Sunday, October 09, 2011

Vallejo vs Graeber

Camila Vallejo
Throughout the six-month revolt, Chilean students – in many cases led by 14- and 15-year-olds – have seized the streets of Santiago and major cities, provoking and challenging the status quo with their demand for a massive restructuring of the nation's for-profit higher education industry. In support of their demands for free university education, since May they have organised 37 marches, which have gathered upwards of 200,000 students at a time.

Police repression has been frequent. Vandals who often use the cover of student marches to attack banks, pharmacies and utility companies are met by an armed force of riot police who routinely attack pedestrians and tear gas crowds of innocent civilians.

What began as a quiet plea for improvements in public education has now erupted into a wholescale rejection of the Chilean political elite. More than 100 high schools nationwide have been seized by students and a dozen universities shut down by protests.

Classes for tens of thousands of students have been suspended since May, and the entire school year might have to be repeated. Polls show an estimated 70% of the Chilean public backs the students' demands and an equal percentage find the government's proposal insufficient, according to figures from Chile's leading newspaper, La Tercera.

Widely admired for her eloquent speeches on Chilean television, Vallejo has gathered a cult following around the world that ranges from German folk rock tributes to videos from Latin America's largest university, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (Unam). "This internationalisation of the movement has been very important to us," says Vallejo who receives a daily deluge of fan mail and invitations to speaking engagements and seminars. "Here in Chile we are constantly hearing the message that our goals are impossible and that we are unrealistic, but the rest of the world, especially the youth, are sending us so much support. We are at a crucial moment in this struggle and international support is key."
David Graeber
EK: This movement is organized rather differently than most protest movements. There isn’t really a list of demands, or goals, or even much of an identifiable leadership. But if I understand you correctly, that’s sort of the point.

DG: It’s very similar to the globalization movement. You see the same criticisms in the press. It’s a bunch of kids who don’t know economics and only know what they’re against. But there’s a reason for that. it’s pre-figurative, so to speak. You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature. And it’s a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you’re protesting. If you make demands, you’re saying, in a way, that you’re asking the people in power and the existing institutions to do something different. And one reason people have been hesitant to do that is they see these institutions as the problem.

EK: So if you say, for instance, that you want a tax on Wall Street and then you’ll be happy, you’re implicitly saying that you’re willing to be happy with a slightly modified version of the current system.

DG: Right. The tax on Wall Street will go to people controlled by Wall Street.

EK: By which you mean government.

DG: Yes. So we are keeping it open-ended. In a way, what we want is to create spaces where people can think about questions like that.
Graeber has always been a fantasist; he's attacking ideas with ideas. Vallejo is attacking policy. Her questions are specific and the students' demands are concrete. Graeber is trying to "create" a community rather than use ones that exist.
DG: Yes. So we are keeping it open-ended. In a way, what we want is to create spaces where people can think about questions like that. In New York, according to law, any unpermitted assembly of more than 12 people is illegal in New York. Space itself is not an openly available resource. But the one resource that isn’t scarce is smart people with ideas. So we’re trying to reframe things away from the rhetoric of demands to a questions of visons and solutions. Now how that translates into actual social change is an interesting question. One way this has been done elsewhere is you have local initiatives that come out of the local assemblies.

EK: It also seems that the tradeoff here, from an organizational standpoint, is that if you say you want, say, a tax on Wall Street, then the people who aren’t interested in a tax on Wall Street stay home. So remaining vague on demands can make the tent bigger. But it also seems that, at some point, people are going to need to be working towards concrete goals and experiencing dicrete successes in order to sustain the energy of a movement like this.

GB: As the thing grows, new organizational forms will develop. At this point, the New York occupation has 30 different working groups for everything from handling sanitation to discussing labor issues and tax policy. So we’re trying to set up ways that people with different interests can plug into the movement. There’s even a newspaper. The ‘Occupied Wall Street Journal.’ Of course, this is nothing compared to what happened in Tahrir Square, where they even had dry cleaners.
The shallowest revolutionary rhetoric.


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