5. French Revolution III – Template for Modernity

5. The French Revolution III

05B • Civilisation & Society 1 • Politics of Power • Lecture 5 • The French Revolution III • 29.09.12 from The Muslim Faculty on Vimeo.

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: 5. The French Revolution III 

Author: Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison

Publication date: 29/09/2012

Civilisation and Society I: Politics of Power

5. The French Revolution III - A Template for Modernity

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation & Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the fifth of 12 sessions which make up the Politics of Power module. The entire session will last approximately 1 hour and comprise a lecture of around 40 minutes, followed by a 5 minute interval, and ending with a short question & answer period. You are encouraged to make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture. 

This is the third of four consecutive lectures focusing specifically on the matter of the French Revolution. Last week we aimed to acquaint ourselves with the living atmosphere of the revolutionary drama and some of its outstanding political figures and personalities, principally through the writings of Thomas Carlyle and Ian Dallas. This week we will endeavour to examine the extent to which the French Revolution has served as a template for the formation of the modern state and its social, political and economic modalities.

I propose that we begin by looking at what it is we mean in this context by ‘modernity’. For our present purposes I will include along with it the oft-mentioned concept of so called ‘post-modernity’, as social scientists, historians and all manner of cultural observers are still debating its validity and possible definitions as something genuinely distinct from the modern. Let it suffice to say, therefore, that as interesting a discussion as it may be, the nature of any distinction or otherwise between the modern and the postmodern is not our particular focus today. However, since postmodernism’s relevance for us is that it falls within the extended arc of the post-revolutionary legacy as an important feature of the contemporary condition, we will have good cause further below to make specific reference to it in the context of the present-day social and psychological effects of the condition of mental ‘de-historicisation’ which the historian, Professor J. Clark, describes as presentism.

In traditional historical terms modernity has been divided into three periods: early, classical and late. Early modernity covers the period from the fall of Constantinople to the Osmanlis in 1453 to the year 1789, a very familiar date to us by now, but it is also helpful to remember that this period is largely characterised philosophically and politically, as we saw in our second lecture of the module, by the phenomenon of the Enlightenment. The attendant advances in technology in the late eighteenth century had also begun to usher in the beginnings of industrialisation. Classical modernity covers the period 1789 to the end of World War I (1918), which is marked by the effective end of Europe’s imperial phase and the beginning of a new balance of power with the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and the growing impact of the American military, economic and political presence on the world stage. Late modernity is taken as covering the period from the end of World War I to 1989, which was marked by the beginning of the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union leaving the USA as the world’s dominant cultural, economic, political and military force. The period from 1989 onwards would certainly fall within the scope of that discussion of postmodernism I referred to earlier, and which for the time being we can treat simply as a continuation of modernity.

Modernity may be defined or discussed in a wide range of terms depending upon whether the main point of focus is upon artistic, cultural or philosophical trends; or whether the emphasis is upon the socio-economic and political developments. The French Revolution will have had its impact across the board, but as far as being a template for modernity is concerned, we will be largely preoccupied with describing its historical capacity to prefigure and project modern society towards particular forms of capitalism and the nation state with its typical constituent components and all of the political modalities we have come to associate with the proliferation of representative democracies across the world, whether they be liberal in complexion or otherwise.

By looking at the progress of modernisation through the lens of the Industrial Revolution, Norman Davies (Europe p. 1293) provides us with an impressive list comprising forty-eight of what he refers to as its ‘component processes’. There is no doubt in my mind that all of these factors are relevant and have had their part to play. However, I am relieved to say that a comprehensive examination of all of the interlocking and overlapping relationships between these multiple elements is certainly not possible in the time we have available to us, and is in fact, unnecessary since in order to recognise the template we are looking for, it is sufficient that we identify the essential, supporting elements within the entire complex. In order to colour the picture with certain other key dimensions, we must then superimpose the analytical historical ‘grid’ supplied by Ian Dallas (Time of the Bedouin). Therefore, without claiming to be definitive and bearing in mind that each might merit a whole lecture in its own right, I have selected the following eighteen essential components from Davies’ list (with their original numbering):

2.   Mobility of labour: enclosures, emancipation of the serfs

3.   New sources of power: coal, steam, gas, oil, electricity

8.   Communications: post, telegraph, telephone, radio

16. Science and technology: research and development

19. Urbanisation: town planning, public services

9.   Capital investment: joint-stock companies, trusts, cartels

14. The money economy: wages, prices, taxes, paper money

17. Financial services: credit, savings banks, insurance

20. New social classes: middle classes, domestics, ‘workers’

21. Transformation of family structures: ‘the nuclear family’

22. Women: dependency and subordination

36. Consumerism

29. Education: primary, technical, scientific, executive, female

30. Literacy and mass culture

34. Social sciences: economics, anthropology, ethnography, etc.

40. Extension of the electorate: universal suffrage, suffragettes

43. Elaborate social legislation

48. Total war: conscript armies, mechanised warfare, home front

Hopefully, I have managed to simplify the matter further still by arranging the items according to category and grouping them by colour: 

The blue group; mobility of labour, new sources of power, science & technology, communications and urbanisation, have been classed together as the core socio-economic factors that drove the progression from feudal and agrarian forms of economic activity to industrialised forms. The green group; new social classes, transformation of family structures, women and consumerism, share a single category as the necessary social consequences and required modalities. The purple group; education, literacy and mass culture, and social sciences, are categorised together as the means and methodology whereby the necessary indoctrination and mental conditioning for modern living have been generated and transmitted. The orange group; extension of the electorate, elaborate social legislation and total war, are expressions of the legalistic character of statist control, manipulation and coercion. Finally, the red group; capital investment, the money economy and financial services, represents here the standard picture of the mercantilist and free market operations of capitalism. However, we will see below the extent of the inadequacy of the standard picture when we come to examine the true nature and significance of the operating practices of the banking oligarchies whose monopoly over the generation of paper money, the application of usurious financial instruments and the manipulation of debt-based transactions on a supranational scale have given them de facto economic and political hegemony over the modern nation state. We will also come to appreciate the manner in which the seeds of banking were embedded amongst the roots in the revolutionary flower bed.

The Dallas ‘Grid’

The Time of the Bedouin comes into its own here as an analytical and descriptive narrative of the broad sweep of political, historical and social currents which delves below the ‘open yet hidden’ underbelly of liberal democracy and the modern state, to reveal the largely unspoken ‘elephants in the room’ of history without the recognition and acknowledgement of which, we are doomed to repeat, or have repeated upon us, the politics of terror and democratic totalitarianism exercised by the machinery of the state under the imperatives of the new banking ‘aristocracy’. These ‘back seat drivers’ took up their places in the original Napoleonic vehicle and have held their position at the forefront of the political economy of the West ever since. Although they have taken advantage of various technological enhancements, they have used exactly the same roadmap and followed essentially the same route. What follows now is a ten point summary of the salient features of political modernity as bequeathed to us by revolutionary France.

1. A historical claim to philosophical validation going back to the Enlightenment:

“‘The Enlightenment’ became the in-back theoretical claim for the new society. A crude scientism gave legitimacy to the new legislated totalitarianism.” [ToB p. 150]

Of course, as we saw in the second lecture of this module, where we looked at the overall European context, it was the Enlightenment and its claims to the advent of the ‘Age of Reason’ which put the seal of secularism on the fundamental identity of the modern era. Grayling explains:

“Recognising the aspiration to that change of authority [from religion to science] is the key to understanding the Enlightenment, informed in its very essence by the idea that the spirit of science should be extended into all domains… That was what the Enlightenment was: an enlargement of the scientific approach - to put it at its most general: the empirically controlled, responsible, non-dogmatic exercise of reason - to wider domains of concern… major examples of its consequences, to speak again in general terms, are all the revolutions of the eighteenth century.” [Towards the Light A.C. Grayling, pp. 103-4]

It is a defining characteristic of the secular state that religion, once it is displaced as the authoritative ‘binding’ factor in society by atheism (or more accurately humanism to identify it by its political face), it is relegated to the realm of the individual’s free choice of personal belief or spirituality. This right of choice is afforded recognition and protection, in the case of liberal democracies, not only by domestic legislation but also by supra-nationally imposed conventions on human rights which, as Davies points out, undoubtedly find strong precedents within the revolutionary template:

“The concept of human rights, if not invented by the French revolutionaries, was certainly given its strongest modern impetus. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen carried forward constructs contained in England’s Bill of Rights of 1689 and the fundamental declarations surrounding the independence of the USA. Battered and bruised, it survived as a lasting monument to the early idealism of the Revolution.” [Europe ND p. 713]

2. An abolished monarchy. In the case of the French Bourbons it was eliminated by the revolutionary declaration of a republic; in the case of the British monarchy it was neatly disempowered by constitutional limitations.

3. The transfer of absolute sovereignty. The authority previously enjoyed by the monarch is transferred to the parliamentary or representative assembly (at least ostensibly so given the very real power being exercised from behind the wings by the financial oligarchy) with a now individualised population exposed as never before to the full brunt of unmediated state powers. The incisive François Furet is crystal clear:

“He [Napoleon] was by temperament a thousand times more authoritarian than the former king, and he governed a society that had become more than ever a society of equal individuals, relatively defenceless against the power of the state […] the idea of absolute power remained in tact, as potent as ever, the monarchy’s legacy to the new democracy. The sovereignty of the people had replaced the sovereignty of the monarch, but sovereignty itself remained unlimited in extent and indivisible by its very nature.” [A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution]

Ian Dallas chooses the dramatic description in De Tocqueville’s On Democracy in America to make the same point:

“They recovered centralisation from its ruins and restored it, and at the same time that they raised it up again, all that had formerly limited it remained destroyed, and from the very entrails of a nation that had just overthrown royalty one was to see suddenly emerge a more extended power, more detailed, more absolute than that which had been exercised by any of our kings.” [ToB p. 136]

4. The institution of a democratic apparatus of government whose purpose is to provide for the stable continuity of economic conditions that are permanently amenable to the wealth creation and behind-the-scenes political control mechanisms of the banking and finance élite. This is achieved firstly, by the maintenance of a monolithic centralised State structure, which to all intents and purposes is coterminous with, and indistinguishable from the nation itself. In other words, the general population can no longer perceive of itself (collectively or as individuals), or think of the nation in terms other than those derived directly from within the administrative parameters of the State in question. A key element in this process is the conferment of universal suffrage. This is the basis for the second crucial factor, which is the imposition of peaceful and civilised continuity through a system modelled upon the Assemblies of the French Revolution. 

However, in revolutionary France heads might have rolled on all sides, given the raw and open exercise of the politics of power. Whereas, in today’s ‘watered down’ iteration, a parliamentary or congressional show is all that is required as cover for the operations of the anonymous oligarchs of the ‘money power’ over whom the politicians have no meaningful jurisdiction whatsoever; on the contrary, until the cracks started to appear in the banking crisis of 2008, the ignorant voting public was quite unaware that the entire political stage is subordinated to the imperatives of the money markets. The effectiveness of democratic assembly as a veil is based upon the institutionalised establishment of an apparent dialectic of opposition between organised parties of elected members whose legitimacy derives from being the chosen representatives of the most significant political tendencies present within the population. The scenario can be compared to a perpetual merry-go-round, complete with intra-factional feuding, purges and defections, with the levers of government being passed around (or more typically back and forth between two major parties) by turns, as the incumbents are electorally ‘overthrown’ by the opposition who have undertaken to fulfil the attractive promises contained in their manifestoes and/or to repair the damage left by the broken promises and apparent failures of the ruling party. A recent Faculty blog by the Dean and myself describes it as follows:

“...our daily reality subjects us to dramas of ritualised political combat, such as those between Republicans and Democrats in the US or between Conservatives and Socialists in the UK, whose obviously choreographed moves, like those of professional wrestlers, do not prevent them from generating the highly charged atmosphere of partisanship amongst the spectators required to sustain the fiction.” [A. Clarke and U. Morrison The Manufacture of Ignorance]

5. Dictatorship by the democratic institution of permanent revolution and inevitable Terror. This realisation, because of the overtly paradoxical and counter-intuitive nature of it, is not instantly discernible. It is too contradictory and surprising a destination for the modern mind to readily arrive at, trained as it is to the expectation of evolutionary social progress and improvement. However, Dr. Dallas puts it unambiguously:

“The procedures which gave legality and indeed were the legality on which Terror was founded [during the French Revolution] have not in any way been surpassed in more recent democratic political procedure and practices. A constitutional instrument of power is itself a dynamic which can move into special modes, crisis policies, emergency powers, rules of exception. Such powers, far from being rare, are constants of ‘democratic’ governance, which allows us to say, however illogical it demonstrably is, that totalitarian edict and Terror are both built into and necessary for the continuance and survival of the same democratic system.” [ToB p. 48] (underlining added)

The freedom of democratic governments to ‘legitimately’ avail themselves of the whole judicial and legislative apparatus, or indeed, to ‘legally’ circumvent it in order to carry out extreme political measures deemed by them to be necessary, amount in effect to a coup d'état worthy of the original 18 Brumaire precedent set by Napoleon in November 1799, in order to protect and consolidate the gains of the Revolution and ensure the survival of the first modern European state. Dallas brings us back to the present day by making direct reference to the ongoing example of the War on Terror (the declaration of war against an undetermined abstraction) initiated in a blizzard of anti-terrorism legislation and special homeland security measures, as the imperative response to external threat by Bush’s Republican government, and which is now being continued under Obama’s Democratic administration in a prolonged campaign of military terror, torture, assassinations and kidnappings across the Muslim world; not to mention also, juridical anomalies such as Guantanamo Bay and the general exercise of almost unlimited new powers of surveillance and coercion against the domestic population at the expense of long established constitutional freedoms, as we saw inflicted on peaceful, non-violent demonstrators during last year’s Occupy Wall Street campaign and which remain present in airport security regimes. He states:

“… what is at present taking place is the classical modus operandi of Revolution itself. The passivity, even indifference of the mass before the legislation that removes independence to replace it with social safety, the configuration of an exterior enemy, itself wittily named Terrorism, the appearance of a leadership that ‘takes over’ the machinery of State even with the appearance of being the elected government - all these elements emerging in unison must be inescapably the event called Revolution.” [ibid. p. 58-9]

And even more ominously:

“It is the fabrication of enemies which authorises the Terror of the State and the logical pulsation towards dictatorship.” [ibid. p. 78]

6. The hegemony of the international financial order. I have probably said enough about this matter already, both today and throughout the course of these lectures, to leave you in no doubt whatsoever regarding the centrality of this component in any realistic assessment of the politics of power in the modern state. However, we should take a moment to identify its profile within the context of the revolutionary template which is this lecture’s particular focus. The appearance in common usage and circulation of paper money in government as well as everyday transactions to replace gold and silver currency is a signal moment in the economic history of any country. When King Louis XVI of France called for the assembly of the Estates-General in 1789 the real crux of the matter was to raise revenues in order to relieve the Royal insolvency crisis. In that year Church properties were nationalised and the bonds that were issued to facilitate their purchase were the immediate precursor to the Assignats, paper instruments which by 1791 had entered into general circulation as a means of exchange. Dr. Dallas pinpoints the endgame:

“Napoleon created La Banque de France, and a new upper class began to emerge, later dominating both government and masses. Its instrument of power was the new abstract money, without collateral, the paper ‘Assignats’ on which the modern world was to be founded. By it the Citizens of the ’Democracy’ - that system which lay in the ruins of the Revolution - were to be transformed into Debtors.” [ibid. p. 91]

7. The ascendancy of the middle classes. In addition to their emergence as the new financial élite just alluded to, it is quite clear that the immediate and principal beneficiaries from the revolutionary upheaval were not the teeming urban and peasant Sans-culottes who formed the unruly mobs, but the ambitious, professional, well-heeled and well connected bourgeoisie of whom the likes of Robespierre, Danton and Brissot were prominent exemplars. Professor Davies cites the amusing but telling remark of a well known Jacobin of peasant stock:

“I had thought myself in Heaven among you, if there were not so many lawyers.” [Europe ND p. 702]

The Time of the Bedouin gives us a revealing breakdown of the attendees of a meeting of the Paris deputation to the Estates-General in 1789 at the peak of the crisis:

“… among the 379 Electors who turned up, 2 were members of the Academy, there were 5 deputies, 4 bankers, 26 merchants, 154 lawyers and 13 doctors. Down the social scale but still relatively prosperous were 43 retailers and 18 master-craftsmen.” [p. 32]

And furthermore:

“The aristocracy were torn from power and guillotined en masse. In their place a new class seized both power and system, replacing aristocracy came the lawyers. They are certainly the patriarchs of the new ruling élite as is proven today in both EU and the USA where lawyer Presidents and Prime Ministers are the rule not the exception.” [ibid. p. 105]

8. Misogyny. It is not the emergence of feminism in response to the historically institutionalised injustices, inequalities and prejudices of the ‘patriarchal’ society that is at issue here. Rather it is the sinister undercurrent of animosity towards feminine humanity which was evident throughout the revolutionary period. Firstly, by the open and ceaseless venting of ferocious and even pornographic attacks by the ‘proto-tabloids’ of the day against the hated symbol of all things female, Queen Marie-Antoinette. Secondly, and more insidiously, there was the effective blotting out of all female distinctiveness under the non-discriminatory appellation of ‘citizen’ and whose imprimatur remains visible in the modern political environment as the ‘masculinisation’ of the high-powered politician or business woman. Dallas summarises it as follows:

“Also at the heart of the rationalist cult is the necessary ‘abolition’ of women. The tactic, the successful tactic of reason was to turn them into citizens, and as such into pseudo-men, or, more precisely, women who would submit to being inside the political system grid.” [ibid. p. 151]

9. The media as a political instrument. We have already alluded to the relentless persecution of Marie-Antoinette by journalistic means to the very foot of the scaffold. Of course, we are all more than familiar with the power of today’s media corporations, the descendants of the editors and pamphleteers, and their ability to advertise and propagandise, distort perceptions, destroy political careers and personal reputations and influence public opinion and even the operations of the all-powerful markets. At considerable risk of dangerous over exposure to Clarke and Morrison in one form or another, I refer you once again to our reflections on the sorry predicament of the general public with respect to the media:

“How are we supposed to make sense of the world today? The truth is we’re not! […] Most of us rely on assorted forms of media to help us, whether large state or corporate outlets, dedicated independent media initiatives or the ‘blogosphere’; whether they be highbrow and academic or lowbrow and populist. However, the inevitable result is the ‘culturally produced ignorance or doubt’ which has become the subject of a new area of study: agnotology.

Since the period just prior to the French Revolution it has been the established assumption that journalism, backed by experts and academics will keep us informed so that we can make the kind of intelligent decisions that a modern democracy assumes its citizens will have to make. However, rather than representing the healthy plurality of independent and well informed voices of democratic freedom, the awful truth is that their conflicting narratives have become a nightmare for us due to their sham independence, egregious bias and contempt for the grail of objective truth long sanctified by scientific method. From the word go we are faced with widely differing and mutually contradictory perspectives extending from the upper reaches of academia to the lower depths of popular journalism. So, we have all ended up in a global culture that claims to be rational, while confronting us with a plethora of wildly conflicting viewpoints on every single issue that affects us. [A. Clarke and Morrison U. The Manufacture of Ignorance]

To underline the validity of our thesis with respect to this aspect of the revolutionary template, the following observations from the Time of the Bedouin will strike a familiar note to the contemporary ear:

“What was once fought and won by lance, sword and cannon, in the Revolution was won by the media. It was by pamphlets and the press that victory was assured […] The media… did not just denounce enemies of the People, it sowed suspicion and unease, its power was innuendo, distrust and denunciation by linkage of the innocent to the guilty.” [p. 37-8]

10. Total war. Of all the markers of modern political modalities that we have looked at, as citizens of the 21st century, we must confess to be becoming more and more accustomed to what is perhaps the most viciously uncivilised of them. Total war can be defined as the maximum use for the war effort of all available civilian and military resources, while admitting of little or no distinction at all when on the offensive, between combatants and non-combatants, or between military and civil targets - the destruction of the latter being considered as collateral damage, at best. There is no doubt that the modern precedent for this strategy occurred during the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars. The National Convention in August, 1793 made the following decree:

“From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn linen into lint; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.”

It was the first time that an army of more than a million had been mobilised in Western history. 

I would like to finish on a note which anticipates the more remote and unforeseeable consequences of the Revolutionary occurrence, which will be the main concern of next week’s lecture, as opposed to the very direct causal connections that we have focused on today. To this end, I return to the observations of Professor JCD Clark which I referred to at the beginning in relation to the question of postmodernism and the condition he describes in terms of mental de-historicisation and presentism as an indication of the ramifications which, one way or another, are bound to have some bearing on any proper appreciation of the French Revolution’s ongoing legacy:

“To lose one’s memory is not emancipation but a serious mental disorder, for without memory we cannot function as ourselves. If a society loses its history it has the same effect on a larger scale: [. . .] that society could not have only a disembodied existence. It would have lost all those many things which made it itself […] A society which sees itself as unconstrained by the past - undisciplined by duty, by morality, by honour, by custom, by religious aspiration - will therefore be a society with many lawyers and much litigation. That is indeed the society in which we now live.” [Clark, JCD pp. 13-14]

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. I have no specific further reading to recommend and will leave that to your own preference. The subject of our next lecture is The French Revolution IV where we will be looking at its legacy. For preparatory reading I would recommend ToB part 2 section IV (pp. 263-304). Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.

Bibliographical References

Clark, J.C.D. Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism and History

London: Atlantic Books, 2003

Dallas, Ian. The Time of the Bedouin: On the Politics of Power. 

Cape Town: Budgate Press, 2006.

Davies, Norman. Europe - A History. London: Pimlico, 1996

Furet F. and Ozouf M. (edit.) A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution 

(trans. Arthur Goldhammer) Belknap Press, 1989

Grayling, A.C. Towards The Light of Liberty. Walker & Company, 2007


Clarke A. and Morrison U. The Manufacture of Ignorance

Complementary Viewing

Danton (1983)

Dramatic French language film portrayal of the last months of Georges Danton and the events leading up to his execution. Contains an excellent depiction of the contrasting personalities of Danton and Robespierre.