Germinal is by some accounts still the most widely read of Émile Zola's novels, and at least two films have been made based on its story. It is in part an exposé of the bleak world of late-19th-century French coal-mine workers and their strike, in part a story of a love triangle. Oh, and by the way these days, to this American reader, it's also a bore. Yet it's always possible to find interesting, even enlightening, tidbits in even the least likely of places.
When Étienne, the novel's protagonist and strike organizer, recites his arguments aimed at persuading the colliers to strike, the first step in realizing workers' rights is to destroy "the state." And though this coalminer is channeling Marxist dogma here, I was struck by the paradoxical similarity between him and those contemporary rabble-rousers who want to "starve the beast" of government. Of course in both cases the desire is only only replace it with one more to their liking.
Today's extreme conservatives might be surprised to learn how much they share with Marxist theoreticians and activists of 150 years ago. Yet, reading Zola's novel the day after my last posting ("The Shared Nuttiness of Right and Left") the comparison was stark. In both cases, the solution to the excesses of capitalism is to blame government.
In Germinal, the miners' strike doesn't end well. And as we now know, communism was not the answer - whatever the question may have been. "Communist" governments nearly everywhere have gone out of business, and those that survive have transformed themselves into capitalist societies hiding out in Maoist clothing. The willful effort to force government into atrophy for temporary political gain is no less a dead-end path into the future.
In Zola's time, the excesses of profit-seeking behemoths were easily hidden and needed to be brought to the attention of an ignorant public. Today, the excesses are well known, recent, and highly publicized, so there is little excuse for ignoring them or (worse) putting them on a pedestal. Like Zola, we should be focusing on identifying the real causes of our ills, rather than undermining the institutions that act as a counterweight to them.