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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).


  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.

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.

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.

(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…