Brown has a long and proud tradition of student activist movements leading to notable achievements. One movement, opposed by top University administrators, led to the institution of the New Curriculum, coinciding with University President Ray Heffner’s resignation. In 1975, students in the Third World Coalition occupied University Hall for two days, successfully negotiating for better financial aid packages, a renewal of the University’s commitment to minority representation on campus and the establishment of what is now the Brown Center for Students of Color. University Hall was last occupied in 1992 when 253 students were arrested for not leaving the building while demanding greater financial aid and the establishment of need-blind admissions, which would be implemented many years later.
However, since then, student activism seems to have become less fervent, so much so that the first undergraduate labor union at the University could hardly attract a crowd of 70 to the rally. The real issue is that students are stuck within systems of consumption that stifle activism and make cooperation more challenging. Students must embrace the radical lifestyles needed to create change at the University by rejecting these systems.
Throughout history, Americans have been subject to various forces of social control intended to mute objection to the status quo and ensure that policies can be enacted without serious opposition. For much of American history, these forces have been overt — such as state-sponsored racism, the carceral state and systems of disenfranchisement. However, since the 1950s, a new and particularly insidious form of social control has taken over as the single most effective tool used to mute social discourse and foment hatred and distrust toward activists among the general public. This is the system of consumption, pioneered by the government partially in response to the threat of communism. The idea, in short, is that the great benefit of being an American is being able to buy any product — a contrast with the austerity of the communist lifestyle. This includes not just goods, but also media like television, movies and music.
This attitude has come to dominate modern American society. Everyone is pressured to consume as much and as frequently as possible, aided by massive conglomerates like Amazon, which provide endless products at the press of a button. At the same time, social media, which drives engagement with algorithms that promote consumption, has become one of the most ubiquitous forces in American life. The effect of this is that even the thought and effort directed toward the community or state is often seen through the lens of consumption. It is the pervasiveness of ideas of consumption that is used to mute opposition, as the need to consume becomes such an overriding force that one can hardly think through any other frame. This is not to say that this force has brainwashed Americans into consumption machines, but rather the focus of social efforts and thought generally is directed towards consumption rather than engaging with our communities and families.
This can be seen clearly in the Brown student body. Earlier this week, The Herald reported that just over half of Brown students who could vote in the midterm elections did. This is startling given Brown’s reputation as an extremely politically engaged institution. On campus, there is a startling lack of engagement in student governance. Nearly half of the University has no opinion on the way the Undergraduate Council of Students is governing the student body, and in the most recent election many positions had only one or even no students running. This incredibly important, albeit poorly run, organization receives surprisingly low levels of engagement from students. And this apathy toward the governing structures of their campus suggests that students hold a generalized apathy toward other campus issues. This is not to say there is no important work being done by activists on campus, but that their efforts can feel drowned out over students’ anxieties about landing internships.
Fortunately, one can live a radical lifestyle by simply committing to not consuming beyond what is needed. By not keeping up with every trend and repairing possessions rather than throwing them out, one can take huge steps towards rejecting these systems of social control. When one does need to buy something, purchasing it locally to support a small business instead of a large, multinational one is another way to take back power. Furthermore, rejecting social media and the distant, often consumption-driven picture it paints is an essential way for young people to reengage with the real world. While these suggestions have been offered countless times, it seems the impacts of widespread adoption are not fully understood — the entire edifice of the modern American system rests on promoting the overconsumption of media and goods, and rejecting it is the first step to creating radical change.
While adopting these lifestyles is not the only step to ensuring a future of radical change, it is a prerequisite for any other, and as such is the most important. Universities defuse movements by waiting for students to forget about their goals, by obfuscating the issue or by providing superficial wins. They know that when students are more focused on consumption than anything else, their attention will soon shift and the issue will be dropped. Adopting anti-consumerist lifestyles enables a sustained focus on important issues, ensuring they are not forgotten.Without them, we are unable to fight for other radical changes.
All of the important activist movements of Brown’s past demonstrate this. Students risked arrest, and their future at the University, but most importantly they maintained pressure for years in search of aims like a freer curriculum or need-blind admissions because they did not forget what they were fighting for.
Restoring student activism is no straightforward task and will require grappling with major forces beyond Brown. But with higher education facing challenges like the likely end of affirmative action and rising tuition costs, student activism is more important than it has been in decades. To bring a renewed focus to the issues facing our institutions we must be willing to set aside our socially instilled tendencies. Doing so will not only reinvigorate activism on campus, but may open up entirely new ways of organizing in the modern university.
Gabe Sender ’25 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.
Gabe Sender is a Staff Columnist at The Brown Daily Herald with a particular focus on campus issues and development challenges in Providence. He is currently pursuing an independent concentration in urban environmentality.