I am sure that many of us, especially those of us that sit to the left of the political spectrum, have read about the rise of inequality
between the top 1% of the developed world’s population and the rest of the population. However, as I was reading a random article from The Guardian
newspaper on Facebook I happened to stumble across another article by the billionaire Nick Hanauer called ‘The Pitchforks are Coming
‘. It was interesting, and in many cases I believe that he is correct because many of the wealthy elite live in a bubble and are completely oblivious to the outside world outside. They have been educated through a purely right-wing education system which believes that by cutting taxes to the rich boosts the economy and as the bosses and the corporations become wealthier, the wealth spreads out to the rest of society. I also agree with him that the idea is codswallop, and was quite surprised when somebody pointed out the absurdity of the idea using the Bible (the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31, where we are told that the poor man wished he could even get some of the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table). However, I’m not wanting to write about political or economic theory here but rather point out that when the pitchforks do come out it is not just the rich who are thrown off of their golden thrones but that such a revolution can be dangerous for society as a whole.
While Nick Hanauer’s article got me thinking, it wasn’t until I finished reading the book I Claudius
by Robert Graves that I really developed the urge to write this post, namely because while that particular story is about the life of the Roman Emperor Claudius before he took the throne, it also follows how Rome went from being a enlightened dictatorship to a brutal tyranny. I will get to Rome in the next post, but I wish to explore another revolution that sprang out of a similar situation the world is in at the moment, the French Revolution.
The French Revolution
Before I launch into my spiel on the French Revolution I want to say a couple of things about sources. To put it bluntly, I really don’t have time to dig through hundreds of websites and books to carefully document everything that I am writing, but rather I am using my own knowledge that I have picked up from reading books and studying history at high school and university. While I wish I could spend a lot more time researching this topic, it is time that I unfortunately do not have, so while some people may scoff at this suggestion, I would refer you to Wikipedia
if you wish to learn more.
One of the main causes of revolutions tend to be financial crises: this was the case with Russia, and this was also the case with Germany in 1931. Another main cause is inequality because, well, the poor people really don’t like the idea that the rich live lives of luxury that they pretty much have to suck it up. This is no different when we come to France in the 1780s. The country was going bankrupt and the nobility were finding it really hard to pay their debts which is eerily similar to what is happening today.
France at the time was divided into three groups: the aristocracy, the clergy, and everybody else (though the third estate was generally represented by the middle class as the peasants were to busy growing stuff to pay their taxes – since taxes always come before feeding yourself – to have any time to participate in the political process). The thing with France was that the aristocracy didn’t pay tax because they were the people you pay the tax to and it would be pretty silly if you paid money to yourself. The clergy didn’t pay tax because, well, they are the clergy and any money they get belongs to God and, well, God is sort of exempt from taxes (which, funnily enough, is still the case today). This meant that the only group that did pay tax was the Third Estate. Remember, it wasn’t just peasants, but lawyers, doctors and businessmen who comprised the third estate. However, the people who spent the taxes were, well, the aristocracy (the church got by on their tithes, which the third estate also had to pay, though the aristocracy were good enough to pay their share as well because, well, they didn’t want to go to hell). What did the aristocracy spend the taxes on? Well, what they didn’t spend it on was infrastructure for the Third Estate, but rather on palaces, gardens, and extravagant parties – oh, and also wars (or should I say, family spats?).
When they ran out of money that was collected from the Third Estate they would then borrow money and throw another party. So, what happened was that the interest on these borrowings got larger and larger and, well, you know what happens then – you end up paying all of your income in interest. So, the aristocracy were suddenly looking at having to tighten their belts, which is something that they really did not want to do, so they decided to raise taxes again, which didn’t go down well, so they called a body known as the Estate’s General
to find a solution to the financial crisis. The problem with the Estates General was that each of the estates would vote as a block, which meant that if the Third Estate voted to make the aristocracy and the church pay taxes then it would be voted down, and if the aristocracy voted to increase taxes on the Third Estate, the Aristocracy and the Church would vote in favour, which sort of led to an impasse.
Okay, while the Estates General was not really getting anywhere it didn’t mean that they spent their time bickering and arguing amongst themselves. In fact, the Third Estate pretty much decided that this system of government wasn’t working, so left the Estates General and to set up their own assembly called the National Assembly (which they invited members of the other two estates to join). However the King, who wasn’t impressed that a group of commoners were trying to usurp his power, decided to close the hall where they were to meet which resulted in them meeting in a nearby indoor tennis court.
Look, the truth is that people in power really don’t like giving up their power, so the king wasn’t going to go lightly. Instead, he surrounded the palace with his troops, but since it was his palace I doubt he wanted any of his expensive belongings destroy in a fire fight, so they decided to try and starve out the upstarts. However, there was a lot of support among the populace and since many of the soldiers were at Versaille trying to evict the pesky lawyers from the tennis court, the rest of the population begun to run amok (when the cat’s away …).
In fact, one of the first places they decided to storm was a fortress called ‘The Bastille’ (and I am sure that place is familiar to all of us, especially the 14th July, which is celebrated as Bastille Day in France – though nothing of the building remains. I know because I went looking for it when I was in Paris). After some heavy fighting, the commoners broke into the fort and began to loot all of the weaponry. The French Revolution had begin.
Aftermath of the Revolution
Okay, I could go into the gritty detail of what happened over those few months which culminated in the establishment of the First Republic, but I won’t, except to say that in those first few days France descended into anarchy and the revolution quickly spread from the capital into the provinces which resulted in many of the nobility’s abodes being stormed and looted. However, over time, order was restored and a new parliamentary democracy was established (based a lot on the American democracy over the Atlantic, of which the French fought on the side of the revolutionaries. Sounds pretty silly to me – can you really expect that if you sent your troops to fight a revolutionary war that they wouldn’t bring any ideas back home?).
However, things were not all beer and skittles after that because a revolution in France was going to have a disastrous effect upon the surrounding kingdoms. The rest of Europe realised that the idea that the people could rule themselves might spread, which meant that the powers that be in those kingdoms were suddenly under threat and they might in turn lose not only their power, but also their luxurious lifestyle. Also, since the European nobility were one big happy family, they took the revolution quite personally. As such they mobilised for war with the goal of restoring the French Monarchy.
This had a knock-on effect in France because not only were they now at war, but their fledgling democracy was under threat. So, not only were they mobilising troops to beat back an certain invasion, they also feared rebellion from within. The result was the establishment of ‘The Committee of Public Safety’ whose goal was to defend the republic at all costs. At first they went around arresting, and then executing, royalists (including the King) but they quickly began to jump at any possible shadow that threatened their perceived freedom, which turned into what was known as ‘The Terror
The Committee of Public Safety had taken matters to the extreme with its attempts to dismantle the church and to pretty much execute all of the nobility and their sympathisers. This resulted in a rebellion against the government which ended with the execution of the head of the committee Robespierre – the guy who loved the guillotine came to experience it first hand. Things then settled down with the rise of a more moderate government. However, France was still at war, and the war dragged on to the point that France was beginning to take the back foot. This resulted in the rise of a man whom we all know as Napoleon Bonaparte
Analysis of the Revolution
In a way there are many similarities between the times we live in and the times in the lead up to the French Revolution. While we may believe that we live in an egalitarian society, the reality is that we don’t. As the saying goes ‘money talks’ which means those of us who have money tend to get a much better deal than those of us who do not. Not only that, but society is in many cases stratified with the wealthy elite at the top and the rest of us at the bottom. The rich seem to be getting richer while the rest of us get the raw end of the stick. However, like the Third Estate, the rest of us are comprised of the middle classes and those of us who fall lower, such as the unemployed, the pensioners, and the refugees. While it is sad to suggest this, those of us who are not white anglo-saxon protestants fare even worse. In many cases, like France of the 18th century, it is the middle and lower classes that are shouldering the burden of the financial crisis.
Yes, I am sure we are all aware of the global financial crisis and the austerity policies that are being pushed by numerous governments, with the wealthy elite avoiding taxes while the bulk of the burden is being lifted by those of us trapped in our nine to five jobs. While the most vocal voices of the French Revolution were the professional members of the third estate, it is the university educated members of the middle class that are beginning to speak out against the austerity policies of today. We also see our governments cutting back on benefits and restricting payments and subsidies to the middle and lower classes. The rise in university fees and the implementation of copayments in the medicare system here in Australia are remarkably similar to the French Aristocracy’s attempts to service the debt of their creation by raising taxes on the Third Estate.
Yet, by looking at the French Revolution we can also see that revolutions are not without bloodshed. Even if we attempt to overthrow the elite by force, the elite really do not want to go anywhere and will fight back. This in turn will lead to a much more oppressive society where many of the freedoms that we take foregranted will be removed using the pretext ‘in defence of the revolution’.
While I believe that we should stand up and fight for justice, we should also remember history and not repeat its mistakes. When the French Monarchy was overthrown France descended into chaos – there was no law and order and people pretty much did as they want. However, we must also remember that France transitioned from a monarchy to a republic, and one of the reasons for the chaos was that not only were the foundations not present, the existing government literally had to be torn down. Unlike the American Revolution, where the institutions of a functioning democracy already existed, there was no such infrastructure in France. In many ways we can see similarities between France and our modern society, but there are also quite a few differences.
In that regard we need to also look at another revolution, one that occurred over two thousand years ago were we see what happens to a democracy when the system grounds to a halt, and that will be the subject of another post – The Fall of the Roman Republic
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