“The1%”: The Pluses and Minuses of an Historic Term

Originally published on ZNet on September 7, 2012.

The ruling class, the billionaires who profit from human suffering, care only about expending their wealth…I threw families onto the street in Iraq only to come home and find families thrown onto the street in this country and this tragic, tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis. We need to wake up and realize that our real enemies are not in some distant land and not people whose names we don’t know and cultures we don’t understand. The enemy is people we know very well and people we can identify. The enemy is a system that wages war when it’s profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off our jobs when it’s profitable, is the insurance companies who deny us health care when it’s profitable, is the banks who take away our homes when it’s profitable. Our enemy is not five thousands miles away, they are right here at home. – U.S. Iraq invasion veteran Mike Prysner, testimony to the Iraq Veterans Winter Solider Hearings, March 2008 [1]

But what about managers? What about doctors? What about lawyers and engineers? What about financial officers? What about people who earn five, six, ten, twenty, and even fifty times what the typical worker earns, but who do not own the means of production, do not work harder, do not labor under harsher conditions, and do not work more intensely than more typical workers?‘ What about people who have jobs that are highly empowering and convey very substantial and sometimes incredible wealth and status inaccessible to those below? – Mike Albert, November 21, 2011[2]

Six Difficulties

It’s not for nothing that I put “the 1%” in quotation marks in the title of a study I am drafting on the subject of who rules America. I have six related difficulties with the potent populist term popularized by the Occupy Wall Street movement and mainstream media last year – “the 1%” and its corollary (the other side of the populist coin) “the 99%.”

Capitalists and Capitalism

First, reflecting my own Left background, I would prefer that we call the United States’ economic elite capitalists. “Calling them capitalists,” the left anarchist Mike Albert explained last fall, “pinpoints that they own the economy …that the 1% are on top by virtue of owning productive property… It clarifies that to get rid of 1% dominating 99% ultimately requires replacing capitalism.”[3] I concur.

Transcending the domination of the many by the few means going beyond what the radical Iraq War veteran Mike Prysner (quoted at the top of this essay) calls “a system that wages war [and denies us health care and takes away our homes and jobs – P.S.] when it’s profitable.” Prysner might specify unnamed individual “billionaire” and “CEO” members of “the ruling class” – “people we know very well and people we can identify” – but the gist of his comment rightly highlights the profits system in ways consistent with the writings of both the great anti-capitalist Karl Marx[4] and the great 20th century democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1967, the great Civil Rights and social justice and antiwar leader argued that “the roots [of economic injustice] are in the [capitalist] system rather in men or faulty operations.”[5] The following year, near the end of his life, King wrote (in a posthumously published essay titled “A Testament of Hope”) that “the black revolution” was “exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that the radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” I concur.

 The Corporation

Second, as the veteran liberal wealth disparity critic Chuck Collins notes, “The ‘1 percent’ icon….suggests we should focus on wealthy individuals when we should also be thinking about the role of the wealthiest corporations, sometimes summarized as ‘Wall Street.’”[6] The capitalist class has long pooled investments and organized its profit-seeking operations in those giant and fundamentally pathological “persons” called corporations.[7] The “corporate reconstruction of American capitalism”[8] was completed nearly a century ago and it is largely through the corporation that “the 1%” has gained its wealth and power.

The .001 Percent

 Third, strange as it might seem, the top hundredth may actually be too big a slice of the population to highlight when it comes to the question of which Americans have gained most from the nation’s highly skewed and unequal pattern of economic growth over the last three plus decades. Between 1974 and 2007, it is true, the share of U.S. income “earned” by the top U.S. income hundredth more than doubled – from 8 to 18 percent. Including capital gains, the increase goes from 9 to 24 percent, the 1%’s highest share since 1928, the eve of the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. But, as political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson noted in their important 2010 book Winner Take All Politics:

‘the top 1 percent, while seemingly an exclusive group, is much too broad a category to pinpoint the most fortunate beneficiaries of the post-1970s income explosion at the top….In terms of share of national income earned, the top 0.1 percent [the top thousandth] have seen their slice of the pie grow from 2.7 percent [in 1974] to 12.3 percent of income – a more than fourfold increase…..[and] the gains within this superrich group are themselves highly concentrated….the top 0.01 percent (the richest one in ten thousand households) have seen an even more spectacular rise. From less than $4 million in average annual incomes in 1974, the average member of this select group now earns more than $35 million. From earning less than 1 of every 100 dollars, these supremely fortunate souls now earn more than 1 of every 17 – more than 6 percent of national income accruing to 0.01 percent of families. This is the highest share of income going to this group since the data begin to be collected in 1913 [emphasis added].’ [9]

And then there’s wealth, more unequally distributed than income.[10] The United States is home to 56,860 people (0.05 % of the population) identified by the global wealth intelligence firm Wealth X as “Ultra High New Worth” (UHNW) individuals. A UHNW individual is anyone with at least $30 million in worth, “including shares in companies, real estate, cash, art collections, private planes and other invest-able assets.” At the top of the industrialized world’s most unequal country (the United States) are more than 400 billionaires. The pinnacle is held by three men – Bill Gates (net worth of $59 billion), Warren Buffett ($33 billion) and Lawrence Ellison ($33 billion) – whose combined wealth exceeded the collective, recession-inducted budget-shortfalls of every U.S. state in 2011.

The cumulative wealth of “the Forbes 400” (the 400 wealthiest Americans) is $1.54 trillion, roughly the same net worth possessed by the entire bottom half of U.S. families. Even more shocking, six Waltons – five children and one daughter-in-law of Sam and James “Bud” Walton (the founders of Wal-Mart, whose previously unimaginable profits flowed from the import of goods manufactured at super-exploitive wage levels abroad and especially in China) had a total net worth of $69.7 billion. This was equal to the total wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of Americans.

“The 1%” versus “the 99%” dichotomy hardly captures this level of disparity.

“The Rule Riggers”

Fourth, “the 1%” is internally fragmented in a different, political sense between those within the top hundredth who are most engaged in and responsible for the nation’s increasing inequalities and those who are not. Collins makes an important point:

 ‘…a small segment of the of the top 1 percent – with an organized base in Wall Street’s financial institutions – has worked over many years to rig the rules of the economy in favor of the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent….Not everyone in the top 1 percent is to blame for rigging the rules. Nor is everyone in the bottom 99 percent without blame for the growth of inequality. Within the 1 percent are people who have devoted their lives to building a healthy economy that works for everyone. The focus of our concern and organizing should be the “rule riggers” within the 1 percent – those who use their power and wealth to influence the game so that they and their corporations get more power and wealth.’

We do not have to exempt more passive and more well-intentioned “1 percenters” from, our critical focus to note the relevance of the political and ideological divisions Collins notes within the top hundredth.

The 10 and 20 Percents

Fifth, if “the 1%” is too large from one angle of egalitarian vision, it is too small from another such angle. By 2007, the top wealth 1 percent owned more than a third (34 percent) of the nation’s accumulated and privately held wealth, including 43 percent of the nation’s financial net worth, 38 percent of all privately held stock, 61 percent of financial securities, and 62 percent of business equity. This is terrible enough from an egalitarian perspective, but I am not sure it isn’t more disturbing to learn that the top tenth (“the 10 percent”) owns two-thirds of the nation’s wealth (including 90 percent of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and more than three fourths of non-home real estate)[11] and/or that the top quintile (“the 20 percent”’) owns 84 percent of the same pile. Think about it: more than four-fifths of the American populace is left to fight it out for a sixth of the nation’s wealth. As it happens, more than 100 million Americans are getting absolutely nowhere in that fight. As the Public Broadcasting System reported in the summer of 2011, on the eve of Occupy Wall Street’s emergence, the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. has 0.3 percent of the nation’s wealth, basically nothing.

Are We Really the 99%?

 Sixth, if “the 1%” is far too small to capture the real depth and degree of American class inequality, then the corollary term “the 99%” is certainly too large to capture the group of people without power and privilege. Do we really want to pretend that everyone beyond the top hundredth – “the rest of us” – can be meaningfully considered a common group and actor? That would be a rather simplistic and populist application of a two-class “Marxist” model calling the top hundredth “the bourgeoisie” and everyone else “the proletariat.” In reality, there are of course plenty of fortunate, class-advantaged Americans beneath but often allied to “the 1%” – to the capitalist elite and its corporate system. These intermediate elites may not generally own “the means of production” (or the means of distribution, the means of finance, the means of transportation or the means of communication, etc.) or vast amounts of productive or personal property. They may not enjoy remarkable “earnings” and opulent lifestyles on the scale of the truly rich. Still, they do generally garner wealth and incomes well beyond the norm and enjoy intimately related and relatively privileged, autonomous, and empowered positions in the corporate structure and organization of work. As Albert noted in a prescient and friendly critique of Occupy Wall Street’s founding slogan last November:

‘But what about managers? What about doctors? What about lawyers and engineers? What about financial officers? What about people who earn five, six, ten, twenty, and even fifty times what the typical worker earns, but who do not own the means of production, do not work harder, do not labor under harsher conditions, and do not work more intensely than more typical workers?’

‘What about people who have jobs that are highly empowering and convey very substantial and sometimes incredible wealth and status inaccessible to those below? About 20%-25% of all economic actors have a relative monopoly on empowering tasks. About 75%-80% end up doing jobs composed only of disempowering tasks. …The former group…[has] way more power and [it] parlay[s] that power into more income [and wealth, P.S.] as well….The coordinators have a monopoly on empowering work. They are no smarter. They are not more industrious. They are not more worthy. Rather, they are elevated by their backgrounds, luck, better schooling, and mostly by their position in the division of labor. The workers are subordinated by their backgrounds, [bad] luck, worse schooling, and mostly by their position in the division of labor.’[12]

The professional and/or coordinator class’s monopoly on privileged work is intimately connected to the remarkable exclusionary guild-like power of professional associations and of the credential-granting university, which has “replaced the labor union as the most important institution, after the corporation, in American political and economic life.”[13]

A Tea Party Demon That Isn’t a Phantom

The liberal Princeton economist Paul Krugman made an interesting remark as OWS emerged. “There’s something happening here,” Krugman in his regular New York Times column. “What it is ain’t exactly clear, but we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people.”[14] By “the right people,” Krugman meant the super wealthy Few, not the “liberal” educated and professional class against the American right has spent so much energy over-directing popular anger…not people like him.

It was a revealing comment. As the n+1 Editors argued in a recent left critique of academic credentialism:

 “When we ask ourselves whether populist hostility should be directed against the rich or against the professional elite, the answer must be, ‘Yes, please.’ From 1980 to 2007, the financial sector grew from 4 percent of GDP to 8 percent, but it’s shrunk and may shrink further. The medical sector, on the other hand, grew in the same period from 9 percent to 16 and is expected to count for a full 29 percent of the economy by 2030. Goldman Sachs makes an attractive monster, but the bigger vampire squib may be the American Medical Association, which has colluded in blocking universal coverage and driving up health care costs since World War II…..”

“Today we take it for granted that practicing medicine or law requires years of costly credentialing in unrelated fields. In the law, the impact of all this ‘training’ is clear: it supports a legal system that is overly complicated and outrageously expensive, both for high-flying corporate clients who routinely overpay and for small-time criminal defendants who, in the overwhelming majority of cases, can’t afford to secure representation…but just as a million-dollar medical training isn’t necessary to perform an abortion, routine legal matters could easily, and cheaply, be handled by noninitiates….”

“Not all the demons identified by the Tea Party have been phantoms. We on our side are right to reject the rule by the 1 percent – and so are they right to reject rule by a credentialed elite. Introductory economics courses paint ‘rent-seekers’ as gruesome creatures who amass monopoly privileges; credentials-seekers, who sterilize the intellect by pouring time and money into the accumulation of permits, belong in the same circle of hell….Americans have been affluent enough for long enough that it’s difficult to remember there was once a time when solidarity trumped the compulsion to rank…dignity must be drained from the credential.”

Justly notorious on the left for its subordination to Goldman Sachs and the financial 1 percent, the Obama administration is equally captive to what the N+1 Editors call “the clubby arrogance of the other 1 percent – the fraction of American students who graduate from the top tier of colleges.” Fully 22 of its first 35 cabinet appointments hailed from the Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Oxford, or Cambridge. Obama, himself the ultimate Ivy League “meritocrat” has given us the first U.S. Supreme Court in which every sitting justice has a law degree from either Harvard or Yale.[15]

Myth of the Multitude

There are of course many other and related rifts within “the 99%,” including divisions between the employed and the jobless; the non-poor and the poor; the working poor and the welfare-dependent poor; and non poor and the near-poor; the merely or nearly poor and the deeply poor (the many millions of Americans who live at less than half of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level); white, black, Latino, Native American, and Asian; male and female; gay and straight; old and young; religious and atheist; religious fundamentalists and religious moderates; Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Protestants; environmentalist and anti-environmentalist; immigrants and natives…the list goes on. The notion that this swelling, diverse, fragmented and segmented – even class-divided – mass can and should be lumped together as one homogenized group called “the people” or “the multitude” in common opposition to capital (“the 1%”) can be more than a little knotty. Progressives ignore such internal divisions and disparities (including class differences) at great peril to their ability to organize a movement capable of seriously challenging the rule of the capitalists.

 Why Keep it

Why, given these misgivings, stick with the phrase “the 1%” (even if downgraded or qualified to some degree by the use of quotation marks) and its corollary “the 99%”? The first and most honest part of the answer is that the term has become an entrenched and handy catchphrase signifying harsh economic inequality and its terrible consequences in the contemporary U.S. Having become part of our national and global vocabulary[16] since September of last year, it is now something of a discursive portal through which discussion of capitalism’s inherent problems passes.

“The Right Picture”

Even if “the 1%” is both too large and too small to capture the real depth of socioeconomic disparity and related political inequality in the U.S., moreover, we can certainly agree with Noam Chomsky that it is sufficiently stark to communicate “the right picture,” if “not [the] literal numbers,” of a savagely unequal and pyramid-like society.[17] In that sense, saying that “we are the 99%” against “the 1%” held merit as a slogan that effectively communicates previously hidden popular sentiments on behalf of the urgent and widely supported goal of downwardly redistributing American wealth, income, status, power, control, and comfort.

Many Occupy Movement participants and supporters knew and know quite well that “the 1%” were on top by virtue of their ownership of productive property – of capital – and that “the 1%” is basically the capitalist elite. Radicals – left anarchists and Marxists – played a critical role in the formation of OWS and Occupy chapters across the country.[18]

“A Time When Corporations Run Our Governments”

OWS was also certainly aware that “the 1%” obtained, pooled, and coordinated their wealth and power through great corporations (including financial corporations) and that the wealth and rule of “the 1%” was very much about the wealth and rule of corporations. The charter Occupy document, Occupy Wall Street’s Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, opened with a manifesto of grievances not against the top hundredth but against profit-seeking corporations:

 ‘We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies….We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments…’

‘They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process….’

‘They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.’

‘They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.’

 ‘They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.’

‘They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ health care and pay.’ 

‘They have sold our privacy as a commodity.’ 

‘They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.’

‘They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through control of the media.’

‘They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.’

‘They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.’

The Revolt of the Guards

There is no reason that the “1%”’ label has to obstruct further development and spread of such awareness across the political culture. The slogan given us by the Occupy Movement (“We are the 99%”) does not preclude and can in fact open the door to useful discussion of social divisions beyond a simplistic two-class model, the rooting of these divisions (as well the difference between the very rich and everyone else) in capitalism, and the role that those multiple divisions play in sustaining “the 1%”’s system. Indeed, I would argue that these divisions are a central part of how capitalists (“the 1%”) rule America and that the venerable Left project of properly addressing and overcoming them is an essential and central task for those who would defeat the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” and advance genuine popular self-governance.

At the same time, I do not wish to throw the baby out with the bathwater in rejecting a simplistic, vulgar-Marxist binary class trope. As long as professional and managerial, “middle class” and “coordinator class” elites understand that it is their proper role to serve and not dominate democratic people’s movements, it is highly desirable from a radical and anti-capitalist perspective for them to join – and share their resources and skills – with less privileged workers and citizens in common struggle for democratic transformation and the downward redistribution of wealth and power. “The 1%” cannot rule for long without the skill and support of the system’s middle class “guards” and “coordinators.” As the great radical American historian Howard Zinn noted at the end of his bestselling People’s History of the United States (using a broader sense of the “guards” than I do here), hoping for “the coming revolt of the guards”:

 ‘The Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, garbage men and firemen – are draw into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system fails….That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy began to see that we are like guards in the prison uprising in Attica – expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.’

Writing in the late 1970s, on the eve of the ascendancy of the arch-plutocratic Ronald Reagan presidency, Zinn found some basis for his hope in the fact that “the middle class is increasingly insecure economically…Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes.” Zinn wrote: “It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes.” In a passage that many might recognize as prophetic in relation to the rise of the youthful Occupy Movement, many of whose early members complained of excessive debt for useless college and professional degrees, Zinn noted that:

 ‘The threat of unemployment, always inside the homes of the poor, has spread to white collar workers, professionals. A college education is no longer a guarantee against joblessness, and a system that cannot offer a future to the young coming out of school is in deep trouble. If it happens only to the poor, the problem is manageable; there are jails. If it happens to the children of the middle class, things may get out of hand.’

 These were prescient as well as observant words in 1980. The difficulty and precariousness of existence has increased dramatically for many millions of middle-class and college-educated Americans ever since (a topic that will receive attention in the second chapter of the present volume), consistent with Marx’s observations on capitalism’s inherent tendency towards the ever-increasing concentration of wealth and the proletarianization of most of humanity. It is a critical factor in future Left prospects.

“We Are Running Out of Time”

Regardless of whether the top .01%, 0.1 % , 1%, 5% or 10% owns a third or half or more or less of the nation’s wealth at any given time point[19], the underlying societal problems that matter most to this writer are overlapping and three-fold:

*Structured socioeconomic inequalities of any significant kind and degree – the existence of opulence, excess or even just moderate affluence and empowerment for some alongside poverty, misery, and powerlessness for others. 

*The existence of an economic system based on the privilege Few’s exploitation and ruination of human beings, other species, and the planet we all share.

*The inherent plutocratic and authoritarian consequences of economic inequality: the critical role that the concentration of wealth and income plays in undermining functioning democracy.

Over the vast sweep of United States history, numerous facts, patterns, and factors relevant to the story of American wealth, power, and poverty have changed. The changing variables include the basis of great fortunes; the structure and practice of leading business institutions; the relative positions and patterns of finance, manufacturing, domestic trade, international trade; the organization of work; the nature and degree of worker resistance and organization; the depth and degree of wealth concentration; the comfort, security, and activism of ordinary working people; the role of government in moderating wealth concentration and representing interests other than those of the very rich; the position of America and its elites and leading enterprises in the world system. Beneath and beyond all these and other shifting factors, however, the three basic underlying problems bullet- pointed above – all rooted in the capitalist system that creates the wealth of “our” contemporary “1%” (and “our” .01% and .001% and “our” top 20%) – have remained remarkably durable and deeply entrenched.

 What is new today is the life or death urgency of progressive success in the timeworn struggle to “turn the world upside down.” “The 1%”’s system has today brought us to a dire precipice – an economic, environmental, and authoritarian moment where it is becoming impossible to realistically imagine a decent, desirable, and democratic future unless that system is transcended. Failure to develop and implement a democratic people’s alternative to the profits system and its fake, corporate-managed “democracy” will bring us (in no short order) to what the eloquent left Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy calls “the endgame of humanity.”[20] The technical, organizational, and cultural forces of production, distribution, pollution destruction, repression, and social/thought/ population- control that have emerged under the direction and command of capital (“the 1%”) have turned that command into an ever-more imminent existential threat not just to democracy but to the survival of the species.[21] The climate crisis – the leading spear point of a deepening anthropogenic environmental catastrophe – has become what the prolific left social critic Charles Derber calls “capitalism’s time bomb,” an existential threat to our own and other species that is rooted in “the inner contradictions in the workings of our markets, politics, and consumerist culture.”[22] The Hungarian Marxist Ivan Meszaros was right to update Rosa Luxembourg for an age of incipient ecological calamity: its “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.” As Meszaros put things in 2001:

 ‘Many of the problems we have to confront – from chronic structural unemployment to major political/military conflicts…as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere – required concerted action in the very near future…We are running out of time… The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.’[23]

Morality Matters

A serious radical mass movement does not plead for “the 1%” (for capitalists) to behave in a socially responsible and moral way. It does not share the great 19th century British novelist Charles Dickens’ attachment to the notion of benevolent bourgeois elites who try to make things right or at least better for at least a few members of the lower class (e.g., Mr. Brownlow’s rescue of a young street urchin in Oliver Twist and the “good Scrooge’s” kind turn towards the Cratchet family in A Christmas Tale). As the democratic socialist George Orwell noted in a brilliant 1940 essay criticizing the British Communist Party efforts to claim the novelist as a “proletarian” author:

‘there isn’t a line [in Dickens’ work] that can be properly called Socialist; indeed, [Dickens’] tendency is if anything pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounderby is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough…And so far as social criticism goes…Dickens’…. whole “message” is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: if men would behave decently the world would be decent…’

‘….Hence that recurrent Dickens figure, the Good Rich Man….always a kind-hearted old gentleman who ‘trots’ to and fro, raising his employees’ wages, patting children on the head, getting debtors out of jail, and, in general, acting the fairy godmother….It seems, that in every attack Dickens makes on society, he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure.’ [24]

Still, morality is not irrelevant and I am not sure we don’t need more than a few of Chuck Collins’ good rich men and good rich women to become class- and system-defectors. I have never fully agreed with Marx’s 1867 formulation on the personal irresponsibility of individual capitalists.[25] It is one thing to point out (in good “Marxist” terms if one likes) that wishing for the moral reform of “the 1%” on the model of Dickens’ bourgeois heroes falls far short of the radical systemic change and popular struggle required to undo the profits/corporate system and plutocracy that lay at the heart of modern oppression. It is another thing to claim that individual capitalists are beyond moral fault for contemporary evils because they are little more than innocent agents or vectors of economic and/or “natural” forces. “Doing it because it’s profitable” and in accord with “Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations” (President Obama speaking to the nation and Congress in 2009 on why health corporate health insurance CEOs abuse patients) is a moral decision on behalf of tyranny with grave consequence for human beings, other living things, and the Earth we all share. Dickens was on to something, even if real solutions to capitalist evils he brilliantly exposed and mocked in his time went go beyond anything he was prepared to propose. As Orwell explained:

 ‘….Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as “revolutionary” – and revolutionary, after all, means turning things upside down – as the politico-economic criticism which is so fashionable at this moment. Blake was not a politician, but there is more understanding of the nature of capitalist society in a poem like “I wander through each charter’d street” than in three-quarters of Socialist literature…”If we would behave decently the world would be decent” is not such a platitude as it sounds.’

 Capitalism is, among other things, a monument to indecency and we are well advised not to forget the role of morality and of spiritual connection to humanity, other sentient beings and nature when it comes to constructing a world beyond the rule of “the 1%.” Nobody holds guns to the heads of the individual members of the nation’s filthy rich and compels them (this includes both Collins’ aggressive “rules riggers” and nicer souls within “the 1 %”) to soak up a wildly disproportionate share of the nation’s (and the world’s) wealth through ruthless exploitation of others and the Earth. The possession of conscience[26] along with accurate information about the consequences of their privilege would lead those individuals to become class defectors.[27] It would impel them to dedicate their wealth, influence, and energy to the end of a system that is destroying democracy, security, livable ecology, and the chances for a just and desirable future at home and abroad.

The Real Choice

Captive to and controlled by corporate, financial and professional elites, the current quadrennial election spectacle swallows up nearly all the official news and commentary nearly a year after Occupy arose. Specializing in “the manipulation of populism by elitism” that a still left Christopher Hitchens once identified as “the essence of American politics,”[28] it functions among other things to obliterate serious discussion of the deadly underlying profits system and its many terrible consequences, which include the turning of “our democratic process” into an empty, money-soaked charade.

 On October 6, the “Public” Broadcasting System’s FRONTLINE reporters will broadcast a show purporting to “present the definitive portraits of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.” The show will be titled “The Choice.”[29]

But Americans need to pick from options that go deeper than one more staggered, once-every-1460-days contest between two elite-sponsored state-capitalist politicians. “We must make our choice. We may have democracy in this country,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted more than six decades ago, “or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” [30]

That is the real choice for serious citizens beneath and beyond the much ballyhooed choice offered between two candidates selected for us in advance by the powers that be. Acting on that choice involves in a seriously democratic fashion is not a simple or easy matter. It involves difficult and detailed, movement-building work each and every day, not just once very four years. As Zinn explained in an essay on the “election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left” with special intensity in the year of Obama’s election:

“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us…… Would I support one [presidential] candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.” [31]

The latest and current “election frenzy” will recede like a bad hangover. It always does. As the dull crush of many-sided elitist rule sinks back into popular consciousness the time will be ripe again for popular mobilization. Vote or don’t vote how you wish (your “election 2012” decision is more complicated if you live in a contested state) but think seriously about joining the International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS), dedicated to a different, more serious, and deeper vision of radically democratic politics – one that takes seriously the multiple sources of hierarchy and inequality that supplement and underpin the exterminist[32] rule of the capitalist 1%.[33].

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is an author, speaker, and political commentator in Iowa City, Iowa. He can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com

Selected Endnotes ——————————————————————————– [1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akm3nYN8aG8 [2] Michael Albert, “We are the 99% But Are We?” ZNet (November 21, 2011 [3] Albert, “We are the 99% But Are We?” [4] In the 1867 preface to the first German edition of Capital, Volume 1, Marx famously acknowledged that he “paint[ed] the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose,” but denied that he had any particular moral gripe with individual capitalists. In Capital, Marx said, “individuals are dealt with only so far as they are the personification of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history,” Marx wrote, “can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.” Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, p. 10. I was reminded of this formulation in early September of 2009 by (oddly enough) the openly capitalist president Barack Obama’s speech to the U.S. Congress on behalf of his state-capitalist corporate-managed health reform measure (dedicated, as he said in April 2012, to the “conservative idea [of] preserving the private marketplace in health care while still assuring that everybody got covered, in contrast to a single-payer plan”). After regaling his listeners with various ways in which “insurance companies treat their customers badly — by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest, by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage, and by jacking up rates” – Obama made sure to morally absolve the CEOs at the helm of these practices. “Insurance executives don’t do this because they’re bad people;” he said, “they do it because it’s profitable. As one former insurance executive testified before Congress, insurance companies are not only encouraged to find reasons to drop the seriously ill, they are rewarded for it. All of this is in service of meeting what this former executive called ‘Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations.’“ [5] King is quoted in Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Touchstone, 2000), 87 [6] Chuck Collins, 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2012), 19. [7] Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (New York: Free Press, 2004) [8] See Martin J. Sklar’s monumental volume The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, Law, and Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986). [9] Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the rich Ricer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 16-17. [10] I rarely (if ever) heard those voicing the slogans “the 1 percent” and “we are the 99 percent” address the question of whether they are talking about income or wealth. It’s a relevant distinction. Income refers to a flow of money over time, usually a year, derived generally from work, retirement, dividends, or social welfare. Wealth is the net dollar value of what assets households own (minus liabilities or debt) at a specific point in time. It particularly “taps resources that have historic origins,” capturing “inequality that is the product of the past, often passed down from generation to generation.” To be sure, certain forms of income are derived from wealth. They include rent from real estate, dividend from stock shares, interest from bonds and savings accounts. But wealth and income remain quite distinct. Many forms of wealth, such as luxury yachts, fine paintings, and owner-occupied housing, produce no regular flow of cash incomes. And many types of income – wages and salaries, pensions, and welfare payments – obviously do not come from private household wealth. Wealth ownership’s significance for understanding social and political inequality tends to be underestimated in mainstream American political and policy discourse, which focuses particularly on income as a source of well-being. But, as the leading wealth inequality analyst Edward N. Wolff explains: “Family wealth is also a source of well-being, independent of the direct income it provides…some assets, particularly owner-occupied housing, provide services directly to the owner. This is also true for consumer durables. Such assets can substitute for financial income in satisfying economic needs. Families receiving the same financial income but differing in their stocks of housing and consumer durables will experience different levels of well-being….ore important, perhaps, than its role as a source of income, is the security that wealth brings its owners, who know that their consumption can be sustained even if income fluctuates. Most assets can be sold for cash or used as collateral for loans, thus providing for unanticipated consumption needs. In times of economic stress, occasioned by such crises as unemployment, sickness, or family breakup, wealth is an important cushion. The very knowledge that wealth is at hand is source of comfort for many families…In the political arena, large fortunes can be a source of economic power and social influence that is not directly captured in the measure of national income. Large accumulations of financial and business assets can confer special privileges on their holders. Such fortunes are often transmitted to succeeding generations, thus creating family ‘dynasties.’” Edward N. Wolff, Top Heavy: A Study of the Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America (New York: The New Press, 2002), 5-6. The difference between income inequality and wealth inequality is particularly graphic when it comes to the nation’s racial still shocking level of racial disparity. Consistent with longstanding trends, median black income is 56 percent of media white income in the United States and black poverty and unemployment levels are roughly double those of whites. Terrible in and of themselves, these differences pale before the ratio of median black household wealth and median white household wealth: nearly 15 to 1 at 7 black cents on the white dollar – a telling sign of, among other things, the lasting legacies of American slavery and Jim Crow. [11] “Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets,” the leading wealth and power analyst G. William Domhoff notes, “we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America.” [12] Albert, “We are the 99%” [13] The Editors, “Death by Degrees,” n+1 (June 19, 2012) at http://nplusonemag.com/death-by-degrees [14] Paul Krugman, “Confronting the Malefactors,” New York Times, October 7, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/07/opinion/krugman-confronting-the-malefactors.html [15] The Editors, “Death by Degrees.” [16] As the historian Judith Stein told the New York Times last fall, “The ‘99 percent,’ and the ‘1 percent,’ too, are part of our vocabulary now.” Brian Stelter, “Camps Are Cleared, but ‘99 Percent’ Still Occupies the Lexicon,” New York Times, November 30, 2011. [17] “Today, for the one-tenth of 1 percent of the population who benefited most from these decades of greed and deceit, everything is fine, while for most of the population, real income has stagnated or declined for thirty years…So we have the plutonomy and the precariat: the 1 percent and the 99 percent, in the imagery of the Occupy Movement – not literal numbers, but the right picture.” Noam Chomsky, Making the Future (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012), 304. [18] Here is the leading liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz, reflecting in his latest book on how Occupy came to be: “That the young would rise up against the dictatorships of Tunisia and Egypt was understandable. The youth were tired of aging, sclerotic leaders who protected their own interests at the expense of the rest of society. They had no opportunity to call for change through democratic processes. But electoral democracy had also failed badly in Western democracies. U.S. president Barack Obama had promised ‘change you can believe in,’ but he subsequently delivered economic policies that, to many Americans, seemed like more of the same….And yet in the United States and elsewhere, there were signs of hope in these youthful protestors, joined by their parents, grandparents, and teachers. They were not revolutionaries or anarchists. They were not trying to overthrow the system.” Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), x. Stiglitz is quite perceptive on the failures of (bourgeois) electoral democracy and correct to note the roles of that failure and related youthful disappointment with Obama in pushing young (and other) Americans into the streets. But many of the Occupy Movement’s leading participants and activists were in fact left anarchists and other radical anti-capitalists who did indeed seek ultimately to turn the world upside down. The original OWS was formed by such people – something that ought to be an uncontroversial historical fact. [19] “The inequality of wealth,” economic historians Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert noted in 1980, “has not been an internal constant” in U.S. history. “Wealth inequality has declined in three periods, the most recent decline being the most pronounced. First, while northern wealth inequality remained almost unchanged during the Civil War decade, southern inequality was reduced dramatically by slave emancipation. This revolutionary leveling in southern wealth contrasted with, and outweighed, the opening of new inequalities….between North and south. Second, the distribution of wealth leveled briefly but sharply during World War I. Third….wealth inequality declined between the 1920s and the mid-twentieth century. In contrast with the previous periods of wealth-leveling,” Williamson and Lindert added, “the twentieth century leveling has not been reversed.” Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert, American Inequality: A Macroeconomic History (New York: Academic Press, 1980), 33. The last comment is darkly ironic in that it comes precisely as the mid-twentieth-century trend towards greater relative equality (what economic historians Claudia Golden and Robert Margo call “The Great Compression”) was being dramatically reversed by the neoliberal shift in U.S. economic and social policy. The “twentieth century leveling” was most definitely reversed over the next three plus decades. The rightward policy shift that created the reversal actually began during the 1970s, under the Democratic Carter administration. See Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics, 11-115., [20] Arundhati Roy, “Democracy’s Fading Light,” Truthout (July 13, 2009), read at http://www.truthout.org/070709O?n [21] For some chilling data and reflections on the depth, degree, and contemporaneousness of the predicted environmental catastrophe, see Common Dreams Staff, “Earth Facing Imminent Environmental Tipping Point: Report,” Common Dreams (June 7, 2012) at https://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/06/07-3 On the current grave and deepening environmental crisis, see John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010); Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought: New Analysis Shows Warming Could Be Double Previous Estimates,” MIT News, May 19, 2009, at http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/roulette-0519.html#.; Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010); Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (London: Fourth Estate, 2007); Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010); James Gustav Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, The Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007). [22] Charles Derber, Greed to Green: Solving Climate Change and Remaking the Economy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), 5. [23] Ivan Meszaros. Socialism or Barbarism: From The “American Century” to the Crossroads (New York: Monthly Review, 2001), 80 [24] George Orwell, “Charles Dickens” (1940), reproduced in George Orwell, An Age Like This, 1920-1940 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 416-17, 427-28 [25] See note 3 above. [26] As the noted clinical psychologist and professor Martha Stout observed five years ago: “The presence or absence of conscience is a deep human division, arguably more significant than intelligence, race, or even gender. What differentiates a sociopath who ….occasionally robs convenience stores…from one who is a contemporary robber baron….is nothing more than social status, drive, intellect, bloodlust, or simple opportunity. What distinguishes all [sociopaths] from the rest of us is an utterly empty hole in the psyche, where there should be the most evolved of humanizing functions…..For something like 96 percent of us, conscience is so fundamental that we seldom think about it.” Things are very different with the socio-pathological 4%, a disproportionate number of whom are very likely found in “the 1%,” The wealthy few sit a atop a conscienceless profits system whose underlying purpose and leading institution (the modern corporation) are fundamentally socio-pathological irrespective of the moral character (or lack thereof) of its chief owners and managers. The rich, like sociopaths, are a fit and necessary subject for moral, spiritual, and indeed psychological criticism as well as systemic and structural analysis and appraisal. We are, among other things, the 96 percent. See Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door (New York: Broadway Books, 2007). For evidence that Stout’s 4% are disproportionately present in the economic 1%, see Paul K. Piff et al., “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 27, 2012, cited in Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, 314, n.13. Piff and his colleagues conducted an experiment showing that people of higher status and incomes are more likely to cheat, more motivated by self-interest, more likely to behave in ways that are generally seen as unethical, and less likely to have qualms about breaking the rules in pursuit of private. As Stiglitz notes, “Modern capitalism has become a complex game, and those who win at it have to have more than a little smarts. But those who win at it often possess less admirable characteristics as well: the ability to skirt the law, or to shape the law, in their own favor; the willingness to take advantage of others, even the poor; and to play unfair when necessary. As one of the successful players in this game put it, the old adage ‘Win or lose, what matters is how you play the game’ is rubbish. All that matters is whether you win or lose. The market provides a simple way of showing that – the amount of money you have.” Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, 37-38 (emphasis added). [27] The classic example is Frederick Engels, the brilliant, wild son of a German bourgeois family with textile operations in Manchester. He could not turn a blind eye to The Condition of the Working Class in England and nobly provided years of economic and intellectual assistance to the less advantaged but more talented Marx. [28] “The Kingfish [Huey Long] had a primal understanding of the essence of American politics. That essence, when distilled, consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful,” Hitchens wrote in 1999, “which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It’s no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’ of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a ‘reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers.” Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), 17-18. [29] http://video.pbs.org/video/2270565270/ [30] Quoted on the Web site of Brandeis University at http://www.brandeis.edu/legacyfund/bio.html and in Harvard Magazine (March 2011) at http://harvardmagazine.com/2011/03/quotable-harvard. The original source in the latter is Labor, October 14, 1941. [31] Howard Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008). [32] Paul Street, “Less Than Zero: the 1 Percent and the Fate of the Earth,” ZNet. (December 9, 2011) at http://www.zcommunications.org/less-than-zero-the-1-percent-and-the-fate-of-the-earth-by-paul-street [33] http://www.iopsociety.org/

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By | 2012-09-21T14:22:59+00:00 September 21st, 2012|Articles|