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Henriques '12: 99 percent is not enough

There was an especially surreal moment at the Occupy Providence teach-in earlier this month when local activist Camilo Viveiros led the crowd in a rousing chant, urging them to "beat back the corporate elite." Consider a room full of students railing against the elites while tapping furiously on their iPhones, minds preoccupied with their upcoming Bain or McKinsey interviews, well-thumbed copies of Foucault sticking out of their trendy messenger bags. At a school where half the students are able to pay the full $50,000-plus annual sticker price, well, it was ironic enough to make even the most dyed-in-the-plaid hipster proud. It took the last speaker, Associate Professor of Africana Studies Corey Walker, to finally remind the dwindling crowd that "We're talking about this shit at Brown University!"

I am not interested in talking about the hypocrisy of this scene. Chuckling at wealthy Brown students protesting the elite ultimately rests on a shallow critique. Were we to demand moral perfection from those who lead our movements, many worthy causes would go unchampioned. An individual's behavior does not negate his or her message, and legitimate demands for systemic reform are not necessarily incompatible with enjoying the benefits of these same flawed systems.

Such gaps between theory and practice should, however, invite some introspection. Upon closer examination, they may demand a change in our behavior or our ideals. What does it mean to fight against elite privilege from a position of relative elitism and privilege? There is no simple answer. But it is a crucial question, and for too many campus supporters of the Occupy movement — at least as evidenced by the teach-in — it has not even been asked.

In fact, were the College Hill occupiers to justify their involvement in the protests as Brown students, they would expose the oversimplified us-versus-them antagonism at the heart of the movement's rhetoric. The protesters portray the occupations as uprisings of the disadvantaged 99 percent against a greedy 1 percent. Such a black-and-white conception of American society — though it makes for great slogans — creates, as Brown students like to say, a false dichotomy. After all, if we elites can legitimately protest the injustice of systems that have given us privilege, a movement of the 99 percent still seems not quite inclusive enough. Nothing should prevent the Occupy movement from welcoming allies from the 1 percent. Indeed, doing so is crucial to the movement's success.

By asserting itself as a movement of the 99 percent, the occupiers undermine their claims to solidarity by presenting this solidarity as fundamentally limited. Viewing the wealthiest 1 percent as villains furthers the notion that the 1 percent and the 99 percent have intrinsically opposed interests. Such an argument ensures that the movement will remain fundamentally insular, full of people talking among themselves about how wronged they are and hunkering down for a long bout of class warfare.

But any successful argument for redistributive economic policies cannot be driven by such a class-based argument. A bunch of people complaining that they want more stuff because another bunch of people has too much stuff is a hollow appeal. Instead, convincing calls for structural reform must treat all Americans' interests and obligations as aligned and interconnected, rather than separate and divergent. The right has done an excellent job of convincing the poor that tax cuts for the rich are not only required by a commitment to freedom, but will lead to the "trickling down" of benefits to everyone. The occupiers must make an equally compelling claim about the moral and material stake we all have in narrowing economic inequality.   

I do not deny the difficulty of convincing the well-off to give up rewards they see as justly deserved. But I urge those in the Occupy movement to embrace this challenge head on. While general assemblies in parks are wonderful, economic policy is made by legislators in political institutions. Most policymakers, however, are part of the same elite class the occupiers would have regulated. As long as the Occupy movement continues to alienate those who are able to implement the change it desires, that change will remain a distant dream.

Only through appealing to those with power in the present system can the Occupy movement's noble ideals ever translate into action. Though this may seem an impossible task, it is not hopeless. In a recent New York Times piece, multibillionaire Warren Buffett calls for "shared sacrifice," arguing that he should pay more taxes. This is exactly right: Any broader appeal for economic justice the Occupy movement makes must invoke a common cause that transcends class antagonism. It must emphasize that our successes are made possible only through others' sacrifices, and that others' future success depends in turn on our willingness to reciprocate.

As long as politics is framed as a clash between the interests of one class and those of another, any notion of mutual obligations or common good will remain elusive. Instead, we will be stuck with rich and poor locked in a zero-sum power struggle. And we all know who usually wins that fight.

 

 

Reuben Henriques '12 is part of the 100 percent. He can be reached at Reuben_Henriques@brown.edu.


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