Issue 6 (July 2012)


Debt and the Student Strike: Antagonisms in the Sphere of Social Reproduction [1]

Amanda Armstrong

I want to talk some today about what’s been going on at California universities over the past couple of years, focusing particularly on the restructuring of educational institutions according to the imperatives of the financial services industry, and on recent student protests against these transformations. Along the way, I’m going to try and draw out some of the limits of university-based organizing in California, and to offer a few thoughts about what it might take for these limits to be worked through.

To begin though, I should say a little bit about social reproduction and enclosure – two concepts that will help to orient my subsequent discussion of university struggles.

The concept of social reproduction, which emerged as a central concept of Marxist feminist theory in the 1960s and 70s, references those practices, mostly mundane, that in some way maintain the underlying conditions of given social institutions and forms. The still largely gendered labors of domestic life, including cooking, cleaning, bearing children, and teaching kids to talk and listen, are all considered forms of social reproduction, especially insofar as they provide current and future wage earners, including the domestic worker herself, with the capacities necessary for work. In reproducing wage earners’ ability to work at no direct cost to management, unwaged domestic labor enables the reproduction of the exploitative wage system – a central component of capitalist society. The domestic sphere is not, however, the sole site through which labor power is, or historically has been, reproduced. Various state institutions have come to play a role in this process as well. Universities, for instance, now effectively train and stratify the workforcesrequired for contemporary labor processes. And many social service agencies seek to enable populations otherwise excluded from waged work to find and hold down jobs.

While pedagogical state institutions like public schools and clinics prepare people for waged work, more repressive state institutions such as courts and the police impose conditions that render work necessary for life. By sustaining regimes of ownership, by enforcing fees for basic necessities, and by breaking up squats and communal encampments, police forces, the courts, and other state bureaucracies enclose the material conditions of life, making it virtually impossible to reproduce ourselves and each other free of waged work. Acts of enclosure thus constitute a kind of negative mirror image of undercompensated reproductive labor. Like such labor, enclosures tend to take place at some remove from capital-intensive workplaces. And yet, both reproductive labor and the closing off of what we could hold in common help make waged work a central dimension and determinant of our lives, as well as the primary means by which social wealth is distributed.

The privatization of public universities in California since the 1980s – and particularly what we’ve seen in recent years, with severe tuition hikes, the expansion and financialization of student debt, and the partial replacement of community colleges with for-profit educational firms – has layered processes of enclosure and of social reproduction together in striking ways. What’s emerged is a situation in which universities both train, sift, and stratify future workers (thus maintaining their Fordist social reproductive function), while at the same time initiating students into years of future indebtedness, thus closing them off from the temporal substance of their present and future lives.

Higher education’s emergent role as debt factory is actually coming to overshadow, and reshape, its enduring role as training ground for future workers. This turn toward debt imposition is most starkly revealed in the ongoing displacement of community colleges by for-profit educational firms, which charge much higher tuitions, and often lie to prospective students to obscure their low placement rates and educational quality. The shift toward high cost, low quality education is consistent with, and has contributed to, broader economic transformations over the past forty years. Since the 1970s, the general rate of profit has remained low, structural unemployment has been severe, and financial and real estate speculation have offered those managing capital fragile but significant profits. In this context, the expansion and financialization of student debt ensures, for those who manage capital, that the time students spend in college continues to be generative of surplus value, even if – as is increasingly common – former students end up underemployed, or working in jobs for which whatever training they received in college is largely superfluous. Regardless of the work students find following college, and even if they don’t find much, their debt-financed education – as well as their financialized debt – continues to pay off, just not for them. And students can’t simply evacuate colleges and universities in order to avoid taking on debt, given the existence in most industries of exclusionary, credential-based hiring practices – practices that took shape alongside the expansion of higher education in the mid-twentieth century. Students thus constitute a massive reserve of potential debtors, who have little option but to pay whatever ends up being charged for their degree – their one-way ticket, however unreliable, to the crumbling world of waged work.

The turn toward debt-financed higher education in California, coupled with the erosion of child and elder care, public housing, and social welfare services, has also intensified the burden of unwaged domestic labor – a burden that still falls unevenly on women, and particularly on women of color. Student debt captures time that could otherwise be used for care work, among other activities, and captures income that could otherwise go to purchase increasingly privatized goods, such as child care or housing. Indebtedness thus exacerbates what are becoming unfulfillable burdens of domestic labor, particularly for women. Moreover, student debt is itself distributed unevenly in terms of gender: women take out heavier loans than men, anticipating that they’ll need to be better credentialed to compete for the same jobs. And, as noted in the Concordia Simone de Beauvoir Institute‘s statement on the Quebec student strike, because women continue to receive lower wages than men for the same work, it takes them longer to pay off the same amount of debt. University privatization, and the regime of indebtedness it helps set in place, is thus intensifying the stress and duration of unwaged domestic work, and in doing so is contributing to the devaluation of reproductive labor and to the reconstitution of the gendered double shift.

The increasing centrality of debt as a mechanism for reproducing labor discipline hasn’t resulted in the elimination of former modes of social reproduction, including higher education and unwaged domestic labor. Rather, the regime of indebtedness, in its ascendance, takes up these modes and remakes them according to its imperatives. It haunts existing sites of social reproduction, and, in Richard Dienst’s recent formulation, “sliver[s] up [these sites]” and “reconfigure[s them] from the outside” (122).


As a way to begin talking more concretely about university struggles in California, and to give some indication of how these struggles might counter regressive transformations in the sphere of social reproduction, I want to consider two seemingly minor details from recent strikes and occupations at UC Berkeley, where I work as a graduate student instructor. The first is connected to the occupation of Wheeler Hall in the fall of 2009, a critical moment in the initial wave of student anti-privatization protest in California. Following the UC Regents’ decision to raise fees by 32% that fall, forty-three of us barricaded ourselves inside the English Literature building on campus, on the final morning of an only partially observed campus strike. In reclaiming Wheeler Hall, we prevented classes from taking place inside, and sparked a lasting confrontation outside the building, where thousands of assembled students and workers maintained impassable picket lines and pressured police barricades, in an attempt to join those inside and to prevent us from being arrested and transported off campus. Throughout the day, people offered each other various forms of mutual aid; food was tossed through windows to occupiers inside, and expressions of care passed back and forth through the walls of Wheeler Hall. These acts offered glimpses of insurgent forms of social reproduction.

The detail from this day that I want to focus on is actually one of the stated demands of the occupation: namely, that the university extend its no-cost lease to the Rochdale student housing cooperative. For the past 30 years, the Rochdale cooperative has housed, at very low rent, about two hundred and fifty students, mostly working class students of color. But at the time of the Wheeler occupation, the university was considering charging the co-op for its lease, which would have significantly increased its members’ rents. Shortly after the occupation, the university conceded and renewed the no-cost lease. I’m interested though, in what can be gleaned from the fact that a group of students were at once barricading ourselves inside an academic building on campus, thus wresting it from the managerial control of university administrators, while simultaneously petitioning those same administrators to continue granting ourselves and others free access to another building? What might this seemingly contradictory gesture tell us about the limits of UC organizing in the fall of 2009, about the different temporal layers of our protests, and about the contested dynamics of social reproduction at this moment?

Before taking up these questions, I want to talk a bit about another small detail from recent campus uprisings in California – a detail that resonates in certain ways with the Rochdale demand. This past fall, in opposition to a proposed multi-year, 81% fee hike – which would have brought annual UC tuition to 22,000 dollars – students on various campuses staged a one-day walkout. At UC Berkeley, we held a large general assembly that day, and decided to set up a tent encampment. From the moment the first tent went up, we were met with police force; three times that day, students who linked arms around the small encampment were struck in the chest and stomach with batons, as police attempted to break through our lines and clear the tents. By the time the third raid of the day concluded, over two thousand students and occupiers from around the bay had gathered in the plaza, many of whom had seen videos of police violence from the afternoon. Those assembled that night held another general assembly, at which we decided to call a system-wide day of strike for the following week. The strike, which involved a campus-wide open university throughout much of the day, was larger and more-fully observed than any other action we’ve held at Berkeley over the past few years; it also helped set off a number of large-scale strikes and tent occupations on other campuses, most notably UC Davis. At an assembly on the evening of the strike day, we reestablished the encampment, which was able to persist for two nights before being raided once again.

While this wave of protest was successful in preventing the UC Regents from implementing any fee-hikes this year, it lost momentum fairly quickly. At Berkeley, after the final police raid, a combination of exhaustion, emergent fissures within the group, and the lingering effects of recent traumas prevented us from establishing another lasting encampment. A small group of students, many of whom hadn’t been involved before the walkout, maintained a constant presence on the steps of Sproul Hall for the final weeks of the semester; but, while those occupying the steps looked out for each other in powerful ways, sharing blankets and emotional support, the conditions of this occupation were fraught. As a result of steady police intervention, food preparation and some other daily tasks necessary for the reproduction of the encampment had to take place off-site. During this period, a single person, with a few rotating sous chefs, cooked dinners for fifty in her rented apartment at least three times a week. In this way, something like separate spheres of social life reemerged within the UC Berkeley occupation; and the gender and racial composition of those occupying each of these spheres mirrored broader, hegemonic divisons of labor and life – divisions which themselves are being intensified through new rounds of enclosure.

The detail that I want to focus on from this sequence is actually the single structure that the police allowed to remain beside Sproul Hall even after their last raid – a makeshift, drafty tent made of canvas, that had been stretched across a collection of sticks. On the side of this tent, someone had affixed a sign that read: “affordable student housing.” This sign, given its context, is strikingly ambiguous. On the one hand, it can be read as an ironic commentary on a demand frequently issued to the state, generally to limited effect (a demand that we also articulated in 2009 when we called for the renewal of the Rochdale lease). It’s possible to read the sign on the tent as subverting the force of the demand it reiterates: it seems implicitly to say, “While the state allows our rents to increase and foreclosures to force us from our homes, we will meet our need for free housing on our own, by occupying.” On the other hand though, given the context of relative defeat and demoralization for the student movement, the sign can be read as marking the reemergence of the petition or demand form, which presupposes the authority of the addressee, in this case the university administration. The shabbiness of the lone tent also evokes the reconsolidation at this moment of administrative authority over campus life. Not incidentally, the question of whether to formally present demands to the administration in conjunction with protest actions was, at this time, sharply dividing our assembly.


Recent ruptures in the ordering of time and space on campus have, at least in California, been frustratingly short-lived. Even when occupations have persisted for more than a day, they’ve lived more of a spectral existence, as they’ve generally not been able to maintain the conditions of broad-based, oppositional social life and reproduction, nor have they been able to displace, for more than fleeting moments, the authority of administrative bodies. This short-livedness of recent occupations reveals the degree to which student struggles in California have been restricted insofar as they haven’t involved indefinite strikes, and thus how much California has to learn from Quebec, Chile, and other sites. The fleetingness of acts of protest can also tell us something about how the emergent regime of student debt molds the times of our lives, and how it sets before us particular problems of organizing.

Debt carries a gravitational force, which draws students on into futures subordinated to its imperatives. Given that each semester of classes imposes another installment of loans, the longer a student stays in college, the more of her future she sacrifices. The debt-imposed imperative to rush to graduation leads students to take on burdensome, if not unfulfillable, course loads, giving them less time for organizing strikes, and other uneconomic activities. Even more consequentially, this imperative magnifies the toll of a semester- or year-long strike on the student herself. Striking for an entire semester seems to many students to be an immediately self-undermining act, given that, at least in California, they would still have to pay the university and take out loans for the duration of the strike, not to mention the fact that striking wouldn’t help them find work upon graduating. In The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James make a point about the effects of strikes in the domestic sphere that resonates with this problem: They argue that the role of the working class family in reproducing capitalist relations is particularly difficult to overcome, because the family is,

“the support of the worker, but as worker, and for that reason the support of capital. On this family depends the support of the class, the survival of the class – but at the woman’s expense against the class itself…. Like the trade union, the family protects the worker, but also ensures that he or she will never be anything but workers. And that is why the struggle of the woman of the working class against the family is crucial” (41).

What Dalla Costa and James indicate in this passage is that strikes in the sphere of social reproduction, while similar to ‘conventional’ labor strikes insofar as they directly counter exploitative forms of work discipline, appear different from such strikes in two crucial, and seemingly contradictory, respects – first, that they seem to directly undermine the survival of working class subjects, and second, that they carry with them the promise of liberating the working class from the requirement to labor in order to survive. If we translate this analysis into the university context (something that Dalla Costa and James also do, at times, in their essays), we can see certain resonances with the problem of the student strike under the regime of indebtedness.

Insofar as the university strike magnifies debt burdens, it directly intensifies the subordination of the student and of the domestic worker, and therefore of the class (even if it also has the potential to reduce the price of education for current and future students). And yet, partly because the strike raises the specter of this intensified subordination, it also calls out for solidarity strikes, including rent strikes and debt strikes, as well as lasting, autonomous forms of social life – forms through which the oppositional collectivities forged by the strike could be reproduced and opened up. Some such forms might include land occupations, where food could be cultivated and prepared, and where people could live free of rent; or free universities, where people could teach, learn, and potentially receive a degree (assuming this piece of paper still had any meaning), without being subjected to debt and overwork. While these are, to be sure, difficult projects with uncertain prospects, there are already moves being made in these directions in California. Just last week, for example, hundreds of occupy activists, including dozens of students, reclaimed an acre of land that UC Berkeley was planning to sell to Whole Foods and remade it into a small farm. As of now, as far as I know, the land occupation has not been raided, and has resulted in the planting of 15,000 new shoots. The wobbly rows of crops in which these shoots are nestled run right alongside a university housing complex, perhaps pointing the way toward futures a little less wrapped up in work and debt and all that….




Amanda Armstrong is a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and has been involved in recent student-worker struggles against privatization.





1. The following talk was delivered at the 2012 Edu-Factory conference, "The University is Ours!" which took place in Toronto, April 27-29, 2012.