“Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.” —E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
The “other men” (and of course women) in the current American class alignment are those in the top 1 percent of the wealth distribution—the bankers, hedge-fund managers and CEOs targeted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have been around for a long time in one form or another, but they began to emerge as a distinct and visible group, informally called the “superrich,” only in recent years.
Extravagant levels of consumption helped draw attention to them: private jets, multiple 50,000-square-foot mansions, $25,000 frozen hot chocolate embellished with gold dust. But as long as the middle class could still muster the credit for college tuition and occasional home improvements, it seemed churlish to complain. Then came the financial crash of 2007–08, followed by the Great Recession, and the 1 percent—to whom we had entrusted our pensions, our economy and our political system—stood revealed as a band of feckless, greedy narcissists, and possibly sociopaths.
Still, until a few months ago, the 99 percent was hardly a group capable of (as Thompson says) “articulat[ing] the identity of their interests.” It contained, and still contains, most “ordinary” rich people, along with middle-class professionals; factory workers, truck drivers and miners; and the much poorer people who clean the houses, manicure the fingernails and maintain the lawns of the affluent. It was divided not only by these class differences but most visibly by race and ethnicity—a division that has deepened since 2008. African-Americans and Latinos of all income levels disproportionately lost their homes to foreclosures in 2007 and ‘08, and then disproportionately lost their jobs in the wave of layoffs that followed. On the eve of the Occupy movement, the black middle class had been devastated. In fact, the only movements to have come out of the 99 percent before Occupy emerged were the Tea Party movement and, on the other side of the political spectrum, the resistance to restrictions on collective bargaining in Wisconsin.
But Occupy could not have happened if large swaths of the 99 percent had not begun to discover some common interests, or at least to put aside some of the divisions among themselves. For decades, the most stridently promoted division within the 99 percent was the one between what the right calls the “liberal elite”—composed of academics, journalists, media figures, etc.—and pretty much everyone else.
As Harper’s columnist Tom Frank has brilliantly explained, the right earned its spurious claim to populism by targeting that “liberal elite,” which supposedly favors reckless government spending that requires oppressive levels of taxes, supports “redistributive” social policies and programs that reduce opportunity for the white middle class, creates ever more regulations (to, for instance, protect the environment) that reduce jobs for the working class, and promotes kinky countercultural innovations like gay marriage. The liberal elite, insisted conservative intellectuals, looked down on “ordinary” middle- and working-class Americans, finding them tasteless and politically incorrect. The “elite” was the enemy, while the superrich were just like everyone else, only more “focused” and perhaps a bit better connected.