Occupy Handbook

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Book: The Occupy Handbook. Ed. By Janet Byrne. Back Bay Books, 2012


“Analyzing the movement's deep-seated origins in questions that the country has sought too long to ignore, some of the greatest economic minds and most incisive cultural commentators - from Paul Krugman, Robin Wells, Michael Lewis, Robert Reich, Amy Goodman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Gillian Tett, Scott Turow, Bethany McLean, Brandon Adams, and Tyler Cowen to prominent labor leaders and young, cutting-edge economists and financial writers whose work is not yet widely known - capture the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon in all its ragged glory, giving readers an on-the-scene feel for the movement as it unfolds while exploring the heady growth of the protests, considering the lasting changes wrought, and recommending reform. A guide to the occupation, THE OCCUPY HANDBOOK is a talked-about source for understanding why 1% of the people in America take almost a quarter of the nation's income and the long-term effects of a protest movement that even the objects of its attack can find little fault with.”


David Runciman:

"Amid all the grandstanding and parading of manifestos in the Occupy Handbook, one essay that stands out is an old-fashioned piece of historical reportage by Michael Hiltzik. It’s called ‘The 5 per cent’, and it tells the story of the campaign during the 1930s to secure a decent social security programme for the elderly. In 1934, the number of Americans over the age of 65 was seven million, or just 5 per cent of the total population. This group was in danger of being forgotten in the welter of New Deal initiatives: they lacked the clout or the visibility of more numerous groups of the disadvantaged, especially militant younger men without jobs. Yet the old were suffering the most. Many had lost their savings and had no pension. The unemployment rate among the over-65s looking for work was 54 per cent. A doctor called Francis Townsend organised a campaign to enact a national pension scheme and rallied a grassroots movement to support him. Though he didn’t get the scheme he wanted, he drew the nation’s attention to a group of people who were the clear losers in a crisis that had left the rich relatively unscathed.

By focusing on the 5 per cent, the Townsend campaign made effective political use of the idea of victimhood. ‘Reduced to its essentials,’ Hiltzik writes, ‘the Townsend movement was a quest for justice for an oppressed and abused segment of the population. From this simplicity it drew its political potency.’ The 99 per cent might sound like a simpler idea, but it’s not, because it is so hard to see how that many could count as an oppressed and abused segment of the population. In the 1930s there were plenty of populist movements that went for a broader appeal, claiming to speak on behalf of everyone who had lost out to the sinister ‘money powers’. The trouble with these movements was that they tended to need charismatic figureheads like Charles Coughlin and Huey Long to sustain their political potency, which did a lot to diminish their democratic credibility over time. General rallying cries eventually descended into a mixture of conspiracy-mongering and rabble-rousing. Targeted movements, built on a narrower set of interests, were able to sustain much more durable coalitions.

Who are the 5 per cent today? It’s definitely not the old, who are now far more numerous and far wealthier than ever before. The percentage of the US population aged over 65 is nearly 14 per cent and rising. This group has enormous political clout, in large part because they vote in greater numbers than almost anyone else. They have not been the losers from the current crisis and politicians have gone out of their way to protect them and their entitlements. The losers are the young, especially those aged 25 and under who are not in education but are looking for work. In the US the unemployment rate for those aged 16-24 is 17.1 per cent; for black workers in that age-group it is 29 per cent. But the truly scary picture is the one emerging from Europe. In countries like Greece and Spain the youth unemployment rate is around 50 per cent. In these countries too, the old are better protected than the young, who are often being abandoned. Add to this the fact that the old are the ones who have enjoyed the benefits of years of relative prosperity and security across the Western world, whereas the young are facing a future in which the money has run out, and it is clear who the real victims are.

Youth unemployment figures have to be handled carefully. It’s not the case that one in every two young people in Spain is out of work. One in every two young people in Spain is currently in higher education. (Spain is one of the countries that during the housing boom preceding the crash of 2008 saw higher education enrolment fall as many school-leavers took jobs in the construction industry; now there is no construction industry that trend has gone into sharp reverse.) The unemployment rate applies to the other 50 per cent who are in the labour market. Demographic shifts mean that there are now fewer 18-24 year olds in Europe – they make up roughly 10 per cent of the population – than there are people aged over 65. So the half that is struggling to stay afloat in the labour market is around 5 per cent of the total.

It is harder to organise a political movement to help young people than old people. Young people are less susceptible to being organised and they lack the patience for the hard graft of a long political campaign. They are more likely to be seduced by the weak ties of social networking and the false promise of slogans like ‘We are the 99 per cent.’ Nonetheless, these are the victims who need the most help and who lack the clout or visibility to be heard among the more pressing demands being made by the more militant elderly. They are the 5 per cent and we should do something for them." (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n20/david-runciman/stiffed)