We post here a short interview with the “Duke Collective,” a group of graduate students at Duke University who in 2012 began to collectivize their grants, stipends, and awards. They currently number 8 students with more scheduled to join over the summer. At the end of the interview, we have uploaded a document authored by the collective which goes into more detail as to their practice and the resistance put up by their departments and the administration at Duke.
SUM: Tell us about the Duke Collective. How did it come about? What does it do?
DC: It essentially began out of necessity, where a couple of our friends had no means to ensure their livelihood during the summer — or at least, thought they couldn’t ensure their livelihood through their current habitual and epistemological limits. So we thought, my roommate and I, that we often engage in wage sharing practices with our friends on a daily basis, whether it be buying them a drink or going out for dinner, so why not extend that logic beyond its traditional limitations and see where it takes us.
And so it initially began as a kind of emergency fund, where we didn’t put our entire wage in but only some of our stipend for collective use, mostly as a substitution for a lack of summer funding opportunities to friends who were on international visas, and therefore weren’t allowed to work, at least not legally. So it started with three people in the summer: myself, my roommate, and a friend of ours who isn’t a graduate student.
Then, as time went on, more friends heard about the project and wanted to join in. So it grew to about 6. We then had a few discussions about why we were limiting it to a kind of charity fund, as opposed to going all in, with the idea that we should try and have our economic relations also reflect our social relations, that is, we are totally reliant on others for our subsistence, so why not reflect those relations economically, and see what comes of it — noting that individuated wage and salary structures are probably the strongest enforcer in giving one a sense of individual autonomy, masking our collective reliance beneath an ideology of autonomy. That is, first you get paid individually, and then you start to believe you can survive on your own — a kind of Pascalian materialism that Althusser drew on in his ISA essay.
So we started pooling our entire wage into one account to which we all had access. Of course there were some limitations — certain banks wouldn’t allow you to share unless you were family, and others still had a numerical limit on to how many people could belong to an individual account, unless we opened up a business account, which — for tax and income reasons — we couldn’t do. But eventually we found one that didn’t care for filial relations and just wanted our money, and therefore let us bring in whomever and however many into the fold.
We then decided to try and extend this relation beyond our small circle of friends and into, first, our graduate department as a whole, to see who would be on board– this was after a series of confrontations with our department over funding and financial transparency issues, and the culture of professionalism that came with it. So we decided that, since at Duke our funding is fairly sizable ($21,000) a year, if we pooled our wages amongst the entire graduate student body, we can begin to distribute our funds more equitably, and initiate a culture of collective wealth and intellectual collaboration, rather than individual poverty and scholarly competition, all the while not even having to deal with the bureaucratic side of university departments since they would never agree to such a proposition, and the power was essentially in our own hands.
But we heard the usual objections, this is an impossible project, or it cant work, or we like deferring responsibility to some big Other called the department, since the idea of managing ourselves and our desires collectively takes too much time and energy (i.e. revolution of the everyday is too much work), etc etc.
Those of us who were involved had the convenience of being friends — that is — having solidarity established before we started, which makes taking that economic risk of sharing your subsistence with one another a bit easier; whereas to open up this project to people who you are not intimate with provokes all kinds of fears and anxieties, understandably so — especially when they are aware that there are no checks and balances to the project except for our own self-governance; everyone his own bureaucrat as someone recently put it.
In any case, now it functions as an everyday practice. We pay our bills through the account, groceries, etc. There are few if not all together zero rules. It’s actually quite mundane — because we are fairly homogenous class, with rather equal pay (though there are upper year students who no longer receive funding but I can go into that later), it hasn’t created drastic changes on our daily life except in little but important ways — there is no talk of who pays for what when; our homes and cars are shared fluidly; we’ve tried incorporating to get discounted rates on wifi, heating, plumbing, and so on; money as a form social mediation has to some degree been mitigated in our circle, though it is obviously still present once we emerge out of our urban collective.