The Politics of the Poor

This piece originally appeared in Occupy!, an OWS-Inspired Gazette, now available for free in print and as a PDF download. (If you would like to receive and help distribute print copies, please write to us as soon as possible at editors [at] nplusonemag.com.)

Who are they and what are their demands? everyone immediately demanded to know. The puzzlement showed how the movement that began on September 17 as Occupy Wall Street differs from the great social movements of the past fifty years. In a more politically legible and familiar world, poor people would be more like gay people: distributed throughout the population, with a new generation born to Republican and Democratic households alike. (Every year more adolescents and young adults would come out: “Dad, I don’t know how to tell you this—I’m poor, and I always have been.”) Those weighed down by college loans would seem, as a class, more like women: encountering few formal barriers to success but self-evident exclusion from the commanding heights. (Only 11 percent of American corporate board members are women; what still smaller percentage took on significant student debt?) The unemployed would be more like African Americans during the civil rights era; they could march down the street without anyone from Fox News insisting that they are nothing but a bunch of “kids” (45 percent of whom, aged 16 to 29, are currently unemployed) or “washed-up protesters” (the average length of unemployment of workers aged 55 to 64—in other words, the veterans of Woodstock—is forty-five weeks).

The celebrated social movements of the past half century achieved their successes—however achingly partial they 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 Occupy Wall Street can be seen, ironically, in the movement’s most distinctive slogan: We are the 99 percent. Pretty funny when a Canadian-launched agitation, started by a few hundred people, claims to represent 310 million Americans! The problem here isn’t the more ordinary one of gathering 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 supposedly form the national birthright. To imagine that something like this could possibly succeed is about as outlandish as supposing that a harassed Tunisian street vendor could topple governments throughout the Arab world by setting himself on fire.

For now We are the 99 percent doesn’t come close to being true. 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 of, by, and for whom it’s allegedly governed. Given the demoralization of the working class, the corporate domination of politics and the media, the Republican control of the House (and blockade in the Senate), this is undeniably a quixotic effort. No one but our grandparents has a living memory of the last attempt at left populism during a prolonged economic crisis. Can Occupy Wall Street eventually lead to a re-occupation of the fifty states by a citizenry with a new idea of itself? For the moment, it looks like the country’s last best hope.

On the “We are the 99 Percent” blog, those who haven’t made it to lower Manhattan, and some that have, post low-res pictures of themselves beside handwritten notes describing their predicament. Foreclosures, health care costs, and student debt figure prominently. The effect is to charge the voices of the protesters in Liberty Plaza and around the country with the spirit of the dispossessed across the country. It doesn’t matter where we are: unless we belong to the one per cent, we are all part of the “precariat,” living day-to-day and paycheck-to-paycheck. The abyss is never more than a pink slip away, and if things had gone a bit differently, our picture would be on that blog too; some of our pictures already are there. The internet, rather than merely conveying a sense of the protestors’ reality to those at the other end of the transmission, now also confers a kind of “virtual reality” upon the marchers by marking each of us as members of the huge social class represented by the blog.

It’s this mutual affirmation between virtual and real that makes these protests different from the anti-globalization battles of the ’90s and early ’00s. Those days of rage, heartening as they were, always felt scattered and far away if you didn’t participate. Now, digital manifestations of the 99 percent are combining with street protests to create an effect far more comprehensive and continuous. When Mother Jones invites you to “Meet 4 Middle-Class Americans Who’ve Been Politicized by #OccupyWallStreet,” the identity of the quartet doesn’t expand to the whole gathering movement, but contracts to the four. When, on the other hand, four more people add their photos and stories to the “We are the 99 Percent” blog, then four more, and then four more, it feels not like atomization but the building of complex molecules. 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?

The vague identity of the Occupy Wall Street protests, so much deplored at first, has proven the movement’s greatest strength. The very nature of global capitalism is to break down all “natural” groups. The market allows the strongest (or most craven) members of any identity group to join the meritocracy: capitalism with a multicultural face. Who can complain that (s)he never had a chance, when a black guy and a Latina sit on the Supreme Court? But the relative triumph of the new social movements may have prepared the ground for a more universal movement: with specific injustices against identity groups mitigated, the global injustice of the system becomes even plainer. More obvious innovations aside (the genius of the “People’s Mic,” the surprising inspiration of the leaderless “General Assembly”), the blurring of identitarian lines and the linking together of different portions of the insulted and injured is what marks Occupy Wall Street as a new stage in the opposition to neoliberalism. What does the 99 percent have in common? That we had nothing in common until now—besides our solitary experience of exposure to the market.

Maybe the left is learning to use the tools of capitalism against capital. Neoliberalism functions by making the virtual into the real and vice versa; it has reconfigured the “real world” of people and things as virtual flows, digitally represented, of quantities of abstract capital. At its most extreme, face-to-face society is replaced by Facebook virtuality, as the immediate relationships comprising neighborhoods and districts are more and more replaced by the national and transnational relationships of social networking, where the insular affinities of family and old friends are maintained at the expense of identification with one’s inhabited place. Thus urbanites get involved in the Obama campaign without ever learning the name of their city council representatives.

Occupy Wall Street, like capitalism, also makes the virtual (or invisible and scattered) real (or visible and concentrated), but to a different end. Did the banks recklessly leverage deposits at 30-to-1? Very well, We are the 99 Percent will leverage the 9 percent of the population that is currently unemployed at 11-to-1, to demonstrate that all members of the modern workforce share in a precarious existence. So the apparently abstract class of the dispossessed and the economically precarious begins to recognize itself in the general public.

Still, what about that 99 Percent slogan? The top percentile in the United States begins with household incomes of roughly $500,000 per year, ten times the annual income of the median American family. As the leading bloggers of the institutional 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 one percent now takes home nineteen percent of American earnings, as much as everyone in the bottom fifty percent combined—but this still leaves sixty-two percent of America’s total income going to the bracket between fifty and ninety-nine percent. It’s north of the fiftieth 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, adds, “Maybe 80% is more like it.”

Not a very catchy slogan. The problem with any 90 vs. 10 (or 80 vs. 20) framing of debate has to do with the distribution not of income but of class consciousness. 39 percent of Americans believed, in 2000, that they were already among the top one 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 rich. If two-fifths of the population identifies with the wealthiest one 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 is a great slogan because it’s not really about income and taxation but about representation and influence. The doctors, lawyers, small business owners and other professionals that 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 that 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 that believe they will soon join the one 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 one 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 electoral system. The protests haven’t just made visible a large group of excluded people, previously unrecognized; the protests have also hit on a political agenda with previously unrecognized appeal. Hence the sensation, on the part of both old leftists and Jon-Stewart-watching Obama supporters, of something like a breakthrough. Almost the first proposal on the protesters’ lips was the repeal of the Citizens United decision and the denial of corporate personhood. The insistence that we citizens are the people, and that corporate persons aren’t, is so powerful that it’s incredible how rarely it has been publicly articulated—or would be incredible if it weren’t for the dominance of the public sphere by just those legal persons known as 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: Wall Street. The protesters have other demands too, which may never attract great numbers: the end of capitalism, or the freeing of Mumia (a man on death row for so long it sometimes seemed impossible he would ever die, even of natural causes). Still, the occupiers’ immediate moves have been 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 a Republican debate, 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 erect statues of Michael Moore and Slavoj Zizek in Zuccotti Park. What a truly powerful left wants, it may get, no matter who governs.

The key, for the time being, is that Wall Street remain a rallying point for an argument about money and politics in American life and not become a mere synonym for the financial industry. Joseph Stiglitz, speaking at a teach-in at Liberty Plaza, suggested sensibly enough that the movement get behind a financial transaction tax. To which a protester muttered: “Great, but then the money just goes to the same old people.” You could say the protestor was confused: Wall Street and the government aren’t the same people. Or you could say he’d hit the nail on the head: in a sense, Wall Street and the government are the same people. (As one of the ninety nine percent tweeted: “Lots saying #ows should occupy Pennyslvania Ave instead of Wall St. Eh? Why speak to middle management when you can go straight to the boss?”)

The issue with the reforms proposed by economists and bloggers isn’t that they’re too complicated for the public to understand—it’s that they aren’t ambitious enough. A child can understand that a corporation is not a person. The demands made by Occupy Wall Street—when and if they do come—should remain equally straightforward and radical.

The biggest and best goal implied by We are the 99 percent is the reconstitution of the American “people” as 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. And, as Laclau declares, “The very possibility of democracy depends on the construction of a democratic ‘people.’”

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, and a populism of civil liberties? The record of some historical populisms would cast doubt on these possibilities. But the same possibilities are the moment’s necessities, and already they are being embodied by the Occupy movement.

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 of 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. “This country has not fulfilled the reasonable expectations of mankind,” Emerson wrote in 1838, when the US was still a very young country. Maybe we’re not yet 100 percent too old.

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