Banksy artwork painted at La Sorbonne in Paris 5th arrondissement on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Paris uprising.
In late June of 2018 a series of unsigned paintings popped up across Paris, all bearing resemblance to the work of British street artist Banksy. Later confirmed by the artist on his Instagram account, the works reference the 50th anniversary of the tumultuous events of May 1968. Each work contains a striking political message and many confront important contemporary issues in France, particularly the government’s response to the European refugee crisis. This painting depicts a man in a suit giving a bone to an eager dog. Blood drips from dog who is missing a leg, and the man hides a saw behind his back. The work plays on the idiom “to throw (someone) a bone” which means to offer someone something superficial or worthless.
Text by Ruby Comet
In the Belém district of Lisbon, facing the Tagus estuary, stands O Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a monument to the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Sculpted on to this monument are the figures who characterised this age. Pedro Álvares Cabral, the first European to stumble across Brazil, Bartolomeu Dias, the first to sail around the southernmost tip of the African continent, and Vasco da Gama, the first to reach India by sea, to name but a few. These intrepid explorers established capitalism’s early mercantile form. They scoured new lands in search of resources to plunder, all in the name of their monarch. The wars they waged to enslave native Amerindians and later Africans to be brought across the Atlantic, were justified under the guise of the Christian civilising mission, which hid the purely economic ulterior motive. It is ironic then, that the prominent French mercantilist, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, declared that “liberty is the soul of commerce”, when the commerce of the mercantile period was entirely founded on the subjugation of the workforce. While a select few exercised their liberty to build profits, millions suffered.
Detail of the artwork by Banksy.
C.L.R. James, in his account of the Haitian Revolution, describes the sugar plantation society that formed on the island of Haiti, and the ways in which the slave traders legitimised their barbaric work. They claimed that despite the cruelness of the slave traffic, the African slave was happier in America than the supposedly backward and violent Africa. Propaganda masked the cruelty and greed that drove this society, and James summarises this incessant greed with an anecdote. When a colonial child asks for an egg and is told that there are none, their reply is, “Then I want two”. This mentality of a constant need to acquire more and more wealth can be considered the foundation of the capitalist spirit. However, the capitalist of the 16th and 17th centuries remained constrained by his commitment to the monarch who had complete control of the market. All profits had to align with the economic and political goals of the state and not the individual.
It was the spread of Protestant ideals that began to mould this system, giving more freedom to the individual to pursue their own goals and ambitions. The sociologist Max Weber attempted to link this growing ‘spirit’ of capitalism to the Protestant ethic, claiming that Calvinism preached the benefits of individual worldly success, as a sign of eternal salvation. This belief in economic liberalism was further encouraged by Scottish Economist Adam Smith. A key figure of the Enlightenment, he claimed that businessmen may be driven to make profits for their own gain, but as a result of competition with others, they are guided by an ‘invisible hand’ to benefit society as a whole. What Smith failed to recognise, however, was that competition is not guaranteed within the capitalist system. Once companies are able to build monopolies and competition is no longer an issue, then it is completely within their interests to exploit both the environment and their workers.
Alongside this increasing laissez-faire attitude came massive advancements in technology, particularly with the advent of the Industrial Revolution from the end of the 18th Century. Inventions harnessing the power of steam and coal brought about massive expansions in the textile, transportation and manufacturing industries. Capitalism progressively became a Frankensteinian project as society suffered from its own creations. The transformation from slave labour to wage labour did not mean the end of exploitation of the workforce, and the most striking example of this was the growing use of child labour in factories across England, America, and later Europe. Edward P. Thompson claimed “that the exploitation of little children, on this scale and with this intensity, was one of the most shameful events in [English] history.” He relates stories of children working seventeen hour days, being beaten awake when they needed to work, and eventually dying of exhaustion. Children were forced to work under such conditions by brutal factory masters, and parents who were unable to live off their own wages alone. Whereas with slavery, force was needed to exploit people, now the exploited depended on capitalism to live, and all it had to do was throw them a bone.
Yet it was not only people who were harmed during the industrial expansion, it was also the environment. The ever-increasing growth of capital and industry was dependent on the burning of fossil fuels, and with this came pollution and the destruction of the environment. In his novel Hard Times (1854), Charles Dickens described the effect of air pollution on Manchester, through the fictional town of Coketown: “It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black”. Therefore, the inventions created in the relentless search for progress turned destructively against us, just as Frankenstein’s monster turned against his own creator. Fritz Haber is a disturbing example of such a process. A German entrepreneur, he made fortunes experimenting with chemical gases to develop fertilizers and pesticides in the early 20th century. Not only did these chemicals contribute to the desolation of the atmosphere, one of them, Zyklon B, was used by the Nazis in their concentration camps, where several of Haber’s relatives were killed.
While the liberty of people to exploit others in search of capital was firmly established, it took longer for trade between nations to be completely liberalised. From the 1980s, the Thatcher and Reagan governments saw the start of neo-liberalism, national regulations on businesses began to be torn down and trade between nations was facilitated by an increasing emphasis on “free trade”. Now organisations such as World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund supposedly bring countries together, allowing them to trade on equal terms. In reality, the military force of the colonial age has been replaced by economic power. Threats of sanctions or the withholding of assistance in times of crisis, allow countries like the US to dominate the global market and profit from the labour and resources of developing countries. The inequalities of capitalism have become apparent on a global scale, between country and country rather than businessman and worker, with one party exploiting the other under the guise of a mutually beneficial relationship.
« Vive la Commune » is a reference to the Commune de Paris, a short-lived Marxist government that took hold of power in Paris during several months in 1871 and is celebrated annually.
However, the most recent and arguably most radical transformation of capitalism, took place with the invention of the internet and the dawn of the Information Age. In particular the rise of the sharing economy (exemplified by companies such as Uber and Airbnb) has led to business being increasingly carried out in the digital realm. A 2017 report published by Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimated the value of the sharing economy at about $250bn. The problem is that it is now possible for businesses to function with very little regulations, highlighting the casual nature of the work of their employees so that they do not have to pay them a fair wage. For instance, in 2016 several hundred Uber drivers gathered in New York to protest their unfair treatment. They complained that despite the company’s enormous growth, it continued to slash their wages so that it could lower its prices, financing its expansion on their backs.
The internet has also, by creating a global network of communication, increased the efficiency and efficacy of propaganda. C.L.R. James wrote in 1938 that, “Ours, too, is an age of propaganda. We excel out ancestors only in system and organisation”, and this particularly holds true today. The big monopolies of the internet, Facebook and Google, constitute 61 percent of global online ad revenues, and digital advertising spending overtook that of TV in 2017. This means that massive corporations are in control of both our data and much of the advertising and media that we consume. A fact that is particularly disturbing when considering the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political data firm, hired both by Trump’s campaign and the Leave campaign, gained access to private information of millions of Facebook users, using it to influence their voting behaviour. People are made to believe they have a say within our modern day democratic society, but when huge corporations hold so much power, it is natural that they use it to their own gain, forcing people to operate within a system that may not benefit them.
The Czech author Milan Kundera wrote that “totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise”. This in many ways describes the continuing capitalist project. Just as Victor Frankenstein’s obsessive search to create life led to his own self-destruction, society’s pursuit of capital is bringing harm to both people and the environment. This idea is captured in one of Banksy’s recent works in Paris, part of a series that coincided with the 50th anniversary of Paris’ 1968 May events. In the work, a business man in a suit is shown giving a bone to an eager dog, who is bleeding having lost his leg. A handsaw hidden behind the businessman’s back gives the sinister suggestion that the dog is being fed his own leg. Banksy shows us that today, 50 years after the radical French movement which sprung out of a reaction to the horrors of capitalism, we today look to it with the eagerness and hope of the dog, and all it will do is throw us a bone.
The edge to La Sorbonne, with its classical Graeco-Roman architecture, suggesting permanence, can be seen on the right-hand side.
 Tarcisio R. Botelho, ‘Labour Ideologies and Labour Relations in Colonial Portuguese America: 1500-1700’ IRSH, 56 (2011), pp. 275-296 (p. 276).
 Henry C. Clark, Commerce, Culture, and Liberty: Readings on Capitalism Before Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003), p. xi.
 C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York City: Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 6-7.
 C.L.R. James, p. 29.
 Gijs Rommelse, ‘Mountains of Iron and Gold: Mercantilist Ideology in Anglo-Dutch Relations (1650-1674)’ in Ideology and Foreign Policy in Early Modern Europe (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2011), p. 257.
 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 456.
 < https://www.thoughtco.com/industrial-revolution-inventors-chart-4059637>
 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), p. 349.
 E.P. Thompson, p. 347.
 Clark Nardinelli, ‘Child Labor and the Factory Acts’, The Journal of Economic History 40 (1980), pp. 739-755 (p. 739).
 Charles Dickens, Hard Times (London: Chapman & Hall, 1905), p. 19.
 Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), p. 208.
 < https://www.thoughtco.com/globalization-of-capitalism-3026076>
 Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002), p. 62.
 < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/uber-airbnb-sharing-economy-people-cant-be-trusted-a7867301.html>
 < https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/nyregion/uber-drivers-up-against-the-app.html>
 C.L.R. James, p. 7.
 < https://www.statista.com/chart/12179/google-and-facebook-share-of-ad-revenue/>
 < https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/technology/facebook-cambridge-analytica-explained.html?mtrref=www.google.fr&gwh=94023DB3BC1A866737C33F797C61AF3D&gwt=pay>
 Cited in, Lois Parkinson Zamora, Writing the Apocalypse: Historical Vision in Contemporary U.S. and Latin American Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 91.