“Let them eat cake!” Whether the words were ever spoken or not, and their context, is almost irrelevant. The words became, and remain, a rallying cry that gathers an angry mob to the gates of the palace. It’s a statement that stands for the callous indifference of the wealthy and powerful.
Of course, it comes out of a particular historical context which includes monarchies and royal families. The story goes that we are comfortably past the days of aristocracy and every person born in our country has the same opportunity to accrue wealth and comfort. Except, more and more, we know that’s not true. The family we’re born into and the community in which we’re raised will significantly shape the opportunities we have.
This has probably always been true. In the days of aristocratic rule, we rationalised this by saying that there was a natural hierarchy in which everyone had their place. Some people just had a higher place than others.
The days in which we live are different only in the rationale that helps us justify the inequality of opportunity many of our neighbours face. The story we tell ourselves now is some version of the American myth of the self-made person. The myth usually goes something like this: Anyone can achieve wealth and success if they just work hard enough.
I’m not feeling diplomatic today so I’m going to be blunt. This myth is patently ridiculous. More accurately we could say this: Anyone can make the most of what they have.
Aside from not being very inspiring, this also hints that most of us have what we have because we received a certain level of wealth and support from our families and communities. The truth is that the wealthy are likely to stay wealthy and the poor are likely to stay poor. Whether we like it or not, this is not that far from the rigid class distinctions of the aristocratic age. It’s even possible that this is how those old rigid class distinctions emerged.
As long as we believe that everyone can be rich, and that everyone has the same opportunity. there won’t be an angry mob gathering at the gates of the palace. As long as we believe that false myth though, there will also never be economic justice.
For the record, I’m not suggesting that we light up the torches and grab the pitchforks. I’m also not suggesting that we should dust off our old copies of Marx’s Das Capital. But it might be worth—it might actually be essential—spending some time really reflecting on how Jesus talks about money and power. Or how the prophets and the psalms call for care of the orphan and widow.
Of course, we can choose not to do that reflection. Most of us will be able to comfortably worship and live without doing that reflection. But, aside from the fact that we’ll be turning a blind eye to the poverty of our neighbours, we’ll also be saying exactly what Marie Antoinette may have said many years ago.