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The Guys in the 1% Brought This On

Barbara Ehrenreich

 by The Progressive

At the risk of being pedantic, let me point out that “99% versus 1%” is not a class analysis, not in any respectable sociological sense. Shave off the top 1% and you’re still left with some awfully steep divides of wealth, income and opportunity. The 99% includes the ordinary rich, for example, who may lack private jets but do have swimming pools and second homes. It also includes the immigrant workers who mow their lawns and clean their houses for them. This is not a class. It’s just the default category left after you subtract the billionaires.


Some of the diversity of the 99% is clearly on display at the variations occupations around the country. I’ve seen occupiers who look like they picked up their camping skills on vacations in the national parks, as well as those who normally make their homes on the streets, even when they’re not protesting. Occupy Wall Street has attracted contingents of airplane pilots, electricians and construction workers -– the latter often from the new World Trade Center being built a block away. You’ll also find schoolteachers, professors, therapists, office workers and, of course, the usual crusty punks of indistinct provenance and profession. In Washington, I met one occupier wearing a crisp blue dress shirt and a tie emblazoned with tiny elephants. He said he was a Republican, a lawyer, and he’d had enough.

Then there are the poorest of the poor – the unemployed, the foreclosed upon, the chronically homeless. In Los Angeles, traditional residents of Skid Row have begun to join the occupation encampment. When about 150 people met to plan their local occupation in a union hall in Fort Wayne earlier this week, they solicited advice from already-homeless people in the crowd, who had first-hand experience of where the police are most heavy-handed and where you’re most likely to find a nutritious dumpster or a public toilet. For the homeless, joining an occupation brings instant upward mobility: free food -- not entirely vegan, I have been relieved to discover -- and, in some cases, Port-a-potties and the rudiments of medical care.

The evident poverty of so many of the occupiers has left the right sputtering for apt denunciations. In the ’60s, neoconservative intellectuals looked at student protesters and saw the political avant-garde of a “new class” or “liberal elite,” bent on taking power and imposing their own twisted combination of sexual libertarianism and Soviet-style Communism. The neocons accused the protestors of being the privileged, “spoiled” children of a “permissive” upper middle class, and utterly alien to salt-of-the-earth working class Americans. There was just enough truth to this accusation to make a few of us young radicals flinch.

I saw one community organizing effort crash on the class divide between earnest Marxist professors, who thought meetings were a good site for “political education,” and blue collar recruits who thought meetings should be social occasions adequately lubricated with alcohol. In the ’70s, Minneapolis was the site of the “twinkie wars,” in which a food co-op was torn apart between the conflicting demands of working class omnivores and middle class organic purists. At the absolute nadir of New Left-working class relations, in 1970, 200 union construction workers attacked a student anti-war protest near Wall Street—not far from where construction workers now take lunch breaks with the protesters in Zuccotti Park.

For decades, as Tom Frank and others have documented, the right exulted in its clever diagnosis: Anyone who raises his or her voice on behalf the downtrodden is in fact an “elitist.” “Real” Americans loyally align themselves with the wealthy and their corporations. And, at least for a couple of years, the Tea Party seemed to make the fantasy come true. Although heavily funded by billionaires and thickly populated by prosperous suburban business owners, the Tea Party did manage to attract some representatives of the unemployed and uninsured, like the financially shaky California man I interviewed in 2009 who told me he would happily forgo health insurance if that’s what he had to do to “stop socialism.”

But today, even the college-educated among the occupiers no longer fit the sloppiest notion of an “elite.” This is the student debt generation, which graduated with five- to six-figure dollar debts and no jobs in sight –- people like thirty-three-year-old Cryn Johannsen, who has MA’s from both Brown and the University of Chicago and now works as an unpaid full-time “warrior for the indentured educated class.” Forty years ago, someone with Cryn’s credentials would be settling into a tenure track academic job, complete with health insurance and maybe even a housing subsidy. When I first met her about two years ago, she was working as a sales clerk in a department store. Now she lives with her in-laws and hustles for bits of money to keep her on the road, organizing occupations.

The class contours of American society (and no doubt Greek and Irish and many others as well) have been redrawn since the last great outbreak of mass protest in the ’60s. True, a college education still offers a lifetime earnings advantage; the unemployed lawyer faces a brighter future than the laid-off sanitation and call center workers she confers with at an occupation encampment’s general assembly. But the parts of the middle class once lumped together by the right as a “liberal elite” have been severely eroded, its core occupations go underfunded and exploited. Promising young academics end up as adjuncts earning near the minimum wage; social workers face starting pay in the neighborhood of $12 an hour; lawyers from non-Ivy League law schools may find themselves toiling in basement “legal sweatshops.”

So the “99% versus the 1%” theme is beginning to look like an acute class analysis after all, and it’s the guys in the 1% who made it so. Over the years, they have systematically hollowed out the space around them: destroying the industrial working class with the outsourcings and plant closures of the ’80s, turning on white collar managers in the downsizing wave of the ’90s, clearing large swathes of the middle class with the credit schemes of the ’00’s—the trick mortgages and till-death-do-we-part student loans.

In the ’60s we dreamed of uniting people of all races and collar colors into “one big working class.” But it took the billionaires to make it happen.

© 2021 The Progressive

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