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I recently stayed for ten days in a tiny studio apartment in Montmartre, one of the tourist destinations in the City of Paris. It was located at the bottom of the steps running up to the church of the Sacre Coeur, a landmark visible from most of the streets of Paris. The nearest subway station or Metro was that of Chateau Rouge on the number 4 line to the Porte de Clignancourt.
The steps out of the Metro station are steep and constantly used by subway travelers for reaching the Gare du Nord railway station, a hub for trains to and from Northern Europe and the U.K. There was some refuse on the steps because at the exit were vegetable stalls and the usual small sandwich shops, frequented by a mass of Africans that had settled legally or not in that part of Paris.
The small street leading off the Metro station was chock-a-bloc with covered vegetable stands supplying people of all sorts, with shoppers, sellers and those who offered Metro tickets at a reduced price
African immigrants were seated on the sidewalks, crouching under sodden blankets in the intermittent ice-cold rain, their faces impassive masks. Most of them were women clad in burnouses and each of them had an upturned cookie tin in front of her displaying pieces of some kind of fruit or a half-wilted vegetable.
African men were standing behind a contraption made of an upturned cookie tin mounted on a stick on which they displayed very black roasted peanuts in a small heap in the hope that for a few centimes or even an euro they would find a customer.
The poverty and the obvious hopelessness of this scene were suppurating like an open wound that even personal charity could not cauterize. I felt like a sleek animal surveying what my fellow predators would ultimately devour.
In contrast to the perky French rationalist cynicism or the loud assertiveness of the New World, the speech of the Africans was very soft and modulated and remarkably sentient and their body language of an almost indolent sensuality. How could such a downtrodden people find elegance in their miserable existence?
Is it their relentless societal exclusion, which saves them from the dire alienations of the capitalist system? We are far here from the idealist myth of Rousseau with its images of the noble savage. Poverty in capitalist society breeds a violent lateral competitiveness, which the quiet of this Paris locale appeared entirely to abrogate.
In our sad capitalist system personal justifications of one’s needs are expressed in total denial of other human beings and of animals and nature. This atomization makes us all competing consumers and facilitators of an irrational structure that dispels all human solidarity.
George Orwell wrote correctly: ‘We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance’, thereby exposing the absurd postulate which truly denigrates our humanity. While Orwell was already lambasting what he saw as a form of Communist totalitarianism, and the supposedly “cold” tenets of Marxism, in reality the atomization occurs in capitalist societies, and it is true that for the purposes of historical analysis what ultimately matters is the role that human beings play objectively.
It is that emotional indifference leading to a sickness unto spiritual death, paraphrasing Kierkegaard that allows for the outrageous dissimulations and the violence perpetrated by our Western rulers. The lack of indignation about this state of affairs in the world is the result of a deceptive, fatuous and depressing capitalist dictum that ‘there is no alternative’ (Thatcher)
Unless we radically change this malaise in our own minds, we remain the perpetrators as well as the dupes of an unjust society formed by a system that growing and metastasizing by the minute may well destroy our lives and the earth. The ‘inconsequential’ forgotten poor will be left to inherit a scorched world.
Gui Rochat is an art dealer and consultant, specializing in in seventeenth and eighteenth century French paintings and drawings. He lives in New York.