The Stacks

The Stacks – Issue 5

The Stacks

The Stacks: Back to School

It might not surprise you to learn that the editors of The Stacks are big fans of September, or, as we like to think of it, back-to-school season — only one of us is currently enrolled, but we’re all lifelong students, and many of us would be back in school in a second if we could figure out how to pay for it. (See the next section for YDSA’s plan for how to make that happen, by the way.)

What better way to pay tribute to this time of year than to shine a spotlight on the often key role of the student movement in raising class consciousness and advocating for socialist change? This month, we asked a newly elected member of YDSA’s National Coordinating Committee, Sebastián Uchida-Chávez, to guest-contribute to our Extremely Offline section about mass student movements. Sebastián is a student from Chile currently studying at the City College of New York, where he’s involved in the fight for a Free CUNY. Read on for his and YDSA co-chair Ajmal Alami’s take on the theory and history behind YDSA’s College for All campaign; for an education-themed Class Enemy of the Month; national DSA updates; and a report on some recent education efforts from Pioneer Valley DSA in Western Massachusetts.

The Extremely Offline

We welcome you back to The Stacks, and for our YDSA comrades, back to school! We’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate YDSA on a successful summer convention, where they elected their new leadership and approved a number of resolutions for campaigns and priorities! Among these, one of the most exciting was the adoption of a national College For All campaign, which seeks to fight for tuition-free higher-education, along with the termination of all outstanding student debt. The campaign is inspired by previous revolutionary student movements: from May ’68 in France to the Chilean student movement, the Québec student strikes, and more. Organizers are also learning from the history of stateside student movements like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

US student movements, however, despite their triumphs, have generally failed to build the kind of lasting organization that might extend their political project beyond the campus. That’s why in this edition of The Stacks, we’ll look to the recent Chilean student movement for lessons.

The Chilean student movements of 2006 and 2011 arose out of the contradiction between the government’s claims to liberal democracy and its continuation of dictatorship-era laws. This contradiction finds its roots in Chile’s “transition to democracy” in 1990. In reality, this process was a calculated next step made by the leading neoliberal economists who advised Pinochet during his 17-year military regime. Accordingly, and as René Rojas describes in Challenging Chile’s Neoliberal Consensus:

The new alliance, the Concertación, agreed to leave the neoliberal regime’s pillars intact beyond the formal restoration of civil liberties. The new center-left government reversed the most egregious safeguards put in place by the military, such as designated and lifetime senators, but did almost nothing to modify Pinochet’s labor code, school system, or deregulated, commodity-based, export growth model.

The first generation of post-dictatorship Chileans was raised under policies that could only have been implemented at the expense of democracy and human rights. Frustrated by these contradictions, and by the misery they reaped across Chilean society, young people began to take bold action against the state’s privatization and austerity schemes. Rojas goes on to describe how the student movement has catalyzed and coalesced with other social movements — labor in particular.

The militancy of new teachers, developed during the 2006 and 2011 student rebellions, boosted independent teacher networks…

Workers from these strategic sectors have increasingly joined the students in their mobilizations, and have displayed their leverage even more powerfully through industry-wide strikes, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Following up on the Chilean student movement two years after the publication of the previous article, Rojas’ The Return of Chile’s Left details the students’ stunning electoral breakthrough:

Jackson’s and Boric’s [student leaders turned elected members of Chile’s lower house of Congress] consistent opposition to Bachelet’s market-friendly reforms lent political cover and programmatic coherence to an emerging mass movement against Chile’s privatized pensions. Finally, after a successful grassroots campaign, a local coalition successfully elected Izquierda Autónoma founding member and former student leader Jorge Sharp as mayor of Valparaíso, the country’s third largest city.

From these positions of power, the new independent left accomplished two aims. First, it spread its emancipatory ideals alongside a concrete social-democratic program based on a critique of Chilean democracy’s exclusionary nature. New demands arose from parliament, from student federations, from dissident labor caucuses, and from movements for the decommodification of social provisions, eventually turning into a platform that calls for full public education, universal health care and social security, more aggressive taxation of the wealthy, and sector-wide collective bargaining rights.

Second, the new left began uniting radical and progressive opposition groupings. These included age-old green and humanist opposition as well as Nueva Democracia, founded by former Communist Cristián Cuevas, who tired of his old party’s support for the neoliberal center-left. Though bringing together over a dozen still relatively precarious organizations produced its own tensions, the anti-neoliberal Frente Amplio arrived in January 2017.

The experiences of the Chilean student movement, among others, thereby illustrate the necessity of a College For All campaign as a part of a larger socialist program. In effect, the campaign to abolish student debt and establish a system of universal, free, and high-quality college education will build a mass student movement that will complement YDSA’s other national campaigns. These include a rank-and-file strategy that will build alliances with campus labor, while channeling militant students to strategic sectors in education, healthcare, and logistics. Likewise, the preparation for a Bernie 2020 presidential run will train these young organizers in electoral work and prime them for popular struggle. Put together, these resolutions lead towards the creation of a broad, and increasingly militant, social movement that will ultimately be capable of reshaping society as we know it.

National Updates

  • DSA has reached 50,000 members! Break out the bubbly, and share this video of longtime DSAer and community organizer Selma Goode in Detroit.

  • Minutes of the July 2018 National Political Committee meeting are now available here.

  • National Director Maria Svart penned a September DSA Dispatch detailing our back to school organizing, regional leadership training updates, priority committee updates, NPC and staff updates, and security recommendations.

  • The National Political Committee published a statement on the ongoing attacks on democracy in Brazil and urging DSA chapters to seek out and support Brazilian solidarity movements.

  • The redesigned DSA site now features an easy-to-navigate page for basic member resources like a new member orientation presentation, an organizing blog for members, and socialist strategy articles.

  • On Sunday, October 14 the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission will hold a conversation with Kim Moody to discuss the history of the rank-and-file strategy. Register for the call here.

  • YDSA has launched its official College for All organizing guide as part of its national campaign to fight for free, universal, public higher education.

  • In a similar vein, we’re providing continuing mentoring to people who want to start a Socialist Night School in their chapter. Read through the Night School Organizing Guide and reach out at [email protected] to get in touch with our Night School mentors and receive additional support.

The Ground Game

Each month, we’ll highlight a political education event, resource, or project developed by a local DSA chapter, in the interest of inspiring new ideas, collaboration, or plain old jealousy. (If you have a story about your chapter’s political education program, email [email protected]).

What is socialism? In this 90-minute event on a Saturday afternoon, about 40 Pioneer Valley DSA members took part in this lively conversation. We thought it important to engage openly with this question given the “big tent” nature of DSA. It was a chance to learn about where each of us on the Education Working Group (EWG), and PVDSA members generally, were coming from.

Four of us from the Education Working Group spoke for about ten minutes each in a 2 + 2 format: two speakers followed by discussion, and then the other two speakers and discussion. The first speaker presented a very brief and very useful history of the term “socialism” and of socialist/communist parties. The second discussed visions of socialism, starting with our own members’ as articulated in a survey during the previous general meeting, and then with the example of Mike Lebowitz’s definition. The third speaker argued that openly espousing Marxist ideas of socialism would be a mistake in the U.S. context; rather, we should fight for issues like health care for all that are broadly consistent with most people’s sense of right and wrong. The last speaker summarized the classical Marxist position that socialism was not an “alternative” to capitalism, but rather capitalism’s necessary successor that has to both use and transcend its achievements.

Our conversation ranged from specific questions like “what’s a good elevator pitch for potential new DSA members?” to fundamental ones like “how do we deal with the complexity of class relations in capitalism today?” Given the relatively large turnout on a pleasant summer afternoon, there is clearly a demand for such events, and we are organizing more of them.

— Sanjiv Gupta, Karin Baker, & Raymond Paquette, Pioneer Valley DSA

Class Enemy of the Month:
or, the Martin Shkreli Award

Once again, as they return to school this month, an increasing number of students are attending charter schools. Hitting the scene back in 1988, the concept was quickly co-opted by business interests dead set on privatizing education and crippling teachers unions. Charter schools are privately run, but in an ever-increasing number of states, they are eligible for public funding through vouchers that divert money from the local public schools. Just like in the cereal aisle, the more choices the better, right?

Charter school proponents get a lot of mileage out of the uncontroversial claim that many school districts are underfunded and the children they teach left woefully underserved. America is an unequal society and our disparately resourced public schools are only further perpetuating that inequality, one might say. If we want better results, we should run education more like a business! Truly, what could go wrong?

Well, just about everything. As charter schools have spread over the last 30 years, we have more data to back up what any educator could have seen coming. Charter schools are actually more segregated than their public school counterparts. Rather than boosting “performance,” charters have on average seen no improvement over public schools in standardized testing. At those charters where test scores are higher they are often achieved by filtering out those at-risk students who require the most care and attention.

Run schools like a business, they said. It’ll be great, they said.

And as if that weren’t enough, in addition to taking public money for — at best — nothing, charter schools are also a threat to teachers’ unions. One of the only organizations that can effectively advocate for classroom learning conditions, unions only represent about 10% of teachers at notoriously anti-union charter schools. As a result, poor working conditions lead to massive teacher turnover. It’s a well-known fact that inexperienced and over-stressed teachers make the best educators. Oh, wait.

To see this simply as a conservative attack on unions and public schools lets Democrats off the hook. While current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is one of the most prominent supporters of school privatization, she has no shortage of friends “across the aisle.” Cory Booker, seen by many Democrats as the candidate who can bring back the pre-Trump status quo, used to sit on the board of a pro-charter group called the Alliance for School Choice — with DeVos herself. And so-called “good billionaires” like Bill Gates have poured millions of dollars into charter schools through their foundations. This money shapes our country education policy with zero public oversight.

From the English commons to today, there is nothing capital loves more than dividing up and privatizing a public good. The answer to America’s poor school system is not handing it over to Wall Street; it’s increased funding for more teachers, strengthening unions so educators have a proper say in how children are taught, repairing our crumbling schools, and serving free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to any child who wants it. It doesn’t matter how many metrics you subject a student or their teacher to, a hungry child can’t reach their potential. We need free public day care, so that every child entering school has the same chance to learn, even if their parents were too tired to read with them after a second shift.

None of this would be cheap, and none of it would enrich proponents of school privatization. Anyone claiming that charters are good for workers or their children is selling a bill of goods. In their efforts to destroy teachers unions and pocket the public’s money, capitalists are using “school choice” to wage war on our children. That’s why charter schools are our well-deserved Class Enemy of the Month.

That’s all for this month, folks! Remember to share with your friends, and send any comments or questions to [email protected].

Editorial team:
Ella Mahony, John Speranza, Ajmal Alami, Andrej Markovčič, Zoe Holden, Stephen Gose (graphic design).