There is always a lot of pain and frustration in the bottom 50% of all societies. During periods of systematic support to this group, as was in Europe and US during 1930-1990, the pain is tolerable. However, we are moving back into the inequality that was prevalent by early 1900 in Europe. At that time it was inheritance aristocracy, intermingled with monopolistic capitalists who were the 1%.
Today it is mainly owners of corporations and top-managers.
The symbol of the 1900 aristocracy was the cylinder tophat, the symbol of elite. Today it is an Audi Q7 or a Tesla.
Thomas Piketty wrote brilliantly about this in his classic “Capital in the 21st Century”, and his more recent research.
The Yellow Vest/Gilet Jaune movement is a canalization of this frustration, through a specific narrative. Today, our society has this dominant mythology:
“Society improves through economic growth. More consumption (i.e. growth) solves all problems and improves the lives of everybody, especially those who work hard!”
The yellow vest movement has clearly identified the problem with the second part of the statement. The economic growth does not at all benefit everybody. The bottom 50% has got a lower or fixed purchase power since the 1990s, coupled with a steadily worsening health situation. When Macron removed the wealth tax last year and to add insult to injury also proclaimed to increase the fuel tax, that was the final drop. The protesters took to the street and chanted: “Macron demission” and “Trop de taxes“.
I see three problems with the narrative of the dominant mythology and the story of the Yellow Vests:
First of all, the cost of commuting to work is increasing with fuel tax, but that is possible to solve in different ways. The easiest way is to improve car fuel efficiency. The Yellow Vests should have attacked Renault headquarters for the malpractice of selling cars with terrible fuel efficiency. It is clearly possible to improve fuel efficiency with factor 10 if we want to, which would dramatically reduce the fuel cost for the people. (See e.g. Shell Ecomarathon) As an engineer I am ashamed of the terrible job we have done at improving the fuel efficiency of cars. We just added entertainment and comfort for three decades. (and I was part of this during my years working for the Delphi group)
Secondly, the problem is not too much taxes, but that the wrong people carry the tax burden. Corporations and the wealthy pay less and less every year, shifting the burden to the bottom 75%.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the first part of the story is wrong. Economic growth is not necessary for society to improve. In the coming century, we will collectively be able to consume less resources than in the overflow bonanza of the last 100 years. We are running out of the same resources that have powered the phenomenal growth of comfort and luxury for the last century. This is not new, it was very well formulated in the landmark book “Limits to Growth” in 1973, but since 1980 all major politicians and industrial leaders have conveniently ignored this fact.
My suggestion is that we should follow the lead of George Monbiot and formulate a new narrative, that goes something like this:
“Corporations and the elite and the top 20% riches of the World population have squandered resources for the coming generations, and we need to stop this now. We (rich) must moderate our consumption. Now is the time to shift the tables. We will re-introduce fair taxation and change the society norms, including re-introducing restriction on rents. We will no longer be accept to be brainwashed by commercials every day.
We will eat locally grown vegetables and support each other, which will give us healthy and rich lives. We will live in smaller houses and use more bicycles. We will live great lives inside the planetary boundaries and enjoy the bounty of Nature together. Happily ever after.”
The yellow vests’ anger is well grounded, and I hope we can use the power of this anger to transform society into a better place for all of Nature, including us. One of the most inspiring examples I know is the “RetroSuburbia” movement, ignited by David Holmgren in Australia – I very much recommend to read his fantastic book on the topic!
One of the downshifting families of the RetroSuburbia movement.What do you do to prepare for a low-impact future?