The people and the power, history and the lessons unheard

In 1762 Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his Social Contract, Chapter Three of Book One begins thus:

'The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty. Hence the right of the strongest, which, though to all seeming meant ironically, is really laid down as a fundamental principle. But are we never to have an explanation of this phrase? Force is a physical power, and I fail to see what moral effect it can have. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will — at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty?

Suppose for a moment that this so-called "right" exists. I maintain that the sole result is a mass of inexplicable nonsense. For, if force creates right, the effect changes with the cause: every force that is greater than the first succeeds to its right. As soon as it is possible to disobey with impunity, disobedience is legitimate; and, the strongest being always in the right, the only thing that matters is to act so as to become the strongest. But what kind of right is that which perishes when force fails? If we must obey perforce, there is no need to obey because we ought; and if we are not forced to obey, we are under no obligation to do so. Clearly, the word "right" adds nothing to force: in this connection, it means absolutely nothing.'

In 2012 these words are perhaps a little difficult to take in, the translation in English of 1768 used here is, however, simpler than Rousseau's French. There are a few of us who are quite absorbed in politics, probably generally, but living here is France we concern ourselves with what is around us. I thought about this last Saturday when France was celebrating the fall of the Bastille and 14th July 1789 when their Revolution began, intellectually much influenced by Rousseau and other philosopher of his time, but in the hands of ordinary people who had had enough of the oppression of the ruling minority.

In 1785 France faced serious economic difficulties, mostly because of the unfairness of taxation, but was one of the richest and also most powerful European nations. The French enjoyed more political freedom than other Europeans. Yet it was the peasants and poor and along with those whose ambition was to become bourgeoisie who bore the burden of unjustly high taxes that were levied to support their wealthy monarchy and the aristocracy whose lifestyles were luxurious, lazy and counterproductive. That aristocracy was challenged by the growing ambitions of well off farmers, merchants and tradesmen who aligned themselves with peasants, early industrial workers and intellectuals influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers including Rousseau and Voltaire. A series of events irreversibly changed organisation of political power, the very nature of French society and individual freedom. In the 1780s there were also devastating crop failures that were causing widespread hunger and discontent since the ruling hegemony, unlike other people, did not go without.

The culmination was the Revolution of 1789 to 1799. The Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen that is still the ideal of the French notions of democracy and freedom was written during 1789. A Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen was modelled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1791 but its formulation is quite ironic and its failure to this day of making woman equal to man has always exposed the failure of the Revolution in which many brave and commited women invested heart and soul, often lives.

My point? Two hundred and twenty three years on and in the political world only the monarchy, powerful aristocracy and dominance of the Roman Catholic church are gone. Instead there is a powerful political elite who are all but born and most certainly educated to assume power. The taxation they legislate into the pockets of the people is gaining momentum toward the equivalent of pre-revolutionary conditions in the 1780s and democracy is being gnawed away to the point that the ruling hegemony and the rich supporters and friends should bear Rousseau's words in mind and keep a sharp look over their shoulders lest the French nation seeks new Bastilles to tear down. There is unemployment, harsh rural poverty and rapidly rising prices for all commodities, especially essentials like food, but the rich are growing richer and 'fatter' and conspicuously so. If history is remembered, then sooner or later the words of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen will also be remembered and once again the people will have enough and take to the streets.

Jackpot! Cate got Seggers in!

OK, we shall stick with il principe then...

No doubt Jean-J was a s***, after all he was a philosopher and having been stuck amongst a load of them for three decades know they are all s***s because they know it all and nobody else knows nuffink. Nico, same first name as Machiavelli and a little prince to boot.

He offered an awful lots of 'cakes' didn't he, and has a terrible amount of bread. Cate, well spotted.

Off with his head...

It is all conditional and relative, of course, and you are pointing out the late 20th and early 21st century differences with late 18th century indicators. An estate agent may be the lower ranking aristo of today, the man heading for economic oblivion himself because his land has gone sour. Excuse the metaphor.

Yes, indifference as was the case of the 'common people' at the time of the French Wars of Religion at the end of the 16th century. It was really factional conflicts between the French aristocratic houses such as Bourbon and Lorraine (Guise). Although the Hugenots effectively won by 1600, in 1685 protestantism was made illegal in France and the Roman Catholic church gained ascendancy as never before. The people had stood to gain a great deal by converting to Lutheranism but remained too complacent to change, thereafter they had a century to wait until the revolution. Now they have a couple of centuries of belief in their will of the people, egalitarianism and so forth but right now, yet again, the people are complacent although some are more equal than others. The right, the FN particularly, feeds on this and yet in office as UMP did and probably FN would do, the neo-aristocracy (the very wealthy) which is by its nature everything the post-revolutionary ideal rejects promises but never delivers, still uses patriotism as it greatest asset. That is back to pre the Wars of Religion and what won over eventually. The monarchy and most of the most powerful aristocracy remained staunchly loyal to the RC church and imposed that on their subjects, rather than allowing free choice and conversion. Somehow party politics is also repeating history there and this kind of partisan alignment divides the nation which is divided regionally, linguistically, historically and politically anyway yet still manages to be united in its conservativism and thus reject change. The breakdown of turnouts at recent elections show areas where the socialists were not popular having low turnouts because voters did not want to return their preferred right wing parties either. Electoral and political apathy.

Using history to compare with today is full of caveats to begin with, but basics still come out the same in the wash and having effectively missed the boat in the 16th/17th and 18th centuries, another two centuries have passed and no sign of revolution yet, but then the people's backs are not yet broken. When taxes with little in return, inflation with no relaxation of those taxes to compensate, scarcity of resources and all the other negatives begin to move up the social ladder from the people at base who have the muscle, to those being hit who are thinkers and leaders who will persuade the masses, then things must logically change. Whether that manifests itself as a violent revolution, I very much doubt. But some new form of revolution may take its place and paralyse the ruling minority and immediate change will occur before cultural conservatism preserves the 'no change' nature of the people. History repeating itself perhaps.

A modern day counter to revolutionary intent has been apathy. An apathy that we see in a lot of societies where things so far have been deemed to be ok, sufferable, bearable. I'm thinking of post war Europe where pretty much we seemed to be getting it together for the greater good of the economies as a whole. That sense of things being ok and people being happy with their lot leads to an apathy of why fix something if it isn't broken?

We also need to understand the timelag between things going wrong and people noticing that they have gone wrong. I don't know why there is this time lag but it certainly is there. Look at property in 2005 - 2006. Any estate agent after a few drinks and a large swig of honesty would have told you that things were falling off, whilst ley people were still believing the press hype that is was all on the up and up. It was only two years later that the reality hit home. But I digress.

My feeling is that it started to go wrong economically around the late 90s and it took until 2008ish for the rest of society to see things in the dire straits that really existed and which have driven us to the position we are in now.

Apathy showed itself in many different forms, indifference at elections with the thought we are ok why change it, or what good will it do anyway? France itself is particularly reluctant to change. Most people I meet now in my professional life still count on their job for life, again a certain form of apathy or fear that the grass may not be as green on the other side.

The French may not like change but when push comes to shove and the gaps between rich and poor, the mighty and the weak become too wide, boy do the French love a revolution. All that remains to be seen is which form the coming revolution will take and when.

The wind of change swept Northern Africa recently and I half expected Southern Europe to follow in their wake. I accept that the issues were not always the same, or were they? I suppose living under a dictatorial regime is tantamount to the same abuse of power as the inequal distribution of wealth.

Great topic Brian, well timed and well expressed - a lot better than my jumbled Tuesday thoughts.