If you live near a Whole Foods, if you don't have a relative in jail, if you don't know anyone on meth, you're not in the one percent.
"We are the 99 percent" was a godsend to the left: a slogan that was "both inclusive and oppositional." It united the legendarily divided left behind a banner that "put a relatively complex critique of class society in the populist language of American egalitarianism."
A recent editorial in Vox argues that if you're not living in dire, desperate circumstances, you're probably in the one percent. If most of your friends went to college, if your parents only married once, and so on, the article goes, you're enjoying one percent privilege and need to check it.
This is simply not true. The American one percent has a household income of $343,000 and up. That income is overwhelmingly derived not from labor, but from ownership -- owning property, owning stocks, owning bonds and T-bills. These assets get more valuable as the labor of all working people -- including the middle class people who constitute the 30 percent of Americans within driving distance of a Whole Foods -- gets cheaper.
The policy distortions wrought by the overwhelming influence of the ownership class on American politics favor ownership, not labor: eviscerating labor and workplace safety laws; destroying environmental controls; pressuring children into lifelong, punishing debt as a condition of getting a degree and entering the labor market. Whether you're in the middle 30% or the bottom 60%, all of these policies make your life worse.
The idea that the focus of the left should be on the privilege of the minuscule and dwindling middle class and not the tiny elite that controls the nominations of both mainstream parties and all the policy outcomes in Congress isn't just wrong, it's dangerous. Things are broken for everyone except the literal one percent -- that is, the actual, non-metaphorical one percent richest Americans. Metaphorically putting everyone who isn't literally starving or imprisoned into the same bucket as the hyper-elites who took more than 100 percent of the gains of the economic recovery (that is, they're richer now than they were before the crash, while everyone else is poorer) is both tactically and technically wrong.
When a cut in capital gains taxes is paid for by hiking state tuition and slashing social services, the one percent benefits while the vast majority of the 99 percent loses. When a new law is passed making it harder to organize a union or wages are squeezed to ring out higher and higher corporate profits, it’s the one percent — and their investment portfolios — that benefits and the majority of the 99 percent who loses.
It’s real winners and losers — not a state of mind and not a “culture.” And it works like this:
What’s bad for you economically is probably good for them. That’s why the rest of us will have to come in conflict with this tiny elite and its institutions if we’re going win a more just and egalitarian future for ourselves.
By substituting class relations for an arbitrary list of “privileges,” Vox is attempting to paint a picture of an immiserated America with no villain. It’s an America without a ruling class that directly and materially benefits from everyone else’s hard times. And this omission isn’t just incorrect — it robs us of any meaningful oppositional politics that could change it all.
It’s a conclusion that, despite Vox’s endorsement, plays into conservatives’ hands. Like the journalist Robert Fitch once wrote, it is the aim of the Right “to restrict the scope of class conflict — to bring it down to as low a level as possible. The smaller and more local the political unit, the easier it is to run it oligarchically.”
Let Them Eat Privilege [Connor Kilpatrick/Jacobin]