A wrecked ship being dragged into a drydock by prisoners drenched in rain and seawater serves at the spectacle to open the motion picture Les Miserable. Themes of rebellion, justice and greed run through the entire film. (And with greater force through the massive 5 volume novel from which the plot was extracted.)
As America allegedly teeters on the fiscal cliff today, I doubt many of the millions of American retain the capacity to understand what that opening scene means. The movie seems to reduce the novel’s demand for justice and a new world to a quest for personal redemption and religious salvation. Certainly the benighted graduates of the business schools of America, who quit the humanities after a handful of 101 courses to begin their study of “what is really important” are unlikely to get it.
Unless we grasp the issues raised in this film, which are the transformative themes of Dickens, Zola, Flaubert, Twain and Hugo we risk stumbling back to the world these visionaries saved us from. They squandered their educations on the Iliad and Shakespere when they could have been studying management and accounting. They knew what slums smelled like and the knowing fear of desperation. They saw revolution, poverty, sickness and death.
And from Huck Finn’s decision to go to hell for his friend Jim to Tiny Tim’s crutch abandoned by the fire, these great storytellers rescued us from the hell of 19th century industrial plutocracy to a world where ordinary people could be educated, have health care, know leisure and have safe, warm homes. In 75 years, their stories reshaped the world to one where the mechanic and the baker became the people in Norman Rockwell paintings and Better Home and Gardens advertisements.
When European fascism rose up from the ashes of the Plutocracy’s unsustainable speculative and real estate bubble economy in the 1920s, the children who’s grandparents sweated in factories like those described in those novels blasted state sponsored industrial military socialism back into it’s hole for at least two generations.
However today in Washington, the Repubublicans stand eager to serve the desires of the wealthy and the Democrats hope for the moment of popular distraction when they too can indulge in a long pull from the corporate teat. Democracy, a decent standard of living, the freedom to think and the decency of arriving, not exhausted, to a PTA meeting after a dinner at home all hang in peril. The “Fiscal Cliff” latest in a dozen year long series crises contrived to make the remaining wealth of the United States craw uphill is upon us. Every solution proposed will mean most of our children will have less. Our public institutions will be drained. Our monuments and public improvements will continue to decay and rot.
The fallow mountains of wealth, connected by private jet flights through the strastosphere far above the heads of the damned will continue to rise until finally, some time in the future, as set out in the history described in these novels and recorded less memorably in faded newspapers and economic indexes, the determination of the universe to right itself will be reasserted.
Wealth will be redistributed. Progressive taxation, government regulation and making enterprise pay for its impacts on our society are intolerable to the right. America may have to resort to the historic ways of making right: crime, revolution, death and economic collapse. They often visit a society together. When they do, those who held out against lesser depradtions may dream of the time when a slightly larger tax payment was an option.
That is what, generally Les Miserable, and most of the great 19th century social justice novels are about. These lessons, and this film, are fully relevant to our time.
The opening scene of the movie depicts France itself, broken and smashed by over a decade of Napoleonic warfare, breaking the backs of its people in the brutality and want created by war. France is the broken ship. The convicts slaving in the rain are the French people. The government officers and their brutality are the system.
It’s always about the next war. Perhaps if we lined up 1000 WalMart Associates and forced them to drag the wreckage of the 600 million dollar Steal Bomber South Carolina across a runway that would be clear. After a the cost of a massive security state and two wars, Americans are being asked to sacrifice security in their old age, their children’s educations and basic things like public transit so Herman Karzai can sleep at night and Halliburton can grow fat.
I listen, in vain, for any indication that our military establishment will be cut, even though we spend more on our military than the next ten nations on earth combined. We’ll continue to subsidize large corporations, who are paying virtually no taxes, with government contracts, free infrastructure and endless tax breaks.
Hugo is too good a novelist and humanitarian to show us a poor who are always noble. His poor are as sick as the wealthy with greed, they merely steal less with greater effort. They take your teeth. The government and factory owner take your entire life.
That may leave American audiences confused. Our capacity for analysis has been so reduced that we may no longer be able to recognize impersonal oppression.
The news about the fiscal cliff baffles even me. The layers of dishonesty involved are impossible to unravel. However, I recognize that the peace and prosperity we had at the Millennium has been smashed. I remember that hopeful celebration well and the better world we hoped for when we stood together, joyfully signing in the night twelve years ago at the Customs House in Charleston, SC. I refuse to forgive the greedy and primitive men who sat in both caves and boardrooms conspiring to destroy it.
This New Years, let us prepare for a better world, remembering the miseries and suffering depicted in these old novels and the world our Great Great Grandparents escaped. We should not let purchased lies and betrayal return us to them.