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‘Eat the Rich’ Is the Rallying Cry of 2020

The spirit of the French Revolution is alive and well in America

Trump crowds love a stupid chant. Sometimes it’s as blandly nationalist as “USA! USA!” Elsewhere, at the mention of Rep. Ilhan Omar, you had the racist eruption of “Send her back!” But it seems improbable that the MAGAsphere will ever hit upon a sequence of syllables that lights up lizard-brains quite like the three-word slogan reserved for Hillary Clinton: “Lock her up!

And while “Lock her up!” is a hit you’re still guaranteed to hear at Trump rallies, its overall efficacy in a 2020 campaign remains unproven. The president is not running against the same wildly unpopular 2016 opponent. He has also been in office for the better part of three years; if it were possible to charge Hillary with a crime, wouldn’t his Department of Justice do so? Over time, then, “Lock her up!” becomes doubly pathetic: Either Trump had lied about seeking charges for his political foe, or he’s unable to do so as the most powerful man on earth. Not super alpha.

Meanwhile, the progressive left, in recovering some of its protest mojo, is offering alternative chants with far greater reach. The Black Lives Matter movement has made “No justice, no peace” a popular promise against police brutality, and “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner, an existentialist cry for the basic right to life. “Do something” has emerged as the minimalist but forceful response to governmental apathy and cowardice in the face of a gun violence epidemic. And for those engaged in class warfare, it’s an oldie but goodie: “Eat the rich.”     

An ascendant socialist wing in the Democratic party — buoyed by new congressional stars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders — has taken dead aim at the 1 Percent, blasting an economic system rigged to serve a rapacious and ultra-wealthy ruling class that drives catastrophic inequality

Given the breadth of the leftists’ structural critique, it only makes sense they’d reach back to the French Revolution and beyond for expressions of their severe discontent. “Eat the rich” is the abbreviation of a prophecy attributed to Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas were influential in the overthrow of France’s monarchy, one cited by the fiery revolutionary Pierre Gaspard Chaumette. In October 1793, Chaumette — then a leader of the Paris Commune, which governed the city — denounced traders who either hoarded their goods or avoided selling them at the lower prices set to prevent gouging and hunger. “Rousseau, who was also one of the people,” he declared, “said, When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” Before this, he quoted Plato’s formulation of that cautionary sentiment: “Famine shall put an end to him who would famish the people.”

So, fair warning.

In a way, it’s regrettable that we have to resurrect a catchphrase with ties to the Reign of Terror, a period of turmoil in which thousands were put to death in France on the flimsiest grounds; this opens the door for today’s reactionary right-wingers to paint popular demands for the wealthy to pay their fair share as “excessive” and “dangerous.” But, as Mark Twain pointed out in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, this Terror was the coda to a longer, agonizing, state-enabled age of cruelty that took countless victims. So if “eat the rich” harks back to chaos and bloodshed, it also conveys the determination of the masses to remake society, along with a willingness to endure the paroxysms of that change. Most importantly, it targets the architects of our current misery without conservative/liberal buzzwords. All the better to debunk the disastrous misconception that Trump captured the White House thanks to the working class.

“Eat the rich” may be a well-timed slogan, too. The president doesn’t pay federal income taxes — neither do some giant, billionaire-controlled companies, including Amazon. A staggering number of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency expense, and fully half delay or forgo healthcare because of the expense, with fatal results. A decade after the Great Recession, there are fears the global economy might tank again.

In the wake of that crisis, activists descended on Lower Manhattan for Occupy Wall Street, a leaderless demonstration that criticized the massive bailouts and bonuses for financial institutions that had wrought such damage. Although often dismissed as unfocused and impractical at the outset, Occupy forged important connections and gave its members organizational experience, and its legacy survives, especially in the notion of solidarity among the 99 Percent. Were markets to collapse now, it is bound to galvanize like never before, and with no ambiguity as to its goal: demolishing the rotten citadels of late capitalism.

At its heart, though, “Eat the rich” will always come back to the aphoristic wisdom of Rousseau and Plato — the truth that one cannot be all-consuming without being consumed in turn. The billionaire class is cannibalizing everyone else, and it’s simply unsustainable. Nobody understood this better than George Romero, the godfather of the zombie genre as we know it and a genius poet of American greed. Although best known for Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the auteur continued making sequels to little fanfare throughout his long career, eventually delivering an underrated masterpiece in 2005’s Land of the Dead.

This installment observes a neo-feudal enclave in Pittsburgh, where most subsist in squalor, made to scavenge the zombie-infested outerlands, and a rich minority dwell comfortably in a luxury high-rise. Once the living dead figure out the art of weaponry (and how to cross a river), where do they go? Straight to that sanctuary. The poor are spared as the rich are eaten — literally. 

Any great shift to the hierarchal form of this country will, I hope, be neither so gory nor random. There is reason to suspect, however, that the longer it takes, the less anyone will be able to control it. The masters of our fate would do well to recognize the latent anger and potential of the proletariat when “eat the rich” is still just a metaphor.

Because I bet they taste delicious.