One of the most fascinating things to come out of the current We Are 99%/Occupy Wall Street protests is the We Are 99% Tumblr. At the site, people hold up signs that explain their current circumstances, and it tells the story of a whole range of Americans struggling in the Lesser Depression. It is highly recommended.
The site features pictures of individuals holding their signs, and occasionally the tumblr reproduces the text of the signs themselves underneath the image as html text. Sometimes the text under the image is blank, sometimes it is a different message, but often it is the sign itself.
In order to get a slightly better empirical handle on this important tumblr, I created a script designed to read all of the pages and parse out the html text on the site. It doesn’t read the images (can anyone in the audience automate calls to an OCR?), just the html text. After collecting all the text on all the pages, the code then goes through it to try to find interesting points.
It’s a fun exercise, pointing out things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. For instance, I found this adorable little rascal, pictured below, mucking up the algorithm, as the first version of the code assumed all the ages would have two digits. I found that he, and the sign his mom made for him as a confessional to her son, hit me a ton harder than any of the more direct signs of despair in this economy:
Going through the ~1,000 entries in the tumblr, here is the distribution of ages that I was able to generate:
Given that we assume tumblr and webcams are technologies of the young, the age distribution has a higher tail end than I had expected. There were two major clusters – people around 20 and people around 27, each with their own major concerns.
What were the most frequent words? We ate up all the words across all text and came up with the following list:
“Of Interest” is my call–I removed all the pronouns and other words that occur frequently but didn’t get at the chief concerns of the 99%. The major words are jobs and debt, as a quick glance of the site would show. The ability to make it month to month shows up here more than on the glance, with “pay”, “afford”, “rent”, “food” and “bills” right underneath the big items.
Student debt is a meta-concern, but what are the others? Scanning, I totaled four major categories. Here is the number of individual entry texts that flagged each, and the search terms to grab them:
“Children” has a few false positives in it (“It used to be my dream to help disabled children…”), but only a few. Student loans are an overwhelming presence, but it often has the same terms repeated and giant dollar figures next to them so it sticks with you. For all the people indentured with student loans there are almost as many worried about how they are going to take care of their kids.
Scanning the entire text, what is equally interesting is what is missing. There’s no signs of a luxury fever or cascading consumption heading downhill. These aren’t the signs of people envious of their peers going off to the high-end financial sector and then getting bailed out. The only time luxuries are mentioned are in a mode of denial (“We do not own HD TVs, expensive automobiles, use cable TV, or indulge in other..”). The only time unions are mentioned are in retreat and defeat (“No union”, “threatend [sic] by funding cuts and union busting”). So how to theorize this?
So if the 99% Tumblr was a PAC, what would its demands look like, and what ideology would it presuppose? Freddie DeBoer is discouraged after reading the 99% tumblr. He’s concerned it reflects a desire for restoration of the glory days of the 90s-00s, which concerns him because “this country cannot be fixed by wishing to go back to the economics of 2005.” Concerned that the solidarity is one that, at most, is a I-got-mine-you-go-get-yours form of neoliberalism (as he imagines it, “I went to college and I don’t have the job and the car and the lifestyle I was promised”), DeBoer is worried that We Are the 99% isn’t “a rejection of our failing order. It is an embrace of it in the most cynical terms.”
With all due respect to DeBoer, the demands I found aren’t the ones of the go-go 90s-00s, but instead far more ancient cry, one of premodernity and antiquity.
Let’s bring up a favorite quote around here. Anthropologist David Graeber cites historian Moses Finley, who identified “the perennial revolutionary programme of antiquity, cancel debts and redistribute the land, the slogan of a peasantry, not of a working class.” And think through these cases. The overwhelming majority of these statements are actionable demands in the form of (i) free us from the bondage of these debts and (ii) give us a bare minimum to survive on in order to lead decent lives (or, in pre-Industrial terms, give us some land). In Finley’s terms, these are the demands of a peasantry, not a working class.
The actual ideology of modernity, broadly speaking, is absent. There isn’t the affluenza of Freddie’s worries, no demands for cheap gas, cheaper credit, giant houses, bigger electronics all under the cynical “Ownership Society” banner. The demands are broadly health care, education and not to feel exploited at the high-level, and the desire to not live month-to-month on bills, food and rent and under less of the burden of debt at the practical level.
The people in the tumblr aren’t demanding to bring democracy into the workplace via large-scale unionization, much less shorter work days and more pay. They aren’t talking the language of mid-twentieth century liberalism, where everyone puts on blindfolds and cuts slices of pie to share. The 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as “fairness” in their distribution of the economy. There’s no calls for some sort of post-industrial personal fulfillment in their labor – very few even invoke the idea that a job should “mean something.” It’s straight out of antiquity – free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.
It’s awful that it has come to this, but it also is an opportunity. As was discussed in the monetary debate from earlier, creditors aren’t bosses; their power is less coercive and much more obviously based on socially-constructed fictions, laws and ideas. As Peter Frase pointed out:
Indeed, widespread and large debt loads are one of the most important ways in which my generation differs from those that immediately preceded it…This has direct implications for the left: more than once, older comrades have noted to me that it has become much more difficult to live in the kind of bohemian poverty that sustained an earlier generation of young radicals and activists…
And there may be some advantages to a politics centered around debt rather than wage labor. The problem confronting the wage laborer is that they are, in fact, dependent on the boss for their sustenance, unless they can solve the collective action problem of getting everyone together to expropriate the expropriators. Debt, on the other hand, is just an agreed-upon social fiction denoting an obligation for some act of consumption that has already occurred. The only way to make people respect debt is through some combination of brute force and ideological legitimacy–a legitimacy that we can only hope is starting to slip away.
Upon reflection, it is very obvious where the problems are. There’s no universal health care to handle the randomness of poor health. There’s no free higher education to allow people to develop their skills outside the logic and relations of indentured servitude. Our bankruptcy code has been rewritten by the top 1% when instead, it needs to be a defense against their need to shove inequality-driven debt at populations. And finally, there’s no basic income guaranteed to each citizen to keep poverty and poor circumstances at bay.
We have piecemeal, leaky versions of each of these in our current liberal social safety net. Having collated all these responses, I think completing these projects should be the ultimate goal of the 99%.
(Update: 25 Most Frequently Appearing Words graphic has been updated and corrected; job(s) was originally reported as 201, not the correct 272. Merging job and jobs put unemployed at #25, with 31 mentions.)