Sunday, April 17, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

In a recent post I explained how I came to understand, through the clarity of a remarkable comedian, how our supposedly democratic republic has been taken over by a small, but very powerful, group of “individuals” (an identity which, according to the Supreme Court, also includes huge corporations).

This disturbing fact has not gone unnoticed by a significant segment of politicians, economists and intellectuals. Many understand how we got here – now the question is, can we as (human) individuals regain control over our country and how?

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity –
In 1700’s France during the reign of King Louis XVI the country, due to financial mismanagement and feudal oppression, was in a serious downward spiral. Faced with a dwindling treasury, King Louis engaged his top financial advisers who ultimately suggested that the wealthy nobility, currently exempt from taxation, be taxed. The wealthy refused. With both the nobility and equally wealthy clergy exempt from taxation, the burden then fell onto the general French public. 1

But French commoners were not faring all that well and attempts to squeeze more tariffs from the growing peasant class resulted in social upheaval; the brunt of which was borne by the aristocracy and nobility who found themselves losing their heads, literally. After years of furtive attempts to design a new constitution and government, France eventually ended up being ruled by an emperor (Napoleon). 2

Could this happen in this country? We currently have corporate executives realizing previously unheard of amounts of executive compensation while the effective earning power (wages) of the middle class has declined. We are facing a widening disparity, in both and assets, between the middle and wealthy class. And like the reign of Louis XVI, the wealthiest 2% of our nation, and the clergy, retain their exemption (thanks to BOTH political parties) from bearing a reasonable share of the tax burden.

So will Americans be storming the Bastille any time soon? I genuinely doubt it. Unlike the draconian conditions which precipitated revolution in Egypt and elsewhere in the middle east...
1) American public awareness is broadly blind, or cannot otherwise fathom, degree in disparity between them and the wealthy elite: “…income inequality as an issue doesn’t win elections because Americans don’t begrudge the rich so much as they dream they may join them.”3

2) The staggering availability of cheap food, cheap technology and almost unlimited distractions in the form of entertainment and media propaganda, provide a welcome anesthetic to dealing with the dwindling opportunities for a better life for the middle class. It was the media that promoted the Tea Party from a fringe group to a position of legitimacy through constant media attention. Ask yourself why, for example, Sarah Palin continues to enjoy more media exposure than John McCain? The media chooses, orchestrates and controls the message.

3) Americans don’t think in terms of community or the well being of society as a whole, that would be too "European". Americans think of themselves in terms of the individual; beyond exercising their vote, most Americans feel they have little power. If you noticed the union demonstrations in Wisconsin the crowd was mainly comprised of older workers. Young workers see little relevance in union membership.

As long as the ultra wealthy and the corporations control access to Congress, define the media agenda and continue to placate us with consumer distractions, the American public will remain like the frog in the cooking pot, oblivious to the ever-slowly-increasing heat until they are cooked to death.
1. "The French Revolution (1789–1799)",

2. "France History - Causes of the French Revolution",

3. "Rising Wealth Inequality: Should We Care? - Why do Americans seem unperturbed about the growing gap between the rich and the poor?" NY Times - March 23, 2011

Frog cartoon courtesy of Graviton Creations


DJan said...

You have said it well, Robert. However, I do believe given enough time, there will be a revolution here, too. I don't expect to be alive to see it, but my BIL Pete predicted it way back in the mid-1980s. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

Jerry said...

This is one issue that has been plaguing my thinking for a long time now. It seems seemingly inconceivable that we do now have a ruling class. It not only angers me, but saddens me greatly that we have evolved into what was once sneered at in history class.

The Mother said...

The same basic story goes way, way back. Ancient Athens had a peasant revolt.

And ancient Rome was well known for entertainment that kept the masses happy and propaganda that kept the state foremost in their minds.

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan Interesting Pete predicted that 30 years ago; Carlin and others frequently invoke 30 years as the time span of when our country radically changed. Those were the Reagan years. No I don't expect to see any upheaval in my lifetime either. We are the lucky generation having lived in the best times this country had, and ever will have. We'll mercifully be gone by then.

Jerry I like your term, "Ruling Class", it characterizes the situation quite well. China's economy is second in the world beneath ours; where are we headed and where are they? This country is indeed "history".

Dr. Mom Quite so. As a former Welfare Worker, I was always surprised by how many of my clients had the mega-channel cable TV package.

Rain said...

It is as you said, an extremely disappointing time for those of us who wanted to think this country had a similar set of values. We elect democrats and it's our only choice at all but what does it really change? Disillusioning to say the least.

Antares Cryptos said...

Succinct and to the point. That social revolutions were coming was predictable, but not when and where. I wonder what critical mass will have to be reached for it to occur.

Many European countries take to the streets "en masse" for reduced work weeks or retirement age. Not something we see in America. Is there less cohesion? Fear?

(Interesting work by Nobel winner Peter Diamond.)

billy pilgrim said...

as the watering hole gets smaller the animals get meaner and they turn on each other rather than going after the guy emptying the water hole.

if there was a revolution the captains of industry would shut down the economy and take a nice vacation whilst the poor learned their lesson.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain I could not agree more. Perhaps if Obama gets a second term, being a lame duck and not needing to worry about reelection, he will get the hard stuff done. But then who knows what Congress will look like in 2012?

Cryptos I have heard non-scientific statements like when 20% of a population feels they have nothing left to lose, there is revolution. One US congressman (don't recall who) said that Americans are only 11 missed meals from revolution.

People with moderate views generally don't take to the streets, I would surmise.

Kay Dennison said...

I agree completely. Maybe it's my heritage but I want to fight back and I'm slowly but surely becoming ready to fight in whatever way I can.

Nance said...

Love the boiled frog image; that's long been one of my favorite cautionary tales.

Add to the reasons that we WON't be storming the barricades the illusion of the power of the vote. It's not that there's No power in One Man-One Vote; it's that the outcomes can be so easily diddled as to dilute the 1:1 ratio into powerlessness. And that the average voting member of the working class can siphon off some rage by threatening to vote any given SOB out of office next time.

Reasons that we probably WILL be storming the barricades--and sooner rather than later--is the increase in the number of Americans who have at least two years of college and that the population growth and dwindling resources turn that pot of boiling water into a pressure cooker.

Or, what billy pilgrim, that wily wordsmith, said.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy You are probably right, many of the Captains of Industry even own their own islands. I'll bet the local authorties don't question their wishes much either.

Kay Having followed your blog for a bit I know you are very active in participating in the political fight; I commend and admire you.

Nance Yes, they want to throw out the "Washington Insider" who is replaced by a new face who then becomes the new "Insider". There's no logic to it.

Again you may be right, the seeds of potential revolution may be a scant generation or two behind us.

secret agent woman said...

Can I make a comment that is a little (actually a lot) off-topic? The frog metaphor always struck me as counter-intuitive and so I looked it up. In fact, frogs will work hard to escape water as it increases in temperature.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent If you read it on a blog of a skeptic, you can pretty well assume I'm using the term as a "metaphor"... you know, sorta like to make a point!

And I expect to keep using idioms for emphasis until "pigs fly" or "hell freezes over." *grin*

Anonymous said...

When the revolution does happen, I don't want to be here. I think it will come. In watching the aftermath of Katrina, it was obvious, that this country is approximately 2 weeks from total and complete chaos. I suppose that means that the crazies win-those with the biggest guns and the shelters stocked with food.
I am worried for my grandchildren. And you know me, I worry!

Robert the Skeptic said...

You could always convert to Mormonism, they stockpile food for just such eventualities. Of course, they will redefine the country as a theocratic state... you know, kind-a like the evangelicals are trying to do now.

All kidding aside, a revolution in this country where the population reveres the 2nd Amendment so fervently... it makes me very uneasy.

GutsyWriter said...

I lived in Paris for 15 years and have said to my husband, "I wonder how much more Americans will put up with before they're out on the streets rebelling. I've never known a more tolerant nation than this one. Prices go up, wages go down, benefits disappear, and people stay calm. We either have to go one way or the other, but trying to do a little of this and that, won't make anything work.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy You are spot-on. The most glaring weakness of the American conscience is our ambivalence. We may want change but we want someone else to do it for us.

KleinsteMotte said...

History has pointed out time and time again that nations fall after a period of supremacy and the time for this seems to be approaching. Within the country there's not enough work and too many people. To balance this seems out of reach now. And the corporations have a huge financial control on every transaction the people make by way of banks, utilities, transportation, taxes,health care etc. and all because of digital technology. The control is somewhere in a virtual world that we can no longer see.

secret agent woman said...

I know, and yet many, many people believe that frogs really will allow themselves to be lulled into boiling. Might be time for a new metaphor? ("Until pigs fly" actually makes sense because they are unlikely to ever do so, except on airplanes. And "Hell freezes over" I can also accept because its an imaginary place believed to be eternally fiery.)

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent Point taken - that is certainly "a horse of a different color".