The movement opened up by Occupy Wall Street is the most exciting event on the US political left since 1968. As in '68, the current movement extends globally, encompasses multiple grievances, and is being met by violent police responses. Also as in '68, an economic wrong, the wrong of capitalism, is at the core of the political rupture.
In May 1968, a general strike shut down the French economy. Students occupied the Sorbonne and workers occupied factories. In September 2011, inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol, and the 15 May movement of the squares in Spain (as well as by the occupation movements that in recent years have accompanied protests over cutbacks in education and increases in tuition in California, New York, and the UK), protesters in New York occupied Wall Street. That Wall Street was actually the nearby privately owned Zuccotti Park didn't really matter. What mattered, and what opened up a new space of political possibility in the US, was that finally people were waking up—after forty years of neoliberalism's assault on the working and middle class and after a decade of rapacious class warfare in which the top one percent saw an income increase of 275% (their share of the national income more than doubling) while most of the rest of the country saw an income increase of roughly 1% a year.1 Instead of continuing in the fantasy that "what's good for Wall Street, is good for Main Street," the occupation claimed the division between Wall Street and Main Street and named this division as a fundamental wrong, the wrong of inequality, exploitation, and theft.
The movement's early slogan, "We are the 99 Percent," quickly went viral. It spread in part because of the Tumblr collection of images and testimonials to the hardships of debt, foreclosure, and unemployment, a "coming out" of the closet imposed by the conceit that everyone is middle class, everyone is successful.2 It also spread because of privileged carriers. Some spoke out against the inequality that had provided them their advantages and called for higher taxes. Another Tumblr collection, "We are the 1 Percent, We Stand with the 99 Percent," featured their personal stories.3 Other privileged carriers were less sympathetic, even mocking, smug and dismissive. Conservative politicians and Fox News commentators wept crocodile tears of indignation at what they depicted as the unfairness of the many who were now refusing to accept the one percent's seizure of an outrageously unfair portion of the common product. Why were the one percent being picked on, demonized, excluded? Isn't exclusion wrong? Haven't we moved beyond a politics of blaming and shaming? These carriers couldn't quite grasp the change in the situation, the shift in the status quo whereby people no longer believed the myths that greed is good and inequality benefits everyone. They attempted to turn the issue around, making themselves into victims of exclusion and invective, as if the 99% were the criminals, as if our primary condition had been one of unity, community, and fairness until, out of the blue, some malcontents started to point fingers and cause trouble, as if class war were new rather than constitutive. The only effect of this tactic was continued accentuation of class division—precisely what the movement needs.
"We are the 99%" highlights a division and a gap, the gap between the wealth of the top 1% and the rest of us. As it mobilizes the gap between the 1% with half the country's wealth and the other 99% of the population, the slogan asserts a collectivity. It does not unify this collectivity under a substantial identity—race, ethnicity, religion, nationality. Rather it asserts it as the "we" of a divided people, the people divided between expropriators and expropriated. In the setting of an occupied Wall Street, this "we" is a class, one of two opposed and hostile classes, those who have and control wealth, and those who do not.
The assertion of a numerical difference as a political difference, that is to say, the politicization of a...