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French Lesson…


Rick Wolfe – from whom I took courses when I was in graduate school in economics a few decades back – has written a succinct and wise reaction to the plan of the French government which has elicited uprisings throughout that country – a million people a day demonstrating, etc. You can find it here.

The policy spurring immense resistance, as reported by Wolfe and others, was to raise the retirement age a couple of years – and also the age of receipt of maximum benefits, I believe. This is a serious step which is idiotic, unless one cares only about aggrandizing the rich and empowering the powerful, for reasons Wolfe makes clear. 

But I want to look at a different side of the current events in France. Three weeks ago, there was relative calm throughout France. Now there is incredible turmoil threatening to reach May 68 proportions, with first unions, then workers more generally, and now youth taking to the streets. What happened to incite this was, well, a change that would hurt people in their sixties – and, due to diminishing new jobs also young folks – but, still, not the end of the world as the French know it. In fact, considering the general state of abject subordination of the bulk of the population of France to the owners and what I call the coordinator class doing very well (though even the later take a bit of a hit in many respects) – the odious retirement policy is a further loss, but one has to admit, quite minimal compared to the on-going depravity of poverty, daily lack of power, and so on.

Imagine someone held in custody, controlled, who faces some real but modest further loss. The new policy is no TV for an hour a night, or no desert three days a week, or whatever. I mean, let's not get into trying to make an exact analogy – I don't know how many people will suffer how much from the French policy if it becomes the norm. A lot, it is bad, but I do know that while that new suffering is going to be real and painful, it is also going to be proportionately a relatively modest addition to the general level of denial and subordination that the French working population daily endure. This is wage slavery – with an extra insult.

Okay, so my observation is this.

The French population – like all others – at times goes into overdrive anger and, more important, widespread and sometimes very effective activism in response to some new insult to their dignity and material well being. However, the vastly greater status quo of denial and subordination that is present all the time, elicits nearly no reactions. 

The same thing holds in the U.S. and really, everywhere. 

How come?

Are we frogs – slowly boiled by water that gets hotter and hotter, but the increase in temperature occurs only a very little at a time accumulating over a considerable period, and we sit in the water acclimated to each new degree of pain and accepting it until we are dead, like frogs do – though if you shock us with a sudden increase – we leap, again like frogs do?

I think that is way too simple. People are not frogs.

But that doesn't mean this common situation needs no explanation. We rebel at relatively modest new shocks that are big enough to catch our attention. We accept enduring horrors, This doesn't cause most people to wonder – yet it is remarkable if seen as I have described.

We see and feel the quick new insult – the new policy – and we react and we all find the reaction perfectly understandable. We abide the status quo, and we all find our lack of reaction to daily life's much worse indignities and violations natural, too. How come?

Here is a hypothesis.

The status quo seems to us, well, the way it is. It is the world and we must grin and bear it. We can whine a little – though it is a bit unseemly – but to rebel is ridiculous. Demonstrating in the streets about poverty and lack of power in general is like rebelling again aging or gravity. In these respects the world is the way the world is. Life is not a bowl full of cherries. Suck it up and do the best you can. Looking a fraction deeper, this is fundamentally saying, there is nothing to win. Rebelling is a waste of time, at best, and an invitation to big trouble, at worst. So obviously we don't do it. 

The sudden jarring insult – in this case raising the retirement age – feels different. This, a considerable number feel, is not the way the world must be. This is a change we don't have to have. Hell, we can resist this change, and win. So it is worth it to rebel, to fight, to say no. Not with our lives, you can't do that. We may have to be wage slaves day after day, after month, after year – but we don't have to do it for two years longer. We're going to the streets!

If the above is right, and roughly speaking I think it is, it is of fundamental importance. The events tell us that if we want to actually change the status quo – for example, to get rid of wage slavery (and not just a couple of additional years of it), we have to enlarge people's awareness in such a way that daily life is seen in the same way as a new horrid policy – only more so. It doesn't have to be. Not with our lives, you don't. And this means people must come to feel that daily life is a mammoth insult as compared to what life can and should be.

Okay, call me a one idea thinker – I look at France and I see the courage of people in motion, I see their potential power, I see the pain that even a relatively modest new insult causes, and on and on. But, mostly, I see that the difference between resistance and revolution is vision and the hope vision can inspire and orientation it can give.

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