We are the 99% was the rallying cry of the Occupy movement. While its usage has slipped since 2011, we’re starting to see efforts to revive the slogan as protests against Trump gather pace. This may be because people want to revive the spirit of Occupy itself, whether they just like the slogan, or because the phrase has slipped into the common vocabulary of class analysis and activism in the meantime.
Rather than explaining class relations in an accessible way, the 99% mystifies how capitalism works and leads to a very confusing interpretation of class struggle. It leaves the door open for a conspiratorial view of how capitalism works, and often acts as a cover for reformist, social democratic methods for how to fight it.
First let’s look at the 1%. This generally means the top 1% richest people in the world. Presidents, CEOs, Wall Street Traders. As Naomi Klein recently put it, the Davos Class.
The 99% is literally everyone who isn’t in this group. By design this includes the CEOs of quite a lot of small and medium enterprises, low- to mid-level managers in corporations, trade union bosses and NGO executives, police, prison guards, journalists, aspiring politicians, academics, as well as regular workers and the unemployed. Some early occupy protests had chants like “Cops are the 99%!” “We’re fighting for your pensions, too!”, usually shouted shortly before the cops tear gassed people rather than afterwards.
The 1% are the billionaires, the tech oligarchs, the Wall Street traders.
The 99% are the people, the vast majority of society.
The 99% has recently been used by the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign , in a recent Guardian article calling for a Global Womens’ Strike on March 8th which mentions it three times, “a feminism of the 99%” counterposed to the feminism of “Lean In”, and was defended vigorously by Conor Kilpatrick in Jacobin as a simple way to figure out what class you’re in.
Capitalism however is not maintained by the actions of the Davos class or the 1%. Rather it’s a hegemonic social system that is maintained primarily through the social relationships of wage labour and commodities.
You have to earn wages to get money.
You have spend that money on rent, utilities and food in order to survive.
Your work either involves the creation/distribution of commodities, or the maintenance (or management) of the workforce itself if you work in sectors like education and health.
If you’re unemployed or imprisoned, you may be working anyway via workfare and prison labour, just on wages and benefits below the rate of subsistence.
Robots might be taking your job, but they aren’t delivering food free of charge to your door each week to make up for it, or wiping your arse when you get old.
These are not hard concepts to grasp, every time you wake up on Monday morning or look at your bank balance they confront you. Every hour you spend at work reinforces the system you’re fighting against one way or the other.
How do we struggle against the 1%? Unless you live in San Francisco, London or New York (or even if you do), you might never see a member of the 1% in real life. What we’re left with is usually symbolic protests inside or outside civic and financial institutions, which locate the source of power as something unattainable and remote. At its worst, talk of ‘bankers’ tends towards structural anti-semitism and locates all the world’s problems in the shadowy conspiratorial meetings held at international summits. Often it results in coalescing around left populist electoral campaigns, which need as broad a constituency as they can possibly have to hoover up disaffected voters.
Despite these limitations, Occupy did get involved with protests that disrupted capital and especially in Oakland made links with workers including the November 2nd 2011 demonstration. These aspects of the movement should be revisited as the reaction to Brexit and Trump gathers pace, but the idea of the 99% should be left behind in 2011 where it should have stayed in the first place. We should also be looking at other recent movements such as the 2010 student occupations and protests in the UK, the 2006 movement against the CPE in France, the 2012 student occupations in Quebec, the 2015 prison strike in the US, the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore against police violence in 2014/15, and the 2006 immigrant strikes in the US.
When you struggle against work via strikes, slow downs, and slacking off, you confront capitalism at the point of production. When you struggle against police violence, evictions, immigration raids and homelessness you confront capital as it maintains property relations and social control. This is class struggle against the processes of class reproduction, counterposed to the static categories and redistributionism of the mainstream left.
Rather than the 1%, these struggles come against the letting agent, the HR department, the police, immigration authorities, property developers, local government officials. Those who enforce borders, wage cuts, gentrification, rent hikes, criminalisation of communities and all the other shit. They cannot be mobilised as part of the 99%, if at all by rejecting their role entirely. The abolition of the police, not their co-operation as we saw at Occupy Sandy. The expropriation of tech CEOs, not their incorporation into cross-class liberal #resistance.
Focusing on the 99% or the 1%, rather than encouraging class analysis, focuses attention away from class struggle and towards protests against abstract and remote actors. Even when owners of companies and housing are far away, the offices, shops, warehouses and housing blocks they own are the places we live, work and shop.