Are “We” Really 99%?

Michael Albert argued in a recent posting on ZNet that “we” are not really 99%. He argued that while this slogan may be appealing precisely because it is so inclusive, it belies important differences that should be taken into account if the Occupy Movement is to develop successfully.

When occupiers and critics alike say, we love the creative innovation embodied in the 99% slogan, I worry. Does saying we are the 99% obscure more than it reveals. Will it ultimately misdirect more than focus the movement? Could it even distort movement priorities and practices?…. About 20% – 25% of all economic actors have a relative monopoly on empowering tasks. About 75% – 80% end up doing jobs composed of only disempowering tasks…. The former have way more power than the latter and parlay that power into more income as well…. I believe there is a very strong dynamic by which if we don’t give some serious attention to the differences between the roughly 20% – let’s call them the coordinator class – and the disempowered roughly 80% – and we can call them the working class – the… coordinators will wind up dominating the…workers, transforming working class aspirations for classlessness into coordinator class agendas for coordinator rule. (Michael Albert, ZNet, November 21, 2011)


In a recent column in the New York Times Paul Krugman argued that “we” are actually 99.9%. He argued that if one scrutinizes data on wealth and income, it is really the top 0.1% who have appropriated the lion’s share of all our economic productivity gains over the past thirty years. Krugman argues that it is really the top one tenth of one percent who have robbed the rest of us blind.

“We are the 99 percent” is a great slogan. It correctly defines the issue as being the middle class versus the elite (as opposed to the middle class versus the poor). And it also gets past the common but wrong establishment notion that rising inequality is mainly about the well educated doing better than the less educated; the big winners in this new Gilded Age have been a handful of very wealthy people, not college graduates in general…. If anything, however, the 99 percent slogan aims too low. A large fraction of the top 1 percent’s gains have actually gone to an even smaller group, the top 0.1 percent…. Between 1979 and 2005 the inflation-adjusted, after-tax income of Americans in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent. The equivalent number for the richest 0.1 percent rose 400 percent…. Who are the 0.1 percent? … One recent analysis found that 43 percent of the super-elite are executives at nonfinancial companies, 18 percent are in finance and another 12 percent are lawyers or in real estate. And these are not, to put it mildly, professions in which there is a clear relationship between someone’s income and his economic contribution. (Paul Krugman, New York Times, November 24, 2011)

Facts are facts. Both Krugman’s and Albert’s facts are true. Krugman is correct that the larceny is actually more “grand” and despicable than the 99% slogan implies. Albert is correct that many within the 99% — arguably the top 20% of the 99% — are the beneficiaries of economic arrangements that cannot be justified and which work to the detriment of the bottom 80% of the 99%.

And everyone knows it is important to know who are one’s allies and who are one’s enemies when planning strategy. So the question is, what implications for strategy we draw from these sets of facts. And I think it is fair to surmise that Albert and Krugman would have us head in opposite directions.

I would like to insert two other “facts” into the discussion before we proceed off in any direction. My “facts” have to do with the political situation we find ourselves in as I read it. (Of course if my “political facts” are disputed, that would need to be debated first.)


(1) Leftists, progressives, and even mass progressive movements that have long foresworn radical agendas have been unable to connect with, speak to, or even gain an audience with an important portion of the 99% for many decades.

Suppose we grant Albert’s point and call 20% of the 99% “coordinators” who have class interests at odds with the other 79%. That would leave 79% of the population having an objective interest in whatever campaigns and reforms Albert would argue the Occupy Movement should pursue. However, many in that 79% do not have progressive values. Worse still, I would guess that many in the 79% have long been actively hostile to traditional left and progressive ideas, movements, campaigns, etc. and are in the habit of lending a deaf ear to traditional left and progressive agendas. Leaving aside the question of the extent to which the 20% who are coordinators do identify with progressive values as less important, what fraction of the 79% fall into the category of “long dead to the traditional left”?

Let’s estimate by process of elimination: I would say 30% is a generous estimate of the percentage of the US population that is solidly progressive. In which case at most 30% of the 79% is “with us.” That leaves 49% of the population that have long lent “us” a deaf ear, but not because of any objective class interests that should make them unreceptive to a progressive agenda.

One might say that is the magnitude of the historic failure of left and progressive movements in the US over the past thirty or more years — at least with regard to connecting with many of the people we should be able to connect with, and need to connect with if we are to build a majoritarian movement for social change. Left and progressive movements in the 1930s and 1940s did connect with many in this 49%, who did participate in the famous FDR coalition. But that was a long time ago.

When the financial crisis broke in 2008, soon to be followed by the greatest recession and foreclosure crisis in over 80 years, I believed this might open up the possibility for leftists and progressives to reach out and connect with at least some in that 49% who had long been beyond hearing our voices. After all, the Rush Limbaugh narrative they had been tuned into had been “proven” false. Surely they would start to look for answers elsewhere. Unfortunately much too little of that happened in 2008 and 2009. Instead, the right wing wasted no time coming up with a list of scapegoats and spurious theories to explain what had happened they used to retain their listenership. Public anger at elite misrule appeared first on the right, not on the left, in the form of a tea party movement furious not only at banksters, but predominantly at a Black man they deeply resented residing in the White House. But the Tea Party is so 2010, and this is Occupy 2011! Which brings me to my second fact.

(2) To an increasing percentage of the population, including many in the 49%, both the Republican and Democratic parties are useless and discredited.

Progressives know Republicans have no solutions for any of our real problems – unemployment, housing, healthcare, financial reform, immigration, not to speak of climate change. (Notice: I did not list the size of the national debt as a serious problem, because it is not. It is a diversion being cynically used to make it difficult to solve our real problems.) We know Republicans will engage in scorched earth in opposition hoping that when real problems worsen Democratic incumbents, and especially the “usurper” in the White House, will pay the price at the polls. Progressives know Republicans will solve no problems, and make many problems far worse if they regain power in Washington.

More importantly, an increasing percentage of progressives also know that Obama and the Democratic Party has proved incapable of solving any of our real problems, and is even less likely to do so in the foreseeable future. And perhaps more importantly, at least some in the 49% who have long been anti-progressive also increasingly view establishment Republicans as well as Democrats as enemies rather than allies. (I state this as a fact to be taken into account, not as an argument for throwing more energy into third party, electoral politics. In fact I believe attempts to elect progressives, whether in Democratic primaries or as third party candidates in general elections, and whether at the national, or state and local levels, will unfortunately prove less fruitful in the near future than in the past, and therefore deserve less of our energy and resources. But that argument requires a lengthy justification I do not offer here.)

Some Important Questions to Ask

Besides my two “facts” I would like to pose a few questions I think those debating where the Occupy Movement should go would do well to consider.

(a) While there are some in the 49% who remain tied to tea party politics — i.e. continue to live in a fantasy world created by right wing think tanks to be broadcast over Fox “News” and spewed from the mouths of conservative radio talk show hosts 24/7 — there are some who are somewhat detached from the right wing scapegoat/fantasy narrative. How many are the “some,” and what is the extent of their detachment are important questions we need to find the answers for.

(b) Does the Occupy Movement provide “us” with a second chance to reach those in the 49% who are increasingly detached from right wing narratives now that it is clear after four years that the crisis will not go away in the foreseeable future?

(c) What can the Occupy Movement do — or be careful not to do — to maximize reaching these people?

(d) Are old debates about class analysis – Marxist vs. non-Marxist theories of class, as well as debates about the relative importance of non-class “agents of history” — really that helpful right now?

(e) The 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s saw the rise of important “new social movements” in the US fighting against imperialism and oppression based on race, sex, and sexual orientation. In a prolonged period without a severe economic crisis it was difficult for leftists and progressives to engage the body politic in discussions of class issues. Is not the worst economic crisis in over eighty years which shows no sign of abating something of a “game changer?” Suddenly the super economic elite and their apologists seem unable to suppress discussion about economic inequality. Everyone wants to talk about inequality — both how unfair and how destabilizing it is. Is this the time to change the subject to discuss objective contrary interests among the 99%? Or should we thank the 0.1% for over-playing their hand to such an extent that they have goaded tens if not hundreds of millions of average Americans into openly questioning economic inequality? The Occupy Movement surely doesn’t want to hand the super-elite another bailout!  

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