Sober reflections on the contraries that led to Bastille Day

[slightly revised 7/15/11 @3:11}
Sometimes a situation becomes so complicated, disputes become so irresolvable, and adversaries so irreconcilable, that a great deal comes to bear on what happens in a single moment. The outcome of a high-stakes situation can be revolutionary change, when the system in place gets upended. I keep hoping that the disputes in our Congress have not reached such a state. But as today is Bastille Day it might be worth noting some circumstances that led up to the French Revolution, in case you notice parallels.

The whole story is too complicated to try to tell here, but I quote William Sewell, Jr’s summary of the issues that set the clash of interests in motion, to create a huge societal convolution in France. I quote from Chapter 8 of his book “The Logics Of History”. I arrange his statement in stages, in order to emphasize how as the situation developed the problems became all the more dire and irresolvable so that the underlying premises that held the French Crown in power were being undermined before it was completely overturned.

> “In 1786 the comptroller general informed the king that the state was nearly bankrupt.

> By the summer of 1789, the crisis of the state’s funding had become a crisis of the system of social stratification (because fiscal reform would mean stripping the clergy and nobility of one of their major privileges, their immunity from taxation);

> it had become a crisis of the privileged corporate institutions that were the integument of the social order of old regime France (because their privileges were linked to particular fiscal arrangements);

> it had become a deep constitutional crisis (because it was unclear which governmental body had the authority to change the system of taxation)

> and it had also become a crisis of the very principles of the social and political order (because proponents of natural rights, national sovereignty, and civic equality had managed to dominate political discourse and gain a sizeable foothold among the deputies to the Estates General.)”

That is to say, the fundamental assumptions that held the King in place were now crumbling at just the time when a contrary and irreconcilable concept of authority was being widely discussed, namely, that sovereignty should belong to the nation and the populace should have a voice in determinations of how (and possibly by whom) they should be governed. The events that took place in a cascade of miscommunications and conflicting agendas as the problems became more acute could never have been predicted, but in retrospect it is possible to notice that the ambiguities and contraraties of the situation were destabilizing the system in place, that is, the monarchy. Nothing required that the events that took place should take place that way, but much in the way of a collapse was potential in the situation. And as events took place a series of errors of understanding and communication added to the possibilities that the old order might be swept away. A spark was all that was needed.

It’s hard to think about the irreconcilable contraries in France in late eighteenth century without wondering if our own country, and perhaps even the capitalistic world as we know it, might be careering toward a point when powerful contrary interests could become, as in the French Revolution, an uncontrollable societal convolution.