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The 51 of the 99

As faithful readers know, my colleagues and I recently published a book called Not Drowning but Waving: Women, Feminism and the Liberal Arts (UAP 2011): I blogged about it here if you want an overview. One of the questions that’s been nagging at me since NDBW came out is whether the book and its concerns might be belated. The occasion for the project was the career of the first woman Dean of Arts; since 2006, both the Interim Dean and the new Dean have been women. Some contributors wrote about how hard it is to be a mother and an academic; since then, conversations here at hook&eye – and here, and here – suggest things might be getting better. For my part, I was ground down and crazy in 2006; happily, I’m no longer as vulnerable as I once was to institutional bullshit. And so on.

I raised the question with my friend and collaborator JW: are we living the change we hoped to see? And she said yes, but only in small part, the part that is centered in the privileged classes which we tenured and tenure-track colleagues help comprise. She went on:

The gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater (except during the Gilded Age), and this is not even taking into account the conditions of women in many parts of the world. The equity audit of the universities is one thing, but all the big equity audits indicate that Canada has not come nearly far enough in closing the gap between men’s and women’s wages. And the very very wealthy are so unbelievably wealthy that some of them are embarrassed by it — admittedly not many, but some. And our governments won’t do anything about it. Even in the university the gap between the privileges of women academics and our mostly female support staff is massive.

Which brings me to where I am today, thanks to the magic of hotwire: a hotel on the corner of Wall St and William, two blocks from Occupy Wall Street.

Wed 12 Oct 4pm: the occupation began 17 Sept 2011

Confession: I was skeptical. Partly it’s because I’m old: I cut my political teeth defending abortion clinics in California, an action with a clear, pragmatic goal and a well defined ideology. Partly it’s because I’m an administrator: what’s a demonstration without a manifesto? what does “leaderless resistance movement” mean, and exactly how do these people think they’ll achieve whatever it is they want, without a clear go-forward plan and next steps? But partly it’s because I didn’t really think OWS had much to do with me. A belated response to the bailout debacle, I thought. An American issue in a city where unemployment approaches 10%, I thought. Not my issue, I thought.

Spending some time at OWS today has made me change my mind about that. It was exciting and fascinating and surprisingly inspiring to be in Zuccotti Park. Among the folks there on a rainy Wednesday nearly a month after the occupation began: librarians, anarchists, communists, atheists, christians, jews, muslims (conversation near me: is Wall Street a jewish conspiracy or a new victimization?), Tibetan monks, students, professors, journalists, trade unionists (I saw Teamsters, the Wobblies, and my friend Hector’s SEIU local, 32BJ), African Americans holding banners proclaiming debt as the new slavery, something called the Retail Action Project, guys looking for beer (“you know where I can get some? I’m really riled”), and a man who appeared so old that he may very well have marched against Wall Street back in 1929. 

As you might expect, that diverse a crowd makes for a certain diversity of concerns: a semiotic richness, an ideological slipperiness. Some people are angry at oil baronry:

 Some people want better working conditions:

Some people are voluble (the sign below quotes Henry Ford, “It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning”) and some are terse (one woman drew the invisible hand giving the finger):

I particularly loved the Granny Peace Brigade:

While it’s true that there is no single overarching position and no definitive action plan, there is a definite feel to the occupation. The feel is exasperation. It’s like a whole bunch of unrelated people got up one day and thought: are you fucking kidding me? It’s about 2008, and the big bank bailouts, and the debt ceiling; it’s the endlessness of underemployment, the Tea Party and Fox News. But mostly it feels like that dream you have where you simply cannot face one more email / student essay / scholarly rejection / committee meeting, and so you push back your chair, stand up, and walk away. That walk ends, I think, at Zuccotti Square.

People are fed up with the world we have. They are fed up with a system where it’s okay for some people to get obscenely rich and others to sell plasma. They are fed up with lily-livered politicians and their apologists; they are fed up with greed. While it may not be a terrifically nuanced analysis by academic standards, OWS offers one of the clearest anti-capitalist actions I’ve ever seen. Of course there’s no action plan, no manifesto, no list of demands: are you fucking kidding me?

The occupation opens up space for what Stuart Hall calls “articulation”: it’s an opportunity to connect events with meanings, to wrest a historical moment out of its given context and assert its significance and its importance in terms of an emergent (sometimes) discourse. Forgive my quoting from wikipedia, but I don’t have my books at hand:

[T]the relationship between actual culture…on the one hand, and economically determined factors such as class position, on the other, is always problematical, incomplete, and the object of ideological work and struggle….Cultural relationships and cultural change are thus not predetermined; rather they are the product of negotiation, imposition, resistance, transformation, and so on….

What I understand Hall to mean by this is that we don’t always have a preconceived idea for political struggle – we don’t always know exactly what we want in advance of wanting it (the vanguard is a bankrupt concept) – but meaning is forged in and through political struggle. Getting there is a matter of “negotiation, imposition, resistance, transformation, and so on.” 

This concept gives shape to what I’ve seen at Zuccotti Park: a group of people yearning toward something different. In a profound way, OWS calls on us to articulate our sense of the world in terms of the power relations its occupants have laid bare. In this sense, OWS belongs to all of us – the genius, obviously, of “we are the 99%”: OWS is an issue for women, for feminists, for academics, for teachers, for students, for parents.

And so OWS speaks to me, and perhaps to you, of the ways in which the academy is changing: the chronic underfunding of the system, references to students as clients or consumers, the speed-up and download of responsibilities that generate the need for more administrators, the crappy academic job market, the reliance on international registrations as revenue streams, public denunciations of the humanities, reductions in SSHRC funding, casual anti-intellectualism, even in the cities we rely on for the opposite (Rob Ford, I’m looking at you), the loss of the long-form census, three-job sessional commutes, instrumental learning, budget cuts, again: are you fucking kidding me?

The good news is you’re not alone. The OWS movement is growing, and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon: cf “occupy,” verb. This Saturday there will be Occupy events going on all over the world, probably near you. (You can check here.) Perhaps you’ll be inspired to go and start articulating the change you wish to see in the world.

If you do, here’s a couple thoughts to bring with you. We – women – are 51% of the 99%. But we – TT academic women in Canada – are also the 1%. That’s worth thinking about.

5 thoughts on “The 51 of the 99

  1. This is a wonderful post. Thanks, Heather! Did you really go to Washington on a bucket ticket just to see the protests in their original location?

    I say bravo to all the protesters–but also acknowledging that I'm one of the privileged. I don't know what will go on in my community this weekend, but I would feel awkward about tagging myself as one of the 99. Clearly, I'm not. But I'm thrilled to see the grass roots outcry. Truly.


  2. Wow, fascinating post!

    Perhaps, though, a reverse privilege check is in order: demographically, the tt professor class is certainly well off, and certainly better off than many other people. But we're nowhere near the top 1% of earners, that obscene band that eats up so much of our collective resources. It is my sense that the 99% is really about being as absolutely inclusive as possible, in part to make really clear the humongous disparity between seriously-for-real-now almost everyone and the born-in-a-top-hat, Forbes-500, Wall-street-wrecking, consequence-evading, Titans Of The American Way.

    I participate in income redistribution by paying marginal tax, for example, not evading it through dodges and shell companies.

    So yes, I'm privileged and so are you, and while it is important to remember that, it risks diluting the real message (I think) of the movement: really, it's 99% versus 1%.


  3. @ladyprof No, no, I'm here for a conference! Most of my day is spent doing the same old same old: sitting in a room being read to. 🙂 But since NY hotel rooms are obscenely expensive, I used hotwire and ended up … here.

    @Aimee True that we don't have quite the disparity in income in Canada as in the US. But (and it depends how you measure: Canada? NAm? world?) I am always gobstruck by how rare the PhD is as a level of education, and how much money we make, globally speaking. Don't get me wrong, it's not TitansOfTheAmericanWay rich, but it's been a long time since I agonized over rent vs food. I do take your larger point, though: the 99% is intended to be inclusive, and it's important to count ourselves in that.


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