Corrente

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DCblogger turned me on to Marie Antoinette several years ago, and the Archdruid's new post, "The sound of tumbrils," made me think of it again. The whole post is great, but here's the relevant section for electoral politics today:

Still, the core of [Galbraith's The Culture of Contentment] is a precise and mordant comparison between the privileged class of contemporary America and an example I’ve already cited, the French nobility on the eve of the Revolution.

That comparison has an exactness that very few people notice these days. Louis XIV, the Franklin Roosevelt of his day, took a great deal of wealth and privilege from the French aristocracy and imposed a flurry of restrictions they found burdensome. After his time, it became a central goal of the nobility to restore their position at the king’s expense. Their strategy is one with which modern Americans ought to be familiar: they insisted on a massive military buildup and an aggressive foreign policy that landed France in expensive wars, while at the same time demanding tax cuts. The goal was simply to bankrupt the French government, so that—no, not so that they could drown it in a bathtub; instead, they wanted to force the king to call the États-Général—roughly, the equivalent of a US constitutional convention—which alone could create entirely new tax structures. Once that happened, they hoped to bully the king into restoring their former privileges as the price of acquiescing in a new tax regime.

The result was a high-stakes game of chicken between the party of the aristocracy, and the party of the civil servants, bureaucrats and officials whose authority and wealth was guaranteed by the power of the king. (If you want to describe these two parties as "Republicans" and "Democrats," I’m not going to argue.) What neither side noticed was that their struggles imposed severe burdens on the rest of the population, the peasants, laborers, and small-scale businesspeople on whose passive acquiescence the entire structure of power and prestige ultimately rested. As the struggle went on, the aristocracy did their best to delegitimize the king and the central government, while the civil service and its supporters did their best to delegitimize the aristocracy; both sides succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and managed to strip the last traces of popular legitimacy from the French political system as a whole.

So when the aristocrats finally got their way and the États-Général were summoned, all it took was a few speeches by radicals and a bit of violence on the part of the Paris mob, and the entire structure of the ancien régime disintegrated in a matter of weeks. The aristocrats, who were chiefly to blame for the mess, were also the last to figure out what had happened.

So, hang in there, kidz! Because you may be the one making that speech!

NOTE If you don't think there's an aristocracy in this country that's just as frivolous and decadent as Marie Antoinette's, read this: "Pledge Prep."

Ms. von Sperling offers a Friday-to-Sunday intensive, for $8,000. One day is devoted to carrying yourself properly and the art of conversation. Treat rush, she says, as you would a job interview. Avoid politics and religion. “I teach them how to make interesting small talk: what you saw at the cinema, a trip to Europe. I don’t know too many 20-year-olds who are having a debate about economics.”

No. No, I wouldn't think so. If I had a spare $8,000, I'd put a new roof on the front of the house or fix my teeth. But there you are.

NOTE Will the Correntian who reminded me to check the Archdruid raise their hand for a shoutout? I just read through the comments again, and can't find you!

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jumpjet's picture
Submitted by jumpjet on

in another topic, which may have brought it to your attention.

Of course everything the Archdruid writes is pregnant with wisdom, so I'll note you chose to exclude a portion of the final paragraph not relevant to your point, but relevant to mine:

The aristocrats, who were chiefly to blame for the mess, were also the last to figure out what had happened. It’s tempting to imagine one of them, stepping aboard the tumbril that will take him to the guillotine, saying to another, "So, Henri, how’s that political strategy working for you?"—but there’s no evidence that any of them managed that degree of insight even when the consequences of their failure were staring them in the face.

Stupid and evil, our elites are. Indeed, their evil may be matched only by their stupidity. Therefore, we should not count on them supporting us or even sympathizing with the working class that has suffered so much to pay for their largesse. When the switch is finally flipped- when things move faster than anyone here or anyone anywhere else expects them to, when the whole rotten mess collapses like East Germany as the Wall came down- they will be the last to know.

Submitted by lambert on

Yes, I deliberated, but the tumbrils weren't my focus, because this:

I would remind those of my readers who think they would cheer the collapse of America’s ancien régime that what followed on the heels of 1789 was not the Utopia of reason promised by the radicals of that age, but the Terror, followed by the Napoleonic Wars.

Which is why I'm a non-violence advocate, though at this point I feel like a lonely voice shouting in the wilderness.

Do let's remember things can always get worse. The Prussian -- and German liberal --- reaction to the Napoleonic invasion was German nationalism and unification. That was a century-long movie whose early, middle, and late reels led to millions of deaths. So be careful what you wish for. The Holy Roman and Austrio-Hungarian empires look pretty good in comparison, at least along that axis of evaluation.

reslez's picture
Submitted by reslez on

The Holy Roman and Austrio-Hungarian empires look pretty good in comparison

You've heard of the Thirty Years' War, right? And all the others? The Enlightenment grew out of a 17th Century drowning in blood -- religious wars and struggles for empire. Millions died in these wars. The only reason millions more didn't die is there were fewer people to kill. Plus, nobody bothered to count peasants. Nations didn't have the resources to arm their entire male populations so they didn't count as soldiers, they just died in sieges, famines and plagues brought on by war.