Why American Conservatives Are Suddenly Freaking Out About Guillotines

Lynne Stuart Parramore

On the June cover of the conservative magazine American Spectator, a vision arises from the collective unconscious of the rich. Angry citizens look on as a monocled fatcat is led to a blood-soaked guillotine, calling up the memory of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, when tens of thousands were executed, many by what came to be known as the “National Razor.” The caption reads, “The New Class Warfare: Thomas Piketty’s intellectual cover for confiscation.” One member of the mob can be seen holding up a bloody copy of the French economist’s recent book, Capital in the 21st Century.

Confiscation, of course, can only mean one thing. Off with their heads! In reality, the most “revolutionary” thing Professor Piketty calls for in his best-sellling tome is a wealth tax, but our rich are very sensitive.

In his article, however, James Pierson warns that a revolution is afoot, and that the 99 percent is going to try to punish the rich. The ungrateful horde is angry, he says, when they really should be celebrating their marvelous good fortune and thanking their betters:

“From one point of view, the contemporary era has been a ‘gilded age’ of regression and reaction due to rising inequality and increasing concentrations of wealth. But from another it can be seen as a ‘golden age’ of capitalism marked by fabulous innovations, globalizing markets, the absence of major wars, rising living standards, low inflation and interest rates, and a thirty-year bull market in stocks, bonds, and real estate.”

Yes, things do indeed look very different to the haves and the have-nots. But some of the haves are willing to say what’s actually going down — and it’s a war of their own making. Warren Buffett made this very clear in his declaration: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Warren is quite correct: It is the rich who have made war against the 99 percent, not the other way around. They have dumped the tax burden onto the rest of us. They have shredded our social safety net and attacked our retirements. In their insatiable greed, they refuse even to consider raising the minimum wage for people who toil all day and can’t earn enough to feed their children. And they do everything in their power to block as many people from the polls as possible who might protest these conditions, while crushing the unions and any other countervailing forces that could fight to improve them.

The goal of this vicious war is to control all of the wealth and the government not just in the U.S., but the rest of the world, too, and to make sure the people are kept in a state of fear.

But the greedy rich are experts in cloaking their aggression. Like steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who successfully transitioned from robber baron to philanthropist, David H. Koch and his conservative colleagues put on the mask of philanthropy to hide their war dance. Or they project their aggression onto ordinary people who are simply trying to feed their families, pay the bills, and keep the roof over their heads. Many of the wealthy liberals play a less crass version of the game: they talk about inequality only to alleviate their conscience while secretly — or not so secretly — protecting their turf (witness: NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and his mission to reduce taxes on his wealthy benefactors).

It is rich Americans, in particular, financial capitalists, who have made the war-like values of self interest and ruthlessness their code of ethics through their championing of an unregulated market. When we hear the term, “It’s just business,” we know what it means. Somebody has legally gouged us.

People in America are under attack daily. The greedy rich know it, because they are the ones doing the attacking. They know that they have made collateral damage out of hungry children, hard-working parents, grandmothers and grandfathers. And somewhere behind the gates of their private communities and the roped-off areas — their private schools, private hospitals, private modes of transport—they fear that the aggression may one day be turned back. They wonder how far they can erode our quality of life before something might just snap.

The growing concentration of wealth is creating an increasingly antagonistic society, which is why we have seen the buildup of the police state and the rise of unregulated markets appear in tandem. This is why the prisons are bursting at the seams with the poor.

The oligarchs hope that Americans will be so tired, so pumped full of Xanax, so terrified, that they will remain in their places. They hope that we will watch the rich cavorting on reality shows and set ourselves to climbing the economic ladder instead of seeing that the rungs have been kicked away.

Of course, there is a very easy way for the rich to remain rich and alleviate their nightmares of the guillotine. That is simply to allow their unearned wealth to be taxed at a reasonable rate. Voila! No more fear of angry mobs.

Or they can wait for some less pleasant alternative, like a revolution. This theme, which once timidly hid behind the scenes, has lately burst onto cultural center stage. The cover of the current issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, dedicated to the topic, “Revolutions,” features five crossed swords. Its contents outline various periods in history when ordinary folks had had enough, such as “The People’s Patience is Not Endless,” a pamphlet issued by the Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, in December 1961.

Very interesting reading for the 1 percent.


Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

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