CUNY@ASA: Imagining Class, Occupying CUNY

ASA from one perspective: Occupy Wall Street. Last Friday Jesse Schwartz and I attended the Imagining Class panel at ASA, organized by Joseph Entin and Kathy Newman. Andrew Ross, Tera W. Hunter, Shalini Shankar, and Judith Smith were also there. It was a packed room. I counted roughly 40 people seated and probably 15 along the back wall. Felt lucky to find a seat.

Although no one probably predicted it when the panel came together, the theme of the panel was OWS and all its nationwide franchises. Andrew Ross got a lively discussion going in his opening remarks. He spoke to the populist slogans of the OWS’s 99% rhetoric. It reminded him of William Jennings Bryant six weeks before the 1896 election. He chided a Yale crowd during a speech that 99% of them were sons of the idle rich. The Yale guys then chanted back, “we are the 99%!” Funny: history’s ironies. People laugh. Then Roosevelt and Wilson co-opted the energy of the populist movement and Bryans’ candidacy. By the 1930s there’s no straight class language – instead it’s the language of the common man. The class rhetoric of the 1930s was classless. True? In this weeks New York Magazine Frank Rich wrote an article “The Class War Has Begun,” there’s a line that says, “we abhor ideology.” Oof. Then there’s a debate between Eliot Spitzer and OWS protester Manissa Maharawal. At one point Spitzer says, fix the system, yes, but then, “I’m a capitalist. Capitalism creates wealth.” To which Marx says

I digress. So the OWS movement is unemployed middle-class folks, including youth and students, and the municipal unions, Ross says. Where are the farmers? Where are the producers? (Same conference, was it this panel(?), I also heard: the people of color council is actually quite largely represented down at the park.) Let’s imagine who else could come to the strong urban base of those with “maximum flex time.” People laugh here just like at the Yale chant story. But seriously, let’s add the parents of the student debtors, the central labor councils, let’s talk potential general strike. Let’s get the broadest coalition possible with empty populist rhetoric, but not “vacuous” rhetoric. Let’s pull the university apparatus in —

I want to stay on this theme, though a lot gets said at this panel. When Cathy Newman talks, she talks about organizing adjunct labor with Joseph Entin. For his part, Joseph talks about the images of people ashamed by their debts, hiding behind those papers that cover their face (the ones that got appropriated by the 53% meme, which we later found out was half-fake?). We need to think through that shame of hiding, the shame of debt: it’s structural unemployment, structural austerity, so why the shame? The main class relation we need to understand now is the credit-debtor relation. The economic is a form of structural violence. Joseph says we’ve heard people argue against class essentialism, instead its a bundle of scripts, it’s a process. We know class is deeply racialized. So: let’s rethink how class has bodily resonances.

The audience asks many questions, but the subject of debt returns quickly. David Graeber’s recent book Debt: The First 5000 Years gets mentioned. Judith Smith reacts: debt is becoming reframed. Student debt is critical to understanding capitalism now. It changes the relation of democracy to education. Let’s think about refusing or publicizing debt; why is debt so private and hidden – back to shame. Let’s consider the public narrative of debt. It’s not a popular subject among immigrants trying to project success. Ross relates an idea about neoliberal profit-making from education; education is a terrific investment for capital pools. It’s the cost of entry for becoming middle-class. Federally guaranteed debt for home ownership and mortgage tax deductions have specifically worked to help the white working-class become middle-class – until recently. This is what’s kept the white middle-class aloft the past generation. Joseph says: student debt makes for indentured servants.

There’s a lot that got said about OWS after this. Some really interesting comments from the audience about where OWS came from. Many OWS organizers and franchise organizers were radicalized in the social justice movement prior to and just after 9-11. Same people. For others it was grad student organizing around adjunct labor, especially at Yale. We need to remember, really, the eclipse of radical anti-capitalism after 9-11, when the Battle for Seattle was still fresh. Also: the occupation of the California universities (only last year, wow). The slogans from the U-CA occupations are the same as the OWS slogans. Also: the prison abolition movement. Someone raises a comment from Occupy Tucson: recall, too, the fight over ethnic studies and women’s reproductive rights. These are all feeding into OWS.

Joseph begins a point I’ll end on (anyone want my other notes?): remember the faculty at Yale breaking the strikes? Faculty aren’t inherently radical. What about CUNY, though? A neoliberal regime is in charge. Ross replies: it’s only a matter of time before the OWS folks migrate indoors to the universities. And the faculty whose salaries are paid with student debt are living fairly precarious lives themselves. Will they break the coming strikes in the same way? The administrators have lots of power over university space. When the camps form, how are they going to break them up? Will the faculty be there with the students? Somewhere in here Joseph says: what would it look like to Occupy the university?

As I post this, I see a couple threads on my Twitter feed: Occupy CUNY and General Strike, November 2. And I post this dreaming of Occupy LaGuardia Community College, camping out in front of the library — in front of the English department. It’s snowing outside. Where are those invitations again?

#cuny #ows

[This is the first of three blog posts about ASA.]

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