Calls for divestment must feed into systemic change

The issue of divesting Vassar’s endowment from fossil fuel companies has been gaining steam this past semester. As part of a national movement on the rise, especially amongst universities, a group of dedicated campaigners has tried to persuade the Vassar Board of Trustees to withdraw the school’s investments in companies engaging in activities detrimental to the welfare of the Earth and its organisms.People have objected to the idea, citing arguments that we would destabilize Vassar’s endowment and thus jeopardize its finances, despite evidence that investment in the companies being targeted is but a small fraction of the entire portfolio. Other staunch defenders of the status quo extend the defeatist cry that the practical economic impact on the corporate giants amounts to nothing, even if all university endowments did divest—something that the campaigners have no illusions about, having argued that divestment is political rather than economic.

These points based on a politically conservative guarding of the status quo—supplemented with a healthy dose of trust in “invisible hand” market forces that cause knee-jerk reactions to any mention of economic intervention or amelioration—have been countered by the campaign already. But it is also possible to approach this issue from the standpoint of the Far Left. The so-called “liberal left” of the modern democratic West has strayed far from its roots in the radical far left of the early 20th century, and criticisms can be leveled against the agenda of divestment from this side of the political spectrum.

Such charges against divestment revolve around the fact that, until now at least, the campaign seems to be content to struggle and fight within the system. Not the system of Vassar College’s administration—though so far the campaign has remained cooperative—that is, but the system of capitalism. Divestment is fundamentally a strategy that stays within capitalism. It contains, hidden underneath, a tacit disavowal of the struggle against capitalism itself in favor of fighting for gains within the already-existing economic structure.

Divestment does not address the systemic problems of capitalism—commodity exchange, the “market”, and so on—that are at the very root of the crises in conservation, inequality, and other areas. Working within the capitalist system in this way may appear to ultimately achieve tangible gains, but in the end it leaves the underlying global crisis that is capitalism unscathed. An initiative that in the beginning appears progressive might only be labeled as moderate at best.

Having leveled these charges against the divestment movement, then, let me argue still that it should be supported. It is true that the campaign does not explicitly challenge the institution of capitalism. But again, its aim is primarily political, rather than directly economic. Its success would show that change within the system is possible, at least. Once the proverbial foot has wedged itself in the door, it can be called on as precedent for further rectifications to be made toward the economic practices that are currently so dysfunctional. Call me a Fabian, but, barring violent revolution—which appears neither feasible nor desirable—it seems that piecemeal reform is the only route to more equitable distribution of wealth and righting the social ills spawned by capitalism. Divestment may serve to show that the bastion can be shaken, but it will take much more to topple it.

It is necessary, then, to have in mind a larger, overarching direction. Pragmatism may be valued but theory too has its place. Pushing for fossil fuel divestment at Vassar College may be a small step in the larger national divestment picture, but the national campaign too is only the first step in a much greater mission to escape the current dysfunctional political-economic systems of the U.S. and the West at large.

We must realize that it will not suffice to work within the very system that causes the problems. My hope is that the the divestment campaign’s momentum will, instead of dissipating upon success, feed into a call for substantial political and economic systemic change. While it will serve the campaign to focus on its immediate goals now, such overarching rhetoric should not be omitted, lest members of the movement be lulled into a false sense of victory in winning the battle but ultimately—unbeknownst to them—losing the war.


—Martin Man ‘16 is a student at Vassar College.

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