Issue 7 (February 2014)


Privatization Through Repression: On the Role and Résumé of a New UC President

Robert Cavooris

“ itself an economic power.”
Karl Marx[1]


The appointment of Janet Napolitano as president of the University of California unsettles our understanding of privatization. If we were expecting, before her nomination, that the privatized university would look like a profit-maximizing corporation with a smarmy CEO at its head, we are now surprised to find that our new leader is instead an executive politician and state-security bureaucrat. Notably, critics of privatization are not alone in our surprise at this development. Some proponents of privatization in the mainstream press were both startled and disappointed that Napolitano got the top spot, having assumed that a different type of leader would continue the supposedly crisis-driven pivot away from publicly-funded higher education.  Steven Greenhut in Reason magazine writes, “Instead of seeking a forward-looking, market-oriented reformer, UC officials pretend that nothing is amiss and pick an old-school voice.”[2] Joseph Vedder of Bloomberg concurs:

Rather than bring in a leader with a proven record of recognizing the need to re-examine the public university and innovate to face these realities, the university’s Board of Regents has brought in a veteran at managing and perpetuating bureaucracies, one well-connected enough to keep the federal flow of support coming and to shake more money from the state’s already overburdened taxpayers.[3]

Given the surprise on “both sides” of the issue, it is apparent that Napolitano’s appointment challenges a certain notion of privatization that has, until now, been the shared object of a political struggle. Thus, in the name of politics (politics, that is, from the perspective of an academic worker within the university), I want to question whether  Napolitano’s selection is really so anomalous, or whether instead we must clarify the concept of privatization itself so as to make sense of this new development. If we do not reassess, we will not be able to think the contingency with which the transformation of higher education could unfold in the context of the larger historical conjuncture, and we may thus be hindered in our efforts against it.
First, I want to highlight how the implicit concept of privatization that underlies much campus political activity is essentially teleological. A short version of its narrative goes something like this: the ongoing economic crisis has ostensibly forced the university to shift to private sources of funding, namely student tuition dollars, which now make up the majority of university revenues.[4] In turn, the university operates and will continue to operate ever more like a private corporation, maximizing revenues through investment, attempting to monetize all products and assets at its disposal, and minimizing expenses by cutting student services as well as workers’ salaries, pensions, and benefits. This project will be complete—if all goes according to plan—when the university is wholly privatized. Thus, the end of the process is inscribed in its origin.

This teleological conception is strategically important and politically salient because it names the stakes of a real transformation that many students and university workers oppose, and at the same time helps us to connect present developments to the outcome we hope to avoid. The idea of privatization is a condition of the struggle against it. Furthermore, we recognize our assumptions about this process in the oppositional stances of pundits like Greenhut and Vedder, as well as those of the UC Regents. A political mise-en-scène emerges, and each new act confirms what we already know.  So for instance, the contrast between management’s attempts to install a union-crushing, two-tier pension system on the one hand, and the recent exposure of lavish executive travel and lodging on the other, appears as characteristic of what it would mean for the university to function as if a capitalist enterprise. The script reveals itself as something familiar, and it guides our political reactions. That is, of course, until the arrival of the newest cast member. Where does she fit in? What do we know about her?

A glimpse at Napolitano’s resumé reveals that her expertise, being neither academic nor business-oriented, is in repression and social control.  Before arriving at the University of California, she was Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a massive state apparatus that includes intelligence agencies like the U.S. Secret Service, military bodies such as the Coast Guard, and civilian bureaucratic operations including Citizenship and Immigration Services. She managed 240,000 people and a budget of more than $100 billion, all mobilized in the name of  “a safer, more secure America, which is resilient against terrorism and other potential threats.”[5] Napolitano directed the DHS toward this goal by various means, including “confiscating and searching through travellers' computers without a warrant, participating in broader government surveillance activities such as those precipitating the latest NSA scandal, and managing the highest deportation levels on record.”[6] She was also responsible for the expansion of random searches by Transportation Security Administration into non-airport venues such as “sporting events, music festivals, rodeos, highway weigh stations and train terminals.”[7]

The Department of Homeland Security is what French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser called a repressive state apparatus, an enforcement body of ruling class power that functions primarily by violence, be it physical or administrative.[8] Althusser contrasts this portion of the State with ideological state apparatuses, which he defines as a more variegated and variable set of institutions that shape the way individual subjects are formed within social formations. This latter set of institutions—including but not limited to religions, families, political organizations, media, and, most importantly for Althusser and for us, schools—is necessary to reproduce laborers, managers, and capitalists with particular sets of skills and material ways of existing, and in turn to reproduce the relations of exploitation that characterize capitalism.

It is worth noting that for Althusser both ideological and repressive apparatuses function by repression and ideology, but in measures respective to their titles. He adds that in addition to being more vital to reproduce capitalism’s exploitative relations of production, ideological state apparatuses are peculiar in their “multiple, distinct, ‘relatively autonomous’ character”—in essence, they need not be government institutions.[9] This relative autonomy opens them to the kind of political contestation that  many UC students and workers have performed. Ideological state apparatuses like the university are not merely a stake of political struggle but also a site for it; they are an “objective field” in and through which dissidents can occupy positions of power and/or challenge the ideological project of conditioning now and future workers.[10]

This distinction between types of state apparatuses captures an important dynamic of privatization. In addition to shifting from public to private funding, the university also now seems poised to increase its repressive, as opposed to just ideological, character.  In other words, privatization not only alters the university’s position in direct processes of commodity production and circulation, but also seems to be changing its particular status as a state apparatus. And though we may have seen (or felt, via batons, handcuffs, intimidation, harassment) privatization’s repressive political side already, Napolitano's arrival at the UC may yet intensify and change the forms in which it is articulated and the spaces in which we can fight back.

What should we expect then? To answer this, I want to examine one particular regime of repressive control under Napolitano’s purview, the ongoing mass deportations that threaten immigrants nationwide. This is a potentially telling site not only because Napolitano’s presence will menace the numerous immigrant students, workers, and family-members connected to the UC, but because post-entry immigration enforcement is Napolitano’s most direct and extensive experience in disciplining the working class.

The Department of Homeland Security has deported nearly two million undocumented immigrant workers in Napolitano’s five year tenure---a staggering figure that took previous administrations 105 years to achieve.[11] In fact, the Obama administration had explicitly committed itself to deport 400,000 immigrants per year, that is, 1,100 people everyday. Napolitano, however, found it difficult to meet that goal while also adhering to the administration’s supposedly compassionate promise to focus exclusively deporting immigrants with criminal records. This promise (which itself seems to rhetorically conjoin criminality and immigration) was thus eventually subordinated to the demand for higher deportation figures.[12]

But it is not only the stunning quantity of human beings that Napolitano has forcibly transplanted, nor even the dizzying rate at which it occurred, that characterized her reign. The details of how this regime operated and the way in which its advocates explain it are also telling.  Rachel Ida Buff describes this U.S. immigration regime as “the deportation terror,” a state social control technology that sinks its tendrils into wide networks of power by terrifying both immigrants and nonimmigrants in distinct ways. Buff’s genealogy of the phenomenon demonstrates how political and ideological elements like deportation, nationhood, terror, criminality, race, subversion, and state come to be defined through their mutual articulation in different moments.

This view allows us to link, for instance, post-9/11 national security efforts that target Arab and other Muslim men, explicitly figured as violent threats, with the history of massive U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sweeps within Latina/o immigrant communities. Buff emphasizes the fact that immigration charges are often a pretext for the state to rid itself of any sort of person it considers politically undesirable:  “Many of the political deportation cases of the 1940s and 1950s targeted foreign-born labor leaders on charges of communist affiliation. Their roles as labor leaders in immigrant communities were much less publicized. Like the workers swept into custody by ICE raids, all of the Muslim and Middle Eastern post-9/11 deportees have been found guilty only of infractions of immigration law, not of conspiracy to commit acts of terror.”[13] In this sense, deportation power serves as a tool to remove figures who pose a threat to the nation.

But the state must justify its repression by defining both “nation” and “threat,” while the repression itself simultaneously defines who fits into those categories. Hence, immigrants from both Latin America and the Middle-East are rhetorically figured in mainstream discourse as criminals whose presence jeopardizes the nation. We can see this identification in the recent comments of a U.S. congressperson speaking in favor of U.S.- Mexican border militarization:

'A terrorist insurgency is being waged along our Southern border,' said [Rep. Connie] Mack, during the mark up of the bill in the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he serves as chairman.[...] 'Drug traffickers and criminal organizations have combined efforts to work across borders, unravel government structures, and make large profits from diverse, illegal activity,' he said.  'The near-term result:  schools, media and candidates all controlled by criminal organizations. In other words, total anarchy.'[14]

Mack defines Latin America as a generalized space of criminality here, and this criminality is in turn politicized as business-like gangs are called “terrorist insurgents” who threaten nothing less than the continuity of U.S. civil and political life through a porous border.

Such an invocation of terror—specifically, terror for the so-called American way of life—is neither a fringe phenomenon, nor a mere rhetorical flourish. It sits in perfect harmony with policies like Secure Communities, a program that Napolitano launched to enlist local law enforcement agencies in the deportation scheme. Under this program, state and local officials send the fingerprints of anyone arrested—for any reason—to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), where they are compared to a database of known undocumented immigrants.[15] In the case of a match, ICE agents transfer those arrested to deportation detention facilities. The premise of Secure Communities is that undocumented immigrants, criminals or not, are a threat to (and therefore outside of) the organic community, and the program expands the power of the repressive federal regime on this basis.

Such programs create a generalized sense of terror and extend it to the most local scale. Still, this general terror about the sanctity of the U.S. nation is more than outmatched by the distinctive terror faced by immigrants and others caught up in the system. A recent article describing one San Francisco City College student’s unexpected arrest and detention reads like an account of a desaparecido, a person secretly captured by the military dictatorships in 1970s South America. After five ICE agents entered Steve Li’s family apartment and handcuffed him and his mother, they interrogated him and pitted his own freedom against his father’s:

'They said they were going to help me if I cooperated with them,' recalled Li, whose normally cheerful expression flickered with the memory. They told me, ‘You won’t have to get deported if you tell me where your dad is.’

'I was just shocked,' he remembered. “I just kept saying, ‘I don’t know.’ But once they found my dad, the ICE officers told me: ‘You’re done. You lied to me. You’re going to get deported now, and we’ll do everything we can to deport you.’[16]

After the interrogation, Li and his mother were loaded up into separate black vans. They were not allowed to talk. He wondered if he would make it to school today[...] After the ICE agents picked up his father, Li and his parents were shackled and seated separately on a bus with about fifty others and driven to the Sacramento County Jail. They endured long waits before being processed and were forced to sleep on dirty floors in overcrowded holding tanks. Once processed, Li was not eligible to see a judge or to consult a lawyer. All he knew was that he had a final deportation order and that he would be deported to Peru as soon as possible.

Much like desaparecido regimes, the weight of terror and uncertainty here is coupled with the state secrecy that surrounds such deportation. The ICE refuses to publish comprehensive lists of who they hold under the Secure Communities program, and also regularly denies detained people any means through which to contact their families.[17]

These realities of repression and its general discursive representations have the power not only, as mentioned, to create and remove express political threats in the form of labor leaders and activists, but also to directly shape laboring conditions of immigrant workers. As media studies professor Lisa Flores highlights, the mainstream portrayal of immigrant Mexican workers has oscillated between the figure of the necessary and docile “peon” willing to do important but undesirable work for low wages on the one hand, and a terrifying criminal threat to the American way of life on the other.[18] It is, however, state terror justified by the second image that delivers the grain of truth for the first: an undocumented status and the terrifying potential for sudden arrest and deportation make it difficult to struggle for better wages and conditions. Buff quotes this description from an organizer in a Central American immigrant community following a mass raid that led to 200 deportations: “For a long time people just didn’t go out, they stayed home. We noticed conditions in other workplaces getting worse. . . . I guess on an economic level there have been whole households of people renting apartments that have disappeared.”[19] This is a clear example of how repressive power against workers can reinforce an obedient ideology that in turn functions as the truth of their working conditions.  In other words, repression limits the ways that immigrant workers can exist as workers: one must choose between the yielding to worsening conditions, or else becoming active and risk of being treated as a social threat.  The repressive state apparatus thus ripples via such ideological limits into the realm of production and reproduction itself, that is, into the material conditions of workers’ home and workplace lives.

In light of such observations, I offer a slight refinement to the way Althusser defines  the relationship between repressive state apparatuses and ideological state apparatuses: the repressive apparatus need not merely or even primarily be a “shield” behind which ideological apparatuses secure the conditions for capitalist exploitation. Repression is not only defensive,  keeping those institutions intact, but may also actively function to develop the requisite material ideologies for exploitation.

Napolitano’s appointment signals that such repression is to be imported into our university, helping it fulfill its ideological purpose. Increased repression and terror have the power to remake who we are as workers (academic or otherwise) and as students who may soon be workers. It is not only that, as Gina Patanaik and Aaron Bady suggest in their powerful analysis of the crackdown on Occupy Berkeley, “police violence reminds us that visions of public education which conflict with that of the administration [i.e. with privatization] will just as inexorably be suppressed by armed force.”[20] It is also that armed force is a necessary cudgel to remold us, through terror, as laboring agents on campus. And this in turn has the power to alter the way we perform our work as reproducers of ideologies for the larger capitalist economy—that is, as educators to our students. Put simply, we should expect Napolitano to usher in an era of offensive, transformative violence and division by university management.

If privatization were only about better monetizing the value of what we produce, then why not operate the campus like Google or Apple? Are such Silicon Valley models not designed to open the space for the creative intellectual production of science and technology for capitalist accumulation? Might it not be beneficial, for instance, to maintain more, rather than less, institutional certainty if the university seeks to capitalize on our academic innovation? This is not to suggest that I would support such economic goals, but the point is that these are not the only goals in play.

Instead, the logics of immediate monetization and accumulation have been (perhaps momentarily) subordinated to the logic of repression, a development in the university’s other role as a site for the reproduction of that “certain amount of know-how wrapped in ruling ideology” for the future actors and overseers in capitalism.[21] This know-how will be delivered to both current and future workers in the form of terror, uncertainty, police violence, and administrative control, and it may seek to target some groups as the fearful threat to university stability. It marks an undoing of what it means to be an academic, a type of worker who, until now, has maintained some relative control over the conditions of her productive activity.

This ideological shaping function of the university and the new dose of repression it requires may sit in deep contradiction with the university’s role as a site of wealth creation. It is possible that fear, docility, and precarity as conditions of intellectual labor will have a stifling effect on creativity. It is not that the tendency to monetize our intellectual products is absent per se, but that it may be incoherent with a logic of security and terror. On the one hand, certain types of academics (particularly in the STEM fields and social sciences) are still required to be creative producers of monetarily-valuable knowledge. The overall demand for technical innovation and policy production within capitalism has not abated, and universities seek to promote themselves as sites for such activities. On the other hand, many academics are being relegated to adjunct positions where the opportunities to pursue such innovative research are scant. In the humanities, this adjunctification is compounded by the fact that the types of intellectual products scholars create tend to have less value as capital. This contradiction between the two functions of academic workers, exacerbated in the context of greater discipline and repression, may constitute a ruptural point at which we can take advantage of our location within the university structure. Just as immigrant workers have continued to organize in the face of growing repression, launching the largest one day strike in U.S. history on May Day 2006, students and workers in the UC can fight repression by refusing to produce the things that the market demands from us. We can also take advantage of our peculiar position as ideological (re)producers whose work demands close contact with students. As long as such spaces of contact exist, management will not have complete control. Instead of schooling future workers in the habits and ideas that underlie the capitalist status quo, we can teach them to tear the status quo apart.




Robert Cavooris is a PhD student in the interdisciplinary History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz. He spends his time thinking about Marxist political theory and organizing in the UAW 2865 Academic Workers union.




[1] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, (New York: Penguin Books, 1982): 916.

[2] Steven Greenhut, "Janet Napolitano is Wrong Pick to Lead University of California,” Reason, July 19, 2013,

[3] Richard Vedder, “What do 2358 College Administrators Do?” Bloomberg, July 15, 2013.

[4] Larry Gordon, “A First: UC Fees Exceed State Funding” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2011,

[5] “About,” Department of Homeland Security, accessed August 10, 2013,

[5]“Mission,” Department of Homeland Security,  accessed August 10, 2013,

[6] Mark Levine, “Clear and Present Dangers of Napolitano’s Appointment as UC President,” Al Jazeera, July 19, 2013.

[7] Ron Nixon, “T.S.A Expands Duties Beyond Airport Security,” New York TImes, August 5, 2013,

[8] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 96.

[9] Ibid., 100.

[10] Ibid., 100.

[11] Michael D. Shear, “Seeing Citizenship Path Near, Advocates Push Obama to Slow Deportations,” New York Times, February 22, 2013,

[12] Stephen Dinan, “Numbers Don’t Add Up on Obama’s Pledge to Deport More Illegal Immigrants,” Washington Times, July 8, 2013.

[13] Rachel Ida Buff, “The Deportation Terror,” American Quarterly 60, no. 3, (September 2008): 526.

[14] Elizabeth Harrington, “Republicans Pose Bill to Treat Mexican Cartels as ‘Terrorist Insurgency’,”, December 15, 2011,

[15] “Secure Communities,” National Immigration Forum, accessed August 10, 2013,

[16] Puck Lo, “How to Stop a Deportation,” Tikkun, July 28, 2013,

[17] Jason Hoppin, “Santa Cruz County Rollout of Secure Communities Meets with Controversy,” Santa Cruz Sentinel (Santa Cruz, CA), April 18, 2011,

[17]“Falling Through the Cracks,” American Immigration Council, December 12, 2012,

[18] Lisa Flores, “Constructing Rhetorical Borders: Peons, Illegal Aliens, and Competing Narratives of Immigration,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 20, no. 4, (December 2003): 369.

[19] Buff, 532.

[20] Gina Patnaik and Aaron Bady, “On Privatization and Brutalizing Our Campuses,” Reclamations 6, July 2012,

[21] Althusser, 104.