does mean having to constantly scramble, and knowing full well at all moments that if your next paycheck (or pension check or SSI Disability check) doesn't materialize for whatever reason, you are screwed in a very real, concrete, and non-abstract fashion. I always like to say: some days you get the spider, and some days the spider gets you.

As might be expected from the above, being poor also means being frightened all the time. Being poor means that the police aren't your friends. I've often wondered what it must be like to live a life without constant fear of the police as a real and valid threat. I should mention that I'm perhaps the most law abiding person I know. I feel guilty about going even just two or three miles over the speed limit on the freeway - even when everyone around me is going 10-15 miles above - not just because I'm deathly afraid of getting a ticket I can't pay and having my preciously low car insurance rate raised, but because I've been in severe car accidents and I don't want to die behind the wheel of an eight-year-old Subaru station wagon. I don't declare deductions on my taxes above the bare-bones household deduction, in the interest of keeping my tax profile as simple and unobtrusive as possible. I know from firsthand family experience that once you fall under the government's purview, it's almost impossible to extricate yourself without falling into a bureaucratic sinkhole of the kind that the phrase "Kafka-esque" was specifically designed to describe. Being poor means living in constant fear of falling on the wrong side of the government: we don't get to have lawyers on retainer or even lawyers, period.

If the system was working properly, education would be the means by which individuals could lift themselves out of lowered circumstances through hard work and perseverance. As it stands, university education has become the bare-minimum prerequisite for most people to be able to qualify for middle class jobs and incomes, and those very same university educations that are necessary in order to produce an economically productive citizenry carry with them the near-certainty of prohibitive debt. You need to go to school in order to be qualified for the jobs that will enable you to pay off the student loans you accrued in order to pay for school. Setting aside the more intangible cultural consequences of forcing the large majority of college graduates to view university education as glorified job-training, there is the basic fact that any institution responsible for saddling society's most potentially productive demographic with immense debt right out of the starting gate will act as a monstrous drag on economic growth for the foreseeable future.

Spiraling debt is one of the symptoms of a capitalist system in terminal decline. Governments, companies, and people are (often literally) mortgaging present circumstances on future dividends - ignorant or in denial of the fact that the negative effects of debt are compounded with time. If capitalism was able to function the way it "should," the way the economic apologists on the faculties of almost every major public and private university in the United States would have us believe, reasonable debt levels would be easily erased by periodic upturns. In reality, contemporary debt levels across all levels of society are untenable and simply cannot be repaid. As we have seen in Greece (and France and Italy and England, et al.), countrywide austerity programs necessarily inflict unacceptable collateral injuries across society. On the most basic level, governments establish legitimacy through the maintenance of order. As soon as recognized social protections begin to fall away, society erupts from the bottom up. Law enforcement practices become harsher and more repressive as income disparity rises - by necessity, since economic disparity creates unrest. There is no amount of police repression capable of suppressing dissent in a representational democracy. Every attempt to suppress dissent creates an environment of harsher repression which in turns inspires an increasingly vociferous dissent movement. There's no way to stop the cycle without abandoning any pretense of political liberty and instituting a police state - and oops, sometimes that happens anyway when you're not even paying attention.

Most people in the United States (and dare I say the rest of the world) possess an express desire to live quiet lives unaffected by political turmoil. Protest movements are historically unpopular in this country because anything that threatens to overturn social and political stability on the national stage is unavoidably seen as a potential threat to local stability. So there is a very real possibility that the Occupy movement will have a deleterious effect on the short-term prospects of liberal politics on the retail level. That makes perfect sense: the Tea Party, inasmuch as it was a "real" populist protest movement, was still essentially contiguous with the values and goals of the mainstream Republican party. The Occupy movement, however, rejects the Democratic party, and even those Democrats seemingly most amenable to aligning themselves with the goals of the Occupy movement, such as the very liberal Democratic senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, are still essentially corporatist technocrats dedicated to preserving the economic status quo through smarter regulation. The Occupy movement is far beyond the reach of the Democratic party. One of the country's most historically liberal politicians, Jerry Brown, is once again governor of California, and his complete silence in the face of increased radicalization across the University of California system has been deafening. (It is worth noting that our Governor during the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s was Ronald Reagan, and his unambiguously hostile reaction to the protests in Berkeley during that decade was a crucial factor in helping Reagan gain credibility with national conservatives in the years leading up to 1980.) There is no way any politician on the national stage can possibly align themselves with the Occupy movement on anything other than the most vague and equivocal basis, because the whole point of the Occupy movement is that capitalism is failing in stark and unambiguous terms.

I'm not going to bother reiterating the facts regarding skyrocketing tuition - they're on the public record for anyone to see. But I think it is worth looking out for a moment from the specific circumstances of the moment and towards other aspects of the same problem.

If you have not already done so it is worth your attention to set aside the time to read Taylor Branch's recent article, "The Shame of College Sports," published in last month's issue of The Atlantic. It's a long and extremely interesting article, and so any attempt to summarize it would be necessarily reductive. But at the risk of doing violence to Branch's central thesis, the article lays out the case against college athletics and the NCAA in extremely methodical and unmistakeable terms. College athletics - particularly basketball and football - are such a remunerative enterprise that successful athletic programs effectively take over the schools to which they are attached. In the process they commit a variety of tacitly accepted crimes against the players who participate in college ball in the hopes of using it as a means of reaching the brass ring of a fat paycheck with professional sports. The way money circulates in the NCAA system distorts the educational mission of public and private universities to such a degree that any arguments regarding the economic benefits of college athletics are mooted ten times over by the deleterious effect of college sports on the reputation, educational quality, and dignity of the institutions in question. Many are already calling for the NCAA to be either dissolved or cut free entirely from the university system to which it already seems a pressingly terrible fit.

For any proof of the potential negative consequences of college athletics - consequences that go far beyond even vastly important questions concerning the ethical treatment of college athletes and the parasitic relationship between large athletic departments and large research universities - you merely need to look at the crisis at Penn State over the last month after it was discovered that a long-serving assistant coach for Penn State's storied football team had allegedly raped multiple children over the course of many years. The behavior was known and a cover-up of indeterminate dimensions in place for a long time. If you want to understand why and how such behavior could be allowed to continue on any basis, it is best to ask the most basic question: cui bono? Who benefits? Follow the money.

In the weeks leading up to the current campus crises, all graduate students, postdoc researchers and faculty in the UC system received a new patent contract. (I got the same patent contract myself since I'm a graduate student, even though the humanities obviously don't produce much in the way of patents.) Universities count on revenues from industrial patents to produce a surprisingly large percentage of their income. Current patent law apparently was such that existing contracts were not proof against loopholes, so new contracts were drawn up to clarify the University's ownership relation to all intellectual property created under its auspices. For those of you paying attention at home: scientists and engineers working for research universities are employed on a work-for-hire basis. Money gained from research income - be it in the form of patent revenues or industrial grants - is increasingly not funneled back into further research or education. It "disappears" into the administrative budget.

The problem is that there's no quick fix. The problem is that "the problem" is systematic and ultimately points to the most basic questions of how our society functions and how people pay their rent. The problem is that for an increasingly large percentage of the population, society isn't functioning quite so well, and a lot of people are having trouble paying that rent. President Obama was only ever going to be a centrist conservative Democrat: anyone who ever believed differently hadn't done even the most basic research required to read this excoriating New Yorker profile from 2007. There's no hope of redress at the highest levels of government, and so the dissatisfaction will continue to seep outwards and upwards.

It doesn't take a lot to radicalize leftist humanities students at public universities. When you actually get the scientists to pay attention to issues of social justice, you're working overtime to make enemies. There is no good reason why college athletes shouldn't be protesting for the exact same reasons that professors, graduate students (who teach and research) and undergraduates (who pay steep tuition) are: we make a lot of money for this university, cui bono? Why is tuition so high? Why are citizens of the wealthiest nation on the planet being asked to pay so much for an education that is an essential prerequisite to being an economically productive citizen? If people stopped sending their kids to college in high enough numbers, the economy would suffer for lack of educated workers to staff non-manual positions.

The only way this situation makes sense in the long term is if you accept that the logic of capitalism is self-defeating: debt begets debt, and a society burdened with debt will collapse because excessive debt makes growth impossible. The moment capitalism stops growing, when economic systems stagnate and contract, it enters a spiral of quickly diminishing returns from which it cannot extricate itself. Government regulation could probably temporarily arrest or slow the decline if the legislative will was present, but no one can acknowledge the existence of the problem, much less propose economic solutions predicated on the understanding that capitalism can't sustain itself indefinitely with a minimum of regulation. Eventually someone, somewhere, will simply stand up and refuse to pay their debts: it's already happening in Greece, and we have seen the consequences of even just one small-ish, relatively unimportant economy refusing to play by the rules. Any larger default would existentially imperil the entire financial system. When that happens, all bets are off, and all of our lives will be immeasurably worse for the duration of the crisis.

All of which brings us back to the photo at the top of the post, of a helmeted police officer hosing down nonviolent protesters with pepper spray. I walk along that pathway every day on my way from the bus stop in the Student Union to my office in Voorhies. I know those people, some of them at least: one of the men in the foreground who I recognize was seated across a conference table from me in class not three hours before the photo in question was taken. I know from class he looked exhausted: he'd been involved in many of the protests both on campus at Davis and ninety minutes away at Berkeley. I went home that afternoon after class and took a nap: it had been a long week with minimal sleep (that's graduate school!) and I knew going into the weekend that the next week, right before the Thanksgiving holiday, was going to be fairly intense. My Chaucer students have a term paper due in twelve days for which I can't help worrying they are woefully unprepared: I'm most concerned right now in being able to plan effective paper-writing workshops in the very busy week after we return from holiday. I slept all afternoon and woke up to find that Something Had Happened.

It's a bit weird to wake up and realize that you've been placed in a fishbowl. Suddenly a campus protest movement which had previously appeared vaguely desultory was the flashpoint for international attention: it hit Reuters, it hit the AP, it hit the BBC. The pictures and video of the pepper spray incident have shot around the world. Why was this such a revelation, when things like this had happened just a few days earlier in Berkeley? And this was happening in Oakland? Why was this happening here, in a college town to which I had moved with the specific understanding that it would be a quiet place to burrow down for a few years of extremely taxing intellectual labor?

I would never describe myself as an active member of the protest community: that would be doing a great disservice to those people who are extremely active and important in the organization and implementation of dissent on campus and in the community. But I'm a member of a Graduate Student Assembly that is responsible for formulating official responses to these events, I'm represented by a union that stands in solidarity with political activism, and I'm an individual surrounded by good friends who are deeply involved on every level of the process. We stand united and we roll deep.

But as an individual I'm frightened, terrified. I look at the pictures and watch the videos and hear the slogans and I know that things have reached a fever pitch: the demonstrations are going to get bigger and the political ramifications, at least for those living under the UC system as it stands now, are potentially massive. It's one thing to see these things played out on a TV screen from hundreds or thousands of miles away, but another thing entirely to see images taken in what is essentially your home being broadcast across the world as symbols of political repression. There's that old creeping fear of law enforcement which my parents instilled in me. My mom worked for the police as an emergency dispatcher and (when she couldn't possibly get out of it) a jail warden. She was exposed to policemen at their best and their worse - as first-responders to accidents and incidents of domestic abuse, as people who worked hard to catch violent criminals and support their community, but also as people who could be bigoted, sexist, violent, and abusive, who exploited the authority of their badge and their position of trust in every conceivable fashion. After working with the police for ten years she told me in no uncertain terms: avoid the police. There are two types of people who become police: good people who want to accomplish the good things associated with police work, and people who become corrupted and compromised by the very real ethical dangers of a career in law enforcement. When you're being pulled over for a busted taillight you can't know which type of cop your getting, or what kind of day that cop had, or any number of other variables.

(An aside: one of the best days of my life was the day a cop actually apologized to me for pulling me over without a reason. He ran my plates on his computer when he was driving behind me on a country road and his computer told him I didn't have a drivers' license. He pulled me over and I showed him my valid license. He looked at it, handed it back and apologized for stopping me.)

I know, I know: I'm not saying anything here that any black or hispanic citizen wouldn't be able to tell you. Here I am, "free, white and twenty-one," whining about the existential threat posed by police violence against middle-class graduate students at a well-esteemed public research university in the richest country in the world. But the fact remains: if you're poor, you know (or should know) that the police can do a lot more than ruin your day. They're dangerous. They represent the potential for unchecked and completely arbitrary exercise of dangerous power. So if they put a handful of police officers on indefinite leave, good for them - that's a start. But (and this shouldn't be taken in any way as an absolution for those individual officers responsible for the event at every step of the chain of command) the problem is not a few bad apples, but a system that has been designed with the express purpose of being abused. Urban police forces across the country have been militarized for decades, as a direct result of the never-ending stream of bad consequences resulting from our ruinous "War on Drugs." Cops dress like Navy Seals to cross the streets: when you give someone an assault rifle and body armor of course they're going to walk the beat like they're grinding a tactical sim on their Playstation.

I'm afraid of the fact that I can't decide to just "opt-out" of capitalism at my convenience, because somewhere on the other end of these decisions is a man with a badge and a gun who has been specifically deputized to protect the rights of private property. I have made decisions in my life with an eye towards monetizing the few skills I have in order to lift myself out of an indefinite future of grinding poverty and towards something resembling a comfortable middle class existence. I'm afraid of losing this chance, and that is exactly what the system takes for granted: when it becomes almost impossible to pick yourself up after falling down, the negative consequences of tripping over your own feet become inconceivably grim. I'm old enough that I'm fully aware of just how much I have to lose. I look at the pictures of my friends being assaulted not fifty yards from the cafeteria where I eat pizza on Thursdays and I can't help thinking of exactly what is at stake: this is a systematic breakdown. This is not an isolated case of police abuse or a small group of disaffected agents provocateurs inciting violence. This specific incident may eventually fade from immediate memory and the specific provocations may be swept under the rug, but the only way for the problem to go away is for the systematic inequalities that form the bedrock of our country's economic system to go away. And that's not going to happen, not without a lot more turmoil and possibly more bloodshed. It's only going to get worse before it gets better, because the problems are only going to keep getting worse for so long as people lack the political will to step up en masse and change the system with their own bare hands.

When you've been poor for a long time you pay a lot of attention to issues of class. You can look around and get a pretty good read for issues of wealth and poverty, just from how people carry themselves, the type of clothes they wear, the attitude they adopt. Poor people know how much money they have in their bank accounts at all time. People who haven't lived like that can't understand just how much energy goes into keeping yourself afloat when you don't have the confidence of being able to fall back on wealthy relations or substantial savings. When you're poor you realize just how much you have to lose because you know exactly how much you have. Those who have the least have paradoxically the most to lose. I feel like I have a lot to lose, and I'm frightened to see the system fraying in front of my eyes. I wish I could say I didn't see it coming, but you don't need to be a Marxist to have seen just how badly things have gotten. (Although, if you've read Capital, you have a pretty good idea of how it happened. More than a few mainstream economists have been circling around Marx's ideas for the last few years, unable to bring themselves to actually utter the name of the man who, whatever some of the specific faults of his analysis might have been, was able to predict many prominent features of our present moment with startling accuracy.) I'm scared for myself but I'm also scared for my parents who are dependent on the government for their retirement income, my friends who receive their paychecks from the government, and anyone who needs to pay bills with money backed by the full faith and trust of the increasingly repressive and completely unresponsive United States government. You know, everyone.

At the most very basic level, we have to ask a simple question: does capitalism work? For a long time capitalism worked well for an impressively large number of people, a large enough number that you could probably ignore the seepage around the edges if you so desired. But it has now ceased to work for an increasingly large number of people. The reflexive response from both sides of the mainstream political dualism has been that localized problems should not be confused with systematic problems: if you fail, it's your fault and not that of the system. The system works. Both major political parties seem to differ only in the degree to which they posit government action as a remedy for the localized shortcomings of capitalism. The American political system as it is presently conceived is simply unable to process the possibility that current problems are not localized, and that they may very well be systematic and progressively degenerative. Right now I believe it is safe to say that, despite whatever economic problems they may be experiencing in their own lives, the mass of middle America has not been sufficiently radicalized to be able to see any continuity between pictures like the one above and the circumstances of not being able to pay their bills and feed their children. People remain isolated and aloof for so long as they feel afraid, and a lot of people feel very afraid right now. They're more afraid, however, of not being able to pay their bills than they are of the government. All that needs to happen in order for that to change is for the government and its representatives to keep on doing what they did last Friday.

I'm saddened and shocked to see these things happening in my own back yard, but it had to start somewhere. Might as well be here.

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