JUST WHO ARE THE 99%?

(AND WHAT DO THEY WANT?)

Over the past month it has become popular to view our present capitalist society in terms of two opposed groups designated simply by percentages. The current popular analysis holds that it is a 1% of the population who have caused the crisis and it is the rest, the 99%, who are now suffering in one way or another as a result. There is a grain of truth in this, but what truth it contains is only partial and potentially misleading. This 1% have been clearly and correctly identified by the ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement’ and others, as the international financial elite. This group have certainly created and manipulated the credit, debt and banking structures of the global economy for their own wealth accumulation.  Once again, as it was in the 1930’s, it is they who have finally accelerated the total socio-economic system into the present period of extended crisis and downturn.

And whilst It is true that the financial and banking sector have fraudulently disguised much of their speculative dealing and triggered the present speculative collapse in the economic superstructures of society, that is still far from the whole picture. [for more of the picture see for example the articles; ‘Plan B, there is no Plan B’ and  ‘Capital and Crisis’ at <critical-mass.net>] Yet as the debt-bombs continue to explode it is interesting to note that even among this 1% there will be many who will suffer loss as the system goes into melt-down. Those ‘in the know’ among their financial ilk are already making off with many of their clients investments. For this reason, not even all the 1% will emerge unscathed.  As a result some of this 1% elite will break ranks and condemn what they were once part of, but only from rancour or fear of losing more of their wealth. However, It is the 99% or its representatives who, as the crisis deepens, will to varying degrees become more active against the present state of affairs. So just who makes up this 99%, who were previously designated as ‘civil society‘ during the late 1990’s anti-globalisation activism? I suggest the following rough approximation of socio-economic divisions will help to break down the various components of this generic abstraction labelled the 99%.

1. Those in the industrial and commercial capitalist sectors, who are currently at the mercy of the finance sector. Divisions between these sectors have intermittently occurred since the onset of merchant banking and in particular since its ascendancy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

2. Those in the upper middle-classes who have a) relied upon investments and playing the markets to maintain or increase their wealth and pensions; b) those from the same sector who have predominantly occupied the Higher managerial, administrative and professions in the state sector and private sector.

3. Those in the lower ranks of the middle class such as middle and junior managements, professionals and administrators, teachers, social workers etc., in the state and private sector. Plus those in self-employed small businesses.

4. What is left of the skilled working class, since the export of industries and capital to low wage countries with low tax regimes.

5. The semi-skilled and casually employed working class.

6. The long-term unemployed – including the homeless.

7. College and University students.

8. Pensioners.

9. Sick and/or disabled.

10. Other currently dependent individuals. (Children, school pupils, mothers, housewives, prisoners.)

It is clear that many within these 10 sectors, in one way or another, will be at risk from a deepening crisis of capital. Even those in the middle and lowers sections of the finance capital sector some of whom unwittingly orchestrated the crisis will not be immune to job loss, career collapse, unemployment, mortgage default etc. For this reason there will be varying degrees of opposition in sectors 1 and 2 (upper and middle) to the unbridled capitalism of the neo-liberal model they were so recently happy to be part of. This group will also not be anti-capitalist per se, but they will want a return of effective ‘controls’, regulations and limitations for the financial sector. Individuals and representatives of this group may support some partial anti-capitalist agitation and actions, (as they did within the World Social Forum Movement of the late 1990’s) in pursuit of those reforms they feel will safeguard their present or future status.

A similar situation arises with regard to the sectors 3 and 4 (teachers, social workers and skilled etc.) who, as their current campaign indicates, want to defend their own jobs and pensions. They will, at least temporarily, (hopefully not permanently) represent one part of an angry, but moderate reformist trend within the politics of Europe and North America. This is a sector who have in general – as yet – not taken a serious sponsorship position in relation to the fate of the rest of society due to this crisis.  Particularly missing on their check lists are those socio-economic categories below them who they are generally employed to work with or care for. Sectors 3 to 10 of course, represent all those who are directly or indirectly exploited and/or marginalised by the system of capitalism. Most of sectors 3, 4 and 5 are directly exploited by producing surplus labour and thus for some surplus value when employed for a wage or salary. Sectors 6 to 10 are indirectly exploited and/or severely marginalised.

Logic and historical experience suggests that the vast bulk of sectors 5 to 10 are unlikely to actively support the public sector and skilled workers struggles. To expect the millions of jobless, pension-less or low pensioned workers, elderly, disabled, homeless and dependent citizens to have a surfeit of altruism and come out in sufficient numbers on the streets to support a successful outcome for the public sector and skilled workers would be utopian. Furthermore, to proceed without gaining the approval and inclusive support of these sectors will create additional problems. Future public and private sector campaigns may well be met with neutrality or even eventually opposition and growing hostility at any inconvenience caused by campaigns such as further public sector, go-slows, occupations or strikes.

The sectors which are likely to be hit first and hardest by a crisis that deepens, will be those with the least resources, sectors 5 – 10, semi-skilled, unemployed, students, pensioners, disabled, homeless and other marginalised dependents. The individuals in these categories will not necessarily benefit from the success nor suffer further from the failure of the current defensive campaigns to retain benefits of other more privileged parts of the 99%. What these unorganised sectors will want in the crisis is yet to be seen, although the student demonstrations and youth riots in the UK indicate, in their different ways, that many from this particular group may want access to goods they cannot currently afford. Clearly, the students also want and deserve, free further or higher education as their parents generation enjoyed. The casual workers and unemployed undoubtedly want good jobs, pensioners want decent pensions, the homeless want homes, and the sick and disabled need good health care and support. Any campaign seeking unity against the system as distinct from retaining varying levels of status quo within it, cannot simply ignore the needs and desires of this section of the majority. If some of these sectors cannot as yet speak for themselves, and campaigns do not exist which include them, others should highlight their situation and speak for them, whilst continuing to support ways which enable them to speak for themselves.

An additional problem is created if in the unfolding crisis each of the above sectors focus attention on only its own immediate concerns. In that case they will be isolated from each other and it will be easy for the political elite to defeat even the stronger more organised ones, sector by sector. So unless a movement arises which will embrace and articulate the needs of these sectors, along with other sectors, then many millions will at best be indifferent to the coming struggles and campaigns. Yet what ought to be a further cause for concern with continued sectional activism is that individuals among these weaker sectors, if not alternatively inspired, will also be the potential recruits to the nationalist and divisive rhetoric of the political elite or the proto-fascist revival currently under way. A further problem for sectional struggles will be their inability to cope with the increased militarization of the states armed bodies of men. Only large numbers can resist and neutralise such forces.  For these reasons care should be taken (by those of us who consider capitalism to be a moribund system of episodic economic crisis and terminal ecological crisis) in just how we critically relate to the 99%, their initial concerns and the reforms they propose.

The historical record also suggests reforms in a period of crisis are not always reactionary, but it is important to recognise that they can frequently be so. Therefore, in such a period, reforms which should be energetically championed are those of benefit to wide swathes of people, not just to a particular sector of society. Those who raise sectional, self-interested or partial reforms should be invited and even urged to extend the scope of their concerns to include those of other sufferers. Alternatively a case could be made for adopting reforms which embrace wider apprehensions and distress but which include their own. If anti-capitalists wish to do more than tail-end traditional trade union reformism or resist becoming activist substitutes for abstentionist trade union members, which I suggest they should, then they ought to consistently argue for the inclusion of reforms which unite people from different sectors.  In the absence of success in such endeavours, alternative reforms should be counter-posed by anti-capitalists to any exclusive sectional ones raised. These alternatives should be those which broaden the desired protection or advantage being sought to a wider section of society. It seems to me that any initiative for such a consistent radical restructuring of current and future reformist aspirations in crisis-riddled Europe, North America – and even within the middle east – can only come from those who have a genuine non-sectarian, revolutionary-humanist and anti-capitalist perspective.

The reason for such an assertion lies in the pre- and post-war history of the anti-capitalist groups themselves. It appears to me that many existing dogmatic and sectarian anti-capitalists will not have the flexibility, or the inclination to seriously engage in such holistic endeavours. For in the past they have consistently opposed struggles which they have not controlled, sown sectarian divisions within united fronts and turned up just to sell papers on the fringe of many other campaigns. Instead of becoming entirely supportive of any revolutionary developments, such dogmatic sectarians – on past experience – will demand that revolutionary developments – sooner or later and usually sooner – become entirely supportive of them. This type of religious style impulse is but a logical extension of adherence to dogma (ie. there is only one true path) and sectarianism (ie. our group are the authentic custodians of the one true path) as it occurs in the religious struggle against evil – or in this case the anti-capitalist struggle against capital.

Unless I am mistaken, it seems to me that for those supporting a non-sectarian anti-capitalist perspective within the current crisis, there are at least a few immediate guidelines to be gained from the above observations. There is an additional imperative for anti-capitalists. At each point in the current and coming popular defensive campaigns and elite political posturing, the limitations of capitalist reforms as well as the reason for the previous failures of post-capitalist attempts will need to be calmly explained. The growing 21st century understanding that the ‘problems are in all the systems, not in all the people’ needs to be further developed and appropriately repeated until it is even more widely understood. There will always be a minority of greedy and ruthless people in every generation and in every movement. The solution for humanity is not to hope such characters cease to exist but to create socio-economic and organisational systems which do not have positions of military, political or financial power. In this way the possibility of such avariciously and dangerously inclined people to gain control of a system in future movements or future societies will be eliminated.

Finally! In terms of the most energetic sectors of the coming struggle, as well as the most likely to have a broader social vision, together with an organisational and tactical flexibility, it is probably to the student and unemployed youth sectors we should look.  For these reasons students and the young unemployed are likely to be the most potential early source for the further development of a non-sectarian, revolutionary-humanist, anti-capitalist movement – if one should come into existence. If it does, I would suggest this will be an important milieu within which to raise the issues of the systemic crisis nature of capital, those inclusive reform issues noted above and the repeated catastrophic degeneration of top-down post-capitalist societies. And for this, I further suggest, a serious and committed critical and self-critical evaluation of anti-capitalist theory and practice which has led to the last half century of dogma and sectarianism will also need to be undertaken. As I have been recently reminded it is the case, as Marx argued, that under changed circumstances ‘the educator must also be educated’ and our anti-capitalist practice itself needs also to be revolutionised. I am undoubtedly suggesting we non-sectarian anti-capitalists face a difficult and multifaceted task. But hey! Who said a revolutionary transformation beyond capitalism would be easy?  If it was it would have already been successfully and permanently done.

R. Ratcliffe. (2 December 2011)

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Critique. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s