Why Are We Here? One Occupier’s Answer

Christopher Key

You’ve seen us on the news. You’ve seen us in the parks. You’ve seen us marching down the street. Since we first took Zuccotti Park on September 17, we’ve been asked a lot of things. We’ve been asked to get a job. We’ve been asked to run a candidate. We’ve been asked to please stay on the sidewalks. Possibly more than any other question, however, we’ve been asked: Why are we here?

To answer this question, we need to go back before September 17, when the Occupy Movement formally began, before the most recent economic crisis, when the cruel and rapacious nature of the financial system was on display for all to see—before even 1999, when the Glass-Steagall Act was overturned so that banks could expand their already considerable influence. The reason we are here, doing the things that we do, lies in the creation and growth of a political and economic system that has never cared about anything but its own fortunes, with any gains made by the 99% being despite, not because of, its continuation.

In short, we are here because, in today’s society, money is power and those with the power seem to believe that the rest of the world exists to service them. The Earth and its resources exist solely to further their aims. The nations of the world exist solely to give them new markets to expand into. The people around them exist solely to provide them with the labor that advances their control of the world. We see environmental degradation, we see violent imperialism, we see discrimination and oppression, all done to both exercise the power of those at the top and to preserve it, through economic domination, political power and sheer brute force.

They can do these things because they have the money, and they have the money because they do these things. Money is power and a disparity of money means a disparity of power: our ability to influence them is greatly outweighed by their ability to influence us. Their resources mean that they can operate with next to no accountability to the people who are affected by their quest for more.

This is not a matter of envy. This is not about their mansions, their sports cars or their private jets. No. This is a matter of power and the fact that one small group currently possesses far too much of it. Current levels of concentration have grown to the point where it represents an actual threat to the average person, for when one accumulates the kind of power that is currently being wielded, the average person no longer matters, nor do the consequences of one’s actions upon them.

This is not necessarily because the 1% are bad people. It’s just that they are so far removed from the average person that they simply cannot understand how their power affects those around them. It’s a natural consequence of power, a law of nature akin to gravity or momentum. When people step on an ant, it’s usually not because they have anything against ants personally―the ant simply had the misfortune of being in their way. So too it is with society’s top tier. We are but ants to them and afforded roughly the same notice.

Yet any attempt assert our own sovereignty as a class, to let the masters of this world know that we will not be ruled by an unaccountable power, is met with condescension at best, and outright hostility at worst. Yet the fact remains that, over the years, ordinary people have witnessed a slow and steady erosion of their power while those at the top have consolidated their gains. While many great battles have been won, the war remains firmly in favor of society’s financial elites, whose hold on the levers of political and economic power is held in a grip more terrible than rigor mortis.

  • Despite gains immediately following World War II, real income growth for the majority of working people has remained stagnant from 1980 to 2010 when adjusted for inflation. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees amounted to $3.63 for goods-producing employees and $3.42 for service-providing employees in 1970, which—adjusted for inflation—is $19.66 and $19.21 respectively in 2010 dollars. In 2010, average hourly wages for the same jobs were $20.47 and $18.97—meaning that goods-producing employee wages had increased by less than $1 and service-producing employee wages actually fell over the last 40 years.

    This wage stagnation has happened despite the fact that, year after year, worker productivity has been steadily rising, according to growth data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In terms of growth in the total economy, the OECD shows that there have only been two years since 1970 where labor productivity did not increase: 1974, which saw a 0.9% dip, and 1982, which saw a 0.5% dip.

    With all this increased productivity, one might ask, “Where did it all go?” The answer lies in the other side of this equation.

    Since 1976, more than half of real income growth that has taken place has gone to society’s top tier, about 58%, according to former International Monetary Fund Chief Economist Raghuram G. Rajan. This trend has only accelerated with time: from 1980 to 2005, the top 1% took home 80% of real income gains while, from 2009 to 2010, when the most recent crisis was in full swing, they accounted for 93%. The pie has indeed gotten larger, and while it’s been the 99% who baked it, it’s the 1% whose slice has gotten bigger and bigger each year. Everyone else gets the same size plate of crumbs they’ve gotten for decades.

    The 1 percent’s income growth, an aberration compared to the rest of the society, tracks fairly well with the growth of something else: the financial sector. Finance has always been a significant part of the U.S. economy, but recently it has evolved into one of the most visible and vital parts of our society. In 1850, finance accounted for about 1% of total GDP; in 2010, the financial sector encompassed about 9% of total GDP and 30% of all domestic operating profits.

    So, who benefits from the financial sector? Overwhelmingly it’s the top tier of society, the 1% and those they aspire to become, the 0.1%, their ranks drawn increasingly from those in finance. The top 0.1% accounts for 50% of all investments in stocks, financial securities, trust equity and business equity in the U.S. This translates into an increasing share of their overall income being drawn not from labor and wages but from ownership of financial securities: IRS tax data shows that these investments accounted for 70% of the top 0.1 percent’s income in 2005.

    Compare this to the middle three income quintiles: While they too invest, most of what they invest goes into their houses, private home equity making up about two thirds of their total investments. While stocks count for 7%, usually from pension funds, the majority of people represent a minority of ownership, as the top 10% of people account for 81% of all stock value.

    With this in mind, is it any surprise that most real income growth has gone to the top 1% of society, fueled by a growing financial sector increasingly made up of members of the same class that overwhelmingly benefits from it? Considering the way the system is set up, there’s nowhere else it could have gone. What we see from this is that wages are a sucker’s game. And yet, what alternatives are out there for most people? If investment was a simple proposition, we wouldn’t see the majority of investments held by a minority of people who, in turn, reap the majority of the benefits. It’s nearly a closed system, and even when the average person does invest, they will never beat the market, because the average person is the market.

    Entrepreneurship is another possibility, but the fact that the majority of small businesses fail means that it represents a risk that someone struggling to just survive, let alone prosper, simply cannot afford to seriously take, especially when one considers that even successful small businesses make very little money in the first few years of their existence. One cannot securely start a business without either a cushion of capital backing it up in the event of failure, or access to credit, which is generally more available to those who are already established in society. Further, even in this scheme, there will still have to be workers laboring for stagnant wages in the face of increased productivity.

    What this means is that the way the current system is set up, we have neither equality of outcome nor equality of opportunity. The American dream that has been sold to the masses centered on the idea that reward comes from hard work. Instead, while people have been working harder every year, their rewards have remained mostly the same, while prices for essentials such as food, health care and education have risen well past the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, their precarious circumstances mean that they are practically shut out of the only reliable paths for sure income growth. Prosperity has become a club where membership is only available to those already prosperous.

    What options are available for redress? Inevitably, the answer given is politics: run a candidate, vote in elections, pass legislation and win incremental reforms that shift the system in favor of the common person. Yet we have seen scores of politicians come and go with no satisfactory change in how this system operates. Almost invariably, these candidates turn into our enemies and, in the rare instance where a potential ally takes the field, they are dismissed as unserious and silly. Predictions that they will be unable to garner support among the established political class turns into self-fulfilling prophecy. In politics, the choice is to be either ineffectual or corrupt. With this in mind, we reject this game, viewing politics as a honey trap to reduce our struggle to ineffectual shadow play. Politics is the prisoner who asks for bread and water, is given gruel instead, and accepts it as the inevitable compromise that must be made in such situations. Meanwhile he scoffs at the prisoner hatching an escape plan, calling such things unrealistic fantasies as he slurps down his gruel and contemplates how to get some bread.

    And so that is why we are here: Disgusted with the economic system, disgusted with the political system, disgusted with a game we are forced to play despite all the rules being stacked against us, we are telling the world that we will not play a rigged game. Instead, we are making a game of our own, one that is completely different because it is one that we—that anyone—can win. For too long we have labored under a system not made for us, working to maintain someone else’s house for the privilege of getting to sleep in the cellar. If the problem is not just economics, not just politics, if the problem is society in and of itself, the only solution is to create an entirely different one, building a new world within the crumbling shell of the old. And when that shell cracks, we shall emerge, newly born and free to create our own lives as we see fit.

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