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We’re the 99% and We’re Not So United

Water boils at 100°C; that’s certain. But there’s little point expecting the behaviour of societies to conform to the laws of physics. That 1% of people command the majority of the world’s wealth does not mean that the 99% are a cohesive social group, still less a political force at boiling point.

The 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement was built around an idea and a slogan: ‘We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.’ Studies just before it happened showed that almost all of the gains from an economic upturn had gone to the US’s wealthiest 1%. This wasn’t a historical aberration or a national exception. Almost everywhere a similar outcome has consistently been encouraged by government policy. In France, the tax plans of President Macron will largely benefit ‘the richest 280,000 households … whose assets are mainly in the form of financial investments and business shares’ (1).

Does that mean that everyone else has so much in common that they could overthrow the established order by pooling their energies? When you’re privileged, but not a billionaire, it may be consoling to fantasise that you’re part of the same social bloc as the proletariat. But the 99% are a mix of the wretched of the earth and a (fairly thick) stratum of the upper middle class: doctors, university teachers, journalists, senior management, PR and senior civil servants, without whom the 1% couldn’t last for more than 48 hours. Lumping them all together in the 99% is reminiscent of the foundational American myth that claims everyone is middle class, and almost everyone is rich or about to become so (2).

If union brings strength, so too does cohesion; but history has taught us that the great moments of agreement and unanimity do not last long. In February 1848, workers and the middle class manned the barricades side by side in Paris, but by the June Days (3) they were in deadly conflict. It’s hard enough building an alliance, even between progressive movements in the same country. Imagining a common plan, a sustainable political force on such an indiscriminate scale as ‘humanity minus the oligarchs’, smacks at best of utopia, at worst of an unwillingness to choose, to come down on one side. It won’t ultimately achieve much more than a defence of consensual rights or opposition to child abuse and road accidents.

For anything else, the 99% will get us nowhere.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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