Annals of Activism
Screw Us and We Multiply
Three letters from Amsterdam
The New University
March 26, 2015
The Maagdenhuis, which houses the headquarters of the Universiteit van Amsterdam, is an 18th-century building with a modern interior and a large cuboid atrium that has terrible acoustics — exactly what you would expect from a space never intended for assemblies, speeches, or songs. For some reason, an empty trapeze hangs from the middle of the ceiling, activated sporadically by a motor, as if an invisible Dutch acrobat were doing invisible tricks. Is this art? This is what I wonder as I watch and support a revolution at my university.
Occupying the Maagdenhuis in protest is a minor tradition here. In 1969, students did so for five days. Now it’s been almost a month. Decades ago, students and teachers were generally on opposite sides of the barricades, or at least teachers represented the establishment. Now teacher and student are allies against a new establishment — the university’s board of directors (College van Bestuur, or CvB) — and against drifts in Dutch academia and the broader world: the financialization of the university, something called rendementsdenken (about which, more later), neoliberalism itself.
I’m from the US, and I took a job here in 2011, teaching American studies: history classes with a cultural and literary bent. In a grim market for humanities PhDs, this was a lucky gig, and it still is. But the UvA is a confusing place — a byzantine and Kafkaesque institution, in good ways and bad — and not only because I did not speak Dutch when I arrived. (By now I understand it reasonably well.) I soon learned that there’s Dutch, and then there’s an arcane dialect of bureaucratic Dutch specific to the UvA. It was a new kind of alienation to half-understand a departmental staff meeting. Even when I understood the words, I didn’t really follow. I had the disconcerting impression that some disaster loomed on the horizon and everyone understood it but me.
I also learned that this 383-year-old university undergoes a dramatic reorganization every damn year. Among the changes in my time here: an inane and universally loathed academic calendar (called “8-8-4”), borrowed from the sciences, was grafted onto the humanities, law, and the social sciences, forcing us to restructure our courses and curricula accordingly. Research organizations were revamped. Some reorganizations involved a thousand meetings, and the new thing looked a lot like the old thing. (Vergadercultuur is a good Dutch word: “meeting-culture,” and what’s not true about Inuit words for “snow” actually is true about Dutch words for “meeting.”) Other reorganizations were more dreadful, and made you doubt your life choices. Control over curricula drifted upward from departments to new structures that stood between us (the teachers) and the administration. I grumbled but went along with these top-down “reforms,” as did most of my colleagues.
(An architectural aside: I work in the PC Hoofthuis, a crazy life-size Playmobil nightmare from 1976 that nevertheless has grown on me. Tangled hallways, stairways in unlikely places, and windows into every classroom and office. It is the opposite of a panopticon. When I moved here, someone told me the building was a lot like Dutch bureaucracy: it’s transparent, sure, but you’ll still get lost all the time.)
Last fall, the Faculty of the Humanities faced a massive budget deficit. The ostensible culprit: declining enrollment. The funding model of the university is based on numbers of students, and if fewer choose the humanities, the consequences are harsh. The administration’s statements to the press added insult to economic injury — for instance, they publicly named the imperiled programs, such as the so-called “small languages” that have relatively few students. (It’s a strange phrase — isn’t Dutch a small language compared with Arabic?) How can you attract and inspire potential students when you don’t know whether your program is going to exist? News arrived in strange ways: dour emails from the administration on Friday afternoons, leaks to the press.
Confusion and fatalism about the future took a toll on morale. Teachers with temporary contracts likely would not be renewed; everyone else would have to pick up the slack. But what could we do? Fewer students and we’re 7 million euros in the red! Or maybe it’s 11 or 12 million. A few months before it was 3 or 4 million. No one seemed to know where these numbers came from, and they shifted all the time. (One of the protest’s demands is a genuinely independent commission to evaluate the university’s finances.)
Last November, students started to protest the budget cuts (bezuinigingen) and “Profiel 2016” — the dramatic yet mysterious and certainly overhasty reorganization plan devised by the leadership of the Faculty of Humanities to deal with the cuts. The name of the protest group was Humanities Rally; “Humanities, rally!” was their slogan.
February 13: Occupation of the Bungehuis
On February 13, a few dozen students calling themselves the Nieuwe Universiteit (New University) occupied the Bungehuis — a 1930s art deco building in the center of Amsterdam, which the university is selling to developers who want to turn it into a Soho House — that is, a luxury club and hotel. Temperamentally, I am not an activist, and I wasn’t sure what to make of this occupation. Early on, an emeritus professor told me he disliked the administration but thought these students were “overplaying their hand.” Amazingly, they held the building for eleven days. To go in, you had to climb up a ladder and through a window.
The College van Bestuur’s first great misstep, a trigger for much of what has followed, was to threaten to charge each student an impossible 100,000 euros for every day of the occupation. If the standoff didn’t have our attention before, it did now. One could object to such a farcical punishment, after all, even without supporting the occupation.
The first open letter I signed called the administration’s threat to the students “a form of blackmail against a nonviolent student protest.” Whatever one thought of the occupation, “occupying a university building is a time-honored part of the repertoire of student protest, and . . . criminalization and financial threats of such magnitude against them is disproportionate and unjustifiable.” Eventually more than seven thousand people signed a related petition, including Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, David Harvey, Saskia Sassen, and David Graeber (who would come to the Maagdenhuis on March 7 and deliver his remarks sitting on the floor, cross-legged).
The timing here is important. The Bungehuis occupation occurred just when faculty grumbling was starting to settle into yet another resigned capitulation. The students thus opened opportunities for staff that we ourselves had given away.
February 24: Eviction Day
I could see the police vans and a crowd gathering around the Bungehuis through my crazy Playmobil office window two blocks away. It became a lovely sunny day. I joined the crowd outside, having never seen this ritual in Amsterdam before. The police stayed quiet and stone-faced, professional. One cop looked amused. Their horses were imposing, and they pushed the crowd out of the way a couple times, but the police didn’t strike me as villainous or militarized; in the US it probably would have played out a lot worse. They combed the building, and whenever they carried out a student, the crowd erupted in cheers of solidarity. It took much longer than the police expected. Forty-six were arrested; one student was injured. Someone set off an orange smoke bomb, and it was beautiful against the gloriously graffitied blue building next door.
February 25: March to the Maagdenhuis
The first big march took place the next day, to demonstrate that the occupiers weren’t, as the CvB had claimed, just some radical fringe of discontent. In fact, the occupation and eviction of the Bungehuis tapped a well of frustration that had been building for several years, and now it burst to the surface. I walked with colleagues, saw some students of mine in the crowd. It was festive. On the square in front of the Maagdenhuis there were speeches, but I couldn’t really hear them. After a couple of hours I went to have a beer, then headed home to work.
But meanwhile the protesters had broken through the Maagdenhuis doors! And there was my colleague Guy Geltner on TV, eloquently condemning the administration! Unlike the occupation of the Bungehuis, this one was genuinely spontaneous.
This is how a local protest against arcane budget cuts evolves into a far more ambitious movement.Tweet
The CvB arrived — or at least three of its four members did. The president is Louise Gunning-Schepers, a professor of medicine who was previously administrator of the university hospital and dean of the medical faculty. The vice president is Hans Amman, an economist. The formidable position of “rector magnificus” is held by Dymph van den Boom, whose expertise is in psychology and pedagogy and who, in the preceding rough months, had always been the one to deliver and answer for bad news.
President Gunning said the most ill-calculated thing to this earnest crowd: “If you are a peaceful and democratic community, then you will not take possession of other people’s organizations. This is our Maagdenhuis.” Our? If a second occupation hadn’t already been inevitable, this phrase made it so. And the protesters could call it a liberation rather than an occupation — or, with a wink, a reappropriation.
This is how a local protest against arcane budget cuts evolves into a far more ambitious movement.
The Netherlands is a small country, and Amsterdam, though cosmopolitan in the extreme, often feels like a village. If American students occupied, say, a CUNY administrative building, it might be news in New York, but it wouldn’t be live-streamed, eagerly watched, and avidly discussed by people all over the country. But that’s how it was here. The local TV station AT5 broadcast the proceedings, and they were streamed online. The protesters used Occupy’s rules of order, insisting that even the university president raise her hand. The student facilitator (he would be called a leader if this weren’t a democratic endeavor) wore a signature red scarf.
At some point, someone suggested calling the mayor. Temperature check on calling the mayor? Does anyone have the mayor’s number? OK, let’s call the mayor. What do we want to say to the mayor? I know some who found this a bit silly; I found it thrilling. The mayor showed up! And he was wearing an eye patch! (Recovering from surgery, apparently.) He stayed till 1:20 in the morning! He charmed the crowd. He didn’t endorse the occupation, but it was clear that the eviction of the Bungehuis had backfired and wouldn’t be repeated, at least for a while. His ambiguous parting words, as quoted in several newspapers, acknowledged the Amsterdammishness of this standoff — part blessing, part admonition, part evasion:
You haven’t heard me say that this is a bad action, or that you have to leave now. This is Amsterdam, so there is always just a little more room. [As students] you must be critical, but it is up to you to decide whether to stay in this stalemate. I wish you wisdom, a little harmony, and better studies.1
Euphoria is a genre ingredient of revolutionary chronicles, and yet euphoria is precisely the hardest thing to capture in words. But there was something powerful, politically and ritually, about this reclaiming of “our” Maagdenhuis. When David Graeber came, about a week later, he said something about protests in general: We expect that the act of overthrow comes first, and the fully realized democratic culture comes later. In fact, you can enact the democratic culture immediately and perform it until the police come. This was probably obvious to veterans of Occupy, but I hadn’t seen it in action before.
February 28: ReThink UvA
Until this point, professors had not been especially visible. This changed at a Saturday afternoon meeting of teachers and students that became the first general assembly of ReThink UvA. It’s a good name; the Dutch word for “rethink” is herdenken, which can also mean “commemorate.” ReThink UvA includes people from many faculties, not just the humanities; befitting a movement both national and international, the language alternates between English and Dutch.
There were hundreds, hundreds, hundreds of ReThink emails — but for the first time in years I didn’t utter an anxious, alienated curse every time some institution-related email arrived. Before long we had a website that cheekily emulated the look of the UvA’s own, and an impressive roster of lectures and events. (Have academics ever moved so quickly?) Some teachers held classes or gave rousing lectures in the atrium of the occupied Maagdenhuis, and Graeber’s visit was a major event. But in this context, real radicalism doesn’t lie only in the blessing of a radical anthropologist. It lies, for instance, in the University of Colour, a group within the movement that aims to “decolonize the university” and that hosted the Dutch feminist scholar Gloria Wekker.
A national labor union federation signed on, making for an interesting encounter between the new, sometimes utopian strategies of Occupy and the union’s traditional pragmatism. We are on the same side, but the union meetings don’t use jazz hands.
In the building a range of solidarities have been expressed: “Solidarity with the hunger strikers in Greece against isolation prisons.” Wij vechten óók voor Democratie in Thailand. We are suffering like you from a nondemocratic system,” says a small paper hung in the entryway. There are signs in Hebrew, Arabic, Norwegian, Croatian, French. An American guy who has long run an underground cinema in Amsterdam set up shop upstairs, inaugurating the infelicitously named Virgin’s Bed Cinema. (Maagdenhuis literally means “virgins’ house”; the building was originally an orphanage for Catholic girls. This was one of several bad puns.) Among other things, he screened Orson Welles’s adaptation of The Trial and Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place. Crowds gather for concerts, shitty acoustics be damned.
Screw us and we multiply, says the big banner in the center. Certainly not everything in this flurry of radical theory, art, music, bandwagoning, utopianism, and frivolity has to do with the governance structure of the University of Amsterdam, but it is remarkable anyway to see what fills this liberated building while ReThink UvA’s different working groups go about assembling their reports. I think this is what a colleague means when she calls the Maagdenhuis a “sacred space of democratization.”
Is all this just a tempest in a Dutch teapot? Or are our grievances and our actions significant abroad? I think they are significant, otherwise I would not be writing this. I think they fit into the broader uproar throughout Europe and elsewhere, over universities in particular and austerity in general. Even as I write, similar anti-neoliberalization movements have cropped up at other universities in the Netherlands, in Oslo, at the London School of Economics and other UK campuses, in Macedonia, and at the University of Toronto.
But I will keep this chronicle local. To understand how things have taken shape in this context — and at the risk of generalizing about an entire culture and annoying some friends here — it is good to know three untranslatable Dutch words: gezelligheid, rendementsdenken, and polderen.
All cultures are proud of certain supposedly untranslatable words. It is a relatively benign form of nationalism. The first thing you learn about Dutch is that there’s this lovely adjective, gezellig, to describe distinctively Dutch communal pleasures. Cozy but festive, gemeinschafty, friendly, social in an inviting rather than alienating way, the din of a warm community that never gets so loud you can’t hear your own voice. (Other cultures have equally untranslatable words with the same function: gemütlich, hyggelig.) To master the pronunciation of the noun gezelligheid — two unvoiced velar fricative gs, and a diphthong “ei” that flirts with but never becomes a long i or a — is to gain entry into that cultural aspiration.
In the Café ’t Schuim, across from the Bungehuis, I had the feeling that this was the most gezellig revolution in academic history. Professors, lecturers, PhDs, and students convened there for coffee before marching our open letter over to the dean of the humanities. You walk into the Maagdenhuis and there’s a nice reception desk to greet you. (Do occupied buildings usually have reception desks?) The normal security guards are working their shifts, and students told me they all get along just fine. Around town, you spot someone else wearing a red fabric square pinned to their jacket (the sign of solidarity) and smile. I’d thought the red square referred to a general leftness, and there are black squares, too — for the anarcho-syndicalists, I guess. But I’ve since heard that red ones are about debt: subsidies for students will be cut next year, leading to more student loans, and they don’t want to be “in the red” like English and American students.
One word that the Dutch might be less proud of is rendementsdenken. Where gezellig is elusive in a lovely way, rendementsdenken is insidious and slippery. Like gezelligheid, though, you know rendementsdenken when you see it. Rendement can mean “yield, efficiency, performance, profit.” Rendementsdenken means “efficiency-thinking,” but it can refer both to the simple balancing of your books and to an ideology of extreme profit maximization, a white-collar Taylorism.
Rendementsdenken is broadly continuous with “neoliberalism,” another term that few people self-apply. But at the University of Amsterdam it has a particular history, detailed with righteous anger by the geographers Ewald Engelen, Rodrigo Fernandez, and Reijer Hendrikse (UvA alumni all) in a recent article in Antipode that is now part of the protest’s scriptures.
The title is clear enough: “How Finance Penetrates Its Other: A Cautionary Tale on the Financialization of a Dutch University.” The story begins in 1995, when ownership of a great deal of Dutch universities’ public real estate was transferred from the government to the universities themselves. In 1998, the UvA unveiled a massive real estate plan that consolidated the university into four modern centers — natural sciences, medical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In so doing, it took on debts, and the administration’s assumptions about interest rates and construction were, to say the least, optimistic. Meanwhile, the university governance structure was overhauled to resemble a corporation’s. Power shifted from staff and students to professional managers, and new top-level administrators tended to be not older professors, as in the tweedy days of yore, but former lawyers, politicians, and financiers.
With the UvA’s greater financial concerns, financial expertise was brought in-house. The Maagdenhuis itself offers a dismal illustration: when not occupied, this university administration building houses twenty-one employees dealing with real estate management, thirteen with finance and control, eight with strategy and information, and only seven with academic affairs.
What did all this mean for scholarship and teaching? For scholarship, it meant that funding was tied to academic output according to key performance indicators; it introduced metrics for things that aren’t precisely measurable, and the agenda was set more and more by national funding organizations. (Are four articles in peer-reviewed journals necessarily better than one solid book? And isn’t that demand for specialized, wetenschappelijk [scientific] production at odds with that other simultaneous demand to “valorize” our work and proclaim its social relevance?)
For teaching, it means deprofessionalization, in that it erodes professional security and relies more and more on cheaper, nonpermanent contracts. Curricula are streamlined, and degrees are churned out at a faster pace. Engelen et al worry that the university is becoming “a Fordist production machine for academic certificates.” Students have less time and money to pursue their studies, even as the labor market is less welcoming than it was before the crisis.
It has also meant more administrative chickenshit. Graeber’s new book on bureaucracy proposes an “Iron Law of Liberalism”: “Any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.” That seemed to apply here, too. Efficiency-thinking is not very efficient.
How far this resembles the management of American universities, I am not sure. Top-tier private American universities have treated endowments like hedge funds, successfully or unsuccessfully, and a flourishing endowment can sustain humanities departments, even as it may transform the humanities into a luxury for a privileged elite. The US also has a different tradition of elite academic philanthropy: an alliance with capital that undergirds the radical critiques of capitalism produced by history and literature departments.
If the UvA had been better at quasi-privatization, maybe our coffers would be flush and we wouldn’t be out marching. But that’s immaterial now. Whether corruption, malice, or well-intentioned ineptitude drove the CvB, the yield of its rendementsdenken has been the contrary truth that a public university in a strong welfare state should be a refuge from financialization, not its epitome. Universities are “collective repositories of the long history of human knowledge and wisdom,” the radical geographers write in Antipode in poignantly conservative tones, and it’s high time “to kick the bean counters and their managerial allies out of our temple.”
March 4: Ultimatum
On Wednesday, March 4, ReThink UvA gave the administration six demands and a deadline. Three demands were immediate and specific: (1) a moratorium on restructuring and property sales; (2) that the CvB agree to “initiate a detailed proposal on how it intends to facilitate a democratization of the UvA and restore the relations of trust it has undermined, or else resign from their posts”; (3) an independent investigation of the university’s financial situation (the budget crisis, tied up as it was with real estate and high financial modernism, had been shrouded in mystery). The other three represented broader ideals, like quality over quantity, a better balance of teaching and research, and a real path for temporary staff.
It seemed like a poker game, or a bureaucratic game of chicken.Tweet
We — and here I will begin to include myself, since I eagerly raised my hands in the democratic assembly — gave the CvB till Friday at 4 PM; otherwise we would “escalate our struggle, including but not limited to walkouts, teach-ins, symbolic actions, petitions, occupation of UvA buildings and facilities, performances, gatherings, and strikes.” Strikes! Not everyone was in favor of strikes. Interestingly, students seemed to support the idea, while teachers didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize students’ progress. (And such was the Dutch media’s attention that during an assembly meeting, when we discussed a draft of a statement that merely mentioned strikes, an item appeared in Het Parool: “Teachers threaten strike.”)
On Friday, the CvB asked for more time — ReThink UvA’s somewhat cheeky response noted that we were used to frazzled students asking for extensions. We gave them until Monday at 9 AM. At 9:13 they needed yet more time. In response, ReThink UvA essentially disowned the CvB.
It seemed like a poker game, or a bureaucratic game of chicken. I had no idea what the best strategy was, so I didn’t chime in at the assembly. (Usually someone else says what I would have said, more eloquently and decisively than I could have.) Are we bluffing? Are they? Are we really going to occupy another building? Can we just go ahead and elect our own CvB, under their noses? I wasn’t the only one taken aback when a historian colleague took the microphone and said, “I am a moderate by temperament and in my politics, but this CvB must resign.”
In fact, it wasn’t a game of chicken at all. We were the people, and when we declared that we had no confidence in the CvB, on some level the CvB simply ceased to be. There is something mystical about that, I suppose; and here is where the movement’s utopianism parts ways with the institutional realism of traditional labor organizing. But maybe the utopian and the practical can exist side by side; the one needs the other.
On Tuesday, the CvB sent what seemed like a soul-searching message to all students and all staff, acknowledging “a feeling of concern that the university is gradually losing its way.” It proposed ten broad points, which, read generously, were more or less in line with the protesters’ goals. It was a victory, or at least the beginning of one, and the sort of statement that would have been unthinkable a month before — before two occupations that required a stamina surpassing all expectations. But we were also cautious: read in another light, their response was airy and vague, perhaps an instance of the tried-and-true Dutch strategy of de-escalation through accommodation. They said nothing about an independent financial investigation, for instance, and in any case, the devil is in the details.
Polderen (verb) is a Dutchism that evokes the Netherlands’ mythic past. Much of the Netherlands consists of literal polders, farming land reclaimed from the sea hundreds of years ago. The ancient system of dikes that made this land arable functioned only if everyone worked together, so if you were a medieval Dutchman, you had to cooperate with people you might hate or else you could all drown as your polders flooded. More recently, the verb polderen has arisen to describe a form of, and a set of attitudes about, political negotiation that supposedly mimics this kind of cooperation, and which has characterized the collective labor agreements of the past few decades.
In general, poldering works. And it’s tedious in the extreme — all these meetings, all this real and ritual consensus-building. Strikes are rare in the Netherlands. “The political system is designed to be dull. If anything exciting, interesting or dramatic ever happens in Dutch politics, it means that something’s gone horribly wrong.”2 If great dramas are rare, those energies and antagonisms diffuse into the smaller dramas. The Dutch imagine themselves to be blunt; in practice, business is done in modulating keys of bluntness and evasion. But at least the polder model presumes a basic parity between negotiating parties.
Most of the hated university “reforms” of recent years were pushed through with only the veneer of consensus. The CvB’s actions represent a failure to polder, a betrayal of Dutchness. They insulted the intelligence of the UvA’s researchers, teachers, and students. This is why “trust” has been such an issue, at once emotional and political. The demand that the CvB somehow restore trust is vague but powerful, and for some of those who have occupied the Maagdenhuis, it can never be satisfied.
At the same time, the radical part of the protest movement is also beyond the usual habits of Dutch negotiation. (In fact, one of the key elements of this story is that many of the most active protesters have academic backgrounds outside the Netherlands.) I don’t mean this as a criticism; I mean only that poldering is, ultimately, moderate by nature, even if radical ideas can be expressed within the building of consensus. A few members of ReThink UvA met with the CvB, and I’m told that it took an hour to convince the CvB that this meeting was not a negotiation, that the ReThinkers could not act without consulting the assembly first, because they had no authority without the whole.
I do not know how this will be resolved. Fatigue conquers many protest movements, and this protest has been a full-time job for those truly involved. I’ve emphasized the gezelligheid of the occupied Maagdenhuis, but even if we have made the Maagdenhuis a sacred space of democratization, with all the aspirations to the eternal that sacredness implies, people have lives they want to get back to.
A protest movement might also be done in by its own divisions, rather than by its antagonists. Inevitably there will be tensions between the harde kern (hard core) who fought the good fight from the beginning and have cleaned the Maagdenhuis’s toilets, and the mere fellow travelers (like me) who can wax romantic about democratization. For that matter, are the interests of teachers and students really so perfectly aligned? Maybe not. But it is a mark of the failures of this administration that such a coalition has been sustained for so long.
I confess that within my broad agreement with the protest, I have been weirdly impressionable as everything unfolds — and not just because Dutch institutions are still strange to me. A strike is a good idea! A strike is a bad idea! The university has lost its way! Wait, it’s absurd to suggest that there was some golden age when universities were pure places! But still! Democratization is important! No, democratization is vague, and less important than decentralization! I am still figuring it out, and meanwhile I’m grateful that the colleagues who have led this particular protest have been wise enough for me to defer to. It might have been otherwise.
March 13: Democratiseer de universiteit!
There was one more big demonstration, on Friday the thirteenth. It started to feel like spring. The huge crowd marched through the center of Amsterdam. Ewald Engelen gave a rousing speech in front of a property (Hotel Le Coin, appropriately) that’s part of the UvA’s real estate plan. The word rendementsdenken elicited boos and hisses. Someone leaned out an upper window of de Slang, the garishly painted yellow squatters’ commune across from the Bungehuis, and shouted a speech in Dutch, too fast for me to follow. Bright flares gave everything an eerie glow in the dusk. I suppose a good chunk of this no longer had to do with the arcane issues of the UvA. Apparently a few people were arrested when they set fire to Het Lieverdje (a bronze statue of a boy, in front of the Athenaeum bookshop near the Maagdenhuis). But hey, it’s bronze, and they were paying homage to the Dutch Provo movement’s surrealist Happenings of the 1960s. Even the hooligans are traditionalists.
Protest movements can veer into the theatrical and the ridiculous. Was it good for us when the marchers sat down on the tram tracks in the Dam, blocking traffic? I have my doubts. I also don’t know how to navigate that line between satire and aggression. Some occupiers posted the president’s Maagdenhuis office on Airbnb (“Romantische en luxe nacht Maagdenhuis: 9,487 euro”). This is hilarious and even brilliant, but it probably isn’t necessary.
The protest more broadly has been absolutely necessary, and I write that as someone not inclined to celebrate the activist university. I often tire of the default political righteousness of scholarship in my own field, and I even long for genuinely conservative voices. This tendency to claim that our work is somehow always radical or resistant has risen hand in hand with the tendentious demand to justify the humanities as relevant, useful, practical, and might in some insidious way be part and parcel of it.
The issues in Amsterdam do not line up with a binary of left and right. This is important to the movement’s international resonance. In a sense, the demands of the humanities students are quite conservative. It is the students who speak up for pure knowledge, for the value of study for its own sake, for the cultural or human heritage, for some of the things teachers aren’t always good at voicing anymore. It seems old-fashioned to suggest that the humanities are autotelic, self-justifying, but that is what I want to believe.
For now, the Maagdenhuis is still occupied, or liberated. It has been twenty-eight days. Banners abound, more colorful than before. Tourists walk in and out, a little wide-eyed, as if this is one more Amsterdam sight to see. In the evening, upstairs in the president’s office, people from the protests meet with Jasper van Dijk, socialist member of the national parliament. They discuss the fine points of the current university funding model and talk about alternatives, structural changes, varieties of democratization. It is a bit dizzying to someone unfamiliar with the workings of Dutch politics, but it’s promising, and because this is the Netherlands there will be more meetings. It seems obvious that this is the kind of conversation we need to have, yet it took two occupations and tremendous dedication to get here.
Downstairs, beneath Screw us and we multiply, a jazz trio plays for an audience of twenty or so. It’s exam week; students are studying in various postures and contortions. Somehow the flugelhorn sounds warm in this cold, square, free space. Tomorrow is day twenty-nine.
Horseshit and the Humanities
April 12, 2015
On April 1, the CvB agreed to the creation of two independent committees: one to evaluate the university’s finances, the other to seek ways to make the UvA more democratic and less centralized. Perhaps this is not dramatic on the page, but it was a major victory, and it came from the bottom up. The recommendations of these committees, if they satisfied the academic community, would be binding, and such an agreement marked a genuine departure from recent history. It would have been unthinkable before the occupations. There were still budget cuts and reorganizations to face, and our trust in the CvB remained fragile at best, but the first phase seemed to be over. We could move on from the Maagdenhuis to the more studied work of the committees, and the grander solidarities with like-minded movements elsewhere: if our movement had spread, so could our success.
The protest for decentralization was itself decentralized, sometimes to the point of centrifugality. On Wednesday, April 8, De Nieuwe Universiteit (DNU), the student group that had been doing most of the actual occupying, surprised everyone by demanding that the CvB resign because of its scare tactics. There followed a long night of scrambling to keep the agreement together. The next day, DNU announced plans to hold — what else? — a festival of academic lectures over the weekend and then to depart the Maagdenhuis. Indeed, this festival was partly the CvB’s idea, and the departure time supported by most of the students (Monday morning) was roughly congruent with the CvB’s wishes (Sunday night). The agreement appeared to be salvaged.
But meanwhile the CvB filed a legal injunction demanding that the occupiers leave the building before the weekend. On Friday afternoon, a judge ruled that the university could indeed evict them. (The CvB’s lawyer argued that the occupiers had done half a million euros worth of damage to the building, which is preposterous.) The mayor, it was rumored (now without his eye patch, but vacationing in France) asked the board not to evict, and the CvB indicated that they would let the festival go ahead.
April 11: Eviction
Students and teachers woke Saturday morning to the news of police descending on the Maagdenhuis. Here is what I saw when I arrived. Cops on horses and in riot gear, and a dozen dark police vans, had made a perimeter around the front of the Maagdenhuis, dividing an inner circle of twenty or thirty students and teachers from the broader crowd, and from those yet to arrive. With a microphone, those inside the perimeter (bless them) were discussing “myths and realities of the medieval university,” as they’d planned to do anyway. Cops in riot gear greatly outnumbered those in the circle. The atmosphere was tense, but the disproportion was farcical.
A young woman ducked under the police cordon and ran to the Maagdenhuis steps to join the core. The crowd cheered as she hugged a comrade, and the police looked like defensemen who had let in a puck between their skates.
It didn’t matter, though. Before long the riot cops ascended the left stairs leading to the Maagdenhuis door and pushed the protesters down the right stairs. A few people fell. Most of the teachers and students were in front of the building, not even blocking the door, but, engulfed by cops anyway, they were dragged toward the center of the square. I could see batons swinging and I tasted bile. One student, a devoted occupier, emerged from the scuffle in tears and headed in our direction. That image made its way around the press.
Then the mounted cops pushed the perimeter back farther, and I found myself arm in arm with others against the formidable haunches of a horse. The horse, dear reader, was nobler than its rider.
Weeks ago, when the police evicted the Bungehuis, what struck me was the relative politeness of it, at least compared with militarized police actions in the US. That bubble is now burst. Plainclothes policemen, some initially posing as press, acted like thugs.
These are, I presume, standard tactics. In the Netherlands, such violence is rare, so it seemed all the more shocking and unnecessary. The police tackled a woman for no clear reason and carried her around a corner, out of view. One guy was carried past us by four cops and tried to throw his smartphone to the crowd, but it didn’t reach the perimeter and the police grabbed it. (Throughout the day, police targeted hard-core occupiers, sometimes plucked them off the street. This was a larger strategy of intimidation, further exposing the CvB’s lie about protecting the Maagdenhuis’s safety.)
Eventually most of those who had been in the inner circle were released our way, too. And there on the cobblestones the crowd sat, now perhaps 150 or 200 people, and with a megaphone carried on the academic festival. In front of a row of mounted cops, there were brief lectures. We returned to the topic of the medieval university, because why not? A bit later, using Occupy’s human microphone, a physicist talked eloquently about physics and the imagination — a charmingly abstract mic check about single-molecule microscopy. And for a moment, there in the rain, it was possible to feel the thrill of engagement once more: we could have a university in the open air.
We heard again the bilingual chants of recent weeks: “We are unstoppable, another world is possible”; “He ho CvB, hier krijg je problemen mee.” Every once in a while someone would accidentally activate the siren function on the megaphone and hastily fix it so as not to startle the horses. Tourists wondered what the hell was going on.
Every statement ended with a call for this CvB to resign, and inspired chants of “Aftreden! Aftreden!” It became the running gag: “And by the way, the CvB has to resign.” Before today, I didn’t care whether the CvB resigned. Naturally I would have preferred it, since their management has been terrible both in manner and in content, but they seemed to have consented to the aims of the protest, and we could perhaps have reached those aims together. That was how it looked last week. The late demand from the protest’s harde kern that the CvB resign struck me as unrealistic and needlessly personal, and it jeopardized the successes so far. But the CvB’s move to evict this way — when in fact the occupation was to end Monday — was both cruel and stupid.
Bullshit and chickenshit have attracted worthy scholarship; both are powerful words with 20th-century pedigrees. Some amount of bullshit and chickenshit is built into institutional life. Bullshit is the language of leadership, and chickenshit is the manner of modern bureaucracy. Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit demonstrated that the term lends itself to philosophical inquiry, insofar as the capacity of humans to believe in bullshit opens mysteries of modern ideology and of the mind. Paul Fussell’s magisterial anatomy of chickenshit is a monument of cultural history, tracing the term to World War II. Modern military life was a slog, to be sure; “chickenshit” named the stuff that made military life “worse than it need be”:
petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant “paying off of old scores”; and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called — instead of horse- or bull- or elephant shit — because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously.
The literature of horseshit is less extensive, because horseshit is less interesting. It is akin to bullshit in that it involves falsehood. But horseshit has more to do with tactics and does not rise to the level of ideology. When the CvB speaks of itself metonymically as “the University of Amsterdam,” that now feels like bullshit, because the students who were arrested Saturday have a much stronger claim to our institution’s name. When the CvB invokes the judge’s ruling in a case that the CvB itself had brought to court, stating that “the University of Amsterdam cannot but comply with this and put the ruling into effect” (emphasis added), that is horseshit: a deliberate, scornful lie, told by petty people in power to idealists who have less power.
As one cliché has it, there are two kinds of historians: parachutists and truffle hunters. (I prefer this to the more familiar binary of lumpers and splitters.) Parachutists are the ones who can view the world from above, and leap into their research armed with sturdy generalizations: a theory of history, a clarity about power and politics, a typology of revolutions, and so forth. Truffle hunters, on the other hand, rummage slowly in the details, often with poor vision but with an olfactory sensitivity.
I am not a parachutist. I don’t go about my affairs with a set theory of how power works in the world; I am often confused, and get by as best I can. In teaching and in scholarship, I am usually as interested in the exception as I am in the rule. Parachutists tend to be the better radicals, by and large (and the better conservatives, for that matter), because they can see the generic outlines of a confrontation more quickly. This is why, if I were to give a lecture to a group of student occupiers, that lecture might not be very rousing. I envy the parachutists, and I’m grateful to the ones in this movement whom I’ve encountered in the past few months.
But those who read this truffle about the eviction of the Maagdenhuis should know that it comes not from an activist or an ideologue, but from a mild-mannered geesteswetenschapper who knows horseshit when he sees it. This escalation was a disgrace. I expect that it will backfire, and that a later historian of the University of Amsterdam will narrate this episode as the CvB’s severest self-inflicted wound. The administration has acted unnecessarily and perversely — perversely because in effect they’ve revived a protest that was starting to fray from fatigue and had in some ways run its course.
From Another Soil
June 26, 2015
The detention center for immigrants (vreemdelingendetentie) lies far from the center of Amsterdam — forty-five minutes by bike, a considerable distance in a country the size of Maryland. The Maagdenhuis is stately and imposing; the art deco Bungehuis was flashy in its day. But prisons nowadays are nondescript, and this one could be an office building, albeit a designy one. It is a blue brick block that resembles a miniature IKEA. There is a kindergarten next door. The neighborhood is suburban, modern, affordable, ethnic. About fifty people from De Nieuwe Universiteit, mostly students, made the trek there on Sunday night, a day after the eviction of the Maagdenhuis. They chanted, “Alle arrestanten onmiddellijk vrij! ” — Immediately release all arrestees! They banged pots and pans and hit traffic signs with sticks. It’s not clear whether the arrestees could hear them, and the police did not make them disperse.
Their chant could apply to anyone inside, but they were there because five of the students arrested during the eviction had been transferred to this detention center. It is a curious intimidation tactic that’s been used in the Netherlands against squatters and radicals in the past. If you’re arrested, you have the right not to identify yourself, but then the police can treat you like an illegal immigrant, since you haven’t proved that you’re not an illegal immigrant.
To withhold Dutchness, to expel you symbolically from the nation, to throw you in with people who shouldn’t be here — this tactic is especially resonant in Holland. Tolerance is a point of national pride — same-sex marriage since 2001, the sensible lack of enforcement of drug laws, smug bemusement in the face of apparent intolerance elsewhere, palpable patriotism about Dutch nonpatriotism — yet xenophobia simmers. The students’ lawyers understandably fumed that the students were indeed Dutch, which in a sense only underscored the broader problem.
Meanwhile we marched yet again.
Everyone felt tired, angry, betrayed, and mystified. Plans swiftly circulated for a large protest on Monday afternoon. Meanwhile, my last letter to you had been published and was being passed around. The physicist who’d talked about microscopy in the rain read it and kindly suggested that I speak at the demonstration. I felt odd about this; I had been more observer than participant all along, and I didn’t know if I could muster the tone of impassioned indignation I admired in others. But I said yes, hoping that the voice of a befuddled moderate might prove useful. And I’d already charged my employers with idiocy and deceit. Is this what it’s like to be radicalized?
The dress code, at least, was conservative. Someone suggested that faculty members should wear academic attire — elbow patches or even gowns — to drive home the point that the movement was made up of students and professors, not “professional protesters” (a term never to be trusted — like “real world,” “millennial,” or “mixologist”). At the fictional College-on-the-Hill in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the professors wear medieval academic robes, like a postmodern American Oxbridge, because “decorative gestures add romance to a life.”3 In Europe, academic departments can still feel like medieval guilds — one more reason these protests don’t easily fall on a spectrum of left to right, since we are defending the autonomy of some ancient structures.
In the Netherlands only full professors (hoogleraren) wear robes, and only on ceremonial occasions. But wait — doesn’t the robe symbolize precisely the hierarchies we want to overturn? Fine, fine, then wear your robe ironically! Enzo Rossi — a political philosopher who stood in front of the police horses and never seemed surprised by any of it — called it a “need for tweed,” and it was a thrill to look out on that sea of uncharacteristic formality. (Neckties are rare here, except on taxi drivers; the one Dutch funeral I’ve been to wasn’t even business casual.) A young hippie, stereotypically clad in a green hoodie covered with radical buttons and bandanas, interviewed me for a Dutch TV program I’d never heard of, and asked if this was how I usually dressed — an old herringbone jacket with a bunch of pockets for the sorts of things men don’t carry anymore, and a necktie. I said it was a slightly exaggerated version of what I usually wear, which it was. I learned later that the guy was a right-wing journalist-provocateur, posing as a radical to capture protesters saying dumb things. I didn’t make the cut.
Around a thousand people convened on Monday afternoon by the new Roeterseiland campus, a confusing maze of shiny buildings that’s still under construction. I was the last of several speakers — students and teachers, in Dutch and in English, angry and evocative. The speeches were powerful and to the point. Then I talked about horses and horseshit, and admitted my double confusion — that is, my own general ideological confusion, and my particular confusion at the CvB’s decision to evict. “It was cruel,” I said, “but at least cruelty makes sense” — the CvB’s stupidity was the mystifying part. I felt like a bit of an imposter: I’d rarely spoken in any of the group’s meetings, and now my first words were being broadcast on local television. But the crowd laughed at my typology of shit — or at least those who could hear me laughed. The megaphone was giving a lot of feedback. I had to resort to the human microphone for the peroration: “WE [teachers, students, and staff — not managers] ARE THE UNIVERSITY OF AMSTERDAM.”
Afterward I thought that I should have yelled that in Dutch, not English. Many of the protesters, both students and teachers, come from other countries — the US, England, Italy, Greece — and many have backgrounds in Anglo-American academia. At first glance it might look like some international cabal has infiltrated the university and staged a coup, but I think it might be the reverse: being involved in the protest has served as a kind of inburgering (integration, naturalization) to Dutch habits and institutions. Dutch politics and bureaucracy feel a little less opaque now, and we feel more attached to the university. I also suspect that those of us with backgrounds in Anglo-American universities feel especially eager to prevent the Anglo-Americanization of European academia. We have seen the neoliberal future: it has fancy gymnasiums and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, but the students are crippled by debt and uncertainty, and so are their professors.
After the speeches we marched to the city center. Those in front carried a red banner that read CvB AFTREDEN (CvB RESIGN). The mood was surprisingly relaxed. There wasn’t much shouting, because we didn’t really need to shout. Our numbers made the point for us.
The Maagdenhuis eviction wasn’t the only eviction that week. The city announced that, on Monday morning at nine o’clock, they would clear an abandoned parking garage known as the Vluchtgarage, where vluchtelingen (refugees) from Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen had been living since July 2014. Before that they lived in a decommissioned prison, and before that an abandoned office building. The graffiti outside said “Wij zijn hier,” “We are human,” “Geen mens is illegaal” (No one is illegal), and “No human is born with document.” This group included some 40 people in 2012 but has since grown to around 130, all of them stuck in a long legal limbo.
Who is Dutch and who isn’t?Tweet
The UvA protests got an enormous amount of media attention, and the word rendementsdenken has launched a thousand Dutch op-eds, but the simultaneous debate over the obligations of the state to provide bed, bad, en brood (bed, bath, and bread) for refugees was the more explosive political controversy in April. It almost split the governing parliamentary coalition in the Hague. The Labor Party pushed for basic shelters. The centrist People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy opposed offering the refugees any accommodation at all.
The refugees left voluntarily, before the police arrived. Theirs has been a much longer battle, and it’s ongoing. In the flurry of ReThink emails about our Monday demonstration, someone had noted that there would be a demonstration for the vluchtelingen the same day, and suggested we join it. (It might seem like there are marches in Amsterdam every day! In fact, they’re pretty rare.) After my clumsy megaphoning, our tweedy army marched toward the city center, where we crossed paths with the other march and heard speeches in Dutch that were more heartbreaking. The march for refugees continued on to city hall.
The timing might have been fortuitous, but there is a simple logic to this intersection of academic and asylum seeker. The academic world is increasingly cosmopolitan; so, obviously, is the underworld of migrant labor and stateless people. Coming from highly ranked universities, I have benefited from the European appetite for elite American pedigrees, while European capital benefits from cheap labor. My own legal status as an assistant professor residing in the Netherlands is that of kennismigrant — “highly skilled migrant,” or, literally, “knowledge migrant.” This puts some pressure on my kennis, but mainly it protects me from harm. The state doesn’t punch a guy with glasses.
The protest started with a what question: What’s Dutch and what isn’t? But it scratched at a different question: Who is Dutch and who isn’t? Allochtoon is the Dutch word for immigrants and their descendants. An allochtoon is literally “from another soil.” Yet the children of allochtonen are also allochtonen, even if they were born in this country. The opposite term, autochthoon — “from this soil” — suggests that real Dutch people emerged out of the very earth of the Low Countries, like the Spartoi at the founding of Thebes. The debates over ethnicity that American scholars associate with the culture wars have run through several cycles in the US, but identitarian demands that seem passé in the American academy are not at all passé here. This can feel like a lag between US and Dutch academia, but it’s not a lag — just a different context. Within the array of protest groups, the University of Colour is one of the most radical, because it endeavors to widen the circle of Dutchness, with all the historical reckoning that such a widening entails.
The administration’s police report about the Maagdenhuis noted that “two young boys, presumably Moroccan [vermoedelijk Marokkaanse jongens], and clearly too young to be students of the University of Amsterdam, were in the Maagdenhuis.” Presumably Moroccan? So what? There were all kinds of shady people wandering in and out of the Maagdenhuis — myself among them. This hint of racial profiling inspired a clever Tumblr of mug-shot-style photos: UvA staff and students holding signs identifying them as “presumably a mother,” “presumably German,” “presumably a player,” “presumably dyslexic.”
Victory and Resignation
I found out about President Gunning’s resignation the way one finds out about such things these days: emails and text messages with more exclamation points than usual. Her letter was as graceful and anodyne as you’d expect an administrator’s resignation to be. She stepped aside so that the university could proceed more calmly with its “modernization” — one of many loaded words we had come to distrust.
If you had told me in February that the protests would still be going on in May, and that they would lead to the president’s resignation, I’d have been astounded, and thrilled, to think that the students, with us professors in tow, could assert themselves so successfully. And yet after all that had happened, the resignation felt anticlimactic, or like a dodge. I suspect the president took the fall for decisions others made behind closed doors. One rung above the CvB sits the Raad van Toezicht (RvT), the supervisory board appointed by the Dutch minister of education, and the RvT quickly materialized to reshuffle the CvB. Dymph van den Boom became interim president while remaining rector magnificus. “Doe het, Dymph!” (Do it, Dymph!) was the cover headline of the university magazine. The RvT elevated the dean of the law school, Edgar du Perron (who is sympathetic to the protest), to vice-rector for reform, a new temporary position. His job description appeared two weeks later: he was “charged with facilitating the democratization of the university.” But the shuffling itself felt less than democratic, since it came from on high, and so quickly. Some in the protest worried that this was in fact a setback, not a victory — that the new boss would be the same as the old boss, and harder to displace.
The conclusion of an academic protest, whether it succeeds or fails, likely won’t be cinematic. It won’t even be conclusive. Managers may come and go, but vergadercultuur is forever. The key achievement remains the two committees, one about finances and one about democratization, that have been moving quietly ahead beneath the drama of politics and police batons. And the thinking within ReThink UvA has been remarkably farsighted — both in theoretical considerations and in concrete position papers. Even before the president resigned, my colleagues Guy Geltner and Sanli Faez offered some preliminary proposals about what a more democratic CvB might look like. Should CvB membership come with a salary cap, with the margin going to fund scholarships? Should CvB members have to teach a course once in a while and reject other corporate sinecures? Should the new CvB present an annual report to the community every February 25 — that is, on Maagdenhuis Liberation Day? Symbolism matters in an institution that aspires to permanence.
The Amsterdam Idea
Even though this protest has been emphatically and sometimes goofily Dutch, the broader predicament is everywhere. Many American public universities are facing similar budget cuts. In my home state of Wisconsin, for instance, the legislature recently voted to cut the university’s budget by $250 million, and to erode the already tenuous tenure system (tenuous because fewer and fewer people actually have it). Things are far more dire in Wisconsin than in Amsterdam. This is especially galling because the University of Wisconsin system is predicated on the “Wisconsin Idea,” which enshrined both academic freedom and academic engagement. Articulated in the Progressive Era, it holds both that “basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth” and that university research should improve life beyond the classroom: “The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” Wisconsin’s diabolical governor, Scott Walker, has tried to strike both phrases from the university’s charter.
How far beyond the academy do our commitments extend? Are we defending our right to teach and study things that might be useless? Or are we insisting on our usefulness? After speaking at the march, I told my students that I did not see scholarship as activism, that I only wanted to defend the autonomy of scholarship and the necessary if inconsequential sanctity of the seminar room, that it was fine by me if they found the protests ridiculous or indulgent. And I meant it! But even as I claimed to keep the atmosphere rarefied and apolitical, I must admit that the protest wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the radicals and the parachutists, and I have a new admiration for direct action. And our encounters with vluchtelingen have sharpened my sense that if a university can include allochtonen, refugees, or stateless people within its borders, then it should. The boundaries of the university are wider than the boundaries of the state.
I miss walking into the Maagdenhuis at any hour, reading the banners, seeing students asleep in various corners of the building. European public universities typically don’t have American-style student unions with their comfy chairs, constant coffee, pajama-clad students bragging about how little they’ve slept. But weirdly, the occupied Maagdenhuis came to resemble a utopian version of it. When you walk in now, it’s quiet and sterile again. No sleeping bags in the president’s office, no pointedly gender-neutral bathrooms. Since I’d never been inside the Maagdenhuis before the occupation (I’d had no reason to be), this scrubbed version feels empty and unnatural. Inside, the empty trapeze still swings through the air. Outside, the big red square that students painted on the cobblestones has been scrubbed away.
When you work in a university you rarely have to think about what a university is. The metaphor of the ivory tower emerged in its modern form in the late 19th century, a knock against scholars who arrogantly withdrew from the world. But after the rise of mass higher education, the university quickly became a surrogate for the state. Now we care about the university the way we would care about a polity and a social order. Battles over the canon, over affirmative action, over representation, over meritocracy — they all presume that the university is both of and above politics, that it is integral to culture, that its chief responsibilities are to something other than the market. Now, in the era of that abstraction we’ve labeled “neoliberalism,” the university has become transactional, and consumerism stands in for democracy. But then the conservative ideas become radical again: a public university can and should be something different from the market, and its real worth transcends crude calculation. So call it an ivory tower, call it an asylum, call it a laboratory of inefficiency.
The mayor’s comment is difficult to translate, but it suggested that, as with other Dutch tolerances (gedoogbeleid), there is always a little wiggle room, and he hinted at, without explicitly stating, a certain sympathy with students’ tendency to doubt authority. The openness of his words to interpretation is apparently one reason this mayor is quite popular. The original is “Je hebt mij niet horen zeggen dat dit een slechte actie is, of dat jullie weg moeten nu. Dit is Amsterdam en daar kan altijd net iets meer. Je moet kritisch zijn, maar je moet zelf weten of je in deze patstelling blijft. Ik wens jullie wijsheid, een beetje harmonie en een betere studie.” ↩
Michiel Schwartz, quoted in David Winner, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football (2000). ↩
“Idling students may see time itself as a complex embellishment, a romance of human consciousness, as they witness the chairman walking across campus, crook’d arm emerging from his medieval robe, the digital watch blinking in late summer dusk.” ↩