February 25, 2005—New Durham, North Carolina
His uniform freshly-pressed and his cap set rakishly askew, Dick Brodhead swings open the bus door and greets a fresh load of passengers with a hearty “Hidey-ho, friends and neighbors!” One would hardly guess, from the looks of him, that Brodhead had once been president of one of America’s foremost academic institutions. But indeed he was, as recently as a week ago—just as sure as he now sits on the 550-member Rotating Central Committee of the New Durham Independent Learning Collective.
I climb on, in the midst of a chorus of reciprocal “Hidey-hos,” and take the seat nearest our driver. Brodhead throws the bus into gear, and as we glide past the red-draped Allen Building and no less than three spontaneous student-worker solidarity demonstrations, it’s evident that quite a bit has changed on the campus once referred to as “The Plantation.”
“To be honest,” explains Brodhead, “I think it all started with Employee Appreciation Week. One day, the haute-bourgeoisie is arranging picnics and gift baskets for their janitors. The next day, they’re completely handing over the means of production. Amazing.”
Amazing is one word for it. Even a week later, no one here at NDILC seems to fully understand the direct link between a series of simple gestures—bagel breakfasts, “THANK YOU” fliers—and what appears to be a complete localized cessation of the class struggle. Nor can anyone put a finger on just what made this year’s Employee Appreciation Week such a monumental success. But there’s no quibbling with the facts.
A single living wage for every student, employee and administrator. Professors sharing tenting duties in K-ville. Manual labor assigned on an rotating, egalitarian basis. The entire Campaign for Duke, by a unanimous vote of the Central Committee, earmarked for full-tuition student-worker scholarships over the next decade. Several dozen rhesus monkeys freed from the Duke University Medical Center.
“We were politely asked to thank Duke employees, and really mean it,” senior Ben Wolinsky told me earlier in the afternoon. “Well, I figured the only way to really mean it was to reconceptualize the capitalist superstructure, and I suppose I wasn’t alone.”
Wolinsky and his fellow student-workers may not have been seeking attention when they marched arm-in-arm down the BC walkway to peaceably strip the Duke Store of all economics textbooks and liberate the McDonald’s, but they soon found that the world was watching.
By Tuesday of Week Zero, international teams of observers from the Carter Center, the United Nations and Cuba had set up shop in GA Down Under, and President Fidel Castro was reported to have remarked that “the students of the university formerly known as Duke obviously appreciate their employees very much.” Reaction from academia was more mixed, but, in an op-ed in yesterday’s Corriere della Sera, leading Marxist Antonio Negri grudgingly leant his support to Employee Appreciation Week.
“Granted, the events in New Durham undermine almost every theoretical model I have developed over the course of my career,” wrote the bestselling co-author of Empire. “But, upon further reflection, the words of Karl Marx in the 12th footnote to the Communist Manifesto could hardly be more clear: ‘Dialectically speaking, the dictatorship of the proletariat will only come about via the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie and/or free cake.’”
As I think back over the week that was, our bus is pulling into East Campus. Expertly bringing us to a stop, Brodhead wishes me good-day and hands off his driver’s cap to a student-worker in the second row. At the bottom of the steps, Shelden Williams is waiting with a pickaxe. He tosses it to Brodhead, who catches it, pauses and then turns back. “We’re finally gonna tear down that wall,” he tells me.
I gather he means the three-foot-high barrier separating East Campus from greater Durham. But before I can ask, he and Williams are off to the borders of East, holding hands and singing Woody Guthrie songs.
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There goes the last president of Duke, I think to myself. And he’s never looked happier.
At such a moment, you’ll forgive an old columnist a sentimental thought. As Williams and Brodhead strolled off, I can’t help reflecting that they’re walking into a bright new future. A future without exploitation and alienation. A future without the tyranny of capital. A future where everyone here in New Durham appreciates everyone else very, very much.
Rob Goodman is a Trinity senior. His column appears Fridays.