17 October 2011

Occupy Wall Street & "We are the 99%"

One of the few things that seems certain about "Occupy Wall Street" and related protests is that these are the most positive and hopeful political events in the United States at this time.  Beyond that, I find myself curious and uncertain.

I do believe, however, that those of us who embrace these protests should be thinking and talking about how to make them better--or more precisely, how it might be possible to build on them to foster a robust social justice movement in our time.  Such a social justice movement would work to build a society--indeed, a world--in which the pursuit of profts and pursuit of economic growth (as measured in GDP or other monetary terms) are subordinated to insuring universal access to high quality health care, high quality education, and food security.

In terms of thinking and talking about how to build on the Occupy protests with this goal in mind, I find myself concerned about the slogan, "We are the 99%," that figures prominently at these protests.  This slogan is clearly a useful way to proclaim, and to call forth, a broad base of support for the protests, but the phrase has the potential to keep hidden aspects of social suffering in our time that need to be visible and worked through, if there is to be a robust social justice movment. 

Let me name two of these aspects:

First, a good number of us -- myself, for example --  are not in the top 1% of wealthiest persons in the U.S., but we probably are in the top 1% of the wealthiest persons in the world (depending, perhaps, on just how this is measured).  This point applies to a significant segment of the professional-managerial classes in the U.S. (as well as a significant segment of business owners).  Thus, to begin with, those of us who fall into this position need to keep in mind that in a global context, we are ourselves part of the 1%.

Recognizing this complexity should remind us that a nontrivial component of affluence in the U.S. in the last 50 years or more was a consequence of the relationship of the U.S. to other places in the global economy, and specifically, it should remind us of the ways this relationship, for several decades, served to advantage a broad swath of the U.S. population (particularly prior to the 1980s).  For a robust social justice movement, it is crucial that there be no nostalgia for -- that is, no desire for the return of -- greater affluence within the U.S. on this earlier basis.  

Put otherwise, it is clearly the case that a significant portion of social suffering in the U.S. today is a consequence of the 1% in the U.S. seeking greater profits in recent decades through a form of globalization that has diminished the extent to which a segment of the 99% in the U.S. share in the material benefits that accrue from the U.S.'s privileged position in the global political-economy.  But while this is indeed a major cause of the decline in the affluence of persons below the top 1% in the U.S., reversing this cause is not an acceptable solution to social suffering in the U.S. now.

A second and closely related concern about "We Are the 99%" is that this slogan has the potential to disregard the vast differences in circumstances that remain within the 99% of U.S. society -- even if we look only at those among the 99% who are immediately suffering (whether from un-employment, under-employment, foreclosures on homes, a lack of acces to health care, or any combination of these).

Let us note that a recurring figure in news coverage of Occupy Wall Street is a person with significant educational credentials who has been unable to find employment, particularly in a well-paid professional-managerial position.  The suffering of such persons deserves respect and remediation, but it should not be conflated with the social suffering experienced by many others in the 99%. 

There are also, let us recall, a large number of urban poor--mostly brown and black--whose intense deprivations and exploitation have been callously ignored by large segments of U.S. society since, arguably, the 1960s "war on poverty" (as compromised as it was, even in its time).  So too, there is a segment of U.S. society that is suffering because of the pumping-out of working class jobs from the U.S. that has happened steadily over many decades.  These are persons who live, disproportionately, in such places as eastern Oregon and southern Missouri, where the loss of employment has left behind "the three M's": meth, military recruiting, and misery.

A point we need to remember--and a point that the unifying slogan "We Are the 99%" has the potential to obscure--is that if there is a renewal of "economic growth" in the next few years, but without more fundamental structural changes, it will likely do a great deal to relieve the suffering of those persons who are unemployed but educated and credentialed, while it will do very little to relieve the suffering of persons in these other two positions in our political-economy.

In sum: along with insisting that "We Are the 99%," we need as well to find ways to speak loudly about (i) the social class diversity of the 99% within the U.S. and (ii) the place and effects of the U.S. in the larger world economy.

There's a great deal more to say.

The SLOW BLOG MOVEMENT encourages both further reading and viewing:

Charles's Ferguson's film "Inside Job" is essential viewing for understanding the 2008 crisis and its aftermath.

Sherry Ortner's New Jersey Dreaming offers a "way in" to understanding the ways the prvileged position of the U.S. in the global economy entered the lives of many in the U.S. after the Second World War.


  1. I appreciate these comments. I am thinking that the openness of the 99% claim is currently allowing for a large umbrella for maximum possible participation. As things are refined (in the ways you suggest) and by making more focused demands, it will be interesting to see who stays connected.

  2. I actually find “99%” to be an incredible tool this movement has at its disposal to unite groups who would otherwise feel no solidarity. Things like race, nationality, education, sexuality, etc have worked to divide those who are oppressed and neglected by this system. Nationally, it seems it has managed to unite so many different types of people that they have not even been able to pin point specific demands. They realize the problem is systemic. Forgiving student loans won’t solve the problem. Stoping foreclosure won’t solve the problem. “Making the banks pay” still isn’t enough. From what I saw at OccupyLA, they are trying to tap into various minority groups through outreach programs, what they are calling “occupy the hood”. I also saw they offer classes in Spanish and Vietnamese to educate these populations about the corruption that is taking place.

    On an international scale, “99%” allowed cities across the world to protest in solidarity on Saturday. It seems, it has the power to transcend nationality and brings an awareness that this failing system is global.

  3. Nice piece and it resonates with similar sentiments aired on the blog-o-sphere, especially from various POC constituencies. (brinda)


  4. I appreciate this critical analysis of the "99%" phrase, which does conflate divergent class positions and degrees of social suffering. Although I feel victimized in a general way by the status quo--in which the financial industry operates in criminal fashion with impunity, and in which dissent is delegitimized by terms like 'class warfare"--I totally recognize the fact that the poor are the truest victims of the current state of affairs. I find it offensive, indeed, that there is an emphasis in the media on how particular tax plans (like 9-9-9) would affect "me". I'm not worried about myself. I am doing really really well. I'm worried that there is no discourse (never mind progressive economic policy!) in this country about the poor, and how they'll be affected not only in terms of income, but in terms of tax structures and anti-big-government ideas that are gaining popularity. Further, and apropos of your comment about yesteryear's war on poverty, I'm angered about the hegemonic terms of debate in the last several years that focus on "the middle class." Terms like 'poor people' and 'poverty' have been disallowed.

    So thanks, Dan, for this critique. I do believe that a more global critical analysis would provide important perspective on the current movement, but I also believe that we're fortunate to even have something that can be credibly called "a movement."

  5. Last week I attended a Pomona City Council meeting to support friends and relatives of Andy Avila, a 26 year old former Mt. SAC student who was shot and killed by the Pomona police. From what the speakers were saying, he may have been killed in retaliation for a complaint he filed against the police for a brutal beating when they arrested him in the summer for shooting off fireworks. This is a prime example of the racial and class disparities Dan is talking about.

    However, I’ve also observed in my interviews with unemployed people that the OWS movement has been very inspiring to a wide range of people. When I asked a homeless Japanese-American secretary how she thinks things are going in the country, she replied, “We are the 99%.” She is going to protests. I also heard support for the Occupy movement from the white Republican wife of a laid-off engineer and from an African-American former county worker who has been out of work for four years. “We are the 99%” is a “strategic essentialism” (Spivak). It obscures important differences, but sometimes that’s necessary.

    The key is to link the movement to real change, not just restoring the status quo ante, as Dan points out. In this we should be thinking about how to contribute to popular education beyond the walls of our elite colleges. Blogs like this are one venue. What else can we do?

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  7. The way I see it. OWS differs from earlier protest movements in one significant way. As the media has taught its uncritical drones the OWS protester is no longer the consumer. Almost all other protesting to in history has been to get in, make a demand, compromise, pay - receive a good, and get out. Until the OWS actions, protest has been just like shopping. It's what the Hippies did and what the TEA Party does. They model the consumer, as do Alinsky's "rules." With the advent of OWS the "shopper protester" is a thing of the past.

    I don't know how this will inform the next move, but I think illuminating the "non-consuming" aspect of OWS is a good thing - and useful. An example that comes to mind as we enter the holiday season is "un-shopping." Go to the retailers (especially the nationals), collect a bunch of stuff, stand in line, and change your mind at the register. Rinse, and repeat a few times - then onto the next store. Spend a day with your friend un-shopping. Bonus that this is indoors, warm and cozy. A concentrated group could have quite an impact on a target. It's not illegal, it's public, and you don't need a permit.

    And it's fun.