I’m in Paris for the month of December and just passed through my first weekend of the Gilets Jaunes protests. Action sparked by the fuel tax France is supposed to impose (in some form) under the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. As of last week, the fuel tax is no longer, but the protests continued this weekend, expanding the mandate to the pervasive, systemic problem of income inequality.
While I am in favour of taxes, as a way to encourage fuel efficiency, the question of who pays and how for the depredations wrought on the environment is a high wire act. In our capitalist system of “intensifying inequality” (as Jonathan Beller puts it in Cabinet), the less money one has, the greater the imposition. This same rotted logic insinuates itself into every corner of our social and economic system.
We can tinker forever with little changes in tax regulations; it won’t be enough to remedy the massively increasing inequality. This is one instance in which the baby should go out with the bathwater. Capitalism is not simply unjust; it is diseased and agonizing on its deathbed. We mistake the engorged quantities of wealth as indications of capitalism’s health and success. Instead, we should hear it as the death rattle of a system riddled with an incurable, virulent, contagious pathogen.
From Jean de La Fontaine’s own home and native land, I offer this 17th century perspective.
The loss of a new husband doesn’t come without its sighs. We make a lot of noise, and then we console ourselves. Sadness flies away on Time’s wings and Time brings back life’s pleasures. Between the widow of one year and the widow of a day, there is a world of difference. We could hardly believe she was the same person. The widow of a day sets people running scared. The widow of a year has a thousand attractions. Whether the initial sighs are ones of sadness or artifice, she abandons herself to the act. It’s always the same note, the same lines. We say we’re inconsolable, but it means nothing; as you’ll see in this fable, or rather by its truth.
A young and handsome husband was leaving for the other world.
At his side, his wife cried: “Wait for me. I’ll follow you. My soul, like yours, is ready to fly away.”
The husband made the journey alone.
The young beauty had a father, a prudent and wise man. He let the torrent flow and when it was done, to console her, he said: “My daughter, you have cried too much. What need does your dead husband have for you to drown your charms? There are still so many men alive, stop thinking of the dead. I’m not saying that you will be happy again right away and that you’ll marry in the midst of this grief. But, after a certain time, at least let me propose a handsome man, well made, young, someone different from your dead husband.”
“Ah!” The young widow said immediately, “A cloister is the husband I need.”
The father let her wallow in her sad state. A month passed like this. The next month was taken up with changes every day, something in the way she dressed, new underwear, new hairstyle. Mourning is, in the end, a matter of outfits. And while waiting to be rid of the widow’s weeds, all of Love’s gang returns to the nest; games, laughter and dance, all have their turn in the end. We plunge night and day in the fountain of youth again.
The father was no longer worried about the beloved dead husband’s shadow. But since he wasn’t saying anything to our beauty:
“Where’s that young husband you promised me?” She said.
In human time (BC and AD), we are still young brides enthralled with our dashing capitalist husband, as he lies (still so handsome-seeming) on his deathbed. He’s our crypto billionaire and we can’t live without him. Or maybe we can … one preliminary antidote is this article in Breaker by Laurie Penny, who spent four days on a cruise with hyper-wealthy crypto-types. If these are the men designing our future world, we are in big trouble.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we see, at least some, of the symptoms of our one-true-love’s disease. Alongside gross inequality and exploitation is the transformation of our attention into a resource, just like our labour. We all feel the effects of the attention economy. One statistic: sales of location-targeted advertising are apparently forecast to hit $21B this year. That’s advertisers who buy information from all the apps we use, which plot our locations minute-by-minute. Our attention has been commoditized and resource-ified. In the process it has also been pureed into baby spoonfuls of attentive moments. We are losing our ability to pay attention as a way of being alive in the world, as Dan Nixon points out in Aeon.
Meanwhile, our how we are alive in the world may not matter soon, because the capitalism epidemic is threatening to kill all of us, plus a host of other species. Trump’s new “energy dominance” plan to open 9 million acres of environmentally protected land to oil and gas is but one small recent example. Capitalism is killing our planet.
Our real failure of imagination is that we can imagine our planet dying, but we can’t imagine capitalism dying.
It is time. Stop pretending we can prop up the corpse with a few legislative changes. Let capitalism die. Yes, we will have to traverse the same terrain as every new widow—the weeping, the gnashing of teeth and the bland clothes—grief and fear are inevitable.
If we don’t start the mourning process, we will never figure out what our new economic system will look like and we won’t ever be happy again.
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