When I was in the process of photographing a cognac decanter in a shop window in New York's Financial District in May 2019, I didn't know yet that a passing courier would become part of the scene. But by the time I released the shutter, the spine of the bicyclist and the dentelle spikes of the decanter had merged into one.
I. Of Kings
Louis XIII cognac is described by its parent company Remy Martin as a symbol of proud French national heritage: the brand carries the name of a monarch, the spirit is produced in the Cognac region in France, and the eaux de vie—some of it a hundred years old—is overseen by a dedicated cellar master. The decanter itself is a glass replica of a metal cafe that was found on the site of the 1569 battle of Jarnac and the company works with French artisans to produce the design to this day. Taken together these layers have elevated the Louis XIII brand into an exclusive status symbol for high-earners that comes with an old-world flair. But over the last few years its role as a prop for moneyed 'royalty' might have been complicated by the evolving political and economic climate both in France and the United States, where more authoritative ruling styles have begun to surface.
When Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker for Rothschild & Cie Banque, was elected the youngest president of France in 2017, he announced that he would rule with a Jupiterian style and justified it as the French people’s nostalgia for the monarchy. In one of his first interviews as the president, he called the French population "my people." While this self-aggrandizing might have been also a maneuver to demonstrate his power despite his young age and short political experience, the displayed arrogance translated into his refusal to meet with unions, the civil service, and the regional and local authorities. He also cancelled the traditional Bastille Day interview with two TV anchors, because, according to a spokesperson, his thoughts "are too complex for journalists' questions." Roughly three years later in the United States, on April 13, 2020, President Donald Trump announced publicly: "When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that's the way it's got to be. It's total." "The local leaders," he continued in a later response, “can’t do anything without the approval of the president of the United States.” The remarks referenced the US governors' own state plans in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Legal experts were quick to point out that Trump's claims had no basis in reality, and were also completely antithetical to the Constitution, the concept of federalism and separation of powers—whether during a time of emergency or not.
Since the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump has shown utter disregard for both the rule of law and the Constitution that upholds it. He and the senators of the Republican party have undermined the Constitution's divide between state and church by bringing religion back into education, health care matters and legal rulings. Attorney General William Barr has aligned the judiciary arm with his own extreme conservative interpretations of the Constitution as well as with Trump's political interests. Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, warned that if Trump would survive an impeachment trial in the Senate, Barr’s and Trump’s efforts could permanently alter the balance of power among the branches of American government. “If those views take hold, we will have lost what was won in the Revolution—we will have a Chief Executive who is more powerful than the king,” Tribe said. “That will be a disaster for the survival of the Republic.”
Trump was not impeached due to the majority vote of the Republican senators.
II. On the Barricades Breaking Things
When president Macron's reforms for a more competitive France translated into fiscal support for the wealthy segment of the population while it simultaneously sought to limit worker protections and pensions, protests ensued. When Macron followed up with an eco-tax on fuel in 2018, the French population's frustration boiled over and protests erupted nationwide. They quickly developed into what came to be known as the mouvement des gilets jaunes (the yellow vest movement) and Macron took the recurring violence and anti-Semitic incidents that flared up during some protests as an excuse to confront the movement with military police. At one point 80,000 police members faced a similar number of protesters nationwide, an unheard ratio for any protest. The brute police force and the continued clashes that simmered for more than a year caused a total loss of 24 eyes and 5 hands according to Pauline Bock at the New Statesman. Despite the aggressive intervention of the police, the government and the media put the blame on casseurs (hooligans) and extremists, a small group within the gilets jaunes. The (international) press reinforced this narrative with images of boarded up or smashed shop windows and burning cars. This strategy began to weaken support of the movement and overshadowed the majority of peaceful participants and the economic grievances that they wanted to have addressed. The French intelligentsia itself stood mostly on the sidelines or kept a safe theoretical—and often paternalistic—distance to the movement to not contaminate their own system of critique or academic standing with the messiness of the protesters' spontaneous actions, inconsistent demands, 'lack of vision,' and the movement's generally ambiguous political direction and development.
At the same time that Macron strongly condemned the social disruption and upheaval of the gilets jaunes, his political reform program pushed for a technological 'disruption' in the mode of Silicon Valley to strengthen France's own start-up economy. In the entrepreneurial tech sector disruption is code for an aggressive interference into existing social structures, businesses and livelihoods, and often sold to the public as a necessary tool for progress. Mark Zuckerberg's advice of "Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough," became an infamous mantra in Silicon Valley exactly because it referred to the power of computer code and the assault it launched on societal structures. It is only recently that the mainstream's celebratory perception of the industry has shifted and politicians have started to target Silicon Valley's negative impact on labor structures, i.e. the industry's reliance on cheap gig workers and their simultaneous push for automation through robotics and AI. But even if some American entrepreneurs' public image has slipped from hero to villain, e.g. Amazon's Jeff Bezos or Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, among others, their economic and political clout—as well as their lawyers—still drive and dominate large parts of the labor conditions and shape the future work force in the United States. President Trump himself has attacked Silicon Valley, but out of self-interest for his political propaganda rather than concern for workers.
III. A Toast to the Future
"The ever-evolving blend of eaux-de vie is a reflection of the past, but also represents a commitment to the future, as we lay down stocks for future generations to draw on." - Louis XIII / Remy Martin Website
While a concern about legacy would appear to be antithetical to the aforementioned push for technological disruption, they are both driven by the same goal: accumulation of power and wealth. The Louis XIII brand has smartly adjusted to the moneyed circles, embracing both old and new money wherever it accumulates. In 2015 the cognac brand commissioned the film 100 Years: The Movie You Will Never See, written by John Malkovich and directed by Robert Rodriguez. In 2017 the company invited American singer, songwriter, and producer Pharrell Williams to create a new track called 100 Years. Both projects were based on the brand's motto, "Always think a century ahead," and entailed a clever twist: they were each sealed in a safe for 100 years to be released to future generations. Only a highly exclusive group of guests was invited to experience a preview of each campaign. But in 2019, when the Louis XIII brand returned to Los Angeles based advertising agency FF to create a new promotional work, they chose to address the future differently: the company enlisted two robotic arms to make a toast with Louis XIII baccarat crystal glasses, which would result in a G-sharp note. They then commissioned Paris-based Israeli jazz composer Yaron Herman to create a contemporary music score from that note. Technicians programmed the high-precision choreography for the robotic arms, and Parisian designer Arnaud Lapierre styled the arms along Louis XIII's brand aesthetics. In November, Herman performed his composition One Note Prelude on a grand piano accompanied by a string trio and the robots. A two-minute recording of the concert was released across media channels and the robotic arms were later sent around the globe to be exhibited in various new Louis XIII's boutiques and pop-up shops.
The One Note Prelude campaign arrived just a few months after Bacardi's Bombay Sapphire had dispatched a pair of 2,500-pound industrial robotic arms to an open-air mall in Los Angeles, where it invited people to collectively paint on a canvas by registering for time slots at an online portal to guide the robotic arms. While Bacardi's campaign might have inspired Louis XIII's embrace of automation, each liquor company employed the robotic arms differently. In Bacardi's scenario, people were given control over the robots. In Louis XIII's campaign the relationship stayed ambiguous. In both cases the relatability between robots and spirits raised questions. But if one considers Louis XIII's brand motto, the brand fell short of its 'century ahead' claim by employing robotic arms of a style that has been used in factories for at least a decade. Compared to the newest robots in Amazon's distribution centers, for example, they seem to belong to the older guard. The next generation that Amazon is anxiously waiting for will be the type that can grasp objects with different shapes, sizes, and form factors, and thus have the dexterity levels of a human hand—but with higher speeds and no need for bathroom breaks.
IV. Social Contracts
Trump and Macron have both been labeled presidents of the rich, but their responses to their working constituency have been vastly different. While France is less unequal than the United States, its income inequality is widening. In response Macron has implemented several policies that will provide support to people of lesser means. But these acts were quickly followed by his moves to abolish the wealth tax, replace it with a real estate tax that lifted or reduced taxes on certain properties, and push austerity measures onto the rest of the working and middle-class population. When the peoples' nationwide pushback forced him to reverse parts of his reforms, his role as a king cracked. The president also suffered another blow to his authority on May 19th, 2020, when 17 left-leaning environmentalists and feminists broke away from his ruling party to set up a new political group in the National Assembly, the Ecologie Démocratie Solidarité (EDS). It resulted in the loss of his party's parliamentary majority. Paula Forteza, co-chair of EDS, said the new group’s proposals included a temporary wealth tax to help the country through the coronavirus crisis and universal income payments to everybody over 18 years old.
President Trump, on the other side, continues to consolidate his power by ridding himself of 'dis-loyalists' and career politicians while expanding his control over the judicial branch. He has very little regard for people's working conditions in the United States, not even during the Covid-19 pandemic. While France temporarily shut six Amazon fulfilment centers due to their inadequate safety procedures after unions protested, Amazon in the United States responded to a protest for better protection against Covid-19 at its Staten Island fulfillment center with the firing of the protest's organizer. That act was followed by Amazon's termination of two fulltime user experience designers, who were in contact with fulfillment center workers. When the meat processing monopolists urged Trump to re-open their plants despite their high Covid-19 infection rates and working conditions unfit to prevent more cases, he declared slaughter houses essential and demanded them to reopen. This happened in coordination with Mitch McConnell's push for a legal framework that would protect companies from lawsuits, shielding them from prosecution for reckless behavior endangering the well-being of their workers.
These examples not only display the US politicians' and company owners' self-interests that overrule the workers' safety and treat them like disposable goods, but also the industrialists' massive political clout. Dan Patrick, lieutenant governor of Texas had the clearest message to everyone in doubt of how the American capitalist system works or should work. In his opinion, the economy should re-open immediately and senior citizens [and the sick] should see their Covid-19 related deaths as a duty to their country. He followed up with what could have been a great line for a stand-up comedian but was meant in seriousness: "...there are more important things than living." His apparent acceptance of a high death rate to "protect" the economy became even more staggering when on May 24, 2020, the New York Times filled its printed front and interior pages as well as an online feature with the names of the close to 100,000 people who have died of Covid-19 in the United States despite a country wide lock down. To see page after page of the names of the deceased is heart-breaking. To see the disproportionally large number of black and Latino victims is devastating and telling.
V. Beyond Bare Life
The virus itself doesn't discriminate against class and ethnicity, but the economic and social structures in which people live do. They shape nutrition options, health conditions and services, job options, economic stability, education, law enforcement, etc. The quality of each of these factors is directly tied to one's income and wealth. The less money one has, the crueler the system becomes. Most people know very well how the capitalist system works, no matter how neoclassical economists try to spin the system's advantages. Millions of voters have embraced Bernie Sanders because he tries to change the system on a larger scale, and that threatens the financial and political systems, which are so closely intertwined. Systemic changes are scary and expensive. But so was the financial crisis and the hardship that the financial industry's brilliant strategy of "privatize risks and socialize loss" brought for large parts of the population and the Main Street economy. And so is the health and economic crisis triggered by Covid-19 that repeats the massive governmental support of financial markets and simultaneous disregard for people's livelihood, but this time on an even larger scale. Still, the US voters seem not yet to be willing to push for systemic change. But the remark of "...there are more important things than living" should make everybody pause.
Life in relation to state power and politics has been addressed across the centuries. In 350 BCE, Aristotle reflected on the relationship between mere life (zoe) and a good life (bio) in his Politics, while in 1958, Hannah Arendt addressed zoe and bio in The Human Condition, where she identified the political life not only with speech and action but most importantly with the condition of human plurality. Foucault introduced his concepts of biopower in the 1970s, and Agamben challenged Hobbes by declaring that mere life exists between zoe and bio in his Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 1998. It appears that lieutenant governor Dan Patrick has taken the Ancient Roman concept of Homo Sacer—a human being that is no longer protected by the state and can be murdered, but not sacrificed—and changed it into its opposite: senior citizens [and the sick] can be sacrificed to Covid-19, but they cannot be murdered. Many have of course rebuked and challenged Patrick's publicly expressed prioritizing of the economy, or rather the financial markets that dominate it, over human lives. But what he said is fully aligned with the logic of the current capitalist system, as is the fact that health care in the United States has become unaffordable and therefore inaccessible to large parts of the population. The high numbers of the uninsured and the unemployed, who lost their insurance with their jobs, need to also be recognized as a mass sacrifice during the pandemic, especially since many might risk death by being rejected from understaffed and -equipped hospitals or by avoiding treatment that they cannot pay for.
France and the United States are obviously very different countries. And yet, the US president seems driven towards the historical power structures of the monarchy while the French president aims to get closer to the cut-throat technological and financial capitalism that has decimated the social fabric and safety net in the US and suspended democracy's role to serve the people. Only the most self-absorbed, sociopathic, or Machiavellian figures—or perhaps robotic arms devoid of human sentiment—would make a toast to such a development.
One Note Prelude