The Entitled 99 Percent

5 10 2011

I typically ignore popular protests, from animal rights activism to Westboro Baptist Church bigotry. They tend to be little more than futile acts of self-aggrandizement, easy to simply brush aside.

Not so with Occupy Wall Street. While many of the protesters’ premises are deeply misguided, the event as a whole has resonated quite profoundly with me because so many of the “occupiers” are arguably my peers: twentysomethings, in college or recently graduated, with uncertain futures.

Many are heavily in debt and have no marketable skills to speak of, but hold a dearly purchased liberal arts diploma which, they were assured, was to be their ticket to success.

They call themselves the 99 Percent –which means, in their minds at least, that they represent the non-kleptocratic American majority – and their state of affairs is undeniably tragic. But it doesn’t excuse their pervasive entitlement mentality, which is spreading like wildfire across my generation.

Cool sob story, bro

To get a taste of these 99 Percenters’ grievances, delve into the We Are the 99 Percent tumblr. A characteristic story reads, “My mother is drowning in debt so I can earn a degree that offers NO FINANCIAL SECURITY.”

I have no idea whether that story is real or a very subtle mockery. Either way, it demonstrates the reasoning commonly held by a large portion of the other, presumably sincere, protesters: I am in a great deal of debt because I took out student loans to pay for a degree that has not allowed me to attain a high-paying job as I expected. Behead the rich Occupy Wall St.

Underlying it all is a rejection of what they consider capitalism and a desire replace it with a more equitable, secure economic system that eliminates privilege…or something to that effect. It’s not really clear what the proposed alternative is, but it certainly doesn’t seem to involve getting the corrupting influence of government out of the market. 

One of the most basic, yet most commonly held, misconceptions about market capitalism is that it encourages atomization–individuals constantly slitting each others’ throats to gain the upper hand and wring profit out of blood. This dog-eat-dog world would be nightmarish were it a reality. And it is a reality in some parts of our economy: the sectors that have come to be dominated by state-supported crony capitalism.

In a free market, individuals instead thrive by interacting with others in voluntary exchange. Individualism leads to interdependence, a situation where we all benefit from the skills and ideas of others–not atomization. And that interdependence is what many of the 99 Percenters are ultimately afraid of, as they see themselves as unable to provide value in the market for skills or labor in a profession that they consider themselves entitled to pursue.

That one should be guaranteed high-paying employment doing whatever one wishes, regardless of demand for one’s skill or expertise, is a rather selfish notion. Of course, it is hard to frame the anguish of an unemployed graduate as selfishly motivated without coming off as an absolute bastard.

The problems these individuals face are very real. Higher education is expensive, and only getting more so. A college degree is all too often presented as the sole path to success in the 21st century. Bailouts to big banks and subsidies for the well-connected are disgusting abuses of political power.

Yet instead of attacking the root causes of these unfortunate problems, the 99 Percent are desperate to make a target out of capitalism–a system that they do not even attempt to understand. They are radically ignorant, and almost self-consciously proud of it. I hope others reject their hollow claims and non-solutions, and instead work towards a real remedy for our social and economic woes.




One response

8 10 2011
Ross Wolfe

One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

“Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”


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