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The Reign of the One Percenters: How Income Inequality Is Destroying Our Culture

The corporate elite have wrecked New York's neighborhoods, driving out artists and intellectuals and stifling the creative culture that made the city so famous.

Christopher Ketcham's essay " The Reign of the One Percenters," was published on Orion's website and is forthcoming in the November/December 2011 issue of the magazine.


Author's note: When I wrote the first draft of "The Reign of the One Percenters" in the autumn of 2010, I had little hope that the kids in New York would pull off anything like the growing revolt in Liberty Square and beyond. I am delighted to be proved totally wrong.

Some thoughts, then, for present and future Occupiers everywhere. I'd suggest they take a page from the Populist movement of the 1890s. Like Occupy Wall Street, Populism was a broad, economics-driven revolt that targeted a predatory elite of corporate capitalists-the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age-who had captured government and established monopoly power over the political economy. The Populists were social visionaries, anticipating and driving the Progressive Era of reform of the early 1900s. They sought to dismantle the centralized power of corporations in the economy and return economic liberty to individuals and small business. Long before anyone else, they envisioned the graduated income tax, the secret ballot, the regulation of banks, the right of workers to set the terms of their labor. They transformed the political discourse of their time.

In the midst of this our Second Gilded Age, the Occupiers need remember that the Populists also formed a political party-the People's Party-and they ran candidates who won office, and they formed real-world cooperatives between business and labor to challenge the hegemony of corporate capitalism. Theirs was not a platform of quixotic revolution, but one of radical reform that took decades of hard labor to bear fruit.

In the meantime: the politics of radical protest; the politics of turmoil and disruption; the politics of ridicule and shaming; the politics of the rhetorical rotten egg smashed in the eyes of the criminal banking class-these are the orders of the day. The protest in Liberty Square, the protest of the 99 Percenters, currently is driven by no mere platform of demands, nor should it be. It is driven by moral outrage, as a challenge to the authority of an immoral economic system.


For my daughter's benefit, so that she might know the enemy better, know what he looks like, where he nests, and when and where to throw eggs at his head, we start the tour at Wall Street. It's hot. August. We're sweating like old cheese.

Here are the monuments that matter, I tell her: the offices of Deutsche Bank and Bank of New York Mellon; the JPMorgan Chase tower up the block; around the corner, the AIG building. The structures dwarf us, imposing themselves skyward.

"Linked together like rat warrens, with air conditioning," I tell her. "These are dangerous creatures, Léa. Sociopaths."

She doesn't know what sociopath means.

"It's a person who doesn't care about anybody but himself. Socio, meaning society--you, me, this city, civilization. Patho, like pathogen--carrying and spreading disease."

Long roll of eyes.

I'm intent on making this a teachable moment for my daughter, who is fifteen, but I have to quit the vitriol, break it down for her. I have to explain why the tour is important, what it has to do with her, her friends, her generation, the future they will grow up into.

On a smaller scale, I want Léa to understand what New York, my birthplace and home, once beloved to me, is really about. Because I'm convinced that the beating heart of the city today is not its art galleries, its boutiques, its restaurants or bars, its theaters, its museums, nor its miserable remnants in manufacturing, nor its creative types--its writers, dancers, artists, sculptors, thinkers, musicians, or, god forbid, its journalists.

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