Stiffed

David Runciman

  • The Occupy Handbook edited by Janet Byrne
    Back Bay, 535 pp, $15.99, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 316 22021 7

There is some competition to be the person who inspired the slogan of Occupy Wall Street: ‘We are the 99 per cent.’ Joseph Stiglitz thinks it might be him, on the back of an article he wrote for Vanity Fair in 2011 entitled: ‘Of the 1 per cent, by the 1 per cent, for the 1 per cent.’ Others think it was the economist Emmanuel Saez, who helped popularise the idea that 99 per cent of American households have been watching their incomes stagnate or fall while the top 1 per cent pulled away. As Saez reported back in 2007, since the 1970s half of all income growth has been captured by just 1 per cent of the population, leaving everyone else to get by on what’s left. But Rolling Stone magazine identified the originator of ‘We are the 99 per cent’ as David Graeber, the anthropologist and activist, who first spotted its potential as an organising tool.[*] You can see why people might want to lay claim to ‘We are the 99 per cent’: it’s a brilliant slogan and an increasingly successful brand, doing its work on T-shirts and banners around the world. But it’s a half-baked idea.

The problem is that 99 per cent is far too many. Majorities on that scale sound overwhelming, but they always come apart on closer scrutiny. There is nothing on which so many people will ever be able to agree. You often find polling questions to which only 1 per cent of the sample are willing to give their assent – flailing candidates for office can easily plumb those depths – but it would be a big mistake to assume that the other 99 per cent are united on anything at all, even on their dislike of the unpopular candidate (many will never have heard of him). The only time the figure 99 per cent appears in polling data is when the poll is a fraudulent one. It’s a number I still associate with elections in the old Soviet bloc, or with the last remaining dictatorships. Kim Jong Un can get the backing of 99 per cent of his electorate. No one else can.

Occupy Wall Street is not trying to get 99 per cent of the population to vote for anyone or anything. The movement is simply highlighting an experience that the 99 per cent have in common, which is to have been stiffed by the current system. But this is another way in which 99 per cent is too many. Something must have gone very wrong with democracy when so many can be outwitted by so few. The implication of the slogan ‘We are the 99 per cent’ is that we have all been duped. If we had known what was going on we wouldn’t have let it happen. Now that we know about it we can stop it. But how? Any system in which 99 per cent of the population can be duped at the same time is not merely a defective democracy; it is no democracy at all. ‘We are the 99 per cent’ is intended as an accommodating idea, but really it’s a revolutionary one. It implies that we have been the victims of a giant confidence trick. You can’t work to improve a system like that, any more than you can work to improve a Ponzi scheme; you need to scrap it and start again. Some prominent figures associated with Occupy Wall Street are quite happy with this line of thought. Slavoj Žižek is unabashed about the movement’s revolutionary implications. He sees it as a harbinger of the coming transformation, ‘a message from the communist future’. But for all Žižek’s brilliance as a sloganeer, he would be hard-pressed to get many of the 99 per cent to agree with him on that. They don’t want to scrap the democracy we have. They just want it to work better.

So how were we duped? Mainly by not paying attention. The 1 per cent didn’t conspire to rip everyone else off. They got their way by walking through the door we left open for them. We were too distracted and disorganised among ourselves to put up enough resistance. What the 99 per cent have in common is that they don’t have enough in common to make a difference politically, compared to the very rich, who are a well-organised bunch. The 99 per cent are a lot more numerous than the 1 per cent; they are also a lot more divided, and it’s the second fact that counts.

These divisions are not the ones that the champions of the rich sometimes like to suggest. As Barbara and John Ehrenreich point out in their essay in the Occupy Handbook, ‘for decades the most stridently promoted division within the 99 per cent was between what the right calls the liberal elite – composed of academics, journalists, media figures etc – and pretty much everyone else.’ This was a political strategy, designed to prey on the irritation many people feel when encountering authority figures telling them what to do. It was also a deliberate distraction, intended to draw attention away from the growing divide between the Wall Street elite and ordinary professionals, who were often struggling to get by. Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich take it for granted that the crash of 2008 has laid bare the illusion. ‘The doctor or school principal might be overbearing, the professor and the social worker might be condescending, but only the 1 per cent took your house away.’

But Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich make the mistake of juxtaposing false divisions with a false picture of unity. Now that the con has been exposed, they think the 99 per cent are bound to discover ‘some common interests and … put aside some of the divisions among themselves’. They have been turned into a group ‘capable of articulating “the identity of their interests”’ (the phrase is taken from E.P. Thompson). There is absolutely no evidence for this. It relies on a wishful view of the 99 per cent and an absurd caricature of the 1 per cent, who are described as having been revealed ‘as a band of feckless, greedy narcissists, and possibly sociopaths’. What, all of them? Many of the 1 per cent think of themselves as members of the 99 per cent, precisely because they do not feel they belong with the monsters and sociopaths. Many of them are right: the 1 per cent starts at a household income level of around $350,000, so it includes a wide mix of people, including plenty of liberal professionals. Really, as Paul Krugman likes to point out, it’s the 0.1 per cent or even the 0.01 per cent who have been getting away with it on the grandest scale. But ‘We are the 99.9 per cent’ or ‘We are the 99.99 per cent’ seem like increasingly pointless slogans. You can’t play the victim when there’s ten thousand of you to every one of them.

When Mitt Romney was captured on tape at a fundraiser earlier this year making claims about the 47 per cent who he said would never vote for him because they paid no income tax, he was paying lip-service to one of the counter-slogans inspired by ‘We are the 99 per cent.’ This is the ‘We are the 53 per cent’ movement, which speaks up for income-tax payers across the country. But, as many people have pointed out, it’s a stupid slogan, and it made for a stupid speech. It assumes a fundamental divide between the moochers living on government handouts and the makers who are supporting them by doing all the heavy lifting in the economy. In fact, most of the 47 per cent are paying all sorts of other taxes, including highly regressive taxes on consumption; meanwhile, many of the 53 per cent are reliant on government benefits in one form or another, including tax credits. But again, the temptation is to contrast Romney’s fake divide with an equally fake picture of unity. Some estimates put the figure of those who get help from the government at 96 per cent. So, in the words of Mark McKinnon, a former political adviser to George W. Bush, ‘Romney’s comment managed to offend just about everyone in America.’ No it didn’t. The 96 per cent don’t think in one mind about anything. Many of the 47 per cent will self-identify with the 53 per cent. Many of the 53 per cent will self-identify with the 47 per cent. Politics is a messy business. And come election time, the candidate who manages to assemble a coalition of even 50.5 per cent of voters out of this mess will win.

Fake divisions need to be contrasted with more potent divisions, not with fake unities. What are the divisions that count? One divide that no one in the Occupy Handbook seems much exercised about is between the members of the 99 per cent who bothered to take part in the Occupy protests and those who merely sympathise with them. It is hard to get precise figures on the number of people who showed up for OWS, starting in New York, then in cities across the United States, and then in cities across the Western world. On no one’s account are the numbers vast. It is perhaps a few tens of thousands in some of the bigger protests, making perhaps a few millions worldwide. These are at best 1 per cent of the 99 per cent (in fact, it’s more like 0.1 per cent). Like the other 1 per cent that they are protesting about, the protesters are hardly an undivided group among themselves. Some have been there for the duration, some turn up for the showpiece occasions, some are merely tourists. However, the big difference between this 1 per cent and the other is that the protesters can plausibly claim to be speaking on behalf of the 99 per cent, whereas the very rich can hardly claim to be the representatives of everyone else.

But do activists really represent likeminded people who have better things to do than protest themselves? It’s easy to assume this, but it is far from clear that it’s true. Social networks have made it much easier for individuals to form shallow connections of shared concern and vicarious experience. Occupy Wall Street has taken advantage of this on websites designed to tap into the affinity between the life stories of the protesters – ordinary people at the end of their tether – and everyone else. At the same time, the protesters talk about their extraordinary experiences at the protests and the bonds they have formed with people they might once have believed they had little in common with: the homeless, the destitute, the afflicted. This is the result of unexpected face to face encounters. Strange things happen when people talk to each other. But that experience is emphatically not being shared by anyone who is Occupying Wall Street from the comfort of their own homes. There are really two different kinds of link being forged here: the transformative interactions of those on the ground and the fleeting connection being made with those looking in. The first have almost nothing in common with the second. Direct democracy and representative democracy remain poles apart.

In 2010, Malcolm Gladwell was widely criticised for an article he wrote in the New Yorker about the Iranian ‘green’ revolution, which disputed the far-reaching political effects of social networking. ‘The revolution will not be tweeted,’ Gladwell insisted. The Arab Spring of 2011, and its distant cousin Occupy Wall Street, suggested to many that Gladwell had been proved wrong: he was so behind the times. But as the excitement of 2011 fades into something more familiarly disappointing, it looks like Gladwell might have been right. ‘A networked, weak-tie world’, as he put it, gets trumped by the strong ties of personal relationships built on shared first-hand experiences, whether in government or among its opponents. Activists on the ground have these experiences; but they don’t share them with the people who aren’t there.

In this respect, many of the claims being made for Occupy Wall Street are inflated. Its far-reaching effects are available only to the tiny proportion of the population who can be bothered to show up. In an age when traditional political parties are losing their hold on the public, it is easy to assume that their place can be taken by activist groups that forge new coalitions based on the issues people really care about. But political parties are founded on the assumption that most people don’t care enough about politics to do the things that would make a difference: they have to be corralled into the political arena and then bribed to stay there long enough to effect change. It is a grubby and unpleasant process and it requires a lot of organisation. Activism is different. It assumes that people will be fired up to act. Some will. Most won’t.

A few sceptical voices in the Occupy Handbook point out that many of the 99 per cent are perhaps not so different from the 1 per cent as they imagine. Though they haven’t got as much money, they have enough for their life experiences to be comparable: they like comfort, and convenience, and they want their children to have these things too. Their experience of genuine deprivation is limited, though their fear of it is real enough. They deride the very rich but also quite like reading about them. They do not deride the very poor, but they do not like reading about them. Stiglitz sees no apparent anomaly in the fact that his rallying cry for Occupy Wall Street appeared in the pages of Vanity Fair, a magazine that expertly straddles the 99 per cent/1 per cent divide. Its politics are for the 99 per cent – Bush was a monstrous deceiver, Obama is making the best of a bad job etc – but the world it depicts is that of the 1 per cent, in all its excitement and variety (movie stars and bankers, heiresses and humanitarians). It is both naive and irresponsible to assume that the political representation of ideas is untouched by the pictorial representation of glamour.

I know this is an old-fashioned view, and one of the things that Occupy Wall Street was meant to have dispelled: that we live in a world hung up on images of wealth and fame. It is true that we can, at best, only ever feel a weak connection with celebrities we don’t know and whose actual lives we can barely comprehend. But we can only ever feel a weak connection with political activists as well and our experience of what they are doing is similarly vicarious. The 99 per cent are being pulled this way and that by weak forms of representation, some political, some not. To think that one of these weak forms can dispel the others, and do it for everyone at the same time, is absurd.

Amid all the grandstanding and parading of manifestos in the Occupy Handbook, one essay that stands out is an old-fashioned piece of historical reportage by Michael Hiltzik. It’s called ‘The 5 per cent’, and it tells the story of the campaign during the 1930s to secure a decent social security programme for the elderly. In 1934, the number of Americans over the age of 65 was seven million, or just 5 per cent of the total population. This group was in danger of being forgotten in the welter of New Deal initiatives: they lacked the clout or the visibility of more numerous groups of the disadvantaged, especially militant younger men without jobs. Yet the old were suffering the most. Many had lost their savings and had no pension. The unemployment rate among the over-65s looking for work was 54 per cent. A doctor called Francis Townsend organised a campaign to enact a national pension scheme and rallied a grassroots movement to support him. Though he didn’t get the scheme he wanted, he drew the nation’s attention to a group of people who were the clear losers in a crisis that had left the rich relatively unscathed.

By focusing on the 5 per cent, the Townsend campaign made effective political use of the idea of victimhood. ‘Reduced to its essentials,’ Hiltzik writes, ‘the Townsend movement was a quest for justice for an oppressed and abused segment of the population. From this simplicity it drew its political potency.’ The 99 per cent might sound like a simpler idea, but it’s not, because it is so hard to see how that many could count as an oppressed and abused segment of the population. In the 1930s there were plenty of populist movements that went for a broader appeal, claiming to speak on behalf of everyone who had lost out to the sinister ‘money powers’. The trouble with these movements was that they tended to need charismatic figureheads like Charles Coughlin and Huey Long to sustain their political potency, which did a lot to diminish their democratic credibility over time. General rallying cries eventually descended into a mixture of conspiracy-mongering and rabble-rousing. Targeted movements, built on a narrower set of interests, were able to sustain much more durable coalitions.

Who are the 5 per cent today? It’s definitely not the old, who are now far more numerous and far wealthier than ever before. The percentage of the US population aged over 65 is nearly 14 per cent and rising. This group has enormous political clout, in large part because they vote in greater numbers than almost anyone else. They have not been the losers from the current crisis and politicians have gone out of their way to protect them and their entitlements. The losers are the young, especially those aged 25 and under who are not in education but are looking for work. In the US the unemployment rate for those aged 16-24 is 17.1 per cent; for black workers in that age-group it is 29 per cent. But the truly scary picture is the one emerging from Europe. In countries like Greece and Spain the youth unemployment rate is around 50 per cent. In these countries too, the old are better protected than the young, who are often being abandoned. Add to this the fact that the old are the ones who have enjoyed the benefits of years of relative prosperity and security across the Western world, whereas the young are facing a future in which the money has run out, and it is clear who the real victims are.

Youth unemployment figures have to be handled carefully. It’s not the case that one in every two young people in Spain is out of work. One in every two young people in Spain is currently in higher education. (Spain is one of the countries that during the housing boom preceding the crash of 2008 saw higher education enrolment fall as many school-leavers took jobs in the construction industry; now there is no construction industry that trend has gone into sharp reverse.) The unemployment rate applies to the other 50 per cent who are in the labour market. Demographic shifts mean that there are now fewer 18-24 year olds in Europe – they make up roughly 10 per cent of the population – than there are people aged over 65. So the half that is struggling to stay afloat in the labour market is around 5 per cent of the total.

It is harder to organise a political movement to help young people than old people. Young people are less susceptible to being organised and they lack the patience for the hard graft of a long political campaign. They are more likely to be seduced by the weak ties of social networking and the false promise of slogans like ‘We are the 99 per cent.’ Nonetheless, these are the victims who need the most help and who lack the clout or visibility to be heard among the more pressing demands being made by the more militant elderly. They are the 5 per cent and we should do something for them.

[*] Benjamin Kunkel wrote about David Graeber in the LRB of 10 May 2012.