The '99%' rallying cry is brilliant politics. It performs the ingeniuous move of defining its opponents according to indefensible values of unaccountable predatory elitism. Nobody can be in favour of that. In its rhetorical pitch, it heralds the end of the New Left, putting activists and the grass roots on the side of the vast majority, where the New Left had always sided with various disparate minorities. This new rhetorical knitting together of the mainstream middle classes with the tented Occupy movements is a strange new mutation in the critique of capitalism. Occupy has won endorsement from both David Harvey and Vince Cable. Now that's what I call a big tent coalition, Mr. Blair.
But beneath the impressive political strategy, there is a sociological question that needs asking: how long have we been the 99%? The last three years have thrown up endless new statistical and political analyses, showing how most of us have suffered thanks to neoliberal economic policy-making. The Spirit Level became an iconic moment in the history of British statistics. Winner-take-all Politics details the stitch-up that took place between Wall Street and Washington DC. Impressive campaigns by bodies such as False Economy (happy first birthday!) find new ways of communicating online that a tiny minority has robbed the majority.
In many ways, what is happening is that traditional Marxist assumptions are gaining new empirical foundations, but without the dialectical or revolutionary baggage. People like Peter Gowan dedicated great intellectual effort to showing how Wall Street and Washington worked in tandem, but nobody listened. Marxists have an explanation for this: false consciousness or ideology. People had an erroneous understanding of the world, which is now becoming corrected thanks to the financial crisis. Marxists have the strange privilege of being 'wrong' for decades at a time, and then spectacularly right when a crisis breaks, whereas neo-classical economists have the opposite one, of being 'right' for several decades at a time, then spectacularly wrong. (There's a serious question as to why governments don't employ at least one Marxist political economist, as a canary in the mine-shaft; Michel Aglietta used to work for the French Prime Minister, for example).
But I wonder, if only for academic reasons, what the 99% movement (whoever that may be) thinks that 99% of people were doing and believing during the heady 1990s and the barmy early 2000s. For example, one of the necessary preconditions of the financial crisis playing out as it did was the desperate hunger for mortgages in Britain, that could never have been served without securitisation, given the dwindling savings rate that accompanied it. This hunger came from normal people, wanting to get substantially wealthier, without doing anything to 'earn' that. They were not in the 1%, but their economic values were not substantially different and they had a symbiotic relationship with exotic finance.
It has been argued in the US that low income families were preyed upon by dodgy subprime mortgage-sellers and the policies of the Bush administration, which pushed them to become home-owners in defiance of all common sense. What is Britain's excuse? I haven't heard the equivalent. How does the 99% explain the foolishness of many of its members, in believing that they could live off rising house prices indefinitely? Were they being exploited by the 1%, or duped by neoliberal ideology? That was the opinion of bearded Marxists at the time, but I'd have liked to hear someone credibly express that view in 2005, as Carol Smillie smiled her way around another dazzling £100,000 refurbishment for the benefit of the viewers at home.
Even today, there is a hope that PLCs will behave better, if only their shareholders can act as better 'stewards'. The 99% demand that PLCs start to care about the environment and society, and expect 'active shareholders' to push them in this direction, cutting executive pay as they do so. Of course many of the 99% are also terrified about the value of their defined-contribution pension schemes, and would expect fund managers to seek the highest return on equity possible when investing on their behalf. This is a thorny contradiction, without an easy answer; but it is ridiculous to say that 'we' are not actively involved in creating it, or that 'we' are ignorant of what we're doing.
As I discussed in relation to the riots, sociologists and the Left need to think seriously about what type of agency they attribute to people in these situations. My suggestion is that we respect people sufficiently to take their agency seriously. There was no shortage of enthusiasm for neoliberalism, at least from the 1990s onwards, and it was majoritarian in its orientation. It even involved particular forms of self-interested majoritarian solidarity: think of how the NHS became increasingly untouchable as the 1990s wore on (because we all have bodies) and gay rights became politically normalised (being no threat to the majority). But 'welfare' only survived by being disguised as a 'tax credit'. Undoubtedly there were people who were exploited and marginalised during the boom years - unemployed single men did worse, minority groups such as asylum-seekers never won majority support, the elderly never attained the political backing that working mothers did - but that's the nature of democracy. There were various solidarities, movements and beliefs in the 1990s and 2000s, but they rarely started from a principle of altruism, scarcely from one of class or socialism and never - as far as I remember - from opposition to some '1%'. The hugely popular anti-war movement of 2003 was the shining, tragic exception in this regard.
What do we now say of these beliefs, desires and solidarities? That they were wrong all along? Does the 99% movement subscribe to an 'old Left' view of ideology as false consciousness? In that respect, it may have truly put the New Left to bed. Perhaps 'we the 99%' subscribe to a modified version of 'false consciousness', as defended by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice, as a perspective that is correct, but only from a particular and limited vantage point (rather like bounded rationality). Or else, like Keynes, 99% of us choose to change our minds when the facts change. That's fine as well, but lets at least be honest about the past.
One dissatisfying aspect of the new movements, as welcome as they are in so many respects, is that they depend on the notion that finance capitalism was a secret stitch-up between governments and finance, that occurred behind closed doors, as a conspiracy. But there are many ways in which it happened before our eyes. Lobbying networks were reasonably visible, the untouchability of the City of London was quite evident and pre-2008 books such as Andrew Glyn's Capitalism Unleashed offered a very cogent account of what was going on, and the interests that it was serving. It wasn't that this all happened in secret, it's that most people didn't give a damn, in fact a large number of people - somewhere between 1% and 99%, by my estimate - actively encouraged it and benefited from it. Without justification, public support and popular participation, it couldn't have happened.
No doubt I am missing a sophisticated Marxist analysis, of how a revolutionary class becomes self-conscious, and a crisis such as the current one would play a role in it. Yet large swathes of the 99% have only become dissatisfied for purely private, selfish reasons, just as they supported the NHS for purely private selfish reasons, or ceased to care about homosexuality because it didn't affect their private lives. Relaunching the left on the basis of majoritarianism and percentiles works very well rhetorically, and keeps crucial pressure on the banks themselves. But as the New Left argued, majorities also have skeletons in their closets and questions to answer, such as how they have been treating minorities and the politically powerless, and how enthusiastically they collaborated with the powerful. Like the German '68 generation confronting their parents, perhaps our children will one day ask us "what did you do during the great Millenial ponzi scheme, dad?". Claiming naive victimhood on behalf of 99% of people will only wash for so long.