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Campus Protests Are Fighting Militarism and Corporatization at Home and Abroad

Student protesters know the fight for Palestinian freedom requires resisting militarization and fascism at home.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators celebrate after raising the Palestinian flag outside Lisner Hall as they rally on the campus of George Washington University on May 2, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

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The long-simmering crisis over Israel’s genocide of Palestinians has reached a breaking point. Campus protests in solidarity with Gaza have erupted across North America, spanning at least 45 U.S. states, Canada and Mexico. Similar demonstrations have surged across Europe, including in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Additionally, expressions of moral outrage and solidarity have erupted in Central and South American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and Cuba, as well as in Asia (including India, Indonesia and Japan), the Middle East (including Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen), Africa (including South Africa and Tunisia), Australia, New Zealand, and beyond. Many faculty have protested alongside their students, and on May 8 a group of professors at The New School in New York City erected the U.S.’s first faculty encampment in solidarity with Gaza, signaling the growing momentum of the movement.

Meanwhile “Hands Off Rafah” rallies have drawn thousands into the streets, while a global day of mass protest is being planned for May 11.

No longer ripped from history, decontextualized, banished from public discourse and relegated to the sphere of silent questions and neglected connections, the horrors Palestinians have faced and are facing are writ large in all their brutality.

Meanwhile, politics, collective agency and mass student resistance are being reimagined as supposedly democratic societies across the globe have embraced fascist responses to mass resistance. In the midst of the current protest movement, the historical, political, economic and cultural framing mechanisms that connect the current repression on campuses and the struggle for Palestinian rights have become more visible. What has also become more visible is the long history of the politics of disposability, a rising culture of violence against those considered other, and the transformation of higher education into an adjunct of corporate power.

What must be extremely threatening to the far right and corporate media alike is that student protesters and their allies are clear about the connections between the issues of academic freedom, police violence, colonialism and human rights that they are raising — they are refusing to let these issues be separated in a fragmented, isolated, ahistorical and individual fashion. In the manner of German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, the student protests are blasting “open the continuum of history,” rethinking it with fire.

While the issues of academic freedom, Palestinian rights, and the scourge of militarism and war are crucial issues for the students, they are not disconnected from the blight of neoliberalism and racialized state violence as fundamental elements of oppression. Hence, what the protests signify in the broader sense are new insights, new framing mechanisms, and a critical interrogation of history in order to avoid the protests and their call for a radical democracy from being spectacularized, depoliticized and torn from the history.

With the outbreak of Israel’s war on Gaza, students are courageously protesting the indiscriminate and massive killing of women, children and civilians by the Israeli government — with more than 35,000 killed thus far. The student protests have called for a permanent ceasefire, recognition of a secure state for the Palestinian people and for universities to disinvest from industries that produce weapons of war, particularly for Israel. The protests have struck a nerve and awakened the need for rethinking the role of higher education in a time of tyranny and war.

University administrators, liberal and far fight politicians, the corporate media and right-wing billionaires have responded by disingenuously condemning the protests as “antisemitic,” claiming that the protests are the work of “outside agitators,” and those in charge have supressed student resistance with militarized force.

At first glance, this appears to be part of the usual self-righteous, smug and repressive strategy of diversion and blame. But there are deeper forces at work in the ideological and militarized responses by most of the universities where the campus protests are taking place. University presidents under pressure from powerful far right politicians and billionaires are increasingly relying upon the police to deal with acts of civil disobedience by student protesters who have set up campus tents in opposition to “the U.S.-backed Israeli military offensive in Gaza.” As of May 5, 2024, over 2,400 people have been arrested by police. Students as well as faculty have been assaulted by the police, zip-tied, hauled into buses and criminally charged for standing up for their beliefs.

As Tim Dickinson points out in Rolling Stone, it is alarming to see “rooftop snipers and militarized police subduing protesters.” He further notes:

The behavior of law enforcement has — once again — shined a stark spotlight on police brutality and disregard for First Amendment rights protecting freedom of assembly, speech, and the press. As cops have gone ham on protesters, and engaged in dubious mass-arrests, they’ve also roughed up journalists and even smashed college professors to the ground.

This type of indiscriminate violence against peacefully protesting students and faculty echoes what one would expect in outright fascist regimes. Historian Rick Perlstein astutely observes that military-like responses to campus protests today would have been unimaginable in the 1960s. He highlights some of the most egregious abuses against faculty members, underscoring their significance. In a piece for The American Prospect he writes:

At the University of Wisconsin, a balding, bespectacled professor face down, two cops pinning his left arm sharply behind his back, and a disabled professor getting her dress torn and suffering internal damage from police strangulation. The 65-year-old former head of Dartmouth’s Jewish studies program who dared scream “What are you doing?” at cops being taken down with a wrestling move that also left her with an arm wrenched behind her back. Then a second cop arriving to keep her pinned as a third looks on blithely, rifle at the ready. (She was suspended by her university for her trouble.) At Washington University in St. Louis, a 65-year-old professor, a Quaker, was told by his doctor he was “lucky to be alive” after absorbing a flying tackle from a very large officer for the sin of filming cops with his cellphone, then being dragged to a nearby patch of grass, writhing, then to a police van, where he fell limp.

Much of the response is an attempt to punish students for addressing what one might call one of the crucial moral and political issues of our time: freedom for Palestinians to determine their own political fate. At the same time, the repression signals to students that when free speech begins to hold power accountable, there are severe consequences, extending from suspensions, expulsions, loss of future job opportunities and even to potential arrest.

In this case, it becomes clear that the basic values often attributed to higher education as a social good — extending from teaching students how to be critical, informed, socially responsible, compassionate and engaged citizens — are viewed with disdain and subordinated to the repressive values and notions of learning aligned with the corporate university. These include viewing the world through normalized template of market values, embracing a cutthroat notion of competitiveness, defining the worth of a degree through commercial interests, disdaining any mode of learning not tied to future financial gain and disregarding connections between knowledge from larger social issues. This is a pedagogy of capitalist cloning buttressed by the threat of state terrorism.

In light of the student protests and the repressive response, the university’s reactionary neoliberal values and the pedagogical practices that enforce them have revealed the hollowness of the university’s claim to free speech and academic freedom, on the one hand. The protests also underscore the extent to which higher education has been corporatized and militarized. It is important not to forget, as the South African Nobel Prize winner in literature, JM Coetzee points out, that powerful corporate elites have little regard for higher education as a critical institution and public good, and “reconceive of themselves as managers of national economies who want to turn universities into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.”

Moreover, this attack on higher education is not only ideological but also, as we see with the campus protests, relies on the repressive militaristic institutions of the punishing state. What is often missed in progressive analyses of the protest movements is the interconnection between the corporatization of higher education and the current efforts to militarize it through outright suppression by the police and other forces of state repression.

There is a long history of increasing neoliberal influence on higher education, its alliance with the military-industrial complex, and its willingness to accept huge amounts of financial support from corporations serving defense industries. In fact, as I noted in 2007 when I published The University in Chains-Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, former President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous critique of the military-industrial complex originally included the term “military-industrial-academic complex” — the latter term he was persuaded to drop before his Farewell Address to the Nation on January 17, 1961.

Education is increasingly seen as a target for suppression, not only by the far right but also by both political parties.

Since Eisenhower’s speech, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, the U.S. has become increasingly militarized and policed. On the domestic front, police violence has escalated dramatically, especially with the relentless killing of Black and Brown people, the most notorious and public examples including the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. At the same time, higher education has increasingly aligned itself with the national security state, becoming a site of commerce, research for the Pentagon and a training ground for staffing innumerable intelligence agencies.

Since the 1970s, a form of predatory neoliberal capitalism has waged war on the welfare state, public sphere and the common good. The new mode of governance argues that the market should govern the economy and all aspects of society. It concentrates wealth in the hands of a financial elite and elevates untrammeled self-interest, unchecked individualism, deregulation and privatization as the governing principles of society. Under neoliberalism, everything is for sale, and the only obligation of citizenship is consumerism. We live in an age when economic activity is divorced from social costs, while policies that produce racial cleansing, militarism and staggering levels of inequality have become the organizing features of everyday life.

Largely defined as a workstation for training global workers and increasingly in need of funding, higher education — as John Armitage writes in Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies — easily assumed the role of a “hypermodern militarized knowledge factory.” As public schools increasingly model themselves after prisons, becoming shooting galleries due to the prevalence of guns and military weapons in the U.S., higher education has further boosted its unholy alliance with the defense and intelligence industries, which largely served dominant state, military and corporate interests.

Under an austerity-driven neoliberal project, education has defaulted on its willingness to cultivate critical citizens essential for a democratic public sphere. In a broader perspective, education is increasingly seen as a target for suppression, not only by the far right but also by both political parties. Their aim is to reduce it to a mere appendage of the corporate and defense industries while imposing pedagogies of repression and conformity.

The current assault on higher education exemplifies how market values erode the public good and destroy any viable sense of higher education as a democratic public sphere. Operated as a business, higher education prioritizes profits over fostering an education that nurtures an informed and creative citizenry, forsakes democracy as a guiding principle, and reshapes higher education through what Wendy Brown in Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, describes as “vulgar forms of marketization.”

Defunded and corporatized, many institutions of higher education have been all too willing to make the culture of business the business of education. This transformation has corrupted their mission, making them all the more susceptible to aligning themselves with anti-democratic forces of militarization. Actions by universities to stifle student protests and employ oppressive elements of the national security state must be understood against this backdrop. Viewed as guardians of the market, as vehicles to produce compliant workers for the neoliberal order, higher education institutions transform into right-wing indoctrination centers, they establish such educational institutions that play a formidable role in the ongoing militarization of U.S. society. Hence, it should come as no surprise that, in the face of campus protests, school administrators were all too willing to stifle dissent and employ the police to shut down peaceful protests.

The merging of neoliberalism, militarism and a politics of indoctrination pose a dire threat to higher education, academic freedom and democracy itself. What must not be forgotten is that the campus protests signify more than a struggle for Palestinian rights and freedom; they also represent a fight to reclaim higher education as site of democratization, a public good and a crucial civic institution where student voices can be heard, and where the dynamics of critical thinking, dialogue, informed judgment and dissent can take place without fear of repression.

It is worth remembering Martin Luther King,Jr.’s words composed in 1963 in which he stated: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In the spirit of King’s impassioned words, higher education offers a crucial civic space for dialogue, critique, historical memory, the affirmation of mutuality and social responsibility. It is a space where the death of those considered disposable can be made visible and challenged, where the stories of the ungrievable can be told, and politics and pedagogy become a form of moral witnessing and empowerment.

The fight for Palestinian freedom cannot be separated from the challenge of building a multiracial working-class movement struggle against neoliberal capitalism, confronting the militarization of higher education and beating back an emerging fascist politics both at home and abroad.