The 5 percent whose need is greatest

David Runciman writes: There is some competition to be the person who inspired the slogan of Occupy Wall Street: ‘We are the 99 per cent.’ Joseph Stiglitz thinks it might be him, on the back of an article he wrote for Vanity Fair in 2011 entitled: ‘Of the 1 per cent, by the 1 per cent, for the 1 per cent.’ Others think it was the economist Emmanuel Saez, who helped popularise the idea that 99 per cent of American households have been watching their incomes stagnate or fall while the top 1 per cent pulled away. As Saez reported back in 2007, since the 1970s half of all income growth has been captured by just 1 per cent of the population, leaving everyone else to get by on what’s left. But Rolling Stone magazine identified the originator of ‘We are the 99 per cent’ as David Graeber, the anthropologist and activist, who first spotted its potential as an organising tool.[*] You can see why people might want to lay claim to ‘We are the 99 per cent’: it’s a brilliant slogan and an increasingly successful brand, doing its work on T-shirts and banners around the world. But it’s a half-baked idea.

The problem is that 99 per cent is far too many. Majorities on that scale sound overwhelming, but they always come apart on closer scrutiny. There is nothing on which so many people will ever be able to agree. You often find polling questions to which only 1 per cent of the sample are willing to give their assent – flailing candidates for office can easily plumb those depths – but it would be a big mistake to assume that the other 99 per cent are united on anything at all, even on their dislike of the unpopular candidate (many will never have heard of him). The only time the figure 99 per cent appears in polling data is when the poll is a fraudulent one. It’s a number I still associate with elections in the old Soviet bloc, or with the last remaining dictatorships. Kim Jong Un can get the backing of 99 per cent of his electorate. No one else can.

Occupy Wall Street is not trying to get 99 per cent of the population to vote for anyone or anything. The movement is simply highlighting an experience that the 99 per cent have in common, which is to have been stiffed by the current system. But this is another way in which 99 per cent is too many. Something must have gone very wrong with democracy when so many can be outwitted by so few. The implication of the slogan ‘We are the 99 per cent’ is that we have all been duped. If we had known what was going on we wouldn’t have let it happen. Now that we know about it we can stop it. But how? Any system in which 99 per cent of the population can be duped at the same time is not merely a defective democracy; it is no democracy at all. ‘We are the 99 per cent’ is intended as an accommodating idea, but really it’s a revolutionary one. It implies that we have been the victims of a giant confidence trick. You can’t work to improve a system like that, any more than you can work to improve a Ponzi scheme; you need to scrap it and start again. Some prominent figures associated with Occupy Wall Street are quite happy with this line of thought. Slavoj Žižek is unabashed about the movement’s revolutionary implications. He sees it as a harbinger of the coming transformation, ‘a message from the communist future’. But for all Žižek’s brilliance as a sloganeer, he would be hard-pressed to get many of the 99 per cent to agree with him on that. They don’t want to scrap the democracy we have. They just want it to work better.

So how were we duped? Mainly by not paying attention. The 1 per cent didn’t conspire to rip everyone else off. They got their way by walking through the door we left open for them. We were too distracted and disorganised among ourselves to put up enough resistance. What the 99 per cent have in common is that they don’t have enough in common to make a difference politically, compared to the very rich, who are a well-organised bunch. The 99 per cent are a lot more numerous than the 1 per cent; they are also a lot more divided, and it’s the second fact that counts. [Continue reading…]

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