Am I the 99%?

As of today, my credit card is totally paid off. My personal debt is now half of what it was yesterday. I will be completely debt-free by the middle of December. I can start putting the money that I used to put into debt-repayment into long term savings, retirement funds, and the like; and in about three or four years I will likely be able to buy a house. I have a good job, with excellent benefits. I rent an apartment in a clean and safe building, and the building is in a clean and safe neighbourhood. I’ve never had to accept social assistance, nor go on the dole, but during hard times I had to accept the generosity of some very good friends who housed me in their homes for a few months at a time, for very little rent. I am well fed, in good health, well educated, and financially secure. I can vote, sit on juries, run for political office, and even make attestations in law courts. If I am injured or if I develop a chronic disease, I will be cared for. If I am convicted of a crime and sent to jail, I will not be tortured. While I’m at it, I probably benefit from the invisible privileges of being a heterosexual white male, in ways that I do not see.

In short, I am among the most privileged people on the planet. But from that fact, it simply does not follow that I should not complain about my problems. It does not follow that I should not want to better my position, or that I should not want to better the position of others who have it worse than me.

I don’t know if I am one of the 99%, in the sense that most ‘occupiers’ appear to mean. I might be one of the top 40% in my society. But I do know that I am *not* among the top 1%. Because I make less than $300,000 a year. That’s the estimated threshold of entry to the 1% of the people in my society who own or control the vast majority of the wealth in my country. More than three-quarters of my income goes into my basic survival needs: rent, food, utilities, and hygene products. As a college professor at a provincially funded institution, I am a budget cut or two away from total unemployment again. I was reduced to part time status this fall for that very reason.. I don’t own any major national newspapers, television or radio stations, or popular web sites. I don’t manage a Fortune 500 company. I cannot outsource my workers to China. I do not travel in a private helicopter. If I contribute money to a politician’s campaign, I could never possibly contribute enough to influence that politician’s priorities. If I am ever brought to court and charged with a crime, the winning side would be the side with the best paid lawyers. Around four years ago, I owned a few thousand dollars of stock on the TSX. But my tiny investment could not possibly sway the policies of the companies I invested in. I have almost no influence at all upon the means of production, distribution, transport, and communication, and I personally wield almost no political power in my society.

But when I act in concert with others, it’s possible that I do wield rather a lot of political and economic influence. When I read that there are rather a lot of people in the same position as me, not because they were lazy but because they had their opportunities taken away from them, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if we all got together and demanded change, in a unified voice. It happened in 494 BC when the working classes of Rome staged a general strike against their Patrician masters. It happened in 1981 when something like one-third of the people of Poland joined Solidarity, and replaced the communist system with a democratic one. It happened again in East Germany when the Peaceful Revolution brought the communist system down. It began to happen again more recently, with the Anti-Globalization Movement of the 1990’s, and more recently than that with the Arab Spring of this year. And it’s happening right now, at this very moment, with the ‘occupy’ movement. I am writing these words less than a kilometer from where the occupiers of my city have set up their tents.

We see evidence of the scorn that the 1% hold for the 99% in various places. There’s Leona Helmsley’s famous 1989 claim that “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” We also see it in Carl Henrick-Svanberg’s shockingly patronizing 2010 statement “We care about the small people.”

I know that the people in the 1%, taken individually and personally, are probably not much different than anyone else. They can be as loving, or as hateful, as compassionate, or as callous, as anyone. The two examples of contempt for the poor, cited above, might not characterize all rich people everywhere. But when the rich act as a class, they only ever act in their own class interests, and never in the general public interest. Even when they make charitable endowments to environmental conservation projects or hospitals or the like, they do it for the tax write-off and the free publicity. Think of how many cultural installations, like concert halls, are named for the corporations that donated money to them. There is simply no such thing as a transnational corporation that cares more for the public good than it does for its own private profit.

I’m sure that no corporate executive ever in seriousness asked his fellow board members, “How can we screw the poor today?” But the overwhelming majority of the things that transnational corporations do has exactly that effect, whether in large ways or small. The wealthiest 1% will always work to preserve the status-quo, with themselves on the top of it, whatever that status-quo might be. They will prefer to preserve “stability” even if that stability includes disempowerment, dispossession, wage-slavery, or untimely death for the working classes and the poor.

I also know that the banks in my country did not engage in predatory lending, like the banks in America did. Sub-prime mortgage lending is illegal here, and the stock market is better regulated. The distance between the rich and the poor here is not as wide as it is in other countries. I have, at least twice to my knowledge, shared an elevator ride with a multi-millionaire. And my government is not about to go bankrupt, although it is up to is neck in debt, more than ever before. So I may have less to protest against than people in other countries.

But the disparity between the rich and the poor here is still enough to cause a lot of needless suffering in people’s lives. It leaves too many people hanging by a thread, even relatively comfortable people like myself. We live in an economic system that allows some individuals to keep for themselves, and not to share if they don’t want to, the wealth that could be used to entirely eradicate poverty from the face of the earth, forever. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s a fact. That feature of our system seems to me monstrously unjust. Yet if the wealthiest 1% did share enough of their wealth to eradicate poverty, they wouldn’t be much worse off than they are now. They would still have the wealth and power to buy politicians, bias the media in their favour, commute to the office and back by helicopter, and utter statements of contempt for the poor. Or if they could not do these things, they would be no worse off than me. And my situation, as I described earlier, is really not so bad. So, there’s no outstanding reason that I can see for why the rich refuse to share their wealth more justly, except for one: greed. Naked, plain, unaccountable greed.

So, I don’t know if I am one of the 99%. But I stand with them.

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