Who or What Is the 1%?

The Occupy Together movement politically divides the population between the 1% and the 99%. Yet, while we arguably understand the 99% as signifying those Americans of the working class, middle class, and even small business owners, it is in fact the 1% that defines—no, creates—the identity of the 99%.

Whatever the many differences that exist amongst the 99%, the one thing that we share in common is our opposition to the economic and political power of the 1%.

Investigating the 1% is difficult because, in its essence, it is like a magnet. Consider two magnets on a flat surface. If you reverse one magnet, it repels the other’s magnetic field by distorting its shape. Isn’t this exactly how the 1% operates in our lives? It presents itself as a constraint on possibilities, the very essential distortion which to a great degree patterns our lives, choices, incomes, and employment possibilities. The 1% manifests itself everywhere in our lives.

I will investigate the 1% in terms of what it is concretely, a body of wealthy corporations and business interests, but also what the 1% is politically—how the 1% produces itself within the government and the current Obama administration.

The Wealth of the 1%

In terms of income, the 1%’s adjusted gross income is $1.3 trillion dollars. On average, the top 1% of the population have incomes of $1,530,773 per year. On its own, an individual earning over a million dollars per year is inconsequential. Consider, however, that the 1% controls 17% of total income within the United States. Additionally, income is distinct from the the concept of net wealth, which includes not only income but revenue from financial investment and property ownership. In terms of wealth, the average wealth of the individual one-percenter was $14 million in 2009. In 2007, the 1% collectively owned 34.6% of all wealth within the United States while the bottom 40.0% owned only 0.2% of all wealth. The top 20% collectively owned 85.0% of all U.S. wealth.

Here, the 1% becomes transparent. The 1% are not simply individual proprietors of wealth, but financial interests and corporations which monopolize the largest concentration of capital. How is it possible that 1% of the population can own 34.6% of wealth while the bottom 40% own only 0.2% of all wealth? Furthermore, how is it possible that the wealthiest 20% of the population can own 85.0% of all resources, leaving the vast majority of Americans to fight over crumbs? The existence of the 1% is predicated on this obscene disparity in wealth. It is the distorting effect that the 1% has on the general economy that permits its existence.

A Wall Street billionaire, a unionized public employee, and a Tea Party member are sitting at a table eyeing a huge plate piled high with a thousand delicious cookies. The financier reaches across and takes 999 cookies, looks at the tea partier and says, "Watch out for that union guy. He wants your cookie.
A Wall Street billionaire, a unionized public employee, and a Tea Party member are sitting at a table eyeing a huge plate piled high with a thousand delicious cookies. The financier reaches across and takes 999 cookies, looks at the tea partier and says, “Watch out for that union guy. He wants your cookie.”

General Electric, for example, has an annual revenue of $151.63 billion dollars, while the country of New Zealand has a revenue of $140.43 billion. And, G.E. isn’t the only American corporation to earn more than an entire nation! Walmart has an annual revenue of $421.89 billion while the country of Norway has annual revenue of $414.46 billion. More interesting, though, is that even though Walmart has a larger revenue than the entire country of Norway, the top 1% of Norwegian income earners control only 2% of the nation’s wealth.

As of 2006, the global 1% owns 40% of total wealth, with the majority of one-percenters being citizens of the United States of America. The ‘1%’ isn’t only an American phenomenon, but a collection of the wealthiest corporations and nations.

How is it possible that, in the United States, income disparity is so absurdly high? Here, we have to define the 1% in terms of how the 1% dictate the movement of our everyday lives. How do the 1% affect our ability to engage in quality education, acquire housing, and have a decent standard of living?

How Does the 1% Determine Our Lives?

I will give two examples of how the 1% determines the extent to which we control our lives. The United States government provides essential services in housing, affordable heating, and education through the appropriation of taxes. Yet Obama has willingly impoverished the government at the behest of the 1% by continuing Bush-era tax policies. According to the Huffington Post, “Tax cuts for the wealthiest five percent of Americans cost the U.S. Treasury $11.6 million every hour, according to the National Priorities Project. America’s top earners will get an average tax cut of $66,384 in 2011, while the bottom 20 percent will get an average cut of $107.”

Over two years, Bush-Obama tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% will deplete the government of $858 billion dollars. We must connect this with wages, because it will illuminate how tax cuts constitute actual theft from the 99%. An employer will often only pay an employee what it costs to re-produce that employee, or basically, the minimum amount necessary for that employee to feed and clothe themselves. In the state of Massachusetts, minimum wage is $8.00 per hour, which is actually considered less than what is necessary to re-produce a healthy worker on any given day.

However, a minimum wage of $8.00 is predicated upon the fact that a welfare system exists, that an educational system exists, that subsidies exist for oil heating, and so on. This minimum wage is only barely sustainable because of the taxes that the government reaps from the 1%. Now, due to these tax cuts, we’re witnessing an erosion of public services without a corresponding increase in wage levels.

This constitutes direct theft; $8.00 per hour is no longer $8.00 per hour in reality, but far less, given that it is a necessity to procure essential services once rendered inexpensive or free. Consider that, in 2011, Obama cut the budget of LiHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) by 25%, amounting to a decrease in over one billion dollars! NEADA director Mark Wolfe said the “smaller appropriation would mean assistance for roughly 1 million fewer households.”

Compare this cutback with the fact that “nearly 300 of the nation’s most profitable companies paid an average tax rate of 18.5 percent from 2008 to 2010, less than half of the 35 percent corporate tax rate,” with companies like G.E. paying less than nothing in income taxes in the past three years, meaning that tax cuts have actually augmented the revenue of the 1%, and yet produced diminishing returns in terms of employment and stagnant wage levels.

The government’s revenue crisis is a self-generated crisis. The U.S. government does not have the will, even the ability, to challenge the 1%. The question becomes, how does the 1% manifest itself politically? How does the 1% mobilize itself within government to establish policies that result in the direct impoverishment of many?

The 1% in Power

Politically, the 1% has a lot of names: Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Ron Paul, and so on. There is a deep connection between the 1% and the political class, often even a significant overlap. However, this is not to say that Barack Obama has politics equivalent to Newt Gingrich. Ideas are still thoroughly important to the 1%. Newt Gingrich’s conservative, anti-woman “family first” orientation has caused him to critically support the idea of amnesty for well-established migrant worker families. Barack Obama, did, in fact, pass a health care bill, that, while certainly profitable for insurance companies, did rattle radical free-market proponents.

While there are divergences and splits within government leadership, in the last instance, the political class is overwhelmingly determined by the 1%. The composition of President Obama’s administration exemplifies this interpenetration. The White House Chiefs of Staff, in order of succession, were Rahm Emanuel, Bill Dailey and now Jack Lew. Rahm Emanuel was on the board of directors of Freddy Mac. Bill Dailey was a top executive at J.P. Morgan Chase. Jack Lew, the latest White House Chief of Staff, was Chief Operating Officer of Citigroup’s Alternative Investment Unit. There is a deep connection between captains of industry, finance and the government, too many connections to visit here. The included Venn diagram from Revolutionary Frontlines reveals this overlap between government and big business.

The 1% as Distortion

The 1% affects every aspect of our lives and in that sense, creates and re-creates the 99%. The 99% is certainly not a homogeneous body; it contains workers, students, small business owners and even large businesses who support the movement, like Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, but there is an even more powerful distortion in the 99% that renders it as divided as the 1% and the political class themselves. The whole edifice of the 99% is distorted by white supremacy, which is not only an integral part of how the 1% rules, but an integral part of our very reality. White supremacy isn’t simply a method used to “divide” the 99%; it is the foundation for the construction of the very dichotomy between the 1% and the 99%:

“…Racism is not only a bad idea, but a bad reality. And it has caused real differences and real division within the whole working class. The material conditions of white life in the U.S. white workers lives includes the ideology of racism. It is a material force that has gripped many whites and blacks as well… This is not a random accidental occurrence, and as such it has a continuity and force that is not easily shaken…” (The Proletarian Unity League, 1975)

How does white supremacy manifest itself within the the 99%? African Americans have nearly double the unemployment rate as white Americans. People of Color are routinely targeted by police. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” program is a perfect example: “89 percent of those stopped in 2006 were people of color. 55 percent of the stops were of black people – more than double their percentage of the population – and 30 percent were of Latinos,” when only 10% of these “stop and frisks” resulted in arrests.

A thorough treatment of white supremacy and the 99% requires a much deeper examination, but it is important to note that the 1% isn’t simply a corporation or a government body. The 1% forms a diagonal which cuts across the 99%. To constitute a really revolutionary ‘99%’ requires not only the political will of Occupy, but the willingness to confront white supremacy head on.

The 1% as Apparition

The 1% has been defined as those corporations and financial interests who have the power to dictate our lives through their immense accumulation of wealth and government connections. The 1% produces the 99% through its immense weight, distorting the social field such that even though the 1% is numerically small, it determines the overall trajectory of the economy and politics.

Yet it would be incorrect to designate the ‘1%’ as a person. If we come back to the magnet example, the ‘1%’ is more like an anonymous power, which, at the very core of our existence, disturbs and deforms our possibilities.

The 1% is the most concentrated expression of Capital, and Capital is not a human being. Marx describes the connection between the human bodies that compose the 1% and the 99% as that inhuman process that exists at the very core of our social existence:

[The capitalist] is capital personified, his motivating force is not the acquisition of use-values, but the acquisition and augmentation of exchange-values. He is fanatically intent on the valorization of value; … Only as a personification of capital is the capitalist respectable. As such, he shares with the miser an absolute drive towards self-enrichment. But what appears in the miser as the mania of an individual is in the capitalist the effect of a social mechanism in which he is merely a cog. (Marx & Mandel, 1992)

What Marx is saying here is that the 1% is not growing their wealth, power, and influence because they are innately greedy, but because they are the personification of Capital itself– the unceasing drive for profit.

Consider tycoons like the late Steve Jobs, who awarded himself a salary of one dollar per year. The 1% aren’t necessarily after their own personal wealth, but the augmentation of their wealth as Capital. If the 1% augments their income for personal enjoyment with profit from revenue, they are objectively retarding the process of wealth accumulation. The best capitalists actually provide themselves with comparatively meagre salaries and place more emphasis in growing their business venture as Capital. It is more accurate to say that the 1% comprises not only human bodies, but the more dominant systemic drive towards accumulation of wealth represented as Capital.

Occupy as Intervention

The 1% doesn’t pick up your garbage, build refrigerators or provide essential services. So why are they so vested with such power? The 1% present their ownership of 40% of American wealth as natural. And, in fact, it is a natural, organic process within Capitalism. For Capitalism to exist and thrive, there must exist as well an unceasing drive towards profit and accumulation.

But, in another sense, it is totally absurd and unnatural. Why do those who produce nothing have such a profound, even abusive, effect on the 99%? The Occupy Movement has not so much revealed the 1% but named it. The naming of the 1% by the Occupy Movement has unleashed the potential to understand the 1% not as the collection of criminals and thieves that they are, but the underlying trauma of our social existence.

Our struggle as the 99% is not simply to unmask the anonymous forces which deny us justice, but overturn the very mechanism by which the 1% rules.

Download this piece as a PDF
This entry was posted in Occupy Wall Street. Bookmark the permalink.