Jan 2012

We are the 1%

You know that “We Are The 99%” slogan adopted by the Occupy Movement? Well, at the risk of alienating many of my regular readers, I have to say it annoys the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the point it’s trying to make. And I see how it cleverly allows Occupy to assert a non-partisan stance. “We’re not left or right”, it says. “We’re not about the working class or the middle class. We’re about The People. We’re about You and Me.” It’s a good strategy. Good branding, if you will.

The problem I have though is… well, it’s kind of a lie. Not in the pedantic sense that “it should be 97.6% instead of 99%”. No, it’s a lie in the sense that the distinction it makes is not necessarily the important one. Because the Occupy Movement is – in part – actually a reaction by disenfranchised western consumers to a reduction in their ability to consume at levels to which they became accustomed.

No, that’s not all it is, but that’s why the first people took to the streets of New York. It’s why there are people camping outside the Central Bank on Dame Street here in Dublin. And it’s what those people are doing on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. They are protesting because they feel that their standard of living is under threat.

Which it is. Everything I’ve written here lately about private financial institutions raiding the public purse is true, so far as I can tell. The populations of the “industrialised west” are under attack by the market forces of private capital. And we have every right to fight back. I’m not objecting to the Occupy Movement, I’m objecting to the slogan.

Because the lay-offs and the foreclosures, the regressive taxes and vicious cuts to public services, the mantra of austerity… these are all attacks on a lifestyle that doesn’t represent 99% of the world. Not even close. They are attacks on a level of consumption that was always unsustainable. That these attacks are being carried out; not so western society can move towards sustainability; but so that a tiny minority can continue to hoard ever-increasing mountains of wealth is – it goes without saying – obscene. But the people Occupying Wall Street were not there when the property boom of the nineties and early-to-mid-noughties provided the illusion of increasing wealth for the masses in the “developed” world.

See, for decades, we in the west have been consuming vastly more that our fair share of global resources. And we’ve been doing so at the expense of billions of people who had no voice. Or if they did, we rarely if ever listened. Sure, we might have given some spare cash when Bob Geldof came on the TV to shame us in the 80s. But the very fact that the term “ethical consumerism” exists speaks volumes about the level of delusion suffered by the world we built. And it is an attack on that world that sparked the Occupy response.

Map of the world showing distribution of malnutrition

Map of the world showing distribution of malnutrition
hard to be part of the 99% if you're in the green zone

Our collective conscience was bought and paid for with bread and circuses. The bread came in a dozen different combinations… from Happy Meals to Artisan Loafs (made with the finest imported olives and sun-dried tomatoes, no less). And the circuses appeared on 236 different channels beamed via satellite to our 43″ plasma screens. We bombed distant nations so we could fill our cars with cheap petrol allowing us to drive to shops where we bought Smart Phones made with rare metals that only cost a pittance thanks to the millions dying in Central Africa in our Resource-War-by-proxy.

And I do mean “we”. This article is being written on a computer with components which I’ve no doubt are of ethically dubious provenance and being read on a device much the same. It is possible to completely drop out of your own society, but almost nobody does because it’s only just about possible. It’s certainly far from easy.

Which is why I have such a problem with “We are the 99%”. The accuracy of the number isn’t at issue. It’s the fact that the people camping on Dublin’s Dame Street ultimately have more in common with the 1% they decry, than with the downtrodden masses whose nations we have spent decades pillaging for resources. And call me a cynic if you like, but if we were to discover untold riches in Mozambique tomorrow… near endless lakes of sweet crude oil lapping against shores of the finest coltan and platinum… and if we were to buy back the illusions of the nineties and the noughties; sending our armies to Africa to secure those resources and put money back in our bank accounts, cheap petrol in our new cars and a sense of security in our continued consumption… I just don’t think the Occupy Movement would last very long.

Sure there’d still be anti-war protests. And we’d all pile into coaches to drive to the big city where we’d raise our “No Blood for Oil” placards; the irony noted but never likely to force a change in behaviour. And then, having protested against the politicians who took us to war, we’d re-elect them in the name of stability when they promised us tax cuts and the continuation of a comfortable life.

Our civilisation is an unsustainable disaster. It is destroying the world in slow but inexorable steps. And it needs to be radically reconfigured into something that places justice and sustainability at its core. The fact that anti-capitalist protests began long before these days of austerity is cause for some small hope, and if the Occupy Movement can help with that reconfiguration – or even just prompt discussion and thought on the subject – then it is to be supported in any way we can. I’m not defending the austerity policies that are ransacking Europe and beyond (anyone who has read this blog for the past few years will know that). And I’m certainly not trying to justify the further concentration of wealth at the very top. I’m just pointing out that for many years the people currently Occupying Dublin, London and New York were closer to the top than perhaps they realised and weren’t particularly interested in relinquishing that position. As their anger now demonstrates. Fighting for a fairer distribution of wealth is a noble cause. But claiming to be “The 99%” just seems in bad taste to me.

It’s a lot like when the Congestion Charge was being introduced in London… forcing people to pay in order to use their private cars in the city… and left-wing critics insisted that it would hit the poorest people the hardest. They were somehow forgetting that the poorest 20% of people didn’t own cars, they were too poor to afford them, and that the money raised from the Congestion Charge – if invested in public transport – would actually help the poorest people.

So if “We Are The 99%” is supposed to highlight a disparity between the Haves and Have-Nots, then we should take a look at those who truly Have-Not. Because it’s not really us. It’s not the people camping in Dame Street. And it’s not the people watching them on the news or reading about them on the internet. We are rightly angered by the sight of a small minority syphoning wealth from our pockets. But we should pause for a moment in our anger and realise that we’re far from the bottom of the global ladder. That the masses below us can also be rightly angered by the sight of their wealth in our pockets. Like it or not, in the eyes of billions of dispossessed around the world, it is we who are the one percent.

Posted in: Opinion