By Catherine Sameh
Associate Director, Barnard Center for Research on Women

There was a striking synchronicity to the inaugural event in Barnard’s For the Public Good project on October 13, and the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement in staying an eviction from Zuccotti Park the following morning. Thousands of protestors gathered before dawn to let Mayor Bloomberg and the multinational real estate firm, Brookfield Properties, owners of the park, know that they would not be dispossessed of their space. Their space. The public’s space. A privately owned park repossessed by the public on their terms.

Occupy Wall Street, like the recent struggles against austerity from Wisconsin to Cairo, is a remarkable rupture in the logic of neoliberalism. The privatization of formerly public goods like education, water, healthcare, libraries, the Internet and parks for the profit of individuals and transnational corporations has been, as panelist Nancy Holmstrom argued, an historic process of “political decisions and struggles,” naturalized over time, and seemingly intractable. Holmstrom, professor of philosophy at Rutgers, Newark and author (with Ann E. Cudd) of Capitalism, For and Against: A Feminist Debate, Cambridge University Press 2011, and editor (with Anatole Anton and Milton Fisk) of Not For Sale: In Defense of Public Goods, Westview 2000, asserted that the public should, in fact, be the default; anything privately held should bear the burden of justification. She made central the need for reversing the current prioritization of neoliberal privatization over and against public goods.

The dispossession of the public through private acquisition of collective goods was a key theme of all the panelists. Michelle Fine, professor of psychology at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of many works including Beyond Silenced Voices: Class, Race, and Gender in United States Schools, SUNY Press 2005, poetically made the case for public education as a “capillary of democracy,” and considered the ways in which the theft of public institutions by private wealth is part of the “technologies of dispossession” affecting so many communities, particularly communities of color. She asked, “When did public become a four-letter word?,” signaling the penetration of neoliberal logic into every sphere of our society. Explained the third panelist, David Weiman, professor of economics at Barnard and editor (with Paul W. Rhode and Joshua L. Rosenbloom) of Economic Evolution and Revolution in Historical Time, Stanford University Press 2011, logic guides policy.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement deepens and grows, thoroughly evident is an alternative logic—that the long term security and wellbeing of us all depends on equal decision making about and access to what is collectively, rightfully ours—creatively and boldly marching out from the margins, taking hold of the imaginations, aspirations and potentialities of the many of us. The diverse majority. The public.

Read additional reflections on "For the Public Good" by a Barnard student and a member of the faculty