Wednesday, August 17, 2011
1789, Folks. 1789.
More and more, it's looking like we're on the cusp of some kind of revolt or revolution. Whether it will be as thoroughgoing and overwhelming as the French and Russian Revolutions is impossible to say. But there is no doubt that an encompassing movement toward "reform" and "transformation" is taking hold.
The initial salvo was fired by the Gingrichites in their determination to undercut, hamstring and then impeach Bill Clinton from the Presidency while overturning whatever was left of the Progressive Revolution that had transformed government in this country decades previously. For those who lived through it, Gingrich-time is fairly recent history, and yet it was fifteen years ago now, and it's not as if there haven't been titanic developments since then, not as if -- to continue the metaphor -- the Titanic hasn't sunk, in fact, and some of us are in the lifeboats trying to survive with no rescue in sight.
What do you do then?
Populist outrage is normal under the circumstances, but the genius of the TeaBagger sponsors was to be able to channel ordinary populist outrage against the others who are suffering rather than toward those who are causing the suffering -- not just causing it but profiting from it.
When I saw the video of Obama being confronted by TeaBaggers in Iowa, I thought, "You know, this really is a pre-revolutionary act. I wonder if those who brought this 'movement' into being are prepared for where it could lead?" It can easily get out of their hands, after all.
Polemicists and propagandists are having a field day, of course. The point of their screeds seems to be to discredit the electoral process itself and to denounce all the candidates because, the best you can get through the system we have is the lesser of two evils. And who wants that? If your argument is that the system cannot produce anything better than the greater or lesser "evil," then your proposition is essentially that not only is the system "evil" but so is the government that results. This frame of reference all but requires the overthrow of the system and the government -- because they are both... "evil." Choosing the Lesser Evil doesn't end the evility of the whole.
By 1789, Le Royaume de France had reached its financial limits -- in no small measure due to its financial support of the American Revolution. More to the point, however, the Ancien Régime had reached its political limits. The King and his Court had nowhere to turn and nowhere to go to get out of their political and financial impasse -- except to call an extraordinary session of the Estates General, something that hadn't happened in 175 years, but which had to be done in 1789 because there was no other option but to have the representatives of the People decide among themselves (with the support of the Crown, of course) what to do about the crisis.
At the time, the Ancien Régime was roughly three hundred years old, having come into being through the consolidation of the territory and rule of France under the Bourbons beginning in the late 1400's. It was a drawn-out process, however. We could say it was something like the drawn out process of establishing and consolidating the United States, which came into existence in 1776, didn't achieve independence until 1783, didn't have a functional central government until 1788-89, and continued the expansion, consolidation, and integration of domestic territory until 1959.
And, like France under the Bourbons, the United States has sought to project its power and influence far and wide -- including through colonial and imperial wars of aggression.
France began hitting the financial wall during the reign of Louis XV whose incessant wars (and the upkeep of the Royal Court and His Majesty's Presence and Mistresses) essentially bankrupted the state. Louis tried to solve the financial problem by asking his nobles to pay taxes. They laughed to scorn; they told him to get any money he needed for wars and upkeep from the common people -- where all taxes are ultimately paid from anyway. The nobles' excuse for not paying taxes was that it cost so much for them to hie their households to Versailles (which is where they lived, not necessarily well, either) and to wait in attendance on the King that they had no other ready money with which to pay additional revenues to the Treasury. Let the peasants pay.
And so it would be.
Of course disaster could not be held at bay forever, and as the ruin of France's peasantry continued, hunger and disease and misery stalked the land. When the price of bread skyrocketed due to the unwise deregulation of grain and flour markets, the French people commenced to starve -- and to riot and to raise more and more tumult.
Calling the Estates General was seen as a way to manipulate the masses into quiescence while forcing ever more revenue out of them. "See, you are being listened to!"
Yes, of course.
Of course things went awry almost immediately. There was the Bastille Incident; the incident at Versailles when the fish-wives of Paris stormed the Palace, killed several of the guards, and paraded their heads around on pikes. This would become a theme. The nobles continued to refuse to pay any significant amount of tax. The King dithered. The representatives of the People became infuriated. And soon enough, there was a revolt: it was the revolt of the first two estates, the clergy and the nobility, against the representatives of the masses. Wouldn't you know.
And that's when the world turned upside down. The representatives of the People (actually, it was mostly the representatives of the tiny French middle-class, but who's counting, right?) formed themselves into the National Assembly and declared that they were in charge now and demanded the King's assent. Which they got. This was no small accomplishment and it put the nobles and the clergy on the spot.
Things had gotten out of hand, and there was no way back to what now looked like the stability of Royal Rule from the Throne.
The path forward was uncharted. The American example was not really applicable to France, and the philosophes of France were not exactly masters of political organization. All that was understood was that the Old Ways could not continue.
The working out of New Ways took a very long time, and there would be rivers of blood shed along the way.
Yet most of the New Ways developed by the French through trial and much error are still in place throughout Europe and a significant portion of the rest of the world. No matter how much we might deplore the violence of the French Revolution(s), the social and political structure that they eventually settled on has served them well.
I noted quite a while ago that we were entering a period that resembled the prelude to the collapse of the Ancien Régime in France, and now I've taken to seeing growing parallels with the Crisis of 1789. We're almost there.
I am still convinced that if there is a widespread revolt, the Revolution will be led from the Right. And what we will witness is factions of Rightists fighting among themselves for pre-eminence in a more or less Post-Modern variation on Fascism which will effectively be direct corporate rule over us all. We are getting there step-by-step. The only real question is whether the final steps to this end result will be accomplished through peaceful acquiescence or through command and violence.
I don't have an answer at this point.