A note on how student elites keep power.

A polemic by Arts councilor Nathan Crompton

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has an enemy in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit from the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

At today’s AMS Council meeting there was a motion to create a committee that would “consider the feasibility” of a Citizen’s Assembly at UBC. A Citizen’s Assembly would be a diverse group of students funded and by the AMS to share with the student body its informed and researched positions on student elections issues and candidates. The Assembly would be made up of UBC students selected on the basis of what is called a “stratified random sample”, which is a sample drawn on the basis of various categories (i.e, gender, faculty, students with loans/students without, etc.) in order to create a “micro group” roughly reflective of the entire student body.

Even though the motion was only to create a committee – not to approve the Assembly – council reacted defensively against any proposal that would “take power away from the single voice of the AMS”, to quote one councilor. Another councilor complained against “giving power to the masses[…]especially if they are not asking for an Assembly”. One journalist was capable of noting the defensive nature of council’s reaction, which led others to reassure councilors that a “committee would not take power away from the AMS.” An executive spoke of the “dangers” of the proposal, which to many seemed real: one councilor saw the Citizen’s Assembly as a “parallel state”.

As debate drew on, councilors became impatient with the motion. The hired speaker for the AMS informed us that he wanted to go drinking and that the meeting should be expedited! The debate was becoming fragmented, like in a “chaosmos”, though in a good way, (which is why I use Deleuze’s term), since nobody had yet explored the new proposal nearly enough to take a position. If a position could have been taken at all, it would have been to vote in favor, and not because the Citizen’s Assembly is ideal, or even good, (a Citizen’s Assembly will not solve the “root problems” of democracy, as was claimed by the presenter). The motion should have been approved because it was for the creation of a committee. And it should have been approved out of a creative inspiration, as an experiment regardless of its apparent merits. We should of course recall that that in the present moment democracy is not functioning.

Things in the meeting were becoming more “out of order”, as one councilor complained. It was in this environment that the firm position of an authority – council President – was welcomed by most councilors. The president proposed an amendment to undermine the possibility for a committee that would be oriented towards an Assembly. Councilors began knocking the table in support when people spoke in favor of changing the motion wording from “a committee to explore the Citizen’s Assembly” to, “a committee to find ways to involve non-involved students”.

The rewording was of course condescending to the author of the motion, but also to the student body in general – the AMS community’s attitude toward “apathy” is incredibly facile. Councilors have a sense that, “we are involved, other people aren’t because they are not us”. Or worse: “why don’t more students pay attention to what I do that is so important?” But in fact, student non-involvement is very complicated. 6/10ths of students take a full course load while working part-time and full-time, (while collecting massive debts of course). Most of the students involved in the AMS community are from the 4/10ths of students who don’t work and who are from bourgeois and professional family backgrounds. Not only are they confident (many of them are trained to be future leaders of Canada, etc.), they emerge from a system that works well for them – this is what I mean to introduce this polemic with the quote of Machiavelli. It is fitting that the “democratic” position of many councilors is the one: “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.

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What do they mean when they say, “don’t burn bridges with the university” and “be professional”? They mean that we must cross those bridges and settle down in that seat of power, because we deserve it – don’t ruin your chances. It is in this context that many marginal members of the community are not confident or, on principle, not interested to become involved in the AMS, or any power system. And it should be recognized – the university and student governments keep much of the institutional racism they were founded on. There are brothers and sisters in the community who do not feel like participating alongside mostly white men who mostly plan beer gardens.

These are political questions but there is a way to make an “apolitical” argument in this instance, in the way that “nonpartisanship” is so fashionable today. Simply, there was nothing in the original Assembly motion that prevented the creation of other committees. If people had other ideas in mind about how to involve the student community in the AMS, they could have made a proposal. But those alternative ideas would not have been threatened by the existence of an Assembly committee, and hopefully their ideas would add to it.

We could theorize on the fact that the motion was gutted even though its was only a motion to strike a committee to explore the possibility for an Assembly, not for an Assembly as such. History tells us that elites have not been reactive, only reactionary. In his unpublished notebooks, Marx reflected on the prospect that European ruling classes might gain class consciousness before the workers themselves. Marx’s speculation was made true, of course. Not soon after he wrote, the repressive police-state of Bismark effaced the possibility for socialism in Germany by establishing of one of the first welfare states. Bismark anticipated democracy – he was ahead of democracy qua democracy. It is a maxim: an elite’s ability to anticipate unwanted democracy is essential to liberal democracy in the first instance, that is its primary characteristic: to allow a level of formal democracy necessary for the prevention of actual democracy. Democracy is sanctioned, or “repressively desublimated” (to slightly alter a notion from Herbert Marcuse.) Democracy here is allowed only to the extent that class structures are properly preserved.

But unlike in Marx’s time, elite rule is not coordinated today, or, it is not only coordinated. It is spontaneous, since the conspiracies are not in back rooms, or, not only in back rooms – if they can even be called a conspiracies. Certainly no conspiracy even exists at the level of the AMS! But it is precisely its non-conspiratorial nature that makes liberal democracy so pernicious. For example, the mood in council today was neither sinister nor heavy. It was anticipatory like Bismark and like Marx predicted, but not coordinated in the way of Bismark. People spoke on intuition, not out of some presupposition, and not even from a conscious set of ideological commitments. Elite ideology is so well entrenched that no coercion is necessary, and neither is debate. This is liberal consensus, where ideology operates at the pure level of the political unconscious. Dissenting in this totalizing environment is barely optional at times. But there are many people who don’t dig the consensus, if at least because its totally boring.


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