“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” “You speak of — ” said Egremont, hesitantly, “the rich and the poor.” Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845)
The genius of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is primarily to be found in its key slogans, which focus on the confrontation between the “1%” and the “99%” and the assertion “We are the 99%”.
Stark contrast of rich and poor in San Paulo, Brazil.
Of course, the numbers involved in the Wall Street demonstrations, and even throughout the USA, which is the heartland of the occupy actions, are nowhere near mobilising or even genuinely representing the 99%. Polling shows that more than half of the US population is in sympathy with OWS’s anti-corporate greed message, but that sentiment has not — yet — manifested in either mobilisations or a clear electoral form.
Yet, the use of the word “We” is justified. In this context I think the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek was correct when he said that the use of the term “we” had to be seen as an act of creating “we”, the agency that can bring about change. In reality, the 99% cannot be referred to as “them” rather than “we” except as a means of escaping responsibility for being part of the agency for change.
Poverty amid wealth
The genius of the “1% versus 99%” slogan is also that it rubs in people’s faces some nasty facts that have been rubbed in the US people’s faces again and again since the global economic crisis and the last year of the Bush administration. The millions who have been made homeless, unemployed or without health care and the millions more threatened with that future have had to sit in the lounge rooms and watch TV or read the tabloids or the internet to see again and again figures like 500 billion or 1, 2 or 3 trillion dollars — figures that reveal that the ruling class does have such amounts available and is willing to spend these monstrous sums on bailing out their cronies, or even on profound acts of barbarity such as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Trillions to defend the 1%’s control of their massive wealth and to promote barbarism while telling millions of others to cop unemployment, homelessness, no health care and reduced access to education.
In Indonesia, which is kind of my second home, one hears all the time a rationalisation of poverty and social injustice: the poor have to be patient because Indonesia is a poor country still developing. Patience, say the elite, and it is often also absorbed among the masses. There is some truth, of course, to this rationalisation. Indonesia is poor and even a radical redistribution of its wealth would not end poverty, though it could end its worst excesses. The untruth in this rationalisation is the focus on the nation. While nations still exist, the capitalist economy is an international system. Indonesia is poor, but the world is rich and potentially richer (especially if it could stop producing so much useless and destructive crap). The lie of the Indonesian rationale for poverty must be answered with an internationalist solution.
In the USA, the Indonesian rationalisation cannot work. With the words “trillions” and “hundreds of billions” slapped in peoples’ faces day in and day out, telling the US people that the USA is poor and cannot afford to provide a decent life for its citizens is impossible. In the USA, much like Australia, abundance is visible everywhere. Shops overflow with everything. So what is the justification for poverty, for homelessness, unemployment and lack of health care and education? Of course, there is none.
And then, on top of that, the reality of the accumulated redistribution of wealth upwards over the last 30 years, since Reagan, has now also become well known.
In 2007, the top 1% of US taxpayers “earned” 23.5% of declared pre-tax income. The top 1% owned 47% of the financial wealth. The next 9% own another 38%, so the top 10% own 85% of the US’s financial wealth. The bottom 80% own only 7%.
Even beyond just financial wealth, taking in other assets, the top 1% own 35% and the next 9% own another 38% — 73% all up for the top 10%. The US ranks 93rd in the world in terms of equality of wealth, just after China, Russia and Iran, and just before Brazil.
So most of the US people now know that the top 1% of the population own almost half of an economy that can spend trillions of dollars on wars, trillions bailing out banks and hundreds of billions bailing out other failed companies, all of which then go on to make huge profits. Yet every year there are more unemployed, more homeless, more people on the edge.
If you exploit and neglect people and then rub in their face that there is plenty of money around, you will get a reaction. And it will be a reaction that will gradually come to question the system itself, starting with a few people and spreading.
“1% versus 99%” is a reality that can’t be hidden inside the US and is now a permanent ideological problem for the US and UK ruling class. The fact that the same proportions apply internationally will also eventually resonate politically.
But there is more to the occupation phenomenon than the OWS actions. The 1% figure is, I think, not only symbolically but also politically true, if perhaps only partially. The 1% are the dictatorship that monopolises all decisions, excluding even the other 9% who also benefit from the 1%’s decision making.
It is correct to appeal to this 9% by including them as part of the excluded 99%, especially in the US, where the democratic tradition has had such strong origins, in a revolution (albeit bourgeois), and where the issue of human habitat is also up for grabs. But there is no point in ignoring the fact that the 9% are also beneficiaries of the 1%’s policies and have significant material and ideological clout.
In the US, 10% is 30 million people. In Indonesia, where the wealth distribution figures are similar to the figures noted above, 10% of the population is 23 million people. It is because of the scale of these figures that Disraeli’s 1845 description of English society starts to ring true again.
Thirty million people with control of 75% of a country’s wealth start to create the infrastructure and culture of not simply a separate class but a separate nation. They are “formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws”. They have a common psychological outlook and their own culture and their own common economic life. Fundamentally the antagonism is between classes, but the development of these classes gives them more and more the character of separate nations.
In Indonesia, and in the Third World generally, including in China and India, this 10% may even be developing a different common language from the rest of the population (English for example), and may live more and more of the time outside their “home country”. Their children are educated at elite universities in the US and the UK and often adopt the accents and world views of the 9%+1%. The distribution of wealth between the rich and the miserable is quantitatively similar to that in the imperialist countries, but qualitatively Third World misery is worse. Everywhere class difference is widening to take on the characteristics of occupying and occupied nations.
In this sense, OWS and the mobilisations of the indignant in Spain and the furious in Greece are also responses to an already existing occupation, the almost colonial occupation by the nation of the rich over the nation of the poor.
There are other more obvious examples of occupation: Iraq and Afghanistan (with, no doubt, as Fidel Castro predicted months ago, a coming NATO occupation of Libya). These military occupations have produced the term “surge”, as the US flooded in extra troops to try to quell resistance. It is no coincidence that when parts of the nation of the poor, the Victorian-style poor of the English working class, rioted earlier this year, the first reaction of the UK prime minister was to call for a police “surge” to quell the revolt. The language of foreign occupation reflected the reality of a domestic occupation.
The OWS movement is a rejection of this kind of occupation, and clearly its cry is: Liberation!