I’ll say up front, I am somewhat biased about this book. I lived through its creation, which was over a decade of my father researching and writing and organizing his history. I’m also not necessarily recommending you all run out and buy it; it’s an academic’s piece for academics, though it can be read like a novel and it’s quite engaging if you do so. Growing up with a historian, surrounded by other historians, it was kind of impractical to ask my father “what about the American revolution?” and get a high-level answer. “It’s complicated.” Indeed.
That’s why I am going to drop a few pieces from this book: revolutions are complicated. I think it’s time to talk about the process of revolution, because there’s a lot of casual “There’s going to be a revolution!” talk going about and … well, it’s just fractally wrong to say something like that. By “fractally wrong” I mean “wrong at every level of detail.”
There are things I feel I should pull out and summarize, and other places where I feel like I should just quote extensive swaths. I may do a bit of both. This won’t exactly be a book report, or a book review, or even a teaser: it’s a bunch of fragments and interesting bits and fascinating things I learned. To give you an example:
How many of you know that there was not “A” French Revolution? There was a series of them, about nine, that ended in The Big One that became The Terror.
How many of you have heard of The Revolt of The Judges? This is perhaps my favorite French Revolutions thing, ever. The crown maintained for itself the right to arrest someone, turn them over to the court, and order the court – basically – “convict this person and sentence them to imprisonment in the Bastille!” A process similar to how US political prisoners are created. As France began the tremors of revolution, at one point the judges responded to the crown’s arrest orders by being unavailable to hold court, which meant that it wasn’t possible to try anyone and imprison them. Oops. This occurred at a critical time, when the crown really would have appreciated being able to take certain people off the field, but couldn’t.
Revolutions are fractally detailed. Someone has to throw the first rock, kill the first cop, make the first IED, pull the trigger. It is always that way.
I. Breaking The Law
Is revolution breaking the law? The immediate response to this question is that revolution is much more complex and large-scale than lawbreaking. Many instances of petty crimes and felonies come quickly to mind, crimes that certainly must have occurred in seventeenth-century France, though there was nothing revolutionary about them.
But what obtains when individuals or groups of individuals willfully break the law? Or fail to comply with it? An inability, and a refusal, to pay taxes marked the beginnings of the Fronde.
And what happens when a complicity develops between lawbreakers and the residents of the neighborhood, city, or countryside where lawbreaking occurs? Law enforcement officers and individuals who were refusing to comply with the laws of the land alike felt surrounded by the eyes of a hostile crowd or population. Weapons brandished by the police and judges black robes suddenly failed to convey authority, as a silent complicity with lawbreakers developed. Now, for all but a tiny minority of the population, the French state was little more than a law-enforcement agency and a tax collector. It offered nothing in the way of social services and could not always assure order and respect for property. For seventeenth-century Frenchmen the Fronde was an ever-widening and deepening support for an increasingly radical and willful violation of the king’s laws.
Even if defended on some higher moral ground, lawbreaking and adamant refusals to comply with orders (for example, an order to turn one’s hay or crops over to the army) break the tissue of respect that binds state and society. If illegal action causes property damage, physical injury, or death, those entrusted with maintaining order are compelled to prosecute offenders and bring them to justice.
What occurs when the people charged with keeping the peace begin to break the law? In the France of the Fronde, royal officers began showing a massive “lack of zeal” in prosecuting lawbreakers as early as 1645, and this complicity turned into outright strikes and disregard for the law in the spring of 1648.
Tax officials reported to Paris that peasants simply would not pay taxes, and that in many instances could not do so. Occasional reports of peasants breaking into tax offices and destroying records, setting fire to houses in which tax officials lived, or physically intimidating or accosting those officials were all part of the routine of seventeenth-century government. Without a company or two of soldiers to support his efforts to raise taxes by confiscating property for non-payment, the tax collector could do little but wring his hands and inform Paris that tax revenues in his district had dried up.
The line between enforcing the law and complicity with those who could not or would not pay up was often very thin. After all, while the recalcitrant peasant might be socially inferior, he was a neighbor and occasionally even a relative. At the local level the highest percentage of tax revenue did indeed come from those who were the most well-off. While it is impossible to discern just how able to pay were the coqs du village – that is, the more propertied villagers or the owners of tiny plots who survived by selling their labor to others – it is nonetheless possible to infer the existence of a complicity about non-payment among both the better off and the truly marginal laborer in a peasant community. And also the existence of a complicity with the tax collector, or to be more accurate simply “a lack of zeal” about carrying out his duties.
The Fronde in Paris began when the Parlement of Paris, the principle law court charged with prosecuting violators of the law, stopped hearing cases. In contemporary terms we would say that the judges went on strike. Though the judges broke no statutes when they suspended their work, they ignored a royal edict ordering them to resume trying cases. At precisely that moment the judges became lawbreakers, and the state’s powers to enforce law and order virtually ceased.
The judges of the Parlement of Paris – and those in the Great Council, the Chamber of Accounts, and the Court of Excises who followed their lead – wanted the boy king, his mother the regent, and above all the Council of State to be aware that they were breaking the law. At this point, during the spring of 1648, they had not yet worked out lofty moral grounds for ceasing their duties. These would be articulated in the months ahead.
Carrying their illegal actions a step further, these judges from various courts joined together and solemnly decided to sit as a collective deliberative body – not in order to enforce the king’s laws but to discuss the issues “troubling” the state. In short, by breaking the law, judges were making a bid for power, were striving to assume an exclusive right claimed by the Council of State, namely the right to rule France. The image of sober black-robed judges meeting together to discuss tax cuts scarcely conforms to our contemporary image of a revolutionary council. These same judges, however, were lawbreakers; and as royal decrees from the Council of State thundered across the Seine from the Palais Royal ordering the judges to cease and desist their deliberations about matters on which only the Council could make decisions, it became evident that a general breakdown of law enforcement had occurred and that the state, as defined by contemporaries, was tottering and threatened with collapse.
The great lesson that early-modern European revolutions can teach the contemporary world is that revolutions may also be made by individuals who already hold power. One does not have to be excluded from power, or be a guerilla warrior, to be a revolutionary. When law enforcement officers – tax collectors, police commissioners, and judges – stop enforcing the law, they in fact break the law and challenge the stability of society. Thus they tear away the power of the state.
I love “the revolt of the accountants”!!
Revolutions do not occur when armed bands barricade the street, or snipers begin interdiction and harrassment attacks on military convoys. This is why I tend to laugh at the all-too-easily stereotyped “2nd Amendment Buff” who keeps their weaponry as if it were some kind of talisman that protects them from the abuse of the state. By the time it’s time for snipers and IEDs, there will be plenty of weapons to be had, because the final stage of revolution is when the regular military begins to divide its loyalty between the rebels and the state. People who fantasize about taking their rifle to the streets, like a minute man, ignore the fact that the power of the state must already be so weakened that it cannot prevent people taking to the streets with rifles. Put differently: a dozen well-placed accountants can do more to destroy the power of a state than a hundred riflemen.
When I find myself in a conversation about revolution, I find that most of the people I meet are deeply steeped in the American propaganda about its own revolution. That was propaganda necessitated by the US’ rapid transformation from an imperial colony to an oligarchy: the new rulers of the new state needed “lofty moral grounds” that were articulated in the months following the successful revolution. Mostly, that was done by pointing at the writings of Thomas Paine, which were ignored in fact in the implementation of what was to come (Paine was radically democratic and anti-slavery)
So you say you want a revolution? First, you’d better be able to answer the question my father asked the Students for a Democratic Society Frondeurs who occupied Low Library in the 60s: “Suppose you do overthrow the USA, how do you keep what you create from turning into a dictatorship?” [stderr] The US damn near did. France did. Russia did. Egypt did. The list goes on and on and on. The only approach that I would see as working is not overthrowing a government but fragmenting it and disempowering it, while remaining vigilant at all times for the appearance of the inevitable would-be Bonaparte. In this context we can almost see Trump as a Bonapartean figure: the fake two-party system overplayed its hand and undermined the legitimacy of its own state through its weaponized use of budget theatrics – congress disempowered itself and the new Jacobin radicals (“Tea Party”) sprouted the seeds of destruction: the US was left with a ‘choice’ between a representative of the ancien regime, and a bomb-throwing ideology-spouting asshole. The surprise is mostly Trump’s because he clearly expected to be able to rule like a dictator and is petulantly disappointed that he’s being forced to negotiate for power with the US political class that he thought he could casually dismiss. The good news is that Trump is not popular enough to assume power as a dictator: he lacks the élan of a Bonaparte or the charisma of a Caesar. I see him as a squib that fired too soon. Lucky us!
I use inner terminology for some of this: “weaponization” when applied to philosophical or political topics, is what I call it when you take an idea and invert it so as to make it a point of attack. So, for example, weaponizing Epicurus would be a matter of asking “what is it that brings comfort to my enemy?” with a follow-on: “…. and how do I take it away from them?” In politics, weaponizing the foundations of the state against itself would be analyzing what underpins the state, to find weaknesses that can be exploited. Usually, in history, this happens as a natural side-effect of things going wrong: France at the time of the Fronde was also suffering from famine that was just mild enough not to disempower the populace, but severe enough to make everyone worried. And there was the endless-seeming wars like the futile war with Spain that was ongoing at the time. Russia’s revolution similarly resulted when the state accidentally knocked out its own underpinnings through its military disaster in WWI and famine.
We can look at the US and see, easily, places where US standard practices can be weaponized to pressure the state and possibly cause it to fail. Depending on the amount of credibility you assign to various theories, Osama Bin Laden did exactly that, by luring the US into Afghanistan (and accidentally got a “two-fer” in Iraq) What worries me is that there are people out there who are thinking this way: the strategists behind ISIS being the most prominent example. They observed what happened to the US in Iraq and Afghanistan and are cheerfully sucking the empire further and further into the quagmire; they will defeat the US because there’s no amount of money that can be spent or high explosive that can be dropped (a form of money) that will remediate the US’ position in the greater Middle East. These are weaponizations of US strategies against US interest. What are some we could do? The obvious one is to attack the money supply. It would be hard to do as good a job as Wall Street is already doing, but an orchestrated run on the banks would be legal and devastating and best of all it would be mostly devastating to the oligarchs, who would Flip The Fuck Out. A general tax revolt would also be devastating (and would confer the side-benefit of forcing the US to choose whether to spend money on its military or domestic police, with predictable results). Other attacks on the American Way of Life would be to engage in cultural warfare: re-instate the draft as a bogus cost-saving measure and peel the military’s loyalty from the state by making it resentful and representational of the population at large. Encourage the US to go to war with Iran; a massive, insanely costly and immoral war, prosecuted by America’s overpriced, overstretched, military would probably break the military/industrial complex’ monopoly on violence. Another fairly obvious attack would be to weaponize the military’s religious bias and racism against itself and begin fomenting internal divisions in the military: that’s why the US Government has worked so hard to eradicate Anwar Al Awlaki and his bloodline.
There are many obvious reasons I don’t think we should be doing all or any of those things, yet. Mostly, because I don’t think the scary scenarios of the US turning into an Orwellian nightmare are practical. The US is too big and too stupid, for one thing. And too over-extended for another.
The US is not close to the misery level that France and Russia experienced prior to their revolutions. In both of those countries, the vast majority of the people had nothing. In France, something like 70% of the land was owned by the crown and the nobility, and another 15% by the catholic church. The clear argument is that the nobles and clergy got sloppy and stole too much; they couldn’t control their own rapaciousness and the famines and tax revolts were an inevitable consequence of the insane inequality in the country. Of course, inequality in the US is rising rapidly, and the wealthy appear to be set on removing the social safety net from the poorest part of the population. The imperialists in Rome were smart enough to try to buy the people off with bread and circuses – the oligarchs in charge of the US appear to be too crazed with greed to think strategically. Things will have to get much much much worse before there could be a revolution from the masses, but the kind of middle-tier revolution of the Fronde: it could happen.