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OWS Demographics and Privilege

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   5 comments

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This is the second of two articles regarding the likelihood the OWS movement will expand into the traditional working class

Young OWS protestors tell a variety of personal stories. Some are new college graduates who have spent sixteen years of their life preparing for professional careers that no longer exist. Some are high school grads who had jobs prior to the economic collapse and were the first to be laid off. Others have come of age since 2008 to find they belong to a permanent underclass with no hope of ever finding permanent employment.

In addition to the dispossessed middle class OWS protestors, there are a few that journalist Chris Hedges ( describes as "revolutionists." These are intellectuals who opt out of society for political reasons and live in squats and eat out of dumptsers. The term "revolutionist" was first popularized by George Bernard Shaw in 1903 in the Revolutionists Handbook. Shaw ( defines a "revolutionist" as "one who desires to discard the existing social order."

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Because I was married to one in the 1970s, I am aware of the fine line between homelessness and "revolutionism." Although it never occurred to my ex to join with others in discarding the existing social order, he utterly refused to subject himself to the exploitation of regular employment, even if it meant sleeping in fields and city parks.

The OWS occupations have also drawn in older, long time anarchists, socialists and single issue activists. Most have consciously incorporated their local homeless population, which includes a disproportionate number of unemployed and disabled veterans and former criminals. There are also a number of part-time and shift workers and full time students who participate as their schedule accommodates.

A Question of Privilege

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I believe the ability of OWS to pull the traditional working class into their ranks will boil down to a single factor: their ability to be radicalized, i.e. discard the inherent sense of privilege that is fundamental to middle class identity. The post-war progressive movement has failed to attract working class activists mainly because it's been dominated by middle class academics and professionals unwilling to relinquish their privileged status. They want a better and fairer society, but not too fair. They want social change, but not extensive change that would require them to relinquish their comfortable incomes and lifestyles.

Owing to their inability to come to grips with their (largely unconscious) sense of privilege, they always find it easier to fight for third world peasants than the disadvantaged in their own communities. This is also why they repeatedly get sucked into pro-corporate propaganda about "personal responsibility" and find themselves moralizing to lower income groups about political correctness, as well as lobbying for lifestyle (anti-smoking, gun control, anti-obesity, etc) legislation.

Why Do Some Kids Develop a Sense of Privilege?

I have always found class orientation to center around the presence or absence of a sense of privilege. By privilege, I mean an inherent belief common to the middle class that someone is more deserving (due to higher intelligence, better education, stronger character and/or sense of personality responsibility) than the less well off. One of my special interests, as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, is the child rearing practices that contribute to a sense of privilege in adulthood. Obviously parents who subscribe to the ideology of privilege will inspire it in their kids. However this seems to be a minor factor. The nature of early childhood relationships and parental discipline seem to be far more important.

Free Play vs Preparation for Adulthood

As any new mother will vouch, infants have a strong craving almost from birth for the company of older children. If allowed to pursue this natural instinct, the vast majority of kids will choose to spend their time in the streets in the company of playmates. However children of the elite and upper middle class families are subject to a much more structured childhood, focused on "preparing" them for adulthood. In their early years, it's common for their mother or other caretaker to be their primary companion. Even with the growing emphasis on academically oriented preschools, the focus is on working with adults to develop language, reading and numeric skills -- not on free play with other children. Once middle class kids start school, after school hours are taken up with piano, violin, dancing or art lessons or structured team sports, and adult-centered "family" weekends.

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The working class kids who play in the streets  get a far different type of education, one focusing on social skills such as group loyalty, fair play, dispute resolution and tolerance and respect for personal differences. The business world has known for decades that the best managers come from this type of background.

The Role of Permissive Discipline

Working class kids are disciplined very differently from their middle class peers. My own clinical experience corresponds very closely with the findings sociologist Lillian Breslow Rubin describes in Worlds of Pain. Blue collar parents typically set very strict (at times overly harsh) limits on children's behavior. In contrast, discipline in academic and professional families tends to be much more permissive. Discipline is usually left to the mother, who is more likely to invoke guilt over bad behavior than to enforce specific consequences.

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I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)

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