RECENTLY, I READ Georges Lefevre’s The Coming of the French Revolution (1939)—a book unlikely to spark the interest of the Tea Party, because it involves two things they despise: 1) history, and 2) France—and was stunned by its relevance to the here and now.
I’d been under the impression that the French revolution started like the one in Sala-ma-Sond—that King Louis XVI was toppled because he became mad with power, like Yertle the Turtle. Not so. The immediate causes were economic in nature, as Lefevre explains:
The revolt of the English colonies may in fact be considered the principal direct cause of the French Revolution…because Louis XVI in supporting it got his finances into very bad condition. [He] carried on the war by loans. When peace was restored in 1783 the increase of taxes could not make up the deficit, so [he] continued to borrow.
Swap “revolt of the English colonies” with “occupation of Iraq” and “Louis XVI” with “George W. Bush” and this paragraph could have been lifted from a Paul Krugman column in last month’s Times—except that peace has not yet been restored, in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Let me phrase it another way: In 1788, France was in a state of crisis. After years of heavy borrowing to finance an unnecessary war—a war waged half a world away; a war begun by a mediocre leader installed on the basis of his prominent family’s influence; a war paid for entirely on credit—the government’s coffers were critically depleted. The economy was on the brink of collapse. The people were angry. Something had to give. Sound familiar?
Faced with imminent financial collapse, Louis XVI had three options. The first, repudiation, was almost implemented here during the debt ceiling fiasco last year, when intransigent Tea Party Republicans preferred default to compromise. The king did not pursue this reckless policy:
But it is clear that the [deficit] could not be saved except by reduction of the debt, that is, by repudiation…The monarchy deserves credit for rejecting this expedient…
The second option—the one that might have saved the monarchy and prevented a quarter century of bloodshed and privation—was to adjust the tax code:
There remained only one recourse, though a considerable one. Not all Frenchmen paid taxes on the same basis….In short, under the Old Regime the richer a man was, the less he paid. Technically the crisis was easy to meet: all that was necessary was to make everybody pay.
But the king had evidently signed some fin de siècle version of Grover Norquist’s pledge; he did not so much as ask the nobility and clergy to pay their fair share, let alone insist that they do so.
Instead, Louis XVI went with the third option, which can be summed up in four words: let them eat cake. Anyone who’s seen Les Mis knows how things worked out for him.
We face similar choices today in the United States. Congress is clearly on the let-them-eat-cake path, which will not end happily. The Tea Party seems to support the first option, repudiation: defaulting on our financial obligations, thereby wrecking the economy to save it.
Occupy Wall Street, as I see it, holds with the second option, the middle road: for the mega-rich and corporations (the modern equivalent of the Ancien Régime nobility and clergy) to pay a little more.
The right’s collective outrage about this modest proposal—Romney and his Fox News minions cry Class warfare! quicker than the Queen of Hearts cried Off with their heads!—is baffling. After all, a slight tweaking of the distribution of wealth benefits all of us, not just the 99 percent—even the corporations Mitt insists are people. Historically, when the economic model known as the Lorenz Curve—the graph that plots percentage of income (on the y-axis) relative to percentage of households (on the x-axis)—“bulges” too much, there is revolution. As I write this, the American Lorenz Curve is bulging like the American waistline. Would the Koch brothers and Exxon and Rush Limbaugh and GE and Sheldon Anderson rather pay a slightly higher capital gains tax, or endure a violent uprising? Would they rather have class warfare, or actual warfare? Because that’s where we appear to be headed, if history is any guide. The writing on the wall, I fear, is writ in blood.
And this is why I’ve supported Occupy Wall Street: its purpose is not to start a revolution, but rather, to prevent one.
Note: this essay appeared in a slightly modified version on the Occupy Writers site.