by Michael Albert
One of the most celebrated features of the recent occupation movements has been the slogan, “We are the 99%.” Participants effusively love the slogan, but I have mixed feelings.
Occupation critics bemoan absent demands. I say, patience.
Occupation critics question ubiquitous moralism. I say, would you prefer being immoral, amoral, or moral?
But 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?
Yes, saying we are the 99% aggressively pinpoints a very small group who have overwhelming power and wealth in society. They are owners. They are capitalists. They are on top.
And there is policy related benefit, too. Mainstream corrections for economic crisis seek for the 1% to wind up even more securely in power than they were before the crisis. Mainstream policy makers want to get back to business as usual, which not only gave us the crisis in the first place, but also constantly gives us grotesque divisions of wealth, income, and power. We obviously do not want to get back to business as usual, and saying we are the 99% excellently orients us toward instead redistributing wealth and power.
Even so, I would prefer that we call the 1% capitalists. Calling them capitalists pinpoints that they own the economy. It highlights that you can’t retain owners but not have owners on top. To get rid of 1% dominating 99% requires replacing capitalism.
But putting this quibbling aside, virtually every occupier knows the 1% are on top by virtue of owning productive property. Most people watching and learning from the occupations also know this, or can come to know it, and the 1% label won’t obstruct that from happening. So saying we are the 99% still stands tall as a slogan which widely communicates previously subterranean sentiments.
Now comes the controversy. What about managers? What about doctors? What about lawyers and engineers? What about financial officers? What about people who earn five six, ten, twenty, and even fifty or more times what the typical worker earns, but who do not own the means of production, do not work harder, do not labor under worse conditions, and do not work more intensely? In short, what about people who have jobs that are highly empowering and convey very substantial and sometimes incredible wealth and status inaccessible to those below?
A 99er may reply: They are just at the top of our team, but they are still on our team, aren’t they? They can be fired. They get wages and have to conflict with the 1% to increase their wages. They are upset about the crisis. So isn’t it good if they come to our encampments and pitch in? Isn’t it good if they march in our parades and protest along with us? What’s the problem?
The problem arises when we think of the whole 99% as all being the same type economic actor. In fact there are differences, some of which matter not only to our lives, but to our activism.
But to highlight the differences will diminish our inclusiveness, replies the 99er.
It doesn’t have to, is my response. I even think the opposite may be true.
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 group, due to their work, become more confident, more knowledgeable about their conditions and workplaces, and more socially practiced and capable. The latter group, due to their different work, become less confident, less knowledgeable about their conditions and workplaces, and less socially practiced and capable. The former have way more power than the latter and parlay that power into more income as well.
Okay, all that seems true, the 99er agrees, but if the 20% – 25% side with us in pursuing our agendas, isn’t that good?
Yes. But there are two other possibilities we should not ignore. First, they can side with the owners at the top. Second, they can have their own agenda, different from ours, that they pursue. Both these possibilities are not only possible, but quite likely for many highly empowered employees, even as some will also side with more typical workers.
Okay, says the 99er, but I still don’t see the problem with the slogan. If we want the doctors, lawyers, engineers and others to side with us, why isn’t having one name for us all – 99ers – a good step toward that goal? Why isn’t welcoming the top 20% – 25% under our one large umbrella good?
It is, in some ways. And certainly the opposite approach, treating the empowered employees as enemies, would virtually ensure their absence from our encampments, marches, and protests.
But here is my heresy. 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 former coordinators will wind up dominating the latter workers, transforming working class aspirations for classlessness into coordinator class agendas for coordinator rule.
Without going into endless detail here – the point is that the coordinators have a monopoly on empowering work. They are not smarter. They are not more industrious. They are not more worthy. Rather, they are elevated by their backgrounds, luck, better schooling, and mostly by their position in the division of labor. The workers are subordinated by their backgrounds, luck, worse schooling, and mostly by their position in the division of labor. All this can and must change. A successful movement needs to attend to it all, not least by fighting to change the division of labor.
For example, what preferences characterize our movements? What do our movements celebrate? How do our movements feel to participants? What do our movements provide participants? Who do our movements appeal to? Who makes our movement decisions? Which people will feel comfortable in and empowered by our movements? And finally, what do our movements fight for?
If we ask these questions about race or gender issues, the implications are clear. We know that we are not all one race. We know we are not all one gender. We know we need movements that address race and gender inequalities and hierarchies. To attain that focus, of course we don’t argue that white people are the enemy. We don’t argue that men are the enemy. However, we do recognize that there are real privileges to deal with. We carefully ensure that our movements elevate women and people of color to positions of influence and that our movements reject culture, styles, habits, values, and assumptions not only associated with dominant groups ruling, but off-putting to subordinate groups.
Don’t we need to translate that thinking to issues of class? Should we settle for having a movement against the 1% and even a movement that calls itself anti capitalist, which nonetheless has a culture, style, habits, values, and assumptions, and, even more so, organization and leadership that takes for granted continued rule by the the coordinator class, rather than fighting to eliminate all class division? I worry that if we don’t even mention this class distinction, if we actively bury it under an all-inclusive 99% label applied to everyone who isn’t a capitalist, we will open the door to not addressing the problems of class inside our own organizing.
Inside our movements, it is certainly important that we address issues of private ownership of property. Otherwise we will not deal with the dynamics of capitalist rule. But it is also important that we address issues of asymmetrical access to economic power. Otherwise we will not deal with the dynamics of coordinator rule.
It is obviously important that we not have a bunch of capitalists deciding our agendas. It is also important that we not have only coordinator class members doing so. It is important that we not adopt styles and approaches comfortable for the 1%, or the 20% – 25%, but uncomfortable for the 75% – 80%.
The 99er may reply, oh, that is all just outdated orthodox marxist rhetoric that would divisively diminish our potentials.
The thing is, it isn’t. And ironically, the opposite is true.
Treating the economy as if there are just two important classes – whether we call them owners and workers or we call them the 1% and the 99% – is itself, in fact, the tired old marxist approach. To lump everyone who isn’t capitalist into one category – whether we call that category worker or 99er – masks a critically important difference among non capitalists, and obscuring this difference was, indeed, a main problem of marxism because using its two class approach invariably generated old marxist economies in which the (unmentioned) coordinator class ruled over the (celebrated) working class.
But the 99er may reply, okay, fair enough, regarding the long run. But we aren’t about to win a new economy tomorrow or next week. And, for now, we need to welcome as many new participants as possible, don’t we?
Yes, we do. But the participants we mostly need to welcome and elevate to defining our movements, are working class people. Use the analogy to racism, again. We need an anti racist movement, and we certainly need to welcome white participants into it – but only if they are against racism and are prepared, albeit even if only imperfectly and sometimes with reluctance, to not exploit their privileges. We can’t welcome white people into an anti racist movement in ways that lead to adopting approaches, language, and habits that put off people of color from participating.
By analogy, do we want to welcome doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, and even managers into a movement fighting against class rule? Yes, by all means, of course we do, but only if they are on the side of working people, and only if they are ready, albeit even if only imperfectly and sometimes with reluctance, to understand and try to overcome their privileges. We need doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, and even managers who are ready to respect working class attitudes and culture and choices. Who are ready to accept working class leadership. Who are ready to try to spread currently monopolized knowledge, not hoard it. Who are ready to listen, not just lecture.
But what about students, says the 99er?
The same thing applies, doesn’t it? If a student who hopes to be doctor or lawyer also hopes to put their education and training at the disposal of working people, including trying to break down the obstacles to more people being empowered, that’s wonderful. Welcome aboard. But if a student who hopes to be a doctor or lawyer also hopes to become as wealthy as possible and identifies as an elite, and sees the resolution of the current economic crisis, for example, in a return to business as usual, that’s another matter, isn’t it?
Sure it is hard, in practice, to deal with such differences and distinctions in ways that avoid recrimination, guilt tripping, and all the rest that we all know can creep in. But with patience, it can be done.
Let me give one more example. Suppose, down the road, a time comes for issuing demands. Will coordinator class occupiers be okay with proposals that redistribute power and wealth not only from the top 1%, but also from the top 20% – 25%? Will doctors be okay with proposals from nurses that eat into doctors prerogatives? Will engineers be okay with proposals from workers that eat into engineer’s prerogatives? What about professors supporting students, even when it eats into professors prerogatives? Managers? And though it is harder to navigate the details, what about would-be doctors, engineers, professors, and managers?
If we want a movement that seeks self management, doesn’t that mean we do not want a class division that gives a monopoly on empowering work to a few and then elevates those few coordinators above workers? If we want a movement that welcomes and empowers working people, doesn’t that mean it must be guided by working class needs and desires?
For coordinator class members who will be okay with activism that benefits mainly workers, their involvement will certainly be highly beneficial to movements seeking real change. But for coordinator class members who won’t be okay with workers gains reducing coordinator advantages, their involvement could interfere with seeking classlessness and could become a serious barrier to retaining working class participants – just as the involvement of racists and sexists can be a barrier to retaining people of color and women participants.
My worry is that if we adopt slogans that place a big onus on even admitting that there are class differences within the 99%, much less on calmly and supportively delineating those differences and finding respectful ways to address them, then the obstacles and barriers we face could grow to be insurmountable.
My worry with the slogan we are the 99% is that maybe we need to find a way to talk about ourselves which welcomes participation, by all means, but which also admits differences that need to be addressed.
The desire to address and deal with differences by eliminating elite positions in a new economy is evident in our movements’ attention to self management and participation. This is what our attention to process is ultimately about, getting rid of hierarchies of power and influence. So, without becoming sectarian, without becoming judgmental, without becoming personalistic – can we pay attention to class differences which, if they instead go unmentioned, will get in the way of self management and participation? I think we can, and that we need to.