Just as names can explode into mass consciousness, so can certain numbers. This has just happened to 99 and 1. The figures have become a chant, ringing in the world’s ears.
The reality that these percentages refer to is no longer in the closet. But it’s not to see why it stayed there for so long. 1% of the population owns 99% of the wealth? (1) That’s crazy, right? It’s a state of affairs that, when you think about it, seems so preposterous as to be something out of science fiction.
So a lot of people didn’t think about it.
As denizens of the World’s Greatest Democracy, our first impulse is to disbelieve it or remain willfully ignorant of this fundamental fact of the American economy. These numbers strikingly belie the stories we’ve been told about the modern civilized world. Even among Americans who had heard about it, the full weight of this statistic had probably not pierced the credibility barrier.
Until now. By making a slogan out of these numbers, the Occupy Movement (OWS) has dealt a fatal blow to their deniability.
Scrambling to come up with a counterattack, the powers-that-be have accused OWS of incoherence. The opposite seems to be true. “We are the 99%” may be the most straightforward and succinct battle cry in history.
In fact, it is the status quo that is incoherent. When you compare the demonstrators’ statements to the idiotic ramblings of our campaigning politicians, the protestors come off as exquisitely lucid. It’s easy to see why OWS has higher approval ratings than any of the presidential candidates, whose 1%-friendly platforms and Wall-Street-fattened coffers perfectly make OWS’s points for them.
On the local level, the backlash is even more incoherent. The mayors of Oakland and San Francisco have been flip-flopping like fish on a deck. Police chiefs have been overreacting with tear-gas tactics that backfire and increase the movement’s popularity.
The cable TV pundits have been maligning the protesters as young, scruffy troublemakers, just as the hippies were condemned during the Viet Nam years. For veterans of the counter-culture wars, at first blush it feels like one big rerun. But it’s very different now.
For one thing, we have the Internet. The conjunction of Uranus (technology) and Neptune (global reach) in the early 90s introduced what would become a wild card in all future culture wars. YouTube and texting promote a kind of instant democracy, as we saw in Tahrir Square. When the whole cybersphere is watching, it’s harder for the Man to bash heads with impunity.
But the difference between the demonstrations of the mid-sixties and those going on right now go further still. Uranus and Pluto were conjunct in 1965-66; now, they are square each other. The wheel has turned, and the issues have delved deeper.
The OWS campers aren’t protesting a war, as the peaceniks were, nor a political party, as are Moveon.org and other liberal groups. They’re not protesting “big government,” as are the tea partiers.
OWS is not really a political movement at all. It’s something much bigger, which is why the unions have been unable to co-opt it (2), the corporate publicists have failed to discredit it, and the media doesn’t know what to do with it.
Look in the Mirror
“We are the 99%” refers not to an opinion or an ideology. It is not an exhortation (as is “Hope and change”). It is a statement of fact: a singularly chilling fact, and one with which everyone who hears it must come to terms.
The occupiers’ decision to use these numbers as a catchphrase was a brilliant piece of anti-branding. “We are the 99%” challenges the listener to look in the mirror. The phrase says, “Don’t look at us; look at yourself.” It doesn’t say “Join our club,” it says, “You are already in our club.”
This creates a cognitive dilemma for those who are statistically part of the 99% but whose psychological identification is with the 1%.
“We are the 99%” invites the average worker to consider that the CEO who owns his company makes 400 times as much as he does; and to ask himself what this says about his alliances. It invites the 30,000 Bank of America workers who lost their jobs in October to consider the implications of the fact that two top B of A executives scored eleven million dollars in severance at around the same time.
It invites policemen and army recruits, foot soldiers of the state, to ask themselves which tribe they are part of; as happened in Egypt when Mubarak commanded his forces to fire upon demonstrators, only to have the troops defect.
Movements that arise as suddenly as this one did are expressions of cultural moments whose time has come. Its birth in mid-September was augured by the transits of the Autumnal Equinox, functioning as a spark that hits a carefully laid fire. The fire is the Longest Arm of the Cross. (3)
Occupy Wall Street began with a localized bit of guerilla theatre and then roared into a massive cri de coeur. It is an instrument of Pluto, the planet that purges muck and toxins, which is stripping away the cant that had adhered to America’s self-image as a democracy (Uranus).
More than 200 years’ worth of accumulated muck have all but smothered the democratic impulses that gave this country birth. It has built up in layers like tar on a smoker’s lungs. OWS is asking the question that will be answered by the time of America’s Pluto Return in 2022: Will the 99% give up on, or re-establish, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people?
(1) The figures have moved beyond a literal statistic into the realm of metaphor: they are now a vernacular catchphrase whose essential meaning is universally understood. Statistics on this vast and fluid topic are not verifiable in a scientific sense, but a study published by the United Nation’s Development Research Institute found that the world’s total wealth including real property and financial assets is owned by 2% of global denizens. Income is distributed unequally and wealth is even more unequal. Unsurprisingly, they found this wealth to be heavily concentrated in USA and Europe where 90% of the world’s total wealth is held. The Institute’s director, Anthony Shorrocks, compared the situation to a group of 10 people, in which one person owns $99 and the remaining nine share $1.
(2) The relationship between the unions and the Occupiers is in flux. Organized labor, whose leaders’ salaries have steadily risen over the last several decades while workers’ rights have sharply diminished, is widely perceived by progressives to have become part of the Establishment. But unions have been earnestly lobbying for some kind of alliance. So far the closest this has come to happening, at least in San Francisco, is OWS putting out a call to its supporters to remove their money from the big banks and put it into credit unions.
(3) I give this name to the Uranus-Pluto square because it is the longest-running piece of the sequence of aspects powering the years surrounding 2012. Its symbolism can be used to organize our thinking about the global changes ahead.