The limits of populism: are we the 99%?

First off, I’d like to point out much of the reaction from the left–or perhaps I should say the sects–to the Occupy phenomenon seems to be misguided and full of sour grapes. Whether one has misgivings about the theoretical grounds of Occupy, or their praxis, or both, and I will note I have my own, it would be considerably helpful for the left were it to succeed, for almost any conceivable values thereof. The way it has helped moved the discourse away from austerity and focus it on inequality is already something we must credit the movement for, like it or not.

That said, and while granting Occupy has done a lot of good in mobilising the most seemingly quiescent people in the advanced countries, I do have objections both to their formulation of the 99% and their decentralised praxis. I’ll dedicate this post to the former and hopefully write something further on the latter on another occasion.

Class matters. It’s not simple Marxist “dogma”, or a desire to check some sort of ideological soundness box. It’s close to the core of historical materialism itself. Class standing, and, particularly, the relations of production, are key factors in determining people’s consciousness: It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. And this is where, in my view, the comrades at Occupy go fatally astray.

Populism can be a very attractive position: in a world where democracy–however deformed the concept may be in bourgeois states–is taken absolutely for granted, it helps us to take the high ground and present our actions, so to speak, from the defensive. The same applies to some of the civil rights contained in bourgeois constitutions, such as the right to free speech, assembly, etc. It’s far easier to present ourselves as the defenders of the legal and constitutional order, freedom, perhaps even American Values™… Easier than making the case for a true and significant social change, a revolution, effectively, but ultimately self-defeating.

The people can’t be thought of as a homogeneous mass. Appealing to the 99% slogan makes it seem like, at least, it’s a single body, with a single interest, with a foreign inclusion in it which parasitises it. Aside from the fact that this strand of thought has often been used to legitimise scapegoating–antisemitism comes to mind–it’s not factually the case. Trotsky makes this point as follows:

The fascist Strasser says 95 percent of the people are interested in the revolution, consequently it is not a class revolution but a people’s revolution. Thaelmann sings in chorus. In reality, the worker-Communist should say to the fascist worker: of course, 95 percent of the population, if not 98 percent, is exploited by finance capital. But this exploitation is organized hierarchically: there are exploiters, there are subexploiters […]. Only thanks to this hierarchy do the superexploiters keep in subjection the majority of the nation. In order that the nation should indeed be able to reconstruct itself around a new class core, it must be reconstructed ideologically and this can be achieved only if the proletariat does not dissolve itself into the “people”, into the “nation”, but on the contrary develops a programme of its proletarian revolution and compels the petty bourgeoisie to choose between two regimes. The slogan of the people’s revolution lulls the petty bourgeoisie as well as the broad masses of the workers, reconciles them to the bourgeois-hierarchical structure of the “people” and retards their liberation.

The 99% approach disregards the reality that we live under capitalist hegemony. As well as capitalists, who are in all likelihood well over 1% of the population, we diverge in interests with broad sections of the petty bourgeoisie, as well as the special bodies of armed men: police, military. Additionally, the upper echelons of the civil service, engaged in supervisory tasks which make them akin to private managers whose material advantage depends on the exploitation of those below them, aren’t likely to join us in struggle, and when it comes to that, a barricade has only two sides.

So, given the prevalent false consciousness of the class in the advanced countries, the rhetoric of the 99% and the defensive position of asserting democratic rights gives us an easier platform. It’s certainly been far more successful than the sects and their Society for Creative Anachronism’s obsession with reviving the RSDLP, one newspaper sale at a time. But a drift right, towards liberal politics, and a dismissive attitude towards organised labour, are the fruits we will harvest from this substitutionism.

It’s not a matter of reflexively blaming petty bourgeois deviations, like Trotskyists are likely to do. Whatever you think of the 21 conditions, it’s fairly clear that positions like this are falling into serious errors. What are we to make of statement such as these? We use the 89% framework to describe a real phenomena in our society: the vast majority of workers in the U.S. and the world are not unionized. We wish to bring light to the reality that the proletariat, though unified in its relation to capitalism in a broad sense, has divisions within it and therefore different interests exist within the class. These divisions are based on sex, race, and gender, To expose what these categories really are under capitalism we will call them castes since sex, race,and class affects who gets what by each castes’ relationship to capital. Our statements around some unions and union members being “privileged” is true in terms of wage and benefits in comparison to other layers of the class. We recognize that this is not true of all workers in all unions.

So as a matter of fact, when developing a new slogan to substitute the 99%, the first notion the comrades got was not to exclude the petty bourgeoisie, or the managerial caste, or the police, or actual capitalists who don’t fit in the 1%, but to exclude organised labour! Notwithstanding all their protestations of innocence, when one engages in creating such slogans and splitting up the class, little good can result. Divide et impera, unite et libera.

This degeneration into identity politics and dismissal of the organised working class as the subject of revolution is all we can expect of an approach which, for all its tactical success, is not grounded in the realities of class struggle. This isn’t even the worst there is: some Occupy comrades have tried to argue that the working class is distinct from the proletariat, and that the lumpen better represents the latter’s interests.

A similar problem exists with the movement of the Indignados here in Spain. There have been discussions, so far mostly inconclusive, between the sections of the movement which want to present a coherent class platform, mostly cadre from left formations, and those who would rather choose to defend small business, reformism, and a hazy “we’re all in this together” narrative, which has been proven wrong again and again.

Until the left manages to organise, first of all itself, then the class, though, this is in a sense all that is possible. We can’t expect spontaneous class consciousness to arise fully prepared out of a weak, demoralised and atomised proletariat. And the fault in this is probably just as much ours as anyone else’s.

About modulus

Modulus is an unaffiliated Marxist from South Western EU (Spanish state). He studied computer science and law, and is at present preparing for civil service exams for the Spanish administration. An avid IRC user, he enjoys arguments and will occasionally play devil's advocate. He regards himself as orthodox and is concerned about unscientific attitudes on the left on such things as nuclear energy, biotechnology, and so on. His support for the European Union as a platform to unify the class struggle across the continent has earned him plenty of strong opposition, and doubtless will continue to do so; until, that is, his view is vindicated by history.
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