Earlier this year MIT saw its largest protest since the movement against the university’s ties to apartheid South Africa. Recent outrage has focused on MIT’s ties to Saudi Arabia and their new College of Computing which promises to be a crucial cog in the U.S. military machine. This is part of a growing anti-imperialist movement at MIT.
On a sunny afternoon at the end of February, around 200 people gathered on the steps of the MIT Student Center to protest against the opening of the university’s new Schwarzman College of Computing. Students, MIT staff, and political activists from a series of different organizations had joined together to organize this protest. They held signs that read “MIT Serves Imperialism” among other things, and questioned the university’s decision to invite the war criminal and elder statesman Henry Kissinger to speak on the “ethics of artificial intelligence.” On the steps near the Student Center stood a 15-foot-tall inflatable missile with the words “War Criminal” on one side.
This protest was organized by a series of groups in a larger united front effort against the role MIT plays in U.S. imperialism and its deep ties to the U.S. monopoly capitalist class. MIT’s decision to invite Kissinger to speak on ethics reveals the university’s close ideological alignment with the U.S. empire. During the Vietnam War, Kissinger repeatedly sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam and coordinated the massive bombings of Laos and Cambodia, in which the U.S. dropped more bombs on these small countries than the Allies dropped on Europe during all of WWII. To this day, children in those countries are still being killed when they stumble across unexploded bombs. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Kissinger also was instrumental in the 1973 coup in Chile, which installed the fascist Pinochet regime, and greenlit the Indonesian government’s decision to exterminate many of the people of East Timor—a genocide which would eventually kill one third of the East Timorese population.
Henry Kissinger is an openly genocidal maniac.
These are just a few of the crimes committed by this genocidal maniac, but they show the political significance of MIT’s decision to invite Kissinger to speak on ethics. However, Kissinger’s invitation was just the most glaring example of the role MIT plays in U.S. imperialism. The opening ceremony for the College of Computing featured a “Who’s Who” of the U.S. ruling class. For example, Kissinger spoke in dialogue with Thomas Friedman, the ideologue who justified the war in Yemen, the invasion of Iraq, and many other U.S. wars, in addition to promoting neoliberal policies around the world. Friedman also worked hard to paint Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as a reformer and advocate for women’s right at the same time that MBS was locking up Saudi feminist activists and killing journalists. Ashe Carter, Obama’s last Secretary of Defense who greenlit the war on Yemen, was also invited to speak, as was Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google who famously dismissed the very notion of people’s right to privacy as his company eagerly cooperated with the National Security Agency to expanded surveillance of everyone in this country.
Also speaking was Stephen Schwarzman, the new college’s lead donor and namesake. Schwarzman is a billionaire slumlord who also runs and manages the world’s largest private equity firm, The Blackstone Group. He is a close friend of Donald Trump, and has deep ties to the Saudi Royal Family. Recently his firm received a $20 billion investment from the Saudi Royal Family’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. He also infamously compared a proposed minor tax-hike for powerful corporations to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, effectively arguing that making big companies pay slightly more taxes was equivalent to the Nazi Blitzkrieg.
Schwarzman donated $350 million to MIT to have the college named after him and to secure his ties with the university. When asked about why he donated so much money he said, “what’s important is that the U.S. be competitive on a global basis [in AI].” In the same interview he also emphasized the need for the U.S. government to work more closely with U.S. companies and universities to develop Artificial Intelligence to ensure that China does not out-compete the U.S. in the field. MIT President Raphael Reif, who was present in the same interview, made similar arguments. These comments show that the new Schwarzman College of Computing will play an integral part in the AI arms race as the world powers ramp up preparations for World War III. It should come as no surprise that MIT is mixed up in this arms race, as the university already receives well over $1 billion in annual research funding from the U.S. Department of Defense.
The protest against the opening of the Schwarzman College of Computing was not just organized in opposition to the presence of Henry Kissinger, but actually focused on the overall role that MIT plays in U.S. imperialism. Given those involved in the opening ceremonies, there was a clear link to be made. Students, activists, and revolutionaries spoke eloquently about how research done at the new college will be used to automate increasingly large portions of the U.S. military machine, from drone strikes, to unmanned submarines, and eventually even nuclear missiles. The AI research will also work to improve and expand surveillance systems that aim to monitor and analyze every aspect of our lives.
Some also spoke about how the monopoly capitalist classes around the world dominate other countries, even if they are not at war. Through the economic, cultural, and military domination of other countries, the U.S., China, and other imperialist powers suck the life-blood of poor and oppressed nations, ensuring that a larger share of the profits made in countries like Iraq, India, and others flow into the pockets of companies like Apple, Huawei, GE, and so on. In the name of “development,” imperialist countries and their powerful corporations carry out large scale neoliberal “reforms” which drive the peasantry off their land, entangle countries in debt-traps from which they can never escape, slash social-welfare programs, and put people to work for pennies in multi-national corporate owned factories. Even when countries like the U.S. and China don’t invade, these sorts of “development” policies lead to death and destruction for the people of poor countries around the world.
Others highlighted how the working people in the imperialist countries are also oppressed and disenfranchised by imperialism. Their interests do not fundamentally align with the interests of the imperialist powers. For example, one member of RUF spoke on how, despite record profits for the U.S. imperialists, the people of this country continue to get poorer and poorer. In Boston, the median wealth of Black families is $8. Around the country, nearly one third of Americans have a negative net worth, and around two thirds are living paycheck-to-paycheck, facing the constant threat of eviction, destitution, and homelessness. While the war profiteers, big banks, and tech companies make record profits year after year, the people of this country are being bled dry.
This protest was a real step forward in developing anti-war and anti-imperialist work both at MIT and in the area. At a time where the military budget in this country is inflating by tens of billions of dollar each year, and the so-called “great powers” are building up their war machines in preparation for World War III, it is very important to build a strong anti-war movement in this country. Without doing so, the progressive middle class—and even a large portion of the working class—will be drawn in by the trickery and deception of the capitalist elite, as they work to rally the people to support U.S. imperialism in a war against rival empires. We can already see this beginning to happen as liberal media outlets use the cover of opposing Trump to convince people to support continued U.S. military presence in Syria. Likewise, much of the Russia-gate coverage has been used to justify crackdowns and internet censorship in this country in the name of protecting against Russian interference in elections.
However, the success of this protest did not materialize out of thin air. It was the result of a series of struggles, both against oppressive forces and among the people. For example, at a prior demonstration at an MIT career fair, anti-war activists protested against MIT’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the university’s role in the war in Yemen. The campus police and an MIT administrator with ties to the weapons manufacturers tried to force the people to move their protest to a designated “free speech zone” far from the career fair.
The protest was successful in large part due to drawing on the creativity of the masses. Numerous students came together to create art for the protest, including this inflatable missile.
The organizers were able to delay moving by talking in circles with the chief of campus police and the administrator. As they stalled more and more people joined the protest, and it eventually reached a critical mass. At that point the people at the demonstration collectively refused to move to the “free speech zone,” knowing that MIT would not want to make a big scene by arresting a large number of students, professors, staff, and community anti-war activists.
This struggle effectively forced MIT to concede to us the right to have anti-war demonstrations on campus. So, when the protest at the College of Computing began, the police simply came up to organizers, informed them that demonstration could happen on campus, and that they just needed to make sure that the protest did not block the entrance to the event. This was a big gain and allowed the demonstration to happen without harassment from the campus police. Recent anti-war protests at MIT have also held onto this gain and been able to stay on campus. This victory is not permanent and may come under attack in the future, but it is an important achievement that has been won through the struggle.
Another struggle took place in planning the protest at the College of Computing. This struggle was amongst the people and concerned the political content of the protest. In the process of planning, two different political lines emerged. The first held that the problem with the College of Computing was that MIT did not have the right people involved. This view was based on the middle-class illusion that MIT is basically a good institution and there are just some bad or short-sighted people who make decisions like inviting Kissinger to speak. The people who put forward this political line, believed that fundamental issues with the College of Computing could be rectified by uninviting Kissinger and appointing a few “good academics” to work at the College.
The academics they wanted to support and promote were little more than imperialist stooges masquerading as middle class reformers. For example, one of them, Joy Buolamwini, pretends to be combating “bias in algorithms.” In reality, she is working improve the ability of facial recognition software to correctly detect and analyze the faces of Black people. She frames this work in terms of liberal identity politics to give it a progressive sheen, but even a basic investigation shows how her work is used by the police and security agencies to improve their abilities to monitor, surveil, and oppress Black people.
What’s more in her YouTube video “AI, Ain’t I A Woman” she praises capitalist women like Oprah and Michelle Obama, while also referring to them as “Queens” and thus playing into misogynist ideas about women. A particularly disturbing form of contemporary misogyny praises women as royalty as part of objectifying them as sex objects. As if it wasn’t disturbing enough to refer to someone as a monarch who would have ruled over impoverished peasantry and slaves, this ideology also is based on the idea that women should be worshiped as delicate sex objects, instead of treated as equals.
It is linked up to various reactionary trends in the Black community which present themselves as progressive, but ultimately argue for “Black excellence” on the grounds that Black folks were once kings and queens in Africa. If the worth of a people can only be measured by the fact that a small number of them used to be members of the ruling elite, this negates the basis for the oppressed and exploited to join together in their struggle against the oppressors. Instead, it implies that the highest aim for Black folks is for a small number of them to gain power over others. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Joy’s work is so closely aligned with the interests of the U.S. ruling class and empire. She was even invited by Obama to a White House summit on “Computer Science for All.”
Joy’s work was upheld by those support her as an example of the great work in AI being done at MIT. They argued that her involvement in the College of Computing would help ensure that the AI research done there would be “ethical.” In reality, having someone like this working at the College of Computing would not address the fundamental issues of MIT’s role in U.S. imperialism. Instead it would only help to white-wash MIT’s image while they continued to develop AI research for surveillance, drone strikes, cyber-warfare, nuclear missiles, and more.
The other political line that emerged argued that the College of Computing—much like MIT itself—is a key part of U.S. imperialism. Those who put this forward argued that MIT and this new college are fundamentally about military research, and part of the U.S. ruling class’ overall imperialist strategy. As part of their preparations for World War III they are developing a new series of technologies aimed at securing American military and technological dominance on a number of fronts.
MIT plays a key role in the U.S. empire and conducts huge amounts of military research on everything from nuclear missiles to AI.
MIT is the university which receives by far the most military funding for research, and it has long-standing ties with the military and intelligence agencies in this country. The messaging around the opening of the College of Computing and the invitation for Kissinger to speak further clarified that MIT was developing this new college in close collaboration with the U.S. state. In short, the purpose College of Computing, much like MIT itself, is to serve imperialism. Many of the more opportunist students were unwilling to acknowledge this reality, in large part because their class position and future career prospects were tied up in MIT and the connections they make while enrolled.
The second political line argued that it made sense to not only criticize Kissinger, but also MIT’s role in U.S. imperialism more broadly. This line won out, but only after some sharp internal struggle. Those who advocated the middle class politics of reformism were hesitant to sharply criticize MIT; they used a series of back-door and bureaucratic maneuvers to silence discussion. These tactics aimed at preventing serious debate over the politics of the protest and related events. In this struggle they repeatedly went back on decisions made in group meetings, including, for example, repeatedly trying to force the group to allow Joy to speak at the protest, even after it had been collectively decided not to work with her.
This opportunist maneuvering and disregard for collective decision-making is typical of liberal and middle-class politics. However, through principled collective work, the revolutionary political line won out. This was possible only through a fairly sharp struggle that directly confronted and critiqued opportunist politics. It was important to expose the actual nature of the work that Joy and others do. While the opportunists in the group were committed to supporting her work, others were simply unclear that Joy worked to improve surveillance systems. There is a lot of money and power that promotes the illusion that Joy and others like her are progressive. Promoting dead-end reformism and framing repressive measures as progressive reforms are essential aspects of the ruling class’ strategy for maintaining its dominance. It was only through the open struggle against opportunism that the stakes of the struggle became clear to many.
This is an important lesson, especially for those organizing for revolution in this country. The relatively low level of working class struggles and the proliferation of a series of “professional activist” jobs in non-profits—among other factors—has led to the dominance of reformist and opportunist politics throughout the country. The majority of the people, and especially middle-class college students, have generally not been exposed to revolutionary politics.
Numerous MIT students expressed their enthusiasm for the protest. Many said they had previously felt isolated on campus when they criticized the university’s collaboration with the military.
They are surrounded and inundated with liberal reformist politics and corporate non-profit approaches to organizing. Without struggling to expose the opportunism of these politics, many will either adopt a liberal approach themselves or drop out of the struggle altogether as they see its inability to bring about fundamental changes to the power-relations in our society. However, with a bit of struggle, opportunists can be exposed for their unwillingness to challenge the white supremacist capitalist power structure in this country. These struggles are essential to revolutionary politics.
Since this protest a new series of struggles have emerged around the future direction of the anti-war group which formed. Will this group be exclusively for students of an elite university, or can others join as well? Should the group appeal to the lowest common denominator of public opinion at MIT and water down its politics, or should it openly criticize MIT’s role in U.S. imperialism while also developing specific campaigns to unite people around demands for partial change? Should the group adopt the typical corporate executive structure of campus student groups, or should there be some basic principles of democratic centralism? Should the group only criticize U.S. imperialism and refuse to discuss the crimes of rival imperialist powers like Russia and China, or should there be open criticism of all capitalist imperialist powers regardless of their relative strength?
These and other important questions are still being struggled out internal to the group. This sort of internal struggle is the life of any political organization. In order to advance the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements in this country, this group and others will need to work through these questions internally while also struggling against the enemies and oppressors of the people. Big gains have already been won, but a long road lies in front of us as we work to resurrect the anti-war movement in this country and battle against the middle-class politics that tail behind the Democratic Party or lead the movement into other dead-ends.