The Pedagogy of War and Occupation: Notes from the 2012 NATO Protest



Education within the Romantic tradition described by Johann Fichte aspired to be one of the imagination, where students’ mind-imaging would translate directly into creative action and ultimately bind them inseparably to the form of the nation. Such education was subjectivating and world-constructing, transforming and maximizing the individuated apparitions of cognition into an objectified, unified world.[1]

While seemingly as far-fetched and childlike as the descriptor “Romantic” appears to be from our current perspective, Fichte’s fantasy is not so far away from the very inspiration and logic behind the educationist-war machine young people in the US confront today. But now those apparitions become debt, debt is translated into a guilt projected into the imminent future, and Americans go to war to absolve themselves by bringing our unique form of education-speculation to all “undemocratic” nations. If biopower functions through an unending interval of the worker-student transition, then perhaps necropolitics functions through a student-soldier circulation. But the mobilization against the international meeting of NATO leaders in Chicago on May 20 reminds us just how much we are learning and teaching ourselves about that.

We introduce this relation between education and war, in a piece taking its lead from the NATO mobilization itself, for a few reasons. One of these was prominently displayed at the general protest itself, which began downtown in Grant Park and ultimately ended in violent clashes with police on Sunday evening at McCormick Place, the primary site of the NATO meeting itself. But before that larger event, an 11:00 AM feeder rally composed of students from local and regional universities and beyond, lead an ingeniously constructed “Ball of Debt” to the larger gathering in downtown Chicago, where marchers were greeted with the usual declarations of protest against NATO.  Students, of course, were not the only protesters holding off-site demonstrations before the official march. The Iraq Veterans Against War also gathered over 50 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who ceremoniously discarded their war medals and declaimed the destruction of those engagements.

But Grant Park, the central starting point for the official march, was marked with posters, pins, and signs demanding the freedom of one soldier, and student, in particular—Private Bradley Manning, the now-famed informant behind the Wikileaks scandal who has been held, much of the time in extreme solitary confinement, for over two years under charges of “aiding the enemy.” Manning’s “crime” was to pass top-secret information exposing U.S. military activity in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. That information included footage of the murder of innocent civilians and reporters in Baghdad.

Manning, a reluctant recruit to the U.S. Army, eventually joined for the same reason that many young people do—to obtain money for an education and the promise of a better life. Bradley Manning’s case is exceptional in the threat it came to pose to both the covert human rights abuses and banal evils that are requisite for a nation that still sees itself as a global power[2], but is commonplace in its narrative of the student-becoming-soldier. After over a decade embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that narrative now testifies to an entirely new relation between global violence and public education. With only two viable options available to the many students who can no longer rely on increasingly diminishing lines of familial and non-military state support—to go to war or to go into debt—Manning chose the former and became an intelligence analyst. This binary between combat or indebtedness seems to have been quietly written off as an unfortunate byproduct of the economic crisis, and marginalized in favor of arguments centering on the defense of a “middle class” or “main street” vulnerable to the effects of financial speculation. But the federal government’s 2008 TARP bail-out of corporations and banks such as Bank of America and Discover Financial, both of which hold huge assets in the student loan market and student debt trading, demonstrate that our increasingly delimited options for education funding have become a seemingly limitless source for the simultaneous production of capital and war.

Manning’s situation reveals the military’s acute dependence on a student population reared in the shadow of the baby boomers, whose families were raised with the assumption, either direct or indirect, of an elision between national security and economic prosperity. But we should not mistake their misled hopes for our own; today dismal job prospects increasingly reveal that schools and universities offer little semblance of a life beyond the constant circuit of (re)training and market competition, or training and combat. This depressing reality also perhaps reveals why so many universities attempt to attract undergraduates by marketing themselves as entertainment venues and social experiences. But the construction of dorms and facilities in the United States that provide that experience only further inflates tuition costs, ironically increasing the debt students owe via its means of repression. Youths and young adults slide seamlessly between their positions as uniform-clad military officers and classroom citizens, eerily performing in real time that same visual which was deployed in Army recruitment advertisements launched after the 2008 recession; not as individuals, but as entire populations. (If post 9/11 statistics are any indication, then there are at least 555,329 soldiers receiving federal education benefits, a number dwarfed by the 2 million eligible since 2009.) But that fluidity, in the form of information exchange, reveals the military complex’s indebtedness to a whole swathe of young programmers and technicians who could opt out, like Manning, en masse and cripple it. The very logic of NATO not only depends on the complicity of intelligence, but coerces it by consistently creating situations that require nations, like the top-spending U.S., to inflate military budgets at the same time that they slash education funding, propose to double the interest rate on public Stafford loans from 3.4 to 6.8%, and continue with financial deregulation that makes credit the only viable “false choice” for students. While the vast majority of loans contracted are still public, with a ratio of 100 billion to 10 billion in public to private originated each year, major private loan lenders like Sallie Mae, Wells Fargo, and Discovery Financial have all reported growth in 2011.

In the US, student loan debt serves as one the primary measures of precarity, with the total amount of such debt hovering around one trillion dollars, far surpassing debt from consumer credit, long the systemic means by which the neoliberal bargain of high profits and cheap consumer goods has been maintained.  In the absence of any growth in real wages for most workers over several decades, easily available credit has famously cushioned the structural insecurities of flexible labor, in a process whereby profits are privatized and risk is socialized.  Though even as management discourse continues, in whatever threadbare a fashion, to valorize the figure of the autonomous entrepreneurial subject, student loan debt has come to operate as a social discipline, a sort of training that binds the subject to a determinate life course of unstable employment.  The language of chattel slavery has become an unfortunate commonplace in the student loan forgiveness movement, an historical comparison that quickly crumbles when one thinks through the specific historical logics of racialization involved in the US context, not to mention the contemporary reality of mass incarceration, which Michelle Alexander has called “the new Jim Crow.” Jeff Williams and others have argued that the pertinent figure of subjectivation-by-debt is not that of the slave, but that of another centuries-old labor supply strategy, the indentured servant:  one receives an education at the cost of deductions from future earnings—at the very jobs, in this vocational conception of education, that one has “trained” for—even as, while still a student, one is also probably already working part-time jobs to supplement one’s income.  It is in this sense that the group Occupy Student Debt recently used the ball and chain to in “Occupy Graduation” actions across the US.  A soldier-student subordinates herself to the chain of command; many other students chain themselves to the shackles of student debt.

What position does this leave us as students, teachers, and intellectuals in our own right? If the trend of biopower has made immanent subjects of the student and the soldier, then the tradition of the militant researcher bears reconsideration in the form of militant student, as both teacher and researcher. This may also mean a reconsideration of the pedagogical defense of “academic freedom” inside and outside the classroom, which has long been the popular recourse for leftist academics. While academic freedom aggregates into a concept of individual right and centrist compromise, rather than coalescing into a broader pedagogical strategy that engages an administrative and corporate structure supporting statist violence, appointments like those of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal to Yale University take place relatively unchallenged (a sign of the times accompanied by the reintroduction of the US Army Reserve Officer Training Corps to some elite universities, from which they had been banned in the late 1960s). Insofar as it remains centered on personal professional autonomy in teaching and research, the discourse of academic freedom tends to reinforce a politics of the utopian enclave, rather than the production of knowledge in common. Second, student militancy means creating the tradition of the autonomous-student, by using our time not only to participate in activities that reinforce a general state of intellectualism, but also to research, document, and disseminate information about the financial power structures of our home institutions. To this extent, the frequent Autonomia demand of “non-work” needs to be pushed to its maximum capacity while we are in school. “Non-work” within the context of higher education requires a realization and embrace of the situation of the “indentured student” referred to above–a dual movement that entails allocating our time as students to perform militant research on the universities that we inhabit in and across our particular disciplinary formations. In this position, we also begin to construct the resemblance of global student struggles and reinforce our own rejection of austerity and scarcity at each locality.

[1] That apparition-to-subject process seems all the more real now that the U.S. Army has entered the virtual world of gaming, and has built high-tech video game modules in shopping malls around the U.S.

[2] See Republican presidential candidate’s statement, echoing the Joint Chief of Staff’s concern, that Obama’s proposed reductions to the U.S. military budget would mean “we would not any longer be a global power.”




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