“Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Ou la Mort)”


Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Ou la Mort)

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, among other things, this is the national motto of France. I list it here as a ‘term to know’. Why? Its relevance would be one reason. Economically, historically, sociologically, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité“, or ‘LEF’, is presently relevant, which is to say, loaded: it’s language that, on the one hand, symbolizes—the Zeitgeist of the French Revolution(s)—and, on the other, invokes. Much as is the case with the motto of the state of New Hampshire, “Live Free or Die!”, it contains in its meanings an occult appeal… and, I would suggest, a command. Like “Live Free or Die!“, LEF is telling us how to live: not a command most of us are willing to accept explicitly. In fact, some would say, LEF is preaching to us, and in a manner far more sinister than that recently adopted by the Pope in the missive, Evangelii Gaudium.

Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

LEF symbolizes, as I have said, a Zeitgeist, that of France in the era that began with the Revolution of 1789 and ended with the tearing down of the Paris Commune. It will be remembered that, in this period, France made social and economic leaps as volcanic and dramatic as those of the American Revolution were not. She went from a state of monarchical feudalism, to an unstable, utopian form of democratic capitalism, to a meritocratic dictatorship, to a short-lived Napoleonic empire, to a constitutional monarchy, back to a capitalistic republic… albeit one from which some were keen to remove LEF and replace it with the label DIS: “Déterminisme, Inégalité, Sélection“. LEF made a return as the motto of the Third Republic of France; by that time, of course, France was a far removed from the Zeitgeist of the Revolution as the United States of the Gilded Age was removed from the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy. LEF was the ghost of the French Revolution, and, as such, a spirit not too far removed from the much dreaded Marxian specter.

In a recent talk, economist and workplace democracy advocate Prof. Richard Wolff raised the specter of LEF. He did so at an (in)opportune time: a week or so removed from the passing of Nelson Mandela. Deftly enough (I thought), Prof. Wolff likened the failure of the ideals of French Revolutionary era democratic capitalism—a failure to which Marx himself bore witness in Paris circa the February Revolution of 1848, a failure that largely inspired (or, to use the Marxian term, ‘overdetermined’) his conception of class conflict in the capitalist mode of production—to the failure of the noble-hearted and much lionized Mr. Mandela to follow the end of literal Apartheid in South Africa with the elimination of the economic Apartheid by which that nation is presently gripped. It will be remembered that, in the early 90s, as President of South Africa, Mandela was keen on realizing a longstanding ambition of his: nationalizing the South African mining industry to the end of mitigating the poverty and gross income inequality that were then—and are still today—the bane of his nation. South Africa today quite literally owns the dubious distinction of being the most economically unbalanced nation in the world. With a Gini Index in the mid-60s, it does—much as did was in the 90s—provide a classic example of economic Apartheid. That said, despite broad-scale support in South Africa for his ambitions, President Mandela succumbed to international pressure not to become a second Mohammed Mossadegh. He refrained from and abjured nationalization, a fact that, given the persistence of economic Apartheid—what some would characterize as a neofeudal state—in South Africa, may or may not taint his prodigious legacy.

So, besides remembering Mandela and the economic sermonizing of a new pope, why all this talk of LEF and Gini Coefficients? How is it that inequality—specifically, economic inequality—is as relevant as it is? After all, in many parts of the world—in South America, Australia, and parts of Asia, for instance—things are looking up. Economies and nations are starting to emerge from the shadows of colonialism and neocolonialism and are asserting themselves… over and against British and American hegemony, over and against the hegemony of foreign multi-nationals. (Which is why trade deals like TPP are such nettlesome and significant issues. TPP, for one, may well turn out to allow corporations to sue states over environmental and other laws and regulations they don’t like.) On the other hand, in America and the UK, there is, indeed, a sense that a sea-change is in the offing—one unrelated to climate change, which may soon see the Florida Keys go the way of the legendary city of Atlantis!

Socially, economically, the United States, for one, is at a point of departure. Thirty to forty years of corporate claw-back, of ‘tricke-down’, and ‘letting markets decide’, has seen the United States emerge from out of the wet dream of its Golden Age (1945-1968) to the so-called crisis of American Capitalism, which crisis many an astute Marxian commentator have recognized has been displaced onto the Federal Government. Before the malaise of the late 70s and the false optimism of the Reagan and Clintonian eras, the United States boasted a healthy and thriving middle class, a standard of living that was the envy of the world, and, significantly, a healthy Gini Index of around 35. (N.b., the Gini Index runs as follows. 0 is perfect income equality; 100 is all of state’s wealth in one individual’s hands. Socialist nations like Sweden maintain a Gini Index in the low 20s, while states characterized by extreme poverty, predominately black economies, warlordism, and neofeudal conditions are 50+. South Africa typically presents the worst Gini Index of all nations: 65 or so; Haiti and Nambia come in at about 60; while much of the Third World is in the low fifties. The Gini Indices of some healthy economies: Germany 27-29; Canada 32-35; Australia 30-32. The world average is 39.) The United States had largely won the War on Poverty which, recently—and in a disgusting and highly disingenuous manner—Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio (among others) have been wanting to liken to an economic Afghanistan… note, forty-some years after the fact.

Today, after three major economic collapses (in 1987, 2000, and 2007), a vast upward redistribution of wealth that has largely been the result of the Reagan and Bush II tax cuts (rather than ‘trickle down’, author David Kay Johnson is fond of referring to Supply Side tax policy as ‘Niagara up’), and the impact of the outsourcing and mechanization of the American manufacturing sector, the United States economy is starved for good paying middle class and blue collar jobs, unemployment and poor capacity utilization are persistent problems, real wages have stagnated, and the U.S. runs an astonishingly high Gini Index of around 45. True, worker productivity is at all-time highs, corporate profits and CEO pay (especially in the financial services industry) are through the roof, and the stock market, aside from crisis moments reached after the 9-11 and the three aforementioned economic collapses, continues to turn a healthy profit for America’s investment class. For many in the Forbes 400 and America’s corporate sector times are good indeed. But, for 90% of the country, the era of trickle-down/Niagara up has been a time of stagnation and decline. What’s more, after having spent liberally on corporate bailouts and subsidies and foreign wars, given revenue problems associated with 30+ years of a national tax holiday, and the budgetary issues created by an increasingly senescent population, the U.S. government is in no position to help mitigate this decline. Add to this the coup de grâce many pensioners are presently being hit with: in a fashion no less disgusting and disingenuous as that with which Rep. Paul Ryan would read the Last Rites to America’s social safety net (one wonders if, pious Catholic that he purports to be, he has heard what his Pope has had to say about his ethos), corporations and municipalities are now beginning to signal the need to cut back on pensions for which these workers have, for decades, forsaken claims to wage increases, pensions which, Prof. Wolff has pointed out, have been part and parcel of their compensation packages.

So, income inequality is now the issue of the day. And, as it is such, so the ghost-like triptych LEF has crawled out of the spider hole in which it has been hiding in Europe, and is now staring us in the face. Much like the famously snarky population that gave it birth, it is quietly and ironically mocking us and our circumstance, and the fact that the triptych by which we have lived for well-nigh four decades—the triptych that LEF itself evoked from 19th Century France—viz. ‘DIS’ has lead us to social and economic quicksand.

Of course, the studious reader of these lines would be right in asserting this point of correction. I’ve said that it’s been according to a tripartite motto that America has proceeded in the period in question (perhaps it will one day be known—and blessed or cursed—as the Age of Rex Reagan and the Chicago Boys). That’s not quite accurate. Our motto has been one of four terms: “LIVE FREE OR DIE!” (As it is a command, one more explicit and less occult than that inherent in LEF, it really should take an exclamation point.) What exactly is meant by ‘FREE’ in this dictum might be deemed the question—and, by some, the joke. Nonetheless, of all those inclined to questions and jokes along these lines, I would beg to consider LEF’s Jacobin formulation. Rather than a triptych or a four-parter, it’s got five terms: LEFOM… “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité Ou la Mort!” And it’s the warning that history offers the would-be 21st Century plutonomist. It’s more pointed than the Pope’s.

“Don’t lose your head!”

circa 1789, Antoine François Momoro

Related words:
Gini Index, claw-back, neofeudalism

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