We are not the 99%…

…even though I am part of the 99%.

Since the movement(s) have been around for a while, I thought I would offer some musings on Occupy Wall Street (OWS). What this post is not about is the growing economic gap between the wealthiest few and the rest of America. Others have covered that. It is also not about corporate power—if you want a rant about ending corporate personhood, I can deliver, but not right now. I don’t want to turn this post into a debate between liberal and conservative values because others have done that, too. Here, I want to focus on one of the core objections to OWS from outsiders: that the movement lacks any coherent set of goals. Tied to that are some questions about values, representation, and process that I think are pretty important.

As OWS has spread around the country it has swept up many individuals and groups from within “the 99%”–defined here as the 99% of Americans who are the least wealthy (as opposed to the wealthiest 1%.) The goals of the movement are, for the most part, broadly consistent with this declaration from the original Wall Street group.

What I find fascinating and hopeful about OWS nationwide are the coalitions that the movement has produced and the process that OWS is carrying forward. Where else can you find, however tenuously, Ron Paul libertarians aligned with self-avowed socialists? Dogs and cats living together—anarchy! Well, that’s what some in opposition would say. The thing is, the OWS movement includes socialists, anarchists, communists, capitalists, libertarians, and probably some other political alignments that I’m not thinking of off the top of my head. This, to me, is the great strength of the movement. And, it is so different from business as usual that some people understandably don’t get it.

During the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, I was a fan of Alaska senator Mike Gravel. He was probably not going to win, but I thought he raised important issues during the debates. Back during 2007 following a Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were caught on tape talking to one another about the need to narrow the field of candidates—because so many of the others were “not serious.” With our usual cycle of political games, this type of winnowing happens fairly regularly, and it has a homogenizing effect on the resulting dialogue. Anyone whose views are too far outside the mainstream is cast out of the group.

The OWS movement puts a lot of focus into process, making sure that everyone who is present has a voice and that silencing or rejecting of voices is minimal. Because of that, I can’t tell you what OWS stands for—except by referencing the documents that individual movements in different cities have agreed to release through consensus. I can tell you what I believe, and why that aligns with OWS (and I might in a future post), but to characterize or represent the entire OWS movement would be a gross oversimplification. More than that, it calls to mind what social scientists call the “crisis of representation”–who gets
to speak for whom?

OWS does well at casting a broad net, and members of the movement are usually careful to couch their language in ways that recognize differences. Some of the loudest voices opposing OWS seem to be doing the opposite: they are willing to paint the OWS movement as “just anarchists” or “people who want to bring down capitalism.”

There is one segment of the 99% that OWS has taken it on themselves to represent without their direct voice: those who don’t want the system to change. By referring to ourselves (I include myself among the OWS supporters) as “the 99%” we are glossing over important differences between groups and engaging in a type of misrepresentation that I think we need to avoid—or at least see. When we claim to speak for “the 99%” we adopt a paternalistic stance. More than once in OWS meetings I have heard participants speak about the opposition, the “them” who are also “us,” as being blind, or indifferent, or in need of education to
bring them around to the correct anti-wall street view. While I am all for attempts at persuasive argumentation, claiming to represent those who do not wish for our representation is an occupation of a different sort.

The language of “occupation” is itself colonial—as referenced recently by Occupy Boston when they suggested that “Decolonize Boston” might be a better name. I think that it would be worthwhile for OWS members to listen carefully to what opposing voices, and our own, have to say—not to engage in an argument over words, but to begin to articulate the ways that hegemonies perpetuate individual viewpoints. In the case of the diverse opposition, this means looking past Wall Street and toward other places where power relations are institutionalized. In the case of OWS itself, it may mean looking at our own language. For example, is the movement’s focus on “wealth” (versus a focus on rights, or health, or power) a case where our own anti-hegemonic attempt at organization is dominated by the capitalist paradigm in which wealth is the only valid measure of success?

We, whoever we are, and they, whoever they may be, have come to occupy our relative subject positions through historic processes involving power and social relations through multiple facets of our lives. To affect actual change in these processes, we need to form durable coalitions that go beyond OWS—to build the skeleton of the new system within the shell of the old. Doing so will require an attentiveness to our own processes and language, both in how we relate to one another within the movement and in how we relate to those outside. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it may be impossible to use the tools of colonialism in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institutions of colonialism.


Free-range environmental scientist, educator, writer, farmer, Aikido student.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael says:

    Nicely done! How difficult it is to understand a movement without labeling them, and how much the lack of a clear definition encourages such labeling, so they can be dismissed or embraced — something endemic in our political system as well. Of course there’s this:


    But for another civilized take on the whole thing, I’d recommend this:


    Glad to see you back on the blog . . . I prefer them to Facebook, and hope they’ll make a resurgence.

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