Striking French Workers Tear the Shirts Off Air France Executives

I can’t stop thinking about this slideshow in The Atlantic showing angry crowds of union activists literally tearing the shirts off the backs of Air France executives. These are powerful images, especially toward the end of the slideshow, when you see middle-aged men wearing scraps of clothing—a tie, a cuff from a shirt—being helped over a fence to escape the angry mobs. It’s an astonishing piece of photojournalism, a dramatic and discomfiting representation of very real problems happening in France right now.

Ben Bernanke's official portrait.

Ben Bernanke’s official portrait.

Perhaps for obvious reasons, these photos keep swirling around in my head with the news that former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke admitted that “more corporate executives should have gone to jail for their misdeeds” in the Great Recession of 2008. Of course, this should not be a controversial statement, but given how intensely people agitated for prosecution in the case of corporate malfeasance at the time, and given how little action the government actually took, it’s actually fairly explosive.

And the combination of these two stories popping up in the same twenty-four hour period has me thinking about Civic Ventures co-founder Nick Hanauer’s piece “The Pitchforks Are Coming…for Us Plutocrats.”

But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

Obviously, a global revolution is not going to start over an airline worker dispute in France. And the American people are not going to tear everything down because Bernanke finally admitted that some moguls should have gone to jail for the Financial Collapse of 2008. But if inequality continues to expand, at some point you’ll have enough stories like this coming from a variety of sources. If that happens, if the conditions are just right, Hanauer’s prediction might very well come true.

Paul Constant

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