Where Do We Go from Here? Émile Zola, Socioeconomics, and the Politics of Nonviolence

By David Cappella

There was a time when fictional writers boldly wrote about the societies they lived in, revealing them in a critical yet insightful light. Zola, along with fellow French writers Balzac and Flaubert, might be thus characterized. In L’Argent (“Money”) Zola casts a prescient hook into the conundrum of our own times. The book details the ambitious rise and fall of Aristide Saccard and his Banque Universelle. The bank is built on promises and dreams of grand overseas projects, it is buoyed by incessant speculation, and founders spectacularly when revealed to be an enormous bubble—wreaking collateral damage on the lives of guilty and innocent investors alike.

While the novel is a hard lesson in avoiding the tantalizing allure of risky financial speculation, Zola himself seems ambivalent about the complicity of money in financial misery—going so far as to compare it to love:

“…money has hitherto been the dung-heap in which the humanity of the morrow has grown; money, albeit the poisoner and destroyer, becomes the ferment of all social vegetation, the compost necessary for the great works which make life easier…love also has been soiled. Why then should money be blamed for all the dirt and crimes it causes? For is love less filthy—love which creates life?”

So money may play a necessary role in society, feeding hope and granting motivation. But how does this relate to our contemporary social problems? As Senator Sanders’ surprisingly successful campaign portends, the issue of money is not going away in American politics: whether money in politics, or the concentration of money for top income earners.

Voting Americans of all types will have to be willing to engage others in honest conversation if we are ever to bridge political divides. I argue that two leaders in socioeconomic thought, Theda Skocpol and Martin Luther King, Jr. can offer workable starting points for a level-headed discussion.

Theda Skocpol, a prominent sociologist known for her successful fight concerning Harvard University denying her tenure due to gender discrimination, is also an astute thinker in the academic field of political economy. In her book, States and Social Revolutions (1979), she emphasizes an independent, dual responsibility of the state in maintaining order in modern society: maintaining a stable position regarding both the “international system of states” (international arena) and the “class-divided socioeconomic structures” within society (domestic arena). While the international arena involves responding to global conditions and pressures, the domestic arena involves responding appropriately to politically organized and mobilized interests within society.

Martin Luther King, Jr. drew inspiration both from Reinhold Niebuhr and Mohandas Gandhi in leading the civil rights movement. From the former he learned the importance of appealing to the moral conscience of the oppressors, and from the latter he learned the effectiveness of “truth-love-force” or “Satya-graha” in social change. King offers insight for avoiding violence in today’s polarized political-social milieu, whether the issue is money, income, race, gender, or civil and religious liberties.

I give him the last word:

“We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully because our aim is to persuade. We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts” (from Stride Toward Freedom, 1958).

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