One of the many awesome workshops I had the privilege of attending at the US Social Form in Detroit comprised a discussion about student organizing both on campus and the broader community. In my particular breakout group, we mostly focused on the merits of left-wing slates in particular and expending activist energy on student government in general. The unanimous opinion only ended up clarifying my own views.
As both a member of the FACES slate in 2009 and a sympathetic observer of the MPOWER slate that ran this past spring, I have more than a little familiarity of the nature of staging a left-wing insurgency in student government. I was also fortunate enough to serve in both Shared Governance and somehow get elected to the Vice-Chair position of the SSFC. All of these were positive learning experiences, none of which I regret. However, with this experience I must end up agreeing with my fellow activists in Detroit when I say that messing with ASM just isn’t worth the trouble. Basically, I’ve got two reasons for this conclusion:
1) It’s too much work, detracting time and energy from other campaigns. During the spring of 2009, SPD and probably SLAC spent more time working on ASM-related campaigns than any other effort. It was a real burden – psychologically, physically, mentally. And for what? To get a minority of (admittedly great) progressives elected to Student Council? It seems almost ridiculous to think back on how we exerted so much energy on taking over a freaking student government while other campaigns – City Council, immigration, Palestinian justice, etc. – came out the worse for it. There are important things to do in this world, and relatively speaking, taking over ASM just isn’t one of them.
If this were 1968, an era in which activist student energy was in no short supply, running a slate would be more of a natural thing to do, serving as a mere extension of the general movement. Given the climate on campus at the time, it would have taken up only a small fraction of our resources. These days, however, we simply don’t have as much equipment in the locker. Further, as we’ve learned the last couple of years, there will always be a determined group of pro-establishment students who work exclusively on student government issues, promoting their own agenda and often their own resumes – so, of course, they are a surmountable obstacle to overcome, making our task even more difficult.
1) Student government isn’t exactly an important vehicle for change, anyway. Taking over ASM could possibly even prove to be counter-productive. At this point, I don’t see how any honest progressive on campus could argue that electing a minority slate to Council is worth the trouble. If I recall correctly, in 2009, the campus media declared the FACES slate an unambiguous failure because it failed to secure a majority, even though we never expected to achieve that and ran only to get a solid chunk of good people elected. As it turns out, even if it was dishonest/misinformed, the Herald and company was more right than we knew. I know Jonah and friends did some good stuff last year but I’m not sure how anyone could argue that their achievements were really worth the trouble, or that their time and energy couldn’t better be spent elsewhere. I almost felt sorry for the FACES members stuck on this mostly frivolous body for the whole year, especially given the (Responsibility-colored) environment in which they had to serve. I mean, really, what’s the point? I don’t blame any of the the MPOWER people who plan to drop out given the results; frankly, I would do precisely that if I were in their position.
But what if we could, even given the aforementioned effort it would take, get something like 15 of our people elected? I still stay it’s not worth it. What advantage does taking over student government really give our side? I’ve always argued that there are two possible ways ASM could be used as a vehicle for progressive change:
–Student government adds legitimacy to our movements. This is true, and ASM taking a stand on something would probably get more headlines than it otherwise would. But let’s remember that, in itself, Council doesn’t have any real power. Passing non-binding resolutions are only symbolic. Admittedley, symbolism can sometimes grow to be more than just that (as was the case with the Berkeley divestment resolution) but those instances are always backed by a strong outside activist effort, anyway. Besides, SLAC has already shown that ASM can be completely irrelevant to deal successfully with the administration.
–ASM itself could serve as an infrastructure for activist movements. Of course, this is what it was originally designed to do, even if those who currently run it are intent on utilizing it for a different purpose. Much of the theory behind this came from interminable discussions with Ben Manski about the glory days of ASM in the 90’s, where student government became an important hub for activism.
For the most part, though, I don’t really see why or even how activists working through ASM would be beneficial. I think our own small groups allow for more dynamism and work well enough as they are. ASM could only end up draining our efforts on paperwork and bureaucracy, and once again, we don’t exactly have a lot of surplus time as it is.
I think it’s still important for the left to be cognizant of ASM behavior and maintain somewhat of a presence in Shared Gov (ie LLPC) and the SSFC. And there will undobtedly always be sympathetic Council members, even if they are of the non-activist liberal type, when the time comes. But for now, I think the idea of running slates is probably the biggest waste of time our side could engage in. I will not be participating in any such effort this year, and I sincerely hope that other activists use their formidable talents for more worthwhile endeavors.