The Trouble with the 99 Per Cent
The trouble with the 99 per cent
By Michael Laxer; February 29, 2012 - rabble.ca
There can be little doubt about the importance of the Occupy movement to our recent political discourse. It succeeded in getting a significant amount of media attention and it forced politicians of all stripes, including those on the Right, to acknowledge the danger that severe and rampant inequality pose to our social order and structure.
This ad hoc movement inspired many and managed to put its issues on the table to a sufficient degree that politicians of both the social democratic and liberal brand, as well as some on the far Right, have attempted to bask in its refracted glow. That none of these political actors offer the slightest threat to the system that Occupy apparently opposes appeared often lost on the participants, however.
Naomi Klein, no less, told them that they were the most important political movement in the world. And perhaps for that moment in time they were.
However, a narrative, to be lasting, has to have longevity in its meaning and analysis, even if that meaning and analysis are distilled down to basics or essentials. In other words the analysis has to be, in essence, true and it must also have transformative solutions to offer and not just injustices to expose.
Is there really a 99 per cent?
Many have embraced the "Us vs. Them" rhetoric of the 1 per cent vs. the 99 per cent slogan, and this needs to be placed under greater scrutiny.
There is little doubt that the 99 per cent slogan became the movement's greatest asset in terms of propaganda and mass appeal. It resonated and enraged and inspired. It motivated and was basic enough in its narrative that it could not help but be picked up by the media.
The theory, from Occupy Wall Street and others, can effectively be distilled down to this blurb from one of the websites:
"We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent."
With a variety of small or minor variations, this became the movement's primary ideological message.
But the message is largely false. And this matters, especially in the long run.
There is no question about the grotesque growth of social inequality in the West. That this obvious fact has been ignored and even reinforced by the austerity agendas of all governments, regardless of political stripe, plays into an overall sense of hopelessness and reinforces reductionist and absolutist, totalizing ideologies and political views. The inherent danger when democracy becomes seemingly impotent.
The trouble, however, lies in understanding that undue corporate power and the rise of a new "Gilded Age" ultra-rich power elite does not mean that all of society, the media, politicians, governments, the courts, etc ... are beholden to this elite. More importantly, nor does it mean that the "99 per cent" share common interests and that they can work together, in any meaningful sense, to rectify the problems as raised.
It also does not take into account the basically dangerous aspect to a world-view like this, which is both disingenuous and bourgeois in its desire to eclipse real issues of class, management, Social Mandarins, and the true underpinning of inequality with a slogan that appears to embrace "everyone," in the classic American way. By doing so it in fact embraces and lets off the hook many, if not most, of the basic enemies of working-class and socialist or anti-capitalist politics.
The 99 per cent by the numbers
In the last available stats the top 1 per cent of tax filers in Canada made a minimum of $169,300 as individuals. They made, on average, $404,500.
The 99 per cent is everyone else.
First, I'll take a personal example. In the late 1990s I worked as a manager in a transportation company. I did sales and public relations, but I had managerial control over the office and ground staff in many cases. I made, at the time, $45,000-$55,000 a year, depending on performance bonuses. This placed me well within the 99 per cent -- where, I can assure you, I remain -- but were my class and social interests (were I to follow them) really the same as the phone workers or couriers at the company?
Or take my local Shopper's Drug Mart. The young woman at the cash, with two kids and a husband who works at a non-union job site, makes at most $12-13 an hour. The main Pharmacist who works there, who has a college education, makes in the range of $60,000 a year. Are their class interests the same? They are both in the "99 per cent."
This view of society, while assuaging the guilt of the children of the bourgeoisie, would have you believe that they are "victims" of the system in the same way as the children of the working-class, the underclass and the retail working class. That may make them feel good about themselves, and aid in their often reactionary analysis, but it is pure American nonsense from a society that denies the very existence of social class, despite the fact that even Rick Santorum recently admitted that the U.S. has less social mobility now than Europe or Canada.
The complexity of class
There is no 99 per cent. It does not exist as a meaningful class or political entity.
There are the remnants of the old industrial working class, the underclass, the retail working class, and the very large and growing "white-collar" office level lower "middle-class." Then there are the managerial and middle-managerial class, the small business owners, professionals, media workers, academics and others. Their class and social interests are not the same and a movement seeking real transformative social change and seeking to actually confront capitalism needs to understand this.
Beyond the problems of class analysis that this presents, it can also play into the worst aspects of pseudo-conspiratorial and reductionist ideas.
Our courts, governments, media, economy, and social forces are not actually ruled and governed by 1 per cent of the population. That is a ridiculous idea that does not withstand even the slightest true scrutiny. It is a good way for social democratic parties or liberal politicians like Obama to get out of their complicity in the creation and maintenance of the present ideological hegemony. The reality, however, is that we live in a very complex society where even supposed "agents" of the 1 per cent, like the Toronto Star, for example, will suddenly endorse the federal NDP. Part of the plot? Or is capitalism a system and not a slogan and are its problems a fundamental outcome of this system and not a perversion of it?
Thinking back to the quote from Occupy, consider these:
- "Shrewd and calculating, their hearts are filled with lust for power and consumed by greed for money. Rich and aristocratic, they despise Christians and they loathe the lowly working class. They control the world's press and virtually all our banks and financial institutions. They screen and choose who America's leaders will be and even determine who will run on the Democratic and Republican Party tickets..."
- "...crony capitalists were the ones that benefit from contracts from government, benefit from the Federal Reserve, benefit from all the bailouts. They don't deserve compassion. They deserve taxation or they deserve to have all their benefits removed."
The first is from anti-Semitic Bilderberg conspiracists and the second is from the fanatically right-wing Ron Paul.
The fact is that these kinds of reductionist slogans are dangerous because they imply, by definition, a simplistic social order and a simplistic mechanism of systemic social control.
Once you accept the 1 per cent idea, then that means the other 99 per cent is innocent, so to speak. It is analogous to dangerous notions that imply that "good" common people are perverted or led astray by an almost hidden over class that shapes the political and social agenda by meeting in Colorado once a year or by being a part of a named or implied Jewish conspiracy.
How capitalism really works
Inequality, at root, is not an aberration of capitalism; it is a function of capitalism. While the assault on the post-war social compromise has led us back to social inequality at levels akin to those of the "Gilded Age" of the 1920s, the inequality inherent to capitalism never went away. And it won't, without changing the fundamental nature of capitalism's economic relations. As the reversing of the economic aspects of the social gains of the 1945-1980 period clearly shows, cosmetic changes, while they have a real impact on people's lives and on our social cohesion, can be undone by shifting the terms of the ideological debate. This is indeed something the Right has done rather successfully. The debate has been so successfully shifted that all major political parties in North America accept the fundamental premises that led us here.
This was not a conspiracy, and it was not done by the 1 per cent and their "agents". It was done by a political movement that stayed true to its principles and objectives, even when confronted by serious setbacks and even when their ideas were at first fringe ideas, and who remade our society by pursuing these objectives relentlessly in the political and popular arena. The degree of this achievement can be seen in the widespread belief in the rhetoric of "tax-relief," or in the amazing contempt that many who would most benefit from them hold for trade unions, or in the fact that if one were to propose the social and economic platforms of, say, the Trudeau Liberals of 1976 one would be regarded as an ultra-radical. Not a single political party is even proposing that we go back to the levels of taxation and interventionism that existed in 1980, let alone proposing actual systemic change.
The reversal of this ideological victory can only, in any meaningful sense, be accomplished by doing the same thing on the Left: building a coherent, long-term and ideological challenge to capitalism as a system in the streets, in the popular discourse and, most importantly, in the political arena. It can only be done by advocating for democratic socialism, and doing so consistently and regardless of electoral setbacks and short-term opinion polls. "Winning" on grand rhetoric to then basically implement the essence of your opponent's agenda when in government, or to more "humanely" or "fairly" manage austerity or "growth," is a hollow victory indeed.
It is so hollow that one need only reflect on the fact that the march towards where we are now has continued, without serious detour, despite different shades of government, whether Liberal, Democrat or New Democrat. The victory of this ideological hegemony is so great that the NDP in Manitoba in the last provincial election, for example, did not dispute the widespread media reporting that there was little in terms of economic policies that separated them from the Tories! In fact they seemed rather proud of their record as "sound fiscal managers."
All this is not a cause for despair; it is a cause for an ideological counter offensive that does not paint the 1 per cent as the problem or cause of inequality, a rhetorical flourish that any populist politician, right or left, can embrace, but that recognizes that capitalism itself is the cause. The 1 per cent are simply its effect. While the 1 per cent certainly has an entrenched and direct political stake in the continuation of the present state of affairs and the continued corporate power of State Capitalism, they are not the only people who have this stake, perceived or real.
However, as the effects of the victory of the Right's ideological offensive become clear, the seeds of the turning of the tide are sown: decreased economic and social equality and democracy, decreased oversight of corporate activity, increased environmental degradation, rampant and soulless community destroying commercialism, the loss of social stability, union jobs, industrial production, and so much more.
Occupy, in a very original and inspiring way, has put these problems back into popular consciousness and political discussion. Now it is up to us to build a class-aware, avowedly socialist political force that will present real transformative solutions and alternatives in the coming years and that will work to see these policies enacted and implemented whether in or out of office. It would also, perhaps most importantly, work to popularize anti-capitalist ideas.
When we have won the broad ideological struggle against the ideas of both capitalism and neo-liberalism, we will have won the key struggle in ending grotesque human inequality and social injustice.
Michael Laxer is a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, as well as a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council. He lives in Etobicoke and is one of two Spokespersons for the newly formed Socialist Party of Ontario.