Will a 2nd American Revolution be French?
In an email exchange, a friend expressed his belief that America would soon have a second revolution that was brought about by political and economic instability. My immediate thought was"if that happens, I expect it will more closely resemble the French Revolution than the one in 1776." Then I sat back and tried to figure out why I had arrived at that instant conclusion, and whether it had any merit. As a proximate cause, I think the conclusion popped up as a result of some reading I did last night and from listening to CNN this morning as I did the ifeminists newsfeeds. CNN had two stories that clashed together in my mind: 1) there had been a sharp increase in the number of millionaires in the U.S.; and, 2) unemployment benefits now run for 99 weeks in order to alleviate the severe and widespread suffering of the jobless. To me that means the gulf between the haves and have-nots is widening and quickly so.
America has become a society of elites. Specifically, those in the political class who enjoy an endless economic bounty that comes from the sweat and blood of taxpayers. At the pinnacle are politicians with rich salaries, plush expense accounts (not counting bribes), platinum pensions and health insurance, etc. Then there are the millions of civil servants who are paid considerably more than their private-sector counterparts, who have greater job security due to unions, and who enjoy a pension plan that others can only dream about. The devouring appetite of these elites is fed by the ever-increasing taxes, fees and other money-grabs from the private, productive sector of society. As the level of theft increases, more productive people are being driven in poverty, homelessness and a despair that could easily turn into rage.
Last night I was reading about the conditions in 18th century, pre-Revolutionary France. (Specifically, I was reading about the Physiocrats who were precursors to libertarianism.) The parallels to the U.S. did not escape my notice.
Under Louis XV (and Louis XIV for that matter) France was plagued by fairly constant and ruinously expensive warfare along with economic instability. There was a huge schism between the haves and the have-nots. The haves basically consisted of the nobility and the clergy, both of whom were exempt from taxes; they lived off the sweat and blood of average people (mostly peasants) in the private sector. The foundation of the private sector was agriculture, even though very few citizens owned land. The nobility and clergy (some 600,000 in a population of roughly 25 million) held most property. For example, the church owed about 1/5th of the total land; in some provinces, it owed up to 2/3rds. Moreover, the Church had feudal privileges that continued from the Middle Ages and bound something like one million people to the land as serfs.
Even though France was a comparatively wealthy nation, the peasants existed at near-starvation level because they were so burdened with taxation in myriad forms. A direct tax ate as much as 50% of the earnings of the non-exempt. The collection process was particularly brutal because tax collector were 'entrepreneurs' who paid the king a flat amount for the privilege of collecting taxes; anything over that amount became profit.
There were a slew of other taxes as well, some of them quite creative. For example, there was a salt monopoly tax by which everyone over the age of 7 (as I remember) was required to purchase several lbs of highly-inferior government salt each and every year. The law also proscribed how the salt could be used and imposed heavy fines for misuse, such as in preservation of meat. Many other commodities had their own separate taxes. Fees were levied at every stage of manufacture, upon transportation, at time of sale to retailers and, then, to customers. It has been estimated that these taxes literally doubled the cost of goods. The list scrolls on and on, including many customs duties that were not merely imposed on goods passing into and out of France but often on goods traveling between different provinces within the nation.
And, of course, there was the constant bribery, unofficial theft by authorities, etc. for which France was notorious and which ran rampant through all levels of government. Unfortunately, it is impossible to even estimate how much corruption cost the average person. Even without this factor, however, it has been estimated that the nobility (including the king) and the church probably took about 75% of the wealth produced by peasants -- many of whom lived on the margin to begin with. Over taxed, often homeless, unemployed, hungry and with no hope of justice from the 'system', the vast majority of French citizens were nevertheless not blind. They saw the starvation of their own children and the riches lavished on the velvet-clad children of the elite -- riches that had been stolen from them and from the mouths of their own families. When the desperation of peasants erupted abruptly into unbridled rage, the French Revolution had arrived. And, at least in the beginning, it was a grassroots revolution around which the disenfranchised rallied for justice. They soon demanded revenge.
These are the some of the thoughts I had upon listening to the two CNN stories this morning. I'm sure it is at least part of the reason the French Revolution came to mind immediately upon reading my friend's email. By contrast, the American Revolution was not rooted in a long-standing class structure that split people into widely disparate, permanent and unjust economic sectors.
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Allan Walstad - 3/14/2010
Does the existence of democratic institutions change the calculus? Or are we assuming that those institutions will break down and be replaced by a dictatorship?
John D Shelkop - 3/14/2010
I am not alone then. I thought I was crazy in observing the similarities between France, prior to it's revolution, and the United States today. The thing that greatly troubles me is the "that's not going to happen to us" attitude. The most you can do is prepare. The least you can do is pray... and vice versa.
Karen Kwiatowski - 3/14/2010
Thanks for this -- I wonder how much not having large families has or will postpone the rise and culmination of American rage (I'd imagine watching one or more of your children die has got to incite more frustration and rage than just confiscation of property and wealth) and also -- land here seems more widely titled than in pre-revolutionary France. But most of that land is not currently productive, most Americas can't grow food or raise farm animals, and yet are vulnerable to government confiscation (taxes) or repossession (debt)... I wonder if before we truly revolt we will see more corn and peas growing in front yards, and more sheep, goats, rabbits and chickens in the backyards of suburbia. BTW -- I am seeing that here in the small towns in my corner of the world.