Thursday, 20 January 2011

De Tocqueville Ancien Régime: last word

Over the two centuries before 1789 political life was abolished; no way remained in which the ordinary people of France could participate in public affairs. As for the aristocracy, they retained their privileges (exemption from tax), lost much of their wealth and practically all of their power. Power was sucked entirely into the state: i.e. the king, operating a bureaucracy so centralised and all-pervasive that De T calls it ‘in effect socialist’ (not a good word in his vocabulary); the state we associate with modern France (and later the Soviet Union) was in fact completely in place before the revolution; only the class structure changed.

So: a population with no political or civic experience within the memory of several generations, and no political debate or discourse except the highly abstract, rarified, reason-driven disquisitions of the politically naive, inexperience and irresponsible philosophes with their all-or-nothing, everything-by-reason, clean-slate, rebuild-human-nature ideas -- which one way and another got through to the rural and urban poor and, in the absence of the moral inhibition and sense of proportion that come with living in communities that regulate themselves, licensed the ruthless implementation of abstract schemes in the revolution and, during the Terror, the unrestrained indulgence of the most savage impulses.

What was established thereby, De T says, was a new régime in which equality was the watchword -- equality as subjects of the state -- and liberty featured not at all, having been ignored as by all the 18th century treatises (the philosophes had only contempt for the idea of popular participation in government). And we ended up with the revival in a new guise of the absolutist state, equally unchallengeable and equally oppressive.


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