Bastille Day USA


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.


L'etat, c'est Mitt.

Note: this essay appeared in a slightly modified version on the Occupy Writers site.

About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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7 Responses to Bastille Day USA

  1. I watched a brilliant documentary on Shakespeare’s history plays a few weeks back. Jeremy Irons is standing in a field not for from Agincourt musing on what history and literature can teach us. ‘Has man learnt anything from these tales of lust for power?’ The camera pans out as he moves to the left and we see the mass graves from WWII.

    I was reminded of that reading this, not just because there were French people in it. It was more the whole failing to learn from history type thing.

    I don’t know much about the economy (except that I’ve done everything I was told I needed to do to get a job, and still can’t get one), and little about the French revolution. It’s sort of fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

    However, I always got the impression that the whole ‘Occupy’ thing lacked substance, direction, or any sort of leadership. The riots we had last year were the same, although much more violent. nobody really knew what was going on, but every now and then somebody would mutter ‘protest’ and something about the government not being so great. Also, both seemed to fizzle out pretty quickly.

    • Major Weekling says:

      I’m reading a book now by your countryman Eric Hobsbawm called “The Age of Revolution.” It’s a bit of work — the dude’s beyond brilliant — but it’s helped me understand what went on in the revolution much more clearly. And to resent unbridled capitalism even more. Highly recommended.

      Yeah, I think many of us wanted OWS to articulate its suggestions, beyond just “more income equality.” Then again, much would be improved for many people if we did more to solve that particular problem. They were on to something for sure. But the French Revolution, too, began with these little movements that fizzled before the big one took hold. It was messy, for damned sure.

      Thanks, as always, for reading/commenting.

      • I tend not to read many history books, even though I should and often they’re far more interesting than any fiction… I’ll have to look into it, although I’m not sure I need help in resenting captialism. There is a brilliant passage actually at the very start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which in three sentences manages to argue quite effectively against capitalism.

        People always say ‘oh, social media makes it easier to protest’, but I think it makes it harder. People think complaining on Facebook and putting hashtags on Twitter counts as protest. We live in a very cynical and apathetic world, where even the people who do seem to care don’t seem to see the point.

        The riots in this country could have been brilliant, but in the end it was basically just a bunch of morons stealing things because everyone else was and the only people who died were innocent people trying to defend their small businesses. It would have been far more effective to specifically target big BIG businesses, and without any element of theft, because theft equates to greed and the whole point is less greed, more equality.

        Always a pleasure to read and comment, more so now that I’m an internet hermit…

  2. Maybe violent revolution IS the way forward. I’m not condoning or encouraging it, but say what you like about bloody uprisings, they get things done.

    We got the Magna Carta out of it, you guys got independence, France is cool now and we stopped invading them.

    You get a few totalitarian dictatorships, sure an the last riot in this village (1846) resulted in mass hangings, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs…

    • Major Weekling says:

      One of the interesting things in the book I just mentioned was his defense of Robespierre and the Terror. He suggests that many fewer people died because of it, and that, with the rest of Europe invading France as the revolution happened (I tended to imagine it happening in a vacuum, but no), the Terror saved the movement and paved the way for Napoleon.

      I think it’s a mistake for people to assume that this sort of thing can’t and won’t happen here and now.

      • Nobody ever thinks the same thing will happen again. They called WWI ‘the war to end all wars.’ But of course like all blockbusters, it spawned a sequel and numerous spin offs.

        I think another mistake people make is that huge social change is a bad thing. Call me a hateful pessimist if you will, but I think social revolution could be fantastic for pretty much anyone who isn’t inolved in banking or big business.

        Plus, it’d give everyone something to Tweet about, right…

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