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If we’re the 99%, why are we still at the bottom?

The ideologeme of 99% and 1% have been present in the popular imagination since 2011. They are obviously theoretically speaking rather crude and simplified, but still paint a good enough picture of a society divided into a political-economic elite at the top and the rest of the people. This division is one of the main problems of the political-economic system in which we live today (as it has been for all class systems in history). The problem lies in the fact that the system functions mainly in order to fulfill the interests of the elite at the top, with the interests of the rest of the society being taken into account much less and usually no more than is absolutely necessary. How many concessions the elites are going to offer to the rest of the population depends on a number of factors. For one, it depends on the pressure on the political elites by the 99%, that is, from its various parts and organizations (i.e., worker movement, unions, left political parties, students, progressive pressure groups, etc.). The other factor is the position of a country in the world-system – obviously, a rich and developed core capitalist country (like France) will have much more leeway for concessions to its 99% than a semi-developed semi-peripheral country (like Central European or some South American countries) or an undeveloped and very poor country (like most of Africa). Of course, there is no automatism here – that’s why there’s a public health care system in Canada but not in the US. In any case, all concession for the 99% (like public health care systems, public universities, pensions, free Sundays, paid sick leave, right to vote, women rights, etc.) have always and everywhere been won, often in blood, by the people – by strikes, protests, public campaigns, unions, political and party organizing, rebellions, and revolutions. The concessions for the majority of people were never a merciful handout by the supposedly benevolent powerful elites.

George Grosz "Pillars of Society" (1926), his vision of Weimar Germany's 1%
George Grosz “Pillars of Society” (1926)

From this basic problem, the functioning of the system primarily in the interests of the minority class on top (the capitalist and political elite) stem most of the other problems, only seemingly unrelated to it. One such major problem is underdevelopment and poverty of the majority of the world – a function of the fact that in a capitalist world-system, it is impossible for all countries to develop. The other such problem is climate change – a consequence of the anarchic economic system that takes into account only the private profits of the elites, and not the interests of the majority of population and the very survival of the planet.

The slogan “we are the 99%” is sometimes used as an activist self-encouragement – since we’re the majority, it is obvious that we should win. However, the question remains – if it’s really so, why is the ultimate progressive change of society in the interest of the majority of the people (“the Revolution”) so elusive? Now here comes the paradox. It is obvious that we live in a political-economic system in which the number of people who live poorly (or not as good as they potentially could) outnumbers by far those that profit from the system. However, that is exactly where the problem lies. “The People” (today’s 99%) is itself too heterogeneous. It comprises not only the traditional “revolutionary working class” but also the unemployed (workers without jobs), retirees (mostly ex-workers), students (mostly future, though generally white-collar, workers), poor farmers, etc., each with their specific class concerns. By contrast, the oligarchy at the top, while also exhibiting some diversity, has a much clearer operational class consciousness and finds it easier to organize themselves. It has undisputable organizing advantages (like money, education, or the media) and is helped by the fact that the human race has been living in class societies ever since the beginning of historical development of more complex societies (i.e., societies capable of producing a surplus, that can then be appropriated by the elites). The very existence of capitalist state and its apparatuses (law, administration, police, army) are geared to the defense of the material interests of the 1%.

It is true that the 99% (“the People”) also have, objectively speaking, real material interests in common. No matter how much the apologists of the status quo try to deny these rights, everybody need to be healthy, to have something to eat every day, and to have somewhere to live, for instance. However, these broad class interests and needs are nonetheless, in a way, much more abstract than the very straightforward and easy-to-grasp material personal (and class) interests of the political and economic elites. Realistically speaking, it will always be easier to make a society in which a minority will succeed in ensuring their own private interests and the biggest part of the cake (leaving scrambles to others), than an egalitarian society where everything will be shared democratically and, at least more or less, evenly. Dystopia is created spontaneously, while the “utopia” is much harder to achieve – even speaking in realistic and rather moderate terms.

Of course, this by no chance means that the capitalist economic system in which we live is in any way “natural”. It simply means that the organization, appearance, and functioning of a hierarchical, non-egalitarian, and non-democratic (or at least only limitedly democratic) system is much simpler to achieve (since it’s basically business as usual), than organizing, for the first time, a society that would be rational (from the perspective of the majority of the population, of course), planned, non-hierarchical, egalitarian, and truly democratic. That is true in spite of the fact that one can see elements of such a “utopian” society even today – starting from a banal fact that most of us act in a completely non-market, non-capitalist way in our families or with friends, or taking into account such phenomena as free software, Wikipedia, the almost complete decommodification of scientific papers (Sci-Hub), books (Library Genesis), music and film (torrents) (at least in most parts of the world), or public health care and higher education systems in many core and semi-peripheral capitalist countries.

It is clear that the majority of the population everywhere would benefit, materially and otherwise (through better work conditions, more chance of self-actualization and self-emancipation, instead of everyday drudgery for other people’s profits) from making a more democratic, more egalitarian, and more just political-economic system, where the economy would function for the benefit and needs of the majority (a system traditionally called socialism). However, the fact that such a post-capitalist society would benefit most of the people also makes the task particularly difficult – since it’s very difficult, especially in modern capitalist societies, to politically organize the 99% (or even just the working class).

The top 1% have the reigns in their hands. Naturally, they are not idly waiting for the rest of the society to organize and try to imagine a better and more just economic system. The bourgeoisie and their political representatives are actively working on preserving the status quo. It’s clear how – through a political system making any significant, systemic change virtually impossible, through the control of the educational system (though education has, paradoxically, the seeds of emancipation in it, as well), of mainstream media (mostly in the hands of corporations or sometimes governments), which manufactures the necessary consent, and through the whole intellectual elite responsible the ideological matrix we all live in such as religious institutions, etc. All of the above makes most of people unaware of the true nature of the system, others aware but unable to articulate the critique properly (not to mention acting upon it), some aware but pessimistic (“there is no alternative”), and some, last but certainly not least, coopted into the system in various manners (through clientelism and tiny privileges, or “false ideologies” such as nationalism, consumerism, racism, or religion).

The system itself, as any class system in general but more radically so in capitalism, is organized in a way to mystify and cloud its basic contradictions – thus, for instance, a smaller part of the 99% will get some crumbs from the rich man’s table, in order for them to willingly, if usually passively, support the system in fear of what radical changes may bring. Thus, white-collar workers will be in a better position than blue collar ones, unionized or public sector workers will be better off than precarious workers or non-unionized private sector workers, the working poor will still manage better than the unemployed, the unemployed home-owners will fare better than the homeless, etc. And all that in a world where the majority of the people, naturally, just looks how to get by and spend their lives as comfortably as possible, only rarely, if ever, having radical thoughts about changing the world. The system itself promotes the idea that everybody can make it if one works hard enough, the official role-models being not only the rich elite, captains of industry, and other market winners but also athletes, actors, singers, celebrities, etc. All that in spite of the fact that only a small minority will ever be able to be a famous and fabulously rich businessperson, athlete, or fashion model, and in spite of the obvious fact that not everybody has the same opportunities to make it. Whether you want to become a famous tennis player, a university professor, or a rich entrepreneur, it is a very relevant factor whether you’re a rich white kid from Manhattan or a poor black kid from inner city Detroit. There is some vertical mobility, to be sure, but that is also part of how the system works – it’s much safer to allow at least some of the most capable people from below to come up all the way through, and thus work for the system, than to keep them at the bottom and risk them becoming potentially dangerous to it. In general, what capitalism offers is not a secure and good living for the majority, but fantasies that are very far from the reality for most of the people.

John Heartfield's book cover of Sinclair's book "Mountain City" (1931) published after the 1929 Crash
John Heartfield’s book cover of Sinclair’s book “Mountain City” (1931) published after the 1929 Crash

All of the above, of course, does not mean that progressive movements, aspiring to a better world, are not possible, or that they were never, at least up to a point, dangerous for the system at hand. The historical antecedents of the 99% have always rebelled and aspired to more just societies – from the old days of Spartacus’ slave revolt or German peasant wars (when the economic and technological inadequacies made true egalitarian systems impossible) to modern and more articulated anti-systemic rebellions (from Paris Commune in 1871 onwards). The problem of organizing the majority of the people (or the active part of the 99%, or at least some kind of “vanguard”, willing to act in the name of the majority or the working class) is not only in the elites actively working against it, either directly and brutally (through police and armed forces) or more subtly (through propaganda and partial cooptation); not only in the fact that the system (whether it is a parliamentary or an autocratic capitalist state) is “rigged” in order to make true changes impossible. The problem is also in that there’s always a danger of an opportunistic minority instrumentalizing the anti-systemic forces in order to achieve their own private or minority interests. Thus, even the most successful movements from below can and often do end in a new type of autocracy and class rule or, in time, restoration of the old order – this is basically what happened with the 20th-century real-socialist systems.

Adding to that, the modern capitalist system is global. Thus, it can be changed only globally. So even if a revolution occurs in one country or even if the bourgeoisie just partially loses their ground in one country (or there’s just a threat that it could happen), their class conscious comrades (and the capitalist elite is, unlike the working class, always very class conscious) in other countries will most surely react. They will not wait for the revolutionary domino effect to potentially spill across borders. That’s a scenario we all know very well from history (no matter how serious a potential threat really was) – from the French revolution, Paris Commune, October Revolution, Allende’s Chile, to Greece in 2015 (the last attempt hardly standing out for its radicalism to begin with). The forces of the status quo, domestic and international, have never stood still and will never stand still.

Finally, it is illusory to think great changes will occur over night, just as it’s illusory to think that the final demise of the anti-systemic forces in 20th century necessarily means the end of history – however far we may still be from systemic changes, perhaps even centuries (if the planet survives in the meantime). In any case, what remains is to fight. It’s not as if we have any other real choice.