Letter from Amsterdam

Occupying the Maagdenhuis in protest is a minor tradition here. In 1969, students did so for five days. Now, it’s been almost a month. Back then, students and teachers were generally on opposite sides of the barricades, or at least teachers represented the establishment. Now, teacher and student are allies against a new establishment—the university’s Board of Directors (College van Bestuur, or CvB)—and against trends in Dutch academia and the broader world: the financialization of the university, something called rendementsdenken, neoliberalism itself.

Humanities, rally!

image courtesy of the author

The Maagdenhuis, which houses the headquarters of the Universiteit van Amsterdam, is an 18th-century building with a modern interior and a large cuboid atrium with terrible acoustics—exactly what you would expect from a space never intended for assemblies, speeches, or songs. For some reason an empty trapeze hangs from the middle of the ceiling, activated sporadically by a motor, like an invisible Dutch acrobat is doing invisible tricks. Is this art? This is what I wonder as I watch and support a revolution at my university.

Occupying the Maagdenhuis in protest is a minor tradition here. In 1969, students did so for five days. Now, it’s been almost a month. Back then, students and teachers were generally on opposite sides of the barricades, or at least teachers represented the establishment. Now, teacher and student are allies against a new establishment—the university’s Board of Directors (College van Bestuur, or CvB)—and against trends in Dutch academia and the broader world: the financialization of the university, something called rendementsdenken, neoliberalism itself.

I’m from the US, and I took a job here in 2011, teaching American studies: history classes with a cultural and literary bent. In a grim market for humanities PhDs, this was a lucky gig, and it still is. But the UvA is a confusing place—a byzantine and Kafkaesque institution, in good ways and bad—and not only because I did not speak Dutch when I arrived. (By now I understand it reasonably well.) I soon learned that there’s Dutch, and then there’s an arcane dialect of bureaucratic Dutch specific to the UvA. It was a new kind of alienation to half-understand a departmental staff meeting. Even when I understood the words, I didn’t really follow. I had the disconcerting impression that some disaster loomed on the horizon, and everyone understood it but me.

I also learned that this 383-year-old university undergoes a dramatic reorganization every damn year. Among the changes in my time here: an inane and universally loathed academic calendar (called “8-8-4”), borrowed from the sciences, was grafted onto the humanities, law, and social sciences, forcing us to restructure our courses and curricula accordingly. Research organizations were revamped. Some reorganizations involved a thousand meetings, and the new thing looked a lot like the old thing. (Vergadercultuur is a good Dutch word: “meeting-culture,” and what’s not true about Inuit words for “snow” actually is true about Dutch words for “meeting.”) Other reorganizations were more dreadful, and made you doubt your life choices. Control over curricula drifted upward from departments to new structures that stood between us (the teachers) and the administration. I grumbled but ultimately went along with these top-down “reforms,” as did most of my colleagues.

(An architectural aside: I work in the PC Hoofthuis, a crazy life-size Playmobil nightmare from 1976 that nevertheless has grown on me, somehow. Tangled hallways, stairways in unlikely places, and windows into every classroom and office. It is the opposite of a panopticon. When I moved here someone told me the building was a lot like Dutch bureaucracy: it’s transparent, sure, but you’ll still get lost all the time.)

Humanities, Rally!

Last fall, the Faculty of the Humanities faced a massive budget deficit. The ostensible culprit: declining enrollment. The funding model of the university means we depend on numbers of students, and with fewer of them we can’t keep the ship afloat. The administration’s statements to the press added insult to economic injury—for instance, they publicly named the imperiled programs, such as the so-called “small languages,” which have relatively few students. (It’s a strange phrase—isn’t Dutch a small language compared to Arabic?) How can you attract and inspire potential students when you don’t know whether your program is going to continue to exist? News arrived in strange ways: dour emails on Friday afternoons, leaks to the press.

Confusion and fatalism about the future took its toll on morale. Teachers with temporary contracts likely would not be renewed; everyone else would have to pick up the slack. But what could we do? Fewer students and we’re 7 million euro in the red! Or maybe it’s 11 or 12 million. A few months before that it was 3 or 4 million. No one seemed to know where these numbers came from, and they shifted all the time. (One of the protest’s demands is a genuinely independent commission to evaluate the university’s finances.)

In November, students started to protest against the budget cuts (bezuinigingen), and against “Profiel 2016”—the dramatic yet mysterious and certainly over-hasty reorganization plan devised by the leadership of the Faculty of Humanities to deal with the cuts. The name of the protest group was “Humanities Rally”; “Humanities, Rally!” was their slogan.

February 13: Occupation of the Bungehuis

On February 13, a few dozen students calling themselves the “Nieuwe Universiteit” (New University), occupied the Bungehuis—a 1930s art deco building in the center of Amsterdam, which the university is selling to developers who want to turn it into a Soho House—that is, a luxury club and hotel. Temperamentally, I am not an activist, and I wasn’t sure what to make of this occupation. Early on, an emeritus professor told me he disliked the administration but thought these students were “overplaying their hand.” Amazingly, they held the building for eleven days. To go in, you had to climb up a ladder and through a window.

The CvB’s first great misstep, a trigger for much of what has followed, was to threaten to charge each student an impossible 100,000 euros for every day of the occupation. If the standoff didn’t have our attention before, it did now. One could object to such a farcical punishment, after all, without supporting the occupation itself.

The first open letter I signed called the administration’s threat to the students “a form of blackmail against a nonviolent student protest.” Whatever one thought of the occupation, “occupying a university building is a time-honored part of the repertoire of student protest, and  criminalization and financial threats of such magnitude against them is disproportionate and unjustifiable.” Eventually over seven thousand people signed a related petition, including Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, David Harvey, Saskia Sassen, and David Graeber (who would come to the Maagdenhuis on March 7 and deliver his remarks sitting on the floor, cross-legged).

The timing here is important. The Bungehuis occupation occurred just when faculty grumbling was starting to settle into yet another resigned capitulation. The students thus opened opportunities for staff that we ourselves had given away.

February 24: Eviction Day

I could see the police vans and a crowd gathering around the Bungehuis through my crazy Playmobil office window two blocks away. It became a lovely sunny day. I joined the crowd outside, having never seen this ritual in Amsterdam before. The police stayed quiet and stone-faced, professional. One cop looked amused. Their horses were imposing, and they pushed the crowd out of the way a couple times, but the police didn’t strike me as villainous or militarized; in the US it probably would have played out a lot worse. They combed the building, and whenever they carried out a student, the crowd erupted in cheers of solidarity. It took much longer than the police expected. Forty-six were arrested, one student was injured. Someone set off an orange smoke bomb, and it was beautiful against the gloriously graffitied blue building next door.

February 25: March to the Maagdenhuis

The first big march took place the next day, to demonstrate that the occupiers weren’t, as the CvB had claimed, just some radical fringe of discontent. In fact, the occupation and eviction of the Bungehuis tapped a well of frustration that had been building for several years, and now it was bursting to the surface. I walked with colleagues, saw some students of mine in the crowd. It was festive. On the square in front of the Maagdenhuis there were speeches, but I could’t really hear them. After a couple hours I went to have a beer, then headed home to work.

But meanwhile the protesters had broken through the Maagdenhuis doors! And there was my colleague Guy Geltner on TV, eloquently condemning this administration! Unlike the occupation of the Bungehuis, this one was genuinely spontaneous.

The CvB arrived. The president, Louise Gunning-Schepers, said the most ill-calculated thing to this earnest crowd: “If you are a peaceful and democratic community, then you will not take possession of other people’s organizations. This is our Maagdenhuis.” Our? If a second occupation wasn’t already inevitable, this phrase made it so. And rather than an occupation, the protesters could call it a liberation —or, with a wink, a reappropriation.

This is how a local protest against arcane budget cuts evolved into a far more ambitious movement.

The Netherlands is a small country, and Amsterdam, though cosmopolitan in the extreme, often feels like a village. If American students occupied, say, a CUNY administrative building, it might be news in New York, but it wouldn’t be live streamed, eagerly watched, and avidly discussed by people all over the country. But that’s how it was here. The local TV station AT5 broadcast the proceedings, and they were streamed online. The protesters used Occupy’s rules of order, insisting that even the university president raise her hand. The student facilitator (he would be a leader if this weren’t a democratic endeavor) wore a signature red scarf.

At some point, someone suggested calling the mayor. Temperature check on calling the mayor? Does anyone have the mayor’s number? OK, let’s call the mayor. What do we want to say to the mayor? It was thrilling. I know some who found this a bit silly. But the mayor showed up! And he was wearing an eye patch! (Recovering from surgery, apparently.) He stayed till 1:20 in the morning! He charmed the crowd. He didn’t endorse the occupation, but it was clear that the eviction of the Bungehuis had backfired and wouldn’t be repeated, at least for a while. His ambiguous parting words, as quoted in several newspapers, acknowledged the Amsterdammishness of this standoff—part blessing, part admonition, part evasion:

“You haven’t heard me say that this is a bad action, or that you have to leave now. This is Amsterdam, so there is always just a little more room. [As students] you must be critical, but it is up to you to decide whether to stay in this stalemate. I wish you wisdom, a little harmony and better studies.”1

Euphoria is a genre ingredient of revolutionary chronicles, and yet euphoria is precisely the hardest thing to capture in words. I wasn’t even there that first night, so my euphoria is secondhand. But there was something powerful, politically and ritually, about this reclaiming of “our” Maagdenhuis. When David Graeber came a week later, he said something about protests in general: We expect that the act of overthrow comes first, and the fully realized democratic culture comes later. In fact, you can enact the democratic culture immediately, and perform it until the police come. This was probably obvious to veterans of Occupy, but I hadn’t seen it in action before.

February 28: ReThink UvA

Until this point, professors had not been especially visible. This changed at a Saturday afternoon meeting of teachers and students that became the first general assembly of “ReThink UvA.” It’s a good name; the Dutch word is herdenken, which can also mean “commemorate.” ReThink UvA includes people from many faculties, not just the humanities, and befitting a movement both national and international, language alternates between English and Dutch.

There were hundreds, hundreds, hundreds of emails—but for the first time in years I didn’t automatically utter an anxious, alienated curse every time some institution-related email arrived. Before long there was a website that cheekily emulated the look of the UvA’s own website, and an impressive roster of lectures and events. (Have academics ever moved so quickly? In fact the students occupying the Bungehuis beat us to the punch with a good roster of their own.) Some teachers held their classes or gave rousing lectures in the atrium of the occupied Maagdenhuis; David Graeber’s visit was a major event. But in this context, the real radicalism didn’t lie only in the blessing of an anarchist anthropologist. It lies, for instance, in the “New University of Color,” a group within the movement that aims to “decolonize the university” and has hosted the Dutch feminist scholar Gloria Wekker.

A national labor union federation signed on, making for an interesting encounter between the new, sometimes utopian strategies of Occupy and the union’s traditional pragmatism. We are on the same side, but the union meetings don’t use jazz hands.

In the building a range of solidarities have been expressed: “Solidarity with the hunger strikers in Greece against isolation prisons.” “Wij vechten óók voor Democratie in Thailand. We are suffering like you from a non-Democratic system,” says a small paper hung in the entryway. There are signs in Hebrew, Arabic, Norwegian, Croatian, French. An American guy who has long run an underground cinema in Amsterdam has set up shop upstairs, inaugurating the infelicitously named “Virgin’s Bed Cinema.” (Maagdenhuis literally means “virgins’ house”; the building was originally an orphanage for Catholic girls. This was one of several bad puns.) Among other things, he’s screened Orson Welles’s adaptation of The Trial and Sun Ra’s Space is the Place. Crowds gather for concerts, shitty acoustics be damned.

“Screw us and we multiply,” says the big banner in the center. Certainly not everything in this flurry of radical theory, art, music, bandwagoning, utopianism, and frivolity has much to do with the governance structure of the University of Amsterdam, but it is remarkable anyway to see what fills this liberated building while ReThink UvA’s different working groups go about assembling their reports. I think this is what a colleague means when she calls the Maagdenhuis a “sacred space of democratization.”

Is all this just a tempest in a Dutch teapot? Or are our grievances and our actions significant abroad? I think they are significant, otherwise I would not be writing this. I think they fit into the broader uproar throughout Europe, over universities in particular and austerity in general. Even as I write, similar antineoliberalization movements have cropped up at other universities in the Netherlands, in Oslo, at LSE and other UK campuses, in Macedonia, and at the University of Toronto.

But I will keep this chronicle local. I think—at the risk of generalizing about an entire culture and annoying some friends here—that to understand how things have taken shape in this context it is good to know three untranslatable Dutch words: gezelligheid, rendementsdenken, and polderen.


All cultures are proud of certain supposedly untranslatable words. It is a relatively benign form of nationalism. The first thing you learn about Dutch is that there’s this lovely adjective, gezellig, to describe distinctively Dutch communal pleasures. Cozy but festive, gemeinschafty, friendly, social in an inviting rather than alienating way, the din of a warm community that never gets so loud that you can’t hear your own voice. (Other cultures have equally “untranslatable” words with the same function: gemütlich, hyggelig.) To master the pronunciation of the noun gezelligheid—two uvular fricative Gs, and a diphthong EI that somehow flirts with but never becomes a long I or a long A—is to gain entry into that cultural aspiration.

In the Café ’t Schuim, across from the Bungehuis, I had the feeling that this was the most gezellig revolution in academic history. Professors, lecturers, PhDs, and students convened there for coffee before marching our open letter over to the dean of the humanities. You walk into the Maagdenhuis and there’s a nice reception desk to greet you. (Do occupied buildings usually have reception desks?) The normal security guards are working their shifts, and students told me they all get along just fine. Around town, you spot someone else wearing a red fabric square pinned to their jacket (the sign of solidarity) and smile. I’d thought the red square referred to a general leftness, and there are black squares, too—for the anarcho-syndicalists, I guess. But I’ve since heard that red ones are about debt: subsidies for students will be cut next year, leading to more student loans, and they don’t want to be “in the red” like English and American students.


One word that the Dutch might be less proud of is rendementsdenken. Where gezellig is elusive in a lovely way, rendementsdenken is insidious and slippery. Like gezelligheid, though, you know rendementsdenken when you see it. Rendement can mean yield, efficiency, performance, profit. Rendementsdenken means “efficiency-thinking,” but it can refer both to the simple balancing of your books and to an ideology of extreme profit maximization, a white-collar Taylorism.

Rendementsdenken is broadly continuous with “neoliberalism,” another term that few people apply to themselves. But at the UvA it has a particular history, detailed with righteous anger by the geographers Ewald Engelen, Rodrigo Fernandez, and Reijer Hendrikse (UvA alumni all) in a recent article in Antipode that is now part of the protest’s scriptures.

The title is clear enough: “How Finance Penetrates its Other: A Cautionary Tale on the Financialization of a Dutch University.” The story begins in 1995, when ownership of a great deal of Dutch universities’ public real estate was transferred from the government to the universities themselves. In 1998, the UvA unveiled a massive real estate plan, consolidating the university into four modern centers (natural sciences, medical sciences, social sciences, and humanities). In so doing, it took on debts, and the administration’s assumptions about interest rates and construction were optimistic to say the least. Meanwhile, the university governance structure was overhauled in 1997 to resemble a corporation. Power shifted from staff and students to professional managers, and new top-level administrators tended to be not older professors, as in the tweedy days of yore, but rather former politicians and people from the financial and legal world.

With the UvA’s greater financial concerns, financial expertise was brought in-house. The Maagdenhuis itself offers a dismal illustration: when not occupied, this university administration building houses twenty-one employees dealing with Real Estate Management, thirteen with Finance and Control, eight in Strategy and Information, and only seven in Academic Affairs.

What did all this mean for scholarship and teaching? For scholarship, it meant that funding was tied more and more to academic output according to key performance indicators; it introduced metrics for things that aren’t so precisely measurable, and the agenda was set more and more by national funding organizations. (Are four articles that happen to appear in peer-reviewed journals better than one solid book? And isn’t that demand for specialized, wetenschappelijk [“scientific”] production at odds with the simultaneous demand that we “valorize” our work and grandly proclaim its social relevance?)

For teaching, it means deprofessionalization, in that it erodes professional security and relies more and more on cheaper, nonpermanent contracts. Curricula are streamlined, and degrees are churned out at a faster pace. Engelen et al. worry that the university is becoming “a Fordist production machine for academic certificates.” Students have less time and money to pursue their studies, even as the labor market is less welcoming than it was before the crisis.

It has also meant more administrative bullshit. David Graeber’s new book on bureaucracy proposes an “Iron Law of Liberalism”: “any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.” That seems to apply here, too. Efficiency-thinking has not been not very efficient.

How much this resembles or doesn’t resemble the management of American universities, public or private, I am not sure. Top-tier American universities have treated endowments like hedge funds, successfully or unsuccessfully, and a flourishing endowment can sustain humanities departments, after all, even if it might transform the humanities into a luxury for a privileged elite. The US also has a different tradition of elite academic philanthropy: an alliance with capital that undergirds the radical critiques of capitalism produced by history and literature departments.

If the UvA’s management had been better at quasi privatization, maybe our coffers would be flush with cash and we wouldn’t be out marching. But that’s immaterial now. Whether corruption, malice, or well-intentioned ineptitude drove the CvB, the yield of its rendementsdenken has been the contrary truth that a public university in a strong welfare state should be a refuge from financialization, not its epitome. Universities are “collective repositories of the long history of human knowledge and wisdom,” the radical geographers write in Antipode, in poignantly conservative tones, and it’s high time “to kick the bean counters and their managerial allies out of our temple.”

March 4: Ultimatum

On Wednesday, March 4, ReThink UvA gave the administration six demands, and a deadline. The first three were immediate and specific: 1) that there be a moratorium on restructuring and property sales; 2) that the CvB agree to “initiate a detailed proposal on how they intend to facilitate a democratization of the UvA and restore the relations of trust they have undermined, or else resign from their posts”; 3) that they initiate an independent investigation of the university’s financial situation (since the budget crisis, tied up as it was with real estate and high financial modernism, had been shrouded in mystery). The other three represent broader ideals, like quality over quantity, a better balance of teaching and research, a real path to advancement for temporary staff.

(Let me say here that for me, the problem of temporary employment in academia is the most urgent one—not for my own sake but because of close colleagues here and dear friends in the US. By chance, Eviction Day at the Bungehuis coincided with National Adjunct Walkout Day in the US. The Netherlands’ system of temporary contracts is more humane than the cruel and chronic dependence on adjuncts that afflicts American universities, but they are of a piece, and I don’t have the eloquence to capture my anger about it.)

We—and here I will begin to include myself, since I eagerly raised my hands in the democratic assembly—gave the CvB till Friday at 4 PM; otherwise we would “escalate our struggle, including but not limited to walkouts, teach-ins, symbolic actions, petitions, occupation of UvA buildings and facilities, performances, gatherings, and strikes.” Strikes! Not everyone is in favor of strikes. Interestingly, students seemed to support the strike idea, while teachers don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes students. (And such was the Dutch media’s attention that during an assembly meeting, when we discussed a draft of a statement that merely mentioned strikes, an item appeared in Het Parool: “Teachers threaten strike.”)

By 4 PM on Friday, the CvB had asked for more time—ReThink UvA’s somewhat cheeky response noted that we were used to frazzled students asking for extensions. We gave them until Monday at 9 AM At 9:13 they needed yet more time. In response, ReThink UvA essentially disowned the CvB.

It seemed like a poker game, or a bureaucratic game of chicken. I had no idea what the best strategy was, so I didn’t chime in at the assembly. (Usually someone else says what I would have said, more eloquently and decisively than I could have.) Are we bluffing? Are they? Are we really going to occupy another building? Can we just go ahead and elect our own CvB, under their noses? I wasn’t the only one taken aback when a historian colleague took the microphone and said, “I am a moderate by temperament and in my politics, but this CvB must resign.”

In fact it wasn’t a game of chicken at all. We were the people, and when we declared that we had no confidence in the CvB, on some level the CvB simply ceased to be. There is something mystical about that, I suppose; and here is where the movement’s utopianism parts ways with the institutional realism of traditional labor organizing. But maybe the utopian and the practical can exist side by side; the one needs the other.

On Tuesday, March 10, the CvB sent what seemed like a soul-searching message to all students and all staff, acknowledging “a feeling of concern that the university is gradually losing its way.” It proposed ten broad points, which, read generously, were more or less in line with the protesters’ goals. It was a victory, or at least the beginning of one, and this sort of statement would have been unthinkable a month ago—before two occupations that required a stamina that surpassed all expectations. But we were also cautious: read in another light, their response was airy and vague, perhaps an instance of the tried-and-true Dutch strategy of de-escalation through accommodation. They said nothing about an independent financial investigation, for instance, and in any case the devil is in the details.


Polderen (verb) is a Dutchism with a concrete past and a mythic one. The mythic one is that much of the Netherlands consists of literal polders, land reclaimed from the sea in the primordial past. If you were a primordial Dutchman, you had to cooperate with people you hated, otherwise you would all sink as your polders collapsed. More concretely, polderen is a form of, and a set of attitudes about, political negotiation, which lay behind the collective labor agreements of the last four or five decades.

In general, poldering works. And it’s tedious in the extreme—all these meetings, all this real and ritual consensus-building. Strikes are rare in the Netherlands. “The political system is designed to be dull. If anything exciting, interesting or dramatic ever happens in Dutch politics, it means that something’s gone horribly wrong.” If great dramas are rare, energies and antagonisms diffuse into the smaller dramas. The Dutch imagine themselves to be blunt; in practice, business is done in modulating keys of bluntness and evasion. But at least the polder-model presumes a basic parity between negotiating parties.

Most of the hated university “reforms” of recent years were pushed through with only the veneer of consensus. The CvB’s actions represent a failure to polder, a betrayal of Dutchness. They insulted the intelligence of the UvA’s researchers, teachers, and students. This is why “trust” has been such an issue, at once emotional and political. The demand that the CvB somehow restore trust is vague but powerful, and for some of those who have occupied the Maagdenhuis, it can never be satisfied.

At the same time, the radical part of the protest movement is also beyond the usual habits of Dutch negotiation. (In fact, one of the key elements of this story is that many of the most active protesters have academic backgrounds outside of the Netherlands.) I don’t mean this as a criticism; I mean only that poldering is, ultimately, moderate by nature, even if radical ideas can be expressed within the building of consensus. The CvB met with a few people from ReThink UvA, and I’m told that it took an hour to convince them that this meeting was not a negotiation, that the ReThinkers could not act without consulting the assembly first, that they had no authority without the whole.

I do not know how this will resolve. Fatigue eventually conquers many protest movements, and this has been a full-time job for those truly involved. (Again, I have been more observer than participant, but I’ve admired the wisdom of those colleagues of mine who have penned the open letters and managed the working groups. If they are reading this, I hope that admiration is obvious.) I’ve emphasized the gezelligheid of the occupied Maagdenhuis, but even if we have made the Maagdenhuis a sacred space of democratization, with all the aspirations to the eternal that sacredness implies, people have lives they want to get back to.

A protest movement might also be done in by its own divisions, rather than by its antagonists. Inevitably there will be tensions between the harde kern (“hard core”) who fought the good fight from the beginning, and who have cleaned the Maagdenhuis’s toilets, and the mere fellow travelers (like me) who can wax romantic about democratization. For that matter, are the interests of teachers and students really so perfectly aligned? Maybe not. But it is a mark of the failures of this administration that such a coalition has been sustained for so long.

I confess that within my broad agreement with the protest, I have been weirdly impressionable as everything unfolds—and not just because Dutch institutions are still strange to me. A strike is a good idea! A strike is a bad idea! The university has lost its way! Wait, it’s absurd to suggest that there was some golden age when universities were pure places! But still! Democratization is important! No, democratization is vague, and less important than decentralization! I am still figuring it out, and meanwhile I’m grateful that the colleagues who have led this particular protest have been wise enough for me to defer to. It might have been otherwise.

March 13: Democratiseer de universiteit!

There was one more big demonstration, on Friday the 13th. It started to feel like spring. The huge crowd marched through the center of Amsterdam. Ewald Engelen gave a rousing speech in front of a property (Hotel Le Coin, appropriately) that’s part of the UvA’s real estate plan. The word rendementsdenken elicited boos and hisses. Someone leaned out from an upper window of de Slang, the garishly painted yellow squatters’ commune across from the Bungehuis, and shouted a speech in Dutch, too fast for me to follow. Bright flares gave everything an eerie glow in the dusk. I suppose a good chunk of this no longer had to do with the arcane issues of the UvA. Apparently a few people were arrested when they set fire to Het Lieverdje (a bronze statue of a boy, in front of the Athenaeum bookshop near the Maagdenhuis). But hey, it’s bronze, and they were paying homage to the Dutch Provo movement’s surrealist “happenings” of the 1960s. Even the hooligans are traditionalists.

Protest movements can veer into the theatrical and the ridiculous. Was it good for us when the marchers sat down on the tram tracks in the Dam, blocking traffic? I have my doubts. I also don’t know how to navigate that line between satire and aggression. Some occupiers posted Louise Gunning-Schepers’s Maagdenhuis office on Airbnb (“Romantische en luxe nacht Maagdenhuis: 9,487 euro”). This is hilarious and even brilliant, but it probably isn’t necessary.

The protest more broadly has been absolutely necessary, and I write that as someone not inclined to celebrate the activist university. I often tire of the default political righteousness of scholarship in my own field, and I even long for genuinely conservative voices. This tendency to claim that our work is somehow always radical or resistant has risen hand in hand with the tendentious demand to justify the humanities as relevant, useful, practical, and might in some insidious way be part and parcel of it.

The issues in Amsterdam do not line up with a binary between left and right. This is important to the movement’s international resonance. David Graeber noted in passing that the demands of humanities students are, in a sense, actually quite conservative. It is the students who speak up for pure knowledge, for the value of study for its own sake, for the cultural or human heritage, for some of the things teachers aren’t always good at voicing anymore. It seems old-fashioned to suggest that the humanities are autotelic, self-justifying, but that is what I want to believe.

For now, the Maagdenhuis is still occupied, or liberated. Banners abound, more colorful than before. Tourists walk in and out, a little wide-eyed, as if this is one more Amsterdam sight to see. In the evening, upstairs in the president’s office, people from the protests meet with Jasper van Dijk, socialist member of the national parliament. They discuss the fine points of the current university funding model and talk about alternatives, structural changes, varieties of democratization. It is a bit dizzying to someone unfamiliar with the workings of Dutch politics, but it’s promising, and because this is the Netherlands there will be more meetings. It seems obvious that this is the kind of conversation we need to have, yet it took two occupations and tremendous dedication to get here.

Downstairs, beneath “Screw Us and We Multiply,” a jazz trio plays for an audience of twenty or so. It’s exam week; students are studying in various postures and contortions. Somehow the flugelhorn sounds warm in this cold, square, free space. Tomorrow is Day 29.

  1. The mayor’s comment is difficult to translate, but it suggested that as with other Dutch tolerances (gedoogbeleid), there is always a little wiggle room, and he hinted at, without explicitly stating, a certain sympathy with students’ tendency to doubt authority. The openness of his words to interpretation is apparently one reason this mayor is quite popular. The original is: “Je hebt mij niet horen zeggen dat dit een slechte actie is, of dat jullie weg moeten nu. Dit is Amsterdam en daar kan altijd net iets meer. Je moet kritisch zijn, maar je moet zelf weten of je in deze patstelling blijft. Ik wens jullie wijsheid, een beetje harmonie en een betere studie.” 

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