Les Misérables [1.1-II] M. Myriel becomes M. Welcome

Note:The content of the following blog post has now been added to the following wiki page: Chapter II: M. Myriel becomes M. Welcome [Commentary], where the article will be updated and improved. You may still use this blog entry to discuss its content. See the comments section, below.
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This chapter is very, very rich and there is so much to say.... As a result this week's commentary is very long... Commentaries on chapters later in the novel should be much shorter (and I actually hope so myself, if I am to retain my sanity, as researching and composing this, and also editing the project wiki, consumes much of my time!). The good news is that you can take the whole week to read (and comment upon) what follows. Besides, feel free to skip to the sections that interest you the most and ignore the rest. :) I hope you'll enjoy this week's commentary.

Today, we discuss chapter II of book 1, volume 1 of Les Misérables: M. Myriel becomes M. Welcome.

In this chapter, the most powerful statement is, by far, the following:

[Fr.] [En.]
Comme il y a toujours encore plus de misère en bas que de fraternité en haut, tout était donné, pour ainsi dire, avant d’être reçu ; As there is always more wretchedness below than there is brotherhood above, all was given away, so to speak, before it was received.

We shall see, for the first time, M. Myriel in action. We witness his no-nonsense approach to reality. As we peep into his accounting book, we shall be able to draw a comparison with some of the ways that our modern elected officials use tax payer's money. We will be able to make a direct comparison between Myriel's approach to economics and "Reaganomics" (or "Trickle-down Economics"). However, we'll also go to India and see that a progressive agenda is not necessarily enough to solve our current problems. It is as Hugo wrote: there is always more wretchedness below than there is brotherhood above. And because of that, we will have to put the recent Occupy Wall Street slogan "We are the 99%" upside down in order to give a brief, first glimpse at its underbelly.

And since this chapter invites us to speak about the economy, we'll use this opportunity to introduce another French writer, almost completely unknown this one: Jacques Lemaire [in French].

If you missed the beginning:

Earlier this week:

If you want to brush up your French:
We have started publishing a French <=> English edition of Les Misérables. See for example chapter I and chapter II (some of you might need to make a forced refresh of the page to reload some design files. You should see coloured backgrounds to the fr/en text).

Talk is cheap...

... and sometimes deliberately misleading!

Someone said:

Judging politicians by their speeches is the equivalent of judging cars by their salesmen.

We could say:

Judging priests and pastors by their sermons is the equivalent of judging the quality of sub-prime derivatives by the ratings given by the major US credit rating agencies!

Action speak louder than words. Chapter one ends thus:

L’installation terminée, la ville attendit son évêque à l’œuvre. The installation over, the town waited to see its bishop at work.

Fortunately, we have a very early opportunity to see M. Myriel in action.

The palace and the hospital

It is very interesting to approach this chapter from a stylistic perspective.

See the relative amount of space devoted to describe the episcopal palace and the hospital:

[Fr.] Le palais épiscopal [Fr.] L’hôpital
Le palais épiscopal était un vaste et bel hôtel bâti en pierre au commencement du siècle dernier par monseigneur Henri Puget, docteur en théologie de la faculté de Paris, abbé de Simore, lequel était évêque de Digne en 1712. Ce palais était un vrai logis seigneurial. Tout y avait grand air, les appartements de l’évêque, les salons, les chambres, la cour d’honneur, fort large, avec promenoirs à arcades, selon l’ancienne mode florentine, les jardins plantés de magnifiques arbres. Dans la salle à manger, longue et superbe galerie qui était au rez-de-chaussée et s’ouvrait sur les jardins, monseigneur Henri Puget avait donné à manger en cérémonie, le 29 juillet 1714, à messeigneurs Charles Brûlart de Genlis, archevêque prince d’Embrun, Antoine de Mesgrigny, capucin, évêque de Grasse, Philippe de Vendôme, grand-prieur de France, abbé de Saint-Honoré de Lérins, François de Berton de Crillon, évêque baron de Vence, César de Sabran de Forcalquier, évêque seigneur de Glandève, et Jean Soanen, prêtre de l’Oratoire, prédicateur ordinaire du roi, évêque seigneur de Senez. Les portraits de ces sept révérends personnages décoraient cette salle, et cette date mémorable, 29 juillet 1714, y était gravée en lettres d’or sur une table de marbre blanc. L’hôpital était une maison étroite et basse, à un seul étage, avec un petit jardin.
[En.] The episcopal palace [En.] The hospital
The episcopal palace was a huge and beautiful house, built of stone at the beginning of the last century by M. Henri Puget, Doctor of Theology of the Faculty of Paris, Abbe of Simore, who had been Bishop of Digne in 1712. This palace was a genuine seignorial residence. Everything about it had a grand air,--the apartments of the Bishop, the drawing-rooms, the chambers, the principal courtyard, which was very large, with walks encircling it under arcades in the old Florentine fashion, and gardens planted with magnificent trees. In the dining-room, a long and superb gallery which was situated on the ground-floor and opened on the gardens, M. Henri Puget had entertained in state, on July 29, 1714, My Lords Charles Brulart de Genlis, archbishop; Prince d'Embrun; Antoine de Mesgrigny, the capuchin, Bishop of Grasse; Philippe de Vendome, Grand Prior of France, Abbe of Saint Honore de Lerins; Francois de Berton de Crillon, bishop, Baron de Vence; Cesar de Sabran de Forcalquier, bishop, Seignor of Glandeve; and Jean Soanen, Priest of the Oratory, preacher in ordinary to the king, bishop, Seignor of Senez. The portraits of these seven reverend personages decorated this apartment; and this memorable date, the 29th of July, 1714, was there engraved in letters of gold on a table of white marble. The hospital was a low and narrow building of a single story, with a small garden.

Hugo could have taken as much space to describe the hospital as he did the palace. In fact, the author will use the whole of chapter 6 ("Who guarded his House for him") to describe the hospital. However, with the different size of the above two paragraphs, Hugo wanted to emphasize the different size of the two buildings.

Note also the precise description of the 1714 ostentatious reception with the list of illustrious guests. We'll compare it with the way Myriel receives his guests (chapter 6).

The previous comparison represents the past situation, the one Myriel inherited from his predecessors.

Our bishop lives in a much more fact-based reality. He is able to make a truly fair and balanced assessment of the situation. During the entertaining conversation between Myriel and the hospital director, we almost have the impression to assist to a ping-pong match, with every statement by the doctor being squarely acknowledged by a very lucid priest in an almost comical back-and-forth. Only their conclusions differ. The dispirited director didn't know yet that he was dealing with an uncommon bishop!

In stark contrast with the above disproportionate description of the episcopal palace and the hospital, Myriel makes a very saintly even handed appraisal of the situation, with each one of his statements exactly mirroring each other, as if we were assisting to a one-player prolongation of the aforementioned ping-pong match:

[Fr.] Ping [Fr.] Pong!
Vous êtes vingt-six personnes Nous sommes trois ici
dans cinq ou six petites chambres. nous avons place pour soixante.
Vous avez mon logis, et j’ai le vôtre.
Il y a évidemment une erreur. Il y a erreur, je vous dis.
Rendez-moi ma maison. C’est ici chez vous.
[En.] Fair... [En.] and balanced!
There are thirty-six of you There are three of us here
in five or six small rooms. we have room for sixty.
you have my house, and I have yours.
There is evidently a mistake here. There is some mistake, I tell you;
Give me back my house; you are at home here.

What's truly beautiful is that Myriel does not state being willing to give up "his" palace for he sake of the poor sick people. He simply makes a claim for what he believes rightfully belongs to him, the old hospital house, as if it was the hospital director who had been the intruder all along!

The Bishop's Tithe

Nous transcrivons ici une note écrite de sa main. We transcribe here a note made by his own hand.

From a stylistic point of view, Hugo uses documents throughout the novel in order to enhance the realism of his fiction. In chapter 1, we already discussed the author's attempts at narrowing the gap between the impressions that his fiction affords and those of reality. Hugo gives here the impression to be a direct witness of Myriel's handwriting, as if the author actually held is his hands a copy of the (fictitious) document.

M. Myriel recevait de l’état comme évêque un traitement de quinze mille francs. M. Myriel received from the State, in his quality of bishop, a salary of fifteen thousand francs.

We already saw in chapter 1 that the Bishop is a civil servant, appointed by the Emperor and paid by the state; and not by Rome.

Note: 1 livre = 1 franc. Both units represent the same currency and have the same value, but "livre" (in English, "pound", as in the British currency) smacks of Old Regime (the monarchy) while "franc" has a more republican connotation. Maybe it's not a mistake that M. Myriel receives from the State (i.e. the Empire at the time when he was appointed) 15,000 francs but distributes 15,000 livres.

M. l’évêque, on l’a pu remarquer, ne s’était réservé que mille livres, ce qui, joint à la pension de mademoiselle Baptistine, faisait quinze cents francs par an. Avec ces quinze cents francs, ces deux vieilles femmes et ce vieillard vivaient. It will be observed that Monsieur the Bishop had reserved for himself only one thousand livres, which, added to the pension of Mademoiselle Baptistine, made fifteen hundred francs a year. On these fifteen hundred francs these two old women and the old man subsisted.

Hugo himself is pointing out that Myriel is giving his tithe, albeit an inverted one, living off 1,500 from his 15,000 income from the state. He donates 90% and keeps 10% for himself.

Cela fit beaucoup crier la bourgeoisie locale, et, à cette occasion, un sénateur de l’empire, ancien membre du conseil des cinq-cents favorable au dix-huit brumaire et pourvu près de la ville de Digne d’une sénatorerie magnifique, écrivit au ministre des cultes, M. Bigot de Préameneu, [...] This provoked a great outcry among the local burgesses; and a senator of the Empire, a former member of the Council of the Five Hundred which favored the 18 Brumaire, and who was provided with a magnificent senatorial office in the vicinity of the town of Digne, wrote to M. Bigot de Preameneu, the minister of public worship, [...]

The Council of the Five Hundred ("Conseil des Cinq-Cents"), was, during part of the French Revolutionary period, the legislative body. It was overthrown by a coup by Napoleon Bonaparte on the 9th of November 1799, also known as the 18 Brumaire of Year VII, according to the Revolutionary calendar.

It is not surprising to note that this member of the Council of Five Hundred, who was favourable of the 1799 coup staged by Bonaparte and his friends, was later rewarded by Napoleon with a luxurious senatorial appointment during the Empire (1804~1814/15).

This senator most obviously holds much of the anti-clerical sentiments prevalent during the Revolution. Note that the Councilman's slanderous letter (not reproduced here) is only an example of the gossips that were discussed in the previous chapter:

Vrai ou faux, ce qu’on dit des hommes tient souvent autant de place dans leur vie et souvent dans leur destinée que ce qu’ils font. True or false, that which is said of men often occupies as important a place in their lives, and above all in their destinies, as that which they do.

Naming the Misérables

It is interesting to have a close look at how Myriel apportions his income. The amounts are very deliberate and were subject to numerous revisions in Hugo's manuscript (Hugo started working on his masterpiece in 1839. It was finally completed and published in 1862). The amounts have an important significance.

NOTE POUR RÉGLER LES DÉPENSES DE MA MAISON.
Pour le petit séminaire : quinze cents livres.
Congrégation de la mission : cent livres.
Pour les lazaristes de Montdidier : cent livres.
Séminaire des missions étrangères à Paris : deux cents livres.
Congrégation du Saint-Esprit : cent cinquante livres.
Établissements religieux de la Terre-Sainte : cent livres.
Sociétés de charité maternelle : trois cents livres.
En sus, pour celle d’Arles : cinquante livres.
Œuvre pour l’amélioration des prisons : quatre cents livres.
Œuvre pour le soulagement et la délivrance des prisonniers : cinq cents livres.
Pour libérer des pères de famille prisonniers pour dettes : mille livres.
Supplément au traitement des pauvres maîtres d’école du diocèse : deux mille livres.
Grenier d’abondance des Hautes-Alpes : cent livres.
Congrégation des dames de Digne, de Manosque et de Sisteron, pour l’enseignement gratuit des filles indigentes : quinze cents livres.
Pour les pauvres : six mille livres.
Ma dépense personnelle : mille livres.
Total :       quinze mille livres.
NOTE ON THE REGULATION OF MY HOUSEHOLD EXPENSES.
For the little seminary : 1,500 livres.
Society of the mission : 100 livres.
For the Lazarists of Montdidier : 100 livres.
Seminary for foreign missions in Paris : 200 livres.
Congregation of the Holy Spirit : 150 livres.
Religious establishments of the Holy Land : 100 livres.
Charitable maternity societies : 300 livres.
Extra, for that of Arles : 50 livres.
Work for the amelioration of prisons : 400 livres.
Work for the relief and delivery of prisoners : 500 livres.
To liberate fathers of families incarcerated for debt : 1,000 livres.
Addition to the salary of the poor teachers of the diocese : 2,000 livres.
Public granary of the Hautes-Alpes : 100 livres.
Congregation of the ladies of Digne, of Manosque, and of Sisteron, for the gratuitous instruction of poor girls  : 1,500 livres.
For the poor : 6,000 livres.
My personal expenses : 1,000 livres.
Total :       15,000 livres.

On one end, Myriel provides the seminary with 1,500 francs for the education of young men to become priests, as he probably was expected to; but on the other end he gives the same amount for the education of destitute young girls, which is quite a novel idea. He gives the same weight to the education of boys and girls. Although, as we shall see in more depth in chapter 10, Myriel is still attached to the Old Regime, his actions are often quite revolutionary. In fact, right around the time when Myriel writes his budget, Napoleon opened a school for girls, one that still exists today.

The budgeted amounts given to religious orders are the smallest of all. One might think that these were the amounts that Myriel's predecessors already gave them. Once the religious orders served, a large amount still remains on hand. Where Myriel breaks with the continuity is that where his predecessors most probably kept that amount for themselves, Myriel keeps distributing what he has, in larger and larger chunks, giving to the neediest.

And as the author's message given with the way those 15,000 francs are distributed, Hugo piles on with the extra 3,000 francs received from the Council for travelling expenses:

FRAIS DE CARROSSE ET DE TOURNÉES.
Pour donner du bouillon de viande aux malades de l’hôpital : quinze cents livres.
Pour la société de charité maternelle d’Aix : deux cent cinquante livres.
Pour la société de charité maternelle de Draguignan : deux cent cinquante livres.
Pour les enfants trouvés : cinq cents livres.
Pour les orphelins : cinq cents livres.
Total :            trois mille livres.
EXPENSES OF CARRIAGE AND CIRCUIT.
For furnishing meat soup to the patients in the hospital. : 1,500 livres.
For the maternity charitable society of Aix : 250 livres.
For the maternity charitable society of Draguignan : 250 livres.
For foundlings : 500 livres.
For orphans : 500 livres.
Total :            3,000 livres.

With this budget, the misérables are actually named. Those who have already read the novel and who know the characters and their stories, can pinpoint in the above budget which items correspond to each one of them, to Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Gavroche and to all the others... The misérables are the orphans, the destitute and poor, the economic prisoners, the women, the mothers, the girls, the street urchins... They are all here in this budget and they will populate the whole novel.

It is also worth noting that Myriel seems to believe in a direct redistribution of wealth, without using intermediaries. He gives less to charitable organizations than he directly gives to those who need charity. The fewer intermediaries between his alms and the intended recipients, the better. He implicitly trusts the poor to make a good use of the alms given to them! This belief will also be exemplified in a most dramatic fashion in book 2, with Jean Valjean!

Despite Myriel's attachment to the clergy (as we shall see in chapter X), there is something very Revolutionary and very Republican in Myriel's distribution of wealth. In February 1790, during the de-Christianization period of the French Revolution, monastic orders were dissolved excepting those devoted to teaching children and nursing the sick, which are precisely the groups of people that Myriel looks after.

Put together, what we see is not so much Myriel's preoccupations but those of the author's. The budget fully echoes the author's priorities as stated in his preface:

Tant qu’il existera, par le fait des lois et des mœurs, une damnation sociale créant artificiellement, en pleine civilisation, des enfers, et compliquant d’une fatalité humaine la destinée qui est divine ; tant que les trois problèmes du siècle, la dégradation de l’homme par le prolétariat, la déchéance de la femme par la faim, l’atrophie de l’enfant par la nuit, ne seront pas résolus ; tant que, dans de certaines régions, l’asphyxie sociale sera possible ; en d’autres termes, et à un point de vue plus étendu encore, tant qu’il y aura sur la terre ignorance et misère, des livres de la nature de celui-ci pourront ne pas être inutiles. So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.

The interested reader may want to take some time to make a line by line comparison of Myriel's budget with Hugo's denunciation of social depravation, above.

L’usage étant que les évêques énoncent leurs noms de baptême en tête de leurs mandements et de leurs lettres pastorales, les pauvres gens du pays avaient choisi, avec une sorte d’instinct affectueux, dans les noms et prénoms de l’évêque, celui qui leur présentait un sens, et ils ne l’appelaient que monseigneur Bienvenu. Nous ferons comme eux, et nous le nommerons ainsi dans l’occasion. Du reste, cette appellation lui plaisait. — J’aime ce nom-là, disait-il. Bienvenu corrige monseigneur. The usage being that bishops shall announce their baptismal names at the head of their charges and their pastoral letters, the poor people of the country-side had selected, with a sort of affectionate instinct, among the names and prenomens of their bishop, that which had a meaning for them; and they never called him anything except Monseigneur Bienvenu [Welcome]. We will follow their example, and will also call him thus when we have occasion to name him. Moreover, this appellation pleased him. "I like that name," said he. "Bienvenu makes up for the Monseigneur."

At the end of the chapter, Myriel becomes bishop, not by Imperial appointment, but by public acclamation. The very title that he seemed to shun in chapter I, he accepts it when it comes from the people.

Official expenses, extravagant government buildings

As an administrative official, M. Myriel can claim an allowance for some expenses:

— Je le crois bien ! s’écria madame Magloire, monseigneur n’a seulement pas réclamé la rente que le département lui doit pour ses frais de carrosse en ville et de tournées dans le diocèse. Pour les évêques d’autrefois c’était l’usage. "I should think so!" exclaimed Madame Magloire. "Monseigneur has not even claimed the allowance which the department owes him for the expense of his carriage in town, and for his journeys about the diocese. It was customary for bishops in former days."

Myriel uses 100% of his allowance for the poor. He does not benefit directly not indirectly from the allowance he claims. After surrendering his palace, then 90% of his wages, he now re-distributes his travelling allowances.

It is useful to draw a direct comparison with today's governments, administrations and elected or appointed officials in our modern, wealthy democracies.

Today's elected officials not only have large salaries but they also have all kind of expenses paid. And they behave not like Myriel, but like Myriel's predecessors. It would be surprising to find anyone who doubts that politicians serve themselves first.

In the US Congress, the same elected officials who enjoy the coverage of first rate health insurance policies deny at the same time the right of the American lower classes to enjoy the same benefits. In France, where ordinary workers are forced to pay into their social security funds for an ever increasing number of years, members of the French parliament can enjoy the benefits of a full retirement fund after only five years in elected office. And as if it were not enough, they often hold multiple elected offices and benefit from very generous allowances to pay for underlings to do the jobs that they were elected to do but that they no longer have the time to do. (Duh!)

Myriel's swap of the old hospital against the palace is also indicative. In every modern democracies, government after government, we can notice that the elected administrations always vote for themselves large funds to build for themselves modern, spacious government buildings. How much did the US capitol cost to build? Could the US really afford it at that time? In France, the spacious Ministère de l'Économie et des Finances, a modern looking building that encroaches on the Seine river, was build and inaugurated in 1988 even though the State budget was not balanced (it hasn't been in a long time!). Also in France, when local governments were granted more powers in the 1980s, the first thing that each Région did was build large, costly seats for their new-found power.

Yes, there is an undeniable symbolic value to have beautiful, impressive buildings representing the seat of power within our democracies. These are buildings that ordinary citizens look up to. They attract tourists. They make the nation proud, just like French people are proud of the magnificent Palais de Versailles which attract millions of tourists every year... while conveniently forgetting that this was the seat of power of an absolute (and absolutely corrupted) monarchy!

Do consider this: what has the highest symbolic value: a bishop appointed by the French Emperor living in a luxurious palace, or a bishop living in the former hospital for the poor?

What would have the best symbolic value for our modern democracies and their supposed humanity?

Does the western world really need the Internation Space Station. Does the People's Republic of China really need a space program to go to the Moon? All of this while there is still so much misery within their respective borders?

A real life example of Myriel's sacrifice would be Mother Teresa, who also lived a life of poverty amongst the poor. There is a film depicting her life (maybe the 2003 one. I forgot. This is one of the many details to be verified.). In it, there is a scene where Mother Teresa has to apportion the many donations she received from abroad. She had a pet project (The City of Joy for lepers, I believe) and precisely needed funds to get started with it. But first, she had to take care of the needs of all the various missions of the Missionary of the Charity. So she goes about distributing the money she has received. At the end, none remain for her cherished project: she wouldn't have deprived others because of it. Mother Teresa trusts that funds will eventually appear when the time is right. And they do! It must also be remembered that like M. Myriel, Mother Teresa came from a very affluent family. She gave up her inherited wealth in order to serve the poor. There is a very strong parallel between her life, and that little scene in the movie, and Myriel's example as depicted in this chapter.

Yes but, some people may say, Mother Teresa was a very controversial figure. Certainly. So was Myriel!

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Note: For lack of time, knowledge and resources, I cannot cover all the aspects I'd like to, nor can I provide detailed evidence of some of the claims being made.

As already stated, this project is fully supported by a wiki. I have spent much of the past week laying the groundwork for the wiki. Many of the articles are mere stubs, but I am confident that over the 7 year life span of the first phase of this project, a growing community will collaboratively edit and progressively improve every aspects of the wiki, in order to inspire new generations of readers... up until such a time when society as a whole finally awakens and projects of this nature lose their raison d'être.

I mention this here because one of the goals is to use the text to directly point at specific, detailed, researched, documented occurrences of what is being described in the book within today's society. In some places of my commentary, like here, I can only provide some hints, pointers, that can later be better researched, better documented and better explained.

Levelling from the bottom

In this important chapter, we see a very specific type of economic policy: Myriel attempts at levelling economic and social inequalities from the bottom. As we shall see in a moment, this is extremely relevant to our modern economic policy discourse.

l’évêque percevait [l'argent] sur les riches avec d’autant plus d’âpreté qu’il le donnait aux pauvres. the Bishop levied [fees] on the wealthy with all the more asperity, since he bestowed them on the needy.
Au bout de peu de temps, les offrandes d’argent affluèrent. Ceux qui ont et ceux qui manquent frappaient à la porte de M. Myriel, les uns venant chercher l’aumône que les autres venaient y déposer. L’évêque, en moins d’un an, devint le trésorier de tous les bienfaits et le caissier de toutes les détresses. Des sommes considérables passaient par ses mains ; mais rien ne put faire qu’il changeât quelque chose à son genre de vie et qu’il ajoutât le moindre superflu à son nécessaire. After a time, offerings of money flowed in. Those who had and those who lacked knocked at M. Myriel's door,--the latter in search of the alms which the former came to deposit. In less than a year the Bishop had become the treasurer of all benevolence and the cashier of all those in distress. Considerable sums of money passed through his hands, but nothing could induce him to make any change whatever in his mode of life, or add anything superfluous to his bare necessities.

Myriel takes money from the rich and redistributes it to the poor. The difference between Myriel and Robin Hood is that Myriel does not steal the money! It is all freely and more or less willingly given to him.

Much more importantly, Myriel puts himself at the economic level of the people he gives charity to. He appears to lower his social status, and he definitely does his financial one, in order to better be able to elevate that of the misérables around him.

His approach is the very exact opposite of Reaganomics, the Trickle-down Economic policy that purports to level economic inequalities from the top. When we see very wealthy people giving charity, their net worth never seems to be affected. Wealthy people may well be donating large amounts of money, but obviously, there are other existing economic forces which more than compensate for their "generosity", bringing back the wealth, and some, from the lower classes back to the wealthy.

Bear all of this in mind. These are important economic and social concepts. Do we desire to level inequalities from the top or from the bottom? It is certain that the readers of this commentary already know all about the abject failures of trickle-down economics. We not only saw that in the 1980's but also much more recently, during the 2008 economic meltdown, where we saw the perpetrators of this economic crime become and remain wealthier than ever while the rest of the population got saddled with debts and greater than ever economic hardship.

However, it may be useful to linger a while longer on the alternative model, the one presented by Myriel. There are some historical figures whose real life work is at least as inspiring than that of our bishop. Their examples are actually probably more inspiring because they are not fictitious. In a moment, we shall go to India and briefly discuss the examples given by two great 20th century Indian social leaders. But before we do so, let's stay in the US for a while longer in order to remember a truly inspiring American figure.

Peace Pilgrim

I don't know how famous or well known Peace Pilgrim is in the United States. In 1953, when she was 45 years old, she started a cross-continental pilgrimage that would only end with her accidental death in 1981. She gave up every material possessions. She only owned what she was wearing and what she could carry in her pockets. She refused to ever carry money. She could easily be recognized by the tunic she wore, on which was written, in bold letters: "PEACE PILGRIM". She walked back and forth across the United States, eating only when a meal or some food was spontaneously offered to her. She slept outdoors in every seasons, unless someone offered a sheltered place to sleep for a night. She didn't belong to any organized religions and she was as comfortable giving inspiring talks in churches, temples, secular public places. Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, Jews were all comforted in their own respective religions as they listened to her.

She maintained a life style free of all the modern un-necessities, stripping everything down to the most basic needs for physical survival, depending on the good will of the people she came across, never staying in one place more than a couple of days before moving on. She had vowed to continue living this way until humanity had learned from its mistake, until there was no more misery, so that she could raise her physical standard of living at the same pace as that of the most wretched person on Earth. Needless to say, that day never occurred. So she kept on walking. She was about to embark to the next stage on her long, long journey when, aged 73, she was hit by a car.

Like Myriel, Peace Pilgrim levelled her standard of living down to that of the poorest. Both figures, the fictional character and the real life Pilgrim, attempted to level the field from the bottom. They are the Anti-Christs of the Church of Reaganomics. They were the most ardent proponents of Trickle-up Economics.

Global perspectives

And so here we are - we, who are neither arrogantly wealthy nor completely destitute - between Reagan and Myriel. We often look up and point our fingers at the top 1%. We are the 99%, we say. But how often do we look down, at the 90%? Do we even realise that we are the (top) 10%??

How often do we, North American and Western European, have a good, honest, hard, fair and balanced look à la Myriel at the world beyond our national borders? Do we even know - or care - how many refugees live in UNHCR-operated camps? How many children were born in those camps and are growing up there, going to school? We only seem to be able to see the top of the social ladder of each country. We notice in awe - and in fear - the economic wonders of communist China, but how often do we consider the hundreds of millions of Chinese farmers? Even the American people who are living under the poverty line have much more material possessions than them. What about the population of sub-Saharan Africa?

Do we claim that we the ability to raise every single human being's standard of living up to our own? We have known for at least 20 years that this would be an ecological impossibility. We have been overshooting our planet's carrying capacity for decades. For us (and in all these statements, I include myself!) to maintain our cosy lifestyles, it is known that hundreds of millions of people have to remain in absolute poverty. Not every body on earth can live at the standard of a North American on a West European. There are simply not enough resources for that! Our ecological footprint is simply unsustainable and unattainable by the majority of humanity.

So, since it is proven that levelling the human condition at the top is an impossibility, we must start considering levelling our own lifestyles down until humanity reaches a sustainable middle ground. And that "middle" is actually closer to the bottom than to the top! It has been calculated that an American consumes four times more than what the Earth can provide per human being.

Having a life style less attached to material possessions does not mean lowering our level of happiness. On the contrary. We may become much more contended with less wordly attachments. We may be able to live more humanely fulfilling lives.

Gandhi

Above, we briefly went to India with Mother Teresa. Let's return to India now and remember for a while the Mahatma Gandhi's vision for a just and peaceful society. If you have never watched the 1982 movie masterpiece "Gandhi", find a copy and watch it! If you already watched it (presumably a long time ago), watch it again.

What interests us now is not so much his leadership in the Indian nationalism movement, nor is non-violent civil disobedience movement. What makes him relevant in the current discussion is the similar approach that he took to tackle poverty. Like Myriel, like Mother Teresa, like Peace Pilgrim, he tried to level the playing field from the bottom. He, too, stripped his life from all material un-necessities. He was a modern ecologist in the sense that he advocated for people to live in small, autonomous, self-sustained communities living off the land, in conditions with a very low ecological footprint and yet with a lot of human dignity.

When we look at the state of today's India, we cannot help thinking that the great Gandhi has been right all along. He is much celebrated in India. Yet, Indians - and ourselves - ought to revisit his message and try to listen a bit more intently to what he was trying to tell us.

Like Myriel, Mother Teresa and Peace Pilgrim, Gandhi lived according to what he preached.

India

American liberals most rightly decry the very "conservative", very right wing nature of American politics. They look at Europe and notice that European right wing leaders run on the left of Obama! But the fact is that we, American and European, ought to have a good look at India in order to start to understand the scope of what is in store for us, for humanity.

The fact is, since independence, India's governments have traditionally been running on the left even of the European left wing. The left of the left of Obama, if you will. If you look on paper, India is, in some ways, an American liberal's dream come true. It is a vibrant democracy, the largest in the world. Despite all of its troubles during the India-Pakistan partition, India remains a society very tolerant of religious diversity, with all of the world's major religions peacefully co-existing there.

During the 65 years since its 1947 independence, the Prime Minister of India has been from the left wing party the Indian National Congress for 52 years. Since 2004, the Prime Minister is Dr. Manmohan Singh, also from the INC. Singh is often revered abroad. He is seen as a man of integrity, concerned with relieving the country's large scale poverty.

Yet at the same time, social issues are very grave. The government's economic policy do not fully deliver the promised relief. It seems the path to greater liberalization is failing there as it has failed in the West.

Do find some time to watch the 3-part BBC documentary "Welcome to India". It is very humbling. We are indeed the (top) 10%. Let's remember this fact the next time we denounce the 1%! Would we be willing to relinquish proportionally as much material possessions as we ask the 1% to do? We must learn to look down, way down (to the 90%), as much as we look up, way up (to the 1%).

The over-crowded and ecologically depraved conditions that Indians live it are only a taste of what may very well be coming to the West. When we look at the PRC, we might say: Yeah, but the Chinese people are not free. The society is tightly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. But with India, a democracy almost consistently governed from the left, we have no such excuse. It is not enough to be a liberal. We have to be as revolutionary as Myriel.

If there is ever any levelling of social and economic inequalities, it will necessarily be towards the bottom end. Myriel and Gandhi have known all along the solution that still evades us.

Jacques Lemaire: the missing piece of the solution?

Before we conclude this lengthy commentary, let's come back to France and discuss the revolutionary ideas of a virtually unknown French thinker, Jacques Lemaire. The link goes to another web site where a full copy of his second book is freely available for reading. It's in French. We bring it up here because it may very well hold part of the solution to the underlying problems that we have been discussing all along.

To the two or three French speakers who follow this project: I would love to discuss the content of his book with you, if you can find the time to read it. Chapter 2 is the key chapter, although there are other important insights in the rest of the book. J'espère vraiment que vous essayerez de lire le livre, au moins le chapitre 2. J'aimerais en parler avec vous et, si possible, faire connaître ce livre auprès du public américain. Excuse my French!

Earlier, we mentioned the fact that, unlike M. Myriel, the very wealthy never see their net worth being affected by their charitable contributions, even very generous ones. We noted that there must be processes by which the wealth they donate flows right back up to them. Some of these processes are already very well known and decried by the progressive society. However, there are some more pernicious processes that ensure that even if the most liberal agenda were put into place, the wealthy would still become - or remain - shockingly wealthier than they ought to be. In order to fully understand what is happening, we have to go back to the source of the problem. For as long as we do not fix the systemic causes of our current social problems, wealth will not be distributed in a fair manner, with meritorious, adequately educated, hard-working people not getting their fair share of a company's income.

We've been speaking of levelling the economic playing field. The greatest leveller of all is time. No matter how wealthy or famous, nobody on Earth has more than 24 hours a day. 24 hours that every single one of us has to work, rest, play, educate ourselves. Any sane economic, fiscal and fiducial policy must somehow be a function of time. This is only the starting point. Now, if workers, employees, use their time to do productive work, they must be adequately compensated, not only with fair wages, but also with a fair share of the benefits they have allowed their enterprise to make.

Ordinary workers are being defrauded by their corporate overlords. This is a well accepted fact by the progressive movement. Jacques Lemaire's genius is to have been able to mathematically quantify by how much workers are being defrauded.

Also, since we spoke of environmental degradation and ecological footprints, Jacques Lemaire, who published his first book in the 1950 and his second in 1976, proved to be much more in advance of his generation of thinkers. His proposed fiscal policy is the only one that makes sense. Fortunately, the fiscal policy of European have slowly been moving in the right direction, albeit too slowly. Much too slowly. What Lemaire proposes as a core policy, is currently being applied only as an after-thought; it is a side-dish, not a main course.

The wisdom imparted in Jacques Lemaire's book would be the perfect conclusion to this commentary, and the perfect solution to the social problems that Hugo denounces in the chapter being discussed. I'll have more opportunities to talk about this. Those who understand French can already check the book out.

Comme il y a toujours encore plus de misère en bas que de fraternité en haut, tout était donné, pour ainsi dire, avant d’être reçu ; c’était comme de l’eau sur une terre sèche ; il avait beau recevoir de l’argent, il n’en avait jamais. Alors il se dépouillait. As there is always more wretchedness below than there is brotherhood above, all was given away, so to speak, before it was received. It was like water on dry soil; no matter how much money he received, he never had any. Then he stripped himself.

One of the stated goals of this project is to create a bit more knowledge, a bit more understanding and especially a bit more brotherhood above so that, hopefully, there'll be a bit less wretchedness below...

Cross posted from: Les Misérables [1.1-II] M. Myriel becomes M. Welcome.