The folks of Witching Hour tend to create an unannounced theme for each year of the annual festival, and this year is no different. With presentations and workshops centered around capitalism, the alt-right, mental health awareness, and consent, this year’s festival reflects topics relevant to, but not thoroughly discussed in (per Witching Hour’s tagline), the current social justice and political spheres of the United States.
Shawn Sebastian, a graduate of the University of Iowa who works as an attorney at the Center for Popular Democracy and as the co-director of the Fed Up Campaign, is a centerpiece in creating necessary discussion within politics.
His work is based on advocacy and forming a citizens’ collective through community-based organizations and labor unions. He aims to force the federal reserve into being more accountable for its actions and to consider workers and the general labor force when creating monetary policy instead of using its power to assist the wealthy (i.e. higher employment rates, lower inflation, and livable wages).
Sebastian’s Saturday morning presentation was a fast-paced overview of the issues of the current economic policy and structure of the United States.
He begins with an explanation of the history of unions from 1910 to 1970 and the ways in which they were able to shape monetary policy, followed by the present-day context: from 1967 to 2012, unionization has decreased from 30% to 6%, respectively.
This means there is a lack of collective power among the US workforce, where workers cannot translate higher demand into higher wages but instead produce increasing amounts of labor for their employers while getting paid the same—often unlivable—wage. Every dollar we do not get, our bosses keep, which only makes them more powerful; we do not/cannot utilize the power of collective bargaining. Sebastian notes that the attack on unions has been sustained for decades, as rich corporations and the elite work(ed) to “systematically dismantle unions.”
The presentation, accompanied by a graph-filled, animated, sporadically comedic PowerPoint, assists Sebastian as he produces statistics about unemployment rates, wealth disparities, and economic trends.
After providing a background of the power amassed by corporations and the top 1% richest Americans, Sebastian switches gears. He addresses a fact of his presentation many people of the room, including me, seem to have forgotten: it was supposed to be about capitalism, a word which he hasn’t yet even uttered.
“I’m not going to beat the dead horse,” Sebastian says. “You all know about capitalism.” Despite this, he does provide a few statements about the subject, each plastered across its own PowerPoint slide and sprinkled with a hint of dry humor.
The first, a declaration from “Duh Aficionado,” states, “American capitalism was made possible through genocide, pillage, and slavery.” He follows this by reminding us that these actions are not over, which segues into a depiction of possible reality.
Voting is important, Sebastian notes. It is the starting point for creating change. However, it is the minimum. Casting a ballot is not enough to initiate this change. “You also need to do more.”
Three main ways to fix this corrupt system are listed:
- Alternative systems (outside the state).
- Disrupt the state.
- Work within the state.
Coming to the end of his hour, Sebastian leads an exercise. He asks us to imagine we live in a world where we do not have to worry about student loans, the price of healthcare (and therefore paying for the care of ourselves and our family), of a world where there is a green new deal and we can easily quit our job and find a new job waiting for us that pays a livable wage. This might seem utopian, he says, “but all those ideas are literally on the table right now.”
The presentation ends with an urge for action. Iowa has an immense amount of power, both because of the amount of people per senator (compared to California) and because of its status as the first state to hold caucuses for presidential candidates.
The country listens to Iowa, so we need to lead the charge. Sebastian announces that caucuses are only 448 days away, and candidates are already coming—in fact, one came to Java House merely hours after Sebastian’s event ended.
These problems were not caused by Trump. They are decades-long and caused and facilitated by both parties. However, Sebastian stresses, the election of Donald Trump created an unprecedented level of engagement and agitation among constituents.
People are listening, and people are ready for action. Voting is the first step, but we must ensure the candidates commit to fixing the broken economic system. As Sebastian says, “an organized people is the only thing that can go up against organized money.”