Creating the 99 Percent
While the world slept, the poor were demonized and the middle class collapsed.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. – E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1963.
The “other men” (and of course women) in the current American class alignment are those in the top 1 percent of the wealth distribution – the bankers, hedge-fund managers, and CEOs targeted by the Occupy movement. They have been around for a long time in one form or another, but they only began to emerge as a distinct and visible group, informally called the “super-rich,” in recent years.
Extravagant levels of consumption helped draw attention to them: private jets, multiple 50,000-square-foot mansions, $25,000 chocolate desserts embellished with gold dust. But as long as the middle class could still muster the credit for college tuition and occasional home improvements, it seemed churlish to complain. Then came the financial crash of 2007-2008, followed by the Great Recession, and the 1 percent to whom we had entrusted our economy and our political system stood revealed as a band of greedy narcissists, and possibly sociopaths.
Until a few months ago, the 99 percent was hardly a group capable of (as Thompson says) articulating “the identity of their interests.” It contained most “ordinary” rich people, along with middle-class professionals, factory workers, truck drivers, and miners, and the much poorer people who clean the houses, manicure the fingernails, and maintain the lawns of the affluent.
It was divided not only by these class differences, but most visibly by race and ethnicity – a division that has actually deepened since 2008. African Americans and Latinos of all income levels disproportionately lost their homes to foreclosure in 2007 and 2008, and then disproportionately lost their jobs in the wave of layoffs that followed. On the eve of the Occupy movement, the black middle class had been devastated. In fact, the only political movements to have come out of the 99 percent before Occupy emerged was the Tea Party movement and, on the other side of the political spectrum, the resistance to restrictions on collective bargaining in Wisconsin.
But Occupy could not have happened if large swaths of the 99 percent had not begun to discover some common interests, or at least to put aside some of the divisions among themselves. For decades, the most stridently promoted division within the 99 percent was the one between what the right calls the “liberal elite” – and pretty much everyone else.
As Harper’s Magazine columnist Tom Frank has brilliantly explained, the right earned its spurious claim to populism by targeting that “liberal elite,” which supposedly favors reckless government spending that requires oppressive levels of taxes, supports “redistributive” social policies and programs that reduce opportunity for the white middle class, and promotes kinky countercultural innovations like gay marriage. The liberal elite, insisted conservative intellectuals, looked down on “ordinary” middle – and working-class Americans, finding them tasteless. The “elite” was the enemy, while the super-rich were just like everyone else, only more “focused” and perhaps a bit better connected.
“Liberal elite” was always a political category masquerading as a sociological one. What gave the idea of a liberal elite some traction, though, at least for a while, was that the great majority of us have never knowingly encountered a member of the actual elite, the 1 percent who are, for the most part, sealed off in their own bubble of gated communities and walled estates.
There was, as well, another inescapable problem embedded in the right-wing populist strategy: Even by 2000, and certainly by 2010, the class of people who might qualify as part of the “liberal elite” was in increasingly bad repair. Public-sector budget cuts and corporate-inspired reorganizations were decimating the ranks of decently paid academics, who were being replaced by adjunct professors working on bare subsistence incomes. Media firms were shrinking their newsrooms. Law firms had started outsourcing routine tasks to India. Hospitals beamed X-rays to cheap foreign radiologists. Funding had dried up for nonprofit ventures in the arts and public service. Hence the iconic figure of the Occupy movement: the college graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and a job paying about $10 a hour, or no job at all.
These trends were in place even before the financial crash hit, but it took the crash and its grim economic aftermath to awaken the 99 percent to a widespread awareness of shared danger. A couple of years into the recession, however, sudden downward mobility had become the mainstream American experience, and some of the most reliably neoliberal media pundits were beginning to announce something had gone awry with the American dream.
Once-affluent people lost their nest eggs as housing prices dropped off cliffs. Laid-off middle-aged managers and professionals were staggered to find that their age made them repulsive to employers. Medical debts plunged middle-class households into bankruptcy. The old conservative dictum – that it was unwise to criticize (or tax) the rich because you might yourself be one of them someday – gave way to a new realization that the class you were most likely to migrate into wasn’t the rich.
And here was another thing many in the middle class were discovering: The downward plunge into poverty could occur with dizzying speed. We have little in the way of a welfare state to stop a family or an individual in free-fall. Unemployment benefits do not last more than six months or a year. At present, even with an extension, they reach only about half the jobless. Welfare was all but abolished 15 years ago, and health insurance has traditionally been linked to employment.
In fact, once an American starts to slip downward, a variety of forces kick in to help accelerate the slide. An estimated 60 percent of American firms now check applicants’ credit ratings, and discrimination against the unemployed is widespread enough to have begun to warrant Congressional concern. Even bankruptcy is a prohibitively expensive, often crushingly difficult status to achieve. Where other once-wealthy nations have a safety net, America offers a greased chute, leading down to destitution with alarming speed.
The Occupation encampments that enlivened approximately 1,400 cities this fall provided a vivid template for the 99 percent’s growing sense of unity. Here were thousands of people, and we may never know the exact numbers, from all walks of life, living outdoors in the streets and parks, very much as the poorest of the poor have always lived: without electricity, heat, water, or toilets. In the process, they managed to create self-governing communities.
General assembly meetings brought together an unprecedented mix of recent college graduates, young professionals, elderly people, laid-off blue-collar workers, and plenty of the chronically homeless for what were, for the most part, constructive and civil exchanges. What started as a diffuse protest against economic injustice became a vast experiment in class building. The 99 percent, which might have seemed to be a purely aspirational category just a few months ago, began to will itself into existence.
Can the unity cultivated in the encampments survive as the Occupy movement evolves into a more decentralized phase? All sorts of class, racial, and cultural divisions persist within that 99 percent, including distrust between members of the former “liberal elite” and those less privileged. It would be surprising if they didn’t.
Class happens, as Thompson said, but it happens most decisively when people are prepared to nourish and build it. If the “99 percent” is to become more than a stylish meme, if it’s to become a force to change the world, eventually we will undoubtedly have to confront some of the class and racial divisions that lie within it. But we need to do so patiently, respectfully, and always with an eye to the next big action – the next march, or building occupation, or foreclosure fight, as the situation demands.
BARBARA EHRENREICH is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. JOHN EHRENREICH is a professor and author of The Humanitarian Companion: A Guide for International Aid, Development, and Human Rights Workers.