I Am Not The 99%

Andre Forget

I’m am not part of the 99%. I mean this in both a global and in a local sense. While many university graduates struggle to find any work at all, let alone work in their field or work that uses their degree in some way, I find myself employed by my alma mater in work that I find stimulating, meaningful and lucrative. Does this mean that I am part of the 1%? I pay my taxes fairly willingly (knowing that I will get the bulk of it back), would have voted NDP in both the federal election and the Manitoba provincial election had I been allowed, and am entirely on board with wealth redistribution. Perhaps others in my position could lend their support to the Occupy movement whole-heartedly, without a shadow of doubt. I cannot.

Let me be frank: my qualms are visceral, and in the last month and a half I have sought to make sense of these qualms in a rational way, but their origins are not straightforwardly intellectual. My immediate distaste for the Occupy movement in Canada (which will be the focus of this piece because it is the movement that I am, as a Canadian, invested in) rises out of my general distaste for the shocking ignorance evinced by most Canadians regarding the differences between Canadian and American histories, political structures and social realities. There are many Canadians involved in the Occupy movement who understand these things very well, I’m sure, but Occupy started on Wall Street, not Bay Street – as in just about everything else, we are importing a vocabulary and a politics rather than attempting to develop our own. But that is largely an aesthetic judgement.

My real problem with the Occupy movement is summed up by the tension I tried to name in the first paragraph, a tension which I hope to tease out further over the course of this essay; I am not part of the 99%, and I am not part of the 1%. I am neither suffering prole nor a corporate baron. In order to contextualize this problem and speak of it in a general enough way for it to be helpful without making a caricature, let me draw attention to what I believe are the major threads in the Occupy rug. First, a sense that wealth redistribution is needed in order to create a just society. Second, the belief that such a redistribution is impossible within the normal avenues of government politics. Third, the notion that private space must be retaken for the public. Fourth, the conviction that the private sector, and especially the financial sector, cannot be trusted to uphold the common good or even act within its own rational best interests. I am sure that there are other factors – an inherent distrust of capitalism, a desire for social transformation, etc. But I believe that these four strands run through the fabric of the whole movement in both Canada and the United States.

The Occupy discourse, like that of many popular movements that have gone before it with greater or lesser degrees of success (and as a sidenote I’ll argue that the Tea Party fits very comfortably into this category as well) is predicated on the belief that a few wealthy, powerful and generally corrupt people on the top are responsible for the scarcity experienced by the masses. The problem comes when one tries to draw the line concretely. For the Tea Party, the line is drawn between the hardworking, productive middle class and the parasites on the top and bottom who feed off of its rightful earnings. For the Occupiers, the line tends to be drawn between those who own the means of production and manipulate it to their own ends and the workers who give their sweat to lubricate the machine and yet receive a fraction of its gains.

Of course, there is a sense in which both of these positions are true, and that is why they have both garnered significant support. My issue, especially regarding the Canadian protests, is that on some extremely important questions, questions that touch at the very heart of what it means to live in a just society, there seems only to be an unhelpful ambiguity. Let us look at the first strand: wealth redistribution. The logic under which Canada currently operates is one of wealth redistribution: the current political questions revolve around how much and to whom the wealth should be redistributed. We may lobby for more redistribution, or for a different focus on spending, but it is fundamentally an issue of reforming what currently exists rather than transforming it. Do we want to work within the structures that exist and strengthen them, or is the problem more fundamental than that?

Which brings us to the second strand: the belief that the current structures are insufficient, or too tainted, to fulfill this goal. This means, practically, that one is no longer talking about higher taxation of the rich but rather the development of a system in which the very possibility for individuals to acquire massive amounts of wealth is challenged. For obvious and very good reasons the Occupy movements have not tried, to the best of my knowledge, to sketch out exactly what this means, but the question it raises is an extremely important one: what is the relationship between the Occupiers and the multitude of small business owners and operators who are actively invested in the production or generation of wealth and yet who are not ultra-rich – who may in fact be very active in their communities, generous in their donations, and conscientous in their practices? Just as the London rioters in their random violence turned against fellow members of the middle or lower class, I am afraid that the Occupiers are in some ways turning against a whole class of Canadians who would be otherwise sympathetic to their complaints. If this happens, then where does the “99%” justification come from?

Third strand: public space. This grows organically out of the second strand. We may argue that all space was originally public (a fairly clear observation, I should think) but the question at this point in time – in downtown Edmonton, for example – is that people have invested massive amounts of time and money in building things (parks, buildings, homes, churches) and those people have shown a commitment to those things that gives them a sense if not of ownership at least of responsibility. For those things to be taken away from them and handed over to people who have had no hand in creating them without some sort of return is unjust, as unjust as taking someone’s labour and witholding pay. In order to be truly just, we need to develop a sense of communal ownership that makes all equal partakers, but also makes all equally responsibility for creation, upkeep etc. In order to move in that direction we should pool our resources and start purchasing property and then attempt to develop a practical theory of collective ownership outside of the established state. Especially in Canada, where many of the protesters are not unemployed and destitute (many, but not of course all) this seems to be the much more effective route, and one more likely to achieve long-lasting transformation.

Fourth strand: the conviction that the private sector cannot be trusted. At this point in history this much is self-evident. But how are we to reign in the worst impulses of human freedom while allowing the best to thrive? Regulation, whatever its intention, is a straightjacket – the constrained party cannot do as much damage, but nor can they do anything very positive. Moreover, the reality is that regulations often hurt small-scale local operations much more than they hurt large far-reaching ones for the simple fact that a large corporation is better able to absorb the costs associated with regulation than a small family business. How can we make regulation work not only for the good of the consumer, but also for the broader good of the communities the consumers live in, work in and sustain? For this question I have no answers, but I hope that through dialogue we can begin to understand what an answer might look like.

I suggested at the beginning of this essay that all of my concerns about the Occupy movement spring from the tension of not feeling either of the 99% or the 1%. I believe that in order for us to truly move forward we must appeal to those who do not have the experience of being either the very powerful or the highly marginalized. We must appeal to the “silent majority” who work eight hour days, have children, cannot drop everything to join a protest without compromising their own integrity. Instead of standing symbolically outside of the structures of power we must work as yeast within them, offering alongside our intellectual critique positive, active models, and alongside the spectacle of protest the painful personal commitment of scarce resources to building communities that have the power to make themselves equitable, fair and just. Where this is already happening – and I believe there are places within Occupy where it is happening – I humbly step back and applaud it. Where it is not happening, I hope that we can come together and make it so.

Andre Forget is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He works in the admissions department at Canadian Mennonite University and is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

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6 thoughts on “I Am Not The 99%

  1. Brother Andre,

    Thank you for your thoughts re: the “Occupy Movement” To better understand the “Movement” and thus determine whether or not you are, or are not, part of 1% or 99% one has to consider the genesis of the movement itself.

    You stated: “My immediate distaste for the Occupy movement in Canada (which will be the focus of this piece because it is the movement that I am, as a Canadian, invested in) rises out of my general distaste for the shocking ignorance evinced by most Canadians regarding the differences between Canadian and American histories, political structures and social realities. There are many Canadians involved in the Occupy movement who understand these things very well, I’m sure, but Occupy started on Wall Street, not Bay Street – as in just about everything else, we are importing a vocabulary and a politics rather than attempting to develop our own. But that is largely an aesthetic judgement.”

    Although others may differ on its true origins, using contemporary investigational means, ( i.e. internet ) the movement can trace its origins with a surprising twist. Like basketball, hockey and Tim Horten’s there is strong evidence for a Canadian parentage connection to the Occupy Movement, which was birthed almost unnoticed from Vancouver Canada’s Lower Mainland through Adbusters. ( See below )

    This should relax and calm your visceral qualms.

    On a more serious note you stated: “Fourth strand: the conviction that the private sector cannot be trusted. At this point in history this much is self-evident. But how are we to reign in the worst impulses of human freedom while allowing the best to thrive? Regulation, whatever its intention, is a straightjacket – the constrained party cannot do as much damage, but nor can they do anything very positive. Moreover, the reality is that regulations often hurt small-scale local operations much more than they hurt large far-reaching ones for the simple fact that a large corporation is better able to absorb the costs associated with regulation than a small family business. How can we make regulation work not only for the good of the consumer, but also for the broader good of the communities the consumers live in, work in and sustain? For this question I have no answers, but I hope that through dialogue we can begin to understand what an answer might look like.”

    I would agree with much you stated in your fourth strand. I would ask you; who is the “we” when discussing the responsibility to reign in impulses? Is it the government? Who is the government? Is it, “We the people”, or is the “Others”. I would argue in Canada, the government is often the “Others”. Personal and visceral response here Andre, let me explain.

    If you were to steal a twenty dollar bill from a cash register in Winnipeg, would you be arrested? The intention to steal even a small amount could be dealt with harshly by authorities if noticed true?

    My wife and I had almost several hundred thousand dollars stolen from us, as did many others by a pension manager we had met though our local church and, this manager was the highest producing agent for the one of the largest investment management banks in Canada. Years later the investigation continues.

    The police wrote me just last month, be patient the investigation continues. But they also said there is almost no chance of recovering the money because it was likely shipped to an off shore account. As it turns out the fund manager’s supervision was unwilling and unable to arrest the behaviour of this thief, even after a cease and desist order was issued was issued by the OSC.

    We brought the matter to the parent company who simply stated “We would never have approved of this man’s actions; however we cannot help you as we bear no responsibility for this thief’s behaviour, and sorry your pension funds are gone.” We took our story to the press, and only then did some of the governing officials begin to act. The common thread here is that the officials told us that indeed what had happened to us was the result of a “bad apple” in the investment industry, however there is little regulation to prevent or enforce those regulations that do exist in this country when it comes to white collar crime. If the thief is smart he can create shell corporations to steal money (defraud intentionally) and then create a legal firewall to insure that he will not be touched. We went all the way up the government ladder, local provincial then federal, only to find out that the “little guy” has zero protection from unscrupulous corporations who would take advantage of the little investor. As a side note we only discovered the theft upon returning from an overseas mission into the developing world where is theft occurred it did not occur from a “suit” be was clearly in your face!

    Ideally regulations and laws are to protect the citizenry from anti-social behaviours, but quite often in this country, and not unlike our neighbours to the south, protect the perpetrators of crime. Consider the recent MF Global missing billions of the “little guys” money, where did it go? Consider the massive bank bailouts resulting in trillions of dollars assigned to the US taxpayer. Why is it the US Fed will not answer when called before Congress in the US will not tell to whom they have given trillions of Americans taxpayer money out?

    That is the USA, so let’s bring it back to Canada eh? So who runs our responsible banking systems? Our bank governor, Mark Carney of course! What does he have in common with Italy and Greece.

    http://www.euronews.net/2011/11/15/government-sachs-europe-branch/

    No wonder some are suspicious of what has been claimed by the MSM, that sovereigns states are just that, when it appears in reality it may be otherwise.

    Brother Andre, you have a stake in the 99%, or the 1% whether global or locally considered whether you believe it or not. In the end the Bible invites us to consider justice, and not just-us. Take the time as I did and talk with as many of the protesters as you can. Some smell, some are challenged, but some will likely challenge you. Keep the faith, and keep your sense of humour, because in the end you will need both to reach the decades when your children have children without losing your sanity, although your hair, that’s another matter! (LOL)

    Blessings in Christ,

    Dave

    ( See Wikipedia)

    Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is an ongoing series of demonstrations initiated by the Canadian activist group Adbusters.
    Occupy Wall Street
    Main article: Occupy Wall Street

    The poster Adbusters used to promote Occupy Wall Street
    In mid-2011, Adbusters Foundation proposed a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest corporate influence on democracy, a growing disparity in wealth, and the absence of legal repercussions behind the recent global financial crisis.[31] They sought to combine the symbolic location of the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square with the consensus decision making of the 2011 Spanish protests.[32] Adbusters’ senior editor Micah White said they had suggested the protest via their email list and it “was spontaneously taken up by all the people of the world.”[31] Adbusters’ website said that from their “one simple demand—a presidential commission to separate money from politics” they would “start setting the agenda for a new America.”[33] They promoted the protest with a poster featuring a dancer atop Wall Street’s iconic Charging Bull.[34][35]
    While the movement was started by Adbusters, the group does not control the movement, and it has since grown worldwide.

  2. Sorry…… Did I mention that Mark Carney’s history….
    Before joining the Canadian public service, Carney spent thirteen years with Goldman Sachs in its London, Tokyo, New York and Toronto offices, truly a well rounded man to head up Canada’s central bank. That’s why Canada’s financial system is so much better than those other countries. What happened over can’t happen here…….

  3. “I find myself employed by my alma mater in work that I find stimulating, meaningful and lucrative. Does this mean that I am part of the 1%?”

    No. I’m no expert on the movement, but I’m pretty sure that “not being a corporate baron” IS what puts you in the 99% – the bar for inclusion is pretty low (or rather, the cap is pretty high). After all, if “99%” meant “suffering prole” then the “total” would have to add up to more than 100 in order to accommodate everyone who thinks they’re somehow neither in nor not-in the one-percent. But it’s capitalism’s M.O. to encourage everyone to think of themselves as potential capitalists, and not to identify with the proletarian majority. Instead, I think the “one per cent” is meant to refer to the very tiny elite corporate minority (other percentiles have served as the same meme – 5%/95% is a common one; one Communist Party official told me that under a Marxist understanding about 80% of the population is proletarian) which controls the vast majority of the world’s wealth and leaves the scraps for everyone else to duke it out. And that’s literally _everyone_ else, whether they’re panhandlers, factory workers, academics, middle management, or affluent suburbanites. The kids who think being able to pay back their student loans, or having parents who own a business, makes them the one per cent are playing right into the line the 1% want them to.

  4. You are a member of the 99%, and no one expects you to agree with everything any member believes in.

    (Replace these with Canadian equivalents)

    You’re part of the 99% if:
    Most of your income comes with a W-2 attached.
    You have ever, or currently, received food stamps, unemployment, SSI, or other government assistance.
    You don’t have an offshore bank account.
    If you are not a financial manager or CEO of a major firm, you are part of the 99%.
    You are also a member of the 99% if your income is less than $400,000 a year. (http://www.economist.com/node/21543178)
    If you earn less than 25% of your income in rent and dividends, you are part of the 99%.
    If you are one paycheck from being homeless, you are part of the 99%.
    If you are not a manager, executive, or supervisor of a large firm, you are likely part of the 99%.
    You are part of the 1% if you can’t donate millions to a political campaign.
    You are part of the 1% if you can’t write laws for ALEC and thus Congress.

    The Occupy members have many different beliefs, and no one in the movement would subscribe to everything on the list of point you made to stereotype the movement. These generalizations only make your post less accurate and less valuable. So you don’t like what you see. And? Every movement has members that are more knowledgable than others, but ignorance does not discredit the fact that our world is run by members of the 1%, not all but many, who care more about profit and control than people. Regardless of your qualms, you are a member of the 99%. (Unless you are a shifty millionaire that fooled me!)

    Peace,
    Tex Shelters
    texshelters.wordpress.com

    • Thanks for the helpful responses, everyone. Yes, the statistical reality is that I am a member of the 99% – and yes, I did generalize the Occupy Movement. However, I hope I did so as a way of helping us draw focus on the practical ways in which we can try to make change happen. The Occupy Movement was (is?) an excellent spectacle, but I think we really do need to move beyond spectacle and start making specific demands. So we tax the rich; then what do we spend the taxes on? So we create public spaces; who maintains them? My title was perhaps a little too inflammatory. While I don’t feel comfortable claiming to be an Occupier, I’d like to think that I’m on their side when it comes to the big questions. But if we want to make change we need to move from big questions to particular situations and try to keep our principles. Again, though, I appreciate all of your comments.

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