Creating activist scholars: extended interview with Andrej Grubacic

Pub date August 10, 2012
WriterYael Chanoff
SectionPolitics Blog

For this week’s paper, we talked with with Andrej Grubacic, the new head of the anthropology department at the California Institute for Integral Studies. Here’s the extended interview with Grubacic, where he talks more about the new Anthropology and Social Change program, as well as the history of anarchist schools, how his grandmother influenced his politics growing up in Yugoslavia, and the state of the occupy movement.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: What’s the structure of the new program going to look like?

Andrej Grubacic: It’s going to be called Anthropology and Social Change, and we have two levels. One is MA, the other is PhD. Philosophically speaking and politically speaking, in the age of occupy and all of these movements, the great question for me was how to organize a department that’s actually going to be useful for all of these social struggles and that activism that’s happening outside of education. I’ve been in academia as a scholar-activist for a long time. And what I’ve discovered is the most painful thing in my experience is the separation. The fact of actual separation between the grassroots knowledges, produced outside of the academia, and academic knowledge produced within the universities. So the best things, the way that I was thinking about this was that what we should do on both levels, MA and PhD, is to construct a space of translation of different knowledge. So to put these two knowledges, one produced outside of academia and the other produced in the university, in dialogue.

So we have Boots Riley for example, he’s going to be teaching community organizing, or organizing for social justice. Then we’re going to have Sasha Lilley teaching an eminently practical course on how to create and produce radical radio. So you’re going to get activist media skills. Then we’re going to have a few other people teaching also different skills, and knowledge that’s inspired by art, bringing artists in, and knowledge that’s inspired by people who are thinking about social theory and social emancipation. We’re going to create something really exciting. 

SFBG: Do you think the students who attend are going to be the same kind of mix of academics, artists, activists, and people who want to organize within their own communities here in San Francisco?

AG: I think so. That’s the idea. The idea is to make this department work for the students, but also for the people in San Francisco Bay Area. And we can do that by bringing students who are interested in local work, and I think that’s going to be a pretty amazing. If we are of course able to do things right, but I think that we will be. So Chris Carlsson for example, he’s going to be teaching labor and ecological history of San Francisco, so a very local topic. We’re going to be teaching courses on activist ethnography, and activist ethnography is the center for the whole program, which is how can we relate to community– and this is where we’re also using the term integral– in an integral way? Meaning how do we integrate community into every step of the research process? And the traditional anthropology, as you probably know, is all about participant observation. We would like to have instead observant participants. People who are involved with the communities. People who are trying to dissolve the distinction between the researcher, between who’s on the outside, and who’s on the inside. And they’re creating something together. 

SFBG: I saw when you spoke at the University of the Commons launch. You were talking about how there’s a wave of radical activity going on at schools throughout the world.

AG: Oh yeah.

SFBG: This is obviously very different, because this is an institution putting out something radical, but do you think it fits into that trend right now?

AG: I think it does. Because if you know my biography, I’ve been travelling through all of these experiences in schools for many many years now. I had to leave Yugoslavia where I’m from because of my oppositional political activity and, you know, I finally arrived here to work at New College of California which was also a private institution, and I was very inspired by the department of Activism and Social Change, and I completely fell in love with the history of radical schools in San Francisco. Now I don’t know how much you know about them, but they’re, like, great stuff. There was a liberation school, there were Black Panther schools, of course. There is a great history of alternative schools and experiments. So New College was a private institution, but still, many of my activist friends, who became friends later, have actually been through New College and they got their MA s in activism and social change or media studies. So CIIS actually took many of these people, many of the professors from these programs, and invited them here. So in a certain sense, I think what was done in terms of Activism and Social Change, and orientation to social justice and emancipation, was that at New College we are still keeping that spirit alive. But, in communication- and I think this is the crucial thing for our department- we are doing this in communication with radical educational experiments, movement-based experiments from all over the world. Manolo Callahan, who is going to be teaching here next semester, he is one of the people involved in University of the Earth- Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca and in Chiapas, so we are creating relationships with them. Which you know are completely radical experiences outside of institutions, they call themselves deprofessionalized intellectuals. We have already relationships with the Activism and Social Change department in Leeds, in England, they have a great school there. With people in Brazil, the landless workers movements. We’re in touch with people from Ecuador and people form Bolivia. So it’s a whole network of educational, tendency of educational experiences that this department is now creating.

SFBG: Do you have economics courses here?

AG: Yeah.

SFBG: So are there classes that are non-capitalist economics?

AG: Yes, it’s called radical political economy. We are trying to understand political economy from a feminist perspective, from an anarchist perspective, from a post-colonialist- so in that sense we are engaging multiple emancipatory frameworks of understanding social reality. So I myself, I come from the anarchist experience in social science, in politics. We have people who are feminists- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz for example. She’s sort of a legend in San Francisco Bay Area and she’s teaching three courses. Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz is going to be teaching about Native American struggles. As it pains me to say, that kind of a focus is mostly missing not only in private but also in public universities now. 

SFBG: So could you tell me a little more about the anarchist background you come from?

AG: I became an anarchist fairly early on, I was 13 or something. Because I was living in Yugoslavia. At that time, Yugoslavia was a socialist state. And because it was a socialist state for me it was a very interesting place to grow up, because you see socialism, real existing socialism, and you see many things that are beautiful about socialism. But you also see many things that are not so beautiful. And I was thinking about the alternatives to it. And for me it was really, sounds cheesy, but a conversation with my grandmother that decided it. She was a communist; she was a Yugoslav revolutionary communist. And Yugoslavia was falling apart, Yugoslavia was in a series of really brutal ethnic wars back in the 90s, and my grandmother, this lifelong communist, told me– my question was, are you still a communist? Do you still believe in communism in the context of this country falling apart? And she said yes, I do, I think that we have chosen a path to communism that was wrong. But I think the responsibility of your generation is to find a different path. The ideal is OK, the ideal is good. It’s a different path that you’re generation needs to find, and you have a great responsibility to do so. And the alternative that I discovered that seemed to me, back when I was 13 years old, and it still does, rational– as an alternative to the Marxist-Leninst way of getting from here to there, right– is anarchism. So for me anarchism, or libertarian socialism is another name that people are using, is a way of organizing for social justice and creating an egalitarian system that takes democracy very seriously. It’s like democracy without a state. 

SFBG: What happened that made you leave Yugoslavia?

AG: I was raised a Yugoslav. So I was raised to be a citizen of a country that doesn’t exist anymore. And on one hand, you had people who were Serbian nationalists, and I couldn’t really get along with those. On the other hand you had people who were neoliberal capitalists, who thought that everything coming from Europe and the United States was great and I couldn’t really agree with those either. And being a young academic, I was a historian at the time and working within the university, there was a great deal of pressure to get me out of the university. So it became very unpleasant. So I already had a relationship with Noam Chomsky, and Chomsky was following everything that was happening to me in Yugoslavia. And he told me at some point OK, it’s time for you to go. So he got me out of Yugoslavia, moved me to the United States or helped me move to the United States, introduced me to a man whose name is Immanuel Wallerstein, a great, amazing sociologist, who helped me get to his program at the Center for the Study of Economics, Historical Systems, and Civilization at SUNY-Binghamton to finish my graduate studies. So that was a– it was a long journey. 

Let’s just say that it was an active disagreement with the political class active at that time in Yugoslav-Serbia. It was actually funnily enough still called Yugoslavia. We only had two countries of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro. But the political cultures and political groups in power were either Serbian nationalists or these hyper-capitalists, right. And going after them, because I was publishing and I was doing a lot of things, was– let’s say, not smart career choice. But it made it possible for me to meet people like Chomsky and some other people. And they liked what I was doing and they were concerned that, for health reasons, United States might be a better environment.

SFBG: Even within these more welcoming academic environments, do you feel your activism or anarchism is stifled in some way?

AG: I had a bad experience here at one university, a local university here in San Francisco, and it wasn’t a good experience. That felt unpleasant and it felt very stifling. CIIS is very different. Actually this is the first place where I think that I was hired because I was an anarchist, or I am an anarchist. It’s kind of funny. But in other places, in Yugoslavia and there was another institution here, I had problems because of my politics. Here, that was exactly the reason I was hired. So it gives you an idea that the school is very different than most other universities. 

SFBG: Could there be such a thing as an anarchist school?

AG: I hope University of the Commons can become something like an anarchist school. Anarchist schools actually used to exist. And they still exist. But the really big one was Francisco Ferrer in Spain. It was called Modern School. It was created in 1904. It became so huge– especially after Francisco Ferrer was killed by the Spanish state in 1909- that there were 60 schools only in Spain and there were I don’t know how many schools in the United States but the last one closed only in 1958 in New Jersey. Modern Schools were amazing places. One could also argue that Yasnaya Polyana of Leo Tolstoy was also an anarchist school. It was in many ways. 

But anarchist schools were schools where you had a few elements. Integral education was number one. Education of the whole person. You don’t only educate somebody as an intellectual but you aim at education of the whole person. The other thing was something that anarchists called reality of the encounter. Which means that all the questions in pedagogical practice needs to come from real questions posed by life itself. So you need to do something that’s practical. Another thing was the complementary role of the teacher, which means the teacher needs to be a facilitator who listens and who offers something in return. But the first thing, the first kind of show of interest, comes from the student. So the role of the teacher is complementary. Another huge thing was something Proudhon called démoédie, or self-government of the school. So school becomes a place where you teach students arts of self-government and self-management. Schools are organized in the spirit of direct democracy. Another thing which was Paul Goodman, famous anarchist educator, his idea was to organize decentralized “teeny schools,” as he called them. So to have a small teaching environment. To have students go to the bank to be taught about mathematics, to go to a museum and then to teach them about geography, to do these things. And then the most important thing for anarchist schools on all levels is the idea of natural motivation and natural learning which was first formulated by Tolstoy. The idea is the students have this natural motivation to learn. And what you do is basically you create an environment where that kind of learning becomes possible. And another thing for anarchist schools was the idea of spontaneous order. So there is no imposed order by the teacher, but there is a spontaneous order that the students themselves discover. In other words, discipline is– I think this is Tolstoy’s, the word that he used– discipline is being discovered, not imposed. What would that mean for a university is a different question. I think the one obvious thing would be that everybody, students and professors, there needs to be a horizontal relationship between them. There needs to be an atmosphere of collective production of knowledge in the classroom. There cannot be a curriculum that’s linear. It needs to be dialogical, it needs to be participatory, you need to talk about this and co-create a syllabus. You need to be as horizontal and participatory as possible. You need to be as imaginative as possible in diminishing your own role as a teacher, which is a very tricky thing, without becoming a populist in the classroom, you know. Empowering students, and finding appropriate structure together with students. Again we are coming back to the idea of listening. We need to listen to the students and together with them, create an atmosphere in the classroom that’s going to be genuinely transformative. 

SFBG: I’d love to ask you more about how this will relate to anarchism and occupy.

AG: In terms of anarchism, we are gonna have- this is going to be one of the few places where anarchism is going to be studied. So anarchist social theory, anarchist education, anarchist ideas in general. We are going to study them, seriously, because they need to be recognized seriously. They’re part of- it’s a beautiful history, it’s a beautiful tradition. How important it is, I think, is revealed, by the recent rediscovery or reinvention of anarchism at occupy. So I think that it’s more relevant than ever to create a space where anarchism will be studied. 

In terms of occupy, occupy is going through the process of fragmentation right now, and they are looking for a new political space of conversation I think. So the way that we can relate to occupy, I think, is to have our students participate in whatever different movements occupy helped. Because you know that occupy now how occupy patriarchy, there is decolonize, there are many different groups. So I expect our students to be involved in occupy, and I expect us to be able to offer a space where many of the debates related to occupy can happen. So, and you know there is an actual affinity. When Silvio Federici comes, or John Holloway, or Michael Hardt, or any of these people, these are the people that occupy people read, and these are some of the bibles of the occupy movement. So what are we going to do is, we are going to make them available and accessible to these people who come here, and we are going to bring here,  and we are going to take them to the occupy movements and we are going to invite people from the occupy movements to come here. But we are also going to do more I think. What we can do, and this is now only a plan an idea, is to invite the movement itself, not only occupy but different movements, and say, OK, please come here and tell us what would you like us to do. And one person from our department had this idea and I think it is brilliant. So to have the movement, different movements– is it food, is it the environment, is it one of the occupy-related movements- come here. We provide the space. And they tell us- social theorist, social scientists, people in the academia, they tell us what do they need us to do. It comes back to this idea of listening. So give a movement or movements a real possibility and opportunity to speak. Because usually academics, we are people who speak. Well we would like to see academics become people who actually listen. 

SFBG: I agree that occupy is basically an anarchist movement and a lot of the tenants of anarchism are being used in it. And I think this is a time when, in the mainstream, people are talking about anarchism more. But for a lot of people it has the image of people who wear black and smash stuff. So I’m curious, how does black bloc, or property damage, relate to the anarchism that’s going to be studied in the department?

AG: It doesn’t relate at all. The anarchism that we are going to study is– in Katrina, the Common Ground collective. That for me is a great example. Common Ground collective is a relief group of activists who went there from all over the place, they went to New Orleans, they were all anarchists and they said OK, we don’t believe in charity, we believe in solidarity. And they built a common ground center and they did relief work with the community for a couple of years. And there is a new book about it by a person who actually came here and spoke, one of the New Orleans activists, Scott Crow. And this is the kind of anarchism I am myself inspired by, the constructive side, not the destructive side. So how to build alternatives in the present for people, what sometimes referred to as prefigurative politics. How to think about positive stuff, constructive stuff. Building alternatives that are going to be persuasive enough– not about breaking windows. I don’t see any particular point in breaking windows. And I think it’s an unfortunate thing that people would reduce anarchism to that. If you think about it, the most important public intellectuals in the United States, one of them recently died, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky thankfully is still alive, they’re both anarchists. So this is the kind of anarchism that I subscribe to, and both of them were my mentors. And I studied with Howard. I studied with Noam, he was the chair of my PhD committee. So these are the people whose anarchism I take very seriously, and this is the kind of anarchism that I like. 

SFBG: But it’s hard to ignore organizing tactics.

AG: But even orgnanizing tactics– black bloc as a tactic comes from the autonomen movement in Germany, which was not an anarchist movement. It comes from the 80s. People dressed in black in Germany, you know, doing property destruction thinking that property destruction is going to contribute to the tactical efficiency of a particular action. Then it went through the environmental movement in particular places, in the environmental movement here in the United States. And it’s being used not only by anarchists, it’s being used by people who would call themselves communists, left, anti-state communists, by different varieties, autonomous Marxists. So it’s not only a tactic that anarchists use. And, you know, it’s a tactic. Anarchism is far broader. 

SFBG: Than just tactics.

AG: Yes. If you would ask me what is the most distinguishing, for me, character of anarchism I would say prefigurative politics– creating the new within the shell of the old—the idea of direct democracy, and the idea of direct action. Direct action being producing alternatives within the present, and direct democracy, behaving in the way that general assemblies are being set up. So that is I think the greatest lesson that anarchism can teach, direct democracy and direct action. 

SFBG: Occupy Oakland, they only had their camp for less than two months, but so much happned.

AG: They did great things. I really feel bad when I read mainstream media completely dismissing that experience. I was there, and the amount of work that went into keeping the medical facilities there, to helping homeless, feeding homeless, helping people with medicine, with immediate healthcare, taking care of children, creating children-friendly spaces, I mean it was amazing. Sure there were problems, of course there are going to be problems. But the stuff that people did there was just incredible. And the general strike, and shutting the port, and all of that, these were great things.

SFBG: And part of the reason the city started cracking down on it was when police tried to enter the space, people wouldn’t let them in.

AG: And they shouldn’t let them in, because the way police behave in Oakland was just outrageous.

This interview has been edited for length.