The Les Miserables Dichotomy: America and socialism

Axiom (per
1.  a self-evident truth that requires no proof.
2.  a universally accepted principle or rule.
3.  Logic, Mathematics. a proposition that is assumed without proof for the sake of studying the consequences that follow from it.

So let us try this axiom on for size: the United States loves Les MiserablesLes Miserables is a romantic and heroic story of community and collective action.  Does the U.S. then love socialism?

Is it really this simple?  Mainstream U.S. consumers love socialism?

The recent fascination in Victor Hugo’s seminal novel, I will argue, is not coincidental.  The musical rose to slow but steady prominence in the mid-1980’s amidst Reagan and Thatcherism, a time foreshadowing the U.S. right’s rediscovery of and in some quarters desire to apply the works of the marginal reactionary writer Ayn Rand to the national body politic.   We perhaps see this attempted application most aggressively pursued by 2012 Republican Vice Presidential candidate and House Representative from Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional district Paul Ryan though he is certainly not the only force behind this attempt.

Les Miserables initially opened in Paris in 1980, however by 1985 it moved to London’s Barbican Theatre where it began its extraordinary and historic run.  Critical reviews were at best mixed.  The public, however, had other ideas.  By 2012, Les Miserables had become the longest running musical and second longest running show in West End History.  In the US, Les Miserables (or Les Mis or Miz to its fans) ran steadily from 1987 to 2003 (4th longest running show in Broadway history) garnering 8 Tony awards in the process and was impetus for a number of touring productions that continue to this day.  Most recently, Les Miserables was for the second time turned into a cinematic production since its being presented as a musical and on this occasion, was successfully produced earning 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture.  It has also been bestowed with a number of other nominations and awards in other award venues.

If one hasn’t seen it they should, and I doubt one would be reading this article if they haven’t.  Briefly, the story works using two story-telling devices: man versus man and man versus himself.

In context of the man versus man motif, it is a tale that primarily presents three complexly interwoven plots.  The first places an ex-convict in search of redemption all while being harassed then pursued by an overzealous officer of the French court.  The second plot line finds us at the inception of one of the many grass roots attempts by France’s activist intellectual class to foment activism and change within the working and sub-classes.  The last plot line more-or-less ties the previous two together in the form of a romantic story that faces a series of arduous challenges.

The man versus himself theme, as one might imagine, is the moral compass of the work and again primarily involves the three sets of characters; the convict and his struggle for redemption, the court officer and his struggle with honor in the face of duty, the students and their collective dilemma as to the value of their sacrifice as seen by the classes for whom they seek to liberate and lastly, the couple and the age-old pursuit of lasting bliss.

Suffice it to say, then, the commercial success of a story that essentially speaks to and promotes the struggle for universal human dignity, suffrage, and aspirational inclusion in the economic vitality of one’s society –in short, the tenets of socialism– has been largely missing through the years just as it is now.

Perhaps more than any popular, politically critical artistic endeavor since the so-called “counter-cultural” events in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s  by the likes of Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Nina Simone, the “Beatniks,” the “Race Rockers,” Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Miriam Makeba, the “Hippies/Yippies, Joan Baez, Bob Marley,  the Ska/Reggae/Rude Boy/2 Tone movements, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joe Strummer, Siouxsie Sioux, Patti Smith, and the Punk Rockers, Les Mis awakens us to what we know is true and are too often afraid to admit is happening around us where it is far easier to close our suburban doors to the realities around us.  Like the students in Les Mis, forsaken by the proletarian masses that were afraid to gather in support in numbers and in strength at the barricades, it is simply easier for contemporary people in the U.S. to change the channel when presented with Orwellian double-speak by today’s politicians or their operatives.  Les Mis reminds us of the consequences of inaction.

This leaves us to ponder the question of our current and often time troubling response(s) to obvious problems confronting our society.  If we in the U.S. in fact do not love socialism, what then might explain our fascination with a story of socialism?  Two lines of thought come to mind; America’s “incomplete” and ever evolving revolution and the co-opting of language.

The early and fledgling United States sought to solidify a structure more akin to a neo-feudal order than a rejection of the structure (classes and aligned privileges) found in its recently deposed monarchy.  Simply put, the 19th and 20th centuries sought to advance such rhetorical “revolutionary promise” by way of women’s suffrage, labor, and civil rights movements.  We see by the late 20th century a desire to repeal many of these gains as the increasingly right-wing minority elite in the U.S., perhaps simply seeking a return to an order perceived to be their “birthright” and playing on racial and other fears found in their working-class supporters, people often encouraged to act and vote contrary to their specific “bread and butter” economic class interests.  This sleight–of-hand is often found in the simple and elegant coopting of language.

In the era since Reagan, the use of language and meaning has found a singular, Orwellian, home within the Republican and right-wing dialectic.  Being applied as strategic doctrine by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich and subsequently perfected under Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor Karl Rove during the Bush/Cheney Administration, Republican and right-wing operatives have owned the use and meaning of many words (including the use of the words and meanings of liberal and “left”).   But perhaps no word has been more appropriated, mis-and-reinterpreted, and outright lied about than the word “socialism.” Furthermore, this theft has been met without refutation by the Democratic Party in general and without effective refutation by the “genuine left” in specific.

In the rest of the advanced and modern West, class distinctions and issues are well and widely known and are accepted as legitimate topics of political debate.  In the United States, such class distinction and debate over economic justice have all too often been replaced by mythical platitudes regarding “opportunity,” “educational attainment,” the “American dream” and other types of rhetorical devices.  Meanwhile, the word “socialism” during this time though certainly not exclusive to it, was further turned into an un-patriotic pejorative; something to fear, roundly rebuke, run away from, revile, and simply fear unlike its home within political discourse as found with our more advanced peers within Western democracies.

Les Mis, like any great work of art, speaks to the chasms in life; in this case, the chasm between rhetorical mythology and aspirational reality within the post-colonial West in general and obviously revolutionary France specifically.  Furthermore, Les Miserables as a work of art, in its own way, speaks to the current cultural void in the U.S., perhaps most notably for the first time in a number of generations the lack of a vibrant, critical, and urgent “youth culture.”

The fact that Les Miserables is successful should give us all pause and hope that the spirit embodied therein has not died.  Indeed it can compete at the highest levels in the arena of pop cultural ideas and propaganda with the likes of exploitative cinema, Honey Boo Boo, the Kardashians, Justin Beiber, as well as with the political appropriation of language by the likes of the US Chamber, Karl Rove, FreedomWorks, etc..

But much like in Les Mis, it will be up to the discriminating among us to demand that words be defined as they are and protected for whom they represent.  “Socialism” as a concept (not the all too often self-serving political movement per se) should be employed and debated, it should certainly not be owned by anyone: not Marxists, not the popular media, and certainly not the U.S. political “right.”

Now, along with Hugo, if only we could reprise the Guthries and other heroic artists amongst us that speak for the average bloke . . .

Leave a comment