Echoes of the Estates-General: A Comparison between Ancient Regime France and 21st Century America (Part II)

The similarities between 18th century France and modern America apply not only to the background to the French Revolution but to the early stages of the Revolution in which a moderate, professional bourgeoisie sought to consolidate their power and stem the tide of economic and political radicalism emanating from the peasantry and sans-culottes. This article chronicles the various aspects of this divide.

The Representative Problem

Tim Blanning, writing in The Pursuit of Glory, argued that the French Revolution “wrapped into one explosive package the three great abstractions of modern politics: the People, the State, and the Nation”, and that “the French people announced their arrival as the main actors in the nation’s political life.” That sovereignty resided in the nation and that Louis XVI was answerable not to God but to the constitutional law of the State (for the first part of the Revolution anyway), were principles that would lead to the self-assertion of the French people, as mass participation in assemblies and demonstrations and universal conscription under the Jacobins meant that they could no longer be ignored. But for the first part of the Revolution, representation was monopolised by the most middle-class, reformist elements of the French society. America today suffers from a similar problem, as the DNC continuously props up Joe Biden’s campaign, and acts as an obstacle to any substantive change.

The Estates-General sat on May 5, 1789, Louis XVI having had little choice over its convocation following the difficulties in levying taxes and rents on an increasingly recalcitrant peasantry, coupled with the fears of the bourgeoisie that the loans they had made to the State might not be paid back. The Third Estate was represented by 610 men, about 1/6th of whom were capitalists and bankers, and many of whom were lawyers, indicating that despite representing 95% of the French people, the Third Estate exclusively advanced the interests of the educated middle classes. As such, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which Lafayette consulted Thomas Jefferson in drawing up, was a crystallisation of Enlightenment principles that affirmed the universal power of reason, the ability of man to surmount all obstacles and control his own government and society, and the principle of equality before the law with noble privileges abolished. Article IV of the Declaration stated that liberty constituted anything that did not harm others by infringing on the rights to liberty, property and security and that only the rule of law could delineate these boundaries. Private property remained a ‘natural right’, and the unchecked ability to accumulate capital and influence the political process did not infringe any of the aforementioned negatively-defined ‘rights’, and so was sanctified by law.

According to Eric Hobsbawm, “A constitutional monarchy based on a propertied oligarchy expressing itself through a representative assembly was more congenial to most bourgeois liberals than the democratic republic which might have seemed a more logical expression of their theoretical aspirations.” The demands articulated by the peasantry for the restoration of communal lands and material prosperity could be ignored, and by August 10, 1789, the bourgeoisie had taken up arms against the peasantry in Dauphine and Burgundy. Characterising peasant agitations as the work of ‘brigands’, the troops were called out to crush all men without professions and domiciles. This brutality saw 160 prisoners killed at Cluny, and 80 hanged in Lyon. Following the storming of the Bastille and the August 4 reforms that established equality in taxation and admission to public office, in addition to the redemption of manorial lands, it was clear that the peasantry and sans-culottes were the vessels of social change, repelled by bourgeois anxiety.

The glaring flaws in a supposedly ‘representative’ system have also shown themselves in the recent Democratic primaries, where Bernie Sanders’ campaign has cratered. In Iowa last month, the app meant to coordinate the results of the Caucus mysteriously crashed, and it later transpired that the app was built by a for-profit company named Shadow Inc. that Pete Buttigieg’s campaign had paid millions of dollars. The US Constitution, like France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, protects the rights of private business to hike prices, depress wages and lock other competitors out of the market, and the rights of political institutions such as the DNC to sabotage the electoral process in favour of candidates who are more conducive to a capitalist economic setting. Nothing legally prevents the DNC from limiting the number of debates and blocking Bernie Sanders from winning the nomination. The freedoms of speech and voluntary exchange are theoretical abstractions that give way to the realities of market competition and the profit motive, as while individuals enjoy the superficial freedoms to participate in democracy, the real power lies in the hands of multinational corporations or nepotistic political behemoths like the DNC.

Two Shades of Moderation

The moderate voices within the National Assembly, who would later go on to form the Legislative Assembly in 1791, recognised that their interests were broadly in line with a limited monarchy, rather than a democratic republic. In what became the National Constituent Assembly, a class of propertied ‘active citizens’ formed a constitutional monarchy that banned trade unions and guild corporations, instituted the enclosure of communal lands and sold off ecclesiastical domains. These reforms were designed to create an internal market for goods, rather than to satiate the demands of the peasantry, as the ensuing price fluctuations led to agitations in rural areas. The distinction between the property-owning moderates of the Legislative Assembly who favoured opening up internal markets and creating a class of landless agrarian wage-labourers, and the peasantry and sans-culottes who favoured the communal ownership of land and higher income and inheritance tax was becoming more evident. The storming of the Tuileries and the establishment of the National Convention in 1792 was the apotheosis of this struggle.

The incompatibility of moderate defenders of the status quo with the vast numbers demanding transformative change is also characteristic of the schisms between Bernie Sanders and his supporters with the centrist Democrats. Much like the Girondins and moderates in the National Constituent Assembly, Joe Biden and his supporters pretend to rail against the corruption and despotism of the Trump administration while obscuring how much they have in common with the Republicans. In addition to his already disastrous record of voting in favour of NAFTA, supporting the war in Iraq and playing a key role in the war on drugs that has devastated many families (particularly Black and Hispanic), Biden continues to oppose Medicare for All, even suggesting that he would veto it if it passed both houses and came to his desk. Furthermore, the centrist Democrats and Bernie Sanders’ supporters are separated not only by policy disagreements but a profound and seemingly irreconcilable divergence in worldview. The centrist Democrats are consequentialist; it is unsurprising that a base of primarily middle-class professionals are concerned with results and efficacy above all else, and maintain that the ends (beating Trump) justify the means (nominating Biden). Much like the bureaucratic moderates in the Legislative Assembly, the centrist Democrats view capitalism as a natural accompaniment to their utilitarian, consequentialist worldview. If one believes that man is a rational, utility maximising agent entering into voluntary exchanges with others, then the consequences of mutual trade and transaction are all that matters, and anything not amenable to the rationalist calculus of profitability can be discarded. Bernie Sanders’ supporters are more ideological (and, indeed, deontological), advocating for transformative measures such as Medicare for all and the abolition of ICE as ends in themselves.

It must be mentioned, however, that the situation in France that enabled the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the Tuileries in 1792 is not entirely analogous to the modern American situation, as the peasantry and sans-culottes in France represented a broadly unified coalition, committed to establishing communally-owned land and preventing monopolisation and speculation. They had both suffered the effects of inflation and famine during the 1770’s and 1780’s, and both saw their enemy as the nobility and bourgeois professionals. The American working class, by contrast, remains divided along racial lines, as well as on geographic and occupational lines. A study from Penn State University showed that Donald Trump performed best in swing states that were worst affected by deindustrialisation and the opioid epidemic, and had experienced employment losses over recent decades.

The political divisions between professional, liberal capitalists who sought to make an existing system more amenable to their interests and the disaffected masses who sought radical change are common to both late Ancien Regime France and 21st century America. The disillusionment with the machinery of governance that led the sans-culottes to believe that the Estates General did not represent them also motivates many Bernie Sanders supporters who view the DNC as an obstacle to power. If the French Revolution was the time for the French people to assert themselves as a prominent force, then the coming economic depression may foreground the schism between unrepresentative political institutions and the people they have disenfranchised.


Tom Perrett

I write about politics, history and current affairs from a socialist perspective. My writing has covered a variety of topics, from the American opioid crisis to the Libertarian to Fascist Pipeline. My intellectual influences include Eric Hobsbawm, Emma Goldman and Murray Bookchin.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.