For far too long, the French revolution has had more than its undeserved share of detractors in Britain and the US–even amongst so-called liberals. We are reminded time and time again, ad nauseam, that the revolutionaries were losers in the end, that the Jacobin government was exceedingly brutal, that it culminated in a vertically challenged dictator assuming leadership of the nation, two other revolutions, and most damningly, a century governed by either members of the Bourbon or Bonaparte families (So much for the Jacobin discrediting of hereditary peerage, right?)
But focusing on the mere facts, Gradgrind-style, doesn’t make for particularly insightful analysis–so I wrote this little piece, “Who’s afraid of the French Revolution?”
Here in this blogpost (after an inexcusably long hiatus–I know, I know), I’d like to throw out a few additional reflections by musing on a provocative pamphlet by Emmanuel Sieyès that was published only shortly before the fall of the Bastille, What is the Third Estate?. And as I’ve been doing ever since the inception of this blog, I’ll apply 18th-century commentary to our situation today particularly as we approach a fiscal cliff–one not entirely unlike the crisis that beset Louis XVI in 1786 after the Seven Years’ War, the war for American independence and a protracted period of minimal taxes for the 1%. A period, to tweak Dickens, that was the best of times for the 1%, the worst of times for the 99%.
Let’s start with Sieyès’ remarks on the 3rd estate itself. Even though it fills up 95% of all positions in the army, law, church, and general bureaucracy, he tells us, the best positions are reserved for the nobility, the Second Estate. (The Church was the First Estate–and many of the top positions were filled by those from aristocratic families.)
It needs no detailed analysis to show that the Third Estate everywhere constitutes nineteen-twentieths of them, except that it is loaded with all the really arduous work, all the tasks which the privileged order refuses to perform. Only the well paid and honorific posts are filled by members of the privileged order. Are we to give them credit for this? We could do so only if the Third Estate was unable or unwilling to fill these posts. We know the answer. Nevertheless, the privileged have dared to preclude the Third Estate. “No matter how useful you are,” they said, “no matter how able you are, you can go so far and no further. Honors are not for the like of you.” The rare exceptions, noticeable as they are bound to be, are, mere mockery, and the sort of language allowed on such occasions is an additional insult.
Again, plus ça change–despite the fact that we don’t have a titled peerage in America. The nobles of yore are now our corporate CEOs, upper management, financiers of Wall Street, and their academic counterparts: all obsessed with maintaining the good ol’ boy (and girl) network and their “bottom line.” You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You join my board of directors–and grant me my megabucks bonus. And no more than the nobles were noble in the best sense of the word, our 1% is hardly “the best and brightest” as they purport: as if an advantaged, upper-middle class upbringing and education at so-called “elite” universities notorious for legacy admissions and rampant grade inflation were enough to confer “honor” and commensurate salaries. The fact is, we’ve been witnessing far too many instances of corporate incompetence and dishonesty before–and after– the financial crisis of 2008: from Ken Lay of Enron, Carly Fiorina of Hewlett Packard, Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers, Tony Hayward of BP, to Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan–just to name a few. And much the same goes for academe–for instance, the retention of tenured faculty and administration who plagiarize or engage in other fraudulent activity. Just as the king can do no wrong, the poobahs can do no wrong either.
“Best and brightest” indeed. How could so many not have caught what was going wrong in the first place–especially when it’s clear in the cases of Enron and BP that management was already alerted to misdoings and criminal error? Even in less wanton cases, we wonder. Take the asinine decision of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings when he doubled fees for streaming films and renting DVD’s last year–before making the equally ill advised decision of splitting the enterprise. Did he not think that subscribers would notice a substantial increase? Or take management that chooses to blame anyone but themselves for a failing business–for instance, Avon, when it blamed a direct sales model even though companies as different as Tupperware and Herbalife were doing quite well with it.
Let’s face it, isn’t the reason why CEOs and their immediate henchmen and women are paid so lavishly precisely because they are expected to be accountable for their companies from A to Z? One can only surmise that they were too busy schmoozing with members of Congress and other bigwigs, attending lavish fundraisers, cocktails and opening night events that they simply “overlooked” a few important matters.
As such, it’s hard not to roll our eyes at the dozens of excuses for bloated CEO pay–not to mention low taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals. “They’ll move away,” the GOP and their partners-in- crime, Bluedog Dems, opine. So they just might. But c’mon, who are we really kidding? Which other nation awards its CEO’s 300 to 500x as much the average employee? Japan pays them 11x, Germany 12x, France 15x, and the UK 22x as much. Not to mention, which Western nation–especially those most resembling the US culturally–has lower taxes for the wealthy? Again, none of these countries, and not Sweden, Norway, or Denmark.
Yes, maybe, just maybe, that CEO might pick up and relocate his family and his corporation to a remote island–right? Highly unlikely. For starters, it’s doubtful that the families of these ostentatious folks would be willing to be uprooted to a remote island where no one knows them. After all, we know, à la Hume, that the pleasure of riches lies at least as much in the prospect of showing it off to one’s peers and society. That’s why folks who gripe about high state taxes in such enclaves as Darien, Greenwich, Westport, New Canaan, Westchester, Hamptons, Dutchess County NY mostly stay put.
Then there’s the most ludicrous argument of all, the crowning glory: that the 1% are used to their lifestyles and changing them drastically could be “psychologically damaging.” Tell that to the worker who got laid off. Tell that to the family that got foreclosed out of no fault of its own. And tell that to the employee with no health benefits and ends up bankrupting his or her family.
So let’s put it as clearly as possible, just in case these “best and brightest” don’t get it. If you don’t want to pay taxes to a country that has allowed you–and your company–to prosper both directly and indirectly, good riddance. We don’t need “patriots” of your stripe: because there are many potential stars out there who are willing to do it for much less. Maybe it’s time for you to take up Newt’s proposal for moon colonies and find a place out there. And since the moon has always been associated with lunacy, perhaps that might well be the most appropriate place for delusional megalomaniacs.
But it gets better. On top of all of this is the accompanying argument against any sort of change. American exceptionalism, if you will. We have it all, so the “logic” goes: freedom, democracy and the ability to move on up Horatio-Alger style! Without actually recalling that compared to Denmark, France, and the UK, we have less mobility, i.e., we are less able to move out from our parents’ class. That’s good news if you’re the 1% or even lowly 10%, but not so hot if you’re anywhere below. This is what Sieyès had to say:
Has nobody noticed that while on the one hand, we basely and I dare say stupidly accept this situation of ours, on the other hand, when we read the, history of Egypt or stories of travels in India, we describe the same kind of conditions as despicable, monstrous, destructive of all industry, as inimical to social progress, and above all, as debasing to the human race in general and intolerable to Europeans in particular?
Plus c’est la même chose–as if we lived in a Panglossian “best of all worlds!” Again, our inequalities make us little better than any developing nation banana republic, especially when half of our population are either low income or destitute while the top 1% of the 1% are reaping the largest portion of financial gains over the last 20 years. Gross inequalities suck, whether in the “third world” or “first.” If anything, it’s more deplorable in the latter.
So how does our Third Estate, aka 99%, stand today?
Who is bold enough to maintain that the Third Estate does not contain within itself everything needful to constitute a complete nation? It is like a strong and robust man with one arm still in chains. If the privileged order were removed, the nation would not be something less but something more. What then is the Third Estate? All; but an wall” that is fettered and oppressed. What would it be without the privileged order? It would be all; but free and flourishing. Nothing will go well without the Third Estate; everything would go considerably better without the two others.
Mais oui! Oppressed then, oppressed now–even if we are better fed and have newer and better toys. Imagine a world where overpaid CEOs and their minions in government are not busy busting unions, laying off, outsourcing jobs abroad (where conditions for their workers are inexcusable), and polluting the environment. Imagine a world where 1%ers are not preoccupied with lobbying the government and funding politicians friendly to their cause–or creating faux grassroots platforms like the Tea Party. Imagine too a world where the 99% enjoyed job stability and security, adequate healthcare and benefits just like in the 1950s, 60s and yes, even the darker’70s. Is the 99% better off today than it was 40 years ago? I think most of us who haven’t bought into right-wing propaganda know the answer to that question.
So CEO’s, instead of paying yourself 400x or trying to please your shareholders in the short run, why not think about hiring more workers, compensating them fairly, and/or training your employees so they can find other work? Especially when it has been proven time and time again that a workforce with higher morale also works more efficiently. Utilities CEOs, why not hire more lineworkers so that power outages don’t have require as much time and out-of-state assistance? (Perhaps this way we could have avoided the deaths during the freak New England October blizzard and the 30 deaths in the recent mid-Atlantic storm!)
(To be continued)
Copyright © 2012 HISTORY IS ON OUR SIDE (Frances A. Chiu)