October 12, 2011

Underlying Ideology of the 99


Rortybomb had this interesting analysis of the “Ideology of the We Are 99% Tumblr.” Konczal ran the HTML text which accompanies many of the images through a program to assemble data on age and keywords. He found two age clusters, around 20 and 27.
The 25 most common “words of interest” all involve the necessities of a decent life (except that several like “jobs” and “debt”, the two most common, are endemic to capitalism and other economic hierarchies). One important finding is that none of the key words are characteristically “consumerist”. This plus the overall impression of the images is that, contrary to the fears or scoffing of detractors, the 99ers are not thinking primarily in terms of being gipped consumers who just want to go back to the 1990s. They’re not thinking in terms of a more inclusive neoliberalism whose crimes would continue but merely trickle more of the loot to them, the way previous more fortunate consumers allegedly benefited. So we can take this as a piece of evidence which is promising in light of the previous discussion on this blog of consumerism as a movement
Instead, they’re thinking in terms of survival amid permanent dispossession. Their first concern is to be free of the oppression of unemployment and debt, which are the only modes of exploitation the decrepit system has left. So although they don’t know it yet, anything they say about jobs and debt is already tantamount to the call to abolish Wall Street and debt as such.
Indeed, Konczal himself acknowledges but only dimly envisions the radicality of the implicit ideology here.

With all due respect to DeBoer, the demands I found aren’t the ones of the go-go 90s-00s, but instead far more ancient cry, one of premodernity and antiquity.

Let’s bring up a favorite quote around here. Anthropologist David Graeber cites historian Moses Finley, who identified “the perennial revolutionary programme of antiquity, cancel debts and redistribute the land, the slogan of a peasantry, not of a working class.” And think through these cases. The overwhelming majority of these statements are actionable demands in the form of (i) free us from the bondage of these debts and (ii) give us a bare minimum to survive on in order to lead decent lives (or, in pre-Industrial terms, give us some land). In Finley’s terms, these are the demands of a peasantry, not a working class.

Everywhere I look I see a convergence toward what I started saying over a year ago when I first pegged us as post-workers, incipient or actual “lumpenproles”. (I’ve recently written more about this.) Our mindset, our actual circumstances, and the possible modes of resistance and revolution are all more typical of the peasantry than the classic proletariat.
Apparently the 99ers are still shy about demanding the land, but that will have to follow if this is to go anywhere. Meanwhile, although they’re not yet conscious of the need to self-jubilate all system debt, they’ve zeroed in on this debt as such as the existential problem which must be existentially solved.
Konczal wrongly sees this as some kind of diminution:

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.

While he’s right about how the demands are far simpler than those of the Oil Age welfare state, he’s mistaken to equate simplicity with paucity. On the contrary, while one might be whimpering for debt relief today, that’s only one small step from raging for the giant leap of total jubilee tomorrow.
The fact is that Wall Street (including all global financialization) and kleptocracy itself comprise a Tower of Babel which can stand at all only through the ever more intense exploitation of all people. These demands many lament as so picayune are absolutely impossible for corporatism to satisfy without its own destruction. So the demand to be free of the bondage of debt is objectively the demand for complete transformation. If this movement continues along the line of its logic, it will fight as a revolutionary movement regardless of the original subjectivity of the weary post-workers who thought only in terms of  their student loans, their children, their unemployment, and their health care (to name the four big clusters of concern Konczal identifies). Indeed, the post-employment mindset in evidence here can easily become conscious as a rejection of the entire capitalist “employment” model itself.
It’s a testament to the irrationality, depravity, and criminality of the system that such basic concerns of humanity must be forced to become radical aspirations.


  1. Everything old is new again. The lessons of antiquity need to be taken more seriously now than ever. I’m not sure why the demands of the working class are supposed to be elevated above those of a peasantry. If the urban working class is being fed from corporate farms, none of their demands mean anything, and they have zero leverage. The notion that there will be a substantial non-peasant “working class” (people who labour exclusively or primarily in the manufacture of goods etc) in a post-peak world strikes me as pretty unlikely in any case. I don’t think it will take long for our “peasantry” (really a lumpenproletariat as you note) to figure out that they need land, and they need the traditional skills of the peasantry, including cottage industry and small-scale manufacture. The tradition of radical peasant agrarianism has a lot to offer here, I think. If I can eventually found a sort of school on the farm-to-be, both a school of thought and a practical place to research and practice the techniques we will need, I think I’d like to call it the School of the Growers in reference to the Tillers. Growers seems less catchy than Tillers, but I want to work on no-till techniques, lol. I’m not sure where “Tillers” came from anyway, since the Chinese term “Nong Jia” just translates to “Farming Family” or “Farming School”. That’s just an idea, but I think it would be useful to have a term to describe the kind of dialogue and development of a genuine school of thought and, slowly, praxis that’s happening in places like this blog.

    Comment by paper mac — October 12, 2011 @ 3:31 am

    • Incidentally Russ, are you familiar with the Southern Agrarians? I haven’t read any of their stuff, but I’ve been poking around some of the more recent American agrarian movements lately, for ideas, and they keep coming up. I got the impression that they were pretty reactionary but I’ve seen a few positive references as well.

      Comment by paper mac — October 12, 2011 @ 3:35 am

    • That’s an interesting point about the names. (I like the idea for the school.) I agree, tiller does sound cooler than grower, but on the other hand tilling is actually something we want to get away from. I’m not sure how much that matters for the terms, though. Not many teamsters still use horses, for example. So maybe “tiller” doesn’t have to mean literal tilling in people’s minds. I, for example, don’t think specifically of tilling. I think of working the land in general. That’s what I thought of when you mentioned the School of the Tillers.

      The Southern Agrarians, as an ideological movement? Once again my old reading, which seemed at the time to have no clear goal, turns out to be relevant; I used to read several of those poets. I didn’t get into their political/cultural stuff, but I was aware of that aspect of their work.

      I need to read more about that stuff. Most of what I know about American Populism is from Goodwyn’s book.

      BTW, John Gould Fletcher was also interested in trying to adapt Nietzsche to this stuff. Some of his poems incorporated Nietzschean themes, with varying success.

      Comment by Russ — October 12, 2011 @ 4:48 am

      • That’s a good point about metaphorical names. I’m pretty literal-minded myself so I’m not great at thinking of things like that. I’ll try to keep that in mind though.

        That’s interesting about Fletcher as well, I didn’t know there was a Nietzsche connection there. Hard to find time to follow all these threads up!!

        Comment by paper mac — October 12, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

    • The disdain for the peasantry and the lumpens comes from Marxism, don’t you think? Marx was a believer in the myth of progress and he didn’t like the inherent conservatism (backwardness he would call it) of the peasants. He couldn’t organize the lumpens so he hadn’t much use for them either.

      At this point the people who are trying to bring back industrial jobs to the world are the backward ones!

      Really really great conversations. Thanks!!!

      Comment by Ellen Anderson — October 12, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

      • I think you’re right, it must be some residue of structuralist Marxism and the myth of progress, although I don’t know anything about Konczal’s thinking. I’ve gotten to the point where the passages Russ quoted above seem totally deranged- people are agitating for the freedom to pursue basic subsistence routines and freedom from debt bondage, and Konczal’s like, these guys are crazy!! They’re not even asking for a “meaningful job” or union representation!! Blind spots a mile wide..

        Comment by paper mac — October 12, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

      • Marxism (not necessarily Marx himself, although it’s unclear) was similar to capitalism (and all other hierarchical modes of political thought) in seeing those who grow food as born slaves who should in fact be enslaved. Marxian class analysis helped codify this tendency on the part of civilization (using that term to denote city-centric modes of living). But the conservatives and liberals of the world would feel and act the same way if Marxian categories never existed. Marx just helped everyone clarify what they already thought.

        At this point the people who are trying to bring back industrial jobs to the world are the backward ones!

        That’s a good example of how today’s “progressives” are in fact another kind of conservative (indeed, in this case a kind of reactionary). It’s also an example of a phenomenon Hoffer described. How in transformational times what’s truly practical and what’s utopian often flip polarities. Certainly by now nothing could be more utopian (and reactionary) than expecting the restoration of the liberal welfare state.

        Comment by Russ — October 13, 2011 @ 5:35 am

      • I suppose Konczal may technically be right in that they’re not yet calling for anything which can be called a real jubilee. For the moment they’re basically begging for some relatively modest relief. I don’t know what he’d say if they really did say and do Total Jubilee. My optimism is that we’ll eventually evolve to the jubilation consciousness, as nothing short of that would suffice, nor is a reformist version possible anyway.

        Comment by Russ — October 13, 2011 @ 5:39 am

  2. I’ll bet that, at some point, there will be a huge schism in the movement and we will be called reactionaries. I think that is the term a trade unionist would attribute to a peasant movement. Others will refer to us as primitivists.
    That is why it is important for the new peasant class to learn the lessons of biology and bacteriology from the 20th and 21st centuries and to combine them with the “40 Centuries of Farming” approach of the ancient eastern cultures. If you don’t have that book by King is is available at Amazon (sigh)

    Comment by Ellen Anderson — October 13, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    • We’re not really a “peasant” movement but a democratic movement. This movement necessarily means economic relocalization including the redemption of our landbases for democratic agroecology. But the peasant terminology (really meaning the petty bourgeois disintegrating into lumpenproles; in our shantytowns we’re not even ex-peasants, perhaps post-peasants) is partially to help understand the real nature of our predicament, what we’re up against, and what the real solution is, and partially to pre-empt system attacks, stigma, etc. by revaluing what system propaganda tries to turn into emblems of shame, and turn it into points of aggressive pride.

      In that spirit, where it comes to any astroturfer from a pro-capitalist union establishment, I’m far less concerned about what’s he’s going to call me than what I’m going to call him.

      I agree about how we must master and publicize the agronomic and other knowledge. The two reasons are

      1. For practical reasons (obviously);

      2. As for the politics, it’s toward something I’ve mentioned several times, how agroecology is in fact skilled labor, a profession, and anyone involved in it, even as a novice laborer, should carry the consciousness of mastering a knowledge-intensive skill.

      These skills are every bit as advanced as anything involving technology, but will outlast the end of the fossil fuel age and flourish most fully beyond it.

      Comment by Russ — October 13, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

  3. Russ,

    Starting at 7:00 AM tomorrow, it looks like Bloomberg and his gang of criminals is planning to clear out Zucotti Park and shut down OWS under the pretext of “cleaning the park”.


    The place they should be cleaning is the nest of criminals at 200 West Street (Goldman headquarters), probably less than 1000 yards from Zucotti Park.

    Anyway, I was planning to head back to NYC sometime next week and join the protest but now I’ll wait and see how this develops.

    Comment by Frank Lavarre — October 13, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

    • PS – In Pablo Neruda’s great poem “Explico algunas cosas” (I’m explaining a few things), the following lines could have been written for Billionaire Bloomberg and the gang of Wall Street banksters that he’s defending:

      “Jackals that the jackals would despise,
      stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
      vipers that the vipers would abominate!”

      And the poet continues:

      “Face to face with you I have seen the blood
      of Spain tower like a tide
      to drown you in one wave
      of pride and knives!

      see my dead house,
      look at broken Spain :
      from every house burning metal flows
      instead of flowers,
      from every socket of Spain
      Spain emerges
      and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
      and from every crime bullets are born
      which will one day find
      the bull’s eye of your hearts.

      And you will ask: why doesn’t his poetry
      speak of dreams and leaves
      and the great volcanoes of his native land?”

      Comment by Frank Lavarre — October 14, 2011 @ 6:41 am

      • Neruda’s good, Frank.

        I would’ve responded by pasting Spender’s “Not Palaces”, but I couldn’t find it online.

        Comment by Russ — October 14, 2011 @ 11:04 am

  4. […] from endnotes: “See here for a nice essay on Occupy Wall Street and […]

    Pingback by David Graeber: “On Playing By the Rules – The Strange Success of Occupy Wall Street” — October 19, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

  5. What if the working-class was (re)constituted on the basis of maintenance (and a radical re-thinking of what things to maintain and how) and not manufacture (and trade)? People are right to lambast lib-progs demanding “good-jobs” and “a return to our manufacturing base”, but why accept the canard that re-appropriating our productive capacities as a society means adhering to growth, the laws of value and its extraction?

    Comment by Joe (@joepdx) — October 19, 2011 @ 2:52 pm

    • I don’t think anyone here accepts the infinite growth paradigm (or even the notion that “growth” can continue beyond where it’s already gone without killing us all). A working class reconstituted on the basis of maintenance makes sense to me, but I think that it would be a fundamentally different from the unionised, centralised-factory-workplace working class Konczal is referring to. Most maintenance in a relocalised society would not likely be conducted by specialised workers. Sharpening tools, building fences, maintaining tractors and turbines, etc are likely to be done by members of the farming communities using those items- it’s not clear to me that there would be enough year-round work for someone to be exclusively a tool-sharpener or whatever, most people are probably going to be growing some food as well as engaging in a few other productive activities on an ad-hoc basis (ie not waged labour). You’d probably have people with specialised trades, engineers and the like, travelling around a particular area to design and build particular projects. I don’t know that either of those groups really fits the description “working class”.

      Comment by paper mac — October 19, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    • Hi Joe,

      I think paper mac’s description is likely to be close to what the post-oil, post-capitalist human economies will be like. I agree completely on taking back our productive capacities, but to do so on the basis of maintenance, and without the framework of hierarchical “employment” for an “employer”, would necessarily mean that the classic proletarian model, including unionism based upon it, would be obsolete. After all, that mode of organization assumes large-scale regimented “employment” in the first place, which is exactly what is already being liquidated (in the Western world) as we speak, will become impossible post-fossil fuels except in the form of feudal serfdom or ancient slavery anyway, and is undesirable in any event.

      Comment by Russ — October 20, 2011 @ 12:22 am

  6. […] See https://attempter.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/underlying-ideology-of-the-99/ for a nice essay on Occupy Wall Street and […]

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  8. […] See https://attempter.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/underlying-ideology-of-the-99/ for a nice essay on Occupy Wall Street and […]

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  10. […] hijackers of the Occupations), the basic demand is obvious, given the premises of the protest and the personal reasons that brought out many of the Occupiers.   I’ve already written it: Abolish Debt. Abolish Wall Street.   By this debt I mean all […]

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