How useful is the “1% versus 99%” dichotomy?

By Adam Peggs

Since 1990, the incomes of the wealthiest 1% have effectively skyrocketed. Fatcats, it appears, rule the roost at the expense of the great many. And so the story of modern capitalism has evolved into one of the pauperised many vocalising their indignation at a tiny few who get to divide the spoils of the economy. There is much to be said of this narrative – certainly that inequality has rapidly spiralled in this direction – but too little has been said about its limitations and the way in which narratives around the 1% serve as ‘abridged’ accounts of societies wracked by class. Too often such narratives prove to be excellent at identifying the gross symptoms of iniquity, but too often to do they gloss over the underlying causes, ignoring the roots of the problem.

Sure, the 1% can be presented as exemplifying vices like greed, noted for the prevalence of tax avoidance and for having appropriated a share of the world’s wealth that anybody would struggle to justify. But the forces plaguing society run deeper and cannot be reduced to either the misconduct of a caste of the 1% or even the set of political decisions that have empowered them at the expense of others.  We are talking about economic structures which impact on all of us, certainly at the material expense of the many, but which also impede on the ability of all of us to lead full and meaningful lives.

What we are talking about is an economic order based on the clear lack of economic democracy and unequally distributed rights over economic resources, with predictable consequences. The symptoms include, to list a few simple examples: the richest 85 individuals owning the majority of the world’s resources, the poorest half of Brits having a net property wealth of £0, half of the private wealth in this country concentrated in the hands of the richest tenth of the populace and economic decisions being made in an undemocratic fashion. These are symptoms of something which runs deeper than the supposed ‘capture’ of the economy by a rich segment of the population, they are indicative of most economies being structured in ways that don’t line up with principles of democracy, co-operation and equality.

This should not take away from the reality that many political decisions over the past few decades, since the onset of the Thatcher-era, have overwhelmingly benefited those in and around the 1%. The economic model, barring to an extent the modest redistribution of the early to mid 2000s, has benefitted an affluent segment of the population. Within that segment the predominant beneficiaries have been those who own productive assets and are equivalent to most sensible definitions of an elite.

But there is a clear use in constructing a narrative that talks about more than the 1% and avoids an abridged critique of ‘the regime of class’  described in Studies in Socialism by pioneering French socialist Jean Jaures. The now faded Occupy Movement, to who we owe the 1%-99% dichotomy, at times fell into this trap. They often presented a society, like some still do on the wider left, where malaise and exploitation were consequences of a hostile takeover by a 1%, with the largely well-off losing out just as much as the working class.

Rather David Harvey’s assessment is of more use, that what we have seen is a‘project’ which has curbed the ‘power of labor’, alongside rolling back social ownership and public goods.

Power has ultimately shifted away from labour in a disempowering process which has been pernicious for human agency over the economy. But the sapping of the influence of the working class from the Thatcher era onward did not represent a dramatic departure from a sensible society where working people and the 1% knew their distinct places, but instead the amplification of existing inequities and class divisions.

Demands for the 1% to pay their fair share, though undeniably a demand for improvement, depict a scenario in which everybody knows their rightful place. A scenario where the very rich are privileged taxpayers, where the working class are less affluent – but not deprived and where the well-off pay just a little bit more.

Perhaps ironically, given the relative radicalism of Labour in its current incarnation, this narrative could lead to a narrative which sees the left’s role as ‘fixing’ a ‘broken society’ or what Hillary Wainwright once described as ‘piecemeal demands for bits of social welfare’.

This underestimates the task which lays ahead for the left, of pursuing a genuine transformation. It instead presents it as a reining in of a wealthy 1% that has gone AWOL rather than a challenge to a complex economic system that exploits, lacks democracy in the economic sphere and does not afford the population a secure chance to use resources.

Establishing a countervailing worldview along a socialist ethos will involve more than identifying the ultra-rich, blaming them for crisis and asking them to pay more in tax. The left’s charge has always been closer to the idea that a certain set of economic structures, unaccountable to society at large, are responsible for the shape of the global economy – and that the solution is a society in which decisions are made socially. Perhaps the longer-term effects of the move away from class analysis, documented in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Retreat From Class, has been in the growth of a cruder conception of class which limits our understanding to the 99% against the greedy 1%. The disappearance of working class politics for a generation – from the 1980s until the 2010s – is still a lingering impairment.

My view is that the left’s future lies in holding onto a detailed analysis of class and economic structure, developing it further and ensuring it is adapted the circumstances we live under. The test will be with the enduring nature of Occupy’s 1%-99% dichotomy whether it can prove to be an avenue for political transformation or a diversion.