On personal responsibility

   There is a lot of talk about responsibility in the academic world these days. After a teach-in I did at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, one member of the Executive Board spoke to De Nieuwe Vrije Universiteit about the issues facing higher education. He kept on emphasising the fact that ‘students need to take responsibility’, which reminded me of the ‘competente rebelen’ that Louise Gunning asks students to be. It seemed that he was indirectly addressing what we were doing there and shaming us for engaging in political action. We are being treated like children who cannot understand the seriousness of the situation because we do not accept what they call ‘fiscal responsibility’.

   This discourse about responsibility is typical of neoliberal politics. Responsible participation in society is exalted, whereby responsibility means obedience and/or following predisposed courses of action. It also assumes that we are responsible for what has happened rather than acknowledging that cuts and other reforms are based on conscious political decisions. ‘Privatise profits, socialise losses’ seems to be the mantra of the neoliberal university. So where does that leave students and staff of the university?

   It leaves us with a culture of shame as Natalie Scholz beautifully described in her article. A management style where anyone who derives from the norm is made to feel a complete lack of self-worth. Let me elaborate with some examples: Peter Wurtz, an Executive Staff member of the UvA comes into the Maagdenhuis on chosen mornings to harass students. One morning he screamed at an innocent student while she was sleeping: ‘Aren’t you ashamed of what you are doing?!? Look at the state of this building!!!’ On another occasion, he emphatically screamed at a student, ending with ‘I hope your parents are proud of you!’. Despite the fact that it was his birthday, this student was so distressed and worried that he could not enjoy his special day.

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   While students are held accountable for any sort of political action, the same never applies to management. Ironically, management inflicts millions in debt on the university each year, but if a few students inflict mediocre damage during an occupation they are shamed and criminalised.

   When shaming fails, authorities are quick to resort to more extreme measures. The threat of violence becomes an acceptable means of pressure in these cases. One day Peter Wurtz put locks on the fire exits which turn out to be the only safe entrance for disabled people.

‘How will we get out in case of a fire?’ one student asked.

‘I don’t give a shit if you burn’, he replied. He then proceeded to call the ‘men in suits’ – in this case the fire department (Brandweer) – to inform us that we must leave because this is a fire hazard. This is what David Graeber calls ‘structural violence’ whereby coercion doesn’t just have a ‘moral’ character (shaming) but is also backed by the threat of men in suits (in this case the fire department).

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   Despite these subtle measures of control, the students who liberated the Maagdenhuis never cease to amaze me. Creative measures are found to resolve any controversy that faces us. Peter Wurtz’s attacks, for example, are answered with great humour and irony (see photos). Resistance is a legitimate form of taking responsibility, especially when it strives towards a more egalitarian and free society. If de Nieuwe Universiteit has shown anything, it’s that we can imagine a world without hierarchies where individuals treat each other with mutual respect.

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Touraj Eghtesad – Former Junior Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the VU Amsterdam

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