The Radical Ellen Willis

Emily Greenhouse in Dissent:

EmilyFor those of us born in the eighties and nineties, unpleasantly called Millennials, prosperity has long seemed out of reach. We who rushed into the economy right as the “lesser Depression” peaked were worse off by nearly every metric possible: income, employment, mobility, home ownership, student loan debt. In 2012, according to the New York Times, the median household income for twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds was about the same, adjusted for inflation, as it was in 1980—and almost $8,000 less than it was in 2000. By last year’s measure, around 14 percent of my demographic—that’s 2.5 million people—were living with their parents. Of those, 43 percent would be below the poverty line if they moved out on their own. Plainly, we should not expect what our parents had: we will not be getting it. Better educated though our generation may be, the opportunities out there are increasingly slim. For all the facetious mewling we confront—the mainstream knocking of spoiled liberal arts grads by people confused by Lena Dunham’s persistent nudity—the chance to make our way, creating and thinking, is slimmer than ever. In twenty years’ time, how many significant literary fiction writers will have grown up working class? How many career artists at all who weren’t endowed with a trust fund?

Maybe we’re oblivious, or maybe just stretched thin, but not enough people are talking about this. The late cultural critic Ellen Willis did—and years before the worst of it hit. With a clarity of thought and the kind of fury that pangs and never scabs over, she diagnosed, snarled, and illuminated what she considered a central plague of her day: the way our economy limits our creative expressions. As she put it in her essay “Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity”: “On the crudest level, the lives of American intellectuals and artists are defined by one basic problem: how to reconcile intellectual or creative autonomy with making a living.” Willis, who died at the age of sixty-four in 2006, did not set out to write about austerity and economic inequality. But she couldn’t stand to see folks around her struggling, being denied what, in her mind—“in a rich postindustrial economy like ours”—should be guaranteed: job (and income) security, freedom of expression, time off. This insistence on everyone’s right to full and free human satisfaction was at the center of her politics from the get-go. How women were denied this satisfaction became her subject.

More here.