Notes on Jason Read’s ‘Starting from Year Zero: Occupy Wall Street and the Transformations of the Socio-Political’

Posted on | February 18, 2012 | 1 Comment

NB: These are highlights created by instapaper on my kindle. Read the full essay here. I am experimenting with this and other ways of taking notes “in the cloud”… Follow @melgregg on Twitter if this is your kind of thing.

As students take on more and more loans to fund their education, their education changes form. Anyone who teaches at a University is perhaps aware of the chilling effect that student debt has an intellectual inquiry and education. Students do not ask themselves the questions: what interests me? And what discipline or field do I show talent for? But ask instead: what will get me a job? What will the market demand? Debt is the future acting on the present. The idea of future debt, of the cost of student loans, acts on the present, determining choices and limiting possibilities. Debt is mode of governmentality, a way to restrict and curtail actions; a mode that is all the more effective in being internalized.


Student debt can be understood as a transformation of the educational experience and the university, one that uses the power of the state, taxation and the allocation of funds, to restructure the university from below. Indebted students, students desperately seeking wages adequate to their debt, are less likely to demand courses and programs engaging in critical thinking, let alone engage in the political activism that made the “student” a political transindividual individuation, defined by its liminal position between home and work, immaturity and maturity. Debt produces students who are desperately try to match their actions to the mercurial job market, rather than rethink society and their place within it. The politics of debt are produced from above, but the effects are felt from below in the daily actions of not only students, who ask only “how can this course get me a job,” but also an increasingly precarious adjunct teaching faculty forced to tailor their teaching to whatever can get them work. 


It is very difficult to say “we” debtors, in the way one could say “we” citizens or “we” workers. Part of debt passes beneath us, in the calculations, quantifications, and aggregations that make up our digital self, our virtual identity, and is this respect we cannot even say “I.”


debt is seen less as a collective condition, as part of a new regime of accumulation and a new governmentality, than as an individual fate.


we should not spend too much time mourning the lack of the worker as an identity organizing Occupy Wall Street, or hold out hopes for unions to be revitalized. Such actions can only lead to reforms, to better wages and more work, and would return us to the division of worker and student, waged work and unpaid reproductive work.


debt is dependent upon a new technological regime of surveillance and data sharing, is part of a political strategy of neoliberal governmentality, and perpetuates a subjectivity of isolation and anxiety. 


Work, even the work at a given office, call center, or distribution site, is no longer that of a “we,” of a collective identity, but is individualized into temporary contracts, continual performance reviews, and dispersed incentives. To call this an “I” with all of its connotation of independence and autonomy, is not entirely accurate. As with debt the balance sheet of any one’s particular performance and hard work remains completely outside of their efforts.


This is a situation in which any lateral connection, any connection with other workers, students, or even other customers of insurance, that is not networking, not oriented towards maximizing one’s potential is unnecessary or avoided. It is perhaps more accurately described as class decomposition than composition, as students and workers are isolated and fragmented into individuals and aggregates of fragmented bits of intelligence and knowledge. The identification is not between other individuals, any collective, but with capital itself, with the enterprise. The worker becomes an entrepreneur of the self, and the student an investor in one’s own human capital. It is perhaps in this sense that “corporate personhood” should be taken as issue: it is not that capitalism would be better if we could some how just return it to individual’s exploiting individuals, but capitalism functions by modeling a person that aligns his or her striving, with its functioning.

I love this last paragraph in particular. But it makes me wonder whether anyone would ever claim that this situation is true of their own actions. Do we need a more subtle language for our descriptions of these experiences? Or is the manifesto tone a necessary part of the genre? I am interested because it is a problem I have all the time with my own writing – and my own problems with writing are the reason I am doing a blog post right now rather than my conference paper for next week!

One of the many thoughts this piece prompted for me was a sense of the varied force and scale of the student debt problem in different national political cultures. If #occupy has effectively mobilised awareness of the debt issue in the US and in Europe, our government-led student loans system in Australia presents another front for analysis. The funding of universities here involves particularities that matter, even while our campuses reflect in practice some of the same tendencies shaping the experience of university life elsewhere (thanks again for these ideas, MFD).

What I suspect is even more important is the role our education system plays in the wider region of Asia, and how this does or doesn’t equate to the same kinds of imperial legacies of Anglo-American capitalism. We have already seen inklings of what an #occupy movement of international students would look like in the streets of Melbourne. Have these connections been made in the wave of more recent commentary? (Scholars like Brett Neilson have been writing about transformations in worker/student relations for some time.) Ultimately it is my parochialism, my lack of understanding of the routes our “international” students take to enrol in our courses, that makes me pause before disowning the traditions I am now implicated in perpetuating as faculty. Because who am I to know – how does my own employment situation even encourage me to know – what difference a Western education might make in a range of other countries? This seems to me one of the more crucial philosophical questions raised by these times.

I guess another way of saying all this is: where is Asia in the global economy, of knowledge and its debts, imagined by #occupy?


One Response to “Notes on Jason Read’s ‘Starting from Year Zero: Occupy Wall Street and the Transformations of the Socio-Political’”

  1. Jason
    February 19th, 2012 @ 9:59 am

    Possibly slightly tangential, but I think bearing down on your final question, is this:

    Curtin University is in PR hell this morning after thousands of angry Malaysian students hammered the institution’s Facebook page to slam an honorary doctorate awarded to Rosmah Mansor, the controversial wife of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

    Last week Curtin vice-chancellor Jeanette Hacket presented the unpopular spouse with the gong, ostensibly for her commitment to early childhood education. But Mansor, likened to Imelda Marcos, is a hated figure among the 2500-strong Malaysian student body at its Sarawak campus that tips millions each year into Curtin’s Australian coffers.

    The story’s worth reading. It has played out, among other places, on the University’s Facebook page, where Curtin’s Sarawak students have left hundreds of angry comments. So much for reaching out to students.

    Notwithstanding Glen’s comments (comment 13 here) about the true nature and effect of the true nature and effect of these “social media PR hell” incidents, Curtin don’t seem to have anticipated the reaction here.

    It’s difficult not to see this as an instance of a University doing favours for people who can smooth the way as they try to compete and recruit in overseas markets.

    Those not considered here are the students the university is taking so much money from. As a result, the students have become politicised in a way that doesn’t necessarily follow the Occupy model.

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