Numbers are the essence of our times. Science, technology, economics, even the education system of most Western countries understands its own performance in numerical terms. Anything that escapes the visual field of mathematics simply lacks the requirements to properly exist. Obversely, the more something is measurable, the more it can aspire to become a crucial element at any level of today’s life. And the bigger, the better. As if expressing the insecure masculinity that still governs the West, contemporary society seems to still be trapped within the obsession of ‘size matters’. It’s for a reason that some people call it ‘number porn’.
The magical power of (big) numbers is well reflected in today’s dominant political regime, liberal democracy. Following the Anglo-Saxon model of bi-polar parliamentary politics, the democratic rule of majority increasingly translates as the ethical primacy of big numbers over small numbers. Even in countries such as Italy, in which complex historical reasons have created a network of balancing minoritarian powers, the dictatorship of the majority (albeit often narrow) is becoming more and more evident. Long gone are the times of endless negotiations, which would take into account even the tiniest local demands in the name of national reconciliation. A topical example is the events of Summer 2011 in Val di Susa, northern Italy, when the governmental decision to build a high speed railways through uncontaminated mountains was enforced with the use of heavy handed police against the opposition of small local communities. The majority had decided, and the minority had to accept it. The court of the majority does not accept appeals. Like in the times of the Soviet NEP, nothing else is allowed for the minority but silent submission.
Interestingly enough, the idea according to which the reasons of the bigger numbers are indisputably more ethically grounded than those of the minority seem to have extended well beyond the boundaries of today’s political Western majority. Indeed, it was with a shiver that I witnessed the sudden popularity of the most famous slogan coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. ‘We are the 99%’ they said, leaving implicit in this short sentence that the demands of the 99%, by definition, have an ethical legitimacy that those of the 1% do not have. If the 99% wants it, the 1% has to accept it. Numbers spoke.
Observed simply under a linguistic lens, this slogan appears to focus on the sheer power of numerical proportions, while lacking any mention of what are the claims of the movement. Translated in explicit terms, it simply says: we are the overwhelming majority, thus everything we want or decide is naturally legitimate and has to be given to us. Seen in the negative, it also says: they are the 1%, thus anything they want or demand has less (if any) legitimacy and has to be conceded to them only inasmuch as it is approved by the 99%. This emphasis on the almightiness of the majority has clear totalitarian echoes, also in its reinstatement of the presence of a public enemy (the 1%), which is minuscule, yet still threateningly present. To a malicious mind, the 99% rhetoric could remind one of the usual results of elections under dictatorial regimes, in which the number of ‘votes’ to the ruling party is always around 99%, such as during the infamous 1934 elections in Fascist Italy, where the Partito Nazionale Fascista had a 99.24% landslide. The 1% was still there, lurking in the dark, justifying the paranoia of fascism.
One could also question the internal consistency of this supposed 99%. Are factory workers, night-time cleaners, prostitutes, lawyers, dentists, teachers, soldiers, generals, prisoners and prison guards all part of the same 99%? Ernesto Laclau would answer that this issue does not really matter, as the 99% is indeed an empty signifier that functions as a pole of aggregation for different groups and demands, towards the creation of a populist movement. As long as it works for the achievement of emancipatory aims and the improvement of social justice, Laclau would claim, populism is a useful political tool. I have serious doubts with regard to this, and especially on the necessity of enforcing the fictional unity of the populist discourse in order to achieve emancipatory aims. What kind of emancipation are we to expect, if what we are trying to emancipate is the abstract fiction of a non-existing 99%?
It is interesting how, alongside these populist elements, the 99% movements is also renowned for its implementation of anarchist decision-making organizational strategies. Indeed, the anarcho-populist blend has been around for some time now, beginning with the explosion of the consensus practices among environmentalist groups in mid-2000s. As opposed to the democratic tyranny of the majority, consensus decision-making privileges a unanimous approach. No decision is taken until everyone involved in the process agrees, that is, not until the content of the decision has been re-shaped through long discussion into a form that is able to satisfy everyone’s demands. Apart from the obvious paradox of the use of consensus within the movement and of democratic tyranny outside of it (against the mythological 1%), the consensus style of decision-making bears some problematic elements within itself. In particular, the predilection for a supposed perfect unity of the group and the refusal to admit any divergence outside of it in terms of stubborn and uncompromising dissensus. Any sacrifices, as long as we can achieve the magic unity of the big number!
However, I wonder if the 99% movement (as well as similar ‘indignado’-style movements in Europe) could consider another approach both to their decision-making and to their understanding of the essence of a movement as such. During the brief years of the alter-globalization alternative, for example, a large number of different groups, movements and organizations (from the north-American anarchists to the Italian catholics to the indigenous people of Mexico, and so on) joined forces in a common battle against neoliberal capitalism. In the rhetoric of that time, such a wide federation was called ‘the movement of the movements’. Far from being a unified group, the movement of movements was the temporary federation of several entities, united in their struggle for global social justice rather than under any specific banner.
What was particularly interesting of the alter-globalization network was its – as yet underdeveloped – idea of a federation which allows the free combination and disjunction of its constitutive parts. We might call the result of this social method as a schismatic community, in which the unanimous consensus of all parts is no longer a founding myth, and individuals are able to re-group with each other at several, simultaneous and different levels in accordance to the specific aims that they are pursuing at that moment. The game of identity would explode and multiply ad infinitum, on virtually endless overlapping levels. Groups would be founded on specific necessities, painlessly split over different strategic approaches, following those different strategies alongside each other, regrouping when necessary, disappearing when they achieve their end, regrouping again on the pursuit of other needs, and so on...
Seen under that perspective, the rhetoric of the 99% would no longer be necessary, or even useful. Such a thing as the 99% does not exist, if not in the abstract world of numbers. The over-imposition of a monolithic, common identity – especially if in the terms of a mythology which echoes totalitarian rhetorics – is certainly of no use for the struggle for emancipation. Every one of us is and will always be the 0.00000001% and no equation will ever be able to compose all these minute fragments into one, unified 99% without annihilating any possibility of authentic individual or federative freedom. Just like friendships or partnerships, federations are temporary, and change continuously as their components change. Differently from contemporary network-culture, though, federations do not wish to function as permanent sub-strata for human interaction, but they are only justified inasmuch as they are useful for the pursuit of a specific set of aims. Federations are useful tools, entirely submitted to the scopes and desires of their members; the 99%, on the other hand, exists in itself as an immortal object, forever and invincibly floating above the heads of its components.
It might be time for the current protest movements across the West to rethink their slogans, and in particular their numerical flag of the 99%. They might want to look back at the rainbow flags of the alter-mundialist experiment, for example, and at their self definition of ‘movement of the movements’. Or maybe, and even better, they might want to dissolve their flag and their abstract definition into the everyday practice of federative existence, which, in other words, we could define as the practice of comradeship. To the politics of comradeship, it is the efficacy of the group, and not its number, that justifies its existence. Most importantly, at the core of the legitimacy and the strength of comradeship there is the willing, affective investment of all comrades involved, rather than the a priori ethic supremacy of the discourse of big, unified numbers. In the 19th century, while writing about what has long been ill-defined as individualist anarchism, Max Stirner had beautifully described it in one powerful quote: ‘I shall find enough anyhow who unite with me without swearing allegiance to my flag’.
We should not forget that this issue is for us, of the essence, if we want to focus on victory, rather than on struggle. If we want to imagine what it would mean to win, instead of being forever stuck into a never-ending state of war.