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Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Trouble with the 99%.

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 them 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.

And yet 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. What I mean by that is that this analysis has to be, basically, true and that it also must have transformative solutions to offer and not just injustices to expose.

Last week I approached the issue of what I felt were the organizational flaws with the Occupy idea. And these flaws are really troubling and fundamental. In my opinion they essentially doomed the movement tactically from the start. This does not mean that what happened was not inspiring, significant or important. It simply means that the methods could not, in even the short term, succeed in any systemic sense.

I also touched on the problem with Occupy's basic "Us vs. Them" 99% analysis. And it is to this I wish to return.

There is little doubt that the 99% 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 message, 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 false. And this, in the long run especially, matters.

Occupy, of course, began in New York. As a Canadian, interested in the Canadian political context I will discuss the slogan in our statistical terms, though, as can be easily shown, this would apply equally in the United States.

There is no question about the grotesque growth of social inequality in the West. That the destruction of the post-war social compromise by the forces of reaction and neo-conservative ideologues has led to alarming levels of inequality has, as previously mentioned, even been accepted by much of the Right lately. That this push towards a State Capitalist system, where corporations are bailed out for their misdeeds while workers and much of the middle class, but most horribly (and least mentioned) the underclass and retail working class, are made to pay for the subsidization of the wealthy and the said bailouts, is real is not open to serious dispute. It is not the focus of this article. 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.

But the trouble 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, nor, more importantly, does it mean that the "99%" 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...a world view that 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, but, by doing so, embraces many, if not most, of the basic enemies of working class and Socialist or anti-Capitalist politics, and embraces them in a way that lets them entirely off-the-hook for their political, economic and social actions that have helped greatly to lead us to this point.

In the last available stats the top 1% of tax filers in Canada made a minimum of $169,300 as individuals. They made, on average, $404,500.

The 99% is everyone else.

While normally I am loathe to use personal example, here is a case where, for the sake of simplicity, I will.

In the very late 1990's 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. That would likely translate to $55,000-$65,000 a year now, more-or-less.

This would place me, at the time, well within the 99%,(and,I can assure you,I am there still!) But were my class and social interests, were I to follow those, the same as the phone workers or couriers at the company? Really?

More basically, almost everyday I walk into my local Shopper's Drug Mart. The young woman at the cash, with two kids and a husband I have found out 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 $50,000-60,000 a year. Are their class interests the same? They are both in the "99%".

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 the children of the working-class, the underclass and the retail working class are. 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 admitted that the US has less social mobility now than Europe or Canada.

There is no 99%. 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, the office level lower middle-class.

Then there are the managerial and middle-managerial class, the small business owners, professionals, media workers (who are often said to be tools of the 1%), academics...etc...

Their class and social interests are not the same and a movement seeking real transformative social change and seeking to actually confront capitalism as a system needs to understand this. Working and fighting in the interests of the former can be an effective way to really confront inequality. The latter's interests are, almost always, in perception or reality, running counter in whole or in part to this change.

What it comes down to is this; according to the 99% view someone who pays minimum wage while pulling in $100,000 a year on their business, someone who works at a corporate office for $125,000 a year, someone who has a $100,000 a year dental clinic, an $80,000 a year professional, a $65,000 a year middle manager, a $55,000 shop owner, etc...are all part of the 99%.

I am sure that they like that idea.

But beyond the problems of class analysis that this presents, it also plays into the worst aspects of pseudo-conspiratorial and reductionist ideas.

I will begin by saying that our courts, governments, media, economy, and social forces are not, actually, ruled and governed by 1% 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, but the reality is that we live in a very complex society where even supposed "agents" of the 1%, 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 it problems a fundamental outcome of this system and not a perversion of it?

Looking back at the quote from Occupy above consider this:

"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"

or..."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 the second is from the fanatically right-wing Ron Paul.

Surprising how "class" rhetoric devoid of class content can sound "left" wing.

The fact is that these kinds of reductionist slogans are dangerous because they imply, by definition, a simplistic social order and simplistic mechanism of systemic social control and they thus offer simplistic and often neo-utopian (in the Marxist sense) solutions.

Once you accept the 1% idea, that means the other 99% is innocent, so to speak. It is entirely analogous to notions that imply that "good" common people are perverted or led astray by an almost hidden overclass that shapes the political and social agenda by meeting in Colorado once a year or, more often, by being a part of a named or unnamed, but implied Jewish conspiracy.

This small group of financiers, industrialists, etc...have cheated us all of our democracy and stolen our futures and rights. That we and others may have played ourselves a role in it, in how we have voted and what we have sought politically and socially is, of course, largely left out. It absolves us of blame other than as being dupes of "their" media or victims of forces beyond our control (and these forces, by the way, were not and are not beyond our control).

We are the 99%, after all. We share common interests, shopkeeper, stock broker, cashier, factory worker, academic, single mother, dentist, stock boy, manager, minimum wage worker...our commonalities outweigh our differences because we share a national, democratic or popular narrative....and we have a very simple common enemy no matter our actions or own divisions, divisions outweighed by our unity in struggle against this greater enemy.

Familiar at all?

But inequality, at root, is not an aberration of capitalism, it is a function of capitalism. While, in large part with the willing and active complicity of large sections of the middle class and traditional industrial working class, the assault by neo-conservative politicians and parties on the gains of the post-war social compromise have led us back to social inequality at levels akin to those of the "Guilded Age" of the 20's, 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, which 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% and their "agents", though they have been its most pronounced, though by no means sole, beneficiaries. 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 relatively small ways, such as the widespread belief in the rhetoric of tax-relief or the amazing contempt that many who would most benefit from them hold for trade unions, or in more significant ways, such as 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.

And the reversal of this ideological victory can only, in any meaningful sense, be accomplished by doing the same thing on the Left. By 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.

But this is not a cause for despair, it is a cause for an ideological counter offensive that does not paint the 1% 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. They are simply its effect. While the 1% 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 this ideological offensive become clear, 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, the seeds of the turning of the tide are sown.

Occupy, in a very original and inspiring way, has put these problems back into popular consciousness and political discussion. Now it is 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.

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