One of my favorite political songs is an old hobo tune called The Big Rock Candy Mountain, about a place where there are “lemonade springs where the bluebird sings.”
That lyric doesn’t give the full flavor of the song, though — the Big Rock Candy Mountain is also a place with whiskey rivers, a place where the cops have wooden legs and “they hung the jerk who invented work.” It’s a song about a post-scarcity, post-state-violence utopia where everyone has what they need.
I was thinking about the Big Rock Candy Mountain this morning as while engaged in a friendly twitter debate about a new essay on the abolition of wage labor — an essay that I found pretty frustrating for a bunch of reasons. The idea of the abolition of labor is a fundamentally utopian idea, and the danger in advocating for a utopia in any concrete way is that you’ll make it seem farther away than did before you started talking.
The trick — and it’s a trick I think The Big Rock Candy Mountain pulls off beautifully — is to help people imagine a world they’ll never get to in the hope that they’ll start walking toward it, or at least start wondering which direction it might lie in.
• • •
I came up in student organizing through student government, and I think that’s part of the reason I’ve always loved the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
One of the things I find most exciting about student organizing, and student government-based organizing specifically, is that it comes about as close as we get to a post-scarcity organizing environment. When you’re in student government, you don’t have to fundraise. You don’t have to scrounge for cash. A pile of money just appears every year, and all you have to do is figure out what to use it for. (When I was an undergraduate two decades ago my girlfriend was the Financial Vice President of our student government. At twenty, she managed an annual budget of a million dollars, one that was democratically allocated and disbursed by and for the students of our campus.)
When you’re in student government, money is for using, not for getting. It’s a tool, not a goal. A means, not an end — unlike in almost all other institutional organizing.
If you maintain the support of the students and you can keep free of the clutches of the administration, the money is just there, yours to spend as you see fit.
And I think that’s a big part of what makes (some) campus organizing so experimental, so improvisational, so surprising. It’s a big part of why so much weird influential novel organizing work has traditionally come from campuses, a big part of why students matter so much in movements for social change.
But of course this kind of post-scarcity student organizing has been under attack for a long time. For starters, students as a group used to be post-scarcity, even post-work, in ways they aren’t anymore. They were mostly middle-class or above, younger than they are now, more white, more male. They had less to worry about.
And these more-privileged students were paying lower tuition and fees, less burdened by debt, and (for a while, at least) graduating into a much less fraught job market. (My dad got a tenure-track job without finishing his dissertation, and was tenured without ever publishing a single scholarly article. He only actually completed his PhD at the end of the tenure process, prodded by a friendly suggestion from his department chair.)
But just as poor students arrived on campus in large numbers, tuition started to rise. (The City University of New York imposed tuition broadly for the first time in 1976, half a decade after activists won an open-admissions enrollment policy.) Today’s students have to worry about money in ways that their predecessors seldom did, and not just money but employability — they have to graduate on time, have to keep their grades up, have to avoid disciplinary blots on their permanent record.
And at the same time as scarcity has begun to constrain student organizing, there’s been a direct and ongoing administrative crackdown. Arrests for activism are more common than they used to be, along with suspensions and other campus punishments. At the same time, student fee autonomy is being steadily eroded.
The more students have to fear for their wallets and their future, the harder it is for them to organize. The harder it is for them to organize, the weaker they become. That’s why building student government and student unionism is a radical act. That’s why building student autonomy is radical, and radicalizing. Keeping tuition down (and working toward, yes, the abolition of tuition and fees) is radical not just directly but because of how it reconfigures the campus.