Sometimes it is useful to take a step back from the day-to-day squabble that is American politics to look at the larger picture. For while races between Republicans and Democrats remain extremely competitive, from state legislatures to the office of President, there are underlying factors and forces at play that the news media and American public remain incapable of grasping, and yet these forces will dominate our destiny as a nation.
For instance, consider the general trend of the world economy. Many of the richest, most developed countries find themselves with severe debt problems, and even emerging economies that have been enjoying prosperity, such as India, China, and Brazil, have seen their growth slow over the last several years. Astoundingly, though economies (and certainly the world’s is no exception) are, as a rule, exceedingly complex, the underlying problem is quite simple: low demand. See, though the middle classes are burgeoning in places like India, China, and Brazil, the growth can’t come close to replacing the dying middle classes of the U.S. and European Nations. In essence, too many people don’t have enough money to buy the products and services that businesses and corporations are producing. Moreover, because of debt concerns in the U.S. and European Nations, governments aren’t spending to augment the flagging demand; hence, what we have is a world economy on the brink of a dire recession/depression.
But it is important to note that the money didn’t just disappear—it has simply been transferred into the hands of the very wealthy. Indeed, the inequality of wealth distribution, a noted problem in the U.S., is actually a world phenomenon. A study in 2006 by the U.N. found that the richest 1% of the world’s population owned about 40% of the world’s wealth, that the richest 10% of the world owned 85% of the world’s wealth, and that the poorest 50% of all human beings on the planet owned barely 1% of the world’s wealth.
What is more troubling, is that by and large, politicians haven’t demonstrated a marked effort to reverse the trend. In the U.S., though President Obama has argued for higher taxes on the rich and ending subsidies for large corporations, nothing concrete has been accomplished on income inequality or for that matter, tax fairness, primarily due to Republican obstruction. Ironically, in the U.S., which houses about a third of the world’s richest people, the Supreme Court just paved the way (with the infamous Citizens United ruling) for those individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence U.S. elections, making any solution to income inequality much more difficult to achieve.
In Europe, though France recently elected socialist Francois Hollande, most politicians in the EU, as well as in the individual nations, are more committed to austerity than pro-growth policies. However, being that Europe is further along in its economic troubles than the U.S. (Spain boasts an unemployment rate of 24%, and the overall European rate is about 11%), the general population is beginning to understand their plight.
Common to both U.S. and European unemployment is the fact that young workers are being affected at a far greater rate than older workers. This scenario is true in the Middle East as well—in fact it served as a catalyst to the “Arab Spring” which saw Egypt’s regime toppled and its prime minister, Hosni Mubarak, sentenced to a life in prison for his role in putting down protests. Indeed, the economic prospects for the world’s young adults and those even younger, are bleak.
So, to sum up, we have a world economy that is verging on collapse due to low demand (national debts in the U.S. and Europe only exacerbate this problem), massively unequal wealth distribution throughout the world, and an entire generation of young people, many of them very well educated, subjected to extremely high unemployment. And to boot, the people best situated to deal with the situation, the world’s leaders and politicians, are either pursuing austerity policies, or are unable to cultivate the type of change that would reverse these trends, meaning that the suffering of those in the middle and lower classes will likely continue unabated.
To the trained historical eye, in other words, what we see happening today looks very similar to what happened in France before the French revolution, and what happened in Europe during the other various revolutions in which monarchs lost their power to national assemblies and other government bodies.
Consider the situation, for example, leading up to the French Revolution: three percent of the population, the nobility and the clergy, had virtually all of the political (and much of the economic) power. The nobility was embodied by Louis XIV, XV, and XVI, all of whom were the decadent, out-of-touch kings of France, who spent their kingdoms into debt by building extravagant palaces (XIV), getting into foreign wars (XV), and through general incompetence (XVI). The true catalyst came, finally, when in an attempt to leverage financial control (read: austerity), Louis XVI enacted financial policies that “burdened the poor, and pardoned the rich.” He then deregulated the grain market, which caused the price of bread to skyrocket.
Does this sound familiar? It should, because this is precisely what is happening in both the U.S. and Europe. Government debt is being dealt with in a way that primarily forces the pain of the payments on the middle and lower classes, while the richest citizens and corporations continue to pay relatively low tax rates (some of the largest U.S. corporations pay no taxes at all). Moreover, the spending that caused the debt, did not, by and large, benefit the third estate (peasant class) in Pre-Revolutionary France, as it has not appreciably translated into higher wages for American or European workers, and certainly not at the rate that the salaries and profits of the rich have risen over the past 30 years. For example, recent data in 2010 shows that the top 1% of income earners in 2010 received 93% of the additional income created that year.
Of course, the lesson here is what happened to Louis XVI: he was beheaded on by a guillotine at the hands of the Parisian mob. See, though the French peasantry experienced tremendous pain and hardship during the reign leading up to the revolution, they had their revenge. The monarchy and clergy, protected from their policies by political power and luxury, could not in the end, shield themselves from the outcomes of those same policies. They were taken from their homes by desperate men with torches and pitchforks, carried into the city, and beheaded, only to have their names live on in history as bungling rulers that deserved their fate.
It will be interesting indeed, to see if today’s politicians and their wealthy benefactors will remember Louis XVI and the lessons of the French Revolution. For, while they may be removed from the pain they’ve caused through austerity policies, as well as the massive divide in wealth distribution, bad political decisions rarely right themselves on their own; rather, they eventually cause a breakdown of society, and society, being just, returns them to their rightful heirs.