Scary lessons for America from pre-revolutionary France.

Summary: Today we look at 18thC France, and speculate about our future. They too had their 1%, hungry for wealth and power. In a time of troubles, they refused to compromise and so plunged France into a long bloody transition to a new regime. Our situation is very different, but there are a few ominous similarities.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“It’s all about power and the unassailable might of money.”
— E. P. Arnold Royalton, the great 21st century industrialist in “Speed Racer” (2008).

"Liberty Leading the People", Eugène Delacroix (1830).
“Liberty Leading the People”, Eugène Delacroix (1830).


  1. Pre-revolutionary France.
  2. America today.
  3. Differences and similarities.
  4. Books by GOP candidates.
  5. For More Information.

(1)  Pre-revolutionary France

There was desperate need for financial reform of the French government in the late 18thC, but deep institutional failure prevented reform. King Louis XVI wanted reform, especially the nobility and clergy to pay taxes, but the nobility and clergy blocked change through the parlements (high courts) and Assembly of Notables (1787) — an opposite outcome to that of the previous great crisis in 1626.

Out of easy options, the King called the Estates General in 1789. The 3 Estates each had one vote: the nobility, the clergy, the commons. This might have been the last opportunity to save France from revolution. Each Estate prepared a list of grievances (Cahiers de doléances).

The nobility desired a weaker King: limitations on royal absolutism, guarantee of individual liberties, and taxes only with approval of the Esates General. For this they were prepared to give almost nothing, and had little interest in lightening the burden on the commons. They wanted compensation for abolishing the corvée (forced unpaid labor) and capitaineries (game preserves of the King and nobility). Their opening offer to the commons: nothing.

With no room for negotiation, the Estates General immediately deadlocked. On June 17 the Third Estate, plus defectors from the other two, declared themselves the National Assembly. On June 20 the King locked them from the Salle des États. They relocated to the Royal Tennis Courts, and swore the Tennis Court Oath. The revolution had begun.

The One Percent That Matters
Smart marketing in the New America.

(2)  America today

Decades of inequality has increased the income, wealth, and power of the 1%. They’ve moved into the third phase of battle — pursuit of a broken foe, exploiting their advantageous position to gain more power and wealth.

Starting in 2010 their servants on the Court have systematically gutted legislation limiting their ability to buy elections, as their allies in the Republican Party have worked to limit the franchise (to prevent an epidemic of voter fraud of which they can provide no evidence).

The GOP has pitched in to help by continuing their war on unions, cutting spending on the middle and lower classes, and while shifting the tax burden from the 1% to us (by cutting income taxes and boost sales taxes, as they’re doing in the states). It’s their vision of the future, as seen by Marco Rubio and Mike Lee proposing to eliminate all manner of taxes on the rich, sold as relief for “working families”.

Now Americans have slowly begun to see how the 1% has captured almost all the gains since ~1970 from our increased productivity, and calls for change are heard. The 1% have given us their opening offer on reforms: nothing.  They’re clear about this in their public speeches. It’s even clearer in the platforms of the GOP presidential candidates. In the current issue of the New York Review of Books Michael Tomasky reviews 6 books by likely GOP candidates.

… here’s the difference between Clinton and the Republicans. She, like virtually all Democrats, accepts the basic fact that wages for median workers have been more or less stagnant since 1979. She probably accepts the idea that this stagnation, alongside rising inequality, is the greatest economic challenge we face. She probably accepts the standard set of reasons that economists offer about why this has happened — globalization, technological change, immigration patterns, a decrease in workers’ bargaining power, the rise in high-end compensation, and various federal tax and wage policies. And finally, she probably accepts that the solutions to the problem are chiefly economic solutions — changing tax policy, giving workers greater “voice,” taking steps to ameliorate the negative effects of globalization, and so on.

The extent to which Republicans accept any of this is far from clear. In six recent books by announced or likely GOP presidential contenders — except Paul Ryan, who surely wrote his book thinking about a run but has apparently decided against it — one hardly encounters the word “wages.”

In only one of them, American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone by Marco Rubio, is there anything resembling what you’d call a discussion of wage stagnation. … Unlike the other campaign books, American Dreams is at least largely about policy.  … His prescriptions aren’t innovative. On poverty, as he said in his speech about a year ago, he wants the federal government to eliminate many of its programs and turn the money over to the states with fewer strings attached. Ronald Reagan proposed this a generation ago. Rubio’s chapter on retirement largely repeats the proposals set forth by Paul Ryan in his budgets, proposals that would (especially with regard to Medicare) result in much higher out-of-pocket expenses for future seniors, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

… When people don’t see structural economic factors as the problem, they’re hardly likely to hit upon plausible economic solutions. … Even when Republicans acknowledge the wage problem, they don’t see it as resulting from chiefly economic factors. To them, the main culprits are moral decay and culture, notably the decline of the two-parent family — a father and a mother, it nearly goes without saying.

Rick Santorum … has passed the time since 2012 refashioning himself as the right’s answer to Elizabeth Warren, the man who really cares about the working classes. Here is {Santorum’s Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works} on how the American Dream is to be restored:

“Conservatives are often criticized for their romanticized view of the good old days prior to the culture shock that was the 1960s. Having said that, let’s make no mistake about it — the greatest threat to the average American’s achieving his dream today is a dysfunctional culture. To heal our nation, we must promote the ideals upon which American culture has thrived for over two centuries — ideals based on timeless truths.”

… But Santorum puts forth no policy solutions of real interest. His chapter called “Giving the American Worker a Fighting Chance” ends with really just two policy recommendations, and they’re the same old ones: cut the corporate tax rate and reduce regulations.

Clock hourglass
Time is not our friend.

(3)  Differences and similarities between 1789 and today

America today is not France 1789. We look at the similarities to help see our future. The French had successful examples to learn from in England’s Glorious Revolution against James II (1688) and America (1776). Even more important they had the Enlightenment philosophes which pointed the way to a new political order.

We have some similarities, however. Most ominous, we have a powerful confident ruling class determined to hold its advantages — and even expand them. They’re contemptuous of us — with good reason. They will change their plans and views of us only when we give them reason to do so. It’s up to us.

Capitol dollars

(4)  Books by 6 GOP candidates

  1. American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone by Marco Rubio.
  2. Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works by Rick Santorum.
  3. The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea by Paul Ryan.
  4. One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future by Ben Carson with Candy Carson.
  5. God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy by Mike Huckabee.
  6. Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge by Scott Walker with Marc Thiessen.

(5)  For More Information

Let’s look forward to an even more powerful 1%: Stand by for political realignment in America! and How the 1% runs America. Runs us. The answer points to 2 futures for us.

See all posts about About inequality & social mobility and Reforming America: steps to new politics.  If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see these posts about the 2016 Presidential election…



27 thoughts on “Scary lessons for America from pre-revolutionary France.”

  1. I agree with this article except for two important issues:
    1. This is the small issue. Michael Tomasky correctly identifies the difference between the Republican and the Democratic viewpoints but fails to note that the Democrats lately have found great advantage in being a bit two-faced about the issue. The Democrats complain loudly about the Republican focus on giving the 1% everything they want and then fail to address most of the issues and give the 1% NEARLY everything they want.

    The reason for this is simple, the 1% and their allies have nearly all of the disposable income and they donate to political parties according to their points of view and very few of the 1% see the wealth inequality problem clearly. In effect, the 1% hire politicians to tell the people what the 1% believes is the true story. I would likely do the same if I were in their shoes.

    2. This is more of a request for points of clarification. FM’s recent articles on police tactics have been most illuminating. The police infiltrate known cells of potential criminals, gather information about links to other groups, spread disinformation, sometimes their agents assume leadership roles in these groups to get them to do what the police want, they use trumped up charges to remove effective leaders at critical moments, and apply unnecessarily overwhelming force to demoralize would-be successors. These tactics are also very likely to be used by the 1% to control the political process right now (in addition to the buckets of money they throw around).

    So when FM calls us to action (“It’s all up to us”), we need to remember that the political process is so overwhelmingly mined with agents of the 1% that it is probably hopeless to begin. All of this is prelude to my two questions:
    a) Does FM advocate using the political process when we know how easy it is for the 1% to control, distract, or delay meaningful reform?
    b) What does FM advocate as the next step if the political process fails to resolve the problem? I suspect his answer will be to try the political process again and again until it succeeds because the other options are too horrible to contemplate until things get much worse. Does this remind anybody else of the definition of insanity?

    I understand FM’s desire to use the political process because (even though it can be horribly messy) it is predictably far less messy than any other possible avenue for change. But we are hardly the first people to realize this and the 1% have mobilized considerable resources to keep control of the political process. I cannot see ANY way to take back the political process that has greater than a 5% chance of success (and even that estimate is probably too optimistic).

    FM’s calls for political action remind me of orders to charge the enemy trenches in WWI. I don’t mind getting into a fight if there is even a halfway reasonable chance of success but I can see no advantage to getting beaten half to death for no chance of benefit.

    1. Pluto,

      (1) “but fails to note that the Democrats lately have found great advantage in being a bit two-faced about the issue.”

      I agree. But that’s not the point here. The GOP is explicitly the servants of the 1%, and so there policy positions provide insights to the goals of the 1%. The Democrats’ statements, as you note, do not.


      (2) “Does FM advocate using the political process when we know how easy it is for the 1% to control, distract, or delay meaningful reform?”

      Yes. Self-government has never been easy. The odds for us are far less so than for the political reformers of the early 20th C who accomplished such great things. The odds and stakes are far better than for the young men who stormed Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944. We have no grounds to whine about our challenges.

      (3) “FM’s calls for political action remind me of orders to charge the enemy trenches in WWI.”

      I am always impressed by the enthusiasm and creativity of Americans when evading responsibility. Almost nobody in comments explores ways to do things. The effort is almost ALWAYS directed at excuses. This is among the most daft. Unfortunately there are no WWI vets here to respond. I would wave the prohibition on profanity in this case.

    2. FM: “Pluto’s surrender note”

      I understand why you call it that, but that is not how I would describe it. What I hear you advocate is a direct, obvious assault on a heavily fortified position across a minefield of fears and political agents. This does not have a high chance of success and I think you thoroughly underestimate the power of our security state (not yet obviously in bed with the 1% but it is only a matter of time) to quietly eliminate an such assault before it got started.

      Let’s say that your assault starts rolling forward and the IRS discovers financial shenanigans and has to shut you down. Or the TSA finds your leader has a slightly shady past and has to put them on the No-Fly list. Or that your website gets hacked and all of your member lists become corrupted and it takes you time to recover the data, which gets continually hacked and corrupted (does this remind you of the failure of the much-vaunted Republican computer program in the 2012 presidential election?).

      I’m sure you’ve wondered to yourself if I am an agent of the 1%, sent to win your trust and undercut your positions at critical moments with reasonable sounding platitudes to do nothing. That’s okay, I’ve occasionally wondered if you were an agent of the 1% trolling for people to take action so they can be slapped back into place in an embarrassing and obviously doomed failure.

      You accuse me of wanting to do nothing but that isn’t true. Let’s continue my allegory of storming the trenches. By the end of WWI, all of the major powers had figured out how to successfully storm the trench while taking minimum casualties. The Russians and Germans used the Stosstruppen tactics while the British and French developed tanks. A British general in Flanders dug mines and blew up a section of the German line. Allenby flanked the trench lines hastily thrown up by the retreating Turks.

      As the above shows, there are right and wrong ways to storm a political fortress and success is determined more by the tactics used than by the justness of our cause. The comments by guest about the Muslim Brotherhood interest me greatly and suggest a first course of action that is far less likely to lead to immediate failure than the “storm to voting booth” meme you have always presented to us in the past.

      1. Pluto,

        “what I hear you advocate is a direct, obvious assault ”

        What makes you think that? I say absolutely nothing about specific measures to take, other than to organize. That’s to avoid the politics. Should we be Left or Right, Up or Down? My position is that the citizens should become politically involved. I trust us so that the result is better than today. If one believes otherwise, there’s not much point to democracy.

    3. My apologies, FM, you are correct that you have NOT advocated a particular path. But for some reason I have always interpreted this to mean that you want to “storm the voting booth,” which as I have stated before, I think would end badly.

      Perhaps you might offer a post in the future about the sorts of political activities that you believe would have a best chance of success. I know that you are very busy and that advocating for a particular solution opens doors to other activities that you are trying to avoid, but I doubt that I am the only person in the US that has made this mistake and an article might clear up some confusion.

      1. Pluto,

        For years the most common request — often strident demand — was for posts describing how to organize, often by people saying that it was impossible.

        So I have written 50 of them. They get very low traffic. This thread shows why. Americans want to believe that nothing can be done, excusing their apathy and passivity — abandonment of their responsibility. Justifying sitting on their butts reading about activities of their tribe’s designated ad guys.

        Hence the successful media — such as the Left’s Naked Capitalism (which I read daily) provide entertainment for the outer party packaged as information. As does Fox News (different packaging, blondes in skirts and heels) for the Right.

        Reading about solutions that require work, sacrifice and risk are like Kryptonite to Superman and daylight to vampires — to be avoided.

        Hence there is no point in writing about such details, unless I find an interested audience. We are at the “motivation” stage. I have written much about this — inciting anger, inciting disguest, inciting fear, showing visions of a great possible future. Nothing appears to strike sparks.


        The comments are more so, mostly b.s. philosophy (e.g., citing theologians which they have zero intention of emulating, or tight clans’ behaviors which they even less interest in joining — or creating).

  2. Pluto states “I cannot see ANY way to take back the political process that has greater than a 5% chance of success” but “the other options are too horrible to contemplate”, The most reasonable course of action then, is to keep trying, maybe 20-30 times, to get reform through the political process.

    Power centers might be (in decreasing order) Federal gov’t, state gov’t, large corporations, wealthy individuals. If the wealthy individuals or corporations got a bit of a head start on organizing private militias they could move up that list. Is there is a broadly based organization that belongs on that list? (Sierra Club? NRA? prepper wing of the ACLU? Pray tell where are the church groups, bought off by tax exemptions?)

    Avoiding the “insanity” of repeated failure requires smart people who study the political process, try a variety of tactics, and are willing to be beaten half to death (or worse – Civil Rights movement). Political organizing is not for the faint of heart (as FM has detailed). This is the job for the staunch and patriotic and narcissistic self-promoting political types. (Go, team!)

    1. Hans,

      I agree with you on all points. However you give Pluto’s surrender note too much credit.

      “Avoiding the “insanity” of repeated failure”

      We have not repeatedly failed; we have not tried. US politics during the past 40 years has been one of decreasing participation by almost every metric. Americans love this nutty trope because it justifies their apathy and passivity.

  3. “The 2 Estates each had one vote”

    You mean the 3 Estates.

    Regarding the political process, probabilities of success, infiltration by the police, etc: the comparison with WWI or WWII or whatever war are irrelevant. A much better example is — the Muslim Brotherhood.

    In each country where it got established, it took decades (actually 2 generations) to become a decisive force, after undertaking a long and painstaking work of organization from the ground up, including charities, health care, schools, legal support, etc. Of course infiltration and “agents provocateurs” were a constant problem — but guess what, there are methods and rules to mitigate it, just that the information is to be found in forgotten pamphlets and dusty publications by political groups we generally find unacceptable (anarchists, trotskyists, nationalists such as IRA, etc, and certainly the MB itself) and therefore refuse to learn from them.

    The outcome of the MB efforts is also sobering: In Palestine and Egypt, it was subject to coups almost as soon as it formed a government. Same in Turkey, where the ideological and political predecessor of Erdogan (strongly inspired by MB), Necmettin Erbakan, was repeatedly blocked, his party made illegal, and finally ousted from power in a “quasi coup”. In Saudi Arabia, the MB was dreaded after it achieved wide popularity and pre-eminence in schools, and declared a terrorist organization as soon as convenient.

    So it is possible, but it will not be easy. And it will definitely not be a short, very intensive, focused effort like storming beaches, but a very long, grinding, multi-pronged endeavor. And one must assume that the powers that be will not shy away from the worst and thus prepare for it. As FM puts it: are we really willing to go all the trouble for it?

    1. guest,

      I agree on all points!

      (1) “there are methods and rules to mitigate it, just that the information is to be found in forgotten pamphlets and dusty publications by political groups we generally find unacceptable”

      That’s an important point, one I stress in my posts about Reforming America: steps to new politics. For example, reform movement should be structured under the assumption that the government knows everything, so there is no point to keeping secrets. Radical transparency is an effective tool. Plus strong ethical codes to minimize the damage from agents provocateur.

      (2) “and it will definitely not be a short”

      Yes, it’s vital to know at the start that this is along hard path. As I have said so often:

      (a) In May 1764 Samuel Adams took his first steps to end British rule in America (see here for details). That same year a small group of people in Boston formed the first of the Committees of Correspondence. The Revolution ended 19 years later with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

      (b) In 1774 Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush founded America’s first anti-slavery society. In 1868 we ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. In the mid-1960′s the Civil Rights legislation ended government-sponsored oppression of Blacks, concluding the project begun 190 years earlier.

      Also: Thanks for catching that typo. Fixed!

  4. I have noted in comments to other posts in this blog that neoPlatonism is an adaptive response to today’s overall situation.

    Note that, with respect to the French Revolution, Freemasonry – which is akin to neoPlatonism – played an important role. See, eg: “Freemasons in the French Revolution” at the website of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia.

    1. Duncan,

      Thanks, that’s a useful observation!

      Looking further back, the predominate reaction of Romans to the death of their Republic was resignation, as seen in the popular philosophies of the Empire: Stoicism, Epicureanism, Hedonism, and Christianity. How will Americans react when they realize that the Constitution has died? Reform, rebellion, or resignation?

      [caption id="attachment_69677" align="aligncenter" width="199"]Marcus Aurelius Marcus Aurelius, Emperor and philosopher (121-180 AD).[/caption]

    2. There was a lot of neoPlatonism in Rome. ( Note that Christianity – particularly in its Augustinian manifestation – has been characterized as “Plato for the masses. ) Note also the Gnostic and other early Christian sects that were stamped out after Nicaea. If I sound like I am pushing something from The Da Vinci Code, that’s because I am.

      There also was a lot of Cynicism ( as in Diogenes ). I have put my interest in Cynicism aside, not because there’s anything wrong with it but rather because I need to develop this neoPlatonism concept. There were also multiple pagan mystery cults as well as Egyptian/Hermetic doctrines that would influence the Renaissance.

      The whole idea is to develop some distance from society much as the wizards in Harry Potter distanced themselves from Muggles. I am being serious. How could this be done?

      1. Duncan,

        I always appreciate mention of Gnosticism, the only rational cosmology. the trans-dimensional force governing the world is obviously evil (the “demiurge”), while the good and omnipotent God is unconcerned with us (quite logically; why should He care?).

        “The whole idea is to develop some distance from society … How could this be done?”

        Just go to a flock of sheep. Watch and learn.

    3. The Overseas Chinese have provided us with a working model of how such a parallel society might work: Lords of the Rim 2010: The Invisible Empire of the Overseas Chineseby Sterling Seagrave (2010).

      For 2,000 years, China’s merchants and adventurers have fled tyrannical dynasties to make their fortunes in other countries. Seagrave reveals for the first time the invisible empire of the Overseas Chinese, how it controls some adopted countries, and how it is tightly knit by a web of dialects, secret societies, triads, and financial networks worth over $2-trillion. Seagrave shows how the tide has reversed and rich Overseas Chinese have helped create China’s boom making it now the world’s No.1 economic power, while the West struggles to stay afloat. The result is a Chinese renaissance that has put a friendly smile on the face of the dragon in the Chinese century.

      1. Duncan,

        (1) Define “worked”. You might as well cite European and Japanese feudalism. They too “worked” for some.

        (2) This is a commonplace “model” for expats, used by the Jews and Palestinians as well. However, before citing the Chinese model as a success, let’s see some numbers. What fraction of the Chinese expats in Asia and Africa did well? Looking at the successful minority in any time and place tells us little. It’s like pointing to the NBA to show that playing basketball “works” for African Americans.

        (3) “while the West struggles to stay afloat”

        Dubious on many levels.

        1. Less developed nations can grow faster than richer ones.
        2. China was a backwards nation for centuries while the West soared. Pointing to a few decades of growth hardly negates this.
        3. China follows the well-established development path of other East Asian nations — with no exceptional performance vs its cultural peers.
        4. Now they enter the “middle income trap”. Let’s see if they can work through that (there are many doubters) before talking about their superiority to the West.
        5. China is the world’s #1 power by virtue of numbers, but individually they’re still poor and relatively powerless.

        (4) I am always amazed at the enthusiasm in comments displayed by people justifying their apathy and passivity. Why bother to explain? Nobody cares. Just watch TV and get high. Leave running the world to the 1% and those who wish to contest them.

    4. Re: Overseas Chinese.

      This is very much the preliminary sketch / markup phase. You just toss things on the wall and worry about refining them later. And, yeah, the thing “worked” in the sense that it began about 2,500 years ago and continues to this day.

      1. Duncan,

        I don’t believe you got my point.

        Yes, some peoples have emigrated to other nations — and some have done so successfully. For example, the Chinese and Jews over the past 2 millennia. That doesn’t mean that emmigrating to other nations is an effective tactic. How many peoples have tried and failed (i.e., my analogy of basketball for Black Americans)? What happens if it is adopted by everyone (e.g., like Germany’s daft advice that every nation should export its way to prosperity)?

    5. The classic account of how 19th century revolutionary movements flowed from Freemasonry – which I last read decades ago: Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (1999).

      ” Billington claims with considerable evidence that revolutionary ideologies were shaped as much by the occultism and proto-romanticism of Germany as the critical rationalism of the French Enlightenment. The conversion of social theory to political practice was essentially the work of three Russian revolutions: in 1905, March 1917, and November 1917. Events in the outer rim of the European world brought discussions about revolution out of the school rooms and press rooms of Paris and Berlin into the halls of power.”

    6. The reason I missed your point is that I’m not presently very concerned with it. It’s the presence of what are essentially parallel networks working within societies that interests me now. The emigration feature per se is not all that important. It appears to be ancillary, not essential.

      I have cited Augustine and, overnight, his phrase “in but not of” society occurred to me as an organizing principle. The Sufis adopt this phrase. sufi “in but not of”

      1. Duncan,

        Thank you for your superb illustration of American’s fun justifications of apathy and passivity — with big words! philosophy! — and abandonment of their responsibility of citizenship. That’s why the Republic dies and the 1% wins. I describe your kind as sheep, but your own words do so better.

        Are there enough people who feel otherwise? Much depends on the answer.

        We the sheeple!

  5. FM claims We have not repeatedly failed; we have not tried.
    What does FM call the Occupy demonstrations? How are millions of people taking to the streets to protest an example of how “we have not tried?”

    1. Thomas,

      I call Occupy Wall Street a street party, having almost nothing in common with successful political movements — such as the American revolution, the abolitionists, the suffragettes, building the unions, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, etc. This is quite obvious, it doesn’t require Aristotle or John Locke to understand.

      For details see

      For general comments on the subject see How to stage effective protests in the 21st century.

      [caption id="attachment_44467" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Occupy Wall Street Saving the nation one unicorn at a time.[/caption]

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