The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the working session “Occupy as Form” on February 10, 2012. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Dee Hibbert-Jones, Associate Professor of Art & Digital Arts New Media and Co-Director of The Hub: Social Practice Arts Research Center at UC Santa Cruz.
Having grown up in class-conscious Britain of the ‘70’s and 80’s (a country I like to describe as a former social democracy) it is with a growing sense of excitement that I have witnessed the rise of discussions around class within the Occupy movement.
I’ve lived in the US for 20 years and still struggle to introduce dialog around social class into personal and classroom discussions, even when the topic is focused on notions of public space, public rights or power. In general individuals in the US seem unaware of the presence of social class, it seems to be an invisible topic unlike race and gender, which are now acceptable topics of conversation, class is just not a part of US personal identity. Now thorough the Occupy movement and talk of the 1%, class dialog is on the table, a new central focus of debate, alongside campus protests and talk of the accelerated cost of a public education. How this will impact us long term remains unknown, yet this dialog has forced the subject onto center stage for the first time in the US since the 1930’s.
There is a difference in this country between rich and poor that does not translate to a British sensibility about class. Class mobility does not exist in the same way in England, it is not possible to shift class through the accumulation or loss of wealth. I’m thinking now of the photographic images from the ‘30’s Farm Security Administration Artists who documented the “worthy poor,” the real working class that exist in opposition to the “undeserving poor” a Republican saber rattling threat. There is always a suggestion here that if you work hard enough it is possible to break through class distinctions and become the rich.
The British ability to “read” class in accent, dress and vocabulary fixes individual’s class status in so much more than economic wealth. The complexity and understanding of class privilege and class pride exist in the US only as subterranean undercurrents by comparison. The “nouveau poor” (to quote Earnest Lubitsch) who Occupy have had access to education and expect employment, access and opportunities that no longer seem available to them, they now feel united for the first time with individuals who have never had access, the “lower class” poor. Is, I wonder the unequal distribution of wealth being talked about in the US for the very first time?
For the first time since the anti-communist Mc McCarthy era the suppression of class dialog is opening up Occupy is bringing class back to the table. The Occupy movement this decentralized swarm movement with no individual set agenda has managed to raise the issue of class that have been effectively suppressed for so much of contemporary US history. I am bound to ask the question is class and class identity about to finally become a central part of the US dialog?