Populism, inequality and representation: Negotiating ‘the 99%’ with Occupy London

Matthews, Jamie. 2019. Populism, inequality and representation: Negotiating ‘the 99%’ with Occupy London. The Sociological Review, 67(5), pp. 1018-1033. ISSN 0038-0261 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

When Occupy London emerged with a global wave of protest movements in October 2011, it embodied and advanced discursive forms that have characterised the unsettling of political consensus following the financial crisis. The central claim that ‘We are the 99%’ staged a fundamental tension, between a populist appeal to the figure of ‘the people’, and a contrary orientation seeking to critique inequality while rejecting forms of representation and identity. This article – which draws on three years of ethnographic fieldwork with Occupy London (October 2011–October 2014) and a critical theorisation of the figure of ‘the people’ in radical movements – follows movement participants’ negotiation of the tension at the heart of the discourse of ‘the 99%’. It offers an account of the conflicting meanings and practices that emerged, arguing that the result was a creative contradiction that sustained the movement for a time, while setting the terms of its ultimate breakdown. Identifying the concept of ‘representation’ as the site of particular controversy, this is unpicked through a number of key figures (Pitkin, Marx, Spivak, Puchner, Deleuze and Guattari) as the basis for an empirical account of Occupy’s practice of assembly, which offered partial, imperfect ‘solutions’ to these tensions. The article concludes with some implications for the limits and possibilities of both a grassroots populism and a politics against representation, in the context of political developments since.

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This work was supported by doctoral research funding from the University of Manchester’s School of Social Sciences Studentship.


assembly, Occupy, populism, representation, social movements, the people

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12 May 2019Accepted
23 May 2019Published Online
September 2019Published

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Date Deposited:

01 Aug 2019 13:26

Last Modified:

10 Jun 2021 04:57

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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