All about ideas…

A Little History, Part 1

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Most people aren’t interested in ancient history, so I don’t expect many viewers of this blog post. But ancient history often tells a tale similar to what is happening in the present. Such is the tale I wish to tell now on how present politics and policy resemble the past.

Lady Liberty Raises the Flag of Freedom during the French Revolution by Delacroix

In 15th Century France, the kingdom of France did not exist as a unified state. Each fiefdom was ruled by a separate “Seignior” or ruler. For example, Brittany had its own ruler who owed nothing to the King in Paris, even though they were cousins. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as each autonomous state was brought into the fold of the kingdom of France, a pact was signed with each region’s rulers. In return for kneeling to the King as his overlord, the Seignior (noble) not only retained control of his province but also was given a permanent income from the King. This income was a subsidy from the Crown that came with only two restrictions. First, the seignior had to agree to come to the aid of the King whenever called. Second, the noble had to forego any commercial enterprise. In other words, unlike English Lords, French nobility could not go into business.

The subsidy the French nobility enjoyed – and which made the pact for them so easy to accept – was tax-free. They reaped millions from the court while never paying anything in taxes to the Crown.

Taxes were paid by the peasants, the bourgeoisie (merchants), and the artisans (bakers, candlestick makers, etc.). Taxes were often a heavy burden on these hard worker people, especially when France went to war which it often did during these centuries. During the same time period, French nobility increased their income and holdings and power.

In the decades prior to the Revolution, not only were taxes high, but also the weather conspired against the tax paying populace. Grain rotted in fields awash in heavy rainfalls or failed to sprout during exceptionally cold growing seasons. Cattle, sheep and goats died of hunger, were slaughtered for food, or were confiscated to pay taxes. People were hungry and saw their livelihoods disappearing. They revolted against grain and wine exports to little effect.

Meanwhile, the nobility continued to enjoy the patronage of the Crown as well as their landholding – landlord – rights to a portion of whatever income the people within the boundaries of their lands earned or held. They lived extremely well off the fruits of the land and the labor of ordinary people.

Finally, the populace could stand no more; they revolted. The bloody Revolution brought an end to the monarchy and French nobility.

I theorize that like most people now the common people did not revolt because the nobility had more money, otherwise they would have revolted centuries before. They revolted because of the vast inequality that was so utterly stark during those hard times.

When the populace of any society sees and comes to believe that a vast inequality exists between the rich and powerful and ordinary working class people, revolution occurs. The people will only endure so much inequality before they turn to violence. If hardships are a shared event, the populace endures, knowing everyone, rich and poor alike, is suffering. However, when economic suffering is not seen as a shared event, when one class is isolated by wealth and power from economic casualty, then the rest of society reaches towards revolution.

I suspect that is what is happening today in the United States. The anger of the people comes not just from the radical right but from the left and the center as well. The anger is not about some people being more wealthy than others, but rather the anger is about inequality. An anger driven by those who use their wealth to increase their power at the expense of those who see themselves as powerless. People see those in government as not representing the people’s interests but rather the interests of the wealthy powerful and against the people. Yet, average people are expected to pick up the tax bill just as they did prior to the French Revolution.


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