Sunday, October 16, 2011

We are the 99%, we are the 1%

The "Occupy Wall Street" movement has figured prominently in the BCM (Blogosphere as Consulted by Me) and, I assume, in the mainstream media, although I haven't looked much at the MSM in the last weeks. This movement appears to be largely a protest against what its participants believe to be the corporate greed and the unfair advantages enjoyed by the wealthiest of the population at the expense of most hardworking Americans.

One of its rallying cries is "We are the 99 percent," as opposed to the rent-seeking, greedy 1 percent who oppress us all and get government bailouts. One website that claims to speak for the movement explains what it stands for:
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.
Who, then, are the 1 percent?
They are the 1 percent. They are the banks, the mortgage industry, the insurance industry. They are the important ones. They need help and get bailed out and are praised as job creators. We need help and get nothing and are called entitled. We live in a society made for them, not for us. It’s their world, not ours. If we’re lucky, they’ll let us work in it so long as we don’t question the extent of their charity.
I do not wish to dismiss this movement or the concerns expressed by its adherents out of hand. There are real problems out there and reading that website--which, from the first of its (so far, as of a week and a half ago when I wrote the first draft of this post) 67 pages, seems to be a series of posts by people who explain their personal plight, such as high debts, poor health, and joblessness--is quite sobering. It's one thing for someone like me to contemplate, in the abstract, others' statements about what is important to them. It is quite another to put a human voice to the person making that statement. Many of the problems voiced there remind me of some of my own challenges. Others of the problems are (thankfully, knock on wood, etc.) are, so far, beyond my ken.

I also do not wish to claim that this movement is saying something it is not. It is easy to chide the proponents of the "we are the 99%, and they are the 1%" formulation as both naive and potentially dangerous, indicative of a mentality that sees conspiracies in everything perceived to be unfair or simply unsatisfactory or unfortunate. It is also easy to point out that the 99% formulation is over-inclusive. The top 10%, for instance, probably benefit more than the remaining 90% by orders of magnitude comparable to that enjoyed by the top 1% over the 99%. I in fact made a comment to that effect in a post at the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog. One commenter there thoughtfully rebuked me, saying in part (the rest, along with my original comment you can get by clicking on the link),
Personally, I think it’s somewhat misleading to think of “the 99%” as a demographic group; it is, rather, a political designation, more akin to a declaration of faith and principles than a reference to one’s factual income. To declare oneself as part of the 99% is not to say that I make less than X amount of money; it is to declare that I am in opposition to the existing order of things, which has effectively written out large percentages of the population as not really relevant to the political community. Thus, for instance, I think that Warren Buffet could declare himself too to be of the 99%, and I would welcome it. So while its true that the 99% don’t share a common interest, it is equally true that the one core purpose of the movement is to transform things, to bring into being a new political subjectivity, which in theory at least, could contain anyone and everyone.
Now, I think this commenter has a point, and it's a check on my own smugness (and against what another commenter at that site, in another post, called being "a pedantic a***ole). At any rate, I reject the facile characterizations of the movement by such people as Charles Krauthammer, who, in his appearance on a recent episode of "Inside Washington," criticized the protesters for their alleged hypocrisy in owning I-phones and wearing designers jeans while declaiming against corporate America. (That's not the only time I've seen the "they use I-phones" trope....I questions, by the way, how many of those people actually do use I-phones.) Another casual dismissal comes from Tom Van Dyke at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Noting one protester who says he or she has $70,000 in debt:
I feel you, brother. $70,000 in hock to the Educational-Industrial Complex and still no job to pay off your medical bills, the ones you ran up spending your cash on clubs and sushi and gadgets instead of insurance. Now you’re streetcamping, trying to figure out how to make a meal out of Cup O’Noodles and a can of Red Bull.
I don't see how Mr. Van Dyke knows that this person actually eats sushi or went to the clubs or didn't even have insurance, just as I don't know how accurate is Mr. Krauthammer's assessment of the protesters' fashion capabilities.

These detractors might have a point. Young college educated people--and the protesters are at least portrayed as mostly young and college educated, although I suppose those assumptions might be a bit overwrought--might have it rough in this economy, but it appears that the lesser educated have it even worse. At any rate, I'm not sure we really know the demographics enough to make such a general statement about the protests. But no number of studies in comparative oppressions and no accusations of hypocrisy necessarily answer the protesters' arguments.

Another point from the the detractors, a la Mr. Van Dyke, is that these protesters are in the situation they are in largely because of choices they made, some of which might have been improvident or at the very least ill-considered. There's probably some truth to that point, and that truth oughtn't be denied. But there is also a point, I believe, where it is important to have empathy for others, regardless of how much they owe their position to their own improvidence. Who among us hasn't made at least some poor choices? Of course, what the common solution should be, can be, and is, is a different question. I'm not sure, for example, that a onetime student loan bailout, is the way to go (although, to be fair, I don't see a lot of people seriously arguing for a student loan bailout as much as I see them arguing for expanding the categories by which people can earn forgiveness or otherwise have their debts discharged or reduced). But if someone is in distress, sometimes it is helpful to listen to them. We might see ourselves.

Still, I feel constrained to reject the "we are the 99%" formulation. My rejection comes, in part, from the criticisms I mentioned above: the conspiracy-theory mentality the formulation plays into and the formulation's (what I and and at least one other person sees as) over-inclusiveness.

My rejection also comes from the way I believe that formulation mischaracterizes the beneficiaries of the bank bailout. Those who benefited the most are probably the investment bankers and jet-setting insurance executives, at least I am going to assume that to be true. But in the very short term, at least, other beneficiaries were probably the people much lower on the food chain who worked for those firms--the clerks and the janitors and the tellers and the couriers. My point isn't that the bank bailout was wise or that it was primarily an effort to help those folks. Rather, my point is that when protesters criticize "Wall Street" or "Bank of America" (in Chicago, the protests are taking place on LaSalle Street and Jackson, where the main Chicago branch of Bank of America is located), they often elide the distinction between those they call the "1%" and those who are trying to get by on more modest incomes at more modest jobs at these places. (In this sense, my rejection is based less on the protest movement's alleged "over-inclusiveness" and more on its "under-inclusiveness.")

Finally, my rejection comes from that formulation's rejection of what I take to be basic truth. We are all essentially just as greedy, corruptible, and rent-seeking as the next person. The difference between the "99%" and the mythical 1% is that the 1% are better positioned or better able, or both, to make their greed work for them. This assertion--that humanity is inherently greedy and corrupt(ible)--is of course not very original. Even if you don't agree with it (maybe in a later post I'll explain my theory of greed, which I have stolen from C. S. Lewis and now claim as my own), you have to admit that the idea is out there and reasonable people advance it. You don't even have to agree with my broad generalization to acknowledge that to the 1%, but for the grace of God, go the 99%. (I hope that makes sense.) Who among us can honestly and with certainty say we would, if we could, abrogate all the privileges we enjoy that give us an advantage over others? I can't, and I don't think the 99% can either.

At the same time, to demand such and honest and certain avowal from another human being is unfair. And I hope it's clear that my rejection is to a particular slogan--"we are the 99%"--and not necessarily to the movement itself, what the movement represents, or any solutions the movement advocates.

2 comments:

Tod Kelly said...

Pierre - This is a pretty great column; it might be my favorite of all I've read on this.

Pierre Corneille said...

Thanks, Tod!