The ‘Occupy’ protests of late 2011 gave the world many gifts, from delightful up-twinkles and rockin’ drum circles to the creepy cult-like chanting of human microphones. Though the tents have long since been discarded and the cardboard and sharpie placards recycled, the memories linger. Out of months of news stories and heated debate, perhaps the most persistent trope to emerge and haunt us to this day is that of the divide between the 1% and the 99%.
The concept of the 1% grew out of a Vanity Fair article published in the spring of 2011. ‘1% of the people’, wrote Joseph E Stiglitz, ‘take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income.’ From this rather banal drawing of an arbitrary line through an ascending list grew a drumbeat amongst protestors that ‘the 1%’ were a unified entity to be feared and resented. Far from being an arbitrarily chosen group of people sharing only a single attribute, the 1% were a malicious lot, responsible for all manner of evils that plague the world still. Once a certain threshold of wealth was achieved, it seemed, a person would ascend out of the quagmire of noble poverty in which ‘the 99%’ were forced to wallow, and join the hallowed and secretive ranks of the wealthy. (Every time 100 babies are born, is a new member allowed in? If some lucky person wins the lottery, do those on the list below get shuffled down? Is the member on the lowest rung, who suddenly finds himself only in the top 1.000001% kicked back out into the barren wasteland of ‘the 99%’?)
The 1% were a vague, nebulous enemy, and therefore perfect scapegoats. All manner of evil characteristics were attributed to them. As wealth implies greed, greed implies callousness and a lack of caring for one’s fellow man. Success, it is reasoned, can only come at the expense of all those who rank below them on the ordered list that exists only in the imagination of the mob. The wealthy must be evil, having committed the sin of possessing wealth.
It is obviously ludicrous to cast ‘the 1%’ as a unified, organized group. In any data set there will always be 1% of the total that lies above the rest on some scale. 1% of the population makes some proportion of income compared to the remainder 99%. So does 2%. Or 7%. 17% Or 0.0065%. Why choose 1% as the crucial divide? Why even limit the pool to North Americans (Although including the rest of the world would place a sizeable chunk of the entire continent of North American solidly in the 1%)? There’s nothing magic or significant about the notion that income exists on a scale, and the only reason that 1% was chosen for the Occupy Wall St rallying cry was that it’s an enticingly simple statistic, something crucial when firing up a mob.
The chant of ‘We are the 99%’ is seductive not just for its catchy rhythm and militant tempo, but because it assures the chant-er that they are on the side of good, and part of a larger group. A group made up of 99% of the population is so inclusive as to be virtually meaningless, but this too is part of the siren call. Because the definition of ‘1%’ and ’99%’ are so precise in number but vague in meaning, anyone can convince themselves that someone, somewhere, must be in the group above them, which safely pushes them into the virtuous 99% below. Therefore everyone can claim membership in the side of good. There’s no nagging doubt that they might be on the wrong side, because there will always be someone better off somewhere, to play the role of villain.
The irony is that ‘the 99%’ portray themselves as the underdogs, a disadvantaged minority, while having enough clout in a democracy to push through any manner of public policy they want, regardless of its morality or virtue. This is a windfall for politicians, as ‘income inequality’ is a completely invented problem that will never be ‘solved’, but is easy to sell to voters. People will always make different amounts of money, and resent those who make more. Income inequality is a persistent malady that can only be addressed through government intervention, usually in the form of a new tax. It would seem that politicians have yet to discover a problem for which the solution isn’t a new tax or regulation.
Five years later, this catchphrase is still regularly trotted out, and because it’s become so common, we’ve forgotten to question it. Be wary of any political platform which references ‘the 1%’. Dividing the world into ‘Us vs Them’ is old political hat, propaganda that has been used for centuries. The 99% vs 1% angle is a hip new spin for the 21st century, but as despicable as the practice has always been.