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.