A Left Populism

The celebrated social movements of the past half century achieved their successes—however partial those remain—by demanding full citizenship for Americans whose racial or sexual identity barred them from equality under the law and equal economic opportunity. The different challenge facing the Occupy movement can be seen, ironically, in its most distinctive slogan: We are the 99 percent. Pretty funny when a Canadian-launched agitation, started by a few hundred people, claims to represent 300 million Americans! The problem here wasn’t to gather a disenfranchised group into We, the people. That particular story of freedom, with a deep moral and legal basis in American life, extends from the elimination of property qualifications for white male voters starting in 1811 to the gay marriage victories of 2011. It’s another thing entirely to redefine the American populace at large as an excluded group, cast out from the democracy and prosperity that form the national birthright.

A few amazing months after September 17, We are the 99 percent still doesn’t come close to being true, even as the movement has spread across the country to one city after another, from college campuses to a hamlet in Oregon to a lone woman holding a cardboard sign in the Alaskan tundra, not to mention fraternal outbreaks in Asia, Europe, Oceania, and South America. And yet the scope of the claim—99 percent!—indicates the immense promise of the movement: nothing less than to build a left populism capable of rescuing the country in the name of the people by and for whom it’s allegedly governed.

Given the demoralization of the working class, corporate domination of politics and the media, Republican control of the House and blockade in the Senate, this was always going to be a quixotic effort. And the movement’s very success—its thrilling capture of physical and discursive space—has revealed new obstacles, among them a casual resort to police brutality and a contempt for the right to assembly in municipalities throughout the country. On November 15, a New York City mayor with a $20 billion fortune—gained through providing proprietary data and analysis to the financial industry, and whose girlfriend sits on the board of the corporation that “owns” the public space that is Zuccotti Park—had the Occupy Wall Street encampment evicted, ransacking the People’s Library and smashing laptops in the process. Bloomberg’s conflicts of interest went almost unremarked, in keeping with the current state of American politics, and the park was restored to what the mayor deemed its true purpose: “passive recreation.”

Whether the eviction amounted to a triumph or blunder for the plutocracy was hard, at first, to say. Protests, actions, and arrests continued through the fall, and then the ambiguity of winter hung over the movement: was this the end or just a preparation for spring? In the months and years ahead, we’ll learn whether Occupy can lead to what might be called the active recreation of American democracy.

At its inception, the movement was both inarticulate and surpassingly eloquent, in the way of a cry of pain. The first reaction to such a cry is sympathy. A diagnosis of the injury or illness could come later. As for treatment, everyone knew it wouldn’t be forthcoming from those in power. TELL US YOUR DEMANDS SO THAT WE CAN IGNORE THEM: so one protester’s sign ventriloquized the mass media and the political class in the early days in Zuccotti Park.

Needs precede demands, and a website called We Are the 99 Percent, one of the first and more remarkable documents of the movement, testified to how needy the US has become. The Tumblr presented a scroll-able gallery of faces, most of them almost entirely hidden by handwritten notes in a variety of colors and formats. One was the quarter face of a bald, bearded white man, holding a yellow legal pad, who’d written in block capitals, “I work 3 jobs, none of which provide health insurance. My son is on Medicaid. We are on W.I.C. We’re one paycheck from disaster. I am the 99%.” Another, showing only a young woman’s fingers gripping her note,

I am scared every day that I will lose my job and be stuck with 50K in student loans that won’t be paid off until I am 40. After loan payments and car insurance I am left with only money for gas. I am extremely lucky, it could be worse, at least I can live with my parents for a while. I am the 99 percent.

So it goes, for pages and pages: returning veterans without jobs and with crippling disabilities; a would-be member of the professional class (“I have three master’s degrees, no job, and over 80,000 in student debt”); a woman who says she and her husband are afraid to have children because “they will be part of the 99%”; another woman who writes her own epitaph in the last line of her testimony, “First in my family to go to college. Built a wonderful international career in nonprofits. Now I’m unable to get a cashier job at the zoo because chronic depression, unemployment and lack of access to medical care ruined my credit score. I played by the rules.”

In most of the photographs, faces are either partially hidden or downcast, in attitudes of shame; a few, mostly the youngest, look out defiantly. It cannot go on. It goes on.

The diversity of the stories and faces on display rebutted anyone naïve or malicious enough to claim (as Fox News, CNN, the National Review Online, the editors of the New Republic, and many others did at first) that the movement consists mainly of hippies, anarchists, and other phantasms of the 1960s New Left. The Tumblr provided, even better than the diverse and growing encampment in Zuccotti Park, a portrait in aggregate of an emerging and no longer silent majority of Americans: indebted, often overeducated for the few jobs and salaries available to them, stripped of dignity, tormented by anxieties over how to care for themselves and their families, laid off from jobs, nonunionized, clinging precariously to an idea of middle-classness that seems more and more a chimera. Never mind democracy, this is what a “lost decade” looks like—assuming the period proves as short as that.

Politically and culturally, however, the We Are the 99 Percent blog offered an ambiguous message, in which militancy and futility were hard to distinguish. It recalled the testimonies by English independent hand-loom weavers at the end of the 18th century, unearthed by E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class. Driven into wage and debt slavery to large textile manufacturers in Manchester and elsewhere after the advent of the power loom, the weavers, a mostly literate group, told their stories in letters to their families and magistrates, or recorded them in popular ballads. For all the pathos of their plight, the weavers are now just a footnote to the larger movements of modernity and industrialization of which they were victims.

The creation of an archive or memorial, even in real time, doesn’t by itself constitute resistance, and it might be that the 99-percenters represented by the Tumblr will be viewed by future historians as the necessary fallen of the Great Adjustment, or whatever name they give our present moment of wracking socioeconomic realignment. At the same time, by writing “I am the 99 percent” or in some cases “We are the 99 percent” at the end of their litanies, the individuals who post their miseries on the web are doing something that Americans of recent generations have been averse to doing. They are actually creating class consciousness, for themselves and those around them. It’s not just a gesture but a speech act, in the way that declaring Jesus Christ your savior makes you a Christian. When an individual follows the instructions of wearethe99percent.tumblr.com—Let us know who you are. Take a picture of yourself holding a sign that describes your situation. Below that, write “I am the 99 percent”—he or she writes a letter of resignation from the American Dream and pledges allegiance to the 99 percent movement, the goals of which remain undefined.

The voluntary humility of these gestures is subtly reinforced by an association, springing to the mind of anyone who’s lived in a major American city, with the signs often carried by the homeless: HIV POSITIVE, NO INSURANCE, PLEASE HELP; HOMELESS VIETNAM VET; PUBLISHED POET: NEW YORK TIMES, AMSTERDAM NEWS, ETC. NOW SELLS HIS POEMS DIRECTLY TO YOU! Intended or accidental element of style, this identification of the Occupy movement with the homeless has emerged as one of the most uncanny and powerfully disturbing aspects of the protests. Of course it occurred at more than the level of signage. The tent city in Zuccotti Park, like others around the country, mingled not only the images but the actual bodies of the homeless and the sheltered. Just as, for Communists, the industrial proletariat embodied the future revolution (even though only a minority of the working class was ever employed in factories), so Occupy proposes the homeless as the vanguard of contemporary America. “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel”: the outcast King Lear’s words to himself on the heath have been the unspoken motto of the occupiers camping out in parks and squares. Through a combination of virtue and necessity, in a mood of mixed acknowledgment and anticipation, an important segment of the young, healthy, and educated have declared their economic vulnerability and social ordinariness.

On the other hand, as with all solidarity politics, mostly practiced in Europe—“We are all illegal immigrants!” and, briefly, after September 11, “We are all Americans”—“We are all homeless” clashes against certain existing realities. Many of the actually homeless are what the occupiers were first alleged to be: unwashed, drug-addled, and (owing to mental illness) incoherent. And as homeless people gravitated or, in some cases, were prodded by the police toward various urban Occupations, sober and well-informed protesters were in a sense forced to merge with—to host, to counsel, and to feed—the hostile media caricature of themselves. The influx of the homeless, a result of official dereliction in the care of the poor, the addicted, and the mentally ill, ultimately produced the very problems of safety and sanitation that served as pretexts for evicting the occupiers. It also pointed up the tremendous difficulty and necessity of political identification among unlike groups.

A similar thing happens when a basically rich person, however downwardly mobile, contemplates joining the movement. It’s hard to get less individualistic than “I am the 99 percent,” yet personal and very particular narratives have a hard time staying out of people’s handwritten testimonies: you read about child abuse and marital breakups, chronic illnesses. And a bit of amateur graphology suggests that the guy with three doctorates may be exaggerating. At a certain point, the (upper) middle-class person runs into a conundrum as much psychological as political: how to identify with all these people, each of them unhappy in his or her own way, when most of them are unhappier, socioeconomically, than he or she has ever been?

A previous generation of the fortunate could have a picture of economic distress resembling Walker Evans’s famous photographs of the Depression-era South in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Those photos, so austere, so pure, are seared into the cultural memory: the cool-eyed stare of the young woman, framed by the clapboard side of a house, her mouth in a thin, crooked almost-smile that doesn’t quite prevent us from noticing the cheeks sunken from malnourishment and early loss of teeth; the barefoot, towheaded children on their rickety porches, amid the cast-down farm tools. Fruit of a WPA project that aimed to call attention to rural American poverty, Evans’s photographs perversely ended up ennobling the hard lives that the government he worked for wanted to improve. Those images were addressed to a public of outsiders, and that is the very thing that makes the suffering they display so easy on the eye, all these generations later. One feels: Those people aren’t me. And their dignity makes their suffering easier to bear (though whether for them or just for the onlooker, it’s hard to say).

“We are the 99 percent” is something else, more an internal document of economic vulnerability than an external one. It doesn’t want your sympathy, although many of the stories are written in a language designed to evoke sympathy. It wants your identification, and invites you to accept the consequences of that identification. You don’t need to be unemployed, poor, or foreclosed upon. You only need to feel like you could be. Who, at this point, doesn’t feel that?

To tell the truth, not all of us do, just yet. And some combination of lingering material comfort, social distaste, and intellectual condescension has been enough to prevent much of the residual middle class from identifying with and joining the movement. But identification can be compelled as much by social hopes as by personal fears.

The top percentile in the United States begins with household income of roughly $500,000 per year, ten times the annual income of the median American family. As the leading bloggers of the left have pointed out, even if we managed to raise the taxes of such high earners, there simply aren’t enough of them to pay for everything we need. The top 1 percent now takes home 19 percent of American earnings, as much as everyone in the bottom 50 percent combined—but this still leaves 62 percent of America’s total income going to the bracket between 50 and 99 percent. It’s north of the 50th percentile, among the upper middle class and lower upper class—not just those making more than $250,000, the lower bound on the Obama Administration’s “tax the rich” strategy, but also those making $104,000, the lower bound of the top 20 percent—that real changes must be made. It’s here that taxes need to be raised and ideologies altered. Had Matt Yglesias been in charge of coming up with a slogan for a left-wing protest movement, it would have been, he said, “We are the 90 percent!” Doug Henwood, editor of the mighty Left Business Observer and a fan of the 99 percent slogan, observed about the movement’s natural constituency, “Maybe 80 percent is more like it.”

The problem with any 90 versus 10 (or 80 versus 20) framing of debate has to do with the distribution not of income but of class consciousness. Thirty-nine percent of Americans believed, in 2000, that they were already among the top 1 percent of earners or would be “soon.” Soak the rich won’t work so long as many Americans still think (in spite of social mobility levels below those of Western Europe) that they will soon number among the soaked. If two-fifths of the population identifies with the wealthiest 1 percent, then explicitly going after the wealthiest 10 or 20 percent would be a sure way to alienate the majority.

We are the 99 percent remains a great slogan because it’s not only about income and taxation but also about representation and influence. The doctors, lawyers, small-business owners, and other professionals who make up the top 20 percent may mostly vote Republican; they may wield undue political influence; and their lobbyists undoubtedly buy off members of Congress right and left. But no one, including them, believes they have their hands on the levers of power. It’s David Koch and Rupert Murdoch and George Soros and Bill Gates who get admitted into the control room. Even the 39 percent who believe (or believed ten years ago) they will soon join the 1 percent don’t imagine they will get to run the country—they just think they’ll buy a bigger house in the next suburb over. Forget about annual income: the top 1 percent controls 42 percent of American capital. That’s an oligarchy. And if you think you’ll belong to the oligarchy tomorrow, you’re either a lunatic or an oligarch today.

The occupiers have bypassed the debate about fair taxation to make a move on the system of representation itself. Here is the soft underbelly of American “democracy.” The unrecognized consequence of record low congressional approval ratings is that people across the country are more prepared than at any other time in recent history for fundamental reform of the political system. Among the first proposals on the protesters’ lips were the repeal of the Citizens United decision and the public funding of public elections. Corporate personhood may be a useful legal fiction when it comes to the creation of durable enterprises, but if corporations are a kind of person, they are in no sense citizens. We citizens are the people; corporate persons aren’t. And money isn’t speech any more than speech is money. These truisms are so powerful that it’s incredible how rarely they have been publicly articulated—or it would be incredible if it weren’t for the dominance of the public sphere by corporations.

This feeling of the happily obvious, of the self-sufficiently simple, is a good sign for any populist movement, which by definition can’t consist mainly of sophisticates. Of course the way to move left causes forward is to make the electoral process more democratic; of course the way to promote such reform is by targeting the industry more responsible than any other for distorting our politics, one with which 80 to 99 percent of this country doesn’t identify. The occupiers’ immediate moves were so straightforward and so popular as to suggest that the left may begin to contemplate a return from the wilderness. Neither in Europe nor the US has it ever been necessary for the left to be in office to exercise influence; it has needed only to be strong, and then de Gaulle or Nixon would helplessly enact much of its program. In one of fall 2011’s innumerable Republican debates, Mitt Romney—Mitt Romney!—referred sympathetically to the occupiers as a sign of economic discontent. Romney would say or do anything to get elected, and this includes pledging to turn Zuccotti Park back over to the movement on his first day in office. What a truly powerful left wants, it may get, no matter who’s in office.

The biggest and best goal implied by We are the 99 percent is the reconstitution of the American “people” as a progressive force bringing about a society that’s just, sustainable, and free. An important and neglected work of recent years, Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason (2005), argued that the complaints typically lodged against populism—its instability, its vagueness, its ideological emptiness—point to the virtues of the phenomenon. If so, this is encouraging for a movement often taxed with amorphousness and incoherence. Populism, in Laclau’s model, links a series of “equivalential demands” under the “floating signifier” of the people. The demands equal one another not in importance but by virtue of proposing an identity or equivalence uniting them.

Laclau offers the platform of the late- 19th-century People’s Party as an example: to increase the money supply meant to nationalize the railroads meant to shorten the working day meant to abolish the Pinkerton Agency meant to ensure decent pensions for union veterans, and so on. The “people” were the people who wanted all those things—or enough of them, anyway, to join with others in asking for them all. Of course the “people” of the People’s Party wasn’t equivalential enough; it neglected black citizens and particularly spurned Asian Americans. But the floating signifier of the people came, all the same, to cover an imposing number of actual persons.

To some ears it will sound paradoxical or even dangerous for intellectuals to champion populism. Can there really be such a thing as an intellectual populism, an internationalist populism? The record of some historical populisms would cast doubt on these possibilities. But the same possibilities are the era’s necessities, and already they are being embodied by a movement that recognizes its kinship with popular uprisings from Cairo and Tel Aviv to Athens and Madrid and Santiago de Chile, one whose chief slogan was inspired by the work of a progressive economist—Joseph Stiglitz—and reportedly first proposed by a radical anthropologist, David Graeber.

A people, in the populist sense, never includes everybody, and any decent American populism will have to guard the rights of the persons falling outside its shifting self-definition; one task of the 99 percent, if it ever attains power, will be to ensure the protection of the 100 percent. The responsibilities of power remain, however, a long way off. The battle of the moment pits domination by corporate persons against an emergent democratic people. A movement is finding out who it is. That it couldn’t say at the start means only that it is learning, listening, thinking, growing. Since November 15, it has also arguably entered that phase of growing up that consists of leaving home. In the aftermath of the eviction, it wasn’t entirely grandiose to recall the Paris Commune of 1871, which also survived a mere two months before its suppression.

No demands have yet been issued to a political system that couldn’t accommodate them in any case, but the principles of the new society are clear enough: nonviolence; genuine democracy, including the right of assembly; and economic justice. At the moment, the movement to build that society looks like the country’s last best hope. It’s also the first serious political hope—not less serious for its fragility—that many of us have been able to entertain about our country in our few years or decades of adult life.

Occupy the future!

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