Unpacking ‘the 99 per cent’

The call of protest movements such as Occupy for recognition of the gulf in influence and economic resources between the super-wealthy (the 1 per cent) – to whom the causes of the financial crisis are usually attributed – and the rest of us (the 99 per cent) resonates with republican concerns. It draws attention to the failure of Western societies to uphold popular sovereignty and maintain social cohesion, as the gap between ‘them and us’ becomes far too great. Only the 1 per cent, so the argument goes, genuinely experiences the kind of freedom that liberal democracy promises to every individual. The rest of us are in chains, condemned to the whims of an out-of-control, unaccountable and excessively remunerated financial sector.

Scrutiny of the super-wealthy is of course welcome, and long overdue. However, as a way of challenging the complex array of social and economic ills implicated in the financial crisis, and emanating from it, a republicanism based on the 99 per cent slogan will not work. A slogan originally coined primarily to draw attention to recent trends in the distribution of income in the USA, will fail, for instance, to provide an account of the UK’s extensive and endemic inequality of wealth. Accepting this slogan risks failing to learn from a rich republican tradition, whose insights are relevant to many of the social and economic problems being encountered today, not simply the emergence of a super-wealthy economic elite.

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Image: Open Democracy