Uniting States of Americans: We are the 99%!

A year ago this month, 'the 99%' changed the discourse of US politics. But did this call to action for 'American Revolution’ issued by the Occupy Wall Street movement change politics itself? In this first of two multimedia articles, filmmaker and academic Cynthia Weber, introduces us to a range of impressions and reflections in the field.

Cynthia Weber
17 September 2012

As one of the most divided electorates in US history is on the brink of selecting its president, it is surely worth pausing to reflect on how OWS and ‘the 99%’ relate more generally to the US political landscape. By introducing the language of ‘the 99%’, OWS made it possible for middle of the road US Americans to make four moves that many of them would have previously regarded as too radical: to name economic inequality and its resulting inequality of opportunity as a legitimate grievance; to name those burdened by this problem as common allies (the 99%); to declare those responsible for creating and continuing this problem the common enemy (the 1%); and to undertake to reconfigure their political, economic and social landscapes by revitalizing US democracy through direct action.

By successfully linking the breakdown in meaningful ideals and practices of US democratic governance to how inequalities are created by institutionalized corruption and greed by corporations, financial institutions, and economic and political elites, OWS and the 99% movements challenge what has become politics as usual in the contemporary US.

Yet while OWS and the 99% movements challenge ‘what democracy looks like’, their initial success was arguably down to the fact that these movements appeared to leave unchallenged the underlying ideology upon which US democratic practice is grounded - liberalism. Liberalism is a political ideology that champions the rights of individuals to organize governing arrangements that protect their freedoms in social conditions of their choosing.

Whether 99%-ers believed they were exercising their collective freedom to assemble in public as publics, or protesting against government bailouts to banks paid for by economically struggling citizens, or demanding their rights to pursue their happiness by following a neoliberal version of The American Dream, the majority of these 99%ers based their claims on the liberal belief that equality and liberty are the highest ideals of the land.

That’s partly why OWS seemed to be so patriotic. Various forms of libertarianism - some compatible with good old-fashioned US liberalism, some not - were misrecognized as good old-fashioned liberalism. And to be liberal in the US is to be patriotically American.

Promoting good old-fashioned liberalism - a capitalism-friendly liberalism - was not the intention of OWS organizers or of many of those who joined them. OWS was always global in its origins and ambitions - having its roots as much in the anti-capitalist globalization movement as it did in the Arab Spring - even if its firm ground was a small park in Manhattan’s financial district. And while the vision of some of its key organizers was to promote liberty, the promotion of liberty was not their ultimate goal. Rather, liberty was the vehicle through which compassionate collectivist forms of political, social and economic living could be contemplated and enabled not only nationally but locally and internationally.

Yet from the first moment, when it claimed that it was ‘for American Revolution’ rather than ‘for World Revolution’ (its later claim), OWS became appropriable as a populist vision for a US American 99% that was neither internationalist nor collectivist nor anti-capitalist in its outlook. What this populist 99% demanded was not a revolution for global economic justice but a reformist agenda that would retrieve individual US Americans’ access to the liberal capitalist American Dream - a dream that necessitates global economic injustice so that global wealth can continue to flow into the economically hegemonic US.

It is this populist appropriation of the 99% as liberal capitalist reformers rather than as peaceful warriors for anti-capitalist global economic justice that made (and to some extent still makes) OWS a force to be reckoned with, both for President Obama and Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney. For the global economic injustice that this populist 99% demands is only deliverable as long as US hegemony endures. And anyone with an international economic outlook can see that US economic hegemony is at best waning.

What this means is that OWS did change US politics by bringing to the fore a question that unites all of those who identify as the 99%. That question comes from the same person who is credited with coining the slogan ‘We are the 99%’ - the anarchist anthropologist and activist David Graeber. In his book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Graeber’s urgent question is, ‘What do we really owe one another?’ That is a political and social question as much as it is a financial question. Its answers depend upon which political vision any particular 99%er brings to it. This is why it was not uncommon to hear a wide range of answers to this question in Zuccotti Park last year, from ‘I am owed The American Dream by a US state that failed me’ to, ‘Financial debts need to be forgiven so that what we really owe one another - social and human relationships though which we give as we can and take as we must - can flourish’.

Are we ‘all in this together’, as OWS activists chanted last year and consolidate in this year’s call for massive debt resistance? Or are we in this for ourselves, as neoliberal capitalists would have it? These questions mark the divisions at the heart of what the 99% means in the US - between collectivists and individualists and between anti-capitalists and capitalists.

These are some of the tensions apparent in my collection of films ‘OWS: “We are the 99%”’. The first three of these films, embedded in this article, explore how OWS and the 99% movements fought ‘for American Revolution’ by mobilizing some of the foundational language and ideas of The American Revolution. How ‘We the People’ became ‘We are the 99%’; how power and especially economic power corrupts democracy; and how church and state should be related to one another - all figure in OWS celebrations of ‘the 99%’.

The films record these celebrations, mindful of how OWS and the 99% movements often contain incompatible visions regarding the conduct of this new American Revolution and what its political, economic, and social outcomes should be.

OWS: We the People

OWS activists declared that ‘the 99%’ assembled in public spaces ‘to hold political and economic elites accountable’. This film documents how ‘We the people’ refigured as ‘We are the 99%’ became a call to action ‘for American Revolution’ through the exercise of direct democracy. As Kurt puts it in this film, ‘America, get off your couch and stop watching American Idol and Dancing with the Stars and do the footwork. That’s all we ask. Do the footwork’.

As the US Presidential campaign shows, though, US Americans have been dancing to starkly different tunes at the same time. This is as true within the OWS movement as it is outside of it. Was its genius, indeed, in its vagueness? Is it enough to celebrate such declarations as spaces in which US Americans are figuring out how they want to govern themselves (as Judith Butler in Arendtian mode at OWS seemed to suggest)? Or is ‘We the people‘ as ‘We are the 99%‘ as much an expression of the desire for meaningful publics as it is an expression of how nationalism limits that desire?

OWS: Jesse LaGreca

Jesse LaGreca was among the best known faces of the OWS movement, thanks to his viral unaired Fox News interview in which he lambasted the network for being part of America’s problems. This film begins with that interview and then turns to Jesse’s further thoughts on how OWS ‘was not a Fox News protest. It was an anti-corruption protest’. In this film, Jesse goes on to explain what kind of US he wants and doesn’t want. As he puts it, ‘I don’t want to live in a country with no minimum wage, no social security, and a bunch of books printed by Glen Beck’. Jesse’s reflections put questions about the relationships between government, money, and media centre stage, which are as evident in OWS as they are in the 2012 Presidential campaign.

OWS: Reverend Billy

Reverend Billy Talen -- activist, performance artist, and founder of The Church of Stop Shopping (renamed The Church of Life After Shopping) -- preaches his message at OWS that fundamentalisms are not only religious. They are economic. Reverend Billy calls for US Americans to ‘occupy’ the American Dream. What would an Occupied American Dream look like? Reverend Billy’s answer is OWS itself. Gesturing to the occupied Zuccotti Park where he’s preaching, Reverend Billy declares, ‘This is my country. I’m gonna do all my business right here’. Yet he ends on an ironic note that we maybe should consider a warning. In over-the-top celebratory style, the Reverend declares, ‘The 99% - my new God!’ Could there be fundamentalisms in ‘the 99%’? 

You can read the second part of this article, including more videos of the OWS movement, here.

Cynthia Weber’s exhibition ‘Uniting States of Americans: From “I am an American” to “We are the 99%”’ at the Usdan Gallery at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont opened on September 11, 2012 and runs until October 18, 2012. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

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