Data analysis of the 99 percent blog: getting back to the Magna Carta

Eric Garland Generational Conflict, Uncategorized 4 Comments

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.

  • Well done, Eric.  I think your analysis is correct.

  • Monica Nixon


    Astoundingly brilliant analysis, and precisely right. Outside of the top 1%, the rest of us are nothing but debt serfs suffering under extreme duress from the usury brought about by the elitist caste and their mathematical mastermind quants who concocted CDOs, derivatives, arbitrage, RMBS, CDS to enrich themselves via esoteric financial chicanery while fleecing the rest of us absolutely blind in any way and manner possible. We’ve gone from from having a productive economy to one in which the finance industry is far too large a part, and whose output only behooves those at the very top of the pyramid. They are of course insulated and protected by the politicians that they own.

    Yes, I think all the majority of the American populace worries about anymore is indeed whether they can keep a roof over their heads, feed themselves and their children, get a job or keep one, and survive in the face of rampant inflation on food, utilities, clothing, etc. Indeed, we have become but peasants.


    • Thanks, all. I wish the original analysis had been my own, but this guy Konczal hit it out of the park. We have been negotiating down our expectations over the course of a century. One income became two. Two incomes suddenly required debt. Jobs needed education, then colleges suddenly required debt. America was a creditor nation, then it ran deficits, now it’s a permanent debtor state beholden to an ultra-complex system of debt-feudalism all its own. Time to go back to basics and ask who we are and what we want as citizens.

      • Monica Nixon


        Your analysis is superb as well. Right, one income became two, and then two incomes came to require debt financing to keep up with expenses and inflation as wages stagnated and declined. This squeeze is being exacerbated by the day as the Goldman Sachs of the world take all their free printed money into the commodities markets and are presently driving up the prices of gas, food and so forth.

        Yes, and then employers complain that they want educated employees but they dont want to pay enough to justify these kids going to college and taking on $120K in debt. Nope, $12 an hr doesnt cover the student loan payments none the less enable them to get out of their parents homes and into one of their own. Oh, what a mess we have on our hands.