by Wendy McElroy
One of my friends believes that a second American revolution is imminent and will be sparked by the economic instability now rocking the continent. Frankly, I doubt it. Insurrections may occur, but I expect the US government to lumber along, dragging the world deeper into poverty and conflict for many years to come.
Upon hearing my friend out, however, my first thought was, “if a revolution erupts, it will resemble the French one of 1789 more closely than the American one of 1776.” Then I sat back and tried to figure out why I had arrived at that sudden conclusion, and whether or not it had merit.
One of the reasons for thinking that America might be “going French” is that current American society resembles descriptions I’ve read of pre-Revolution France more closely than America now resembles its young self.
Consider the issue of a class structure. America became a magnet for the wretched of the world because it delivered on the promise of a classless society. My ancestors left Ireland because they were forced to work as serfs on land they once owned, and because bumper crops were shipped to England by absentee landlords while starvation claimed the serfs’ own children.
Sick unto death of being arrested for such sins as speaking their own language, the Irish fled to North America even though they risked a 50 percent chance of dying in transit or in the initial hardships of the New World. They came here for one thing: a chance. They were willing to die for the chance to live on both feet without sinking to their knees before any man; more importantly, they wanted their children to stand tall. And so, when America called across the ocean to declare that hard work and merit are rewarded here because “all men are created equal,” they came.
Differences in wealth existed, of course. Then, as now, those differences meant that a fortunate few had more and better access to the “goods” of society, including justice. Great wrongs, such as slavery, also existed and can never be dismissed. But, for the majority of immigrants, America delivered. Hard work was rewarded; social mobility meant that a family’s status could rise or fall on merit from one generation to the next.
In 1831, when the aristocratic Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America, he began to record the impressions that would become the pivotal and acclaimed work Democracy in America. Tocqueville wrote, “Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” Everywhere, people shook hands with each other as though there were no social distinctions. He was especially amazed by the town meetings in New England, where everyone seemed to speak out on every topic.
A key difference between American and French society sprang from America’s respect for the working man: the importance of voluntary associations rather than the state. Tocqueville wrote,
Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds — religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive or restricted, enormous or diminutive.
If a barn needed to be raised, a school roof repaired, or a social cause advanced, then people banded together — and the work was done. Tocqueville concluded, “Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France … in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
The reward of merit and the absence of punitive laws led to an unprecedented prosperity and social equality; and this made for communities bursting at the seams with energy.
Today, America is a society of elites. Business elites claim subsidies, liability limits, and bailouts. Political elites enjoy the economic bounty of skimming off the sweat and blood of taxpayers: rich salaries, plush expense accounts (not counting bribes), platinum pensions and health insurance, etc. Bureaucratic elites (civil servants) “earn” much more than private-sector workers, even though they have greater job security and richer benefits, like plush pension plans that taxpayers can only dream about.
Economic privileges are accompanied by legal ones. In a recent commentary,Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald reports on how blatant the class society has become and how the mainstream media acts as a propaganda machine:
The Washington Post Editors work in a city and live in a nation in which huge numbers of poor and minority residents are consigned to cages for petty and trivial transgressions of the criminal law. … Post Editors virtually never speak out against that, if they ever have. But that all changes — that indifference disappears — when political elites are targeted for prosecution, even for serious crimes.
As the elites scramble to preserve their legal privileges, the productive middle class that defined early America is staggering under an ever-increasing burden of taxes, fees, and other legal disadvantages. More and more, productive people are driven into poverty and a despair that could easily turn into rage.
The parallels between pre-Revolution France and today’s America are clear.
Under Louis XV (1715–1774) and Louis XVI (1774–1792) France was plagued by constant and ruinously expensive warfare accompanied by economic instability. A huge schism existed between the haves and the have-nots. The haves basically consisted of the nobility and the clergy, both of whom were exempt from taxes; they lived off the productivity of unprivileged people laboring in the private sector, most of whom were peasants.
The private sector rested upon agriculture, even though few citizens owned land. The nobility and clergy (some 600,000 in a population of roughly 25 million) held most property. For example, the church owned about one fifth of all land; in some provinces, it owned up to two thirds. Moreover, the church had feudal privileges that continued from the Middle Ages and bound close to 1 million people to the land as serfs.
France was a comparatively wealthy nation, but the peasants existed at near-starvation level because of taxation in its myriad forms. A direct tax ate as much as 50 percent of the earnings of the nonexempt. The collection process was particularly brutal because tax collectors were “entrepreneurs” who paid the king a flat amount for the privilege of collecting taxes; anything over that amount became profit.
There were a slew of other taxes as well, some of which were quite creative. For example, there was a salt monopoly tax by which everyone over the age of 7 was required to purchase several pounds of highly inferior government salt every year. The law also prescribed how the salt could be used and imposed heavy fines for misuse, such as in the preservation of meat. Many other commodities had their own separate taxes. Fees were levied at every stage of manufacture, upon transportation, at time of sale to retailers, and then again to customers. It has been estimated that these taxes doubled the cost of goods. The list of impositions scrolls on and on, and it includes many customs duties that were imposed not merely at national borders but also at the boundaries between different provinces within France.
And, of course, there was the constant bribery and other unofficial theft by authorities, for which France was notorious. Unfortunately, it is impossible to even estimate how much this corruption cost the average person.
Even without factoring in corruption, it has been estimated that the nobility and the church consumed about 75 percent of the wealth produced by peasants — many of whom lived on the margin to begin with. Overtaxed, sometimes homeless, unemployed, hungry, and deprived of any hope of justice, the vast majority of French citizens were not blind. They saw their own children starve while stolen riches bought velvet outfits for children of the elite. When their desperation erupted abruptly into unbridled rage, the French Revolution had arrived.
At least in the beginning, it was a grassroots revolution around which the disenfranchised rallied for justice. But it soon devolved into a scream for vengeance through which a totalitarian government exacted swift and bloody “justice” under a chilling banner that read “Committee of Public Safety.”
A comparatively free and equal America called a constitutional convention after its revolution; France, in a backlash against elitism, erected a guillotine.
In short, the first American Revolution sprang from a relatively just and equal society; it was not rooted in a long-standing class structure that had embedded people into widely disparate and warring sectors. What would a second American revolution look like? No one can say for sure, but I fear it.
The author of several books, Wendy McElroy maintains two active websites: wendymcelroy.com and ifeminists.com. Send her mail.