It’s the slogan of 2011 – “We are the 99%”, a reference to how the vast majority of the world’s wealth seems concentrated among 1% of earners. And it’s hard not to sympathise with it, considering corporate corruption and reckless banking has tanked the global economy. Sure, I react against it to a degree – I’m not a part of the 1% by any means, but white middle-class guilt makes me acutely aware that I own an iPhone and a Playstation and therefore I’m way closer to that 1% than someone trying to live on £1.50 a day.
And then I realise I’ve made the mistake of assuming the Occupy movement is about the money – it’s about inequality, it’s about corruption, it’s about greed, but money itself? Probably not, not at its core. Someone wiser than me once said that it’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil, and you can see that in the news without too much trouble – when members of the 1% go to a Halloween party dressed as people who’ve just lost their homes, when a member of the 99% pepper-sprays fellow shoppers in order to get a discount on a video game.
You can trace it all back to economics if you want, but Occupy is only one of the events that are shaking the world. While people are occupying the London Stock Exchange, just a mile down the road, the Leveson Enquiry is hearing some terrifying evidence about out-of-control tabloid press. Protestors across the Middle East have been killed and tear-gassed because of their opposition to oppressive regimes. This isn’t all about money (although some very influential people have got very rich on amoral/immoral behaviour), but maybe it’s about power – economic, political, cultural, whatever. The whole rollercoaster is out of control – journalism, banking, politics, law enforcement, the lot.
That helps put some, well, anomalies into perspective – the average police officer may well be part of the 99%, but it takes a certain power-trip to pepper-spray a group of seated, non-resisting students. The rioters in London in August were 99%ers, but rampaging through deprived communities and stealing trainers isn’t exactly an anti-globalisation protest.
It’s looking like a failure of authority, one that doesn’t seem to get any better – instead of improving things, each new revelation, each new response to public anger just seems to make things worse. Our authority figures are losing control, and it seems from many of their public statements that they don’t even understand what’s going on, why people are angry, and how to react to all that’s happening. This isn’t about the 1% that has all the wealth, this is about whatever-percentage holds the economic, civic, political and media power – that includes corrupt police officers, and tabloid hacks, and billionaires and ministerial advisors.
But looked at that way, you may as well say it’s the Illuminati, or David Icke’s Lizard People, or whatever conspiracy theory you want to come up with. It’s at this point I should probably break out the classic – “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – but let’s not kid ourselves, powerlessness can corrupt as well, hence the rioters and excuses for police brutality that effectively equate to “Just following orders”.
This raises a spectre – if a power vacuum emerges, who gets to fill it? Someone who embodies the worst of human nature? Or someone who can act as a unifier, a spokesperson, a diplomat, a leader? Or, heck, no leader at all but a new grassroots expression of democracy?
I don’t know. These thoughts are running away from me. But the more they do, the more I’m uncomfortable with 1%/99% slogans. Good and bad emerge from both groups, and the way in which both groups exercise their power will be crucial for what happens over the next few years. We seem to be seeing the birth of something big – let’s hope it’s also something good.
PS. And now Occupy LA looks like being evicted. I hope it doesn’t follow the above pattern, but it sounds like a lot of manpower and a partial media blackout are again in effect…
PPS. And now New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has described the NYPD as his “own army”. I’m sure that proves at least something about this post.