Friendship and Divestment
Issue   |   Wed, 09/27/2017 - 00:07

Correction: The original version of this article contained several inaccuracies. Amherst is not directly invested in private prisons, though it does invest in companies with holdings in private prisons. Additionally, the original article stated that 14% of the College's endowment is invested in fossil fuels. This was based on a misreading of the 2016 Sustainability Report. Amherst invests about 7% of its endowment in natural resources, which includes significant investments besides nonrenewable energy. Both these mistakes have been corrected. The author regrets these inaccuracies. This article was last updated at 10:50am Sept. 30, 2017.

In her opening remarks to the class of 2020, President Biddy Martin named friendship as one of the three pillars of community life at Amherst. These remarks echoed not only a speech Martin delivered a year ago in the wake of Trump’s election, but also a letter she wrote to all students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends of the college in September of last year. In that letter, Martin praised “a student body filled with avid learners who teach one another what it means to make friendship a defining feature of community and democracy.” Other faculty have followed suit: In a co-authored piece for The Amherst Student titled “The Liberal Arts in Illiberal Times,” four professors from across a range of humanities departments wrote that “our vision of the public interest is that people from vastly different backgrounds can live and learn together, form friendships together and engage in self-examination together.”

These professors’ investment in the project of friendship is well-placed. Friendship is the process of learning to treat another human animal as an esteemed equal. It is a powerful antidote to the alienating, depressing and lonely condition of contemporary life. It is increasingly difficult, and increasingly worthwhile, to foster friendship while living within an American state riven with inequalities.

Thus, the stories we tell each other about friendship are also stories about equality and community. However, anyone who delves into Amherst’s finances quickly finds a disturbing counter-narrative: Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the college remains heavily invested in corporations whose business practices annihilate friendship and desolate communities. Two particular examples come to mind, our investments in nonrenewable energy and our investments in companies (Wells Fargo for instance) with holdings in private prisons. Both of these cases are long-standing, documented, and non-trivial.

Private prisons are one of the many forms through which American slavery re-manifests itself in the 21st century. Prisoners provide capitalists with a massive (primarily black and Latinx) pool of laborers forced to work exhausting, meaningless and debilitating jobs for virtually no individual gain. These prisons, like all labor camps that coerce workers using threats of violence, produce what Achille Mbembe refers to as “social death.” Prison wardens, security guards and capitalists — like the slave masters who came before them — violently deny the equality of those whose labor they exploit. Mbembe tells us: “The slave condition” (and the condition of the alienated prisoner) “results from a triple loss: loss of a ‘home,’ loss of rights over his or her body, and loss of political status.” Private prisons are, among other things, devoted to the project of annihilating friendship and eradicating a sense of “home.”

Over these past two months, we have also witnessed the highly destructive consequences of continued investment in fossil fuel companies that aggravate the effects of climate change. This hurricane season has provided numerous stark examples of the way in which ecological catastrophe decimates communities all over the world. By investing in fossil fuels, Amherst College weds itself to corporations that cause climate disasters, which — in President Martin’s words — subject millions to “injury and death, loss of loved ones, loss of homes and belongings, and absence of the most basic resources and infrastructure.”

Our desires are strange and self-contradictory: Our investment in friendship wars with our investment in social death. We may desire “to make friendship a defining feature of community,” yet our college’s extravagant wealth is only possible because we reap the surplus profit produced for the rich in a deeply unequal “democracy.” The college’s most readily available responses — donation drives, philanthropy and so on — are akin to placing a Hello Kitty band-aid on a gaping wound.

On campus, the Direct Action Coordinating Committee poses a more difficult but potentially far more fruitful response: a well-organized, community-driven campaign pressing for divestment from fossil fuels and companies with significant holdings in private prisons. I think that DACC’s work is somewhat akin to what psychoanalysts call “sublimation” — resisting our desire to violently negate other humans while simultaneously reinvesting in our desire for relationality and conviviality. No one who works for DACC is naive enough to believe that Amherst’s divestment will change the world in and of itself. Rather, DACC is valuable because its method of resistance makes it possible to form a horizontalist coalition of friends and comrades. A successful divestment campaign would result in not only a transformation in the college’s finances, but also a stronger association of students, staff and community members who desire equality. This would include bolstered relations with a number of similarly dedicated local organizations like the International Socialist Organization, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and the Sugar Shack alliance.

A week ago, I got into a fight with my best friend Rene. A few hours later, we met to apologize to one another. We both knew that we were being dumb and insensitive. When we met, I shared a draft of this piece with him. Human relations are always shot through with slight injuries — misunderstandings, disagreements and contradictions. However, as Rene read my draft, he reminded me that friendships redouble their strength precisely in the moments when we undergo the slow, arduous process of repair. Members of DACC know that any effort to address the wounds that injure friendship at Amherst will be met with resistance — the body’s revolt against the slight pains necessary for recovery and transformation. However, the consequences of rejecting healing are too dire for us to allow the wound to bleed out.

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