Blog #13 – Who are the 99%? The Exploited, the Discontented, the Oppressed.

Blog #13 – Who are the 99%? The Exploited, the Discontented, the Oppressed.


The sources of resistance that we find today may be understood in terms of the position within the economic and social structure, and each has specific moral and political grounds for insisting on the legitimacy of its objections to the established order.

A.     The directly exploited, (labor +).


The standard definition of the working class considers its relation to employers, or generally to capital, as its defining characteristic: a relationship in which workers are told what to do, and their employer benefits from the results of their labor, their exploitation.[1] The working class is included in and necessary for the functioning of the economic system. Initially employed in manufacturing, paid wages just high enough to insure their survival and continuing capacity to work long hours at hard labor in the early days of capitalist industrialization, facing what was then seen as increasing immiseration. But, with increasing development, increasingly winning better pay and conditions were won, not only for elite of skilled workers but increasingly n mass production. Then, increasingly after World War II, the industrial working class was changed, losing strength in the face of computerization and advanced technologies replacing labor by capital, moving jobs to the lowest-paying countries with increasing globalization of production and control, facing increasingly potent political constraints from conservative political parties, and subject to wide-spread cooptation into support for the prevailing status quo, domestically and internationally. Andre Gorz’  Adieu au Proletariat,[2] published in 1983, reflects a blunt assessment of the situation.


Nevertheless, parts of the organized labor movement remain an important critical element in the political and economic campaigns. Today, labor has three components: the traditional industrial working class, white-collar workers in service and financial employment, and, at the bottom of the ladder economically, workers in the informal economy. The growing movement to organize non-traditional white collar and informal economy workers, e.g. nurses, home care attendants, taxi drivers, migrant laborers, domestic workers, peddlers, and the community labor centers and similar movement, make it clear the working class, although included as a significant part of the economic structure of the economic system, remains at the same time a key element in the resistance to the power of capital.


For most of the working class wages and the conditions of work are a major source of resistance for two reasons: the inability to meet the continually the rising expectations of an affluent society, and the great inequality between their earnings and the income and wealth of the 1%. The objection of most is to the injustice of inequality; but for some, wages or take-home income is so low that it is a matter of material immiseration.  For some, thus, a matter of values and culture; for others, of sheer material necessity.


The importance of ideology and analysis is clear in assessing the role of the working class is achieving transformative change. Labor can be seen as simply the trade union movement, organized to bargain for a greater share of the benefits attainable in society, both from their immediate employers and from government as it is: one interest group among others in a competitive market economy.  Or it can be seen (and see itself) as representative of the members of society being unfairly treated within the existing framework,  Its culture can base itself on a conception of the amorality of poverty and inequality, seeing its interests as linked to the lot of the excluded)  Viewed in this way, it is simply unconscionable , to use a phrase encompassing both religious and secular views, that some should have a material standard of living in absolute terms that does not meet their basic needs, in a society that has the means to satisfy those needs quite easily. (I will argue, in what comes below, that this is the reason workers and their organizations were and will remain an important basis of resistance, and that community-labor ties are so important.)


Thus: the traditional working class, included in system of production, with both material and cultural concerns. Among their organized forms today are traditional trade unions and evolving forms of community-labor efforts. The short-term goal goal: Decent living conditions, an adequate safety net. The long-term goal: the ending of exploitation.


Further, “exploitation” is not used here in the technical sense in which it is ude in sincerely Marxist writing, as the situation of a worker producing surplus value wose surplus value is taken by the capitalist employer, Nor is “working class” used in that sense; domestic workers, public employees, peddlers, and many others who work hard and area unjustly compensated either in terms of their needs or their contributions, by the person(s) controlling their labor, by  wages or contract, are intended to be included in the term.


B.      The discontented (Occupy +).


Many others, although not directly exploited in the classic sense of the term, are deeply discontented with the system as it is. [3]  Their grounds are not so much material, for they are participants in the spreading affluence that the system delivers, but they resist the constraints the system also imposes, and their exposure to insecurity in that affluence heightens their discontent (and therefore their partial kinship with Tea Partiers, see below) . They include many students, artists, professionals, technicians, entertainers, academics, intellectuals, professional, etc. The present economic crisis also makes clear the relationship between many of the discontented and the exploited, for most are workers also, under-paid and increasingly in precarious economic circumstances.


Social and cultural and political constraints have existed throughout time. From at least the Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides to the medieval Comedia del’arte and Moliere to Shakespeare and Milton and Goya to the present, the arts have always reflected doubts about the humanity of the present and visions of alternatives. Religious dissenters have played a similar role; the Protestant Reformation was in a large sense a manifestation of social dissatisfaction as well as of direct material want.


Although the expansion of technologically advanced production produced a level of general affluence which abated the most dire want, it also produced discontent and frustration as as well as satisfaction: rationalized production led to increased alienation from the values of a profit-fixated society, in which creativity and the full free development of human capabilities was deformed and pressed into the service of profit-driven production and economic growth. Not only artists, but students, young people, women, those of alternate sexual orientations, bureaucrats, assembly line workers, felt personally the constraints under which they were forced to live and work. Not only their often materially inadequate standard of living, if not the immiseration that the working class had faced, but also the corroding effect of the affluent society on its members, produced a level of resistance of a new kind.


This resistance was strikingly political in the broad sense of the term: dealing freedom, the absence of unacceptable restrictive constraints, participation in democratic decision-making, at all levels of government. A democratic process was a goal in itself, not a means to other goals, as with the working class and the unjustly treated. By and large, the existing formal processes of governmental decision-making were felt not to reflect true participatory democracy, and alternate forms of governance were pursued.


The founding of SDS, the unrests of 1968, the student occupations of universities, the support for anti-colonial liberation movements in the centers of colonialism, attested to these developments,.


Thus: the discontented, included in socioeconomic system, primarily cultural and process concerns. Among their organized forms today is notably the Occupy Wall Street movement. The goal: freedom and democracy.


Movements such as Occupy Wall Street reflect this discontent and the basic yearning for a fully democratic, participatory process for making fundamental social decisions respecting the autonomy and equal worthiness of all individuals. The Occupy movement and it supporters form a second major base for the transformative impulse of the resistance to the status quo today.

C.      The oppressed (Right to the City Alliance +).


Initially excluded from the normal benefits due them from the prevailing system, ultimately desiring an alternate and better system providing higher level benefits.  Historically, the very poor have always been excluded from such benefits, sleeping on the streets or under bridges, begging in doorways, at best relegated to food kitchens, homeless shelters, and workfare programs. Or they have been incarcerated through the criminal justice system, sacrificed in wars. Oppressed members of minority groups, of scapegoated groups, groups with alternate life styles or sexual tendencies or non-conforming religious beliefs, have been similarly oppressed and excluded. That oppression is largely (but not exclusively) implemented in cities, in the urban sphere and that which is desired is pictured in urban terms.


The oppressed are not excluded from the system, and inclusion within the system is not their remedy. They are largely excluded from the benefits of the prevailing system, but they are not outside of it. They may be among the lowest paid of workers, denied the protection of labor laws because categorized as “independent contractors.” They may be holding jobs like everyone else, but denied equal pay for equal work on the basis of gender, discriminated against in the conditions of their work because of sexual orientation, targeted for persecution by the judicial system based on their ethnicity, nationality language, color. They may be denied any right to their housing and be displaced by economic or planning-policy-organized displacement.  They may be long-term unemployed, caught in a vicious circle where past unemployment reduces the likelihood of new employment, becoming part of the reserve army of the unemployed. They may be unemployed for no fault of their own, and dependent on an often arbitrary and always penurious welfare system for basic survival. They are not excluded from the system, but rather used by it and yet excluded from such protection as it provides others. [4] Some, such as many in the LGBT community, are oppressed in some areas, but benefit from inclusion in others.


Thus: the oppressed, denied the benefits of the prevailing socioeconomic system, share to varying degrees, both material and immaterial, concerns with others of the 99%.. Among their organized form at the national level today is the The New Bottom Line,[5] which itself brings together a number of prominent coalitions,  including National People’s Action (NPA), the Alliance for a Just Society (AJS), People Improving Communities through Organizing (a faith-based group known as PICO) and the Right to the City Alliance, and a range of local community organizing groups. I take here the national Right to the City Alliance as representatives of those organizations; the diversity of their members is illustrative. [6]

* * * *


These three groups of course overlap to a quite significant degree. And many others might well be found in them, but are not today: Some Tea Party supporters might with reason be in one of the three above categories of resistance, and potentially may be attracted to one of their organizational forms, but reason does not determine all human behaviors.[7]


D.     The commonality of the 99%.


The 99% have several grounds for their resistance in common:


1)    Material injury from prevailing arrangements, relative and absolute (inequality to poverty and oppression,  particularly affecting labor and the excluded

2)    An ideological value-based revulsion at injustice, the existence of material poverty, and social inequality, particularly articulate among the discontented, but affecting all three groups

3)    Deeply-felt experience of frustration, powerlessness, repression, alienation, directly affecting the oppressed as a deprivation of dignity but also experienced by the discontented as the partial cause of their discontent.;

4)    A growing ideological but experientially-rooted analysis of the 1% as the common source of their grievances, with whom conflict is inevitable.[8]


I would argue that the 1%/99% slogan resonates and can bring about common collective active for change because it is based on these common grounds. One is material deprivation, exploitation, the second social frustration, discontent; the third combines material exclusion with oppression. A common analysis, leading to a common strategic approach, is manifest to varying degrees in all. They are over-lapping and mutually reinforcing, although different. Strategy needs to be aware of all of them, and use them together in efforts to produce change. Much of the excellent work examining our current problems deals with one or another of these factors, but few put them together or name the causes of the problem comprehensively and explicitly, as the 1%/99% slogan implicitly suggests is possible.


It is the knowledge that capitalism is the problem that has always motivated movements for revolutionary change.[9]

[1] For a more expansive and theoretically-oriented discussion of class structure see the work of Erik Olin Wright; for a focus on the working class, the work of Michael Zweig. For a recent rich study that looks at cultural and educational issues as well as income and occupation, see Andrew Levison, “The Surprising Size Of ‘White Working Class’ America: Half of all White Men and 40 Percent of White Women Still Work in Basically Blue Collar Jobs,” The Democratic Strategist, June 2012, available at As William Tabb says, “categories are interpenetrating and thus do not represent separate realities. Tee same group can be placed in different taxonomies depending on the question asked, the level of social reality  being explored.” “Getting Serious About Class Dynamics,” New Politics, vol. XIV, No. 1, Summer 2012, p, 59.


[2] Farewell to the Working Class (1980 – Galilée and Le Seuil, 1983.

[3] The discussion n tis section relies heavily on the theoretical framework developed by Herbert Marcuse, particularly in One-Dimensional Man, 1964, An Essay on Liberation, 1969, and Counter-revolution and Revolt, 1972.. all Beacon Press, Boston.

[4] I make the point at length to distinguish my use of the term from that prevalent in the European Union, in which the answer to “exclusion” is taken to be “inclusion” in the system, indiscriminately mixing participation in the economic and social structure, where the excluded in my usage are in fact embedded, with participation in the benefits normally provided to others within the system. I have not found a perfect term for use here; each of the possible synonyms has its drawbacks: outcasts, mistreated, deprived of dignity, unfairly positioned, undervalued. They are at the bottom of the totem pole,  but on it, held down by action of those above.

[5] Their web site, with interesting background on their orientation and organizing approach, is at

[6] For details see It states: “Our goal is to build a national urban movement for housing, education, health, racial justice and democracy.”

[7] See further discussion in

[8] As opposed to the liberal view that “corporate power [is] an a force to brgain with, not an enemy to vanquish. “Bill Scher, “How Liberals Win,” New York Times, Sunday Review, July 1, 2012, p. 8. In Chantal Mouffe’s terms liberals see the 1%99% relationship as as one in which conflict can be resolved, as opposed to an agonistic view which recognizes win-lose situations…

[9] Bill Tabb, in New Politics, supra.

Author: pmarcuse

Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s