I. Zuccotti Park
It started with a blinding light that flooded the encampment at Zuccotti Park at about 1:00 am on November 15, 2011. The angular shadow of the “Big Orange Thing” – Mark di Suvero’s ironically-titled sculpture “Joie de Vivre” – rippled in high-contrast black-and-white, like a wartime news photo. New York City Police officers in riot gear marched into the square, using the force of their bodies to clear the protesters. Resisters were subdued and restrained with plastic zip-ties; most retreated, leaving behind their tents and belongings.
Many of us reconvened for an emergency meeting at Foley Square. There was talk of ongoing confrontations and skirmishes as protesters tried to liberate another park a few blocks away. We had been waiting for this since Occupy Wall Street began on September 17; but two months later, virtually everyone was shocked and surprised at its end.
We had spent that autumn sharing food and ideas, speaking through the Peoples’ Mic to each other and to the world. In October, Naomi Klein reminded us, in the Occupied Wall Street Journal, that this was “most important thing in the world,” that it was a global movement, and that “the 99 percent is taking to the streets from Madison to Madrid to say ‘No. We will not pay for your crisis.’” We believed it, too.
At that moment, the crisis and the means of confronting it seemed so stark, so clear, as vivid as the shadow cast by “Joie de Vivre” across Zuccotti Park by the Police floodlights. We – virtually all of us in the park, across the country, and around the world – were the 99 percent, the vast majority of humanity, standing up to the predatory capitalists, Wall Street cronies, bosses, crypto-fascist political leaders: the One Percent who controlled the economy, our lives, and an outsized share of the wealth.
At the Education and Outreach Working Group meetings in the public atrium at 60 Wall Street – the Deutsche Bank headquarters – we strategized and debated how to mobilize this bulk of humanity, our allies and comrades, into the struggle. The moment had come for the people to rise up against the oppressive One Percent. We would make the case to the media, to passersby, in classrooms, we would remind everyone what side they were on.
We would make the case to the police who had maintained a steady guard and constant surveillance around Zuccotti Park. They were not predatory capitalists, Wall Street cronies, bosses, crypto-fascist political leaders, they were the 99 percent just like us. Few said it openly, but the private, unspoken hope was that, when the time came, they would know which side they were on.
When the time came on November 15th, they did. It wasn’t with the 99 percent.
II. New Slogans
Months earlier, I stood with a colleague at a sparsely-attended labor rally on the Broadway side of City Hall Park. It was a bright weekend afternoon, and the sun shone down on unionists holding placards proclaiming unity while bitter rivals from a half-dozen revolutionary vanguards hawked sectarian newspapers around the edges. It felt like an exercise in nostalgia. The few hundred unionized workers and supporters who turned out sang “Solidarity Forever” and repeated what seemed like the tired catchphrases of a movement that had lost hope.
“This is depressing,” Andy said, as he rolled another cigarette. “If we’re ever going to win, we’re going to have to come up with some better slogans.”
He had a point. There had been some innovation, of course. “Whose streets? Our Streets!” had been percolating into the Left from LGBT and Women’s demonstrations for about a decade, and I had become increasingly familiar with “This is what democracy looks like” since I first heard it at an anti-globalization demonstration in 2001. But for the most part, the Left’s ritual rhetoric sounded a lot like “golden oldies” AM radio with “We Shall Overcome” and “Solidarity Forever” in heavy rotation. They might have been the greatest hits, but after a while, you stop hearing them.
That is what made “We are the 99 percent” so refreshing; it was new, exciting, and not associated with the failures of the paunchy, moribund old-New-Left. I first heard it when I finally went down to Zuccotti Park the day after New York City Police officers maced protesters on September 24.
Klein insisted that she had heard about the 99 percent in Italy in 2008. A more likely source was the We Are the 99 Percent blog that activist Christopher Ryan set up three weeks before the Zuccotti Park occupation began. By the time Occupy Wall Street became front-page news and a popular culture phenomenon, it had its catchphrase.
As the historian Mark Bray notes, the expansiveness of the idea of the 99 percent “helped get massive numbers of people on the streets.” It was an essential component of mass solidarity; its inclusiveness allowed a vast swath of Americans to feel that they, too, were part of The People being screwed by the banks and the bosses.
And that explains the slogan’s enduring appeal long after police cleared Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street crystalized a newly-militant Left politics defined, in no small measure, by the slogan “We are the 99 percent.” According to Pew Research, it is “arguably the most successful slogan since ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ going back to the Vietnam era.”
III. Special Objects of Satan’s Rage and Fury
“We are the 99 percent” resonated deeply in the American psyche. Implicitly, it articulated a narrative that we – Americans – are not at fault, but that our collective interests are being thwarted by some force alien to the body politic. The One Percent are not us, they are a parasitic organism. Indeed, the iconography of Occupy Wall Street made liberal use of this kind of imagery – mosquitoes, rats, and leeches – on the placards and banners around Zuccotti Park.
It is a powerful narrative that mobilizes atavistic fears so central to American life and culture. As in Salem Village in 1692, we are the elect, the “Covenant People of God, and those that would Devote themselves intirely to his Service [who] are the special objects of SATANS Rage and Fury.” It simultaneously validates our collective importance as the victims of a malignant power, while pointing to the source of that power, as the historian Benjamin Ray notes of Salem: “the sensational idea that outsiders were leading that conspiracy.”
The power of the One Percent makes so much sense because fears of conspiracy are foundational to American political culture. In his epochal 1967 work on The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn notes that fears of “a deliberate conspiracy to destroy the balance of the constitution and eliminate [American colonists’] freedom had deep and widespread roots – roots elaborated in Anglo-American political culture.”
The Declaration of Independence embedded this kind of feverish conspiracy-mongering in the founding document of American political life, itemized in its “Bill of Particulars.” The leaders of the Revolution took their conspiracy paranoia to absurd lengths – even accusing the crown of “abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.” This was the Quebec Act, a British law that restored political rights of French Catholics in recently-conquered New France, and which is revered today in Canada as the bedrock of Canadian tolerance and inclusiveness.
The idea of a predatory One Percent harmonizes perfectly with long-held anxieties about a malignant force external to The People – the community of Patriots, or “the Covenant People of God.” The myth goes like this: the 99 percent stand together against a tiny clique of bankers and neoliberal plutocrats in their Wall Street boardrooms, or planning their predations over Champagne and canapes at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. The People – who, united, we chant, will never be defeated – must stand up to the Davos clique.
And it makes so much sense because this notion of a global banking conspiracy directed from the glass towers of the One Percent resonates deeply with other mythological banking conspiracies. The Facebook account associated with Occupy Together, one of the groups that that has tried to carry on the legacy of Occupy Wall Street, shared a meme this year that makes this abundantly clear. The image under the text “If Congress displayed endorsements like NASCAR does” shows the House of Representatives festooned with logos from banks, telecommunications providers, and other corporations. Pride of place, on the front of the dais, is reserved for the logo of the Rothschild Bank.
This is no accident. The one percent inhabit the same mythological realm as the crypto-Catholic King of England, Satanic talking dogs, and the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Conspiracy myths can be comforting – it’s not we who are at fault, after all, but external forces – and, as Bray notes, help build “exceptionally inclusive” notions of movement belonging. But all international banking conspiracies invariably lead to the same mythic place, whether they begin on Wall Street or in Davos.
It is no accident that the political artist Mear One’s mural, Freedom for Humanity, mobilized the tired antisemitic tropes of illegitimate domination and a global banking conspiracy.
IV. Classless Society
At the same time, “we are the 99 percent” rearticulates the cherished myth of the “classless society.” This is a trope with deep roots and profound resonance in the history of American self-representation. It is as much a foundational concept of American political culture as the threat posed to freedom by conspiratorial cabals. Historically, it has been an article of faith.
That was the bill of goods sold to Alexis de Tocqueville by his New York, allowing the aristocratic French tourist to opine in 1831 that “the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.” Seventy-five years later, Werner Sombart marveled “that emotionally the American worker has a share in capitalism: I believe that he loves it. Anyway he devotes his entire body and soul to it.” It was part of the answer to his question of why there is no socialism in the United States: In America, class consciousness is subverted by hope and desire.
This was a commonplace of Progressive ideology as the movement entered the 20th century, and it became an axiom of American political culture in the dawning machine age. The Fordist formula at the heart of Progressivism posited a tautology: Classless economic democracy was both the result and engine of technological, industrial, and social progress.
“With inescapable fatality the mass production made possible by machinery and nourished by our unparalleled natural resources accelerated the leveling democracy implied in the idea of progress,” the Progressive historian Charles Beard wrote in 1932. “Gigantic industries could not flourish without an immense market. And where was that market to be found? … Markets for mass production simply could not be found unless the masses themselves rose above the historic margin of subsistence and were able to buy by the ton and the million.”
It is a testament to the hegemonic power of this “idea of progress” that it remains largely unexamined, unchallenged ideology today. When politicians of either party – even, or especially those styling themselves as Progressives – speak about class at all, it is always the middle class, the great, expansive, all-embracing classless Bourgeoisie. This is the 99 percent, The People united in common cause and common interest against the perfidious exploitative machinations of the One Percent.
V. The Power of Myth
The myth of the 99 percent teeters on the brink of the absurd. Without even considering investments, assets, and net worth, the One Percent are families with annual incomes of about $500,000 and more. So, the myth of the 99 percent would have us believe that a family of four getting by on $18,000 per year somehow have economic and political interests in common with a corporate lawyer earning $250,000, and living in a million-dollar condominium. One needs no theoretical framework to know that this is simply not the case. Indeed, history amply demonstrates that, when the chips are down, the lawyers, the professionals almost invariably side with the One Percent. We have somehow forgotten that 20th century Fascism was an alliance of the white-collar Bourgeoisie, hereditary privilege and capital against the working class. New York City Police officers might have been the 99 percent, but they were working for Michael Bloomberg.
“We are the 99 percent” invites us to regard a millionaire Ivy league graduate with close ties to the petroleum industry like Beto O’Rourke as an ally and potential leader because his style, more than his substance or policies, evokes the common man. It suggests that we can solve the national and global crises that threaten our enslavement and extinction by voting for this lawyer or that business person without addressing political economy, the power of capital, and entrenched – and intersectional – systems of exploitation. The myth, like all myths, can easily become a trap.
Yet, at the same time, it would be foolhardy to ignore the power of the myth. If our current historical moment has demonstrated anything, it is that politics is not rational. The rock-solid 40 percent of Americans who continue to support President Trump are impervious to reason; they did not vote for him in 2016, and will not vote for him in 2020 on the basis of his economic policies, or his healthcare plan, or because America is suffering the “carnage” of immigrant crime. They support President Trump because he has mobilized a myth of fear and lost American greatness that can be won again under his banner.
And resistance to tyranny and oppression has rarely, if ever, been mobilized by an appeal to logic and reason. The men who flocked to the colors in the American Revolution did not pick up their muskets because of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, but because of their belief in abstract notions of liberty and freedom. The Spanish workers who spontaneously formed battalions to resist fascism in the summer of 1936 did not debate the theories of dialectical materialism and the relative merits of federated versus autonomous workplace organization as they seized weapons from the Army and began their patrols. What motivated them was a profound belief in their human dignity, and the millennial hope of a new social order.
However, the danger is that we will confuse the useful myth with reality. The Continentals who held the line at Bunker Hill surely believed that the men meeting in Independence Hall, who worked tirelessly to undermine democracy while they fought for American independence, were their class allies. The militiamen of Barcelona called each other “comrade” right up until the day that the more powerful factions liquidated their rivals in the “May Days.”
And that is something to consider today, a little more than seven years after the police advanced on Zuccotti Park and ended the occupation of Wall Street. The myth of the 99 percent has its use as a slogan to mobilize a mass politics at a time when we are talking about a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and openly discussing socialism as a viable political option. Myths can inspire and motivate us, they can help define our goals, they can be aspirational; but it is a mistake to believe that they are real.