Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Origins of the French Revolution

Moving from general historical interpretations to specific causes of the French Revolution, Sutherland discusses a wide array of disparate phenomenon.  It's interesting to think about the ways in which social, political, dynastic, economic, intellectual, and ideological factors all merge together to cause revolution.  Sutherland, for instance, discusses Montesquieu and Voltaire's Enlightenment ideals while also spending a considerable amount of time analyzing France's backward financial system, which gave the clergy as well as the nobility almost complete freedom from taxation.  Provinces too could resist central taxation whenever local nobles, secure in their local judicial (parlement) positions, invoked medieval prerogatives.  More importantly, France's central government had limited knowledge of its own expenditures, and to this day historians are unable to fully account for the amount of French spending on the eve of the Revolution.  The fact is that minsters spent what they wanted to spend until France's costly invention brought the state to the verge of insolvency.  France also lacked adequate credit, and its monarch borrowed money at the rate of ten or twelve percent rather than the two percentage points of interest that Britain's government enjoyed.  Of course, France's ancien regime was undermined on a variety of other fronts as well.  Louis XV and Louis XVI were both personally unpopular, and Marie Antoinette, of course, was seen as a frivolous but dangerous Austrian spy.

One of the most surprising triggers of revolutionary activity was the monarchy's rising pretensions to absolute power.  This is a paradox.  For Louis XIV had been the very definition of an absolute monarch, and yet the French monarch had been limited by certain aristocratic privileges, and these privileges threatened to give way on the eve of 1789.   Thus Enlightenment ideals related to human dignity and  limited government butted up against the monarchy's desperate need to assert its power in order to raise the funds needed to run a modern nation-state.

 All of this is a bit abstract.  As in Russia, and perhaps every truly revolutionary situation, the mood of the street mattered too.  And this was dangerously affected in France by the rising price of bread.  Sutherland's analysis of the central importance of the price of break in France is useful.  According to Sutherland, a large percentage of France's public lived in poverty, spending as much as 60 percent of yearly income on the purchase of break, and more than 60 percent in times of particular economic distress.  Thus ordinary French men and women were in no position to tolerate dramatic increases in the cost of break, and would easily riot whenever this cost increased. In fact, the French government and French poor made similar assumptions about how the bread economy should work.  The government intervened mightily in the regulation of break markets, ensuring that the cost rarely rose, or did so in a predictable way.  In times of shortage, break moved from place to place in order to be sold by local speculation.  The high visibility of bread in times of general scarcity added fuel to the fire of revolutionary sentiment.  Looking at Sutherland's analysis of the origins of the French Revolution makes one wonder how one can ever dissever the diverse causes of one general event.

No comments:

Post a Comment