Why American students are hunger striking

How a growing student movement in the US is resorting to radical tactics to make their voices heard

Students at New York's Columbia University stopped eating on Thursday 8 November 2007, and within 24 hours the news had reached my warehouse flat in North London.

I called Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, wrote statements of support and solidarity, and signed online petitions.

Everyday during their 10-day hunger strike (which ended at 9pm on 16 November) I logged onto the internet to check the status of the hunger strike and the hunger strikers and to put my fingers on the pulse of the growing student movement in the United States.

Responding to the recent repeat-occurance of swastikas and nooses on campus walls and on the doors of black professors, and protesting the lack of university response, the Columbia hunger strikers are demanded their administration take moral positions and actions against the forces that propagate discrimination and injustice.

They demanded a Core Curriculum reflective of "the multicultural society that we live in and the power relations that constitute it," plans for sustainable expansion that does not displace thousands of Harlem residents, the establishment of an Ethnic Studies program, and proactive efforts to target institutional racism and discrimination.

Their strike ended on Friday after the administration offered to fundraise $50m to expand ethnic and multicultural studies programs and Harlem residents asked the strikers to take this as a "win" and end the fast.

Though it was likely the most radical in its demands, the Columbia hunger strike followed a series of copy-cat actions across the United States in the last two years.

With peaceful demonstrations either used by administrations to justify their legitimacy - "isn't it wonderful that students are free to express their views?" - or as excuses to threaten student radicals and their supporters with arrest or expulsion, many campus activists have come to hunger strikes as a last resort tactic.

Last year, more than five campuses in the U.S. saw hunger strikes among their students, from the University of Vermont (5 days) to Purdue University (26 days), usually tied to campus labour activism.

In April I was arrested along with three other Harvard students by campus police for staging a peaceful political protest at a speech delivered by Robert Mueller, director of the FBI. While detained, campus police told us that though protesters had not been arrested at Harvard for decades, the university was intent on taking a harder line against demonstrators to discourage the growth of "disruptive protests."

In this climate, when Harvard student labour activists were looking for escalation tactics in May, the radical community was either unwilling to risk arrest or expulsion, or - like me - already had out-standing court cases.

With no other option, we launched a hunger strike on 3 May 2007, supporting the recently-unionized campus security officers who were fighting for higher wages and a fair contract. The strike lasted 9 days and left one student hospitalized.

The hunger strike forced the Harvard administration to listen to the demands of the student and worker protestors by threatening the most valuable commodity of the corporatized elite university - it's reputation.

The students of universities such as mine are imagined to one day become the nation's wealthy and powerful, the men and the women who will donate back to their alma mater and brand their lives and their works with the "Harvard" name.

Alumni are the university's connection to money, power, and prestige. By launching a hunger strike that received wide-spread media coverage, we were threatening Harvard's most valuable assets - ourselves.

In response, the university attempted to portray us as immature and confused. On the seventh day, rumours began circulating that the administration was meeting with its lawyers, looking at the legal implications of threatening us with expulsion on psychiatric grounds, claiming that only the mentally imbalanced would choose to go without food for extended periods of time.

While hunger strikes are emotionally and psychologically-taxing, complicated tactics, they are generally very carefully considered and carefully planned.

Hunger strikes and other forms of direct action have been spreading throughout America's university campuses, partially because of the increasingly polarized environment - where the initial neglect and eventual arrest of student protestors leaves little option - and partially because of the support of expanding national networks, connecting student activists across the country.

One such network is that of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) the multi-issue radical movement of students in the 1960s that disintegrated in 1969 and was reformed in 2006. It was SDS that, along with the Student Afro Society, engineered the shutdown of Columbia University in 1968 during what was called the "Columbia Student Revolt".

The history and legacy of SDS as a nation-wide mobilization of campus radicals has continued to inspire students who admire its commitment to participatory democracy and use of direct action tactics. A call to relaunch the organization went out in January 2006, organized by high school students Jessica Rapchick and Pat Korte.

The new SDS has chapters at 148 colleges and 50 high schools across the United States. Each chapter functions with autonomy, with an anti-bureaucratic anti-hierarchical decentralized national organization. Fighting the corporatization of university campuses, engaged in anti-war organizing, and employing a diversity of direct action tactics, SDS is invigorating students on individual campuses and strengthening connections between them.

Though it was not an SDS action, news of the Columbia hunger strike spread like wildfire across the country. I was notified of the strike via the North East Regional list within hours of its commencement.

Similarly, in March 2006 when two students at New York's Pace University were arrested following SDS protests of a speech by Bill Clinton, the national and regional SDS networks mobilized immediately, circulating petitions, letters, and co-ordinating phone calls in protest of the arrests and in solidarity with the demonstrators.

In this context, the Columbia hunger strike - and its resounding success - represents a new page in student radicalism in the United States.

Far from the campaigns that target single issues, the strike dares to reach further, demanding not "accountability" or "transparency" on behalf of the administrators, but questioning the role of un-democratic decision-making in a supposed place of learning and drawing attention to the need to examine the forces behind the propagation of racism and discrimination.

Radical in its scope and representative of the new national networks of solidarity and support, the Columbia hunger strike stands as the next timid yet determined step of the re-awakening and re-invigorated American Young Left.

Claire Provost graduated from Harvard in June 2007, where she studied Urban Planning and was a member of the Harvard Student Labour Action Movement and a founding member of Harvard SDS. She participated in the 9-day hunger strike in May 2007 for workers' rights on campus

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.