Friday, May 27, 2016

Tocqueville's Other Book: The Old Regime Before the French Revolution

I finally got to the end of Deirdre McCloskey's overmannered Bourgeois Equality, and then lightning struck. I just happened to stumble over a copy of Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution in the remainder stacks at HalfPriceBooks. For $1.00. Plus tax.


Tocqueville argues that the French Revolution changed nothing in France.

Really. The most famous event in European history and it changed nothing? Surely you are joking, Mr. T.

Here is his argument in two lines:
1. Before the Revolution, France was a centralized top-down administrative monarchy. 
2. After the Revolution, France was a centralized top-down administrative monarchy/republic, whatever.
Yes, but what about them aristos, the nasty chaps that got sliced up by Madame Guillotine unless they were saved by Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pumpernickel?

Good point. But the nobility under the ancien régime was no longer a feudal aristocracy. Its power had been sapping away for centuries. In the years before the Revolution France was governed by the Royal Council, le Conseil du roi, and the council was headed by a Controller-General. The Controller-General governed France through Intendants in each généralité, all across France.

France used to have authentic popular governing institutions. But the absolute monarchy, operating
through the Royal Council, slowly sapped away all the popular and feudal institutions, replacing them with a pure bureaucratic organization through which everything in France, from the fall of a sparrow to the conduct of war, was controlled by the center in Paris.

By the time of the revolution the nobility had no power, but it did have privileges, and especially exemptions from taxation. So everyone hated the aristos, because of their privileges. The middle class hated the stuck-up aristocrats, but they moved heaven and earth to buy some official position, which provided them with an income and an exemption from taxes.

What about the workers? Well, in 1789 we are talking about farmers, and they mostly owned their own farms because the aristocracy had been selling their land off for a while and the peasants were buying. The peasants, of course, hated the fact that they were the ones stuck with the short straw, paying the taxes and supplying the cannon fodder for the militia. So they hated the middle class.

Everyone hated everyone else and they were ready in the old Paris brickyard, you might say, to settle scores with a vengeance once the starter bellowed: gentlemen, start your engines.

But did these warring tribes demand independence from the center? Not a bit of it. Tocqueville writes about various schemes for improvement and reform.
The ends proposed by the reformers varied greatly, but the means were always the same. They wished to make use of the central power, as it stood, for shattering the whole social structure and rebuilding it on lines that seemed to them desirable.
Everyone looked to a strong central government to solve their problems.

The comparison with our own times is chilling. Tocqueville argues that in the old feudal times people got on pretty well. There were parlements and the Estates worked together, middle class and nobility, to solve problems. People up and down the social scale had the power and they used it sensibly to work out their differences. The towns were mostly self-governing, and so they governed themselves.

But by the time of the revolution nobody had any power except what they could wheedle from the Intendants and their subdelegates. So they retreated from politics and governance and argued about precedence. The guild of lawyers demanded precedence over the plumbers, and so on. And they schemed to win privileges and exemptions and government jobs.

By the time of the revolution, according to Tocqueville, France was already pretty equal: there was not much to tell between a noble and a bourgeois: they walked and talked and thought the same. But they imagined enormous differences in blood and in the quarterings on their escutcheons.

Enough said for now. Here is the heading for Chapter Ten, next up.
How the suppression of political freedom and the barriers set up between classes brought on most of the diseases to which the old regime succumbed.
Hello liberals! How is that divide-and-conquer race, class, and gender politics doing for you today?

Because I wonder. I wonder if one day your divisive politics might throw up a man on a white horse promising to Make America Great Again.

Click here for Part II of Tocqueville's Other Book.

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