Frances Moore Lappé, Common Dreams:
Most coverage of the Yellow Vest movement in France—lasting seven weeks and drawing hundreds of thousands onto the streets—misses a key question, and one at the heart of our own nation’s journey.
We’re told the diesel tax hike was the “last straw” for the rural, working poor unable to make ends meet, while the underlying cause of the uprising is resentment at the worsening inequality.
If the stress of making ends meet and economic inequality were the distinguishing causal forces, shouldn’t Americans have been the first to hit the streets? In France the top fifth of all earners receive almost five times more than the bottom fifth. Sounds extreme. But here that gap is eight-fold.
So, what’s to explain the relative quiescence of Americans confronting more extreme violations of basic fairness than their French counterparts?
Many factors, of course. But I’m convinced that in part it’s that we Americans have more thoroughly absorbed the notion that our fate is our fault.
Americans have bought into a particularly virulent version of social Darwinism—dismissed by science more than a century ago. We cling to the belief that in our dog-eat-dog world, ruled by an infallible “free market,” the best rise to the top. So, we’re set up to feel demeaned if we are struggling to get by. And, on top of that, we feel trapped because in our collective psyche there’s no fix to inequality that wouldn’t wreck the market’s magic.
Yes, France also has a capitalist economy, but deep within its culture are values at the heart of its 1789 revolution—“liberté, égalité, fraternité.” They are not viewed as tradeoffs but as essential to one another—and written into the 1958 French constitution. For the French, equality is a positive value; whereas here at home calls for greater equality are fought by evoking fear of creeping “communism” and—with racist undertones—the coddling of the “undeserving” poor.
Listening to the Yellow Vests, we can reject the lie that a market works on its own for the good of all. As citizens step up in the rising Democracy Movement, they are striving not only to fix our broken political democracy but to work for a democratic economy as well. Citizen-led campaigns in the midterms increased the minimum wage in two states. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren are leading the push for legislation giving workers the right to elect representatives to corporate boards.
In this good work, Americans are rejecting the false “tradeoffs” frame as we come to understand that achieving greater economic equality furthers other values we hold dear, including economic and social vitality and, ultimately, life itself.