“We Are the 99%”: The Political Arithmetic of Revolt

The worldwide Occupy movement that erupted in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011 took as its watchwords, “We are the 99 %.” These words resonated with large masses of people as few others have in a long while. To understand why, it’s important to look at the context that generated it.

“We are the 99%” derived its power from the devastation experienced by so many people as a result of the Great Recession that erupted in December of 2007 and whose effects are still being felt by tens of millions of people in the United States and hundreds of millions worldwide.

Its roots go back to the mid-1970s, when an employer-led attack on the working class began in response to the weakening of U.S. global economic dominance resulting from the rise of strong economic competitors in Japan and Europe, the cost of the War in Vietnam, and the decline in the stimulative force of the post–World War II circumstances. A weakened and class-collaborationist labor movement accommodated a rather rapid victory by capital, in what we typically call neoliberalism: an array of projects ranging from a near total deregulation of finance (including international capital flows), privatization of public services, and elimination and curtailment of social welfare programs to quite open attacks on unions and routine violations of labor laws.

The deregulation of capital markets gave rise to a host of new financial instruments (to guard against exchange rate and interest rate fluctuations, for example), which grew by leaps and bounds as workers began to go into debt (borrowing against their houses and maxing out their credit cards). All of this generated growing income and wealth inequality, as wages and benefits fell and profits rose; raised the financial sector of the economy to the commanding heights; and made the economy much more vulnerable to financial crisis. The Great Recession was the product of the interaction of these three factors, and it generated a scale of worldwide misery not seen since the 1930s. Although the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, much of the working class is still mired in debt, employed in low wage/no benefit jobs, either unemployed or fearful of job loss, and not very hopeful about the future.

Although there have been periodic protests against neoliberalism, it was not until the Great Recession that these broke out into mass struggle. This first emerged in the Arab Spring uprisings that are still ongoing, but it soon spread to the entire world, from Spain to China and from Canada to Chile. In the United States, the Wisconsin Uprising of early 2011, led by public employees, inspired workers across the country, demonstrating that when pushed hard enough, in the right circumstances the working class would revolt and do things no one had imagined possible. Then, within a year of this, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) erupted. Young people, led mainly by anarchists, took over Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan and waged protests against the greatest symbol of corporate power in the world—Wall Street. Once the police began to try to end the protests, thousands of protest supporters, from all walks of life and of various political persuasions, descended on the center of finance. Soon amazing displays of cooperative action and self-education mesmerized the nation. As the OWS phenomenon spread to cities and towns everywhere in the United States and then the world, and as the objects of the protesters’ scorn and anger increased geometrically—everything from police, bankers, landlords, and employers to universities, politicians, and the military—the powers that be stood up, took notice, and began a coordinated campaign to slander and suppress what had the potential to disrupt both production and commerce. Ultimately, OWS encampments were closed, mainly by police force, but OWS-inspired struggles live on, and the memory of what happened is very much alive. The recent strike by Chicago’s public school teachers is a case in point.

OWS and “We are the 99%” have been criticized on the grounds that the slogan is inaccurate and OWS is too much concerned with process and not enough with specific demands. I disagree strongly with these criticisms.

The catchphrases of political upheaval are always somewhat vague and general, which is their virtue. They clarify the most basic political cleavages and help people develop the mind-set most suited to active participation in whatever struggles are at hand. These things are certainly true for “We are the 99%.” For example, there are well-to-do people in the 99 percent, and there are many in the 1 percent who, while rich enough, wield no real power. The cutoff yearly household income for the 1 percent varies according to the definition of income used, ranging from $380,000 using Census assumptions to nearly double that using those of the Federal Reserve (the latter include capital gains, whereas the former do not). In some parts of the country, $380,000 would qualify a household as rich, whereas in others it would not. In any part of the nation, you have to move into the richest .1 percent to get at the actual movers and shakers. There, the mean yearly household income is $6.8 million. That is real money.

The catchphrases of political upheaval are always somewhat vague and general, which is their virtue.

The flip side of saying that not everyone in the 1 percent is rich and therefore to be condemned is that there are plenty of people in the 99 percent who are not down and out. There is a big difference between an income of $279,000 (just below the Census 1 percent cutoff) and $20,000, the cutoff for the poorest 20 percent of households.

Arguments about the accuracy of a slogan that, strictly speaking, may unfairly pit one group against another miss the point. “We are the 99%” suggests an “us versus them” politics that foreshadows the kind of class perspective so missing but so needed in the United States. Those who feel unfairly maligned because, although their incomes are high, they are not really rich are free to ally themselves with their poorer brethren. And those who are objectively poor are done no harm by being lumped together with their higher income brethren. What the slogan does is help nurture a worldview that understands that not only is inequality out of control but that the position of the 1 percent comes at the expense of the rest of us. To invert and paraphrase the words of Nicola Sacco, “their triumph is our agony.” This is something we can build on to create a radical politics that goes beyond the populism that passes for radicalism in the United States.

“We are the 99%” suggests an “us versus them” politics that foreshadows the kind of class perspective so missing but so needed in the United States.

One could argue as well that what matters most is wealth and not income. Ownership of stocks, bonds, real estate, unincorporated businesses, and the like is much more skewed than income, and it is at the top of the wealth distribution that economic and political power reside. The richest 1 percent of households now owns an astonishing 42.4 percent of net financial assets (all financial instruments such as stocks, bonds, bank accounts, and all the exotic instruments that helped trigger the Great Recession, minus nonmortgage debt). It is in these households that incomes are much higher than the cutoff point for the richest 1 percent.

For what is at issue here is power. The ability to structure not just personal relationships to one’s advantage but also social relationships is concentrated in the 1 percent. It is among these people, the holders of the wealth that represents society’s ability to produce the necessities of life, that power resides. They are the ones who own our workplaces and structure them so that we have no control over something fundamental to our lives—our work—and so that the growing profits that fuel inequality continue to be made. What is more, they have the power to structure nearly every aspect of society in ways that maintain and increase their power: the government, the media, culture itself. OWS and “We are the 99%” have changed the political landscape by bringing power into the open, and they offer us the best opportunity we have had in a long time to challenge it.

A somewhat different criticism of “We are the 99%” is that by implying a liberal redistribution of income politics rather than a radical critique of capitalism itself, it is eminently co-optable by the Democratic Party. There is some truth to this, as seen by early efforts by Democrats, including President Obama, and their union allies to hijack the movement. However, what this misses is the way in which OWS took shape. Public spaces were occupied, clashes with police ensued immediately, all manner of discussions and debates took place, the movement spread rapidly across the nation and then the world, and millions of people were energized and made to feel part of something of great importance. Speakers abounded in open-air classrooms, where everything under the sun came under scrutiny. People learned that they could make decisions themselves and organize mini-societies effectively: those camped out in Zuccotti secured food and shelter for themselves, took care of sanitation, and solved complex problems of logistics every day.

These actions, combined with the anarchist and youthful sensibility and leadership of so much of OWS, gave rise to the posing of fundamental questions. What is democracy? (With the universal understanding that we do not have it.) Why do we have hierarchies everywhere we look, and how do we dispense with all of them? Why is there so little solidarity, compassion, love? (With the growing awareness that people were discovering these wonderful and necessary components of human existence as they created and built OWS.) Why are there not enough jobs to go around? Why is work so meaningless? Why should so much time be devoted to work? Why are we obsessed with making money and consuming things? Why are we destroying the very environment that must sustain us? Why does our government wage war against ordinary people, the 99 percent if you will, all over the globe? These questions cannot be answered, nor can the issues they raise be resolved by more progressive taxes or a few expanded social welfare programs.

The charges that OWS made no demands were ways of evading the revolutionary scope of the demands made by the questions being asked.

A final criticism of OWS and “We are the 99%” is that neither imply nor push forward specific demands. This is a particularly inappropriate judgment. First of all, the questions enumerated above imply demands. We demand jobs, we demand meaningful work, and we demand time to enjoy life. We demand an end to war. These demands are radical; they challenge the power of capital (the power of the 1 percent) directly, because they cannot be achieved within the capitalist system. The charges that OWS made no demands and the media pundits’ “what do these people want?” query were simply ways of evading the revolutionary scope of the implied (and often enough explicit) demands made by the questions being asked.

Second, grand demands can only be made by a political entity strong enough to be a credible threat to capital and its political henchmen. No such entity now exists, but the OWS focus on structure and questioning is a good starting point in terms of beginning to think about creating one. Third, many demands were made and many groups formed to press them forward; however, these struggles were typically over specific or local issues, such as antieviction endeavors, local labor disputes, student loan campaigns, and the like, some of which have been successful. Such efforts have continued and will continue into the indefinite future, and out of them may come broad alliances that might generate a larger political movement.

Our collective future is not very bright, especially for our young men and women. Under our current political economic system, there is not a single one of our major problems that can be solved. We are living in a world where insecurity, inequality, and environmental destruction are going to keep getting worse unless we take radical actions, over and over for as long as necessary. OWS and “We are the 99%” were, and continue to be, ingenious interventions in what promises to be an era of growing class struggles. No doubt other slogans will supplement “We are the 99%,” but I hope that the idea that “we are the many, they are the few” remains foremost in our minds as we wage war with our enemies. Grand slogans will be needed to unite us and overcome many divisions within our ranks. We must start with the general; we will move (and have already begun to do so) to the specific and concrete soon enough.

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