A record 226 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 212 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. The average holiday shopper spent $398.62 this weekend, up from $365.34 last year. Total spending reached an estimated $52.4 billion. Shoppers also checked out retailers’ deals online, spending an average of $150.53 on the web – 37.8 percent of their total weekend spending.

Forbes: “Record Breaking Black Friday Weekend” by Anthony DeMarco, November 28, 2011

Important information about the methodology behind those numbers:

The survey’s data was for Thursday, Friday, Saturday and projected spending for Sunday. The survey estimates number of shoppers, not number of people. The survey was conducted Nov. 24-26 by BIGresearch for NRF and polled 3,826 consumers.

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On one hand, a group of people apparently identifying themselves as the “99%” calls attention to the fact that a very small percentile of the population (the “1%”) owns or manages a disproportionally huge portion of the country’s wealth. Basically, they say that it’s unfair, that it’s enough and that another world is possible.
On the other hand, Black Friday this year broke all previous records with 226 million shoppers spending an estimated $52.4 billion dollars in store and/or online. That represents about 72% or the population in the United-States (see the U.S. POPClock Projection from the U.S. Census Bureau).
It’s not a contradiction per se. After all, a person can be upset about bankers and the way capitalism works right now and still feel that she has the right to save some money on her purchases. Nonetheless, this record-breaking Black Friday is interesting in the actual context and raises some questions.
The way I see it, there are two problems here. First, the event we now call “Occupy Wall Street”, even if we don’t know exactly what it is, seems to have emerged precisely because of a problem of representation. People were upset and felt that their voice was not adequately represented in the public sphere as well as in the political arena. It seems that the movement ―if we can agree for a moment to reduce a multiplicity of manifestations to a single, homogeneous and coherent movement― aimed at least at raising awareness about this problem. People were upset all over the country, they felt they were not alone and decided it was time to unite and make their presence more obvious. The “silent majority”, as it was once called, had had enough and wanted to speak. It’s a democracy after all, at least in theory, and the “1%” shouldn’t be able to control the country while the 99% stays passively in the shadow. As some have already noted, this problem is somehow analogous (not identical) to the one that historically gave life to the “Tea Party” movement: we’re all familiar with the “no taxation without representation” argument ¹. To summarize this first problem, one could say that Occupy Wall Street was constituted by a problem of representation.
Second, Occupy Wall Street itself constitutes a problem of representation. One could even argue that it reproduces the very problem it’s trying to address. How many were they at the peak of the movement? I couldn’t find an exact number, but let’s go with a high estimate: a couple of thousands all around the country. Let’s even say a hundred thousand. This number does not in fact represent 99% of the American population. It is true they have the support of a portion of the population that is not in the street with them. But does this portion equate to 99% of United-States 312,700,000 citizens? A recent poll by the Public Policy Polling firm suggests that by mid-November they had the support of 33% of the population (of course, a poll is by essence a process of representation and, therefore, can be problematic: PPP surveyed 800 American voters to come up with this number; see “Occupy Wall Street Favor Fading”, Nov. 16, 2011).
That is not to say Occupy Wall Street is a vain initiative. It’s a simple acknowledgment of one of the fundamental problems surrounding its existence. The simple act of affirming “we are”1 raises important questions regarding the democratic regime we’re allegedly living by (and sometimes fight for). What image do we have of ourselves as an organized collective? How do we stabilize this image and, in turn, how does this image influence our actions?
The various demographic studies of the Occupy Wall Street movement all stem from similar questions. Such surveys are available at Occupy Research. See also an interesting article from The New York Times: “Who Is Occupy Wall Street?” by Arthur S. Brisbane (Nov. 12, 2011). Brisbane is trying to figure out how to produce the best coverage of a phenomenon that remains in several aspects hard to grasp.
¹ [UPDATE – Dece. 17, 2011] An article published by the New Scientist suggests that the social organization of both movement differs at least in the way it manifests itself on Twitter:

According to some political commentators, Occupy Wall Street is the left’s answer to the Tea Party – driven by a similar anger towards elites. But the social networks of people tweeting about the two movements suggest that they have rather different dynamics.
Those tweeting about the Tea Party emerge as a tight-knit “in crowd”, following one another’s tweets. By contrast, the network of people tweeting about Occupy consists of a looser series of clusters, in which the output of a few key people is being vigorously retweeted.
The Occupy network also has many casual unconnected tweeters, shown to the bottom right of the diagram below. Whether Occupy takes off as a coherent movement may depend on its success in bringing these potential recruits into the fold. (The New Scientist: “Occupy vs Tea Party: what their Twitter networks reveal” by Peter Aldhous, November 17, 2011).

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1. See “We” are interrupted: Jacques Derrida on the condition for being together (1999) ↩︎︎

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