An enormously important social movement has emerged in the U.S. which has taken the political class and the liberal left completely by surprise. When the “Occupy Wall Street” protests in New York City finally began to be reported last week, it was initially characterized as incoherent, disorganized and leaderless. Huffington Post described it as: “a strange jumble of people carrying signs, playing snare drums and openly smoking marijuana on benches.” The New York Times’ Ginia Bellafante called it a “fractured and airy movement … a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism.”
These reporters fixated on the apparent lack of a clear political message and missed completely the elemental nature of the rapidly-growing movement (there are now actions taking place in nearly all major U.S. cities, from Boston to San Francisco, as well as in Australia, Germany, Ireland, England, Canada, and Mexico). This movement, dubbed We Are the 99 Percent, is now the most visible of the subterranean social movements growing in intensity across the country, having belatedly achieved public recognition following the pepper-spray attack on women protesters by the New York police.
James Downie in the Washington Post drew attention to the importance of images of that confrontation and also to other images from a website featuring stories from “what the protestors are calling ‘the other 99 percent’ of America: people drowning in debt, people forced to choose between groceries and rent, people who work long hours for little pay and even less job security and yet are ‘the lucky ones.’ There’s despair and sadness in these stories, but the most prevalent emotion is anger — at the few who were bailed out after crashing the economy and at leaders who have often ignored just how unequal the country has become.”
While the article is generally sympathetic, Downie misunderstands the tone of these narratives. Characterizing it as despair or anger tends to objectify the subjects in a way that gives them an affective register of irrationality and removes them from legitimate political discourse. Yet what they are expressing is the voice of injury that demands government act for them and not for the privileged one percent who have grabbed all the wealth and political power. As one comment by a protester on a Guardian article pointed out, “This is about our broken system and taking our government back to a place of being about and for the people, not corporate interests.” The same sentiment was expressed by another protester interviewed on Democracy Now who said that the system “essentially has made it so only 1% of the population are citizens.”
The concept of “the 99 per cent” articulates class and political identity, making the non-privileged majority visible, and reclaiming the strength and power of collective action, as the term descamisados once did in Argentina. The rapidly-growing number of stories on the “We are the 99 percent” website puts faces to the social consequences of government policies dictated by the super-rich: the site asks people to take a picture of themselves holding a sign that describes their situation in a sentence.
A more sympathetic attempt to characterize the movement by a Guardian correspondent said: “The form of resistance that has emerged looks remarkably similar to the old global justice movement, too: we see the rejection of old-fashioned party politics, the same embrace of radical diversity, the same emphasis on inventing new forms of democracy from below. What’s different is largely the target: where in 2000, it was directed at the power of unprecedented new planetary bureaucracies (the WTO, IMF, World Bank, Nafta), institutions with no democratic accountability, which existed only to serve the interests of transnational capital; now, it is at the entire political classes of countries like Greece, Spain and, now, the US – for exactly the same reason.”
But it is also qualitatively different from these past movements, not only because of its conscious identification with the Arab Spring and the Spanish acampadas, but also because of its universality. When reporters have actually listened to those taking part in the protests they have found them entirely coherent in their indictment of the bailout of the financial industry, their own disenfranchisement by the corrupted two-party political system, and their lack of any future. As one protester told the New York Times yesterday: “I’m angry because I don’t have millions of dollars to give to my representative, so my voice is invalidated,” said Amanda Clarke, 21, a student at the New School. “And the fact that I’m graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in loans and there’s no job market.”
Another protester, Alexander Penley, has been there since day one. He was clear on what he wants the movement to achieve: “I’d like forgiveness of debt, both student and mortgages, and the retraction of law that says a corporation has the same rights as a person,” he told a Guardian reporter.
Blogger and academic Juan Cole visited the occupation encampment in Liberty Plaza (Zuccotti Park), New York: “I asked them what they wanted, and they admitted that probably everyone there wanted something different. It isn’t an organization. But they said one thing they wanted was a voice, so they could be heard. They wanted to know why the corporations and the top 1% of American income earners are represented in Congress, but they are not. … They were generally in agreement that the top 1% of income earners had benefited unfairly in the past couple of decades from tax cuts and government favors, and maintained that the rest of Americans– the 99% or almost everyone — had been deeply harmed by corporate corruption and sharp practices of the sort that produced the 2008 downturn. They said many of them had friends who had lost jobs or homes or both.”
Here is a random sample of the statements on the “We are the 99 percent” website (accessed October 1; click on the link to see other stories with their photos). Each statement ends with the words: “I am the 99 percent.”
“I am 27 years old. I have $40,000 in student loan debt. I still have no degree to show for it, but cannot continue school because I have no money to survive. I have not been able to find ANY work in over a year, and only short term temp jobs for nearly two years prior to that. I will likely be homeless in less than two weeks. My car just broke down, and I have no money to pay for the repairs. I live off of $200 per month in food stamps. I can no longer provide for myself, let alone for my girlfriend and her 3 year old son. I came from a military family with a history of service to our country in multiple wars. At places like McDonald’s and WalMart I am considered ‘over educated’ and thus unemployable.”
“I am a Master’s level counselor working with sexually abused kids. I work 72 hours a week for less than 45k, I have 130k in student debt, 0 home of my own, paycheck to paycheck.”
“I have $60k in medical debt because I broke my leg and didn’t have insurance. My wages are being garnished and I can no longer afford to make payments on my student loans. I believe that the system only exists as it does because we lay down and accept its sanctions. I refuse to continue lying down.”
“I am aged, old & frail. I worked and paid taxes all my adult life. Now, I have to choose between medicine and food. It feels like a very slow death.”
“I graduated May 2009—the worst economy in 20 years. Was fortunate enough to find a job-but then lost it when my position was combined with three others (even though I was already doing 2 of them) I am eating through my savings + racking up CC debt to pay for my apartment and $17k+ in student loans. My first interview in months is with a coffee shop for $8/hr. I have no health insurance. This is written on the back of a letter that says I’ve cashed my retirement. I have no stake in the future.”
“34-yr. old stay@home mom (who could afford child care even if they wanted to?!) Have a hard working husband who is gone 50 hrs a week working (thankful!) 10,000 dollars in medical debt. House insurance rising. Taxes rising. Food costs rising. Mortgage rising. We grow and can most of our food & shop 2nd hand for our clothing. We currently have 58.00 in our checking acct. Afraid to lose our home.”
“I’m a hard-working, highly skilled IT pro. I’ve been laid off four times in the last 14 years. I went bankrupt and lost my house two lay-offs ago. My credit and career still haven’t recovered. I make $17k less than I did in 2002.”
The broad social compass of these stories and their unifying message anticipates a major social upheaval in the U.S. which will be more effective in changing the direction of politics here than a thousand Obamas. As the nearly 200 San Franciscans who surrounded the Financial District Bank of America building last week chanted: “Why is life a bitch? Cause we don’t tax the rich!”