Maybe 99% is a bit much, but…

The last day or two I’ve been seeing some complaints that the chant of the Occupy Wall Street protesters that “We are the 99%” casts the net too widely, effacing all kinds of class, race, and gender distinctions. Well, yes, probably so. But I still find it cheering.

It is a fact that over the last couple of decades, much of the growth in total income in the U.S. has gone to the upper reaches of society. For example, based on Census data, between 1982 and 2010, the richest fifth of society have claimed a little over half of the increase in total personal income; the top 5%, nearly a quarter the gain. The bottom 60% of society, though, has gotten less than a quarter. And, for a number of reasons, the Census figures seriously underestimate the action at the very top. (For more, see the forthcoming LBO, now in prep.) Using data compiled by the economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty from IRS records, we can estimate that the top 1% took in a quarter of the income gain between 1982 and 2008. The bottom 90%, though, only took in 40% of the gain. (1982, by the way, is when the great bull market in stocks took off, corporate profitability began a long upsurge, and the Roaring Eighties really began.) And the further you go down the ladder within the bottom 90%, the smaller the gains.

Looked at another way, here are two graphs of average incomes, adjusted for inflation, the first from the Census data:

and this from the Piketty–Saez data (the line marked “99” means the income of those richer than 99% of society, and “0–90,” the average for the bottom 90%):

Since percentiles may be a bit abstract, here’s something more concrete: the income in 2008 at the 99th percentile was $368,238; the average for the bottom 90%, was $31,244. The disparity would be even greater if we looked at only the top 0.1%—and even greater at the top 0.01%. And if we looked at only the Forbes 400, their line would probably blow the top off your computer monitor.

Yes, so the 99% thing is an exaggeration. People at the 90th percentile have done pretty well—not as well as the 99th, but a lot better than the 80th, 50th, or 20th. With few exceptions, the further down you go, the worse you’ve done.

What’s refreshing, though, about the 99% chant is that it strives towards something like universality. For the last few decades—pretty much those in which the rich have gotten a lot richer—many of us have been obsessed with slicing society into finer and finer pieces. That’s far from a useless effort; many stories are hidden behind averages, and we’ve learned that there’s a lot of particularity behind abstractions like the “working class.” This experience has given us the chance, as Kim Moody put it in a 1996 New Left Review article, “to get the active concept of class right this time,” in contrast with the 1930s or 1960s.

So yeah, the 99% thing may be a stretch; maybe 80% is more like it, and even so there would be a lot of tensions within such a large population. (Keeping those under cover is one of the advantages of not articulating an agenda, though that blessed state can’t go on forever.) But 99% is catchy, and it can lead in very fruitful directions.

23 Comments on “Maybe 99% is a bit much, but…

  1. I saw several signs from protesters which made reference to their college loan debts – one at 50k and another at 80k in particular struck me. These people who went to expensive private colleges and/or the elite state schools and didn’t end up with the upper middle class wet dream they had hoped for now want to slum it with the working class as if their bloated college loan debt gives them serious credentials as “exploited” persons. Whatever. When I was laid off of my factory job, I went to the local Memphis community college to study nursing. It costs 5k a year, including books. I can’t imagine the average person in a position to take 80k in student loans knowing a damn thing about my life, and such people don’t in any meaningful way speak for me when out playing activist. I can only dream of someday having access to 80k in non-medical debts.

    I’m back at my shop part-time now, and when speaking to the guys at the shop about these protests the dismissal is pretty much routine – “probably a bunch of rich kid hippies” – right or wrong, this assessment is based in part on the fact that the guys I work with don’t have much sympathy towards people who show up at a conflict and then whine like spoiled children after being pepper sprayed. Show up to a fight ready to fight. These protests will not effect or initiate any real change in America because the people involved don’t represent, uh, normal working class Americans (you don’t see many men in hipster tight jeans with wanna-be Ray LaMontagne beards or women in hippie skirts and without bras in most working class American environs). And they seem more interested in theatrics than real militancy. Perhaps more working class people in this country could be convinced we are in a crisis that demands action if protests such as these didn’t present matters as if they were a game.

  2. You don’t need to go to an expensive private college to amass 50-80K in student loan debts. Even a third-tier state school like the University of Cincinnati will, with interest, have you up around that level within fairly short order, especially if you go back for grad school

    And if you need loans to go to college, it means you are paying substantially more in the long run because you can’t afford to pay the tuition in cash, so I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that an unemployed (or underemployed) university graduate with massive student loan debt is one of the 1%, or even the top 10%.

  3. As a member of the top 1% I want to reinforce Owen White’s delightfully precocious point. It is so crucial for everyone to remember to focus on diversity and the multitude. Diversity and the multitude is I am sure the best face of democracy, order and progress. I know in my own circles, whether strategizing at the Bohemian Grove, strategizing in Davos, or strategizing on the golf course, we find endless enjoyment in each other’s global, cosmopolitan experiences and wonderful diversity of eye shapes, skin tones, fashion, home architecture, derivatives markets, and art collections.

    Even if you don’t have the experiences and influences for making the decisions that pave the future–if you’re in the Bottom 99–you should still focus on your own diversity. Would you want to be caught in a society built around someone else’s idea of the good life? Someone with very different cars and pets and food and child-rearing practices, who was no richer than you, but more feminine and immoral than you, owing to their slightly different neighborhood experiences and ethnic or education and background? Of course not.

    Identity differences are absolutely essential. Focusing on identity difference allows you and your friends to recognize that so many other people in your situation just don’t have the manliness or integrity or values or morals or work ethic or innate intelligence that you do. In this way, when you believe in your special identity, you can never be reduced to, say, an interchangeable, expendable labor/debt unit, in your family’s and friends’ eyes, as well as apparently in advertising messages. This is about defending belief and faith, which are so beautiful and sacred.

    If you will accept the gift of my overarching perspective, it is this: Focus on your all-important identity differences–they’re so very real, so very interesting, so historical, so natural, such great cocktail party conversation. They are all you have. Well, that and faith that our people will help you find a place in something greater than yourself–in our (insert nation/religious community) society. Bless.

  4. Report from the “”real working class, ” eh, Owen?
    While I am not exactly marching with these OWS folks, whoever they are, and am as skeptical about this or the Battle for Seattle or the tree-sits or the marches towards arrests anywhere, student loan debt is a serious problem, for whoever gets into it.
    Sneering at them as if the “real working class” is the only true voice is as tiresome now as it was in the Joe Hardhat days of yore.
    If working stiffs have not educated themselves about the operations of the elite class, the bosses and the propaganda outlets, there are about as useful to learn from as Kim Kardashian. A working stiff can go home in his F-150 and bawl to the latest Bruce Springsteen while angrily denouncing hippie chicks for not wearing bras, so we are all to bow to these princes of the NASCAR world?

  5. Couldn’t agree with you more! And it’s deeply exciting that the movement is finally getting the fact that we can’t do anything until we address inequality.

  6. Folks,

    My point was correspondent to Mr. Henwood’s point that the divide is more like 90% vs. 10% than 99% vs. 1%. I’m not sure where the divide is found in terms of percentage of population on either “side” but I am sure that the divide is both economic and cultural and existential – and if you think that being underemployed after earning your loan ridden degree from a second tier or third tier school resulting in the crisis of not being able to afford the three trips to Starbucks a day which you once considered a requisite part of the good life, well, my wanna-be petit-bourgeois darlings, you are out of step with the concerns of the majority of working Americans today.

    And I am not angered by women not wearing bras. Personally, I’m all for it. But there is a relationship between “protest aesthetics” and the political expediency needed to initiate a broad, mass movement that might actually accomplish something. I’m not advocating a NASCARism of protest cultures, but I do think Howard Dean was onto something with his controversial “confederate flag decal” comment. Until anti-corporate protests can evoke action from the bottom 50%, they are dead in the water, and this means that you left and right coasters, if you ever want to actually change the social and economic order in this country, are going to have to come to terms with some people whose F-150 and NASCAR cultures you clearly can’t stand and find a way to communicate political and economic realities to them and with them. And here I don’t mean to sound so white-centric. In addition to not reaching the trailer parks, the Left today does a pretty miserable job of reaching the ghettos and barrios with its message. The vast majority of working poor and unemployed persons in this country are completely disengaged from and ambivalent towards anti-corporate politics, and the aesthetic coming out of Occupy Wall Street only reinforces that, in my opinion.

  7. That’s a whole lot of blanket assertion, Mr. White. And precious, precious little historical insight into how people are mobilized around ideas and action by the development of critical mass (whether socially-networked bodies on the ground or their commodity substitute, money).

    The current wave of protests may not be the end of neoliberalism; but then, they are coming more relentlessly, aren’t they? (Hence all the reactionary zombie films.)

    With a 70 year old dad who pickets against US imperialism in his small Midwestern town every week, I was born and bred and live right now in the center of the continent, so it goes without saying I speak from the heart, for the people. You’re getting the straight poop from a MOP (Man o’ the Peuple), folks. Now where did I put that PBR, Jesus?

  8. Working Americans, working families, work, all those old-fashioned terms, Owen. In case you missed it, that kind of “exalt the salt of the earth” stuff was crushed by decades of extremely successful assault upon the money, lives, health, and, yes, work, of the American wage slave. If you are waiting for protest movements to speak for, to relate to, to cry bitter tears for, the semi-employed F-150 smack-talking nobody, the fish will all be dead.

    I’m sure they are all wonderful, tolerant, pro gay rights, pro-science, anti-religious Eric Hoffer types when they aren’t burning rubber to see Dixie’s last stand over at the Darlington Speedway, but they have to get their lives in gear, the same as any other person ever born. If they still want to grumble about those fetching hippie chicks daring to go around bra-less (I think it was a “topless protest” at OWS – it’s 2011, after all), tell Archie Bunker to try to get in the time machine to fight that battle.

    If Archie is “disengaged from and ambivalent toward anti-corporate politics,” that would be the first thing he and his buddies are right about, because there is no “anti-corporate” politics. Look at the last 40 years, the ownership of all institutions, including politics, by the corporate elites. Then Archie can get off his fat ass and start figuring out what happened to him.

  9. One need not exalt anyone Martin, or romanticize the working class in America at all. I’m not waiting for any protest movement, simply addressing the fact that this protest movement sure as hell isn’t THE protest movement of the working class. One need only recognize that any protest movement appealing to a latent populism that 1) engages without broad working class engagement and 2) engages in a manner that further disenfranchises the working class broadly speaking is riddled with contradiction and necessarily doomed to failure from the get go. OWS type protesting is a niche, boutique political event. That is true even if it pulls in a few thousand in NYC and generates a hundred people showing up at “Occupy Nashville” and a few hundred showing up at “Occupy Chicago,” etc., etc. Perhaps something will grow out of OWS that is fundamentally different than what we see now, maturation is always possible, but I am inclined to think that would require different players.

    Even if something more broad in appeal and more focused in direction were to be drawn out of it, it would likely end up falling on the same sword that the protests in Madison did. In Madison we saw a relatively broad working class on-the-street solidarity with tens of thousands hungry for more direct action, and that energy was ultimately met with the Dem state senators coming home and telling folks to go home and work on electoral political issues (the state supreme court election and then the state senate recalls, that have thus far not changed anything substantial and wasted a hell of a lot of union cash), which crushed the energy of the masses in Madison. I was there in February and saw a hundred thousand people cheering for a General Strike at one point. The moment for harnessing that energy into something more radical is now gone and will likely never come back.

    But yeah, as for “Working Americans, working families, work, all those old-fashioned terms, Owen” – I’m not into the new leftist irony addicted hipster intellectual masturbation, or the suggestion that identity politics or the ever fashionable petit-bourgeois penchant for green politics should ever be the primary goals of the left. Class and race. That is where everything rises or falls.

  10. I agree fully with your points in your last post, Owen. I know that this marks me as a nihilist, but I am skeptical of any self-congratulatory “protest” in this empire – except for one that I heard of, by a group that actually organizes poor people and unemployed people and buses them to the homes of the super-rich and super-rich CEOs en masse to exact specific revenge. To the OWS, which is basically Tea-Party libertarian “anger,” I wonder why “shutting down Wall Street” is anything better than “shutting down Trump casino.”

  11. I saw several signs from protesters which made reference to their college loan debts – one at 50k and another at 80k in particular struck me.

    50K is quite a low debt for anyone who went went to an ok state university, whose parents couldn’t help. Those most likely to end up heavily in debt are college graduates who came from poor working class backgrounds.

    If you read the stories of some of these people its pretty clear that they are in working class jobs (or lower middle class ones if they are lucky), while carrying heavy debts they have no chance of paying.

    For a successful movement you need solidarity between all the people who are screwed. Bitching about who’s more authentic will only help Wall Street.

    And last I checked, teachers and many of the other people out in Madison, were middle class. Probably had degrees too.

  12. The teachers in WI have been at the forefront of the mainstream media (from both right and left) concerning WI. The UW Madison TAs “union” was fairly front and center as well, especially in left leaning media coverage. This worried me and I was a bit skeptical about the whole thing at first. I remember seeing an interview with a gym teacher whose wife was also a teacher, both with masters degrees (! ). He was complaining about the fact that their household income was going to drop from 100k to 90k because of the cuts in pay and increases in health care costs. When I saw that I had to shake my head in disgust at the irony of a protest movement built on the backs of people worried about barely losing their 6 figure household incomes.

    Žižek made the point a while back (when Greece was just starting to explode and well before the Tottenham riots) that leftists should not see all of the demonstrations taking place throughout Europe as a rise in class consciousness. He pointed out that from Greece to Great Britain, most of the people doing the protesting were lower middle class folks (or the student children of middle class folks), many of them civil servants, who were fighting to protect their middle class interests. He then went on the mention several “typical” examples of low paid workers in Europe, particularly immigrants and the displaced (such as Eastern Europeans going to Ireland and Spain, etc.), and he noted that they were not in the streets. It turned out that working class people eventually took to the streets in Greece and G.B., but I’m not sure that phenomena is related to the prior middle class protests. The KKE was instrumental in getting working class militancy going in Greece, and in Britain the underclass rioting seems to have been a spontaneous response to another act of police brutality and divorced from the middle class protest efforts.

    I take any Žižek with a grain of salt but I thought there he had a point when wondering about the sustainability of middle class protesting and asking why low wage workers in those countries were not then involved.

    But then I got up to Madison and attended a week’s worth of protest events in February and found that the rank and file on the ground in the protests were easily half made up of lower wage workers like my mother-in-law, who works as a diet tech for the state (and is thus in AFSCME) at 11 and change an hour. The not-so-often told (by right or left) story of the Walker cuts to state workers was that the increase in health care costs hurt lower wage workers much more than they did higher wage workers, as the increase in health insurance deductions from their paychecks constitutes a much higher percentage of their incomes. Everybody likes to focus on teachers because they have (especially in WI) high public regard, but it’s a lot easier for a person making 50-60k a year as a teacher to take the health care hit than somebody making 23k a year as a cook or 28k a year as a CNA. Fortunately in Madison AFSCME was able to engage a lot of those lower wage earners in the struggle and on-the-ground the protests did not have a middle class ethos at all, it was a remarkably broad class struggle.

  13. Pingback: What Are They Occupied With? « thecurrentmoment

  14. The idea that people who wear skinny jeans or have degrees aren’t part of the working class is, precisely, identity politics. What matters is control over the means of production – which neither teachers, nor underemployed hipsters, nor factory workers have. If you are a wage worker, the amount of the wage is, in class terms, irrelevant. Negative solidarity (“they don’t have it as bad as me, so why should they complain?”) always ends up helping the right, because there’s always someone worse of who can be pointed to to delegitimize any protest.

  15. “…I can only dream of someday having access to 80k in non-medical debts.”

    Like heck you do. Everyone knows and loathes student debt because it can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.

  16. Pingback: It’s the economy, stupid | New Politics Review

  17. Voyou,

    There is no escaping identity politics in new left environs. The notion that a recognition of the identity markers in the uniforms of identity is an embrace of identity politics is a tautology. You may as well tell me that I am a hypocrite, as a communist, because I use a Dell computer.

    Consider my rant a preemptive strike against a would-be hipster vanguard.

    Want to see something funny? Look at this:

    Note the photo.

    The City of Memphis is 30% white. Occupy Memphis is 98% white. I know half the people in that photo. They’re nice folks. But they will never lead a widespread working class movement, or anything that initiates such a thing, and even though I will almost certainly go spend some time at Occupy Memphis in solidarity with those folks, the whole time I’ll be thinking that the action is probably causing more people to dismiss a broad working class movement than to engage in one.


    I bet you were sad when you heard Steve Jobs died.

  18. I bet you were sad when you heard Steve Jobs died.

    What a complete non-sequiteur. It’s your kind of identity politics (and it is, however much you deny it) that keeps the left riven in internal conflict. Until there’s a broad coalition, nothing’s going to happen. One way to build a broad coalition, is to find common causes.

    Or you can sneer. How’s that worked out over the last 30 years?

  19. Cian,

    Well, sure, it was coy.

    There will be no coalition until the left has a grand meta-narrative again. The infection of post-modernism on the middle class mind and the all out embrace by the new left of unrestrained commodity fetishism puts a damper on that.

    And call it identity politics all you want – a bunch of college loaned to death, tight jeaned hipsters with tears in their eyes over the death of their iPod toymaster are not going to ever lead any meaningful coalition of the left.

    Allow me to close my time on this thread with a story I read recently:

    “Years ago I heard Marshall McLuhan speak at a teach-in in Cleveland. Like all my SDS friends, I was there proudly wearing my ponytail, full beard and bellbottom jeans and blue workshirt, the standard non-conformist uniform of the day. We, of course, expected to hear McLuhan lay into the right wing war mongers. Instead, he chastised the hippy left. He told us Americans would never win the war in Vietnam because we could never win the hearts of the Vietnamese people. He told us how whenever our troops ‘liberated’ a village, we sent in an American educated Vietnamese man wearing a white suit and panama hat to be the mayor of that village. We would build him a nice home and office and pay him a salary many times higher than what the people who lived in the village subsisted on. McLuhan then told us that when the Vietcong took a village, they installed a mayor who wore the same black pajamas that the villagers wore. He lived in a home just like the villagers and he was expected to work in the rice paddies alongside the villagers. Then McLuhan asked, ‘Which side do you think the villagers believed were working for their best interests?’

    McLuhan then told us that while American could never win the war in Vietnam, hippy college students could never win the hearts of the American people. He said if you want to change the minds of people who vote in America, you have to look and act like people who vote in America. He told us we did not have to change one thing about our anti-war message, just the way we delivered it.

    Within an hour after hearing his speech I went home, shaved off my beard, and went to the barbershop. I had been conflicted for some time about the direction SDS was going, but it was that day I threw my lot in with the old left and really embraced Marxist-Leninism. One of my friends, who a short time later joined with the Weathermen, told me the CP was a ‘living anachronism.’ My thought at the time was that SDS had already become irrelevant.”

  20. “Within an hour after hearing his speech I went home, shaved off my beard, and went to the barbershop…. it was that day I threw my lot in with the old left and really embraced Marxist-Leninism”

    If there’s one thing Marx and Lenin hated, it’s facial hair, that’s true.

  21. McLuhan was a devout Catholic. But, be that as it may, he was 100% right in this instance.

  22. Owen, I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.

    No, they’re not the vanguard.


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