Going through some “draft” posts I have on the back-end of this blog, I found a lot of notes (old notes) I wrote to myself about SDS groups. Instead of writing up a fluid post on Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or connecting these ideas, I’d rather just post my thoughts separately, divided by the little gothic symbol below. These are the impressions I have of SDS.
Too many activists at the university are fixated on the university itself, even if they are no longer students.
What was the point of organizing at the university, if not to move beyond the university?
The “anti-war” movement has no identity now that Barack Obama is in the White House.
The anti-war movement must dissolve.
The anti-war movement was never an anti-imperialist movement, and had no good critique of global capitalism or liberal democracy. Now faced with Barack Obama, imperialism, global capitalism and liberal democracy the anti-war movement has nothing left to say.
So many distractions: swine flu, supreme court, financial crisis, college educations, etc. But even now, the political landscape is changing so fast it’s hard to tell what people generally will feel and think a week from now.
SDS knew it would get nowhere if it was strapped to the campus.
SDS knew it had to bring off-campus issues to the campus, and to have a backwards and forwards spilling over effect from both sides. We wanted everything to completely erupt.
Other student clubs and groups had no such ambition. If they were liberal activist groups, all they ever did was “raise awareness” about a particular issue they cared about. They were single-minded. However, SDS mostly did the exact same thing, except with more issues.
This was good and bad though. The good thing about “raising awareness” was that — even though hardly anyone’s awareness was raised by the stunts of SDS — those involved were made aware and also radicalized by the things they were passionate about.
But it was only somewhat liberating, it was partially liberation.
Each specific “issue” SDS organized around was isolated. We didn’t try very hard to extend our analysis of imperialism, capitalism or patriarchy to issues. Maybe I am speaking for myself. However, students not in SDS typically could not handle this. They needed bite-size things they could chew and dissect, and spit out. They could not deal with imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy all at once. There was also some confusion about what some people considered “capitalism.” Capitalism had different definitions. We were too vague with each other. So we just “raised awareness” about pithy little things that never got anyone anywhere, and brought us down because we didn’t focus.
Instead of ‘raising awareness’ our strategy might have been raising class consciousness. And in a university setting, where so many facades exist, this is almost impossible except for a few who are attune and perceptive enough to see past the campus bubble. Past the campus bubble they still have to see through the shroud of capitalism. This is all very difficult. Students are too individualized, too isolated, too separated — because of class society, because of alienation, and because of the university itself — that they could not have a class consciousness unless they somehow felt solidarity with their brothers and sisters in struggle.
This is confusing. We have to take a step back and ask: why assume students’ class consciousness would naturally be the consciousness of the oppressed, the consciousness of the precarious part of society, the consciousness of the “proletariat”? If their consciousness was raised to anything, it would naturally be the consciousness of the bourgeoisie, the yuppies, and the ruling class. Because they are children of ruling class families, ruling class ideology is the more natural tendency for them.
So, in effect, what the radical students in the university did was nearly impossible, and was basically counter-intuitive. You can take the yuppie out of the university, but you can’t take the university out of the yuppie.
Students have very different lives from non-students. Students I knew at the university sometimes knew nothing about Tacoma, the city where they went to school.
The strangeness of students removes them from their place of struggle. Being a student is like living in a fantasy world, because the university is a fantasy. Racism doesn’t exist in the university, classism doesn’t exist. Imperialism doesn’t exist. Capitalism is what will make the students successful when they graduate. And patriarchy? 60% of students are women. So nothing is real.
If I had to do the university experience all over again I would have spent all of my time deconstructing the university experience.
A student is single-purposed, a student wants a grade. Most students do not enter a university in order to dismantle a system of hierarchy. They may realize there is a hierarchy to dismantle after being in a university, or know this beforehand and still say to themselves that the university will help them dismantle it. But by and large the university promotes the hierarchies. And once they get out, they realize they’d rather be a part of that hierarchy than struggle against it.
Students, in fact, are the problem. I look at it this way. A nation of students is a nation of “business as usual.” Students will graduate and become devoted to the workforce, and want to impress their parents. Students also have to repay debt. Because of this, any “radical” elements that may exist at the university are sucked dry once they are out, because they have to meet material needs and fulfill ideological expectations.
There are public mood swings at the university, just like anywhere else. One week the Tacoma SDS was a well-liked group. SDS was growing, and started a new chapter at a nearby high school (Tacoma School of the Arts). SDS was getting positive feedback from almost all other students we knew. The next week SDS was the most uncool idea ever, for no explicit reason, and no one wanted to associate with SDS.
I think the students were not challenged enough by SDS, or perhaps not at all, and were deeply reactionary already. They thought about their parents, and why they decided to go to college in the first place. They wanted to land good and solid careers when they graduated. They wanted to lead non-revolutionary upper-middle class lives when they got their degrees. In short, they wanted to become Little Eichmanns.
A big problem with SDS was that it was attached to its own name. It liked the sound of its own voice too much. It became impossible to dismantle, or to call its bluff. Everything SDS did had to have an SDS signature on it.
One time I was eating lunch in the union building and remember overhearing a campus comedy group, Ubiquitous They, planning an improvisation show starring SDS. (No, SDS was not invited, but SDS was invoked.) Ubiquitous They planned to use the SDS acronym as part of their comedy routine, changing the acronym to spell out “Sexually-Diseased Students” or “Students for a Dumber Society,” and so on. The audience was persuaded, and for weeks people were repeating the jokes on campus. A professor jokingly said it one day before class.
The name – “SDS” – prevented radical students from going beyond the original motivations of SDS in the 1960s, and evoked some negative connotations as well. Some professors erroneously thought SDS was a “Bolshevik” organization. Reactionary students started saying it was a “terrorist” organization. It was largely misunderstood and distrusted.
A good friend of mine in our SDS suggested creating another club called “STS” – Students for a Transcendental Society – which would rival “SDS” by making fun of it, since making fun of SDS was becoming a really popular thing to do anyway. The new “STS” club would announce that society’s problems could all be transcended through smoking weed and sitting in drum circles. Anyone could join, and we would build a mass movement around it. It would be great.
The logic behind this was reverse detournment. By poking fun at the SDS for being active and trying to dismantle an undemocratic society, in fact, the STS would actually be reaffirming some of SDS’s best insights. STS would be the “ultra-opposition within the opposition,” my friend conspired, and would “put the revolution to a bumping soundtrack.”
This strategy was also a move from the 1960s-SDS playbook. STS rivalled SDS for a while on campuses like NYU. STS called their drum/smoke circles “freak outs”. It was the SDS for people who only liked to smoke weed and talk about revolution, without actually making it happen.
These and other “negative advertising” projects never came about.
Here is something else.
Because no one actually criticized the SDS for being against the war or for opposing patriarchy, etc., we had no reason to believe anyone actually disagreed with us anyway. But we knew people did disagree with us because they opposed us, however vaguely and shadily. It irritated us that no one would actually engage SDS in a conversation about why, or why not. Like when fashion loses style, no one has to discuss why, people just know it. This was extremely frustrating. We knew how Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses felt.
Some of the bad press SDS got from the student newspaper was very shittily put together. I will spare you the details, but the newspaper relied on a poorly-written “Combat Zone” section, in which it wrote purely fictional anti-SDS articles. The “journalists” at the school were fairly conservative, and they also wrote diatribes against the Black Student Union and Students for a Sustainable Campus. Basically any group that was broadly leftist, and less mainstream.
Our mistake was that we never took control of the university’s media groups and resources like students in other universities had. We created our own zines, but never infiltrated the campus groups like that. These groups were dominated by the children of rich yuppies, who would become rich, oppressive yuppies themselves, and couldn’t care less about our radical politics.
Students I met at a regional SDS conference from a small college near Eugene, OR — Lane Community College — told me about how their student government and the media organizations had all been radicalized, partly because of what SDS was doing. If they could do it, how come we couldn’t?
The riot police shooting at people for protesting the Iraq “surge” in Olympia and Tacoma, as well as the other protests we put on, was the best propaganda we came up with. And we didn’t even come up with it. It was better than any poster, better than any zine, better than any Facebook group we created.
When you think about it, communication was mostly all our organizing amounted to. We communicated everything.
And we communicated in a sometimes very ineffective way (with technology). I believe people are looking for real relationships deep down, relationships which they can share with others without the mediation of technology. But the technology was useful, and sometimes felt necessary. Every student has their own lap top, pretty much. But text messages, Facebook groups, emails, Twitter, all those things are incredibly impersonal. No one feels obligated to respond to an online invitation.
Our SDS never had the full support of any faculty. This was a big problem, since most “clubs” that were active did have active faculty members in their discussions, in their meetings. Having a professor there also lent a lot of legitimacy to any club.
The only clubs professors got involved in at our school were typically academic. The investing club, the business leadership clubs, the chemistry club, the philosophy club, etc. These clubs, in fact, had been run by the faculty for the most part. Students were there, yes, but it was led by the faculty.
Conservative campus groups often received funding from outside organizations. College Republicans, for example, got funding from WA State Republicans. The same was true for the Young Democrats, Amnesty International, and other campus “satellite” groups.
SDS was very different. It was special, and had a reputation for being “hella organized,” as someone said to me. We didn’t need faculty or outside funding to have good meetings, and didn’t need faculty support to continue organizing. But not having enough faculty support and not having outside funding also hindered the SDS. It was seen as less credible, and probably affected impressions of SDS.
Where professors got involved with SDS, they tended to be the voice of the liberal activist. This was not radical enough for most students in SDS. Some professors spoke to us about the virtues of non-violence, about Ghandi and Martin Luther King. To me it appeared most students were happy to have the support, however watered-down it was. I figured the SDS was just more radical than what the school could offer the students, unfortunately.
I had a problem with “participatory democracy.”
Some people would speak about “participatory democracy” as if it was the solution to politics. But participatory democracy is only a decision-making process. Other than that “participatory democracy” was too vague to be helpful to us in anyway. The concept of participatory democracy is outlined in Tom Hayden’s Port Huron Statement, and it sounds all nice and flowery. But ultimately it was too vague, and it only caught on as a catchy title.
SDS confused this process of decision-making with a system of political governance. Participatory democracy could not “replace” capitalism or liberal democracy, or republics, or patriarchy. We needed to stop parading participatory democracy as if it were something larger than what it really was.
Nowadays even large capitalist institutions like the World Bank and the IMF are saying that they believe in “participatory democracy”. You can read it on their summaries about funded projects in Africa or Southeast Asia. For SDS to explain to younger students that its organization is all about “participatory democracy” seemed outmoded.
When activists around you start becoming hipsters, I think at that point they have lost touch with reality, and you have to decide whether to include them or not. I always felt the “hipster” tendency in a lot of activist-types ultimately just brought organizations down. Hipsters do not want to organize, they just want to party. Partying is fun, I love partying. But hipsters suck at both partying and organizing.
SDS was becoming increasingly bureaucratic, nationally. In 2006 all you had to do was send the SDSers on the East Coast an email saying your friends had just created a chapter of SDS and they sent you an email back saying, “Cool!” They would put your name and contact information into a database so other people could reach you. They might send you some buttons or materials, but that was about it.
Then SDS started having national conventions to vote on meaningless proposals. Proposals were usually political platforms for SDS to “oppose” or “approve” of. It seemed less like SDS and more like Junior Parliamentary Society or something like that.
Toward the end, some SDS chapters were proposing that SDS stand for, “Money for schools, not war,” and that was it. About this time, I think, SDS fell apart.
I think SDS needed to fall apart. There never was a need to have a “national” SDS. And this opinion was seen as a very “West Coast” idea. It was mostly the West Coast chapters who wanted to remain completely autonomous and regional.
The same debate happened in Iraq Veterans Against the War. In both SDS and IVAW, something about the West Coast wanted autonomy. The East Coast wanted a solid list of positions that the organization stands for. They wanted structure, and rigorous communication.
To the East Coast, SDS was like some kind of parliamentary exercise, as if we were practicing for the coming Fifth International. To the West Coast, every chapter should run their own campaigns, while working with other regional chapters, but the national “structure” was not needed.
All the talk about “what we stand for” prevented the group from affinitizing and doing what needed to be done. Talking about positions are what the political parties and bureaucracies do.
At any rate, we loosely knew what our positions were, and if not, we could discuss that on a practical level if it comes up. SDS did not need to hammer out positions on every theoretical hot-button issue national organizers could think of.
An anarchist told me he could probably guess which “generation of anarchists” anyone belonged to by asking what RNCs they attended. We belong to the generation of anarchists who went to the RNC and DNC of 2008. The generation of students who were involved with SDS will remember 2008 as a defining moment in their political memories, whether or not they went to the DNC and RNC, and whether or not they consider themselves anarchists.
But how depressing, that we can measure our generations based on what Democrats and Republicans have been doing. Ever since the Chicago DNC in 1968? Why don’t we have our own Anarchist International, so to speak, and why can’t we say what generation of anarchist we belong to based on something that is uniquely ours, something that we can claim for ourselves?
Anarchism in the US has gone from being a milieu to a scene, and is now almost completely irrelevant politically.
It feels like we’re starting all over again. From scratch. From the very beginning.
I said before I think “SDS” was too attached to it’s own name. A Buddhist koan says to “Kill the Buddha!” Kill the Buddha, and erase from your mind this idea that you have of the Buddha, and then you can free yourself from thinking you have to live up to the Buddha, free from thinking you even have to be a “Buddhist.” But you are not a Buddhist, and there is no Buddha. Everyone suffers from this mind game. We call ourselves anarchists or communists, or Christians, or whatever we say, and we can’t get the name of it out of our heads.
SDS is dead. SDS is dead and we killed it, and now it is time for better things!