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Straight Out of Antiquity

In their paper on the Tea Party, Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin (Chrystia Freeland summary here) argue that one of the central principles of the Tea Party is a division of the world into workers who deserve what they earn (including Medicare and Social Security, which they like) and undeserving “people who don’t work”—by which many mean the young, or even their own younger relatives.

We are the 99 Percent, the tumblr associated with Occupy Wall Street, is, among many other things, a kind of response to that worldview. The introduction takes it on directly:

“They say it’s because you’re lazy. They say it’s because you make poor choices. They say it’s because you’re spoiled. If you’d only apply yourself a little more, worked a little harder, planned a little better, things would go well for you. Why do you need more help? Haven’t they helped you enough? They say you have no one to blame but yourself. They say it’s all your fault.”

Mike Konczal (who, among his other talents, can use perl and python—who knew?) whipped together a quantitative analysis of the 99 Percent tumblr. The tumblr as a whole is depressing (you need to go look at it to know why), but Konczal’s analysis adds another level of downer. As his numbers indicate (and my reading of a decent chunk of the pages confirms), there aren’t many extravagant ambitions here: no expectations of material consumption, no expectations of self-actualization through work, no 60s-style dreams of peace and community. Instead, as Konczal puts it,

“The demands are broadly health care, education and not to feel exploited at the high-level, and the desire to not live month-to-month on bills, food and rent and under less of the burden of debt at the practical level.

“The people in the tumblr aren’t demanding to bring democracy into the workplace via large-scale unionization, much less shorter work days and more pay.  They aren’t talking the language of mid-twentieth century liberalism, where everyone puts on blindfolds and cuts slices of pie to share.  The 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as ‘fairness’ in their distribution of the economy.  There’s no calls for some sort of post-industrial personal fulfillment in their labor—very few even invoke the idea that a job should ‘mean something.’  It’s straight out of antiquity—free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.”

I’m not saying this is a downer because I think the people sending in photos to We Are the 99 Percent, or the people occupying Zuccotti Park, should have a detailed political program or that they should be mobilizing to overthrow the bourgeoisie.* It’s because it shows, in Warren Buffett’s words, how far the class warfare has already gone—and how overwhelmingly his class has won. When the primary hope of workers is not to feel so tired anymore, it seems we’ve regressed back to a time even before the organized labor movement.

Konczal cites David Graeber and Moses Finley for the idea that premodern popular demands focused on canceling debts and redistributing land. A friend of mine brought this up to me a few weeks ago, too. His question at the time was about the Tea Party: when has there been a populist movement that wanted to make money harder? Remember, the Tea Party began with Rick Santelli calling people who were underwater on their houses “losers.” In retrospect, it seems like a brilliant preemptive strike by the creditor class.

* Apparently it’s been so long since I used the word “bourgeoisie” that I couldn’t even remember how to spell it at first. There’s a message in there somewhere.

This post originally appeared at The Baseline Scenario and is reproduced with permission.

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