Letters of Resignation from the American Dream

Walker Evans, "The work boots of Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama," 1936.

This piece first appeared in Occupy! An OWS-Inspired Gazette, now entering its second printing and still available for free download.

A web page, white and red letters against a black background, a scroll-able gallery of faces most of them almost entirely hidden by handwritten notes in a variety of colors and formats. One, the quarter face of a bald, bearded white man, holding a yellow legal pad, where he’s written in block print capitals, “I work 3 Jobs, None 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 graduated college a year ago and have a job as a journalist. I am lucky. Every time we have a staff meeting someone is laid off. My entire office is struggling; professionals making less than 30K a year. I am scared everyday 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.”

And so it goes down the scroll, and for pages and pages: returning veterans without jobs and with variously crippling disabilities; a would-be member of the professional class, “I have three masters 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.” There are teachers, kids afraid to go to college, the children of immigrants who realize they will have worse lives than their parents, grandparents worried about their grandchildren and their own retirements. 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 website, an open blog, or Tumblr, called “We are the 99%,” is one of the few and more remarkable documents to emerge from the Occupy Wall Street movement. The diversity of the stories and faces on display provides a pretty definitive rebuttal to anyone still naïve or malicious enough to claim that the movement is composed exclusively of hippies, anarchists, and other phantasms of the 1960s New Left conjured by CNN, the National Review Online, and the editors of the New Republic. The Tumblr provides a portrait in aggregate of the emerging majority of Americans: indebted, often over-educated 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, non-unionized, clinging precariously to an idea of middle-classness that seems more and more to be a chimera of the past. Never mind democracy, this is what a “lost decade” looks like. Behold the human subjective correlatives of what Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and other honorable economists were warning about when they described the effects of life in a chronic liquidity trap, when businesses won’t invest in labor and the government fails to stimulate the economy.

Politically and culturally, however, “We are the 99%” offers a more ambiguous series of messages. The nation and society that can produce this kind of document is undoubtedly in the throes of a nasty transformation. A historically-minded reader may be reminded of the few testimonies by English independent hand-loom weavers at the end of the 18th century, unearthed by E. P. Thompson in his “Making of the English Working Class.” Driven off the land, 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. It was a time when, as Wordsworth put it in a poem about the fate of one such weaving family, “many rich sunk down as in a dream among the poor,/ and of the poor did many cease to be,/ and their place knew them not.” For all the pathos of the plight of the weavers, they are now mostly remembered as 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, does not by itself constitute resistance, and it might be the case that the lives of the 99 percenters represented by the Tumblr will be viewed by future historians as the necessary fallen of the age of post-industrialization, the great adjustment, or whatever name they give our present moment of economic and social realignment.

At the same time, there is a certain limited but important power behind all these displays of futility. By writing “I am the 99%” or in some cases “we are the 99%” at the end of their litanies, the individuals who have chosen to post their post-industrial miseries on the web are doing something that Americans of recent generations have been notionally 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, for instance, that saying you accept Jesus Christ as your savior is enough to make you a Christian among certain born-again churches. When an individual chooses to follow the instructions of wearethe99percent.tumblr.com

Let us know who you are. Take a picture of yourself holding a sign that describes your situation—for example, “I am a student with $25,000 in debt,” or “I needed surgery and my first thought wasn’t if I was going to be okay, it was how I’d afford it.” 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% movement, the goals of which remain undefined even as it builds strength with every person who, as the Tumblr puts it, “gets known.”

The voluntary humility of these gestures is subtly reinforced by an association that will immediately spring to the mind of anyone who’s lived in an major American city, 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 and the urban homeless and panhandlers emerges as one of the most uncanny and powerfully disturbing aspects of the current protests. Just as the early communists heralded the proletariat as the repository of potential revolutionary consciousness, so OWS holds up the homeless as the privileged figure of contemporary American post-capitalist life. This elevation of homelessness by reducing everyone outside the 1 percent of über-capitalists to their ranks occurs at more than the level of signage. The reclamation of the semi-public sphere being carried out in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere in America is, it turns out, of immediate practical benefit to the permanently urban homeless, who may shortly be able to claim the political dignity of occupation for themselves, not to mention access to the unofficial support network of soup kitchens, medical tents, libraries, and legal advice set up by the Occupiers.

On the other hand, as with all solidarity politics, mostly practiced in Europe—“We are all German Jews,” “We are all Illegal Immigrants!” and, briefly, after September 11, “We are all Americans”—“We Are all Homeless” clashes against certain existing realities, as when an actual homeless man interrupted a meeting of the Occupy Philadelphia education committee to ask for money. The consternation on the faces of the Occupiers was visible, and when the man lay down just outside the circle, on the concrete, the group’s coordinator—a young woman who flashed with the magnetizing beauty that seems to attach to so many who assume leading roles in OWS—immediately sat down next to him and fruitlessly tried to persuade him to move, while the meeting dissolved into chaos. At that moment, she was no longer acting in ruthless solidarity—“We’re out here with you, brother,” as one guy called out, his hands never moving from his pockets—but in more old-fashioned sympathy. She could afford to take time off from the revolution, she thought, because whatever percentage she was, she had resources that the homeless guy did not have. These habits do not get unlearned overnight or even over several nights, and it might not turn out very well if we did thoroughly unlearn them.

As a slogan, it’s hard to get less individualistic than “I am the 99%.” Yet the personal narratives of American suffering have a hard time staying out of people’s testimonies. I’ve read about child abuse and marital breakups. I’ve performed amateur graphology to see if the guy who says he has three doctorates might be exaggerating. At a certain point, I simply ran aground against the conundrum encapsulated by the “banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” chant. Is OWS a movement calling for the people to be bailed out, too, or a movement of noble anger against the corporate welfare state we’ve been living in? Or is it, in fact, an actual liberation movement, aimed largely at reclaiming the freedom of the streets for popular assembly, against tourism and a managed public sphere? Is this, in fact, the largest homeless rights movement on the planet?

Having looked at “We are the 99%” for pages and pages, I was suddenly overcome with an odd desire to see those iconic Walker Evans 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 of a certain American generation: 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, tow-headed children on their rickety porches, amid the cast down farm tools; a pair of worn and dusty boots. Part of a WPA project that aimed to call attention to the depth of rural American poverty, Evans’s photographs perversely ended up memorializing and ennobling the hardness of the lives that the government he worked for wanted to ameliorate. Through the very stoicism that came out on camera and James Agee’s accompanying text, his subjects came to signify the virtuous poor who deserved “a hand up, not a handout,” although they mostly got food stamps.

Those images were made to convince 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. I wanted some old-time stoicism that I could project my emotions on, like the good liberal I stubbornly remain, even though I know that, in politics, no silence goes unpunished. What I wanted from OWS, too, as an outsider, was greater dignity, even while knowing that they wouldn’t be so indignant if America hadn’t lost all its own long ago. “We are the 99%” is more an internal document of the movement 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’s an invitation to identify, to join the party and accept the consequences of acknowledging that, in economic terms, we are the 99%.

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