A work of prophecy

They don’t realize it’s coming. The rich think that, because they’ve succeeded so well so far, they never need to worry that it can all come crashing down. They think we’re just talking a good game.

Rousseau’s most enduring contribution to the current revolutionary discourse, though, came via a 1789 speech. As writer Talia Lavin noted in a recent piece on the phrase’s origins, his pithy warning — “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich” — has become a rallying cry on social media and at contemporary political protests, where the people’s great and terrible anger at the economic predation of the 1% has helped propel a resurgent anti-capitalist movement. The phrase is all over Twitter, TikTok, and various other social media platforms. It has long been immortalized in song thanks to British heavy metal legends Motörhead (who provided the soundtrack for a bloody 1987 movie also named Eat the Rich about a restaurant that serves the meat of its former wealthy patrons), Swiss hard rockers Krokus, and, bizarrely, Aerosmith, whose vocalist Steven Tyler is currently estimated to be worth about $130 million. (Full disclosure: I have eat the rich tattooed on my stomach, which doubles as a tribute to Motörhead and my own political inclinations.)

I don’t think tattooing a phrase on your belly is a precursor to revolution, and I think that right now we have a complacent middle class (how else could Joe Biden be doing so well in the polls?). One real crisis is what it will take, and crises are on the way. Climate change is going to cause all kinds of disruption, the country is being managed so badly that new conflicts are going to arise, domestic unrest is going to be fomented by a militarized police and splintered right wing terrorist groups. Even minor things could be the tipping point — remember the gas shortages of the 1970s? Something like that could be the spark that wakes up a pissed-off majority.

I’m just saying the 1% need to recognize that they aren’t as well sheltered as they think they are. Buying off an election or hiring lobbyists isn’t going to turn them into good guys in the eyes of the people.


  1. hemidactylus says

    Nixon unmooring us from Bretton Woods arrangement with an international gold standard (perhaps a good move) may have been part but the OPEC stance post Yom Kippur caused all kinds of chaos, including excess money banks could use to put undeveloped countries under a debt regime, but an outcome more salient to the gas shortages (early 70s and post-Shah crisis late 70s) was stagflation. That reduced confidence in the traditional Keynesian modeled welfare state regime and helped usher in Thatcher and Reagan style “reforms”. So the gas shortages were kinda connected to a huge shift in “paradigm”. Much more ideological transformation would follow in the go-go 90s, but that set the tone.

  2. hemidactylus says

    And the shift kinda disrupted the Trilateral technocratic regime we saw under Carter and Zbig.

  3. garnetstar says

    This is so true, and it’s reinforced by many, many historical examples. When people have almost nothing to lose, they’re willing to overthrow the current society, because why not? Whatever happens next could hardly be worse.

    So, we see that in the Russion revolution, in the takeover of China by Mao, in the many insurgencies in Latin or South American countries (Cuba, too) where some dictatorship was coddling the wealthy and bleeding everyone else. And that’s only the ones that come to mind.

    If the 1% now don’t know any history, they are doomed to repeat it.

  4. ffrancis says

    My, that Rousseau (d.1778) felt strongly enough about this to come back from the grave and make a speech in 1789.

  5. hemidactylus says

    The problem with eat %1 revolution of proletariat scenario goes back to Frankfurt critique of Marxism. We are social engineered into torpor and complacency via various media. Why didn’t outrage over the subprime meltdown and TARP result in hard leftward shift? Instead the outrage over housing reform (and ACA) got co-opted and shunted into aggressive rightward tilt of Tea Party. We aren’t tsarist Russia, post WWII China nor Cuba or other Latin American mileu countries. Guatemala and Chile are great examples for counter-revolution.

  6. F.O. says

    I fear that when the shit really hits the fan, fascism will prevail.
    We must create the cultural base to provide a strong, compelling, resilient alternative, possibly one that doesn’t idolise power and violence.

  7. wzrd1 says

    “Even minor things could be the tipping point — remember the gas shortages of the 1970s?”

    I’m reminded of a rumor that circulated like wildfire, indeed, faster than any firestorm, where a Royal said “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”.
    Shortly after the French Revolution, it was attributed falsely to Marie Antoinette, it was recorded in Louis XIII’s memoirs as being said by the wife of Louis XIV, Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche during a famine a century prior to Louis XVI. Louis XVI had no famines and only a few bread shortages during his reign.

    Thus proving, yet again, predicting what spark and where will trigger the fatal firestorm remains elusive. Once smoldering, the fanning can be nearly any catchphrase.
    And the French Revolution also showed, when fanning and fueling a firestorm, it’s quite easy to get caught up within one’s own flames, as many of the revolution’s leaders ended up suffering the same fate as the recently deceased royalty.

  8. kome says

    I’m reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s book The March of Folly, in which she argued that many large scale revolutions or protests occurred because those in power simply forgot that they could ever be held accountable for their actions by the powerless and pushed things too far.

    There’s something about having power, privilege, and wealth that seems to disconnect people from the average everyday experience of everyone else, and instead encourages very morally abhorrent behavior.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    In 1848, revolutions and riots spread across almost all of Europe – except in Ireland, suffering the only true famine of that year.

  10. chrislawson says

    I’m not convinced the middle class is complacent. They’ve seen their standards of living stagnate for 20 years while the wealthy elite not only get wealthier but exponentially more powerful. And they’ve been strategically terrified by FOX News of immigrants, welfare queens, and so on. The problem is that instead of trying to solve the problem by reducing wealth inequality, they’re giving the elite even more power in the hope that they will be in the small sliver of middle class that gets elevated to the elite.

  11. says

    I think they’re banking on things like private security forces, bunkers, and helicopters to enable them to escape to some place like Singapore, or the Tory vision of England’s future. I guess we’ll see how well that works…

  12. unclefrogy says

    I think that that is a little backwards. the desire for and the acquiring that extreme level of wealth and power is more than a little morally abhorrent and deliberately disconnected from everyday experience. I would go further and speculate that a fear of the ordinary experience of living a live and dying in the end plays no small part in wanting to posses vast wealth and power.
    I fear a time when there will not be a need for people to make new things to find new resources and discover new ideas and truths, to service a great trading market to keep the economy working so the power elites the 1% will feel “secure”, that time when scarcity is no more because then there will be no need for the vast numbers of people not rich because there is no way that the wealth will be then shared out. As recent history is continuing to show us those no longer needed will just be eliminated
    uncle frogy

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    Crip Dyke… @ # 5: … what movie?

    Prob’ly the one mentioned in the OP:

    … a bloody 1987 movie also named Eat the Rich about a restaurant that serves the meat of its former wealthy patrons…

  14. unclefrogy says

    I was reminded of “Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
    of eating the deserving rich
    uncle frogy