A Charter for the 99 Percent

The whole world is breathing. Let the Republican bloodletting begin, even as half of America’s voters sulk, skulk, and scheme to yank re-elected President Barack Obama off the fiscal cliff with them.

Now, the next phase of a 99 percent movement needs to get—and keep—busy. Why do I say “next phase”? Because the Occupy movement that came about in 2011 has accomplished just about as much of its mission as possible. In effect, whatever its even-handed contempt for conventional politics, Occupy did great good work for Obama. Not least, the movement had the effect of encouraging him to run a head-on campaign against a vulture capitalist. Whether he follows through depends not only on his resolve and acumen but on the wind at his back.

Now the initiative passes to the outer movement, that much larger penumbra of Occupy’s supporters in unions and membership organizations who turned out for the large demonstrations and, in fits and starts, jolted much of the country to its senses. Even though the Occupy core took it as a point of principle to disdain specific demands, they actually didn’t need demands in 2011 to arouse the sluggish public mind to pay attention to vicious inequalities and a botched political system. And demandlessness paid an unintended dividend: Occupy saved itself some bitter fights over what any hypothetical slate of demands should look like. The movement, at its best, was inclusive enough to become a center of energy, and to change what we are pleased to call the national conversation. Now what?

With Obama back in a place where he can be pushed, let the push proceed—smarter, more accelerated, more cogent. There must be a rebuilding and it must go deep. There must be a persistent, independent movement capable of winning tangible political-economic reforms—reforms that change lives and encourage newcomers to join. A focused common program for the long haul—a decade, say—would make sense to millions who know that plutocracy threatens decent livelihoods, shared growth, and a sustainable planet. However short of the millennium, a specific program would be a magnet and a beacon. We need a reconfiguration powered by people of many sorts and networks and organizations of many sorts, cohering around a reform program that is at once ambitious, urgent, and achievable this side of the millennium.

How does such a movement avoid self-enclosure? How does it endure? How does it get tangible results? How can it accept meaningful contributions from millions as well as a hard core of committed activists?

There is a precedent.

The Chartist Movement

During the decade beginning in May 1838, a mass working-class movement in Great Britain campaigned for what they called the “People’s Charter,” a brief statement drawn up by six Members of Parliament collaborating with six workers. Here is the whole text they agreed on:

1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.

2. The secret ballot. – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.

3. No property qualification for members of Parliament – thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.

4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.

5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.

6. Annual parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation…

In times of great economic suffering and widespread hunger, the working-class movement had been various and divergent. The Chartists insisted that their common interests were served by agreeing upon a limited set of political reforms. One activist named John Bates, a weaver, later recalled:

There were [radical] associations all over the county, but there was a great lack of cohesion. One wanted the ballot, another manhood suffrage and so on…The radicals were without unity of aim and method, and there was but little hope of accomplishing anything. When, however, the People’s Charter was drawn up…clearly defining the urgent demands of the working class, we felt we had a real bond of union; and so transformed our Radical Association into local Chartist centres….

So it came to pass that hundreds of thousands of people met around the country to endorse the Charter and to elect delegates to a convention to support it. The struggle was centered in the centers of manufacturing. It began nonviolently. There were campaigns to withdraw money from saving banks. There were cooperatives, strikes, land-sharing schemes, and all manner of agitation. There were auxiliary campaigns for free, universal education and for trade-union organizing. When the House of Commons turned a deaf ear to the Charter, advocates of force within the movement gained traction. After many years of agitation and government crackdowns, all but the sixth point were enacted. Some took decades.

Some radicals accused the Chartists of an excess of moderation. They were accused of attempting “to quieten the turbulent provinces and divert the people from direct action to the future chimera of the suffrage,” in the words of one of the leading historians of the movement, Dorothy Thompson. Still, in her words, this popular movement “came nearer to being a mass rebellion than any other movement in modern times.” It “set up a whole alternative culture and life-style in the process.”

A 99 Percent Charter

A 99 Percent Charter could look something like this:

1. Drive big money out of politics. Elections should be publicly financed. The Citizens United decision needs to be rescinded, for corporations are not persons and the ability of some people to spend millions encourages politicians to bend to the wealthiest. But more: television time for candidates ought to be free, like the licenses that permit broadcasters to broadcast on the public airwaves.

2. Make taxation more progressive. For example, tax capital gains and dividends at the same rate as wages and salaries.

3. Tax financial market transactions. There is already a Robin Hood Tax campaign, led by National Nurses United, and a House bill to support it, HR 6411. Eleven European countries and the European Commission have adopted a version of this proposal.

4. Separate commercial from investment banks, and break up the biggest ones. If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big to exist. For gambling, we don’t need banks—we have casinos.

5. Create decent jobs with public-private partnerships. Shore up the majority with a living wage.

6. Make America the most energy-efficient advanced country the world has ever seen. Address climate change and the need for steady jobs at the same time.

7. Pare military spending. Bloated, overextended armed forces drain the country of the treasure it needs for productive investment.

These are suggestions only. Let likeminded groups take up the discussion and aim to agree on a Charter by, say, the next president’s inauguration. Let this discussion take in statewide and local groups already working in this spirit. States can disagree on the emphases, but the general thrust ought to be clear. To date, to my knowledge, the exemplary campaign is in Maine, where one in thirty adults (32,000 out of a million) belong to the Maine People’s Alliance, which has a paid staff of thirty-nine. It works on a range of issues, but most to the point, inspired by Occupy, it promotes a Fair Share Campaign with these goals:

1. Free, “universal education from pre-K through college. Education is a human right.”

2. “$1 billion to eliminate unemployment. Meaningful work is a human right. The Job Creation Fund will create jobs in key sectors of the economy, such as infrastructure, health care, clean energy, and education. We’ll also raise the minimum wage to $10/hr to get closer to a living wage.”

3. “Publicly Financed Health Care. Health care is a human right. In a ‘single payer’ system with no health insurance companies, everyone gets the care they need by contributing what they can afford through taxes.

4. “We’ll pay for it by making our tax system fair. Lower taxes for the bottom 70%. The top 10% will pay 5% more than low-income Mainers pay now.”

Get It Together

Networks of organizers do not spring into existence spontaneously. Neither will a Charter, or alliances of unions and other organizations committed to overcoming internal weaknesses and jurisdictional disputes, and to finding and training leaders. But absent such efforts to cohere, it’s unlikely that a clear, vivid, full-spectrum movement will emerge—one that affords space not only to full-time activists who want nonviolent civil disobedience but also to much larger and wider circles of people who must roll up their sleeves, over the requisite years, and perform the requisite chores: sign a petition, work for a candidate, lobby for a bill—and turn out to elect politicians who can be moved, who can help by securing the movement more space to grow and to win tangible victories.

The moral upheaval that Occupy invoked is still more notional than actual. It cannot be the exclusive property of a small minority—a subculture, you can call it—who hunger for the politics of the streets. There are not enough saints. Still, a sustained majority-backed movement is possible, one that feels, thinks, plans, judges, tries things, assesses results, sizes up who might join and what adversaries are up to, learns—a community that “consults upon the common good.” A movement that picks itself up when it falls on its face, and in the words of a civil rights anthem, keeps its “eyes on the prize.”


Todd Gitlin is the author, most recently, of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

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