One of the most arresting pieces of online media regarding the current economic status of the United States is found in a blog called we are the 99 percent. Its point is simple: individuals are putting their life’s story on a single page, often with numbers, to indicate the insurmountable challenges an increasingly number of people face while navigating the American economy. The stories of debt, ill health, and few job opportunities abound. Another key factor is almost all of these people are describing the burning desire to work, save, and provide for their families. I submit that these stories are so powerful, not because these are fanciful dreamers attempting some utopia, but average Americans trying to make the old paradigm still function – to no avail.
But who are they and what do they really want? This is a collection of anecdotes: can it function as trend information for our view of the future?
Mike Konczal on the Rortybomb blog crunches the numbers of this growing database of stories. He uses some best practices in his data analysis, attempting to group the most popular keywords. What are most of the 99ers concerned about? Student loans, children, unemployment and health care. Note the lack of concern for luxury goods or even some notion of social position: people want to make ends meet, stay healthy, and feed their children.
What’s really arresting is the analysis that these are not demands of a post-modern consumer class, but the demands of the peasantry that led to ancient reforms like the Magna Carta:
So if the 99% Tumblr was a PAC, what would its demands look like, and what ideology would it presuppose? Freddie DeBoer is discouraged after reading the 99% tumblr. He’s concerned it reflects a desire for restoration of the glory days of the 90s-00s, which concerns him because “this country cannot be fixed by wishing to go back to the economics of 2005.” Concerned that the solidarity is one that, at most, is a I-got-mine-you-go-get-yours form of neoliberalism (as he imagines it, “I went to college and I don’t have the job and the car and the lifestyle I was promised”), DeBoer is worried that We Are the 99% isn’t “a rejection of our failing order. It is an embrace of it in the most cynical terms.”
With all due respect to DeBoer, the demands I found aren’t the ones of the go-go 90s-00s, but instead far more ancient cry, one of premodernity and antiquity.
Let’s bring up a favorite quote around here. Anthropologist David Graeber cites historian Moses Finley, who identified “the perennial revolutionary programme of antiquity, cancel debts and redistribute the land, the slogan of a peasantry, not of a working class.” And think through these cases. The overwhelming majority of these statements are actionable demands in the form of (i) free us from the bondage of these debts and (ii) give us a bare minimum to survive on in order to lead decent lives (or, in pre-Industrial terms, give us some land). In Finley’s terms, these are the demands of a peasantry, not a working class.
The actual ideology of modernity, broadly speaking, is absent. There isn’t the affluenza of Freddie’s worries, no demands for cheap gas, cheaper credit, giant houses, bigger electronics all under the cynical ”Ownership Society” banner. The demands are broadly health care, education and not to feel exploited at the high-level, and the desire to not live month-to-month on bills, food and rent and under less of the burden of debt at the practical level.
The concerns of peasantry. Wow, that’s quite a narrative for the American future: that one day, we’ll get back to the good old days of the Magna Carta.