On Horseshit

A few weeks ago I wrote a chronicle of a revolution at the University of Amsterdam, where I teach. To recap: On February 13, a student protest group called De Nieuwe Universiteit occupied a campus building to protest dreadful budget cuts, and to challenge more fundamentally the neoliberal managerialism that has crept into academic governance since the 1990s, even in public universities like this one. They were evicted eleven days later.

Letter from Amsterdam, Part II

Courtesy of the author.

A few weeks ago I wrote a chronicle of a revolution at the University of Amsterdam, where I teach. To recap: On February 13, a student protest group called De Nieuwe Universiteit occupied a campus building to protest dreadful budget cuts, and to challenge more fundamentally the neoliberal managerialism that has crept into academic governance since the 1990s, even in public universities like this one. They were evicted eleven days later. After a massively well-attended march the next day, students and teachers boldly occupied the Maagdenhuis, which houses the headquarters of the university’s executive board (the College van Bestuur, or CvB). A parallel group emerged, consisting mostly of teachers (myself included), and a multipronged protest transformed the “liberated” Maagdenhuis into the headquarters of a broader movement, with a lively roster of lectures, activism, performance, and actions both concrete and symbolic. When that chronicle appeared, on March 26, the occupation of the Maagdenhuis had lasted a month.

This fervor has spread to other universities. Or, if you like, it tapped a common well of possibility, and red squares (the now international symbol of student protest, and the token of solidarity you can pin to your jacket) have proliferated. My chronicle included two occupations, one eviction, two giant marches through the center of Amsterdam, a mayor in an eyepatch, and some reflections on Dutchness. After all, there was something specifically Dutch, and even specifically Amsterdammish, about the spectacle here—the meetings, the civility, the zeal for discussion and detail. This is the sequel, but it is no longer a story of Dutchness; it is a story of horseshit.

On April 1, the various protest groups came to an agreement with the CvB to create two independent committees: one to evaluate the university’s finances, and one to forge an avenue of democratization and decentralization. Perhaps this is not so 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 this agreement was 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 was 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. This was a source of strength but also of contention. 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, although technically DNU’s discontent was unrelated to it. The next day, DNU announced plans to hold (what else?) a festival of academic lectures over the weekend, and then finally to depart the Maagdenhuis by Monday. Indeed this festival was partly the CvB’s idea, and DNU’s plan of departure (Monday morning) was roughly congruent with the CvB’s wishes (Sunday night). Things 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, April 10, 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. And in any case the CvB has not been a model of financial rectitude.) The mayor (now without his eyepatch, but vacationing in France) asked the board not to evict, and the CvB indicated that they would let the festival go ahead. That was their deceit, and their idiocy.


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 teachers and students 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 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 made her way our direction. That image made its way around the press.

Then the mounted cops pushed the perimeter back further, 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 to militarized police actions in the United States. 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 hardcore 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 (hard core) 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.


Horseshit

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.1 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 the Second World War. 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,” that is horseshit: a deliberate, scornful lie, told by petty people in power to idealists who have less power.


Truffles

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. There will be another big demonstration tomorrow.

  1. What I called “administrative bullshit” in my previous piece would more accurately be labeled chickenshit. 

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