The following is based on remarks that Professor Avi Chomsky prepared to give to Occupy Boston on December 7, as part of the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series. Her talk was cancelled when, that evening, news arrived of the city’s plans to evict the camp. Chomsky is a Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Salem State College. Among her many publications are A History of the Cuban Revolution (2010) and Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class (2008).
One of the strengths of the “Occupy” movement that swept the United States and other parts of the world in late 2011 was its promotion of the concept of “the 99%.” The 1% are the executive officers, bankers, and financiers that make the decisions and pull the strings of the global economy; the 99% are the rest who are left with the bills, the debts, the rising prices for basic needs like health care and education, and the unemployment.
Occupy identified the misdistribution of wealth and resources as a key social ill, and looked at the economic system that created this concentration of wealth at the top, with increasing exclusion of the 99%. Mostly, Occupy has looked at this issue at the national level. If we expand our view and look globally, the global economic system that emerged with the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century has led to the same phenomenon of wealth concentration internationally. It also led to levels and kinds of consumption that are now rapidly depleting the planet’s ability to sustain human life.
Until the nineteenth century, standard of living and levels of consumption were relatively equivalent worldwide. With the Industrial Revolution and the New Imperialism that accompanied it, we created a First World and a Third World—the latter comprising something like a global 99%. Dispossession of peasant farmers, forced labor, environmentally rapacious plantation agriculture, and massive extraction of mineral resources has characterized the experience of the colonial or Third World. The “development” of the First World came about at the expense of the Third, and of the planet itself.
The United States, with 4% of the world’s population, accounts for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions—while the world’s 173 poorest countries combined account for an equivalent 20%. Residents of the world’s wealthiest countries—led by the United States—use about 8000 kilograms of oil equivalent each a year, while residents of poor countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and most of Latin America use well under 1000. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science explains, “For many resources, the United States of America is the world’s largest consumer in absolute terms. For a list of 20 major traded commodities, it takes the greatest share of 11 of them: corn, coffee, copper, lead, zinc, tin, aluminum, rubber, oil seeds, oil and natural gas. For many more it is the largest per-capita consumer.”
Those of us in the 99% in the United States nevertheless belong to the 1% if we look at the planet as a whole.
The global economic system today relies on the destruction of the planet’s ecosystems and the super-exploitation of low-wage labor, both in the Third World and as immigrants in the First, to create distorted consumption levels for a small minority. Immigrants are flowing from the Third World to the First primarily because there has been decreasing demand for their labor—and decreasing ability to survive by farming—in their own homelands, and increasing demand for their low-wage labor in the global North.
The majority of immigrants who come to the United States work in the lowest sectors of the labor market. (A smaller number of highly-skilled immigrants work in high tech, medicine, etc.) They work in jobs with no benefits, no security, and unstable and/or difficult schedules. Many are undocumented, thus legally excluded from most social benefits like higher education, voting, getting a driver’s license, and even working “legally.” The combination of economic structures that demand their labor, and legal structures that ensure their exclusion, turn them into a kind of under-caste with no hope of improving their condition. If “we are the 99%,” undocumented immigrants are at the very bottom—and poor people in countries like Mexico, whose economy is so intimately intertwined with ours and in fact accounts for much of our high levels of consumption—are even below them.
Clearly, a system that depends on environmentally destructive levels of consumption, and socially destructive levels of exploitation and inequality, is not sustainable. A global economic system that allowed a more equitable distribution of resources would greatly reduce immigration, and the exclusion, family separations and suffering that goes along with it.
There are three things we in the United States can do to challenge the inequalities and exploitation that the current system is based on. One, we could stop discriminating against immigrants. We could, for the first time in the country’s history, truly grant equal rights for all—with no exceptions. Two, we could de-militarize the border and return to the open immigration policy that the country followed during its first 100 years. It’s global economic systems and inequalities that account for the huge flows of migration we see in today’s world, not the leniency or strictness of immigration policy. So three, we could restructure the global economy so as to restore their fair share of resources to the global 99%. If our own economy was not so gluttonous with the world’s resources and so intent on keeping workers poor and labor cheap, the “problem” of immigration would be transformed into a system where people could travel freely and enjoy equal opportunities anywhere in the world.