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99% of what?

The Occupy movement under the spotlight

The wave of occupations that has rolled around the world from Madison, Wisconsin to Tahrir Square in Cairo, from the Spanish M15 movement and onward via Occupy Wall Street has been deeply inspiring to us, and deeply challenging to the system we live under. While it is reaction to a global, though particularly western, economic crisis we must give credit to all those camping out for their commitment, for instigating the debate as to where we can and want to go, and for breaking the deadening political stagnation of recent years.

So to make a critique of the Occupy movement at this moment, seems at first absurd. To think five years ago that city centres across the globe would be occupied by hundreds of thousands of people, would have been laughed off. Yet they are. And it is a fantastic. It has created a space where capitalism, democracy and revolution are being openly discussed like never before. But that debate also needs to look at the Occupy movement itself and the fundamental problem with the concept of the 1% versus the 99%.

Anti-capitalist vs anti-banker
As someone who has been politically active on the libertarian left since the late 1970s, there is something in the rhetoric of this 99% movement that I and many of my generation find disturbing. We were, and are, anti-capitalists and revolutionaries but this new movement is neither anti-capitalist or even just reformist, but explicitly concerned with elites. Exemplifying this, the banner at Occupy London stating “Capitalism is Crisis” was removed after much debate and replaced with “What would Jesus do?”

While the Spanish M15 movement concentrated around the slogan ‘Real Democracy now’, encompassing reformist demands but going far beyond the criticisms of finance capital, the Occupy movement is based on: ‘We are the 99%  and that we oppose, criticise and demand action against the 1%’. It is the idea that somehow if only this 1% were made to behave properly, then the system would work for everybody.

But the crisis in finance capitalism is not some aberration but related to the long term crisis of capitalism itself. We need to look at what that is, how to make that accessible to people and reformulate the discussion away from conspiracy elites to a more general critique of capitalism and its problems.

Voices of dissent
There is an excellent statement that has recently come out of one of the US occupations where many people are equally concerned about this issue.

“Banks and “bankers” are an easy target because they stand as the visible monetary centers, but this analysis completely ignores the primary functions of capitalism: the production of commodities, the exploitation of human labor, and the extraction of surplus value. Capitalism is not a conspiracy.”[1]

And that is what needs restating; the 1% are out of control not because they are a conspiracy but because that is how capitalism works! And people only notice when the trickle down stops trickling! There is no pure capitalism without finance capitalism, but finance capital does not control capitalism. It is still production that is the key, because that is where ‘surplus value’ (profits) are extracted by paying people less than they produce. And in the West that mode of production is in crisis.

Enter the conspiracy
But the other very dangerous problem that comes for the 1% idea is how it leads very easily and smoothly into the idea that we are dealing with an out of control elite which operates through conspiracies. And indeed we see this all over the camps, and online, where the crazies of Zeitgeist, David Icke, and other random conspiracy theorists, often go unchallenged [2]

And from the idea of conspiratorial elites it is a stones throw to anti-Semitism i.e. anti-Jewish. It is suggested that Jews have historically controlled all the worlds’ finances/banks and that therefore it is their actions that are behind the crisis. This anti-Jewish bullshit is never usually overt though, the right-wing scum who push this have words and phrases they couch their lies in, but it is there. [3]

Another classic device these racists/fascists use is the deliberate confusion of a very real Zionism, the brutal nationalist and expansionist project of the Israeli ruling class, aided by the US, with a mythical Zionism that runs the world. [4] And sooner rather than later this bullshit manifests itself in reality. At the beginning of November a young Jewish woman was told to fuck off at Occupy Finsbury Square (London) as she, it was suggested, was part of the problem.

Exclusive and exclusion
There are also a number of other problems which may or may from the 99% issue, but is probably more to do with class!

Firstly the idea that the camps represent the 99%. In many ways it is a useful initial concept to grasp, and 99% of people in the camps are clearly NOT part of the 1%. But the camps are very exclusive, both practically, where they exclude most people who have to work, who do not live locally, who have family responsibilities etc and culturally, appealing pretty well only to young activist types. This is not on one level a problem but they must be very careful when claiming to speak for the rest of us.

In the US there has also been a lot written on how exclusive the camps are not just in terms of class but race which is more politically an issue there. African American and Native American activists have noted the irony of white middle class Americans ‘occupying’ land they themselves have been historically ethnically cleansed or segregated from

Women have also felt the issues of gender are similarly belittled though I am not convinced that the camps are unique in this aspect. [5] There have been a number of rapes at Occupy camps, and while the issue is being taken seriously by most many women think their safety is disregarded to a significant extent as it is subsidiary to what the camps are about.

All in all the Occupy camps have been a massive boost for the movement for change but they like any part of the movement is not immune to debate and I hope this has been useful contribution.

Richard Price


[1] 99 Problems by some anarchist occupiers, Bloomington, Indiana. Original here:
[2] For background into the Zeitgeist movement see:
[4] See Third Estate’sguide to Zionism.

This article originally appeared in the December edition of Freedom newspaper see here
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