Not Quite The 99 Per Cent

One of the things I noticed about the Occupy movement was a certain suspicion, on the part of many people with an interest in left-wing politics, and many others without, of the claim of the movement to be the ’99 per cent’. Initially I thought this -the 99 per cent- was a very effective political name for an emerging force, and, given the right context, I still do think this. 

First of all, it reintroduces a sense of class conflict, however incompletely, into people’s thinking. Second, it is a powerful symbolic coup de force: it is a withdrawal of consent to the existing order, which depends on the notion that the political regime in power, while representing the specific interests of an elite few, is simultaneously representing the interests of the vast majority. 

But neither of these things means that ‘the 99 per cent’ conveys a substantial empirical truth, even if there are very many compelling situations where a group of people in contemporary societies, whose number is roughly one per cent -or less- of the population, can be identified as enjoying particular privileges and advantages. 

Furthermore, in other contexts, the idea of the 99 per cent can operate in a way that masks conflicts of interest and divergent attachments and loyalties, and rather than compelling people to look more deeply into the nature of class antagonisms, invites people to set them aside for another day. There is also a tendency -among both the Occupy movement’s detractors and sympathisers- to interpret the 99 per cent as a political party supposed to operate within the existing framework of representative democracy. And beyond this -or perhaps underneath- is the frequent guiding assumption that the views of the most vociferous people gathered at an occupied site -whether the most eloquent or simply the most effusive- are those whose voices count the most when there are plenty of people who are there or thereabouts but say very little, for divergent reasons.

The following translation, of a La Jornada article by Raúl Zibechi, teases out some of the associated complexities for left groups in relation to the new social movements.

Social Left and Political Left

The deepening of the different crises and the emergence of new movements are provoking a debate over the role of the left in the possible and desirable changes. Many seek a profound renewal or unity as a way of finding a path that leads to breaking the hegemony of the financial sector.

In general, the debates centre on the role of the political left, that is, the parties that say they are left wing. Overcoming historical divisions, supposedly sustained by ideological differences, would be a decisive step for going beyond the present situation. Unity among the three big currents, socialists or social democrats, communists and anarchists or radicals, would be an indispensable step so that this sector could be fit to play a decisive role of overcoming the current crisis.

Historical experience, however, says something else. The first thing is that left parties do not unite unless there is a powerful movement from below that imposes a common agenda on them. I mean to say that left parties depend on the state of mind and the readiness of workers to either resist or get used to the system. For ordinary people, ideological debates are of little importance.

The experiences of the Popular Front in Republican Spain, Popular Unity in the Chile of Salvador Allende and the Broad Front in Uruguay indicate that it is the push from different forces below that ends up doing away with sectarianisms and imposing, at minimum, unity of action. It was the power of the worker movement that decided that the anarchists would support the candidates of the Popular Front at the polls, overcoming their opposition to elections.

The second is that this 99 per cent we are supposed to be, against the one per cent that holds the power and wealth, has diverse and, in this phase of capitalism, contradictory, interests. In broad terms, there are two belows, as the Zapatistas say. 

Those from farthest down, or those from the basement -Indians, Afros, immigrants, clandestine and informal workers- make up the most oppressed and exploited sector of the broad world of work. This world is basically made up of women and poor young people, usually dark-skinned, who live in rural areas and urban peripheries. They are those with the most interest in changing the world, because they are the ones who have nothing to lose.


The other below is different. In 1929 only one per cent of Americans in the United States had shares in Wall Street firms. In 1965 it was 10 per cent and in 1980, 14 per cent. But in 2010 50 per cent of Americans are share owners. With the privatisation of the retirement system and the creation of pension funds, a whole section of the working class became stapled to capital. General Motors and Chrysler were saved from bankruptcy in 2009 by contributions from funds controlled by unions.

The second biggest mining company in the world, Brazilian company Vale, denounced by environmentalists and the landless, is controlled by Previ, the pension fund of the employees of the Bank of Brazil, which alongside BNDES has a solid majority on the board of directors of the multinational. Brazil’s pension funds have investments that represent nearly 20 per cent of the GDP of the emerging country and control huge firms and economic groups. The funds are the nucleus of capital accumulation and they are managed by unions, firms, and the State.

Those are two fairly distant examples to illustrate the the fact that the social left, or rather the movements, which are supposedly anti-system, have contradictory interests,

The third question is that if we recognise this diversity of interests it is to build strategies for change that are rooted in reality and not in declarations or ideologies. How do you unite manual workers who earn a pittance with white collar employees who feel closer to the boss than their “class brothers or sisters”?

The workers who build the gigantic hydroelectric plant in Belo Monte in Brazil, which will be the third biggest in the world, went on strike in December because they earn 500 dollars a month for 12 hours of work a day and the food they are served is rotten. The union leaders went to the site to convince them to get back to work. The pension funds of the three state enterprises hold 25 per cent of shares in the consortium that is building Belo Monte.

The workers of Petrobras, the Federal Economic Savings Bank and the Bank of Brazil are interested in the success of Belo Monte since their pension funds, largely controlled by union delegates, will distribute more money at the expense of the exploitation of the workers, of nature, and of the indigenous people whom the hydroelectric plant is displacing.

The fourth is that any strategy for changing the system should be based solidly among those who suffer most from this system, those in the basement. To think about the organic unity of those below is to place those who speak and negotiate best at the helm of command, those who have the greatest means to be in the place where decisions are taken, that is, the above of below. They are those who move around best in formal organisations, the ones that have ample and comfortable premises, officials, media outlets and transport.

Those in the basement meet up wherever they can. Often in the street, the most democratic space, like those of Occupy Wall Street, the indignados of Greece and Spain, and the rebels in Cairo. They don’t do so around a programme but around a plan of action. And sure, they are disorganised, they speak over each other and in fits and starts.

The strategies for changing the world should start off, the way I see it, with the creation of spaces so that the different belows, or lefts, get to know each other, so that they find ways of communicating and acting, and so that they establish bonds of trust. This might seem little, but the first step is to understand that we in both sectors, or trajectories, need each other, since the enemy is building up more power than ever.



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3 responses to “Not Quite The 99 Per Cent

  1. Sorry I haven’t stopped in before to say how much I appreciate your blog.I think you’re correct to point to the tension that the 99 percent slogan elides unless it is further investigated. However, I think you overplay the material "economic" divisions (at least among the bottom 80 percent). Take share ownership via pension funds. It is hard to see this as anything other than a diversion of workers’ wages into the hands of capital for it to be invested. Here in Australia the system was legislated by a Labor government in the 1980s, and workers gave up wage rises to make it happen. The result was an average return worse than if they’d put the same money each pay into a typical bank account to earn interest. Yet it has driven a financialisation of the economy that has benefited the 1 percent.It is true that politically and ideologically workers can identify with capital because of such juridically-defined "ownership", but to suggest there is a material benefit from the arrangement is much harder to sustain. The point is that surplus is extracted from all workers at the point of production, but the competitive struggle between sections of the world bourgeoisie is over how it is distributed between them and not between workers and the poor. Schemes like pension funds should be understood more as part of how financial services capitalists can appropriate further surplus, not as transfer of wealth from one section of the exploited masses to another.I would wholeheartedly endorse the political struggle for making the condition and self-activity of those in "the basement" a central concern of better-off workers’ concerns, and for providing genuine (practical) solidarity. But if we think there is a material interest for better-off workers to maintain the poorest in their place then our argument is reduced to moral persuasion of a privileged labour aristocracy. In other words, if your argument is right it will be hard to see how we can win unity of all the oppressed against the ruling elites.

  2. Richard

    Thanks Tad, appreciate the comment. <br><br>Just a general comment about the blog (which I'll probably have to write about in a post at some stage): a lot of the pieces I translate I have a broad sympathy with, but wouldn't necessarily go along with either everything that is said within, or with the frame used to analyse things. For me I find the act of translating pieces like this one helps me think through the issues at stake while letting other people, who might not otherwise come into contact with the work of the writers translated, get a sense of what is happening elsewhere and use that to inform their own thinking. But a translation is not a wholehearted endorsement!<br> <br>Regarding what you are saying with the example of pension funds, that is a very important point: it's by no means true at all that there's a final material benefit for workers who become part of these schemes. In fact my own sense of them -and those of company share purchase schemes, for example- is that they are specifically designed so as to optimise exploitation and minimise organised unrest. <br> <br>I think there may be some ambiguity here over the idea of interests. When the writer talks about workers having contradictory interests, I don't think he's saying there is an objective diametrical opposition in interests, generated by the fact that one set of workers is afforded a series of privileges over another. Rather, I think he's talking more in terms of the subjective political and ideological identifications you mention, and how these become a stumbling block for developing unity because of the confusions they generate. And hence the importance he attaches -and I would go along with this- to the appropriation of public spaces for democratic deliberation.

  3. My bad about attributing it all to you… the layout distracted me from the break in the text!I do think by raising the pensions issue Zibechi is being clear that he sees some workers having a material interest in exploiting others.Maybe my disagreement with him is best summed up in that I see exploitation not as a distributional question but built into the social relations of production. Thus, the relationship between a well-off white collar worker with a pension fund and the exploitation of poorer workers by a financial services company is not actually an exploitative one. Both sets of workers are exploited by different sections of capital, even if one capital is using further appropriated surplus from the better paid group of workers to invest in exploiting the other group. Workers with superannuation funds generally have minimal or no control over investment decisions made by those funds (even when there are apparent "options") because those funds have to invest on the basis of competitive accumulation, not on the social needs of the workers whose forgone pay they appropriate to do so.Put another way, one group of workers is relatively more privileged than the other, but that is because capital creates differential experiences of exploitation. Thus, they have not won their privilege "over" another group.I think it’s an important point (even in terms of "relative" or "partial" privilege) because it speaks to the possibility of solidarity around shared interests against those of capital. Of course there are truly intermediate groups in (dynamically) contradictory positions, the real middle classes, but for most workers this is not the case.

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