It’s 100% certain that they don’t represent 99%

The occupiers’ claim to speak for ‘the 99%’ exposes how determined they are to avoid hard political debate in favour of cheap moralising.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics

Ninety-nine per cent is a very, very high proportion of the population. When members of the global Occupy movement claim that they are ‘the 99%’, they’re referring to virtually everyone in society. It is about as close as you can get to unanimity. In a world where communities are often divided over lifestyles or along cultural, ethnic and class lines, it is rare to experience the kind of solidarity that binds 99 per cent of people together. So is the chant ‘we are the 99%!’ accurate, or is it a fantasy?

Historically, it was normally only charismatic religious leaders, political charlatans or populist dictators who claimed to speak on behalf of everybody. Sometimes this was not just a rhetorical gesture; rather, these individuals spoke to an understandable human aspiration for community. The problem with this pseudo-majoritarian orientation, however, is that it can only really be expressed through quasi-religious, platitudinous statements, which leave the real problems of society untouched.

That is why it is no coincidence that the protesters in front of St Paul’s Cathedral in London or in the Financial District in NYC are reluctant to formulate any clear objectives. That is also why they actually try to make a virtue out of their reluctance to spell out specific objectives (see Occupy London: a ragbag of political conformists, by Brendan O’Neill). They respond to the world of competing political interests by avoiding making any claims that would expose the lack of substance behind the idea that ‘we are the 99%’.

In a recent statement, the American political consultant George Lakoff explained why the Occupy movement’s 99% metaphor serves an important PR purpose. Lakoff, who has won a reputation for giving advice on how to frame political rhetoric, says the claim to speak on behalf of 99% of people is a powerful one. ‘I think that it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making specific policy demands’, he says. Why? Because ‘if it did, the movement would become about those demands’, and if ‘the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having failed’, Lakoff argued.

In essence, Lakoff’s objective is to prevent the Occupy movement from being exposed to the test of public opinion. His principal objective is to prevent the movement from appearing to have failed. In other words, what is important is the movement and not its objectives. When a movement is perceived as being more important than what lies external to it, then sect-like attitudes can start to thrive. That is why it is only a matter of time before splits and divisions will demonstrate the hollowness of the Occupy movement’s claim that ‘we are the 99%’.

Experience shows that when the movement is everything, goals and objectives become negotiable – all sorts of stances and ideas can be adopted and then ditched. In such circumstances, moralisation and guilt-tripping become the main ways in which the Occupy movement’s protesting is expressed. Lakoff argues that ‘the Occupy Wall Street movement is moral in nature… [the] occupiers want the country to change its moral focus’. What is clearly being described here is a moralising crusade, whose main goal is to gain moral authority.

Moral crusades invariably adopt the language of good and evil, right and wrong, and black and white. That is why, despite their best intentions, the occupiers actually foster a climate of moral illiteracy, where platitudes and banalities increasingly come to the fore in public and political life.

One of the difficult challenges facing us today is how to resolve the conflicting claims of different sections of society, which are being differentially hit by the economic crisis. Choices need to be made about the future course of society, and in order for that to happen there needs to be a clash of views about the best way forward. The clarification of competing interests is the precondition for serious political debate. Such a debate would show that society is divided and that often what benefits some goes against the interests of others. Honesty about competing choices is the precondition for gaining an understanding of what it is that can bind us together. Unless we are faced with a horde of invading armies, we’ll never have a situation where 99% are bound together.

The claim ‘we are the 99%’ really represents the renunciation of politics and an embrace of cheap moralising. And what is even more disturbing than the protesters’ claim to represent 99% of people is the credibility given to it by the media. The cover of Time magazine (24 October 2011), with its headline ‘The Return of the Silent Majority’, echoes the occupiers’ fantasies. Others also depict the protesters as if they were the twenty-first-century equivalent of disinterested holy mendicants. That so many otherwise sensible observers are prepared to make concessions to the ‘idealism’ of these moral crusaders suggests that the occupiers themselves are not the only ones who are unwilling to face up to tough political questions.

Frank Furedi’s latest book On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He will be speaking in the debate Has tolerance gone too far? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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