In 1972, Chinese Communist leader, Zhou En-lai, was reported to have answered US President Richard M. Nixon’s question on the impact of the French revolution on western civilization, with the line that ‘it is still too early to tell’.
While it may still be too early to tell, one thing the French revolution did give us was the trio of ideals of ‘equality, solidarity and liberty’, and of course out of those we got liberalism and socialism and, in reaction against the revolution and its ideals, conservatism.
I think that is appropriate on the 222nd anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789, which was primarily a symbolic event (and which is a public holiday in France at present), to re-consider where we are today with our own society, a ‘democracy’ that appears increasingly less subject to the ‘will of the people’ and more re-written to benefit the corporate elites to the exclusion of the people.
Although I am no scholar of French history, I have found myself thinking increasingly about the situation in pre-revolutionary France and the events that befell the ‘ancien regime’ during the second half of the 18th century and the modern political, economic and social developments over the last three decades since the late 1970s in the West.
If you look at mass-marketed, mass-manufactured popular culture, the French revolution is seldom seen from the view of those who supported and fought for these ideals and against the corruption, nepotism and inequalities of the ‘ancien regime’. It seems that it is the enemies of democracy, equality, solidarity and liberty, i.e. the aristocrats and their minions who fought against the revolution, that are the ones who are celebrated or whose stories and trials (sic) and tribulations that are recounted to the public.
More directly, we can see the ‘demonization of the working class’ across most English-speaking countries since the 1980s, including most recently identified in the UK in Owen Jones’s new book, and in the dominant media coverage and commentary on the Canada Post lockout and the postal workers’s rotating strikes in Canada in June this year.
In general, mass media coverage of labour issues is framed from the perspective of ‘bosses’ [executives, corporations, governments, managers] and/or consumers, and unions and union leaders [who are usually called ‘bosses’ even though they stand for election as opposed to executives who are not even accountable to the workforces they manage]; such systematic bias can only have a long-term influence on people’s thinking.
Also, look at how right-wing commentators and politicians attack the poor and workers, for example, for the global financial collapse of 2008-09. This is just a continuation of the demonization of the working class.
The three ideals of the French revolution, which are understood to be such an integral part of the principles behind individual rights and civil liberties and of the political system known as ‘democracy’ (representative or direct), are under attack by the forces of reaction. It is as if they want to bring back a form of feudalism (‘neo-feudalism’), where whatever the super-rich (a whole new class of billionaires) and corporate executives ‘need’ they will get from various governments.
All types of local, regional and national governments grant subsidies, tax breaks and pass laws to benefit the very wealthy and corporations, which undermine many of the regulations and benefits won over 200 years of political struggle by the working and middle classes.
There is also a deference exhibited by political leaders to corporate owners and the executive class (look at how UK political leaders have courted Rupert Murdoch to obtain an advantage – or to mitigate bad publicity – and the resulting fall-out from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal), while workers are meant to submit to a dictatorship of owners and managers every time they enter a workplace (and are increasingly even subjected to it outside of the workplace).
Laws that protect the health and safety of workers and consumers are increasingly dismantled as obstacles to profit-making.
This is really nothing less than a ‘class war’ waged by the corporate elite and their (bought-and-paid-for) politicians against welfare recipients, the homeless, the unemployed, pensioners, unionized workers, post-secondary students and youth.
Increasingly, those with decent or good jobs, whether postal workers or professors, are finding themselves increasingly the object of attacks by these plutocrats. Once the ‘last good job’ is gone, what will there be?! Hope that you might win the lottery?
Huge fortunes are made by CEOs and others, which have no basis in the performance of corporations and which are also increasingly (it would appear) the result of criminal behaviour. Even business research shows that executive bonus schemes are no longer seen as providing advantages in recruiting the best as they reward failure as much as success (e.g. see Michael Perelman’s 2011 book on The Invisible Handicap of Labor, where many CEO contracts even ensure that they will get their bonuses even if they are convicted of fraud or embezzlement!!).
At the same time, those who work and work hard, lose their pensions (to pay off executive bonuses, even when the company is under court protection in bankruptcy proceedings: e.g. Nortel in Canada) and suffer huge cuts in pay when they are still able to retain their jobs. Or young people and new workers are hired at half the rates of pay and frequently with no benefits.
While it has been the ascendancy of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism over the last 30-plus years that have given us the growing income inequalities, at rates not seen in the so-called ‘First World’ since at least the 1920s and perhaps not since the 1840s, it would appear that income inequality is beginning to register with some business groups as an issue.
Yesterday, for example, the Conference Board of Canada’s report identified a 33-year trend of increasing disparity between rich and poor. In fact, they also acknowledged that this disparity accelerated after 1993, which was a period in which the Liberal Party under Jean Chrétien had three majority governments and instead of following through on their election promises they reversed them (sound familiar?) and made massive cuts for three years (of around 30%) in social transfer programmes for health and education to the provinces, cut unemployment benefits and so on.
Perhaps, there is hope if groups, such as the Conference Board of Canada, despite being sponsored by corporations, begin to notice that there is a problem.
However, it is this sector which has been funding think tanks and political campaigns to influence or elect politicians that do their bidding and pass their laws, as well as the extensive use of corporate media, such as Fox News (US) and other outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch and other media moguls, that have promoted a one-sided PR ‘war on the public’. Billionaires sponsor the Tea Party so ordinary Americans might be confused as to who really supports their interests and the Tea Party gets extensive media coverage no matter how few turnout, whereas other protests, such as those in Wisconsin are ignored, neglected or misrepresented.
In addition, the US Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has launched their website and campaign to reveal the agenda behind the ‘American Legislative Exchange Council’ (ALEC) which is about re-writing the laws for the benefit of corporations and the rich, who sponsor the politicians. Such politicians can no longer claim to represent the great mass of American people.
Yet, at the same time, there is hope: the ‘Arab Spring’ across much of the Middle East, the reaction of workers, unemployed, youth, immigrants and the middle classes in France, the UK, Greece, Portugal and the USA, such as Wisconsin, Ohio and California (and many other states under threat from extreme right-wing Tea-Party governors).
Will we become increasingly ‘peasants’ in our own land, subjected to unwarranted and unjustified surveillance and imprisonment, as a ‘new feudalism’ takes away our individual liberties and forces us to ‘bow-and-scrape’ to our ‘superiors’ for ‘economic scraps from the table’?
Or will there be a new ‘French revolution’ that will restore the ideals of democracy through equality, solidarity and liberty? Will we ‘chop from the top’? That is, begin by cutting executive pay and bonuses, and eliminating large corporations that do such harm to our society, environment, lives?
We have the legislative means, unlike the French people in 1789. But do we have the political will(power)?