A Radical Geography Community
by Ewald Engelen, Universiteit van Amsterdam On Wednesday evening, 25 February, a group of approximately 1,500 students marched towards the main administrative building of the University of Amsterdam, on the Spui, smack in the middle of the old city centre. Two days earlier the students had been forcefully removed from another university building nearby, which was in the process of being sold off to a real estate developer who was to transform the beautiful art deco building into a private club for the rich and famous of the global film, fashion and media businesses. That evening around 100 students huddled against the door, uncertain what to do. Suddenly the main entrance gave way, granting them access to the cavernous hallway of the building, locally known as the “Maagdenhuis” (literally “Virgin House”)–a late 18th century building which used to house a Catholic church-run facility for orphaned girls, hence the name. More important is its iconic role in the 1968 student protests, which initiated a broader societal “liberation” from stifling post-war morals and values, when the building served as the nerve centre of the movement. Luckily, the five security guards inside chose to desist rather than resist and merely ensured that the students were unable to enter the office spaces located at the first and second floors. Despite the exchange of some harsh words and a broken glass door, the occupation developed mostly peacefully and without any random acts of vandalism. A couple of hours later the visibly shell-shocked Executive Board of the University arrived, with their full retinue in tow, including drivers, security guards and others. The chairwoman of the Board, a long-serving member of the Dutch ruling elite, made the mistake of demanding in a shrill voice that the students immediately leave “her” building. It was the Board’s second publicity mistake, after obtaining one week earlier a legal injunction, to the ridiculous tune of 100,000 euro, against each student that stayed inside the first building that was occupied. Sidelined by the students who had quickly adopted the collective decision-making procedures developed by the occupants of New York’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011, the Board was left to stew in their own rage and frustration. That same evening the mayor of Amsterdam was called from his bed to negotiate with the students, after they had renounced their trust in the Executive Board of the University. Two weeks later: what had started as a student protest against cutbacks of ten percent of the budget of the humanities–resulting in forced lay-offs, the closure of some smaller disciplines, and perhaps a complete overhaul of humanities programs–has now developed into a broad-based attack against the hegemony of new public management (“profit maximization”) in Dutch public services which is widely seen to be responsible for taking the “soul” out of them and transforming universities from institutes for higher education and learning into large, for-profit corporations which specialize in real estate development, speculation and management. The occupation seems to have awoken staff as well as citizens from their political slumber. The academic community in Amsterdam is now a veritable beehive of activities, groups and committees, which, Occupy-style, issue demands to the Executive Board of the University and, together with students, has proven to be utterly creative in backing this up with witty forms of protest. In the Netherlands more widely the tide also seems to have turned. While initially there were still quite a number of voices to be heard on social media and in the mainstream that were poking fun at so-called “elite” students defending their own privileges, a recent survey among Dutch citizens indicated that a large majority now backs the staff and students and is in favour of a more democratic, less managerial university. Even more telling was an editorial in the largest right-wing populist tabloid of the Netherlands, De Telegraaf, backing the staff and students in their fight against new public management and urgently calling for a stop to managerialism in public services. While at the moment of writing it is unclear how this will play out (the Executive Board of the University has just published a reply to the demands of staff and students which, while submitted more than 26 hours after the deadline, at first sight looks constructive and promising–see here), it is obvious that whatever the outcome at least the University of Amsterdam will have become a different place from the one that it was before the occupation of the Maagdenhuis. The extent of organizational change is, as always, dependent on the determination of students and staff to maintain momentum. The creation of new political events is hence crucial to keep the initiative alive. The occupants of the Maagdenhuis have done their utmost to move this process forward by coming up with wonderful programs of speeches, training sessions, lectures as well as concerts in the main hall. Last Saturday, for example, David Graeber, the well-known ideologue of the Occupy movement, flew over to Amsterdam to do a two-hour sit-in with the students, which, as can easily be imagined, strongly fortified their spirit.
Image: David Graeber speaks at the Maagdenhuis (by Malcolm Kratz). Taken from roarmag.org
And, I am proud to say, last week I was invited to talk about a paper I wrote with two colleagues (Reijer Hendrikse and Rodrigo Fernandez), which was published in Antipode last year, and is freely available now–“How Finance Penetrates its Other: A Cautionary Tale on the Financialization of a Dutch University”. The paper, colleagues from the humanities have pointed out to me, has been instrumental in sketching out the larger context of the cutbacks and as such has been an important source of inspiration for the protests. Whether the 2015 Maagdenhuis occupation will enter history as the moment when staff and students finally started to fight back against managerialism, financialization and new public management remains to be seen. At the very least, “financialization” has become a common concept among the academic community, and that it sucks has become clear for all to see. For those interested, further readings on the developments in Amsterdam and updates about current events related to the protests can be found here: http://newuni.nl/