NEW YORK (Frameshop) – More than any other phrase, “We are the 99%” has emerged as the key phrase and core symbol of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Why? Why does this phrase make sense to so many people?
The answer lies in a very simple political distinction between “force” and “power.”
When the OWS protesters and their supporters say “We are the 99%” they are not just mouthing a catch phrase, they are transforming widespread disenfranchisement into a very real form of political power. And the people most afraid of this new form of power are those whose control over American government and economics have been kept in place by force.
In her statement to the then-nascent OWS on October 6, 2011, author Naomi Klein offered the following, which speaks very clearly to the “force” used by the 1%:
If there is one thing I know, it is that the 1 percent loves a crisis. When people are panicked and desperate and no one seems to know what to do, that is the ideal time to push through their wish list of pro-corporate policies: privatizing education and social security, slashing public services, getting rid of the last constraints on corporate power. Amidst the economic crisis, this is happening the world over.
And there is only one thing that can block this tactic, and fortunately, it’s a very big thing: the 99 percent. (The Nation)
Klein does a good job painting a basic picture of how entrenched wealth maintains its position in present-day American and global society: it uses force.
In her famous discussion of the difference between “force” and “power,” political philosopher Hannah Arendt distinguished between the force of an individual imposing their will on another and the power of individuals choosing to act in concert for public-political purpose.
Force vs. Power
Boiled down, “force” is individuals dominating others through natural, brutal means; “power” is influencing others through social cooperation.
When projected onto the contemporary economic and political crisis against which OWS has unfolded, we begin to see a much broader dynamic. Individual Americans have joined together for a public-political purpose to stand in opposition to the individual acts of force that have come to dominate our world.
OWS is a collective act of power mobilized against the ongoing injustices committed by individual acts of force.
But who are these individuals committing acts of force?
Again, Noami Klein’s powerful statement gives us the answer that so many of us already know: corporations are the “individuals” who commit these acts of force.
When we say “corporations are individuals,” however, we are really talking about an orchestrated, destructive fiction whereby individuals have found ways to outgrow the physical limits of what an individual can be. Through graft and legal sophistry, corporations defined as “individuals” commit acts of force far greater in scope, far more thorough, and far more complete than any individual could have possible committed–since, say, the time where Feudal systems dominated the European economy.
To give just one example: the health of American citizens is now 100% controlled by acts of force imposed on everybody by corporations legally defined and protected as corporations.
The shape these acts of force take in our daily lives is well-known to everyone.
If you have been to the doctor in the past 20 years, you know what it feels like to have a corporate individual exert its force on you. Even if you have insurance, when you return from the doctor, the insurance company will al too often use force to extract income.
Moreover, this individual act of force is not just exerted on the patient, but also on the doctor. Talk to any doctor and you will hear stories of insurance companies using endless acts of force to control how medicine is practiced–both as a science and as a business.
What is the result of these endless acts of force exerted by insurance corporations in our lives? Fear, frustration, poverty, illness, bankruptcy, death.
Moreover, if we–patients or doctors–try to push back against these acts of force, we all encounter the same futility of trying to battle these “individuals” as individuals. It is futile for the obvious reason that a large insurance corporation is not an individual, but a vast accumulation of wealth and created for one purpose: to use force to accumulate more wealth. In the end, we get crushed.
Not all corporations are like this, of course. Corporations that stay within a certain size, corporations whose influence in government is limited by regulations–they act without force and often for the common good.
So what is to be done?
Well, the solution found a long time ago is for real individuals to choose to come together and act in concert to even out the field of play against these massive, fictional individuals.
Unionization and class action lawsuits are examples of this kind of choice. When we belong to a union or join a class action lawsuit, we are no longer forced to stand against the corporate “individuals” alone. Our choice to stand with others–others that we do not even know personally–allows us to transform our feelings of frustration into collective acts–acts of power.
And you know what? Collective power has proven to be a very good response to corporate force.
That is why corporations that use force to achieve their ends always seek to eliminate unions and undercut the class action tort system.
Their ability to maintain control depends on the fact that there is now power in society capable of standing up to their acts of force.
The “99%” catchphrase has been so effective because it has reminded people about the effectiveness of power to defend the common good in a world overrun by “individual” force.
Whether you have felt the injustice of those acts of force in healthcare, education, the workforce, the military, the environment, your home, your family, as a young person, middle-aged, old, secular, religious, urban, rural–millions of people have begun to realize again that the first step to standing against these acts of force is to stand together.
Even more important, this idea that banding together for public-political purpose against the acts of force controlling American society has given people a sense that there is a much broader set of possibilities for restoring a just society than those presented by narrowed and, ultimately, corrupted institutions of electoral politics.
OWS, thus, has become not just a place people go to, but a new source of the most vital aspect of American life: optimism.
And why not? After decades of being brutalized in every aspect of our lives by the tide of unregulated corporate force that has washed over every aspect of our lives, standing with others feels like–liberation.