Every generation needs a revolution.
Every generation needs a revolution.
by Simon Schama, published 1990
An attempt at an analytical reading
I’ve been reading as many books as ever lately, but I haven’t had the time or the interest to review much of what I have read perhaps in part because my reading has felt rather “aimless”. It isn’t that I am reading a random assortment of books willy-nilly with no unifying logic to why I take them off the shelf, it is more about not having a particular purpose as I read, failing to annotate and highlight and thus make the book my own and therefore ending up with the feeling of “What did I take away from this?”
Luckily for me, I read a book several years ago called “How To Read A Book” and posted what I think was a rather excellent summary of its main ideas. I went back to this post a few days ago as I became acutely aware of my perception of my recent reading experiences and looked it over and in so doing gained resolve.
As I work through this review, I aim to discuss the following:
Now, #5 is going to be tough because as I mentioned, I didn’t bother annotating or underlining anything in this book. I really don’t have an easy way to reference key ideas or moments where the author built his argument. Similarly, #6 is a challenge. Instead, I am working with my general impression of the text having completed it.
I also want to avoid criticism of the author and his treatment and focus on my own understanding of the subject as gleaned from the book. Although I’ve studied the events in detail at other times in my academic history and through other books (The Days of the French Revolution) I am by no means an expert on the period and I certainly haven’t read or investigated it enough to spot errors in the author’s knowledge or specific arguments. Instead, my desire is to explore what I took away from the reading and what about my own cognitive abilities or knowledge hindered me from getting more.
In that vein, one of the things HTRAB recommends is to read with the following question in mind: “What problem was the author trying to solve in writing this book?”
Related to this is the personal question: “Why am I reading this book? What question do I hope to answer by reading it?”
So why did I read “Citizens”? I’ve been exploring the cause of political revolutions for several years and over time my perspective is coalescing around the idea that there is no such thing as a popular revolution– that all political change occurs at the top and is pushed down rather than occurring at the bottom and destabilizing the top. My view is that a political system always has a set of elites at the top who control it (the “in elites”) and a set of elites who can be grouped as those without power but aiming to influence power or agitating to get it themselves (the “out elites”). These two groups are always in conflict with one another and while they may use non-elite social groups as a tool in the struggle, these non-elite groups never act autonomously or without the express authority and direction of one of the elite groups.
In ancient monarchic regimes, this view can be clearly exemplified by “intrigues of court” in which the monarch, his friends and his family are constantly fighting to maintain power against antagonized aristocratic groups and other claimants to the throne (internally) and foreign powers seeking domination or control (externally), with the frequent circumstance that foreign intrigues come to dominate internal politics and vice versa.
The two major countervailing examples of this theory are the American and French Revolutions, both of which were supposed to be popular uprisings against corrupt central authorities which results in a wholesale transformation of the political landscape. The more I studied the American Revolution, the more it became obvious that, for example, the Continental Congress was a group of colonial elites claiming representation of “the people” who were conspiring not for more liberty but to have and to create the power of the colonial government themselves in opposition to the British king and parliament. The French Revolution, then, seemed to stand alone as a popular affair.
The question: “Was the French Revolution an example of a spontaneous popular uprising or does it conform to the theory of elite conflict?”
I chose “Citizens” to explore this question because Simon Schama’s thesis is an explicit answer to that question: the French Revolution was not a popular uprising but an example of an elite-driven reform movement getting out of hand, and the end result of the event was not to put in place an entirely new governing structure but rather to exchange captains and confederates from one regime to another, with the means of governance and central social problems largely unchanged.
Schama divides “Citizens” into three parts:
Although the text largely moves chronologically, there is some jumping ahead (often in the form of acknowledgements of a particular person’s eventual fate, or the irony of their present behavior given a later position they adopt) and back. Each chapter attempts to explore a specific theme from multiple angles and people’s perspectives. The three parts of the book chronologically explore the ancien regime of Louis XVI, the events of the French Revolution leading up to the end of the monarchy and the formation of the revolutionary Republic and finally the implosion of the Republic into the Directory and the Terror.
As the title of the book suggests, another way to think of these parts is the changing conception of the French public (elites and commoners) from the subjects of a monarchy, to the citizens of a republic and finally, to un-personhood during the paranoia of the Terror in which everyone was suspect and might be tried and executed as a threat at any time. A final thematic overlay are the ideas and periods of reform, revolution and repression and retrogression.
The argument, outlined
In the first part, Schama explores the idea that rather than being a squalid, repressive and backward political entity, the French Monarchy of the late 1700’s was progressive-minded (even for its time) and was already engaged in various reforms up to the eve of the events which came to be known as the French Revolution. While the French state consisted of a large and growing bureaucracy and a complicated and at times oppressive tax authority, the monarch and his ministers were civic-minded and future-oriented and saw themselves as having a duty to improving the lives and welfare of the common public. From supporting internal trade freedoms to celebrating technological achievements (hot air balloons were an exciting development of the times), the French monarchy was engaged in a process of self-criticism and analysis and attempting to implement the “state of the art” in a variety of fields.
One major challenge to this effort was the financial overhang of the Seven Years’ War and French sponsorship of the American War of Independence which resulted in repeated strains and logjams as the monarchy tried to fund current expenditures. Another was the sense amongst many out elites, including a rising professional class of bureaucrats who had purchased or gained their office through personal qualification, that the reform movement wasn’t going fast enough and left too many undue privileges in the hands of hereditary nobles and entitled clergy.
This reform movement occurred against a backdrop of philosophical debate. While some elites held on to ancient notions of nobility, gentility and class, and new class of professional elites were held in thrall to the naturalism and humanism of Rousseau, who “Citizens” portrays as a peerless thought-leader amongst the aggrieved counter-elite. Rousseau held up a notion of primitive equality, simplicity and “sensibilite” as the hallmarks of an enlightened society in contrast to the ranks and obligations, splendor and sentimentality of the monarchy and aristocratic society.
The Revolution itself began as series of largely disconnected challenges to the power of the king and his ministers which initially aimed at testing their resolve and forcing their hand with regards to particular reforms. Over a short period of time, however, the various agitators united around a common theme– first, opposition to the monarchy itself and promotion of the establishment of competing institutions of social power (the Legislative Assembly) and later, the wholesale destruction of the monarchy and nobility as a threat to the revolutionary movement.
What is fascinating about this period is observing who the revolutionaries were. Not the members of the lynch mobs and other mass movements, but the members of the Legislative Assembly and other successive political bodies. These people were mostly current minor and major nobility, clergy, and many legal professionals and provincial politicians. The king’s own cousin, the Duc d’Orleans, was one of the leading revolutionaries (until he was guillotined in the ensuing hysteria of the Revolution) whose residence in Paris was a hotbed of anti-monarchic intellectualism and activity.
Although Paris fishwives drove the cannon to Versaille, none sat in the Legislative Assembly. Though artisans and other manual laborers helped tear down the Bastille, none spoke in the National Convention. And while peasants were recruited for the revolutionary militias to fight counter-revolutionaries foreign and domestic, no peasant’s son was a member of the Directory.
The revolution lost
The murder of Louis XVI, his wife and many of his ministers marked the physical end of the monarchy and the dawn of an elite civil war which culminated in the submission of the Republic at the feet of an even more powerful central authority, the military dictator and self-styled emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. With the legitimacy of power itself questioned by the revolution, it seems only natural that the logical outcome would be a series of murderous battles for power ending in the dominance of a military figure.
As I read the book and watched one “patriot” after another turn on each other and seek the shedding of blood as a solution to all crises and recriminations I wondered how much of the paranoia was sincere versus concocted to serve a short-term political purpose. Although launched by out elites originally, the Revolution created no stable platform for the in elites to control and thus the political competition intensified dramatically. The constant accusations of foreign plots and emigres counter-revolutionary schemes at times seemed constructed and artificial, yet the universalist tone of the French Revolution and the intermarriage of European political elites across national boundaries meant there were good reasons why foreign outsides wanted “in”, too.
One of my biggest challenges with this book is my inability to pronounce French words and names, and my limited understanding of many of the French terms and locations introduced, many of which I was unsure if they were properly defined before being relied upon in the narrative. For example, the term “ci-devant” was used in nearly every chapter, sometimes multiple times, but when I looked it up in the index for its first instance I saw no way to define the term other than a better reading of context than I had. I realize I should’ve looked it up right away, it refers to a “reactionary” political person and in the context of the French Revolution connoted an elite who resisted the changes brought about. This is a good example of the value of HTRAB’s suggestions of focusing on key language an author uses to make his arguments and studying the usage itself!
Relatedly, I struggled to keep track of all the major figures of the period, and there were many in part because this period convulsed much of French society but also partly because so many met grisly ends and had their responsibilities taken up by another who in turn became prominent in the proceedings.
Something I really enjoyed about Schama’s writing was its referencing of artistic works of the period which illustrated the events. It’s not so much that I am a simpleton who prefers words to pictures but rather, I felt the selection and abundance of imagery served to capture the mood and subtleties of various moments that are hard to appreciate in just reading about them. Especially interesting from this standpoint are the various “ideal imagery” commissioned by the revolutionary government to celebrate fallen heroes. The way these people are depicted, the details emphasized, the details left out and the obvious attempt to actively control the moral tone of events demonstrated the important role forms of propaganda played in elevating one faction and lowering another as the civil war raged on. The fetishism of the Roman Republic and its heroes and martyrs was also telling and very Rousseauian in the sense of idealizing noble savagery.
Is it not obvious that a revolution is betrayed by obsessing about the establishment of norms and structures which belong to the past?
I believe Simon Schama wanted to demonstrate that the Revolution was not spontaneous and grassroots, but an elite phenomenon, thus satisfying my curiosity. I think he also was concerned with highlighting the violence of the Revolution as a necessary part and logically-connected to its ideals, rather than something that was a minor theme or an unsightly outlier aspect. In both of these efforts, I believe he succeeded. I think I would’ve gotten much more out of this book if I had done more to “make it my own” as I read it. That being said, I enjoyed the read overall and found it truly terrifying contemplating how violent things can become when the out elites give up on working within the system. This was a strange observation for me to make because I don’t think of myself as a defender of the status quo or anxious to see a measured pace for reform and political change– just the opposite. I found myself wondering “which side” I would’ve taken, and what I might have done to ensure I survived to the end!
by Andrew Roberts, published 2015
I’ve long been fascinated by political revolutions, where they come from, how the unfold, whether they’re effective in actually changing the social organization of the society which experiences them. But I have not spent as much time studying reactions to political revolutions. Having read several books about the French Revolution, I decided it was time to study the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte. Going into my reading, the primary questions I had in mind were:
As I read Roberts’s lengthy and overall balanced biography of Napoleon — it’s clear he believes in the Great Man theory of history and would put Napoleon in that category, but he rarely engaged in hagiography and was ready to admit his foibles, though also quick to wave them away as typical of the time or typical of humanity in general — I also developed a few more questions:
Setting aside Napoleon’s personal energy, intelligence and social talents, a large part of his rise appears to be attributable to timing and luck.
Rarely in military history has there been so high a turnover of generals as in France in the 1790s. It meant that capable young men could advance through the ranks at unprecedented speed… having been on leave for fifty-eight of his ninety-nine months of service — with and without permission — and after spending less than four years on active duty, Napoleon was made, at twenty-four, a general.
Surely it takes exceptional talent to even be considered for such a promotion at such a young age. But just as surely, Napoleon would not have been in a position to see and do the things he saw and did, when he saw them and when he did them, had this condition not existed by which he could achieve such a promotion at such a young age. The text doesn’t state whether any other generals were appointed at such an age around the time Napoleon was but it doesn’t matter– it is not to say that a “Napoleon” was bound to arise in such conditions, but only that it’s hard to imagine the Napoleon arising without such conditions.
And this luck or timing factor is a double-edged sword which can also help to explain his rapid political decline:
Many of the phenomena of Napoleonic warfare that had been characteristic of his earlier campaigns — elderly opponents lacking energy, a nationally and linguistically diverse enemy against the homogenous French, a vulnerable spot onto which Napoleon could latch and not let go, a capacity for significantly faster movement than the enemy, and to concentrate forces to achieve numerical advantage for just long enough to be decisive — were not present or were simply impossible in the vast reaches of European Russia. The Russian generals tended to be much younger than the general Napoleon had faced in Italy — averaging forty-six years old against the French generals’ forty-three — and the Russian army was more homogenous than Napoleon’s. This was to be a campaign utterly unlike any he had fought before, indeed unlike any in history.
Whereas in his early political and military career all of Napoleon’s strengths proved to be an uncannily perfect fit for the weaknesses of his opponents, the environmental factors shifted such that Napoleon faced a political-evolutionary dead end. Having mistook his earlier luck for fate, he mismeasured (or was simply unaware of) the enormous risks he was taking in this new, hostile environment and committed himself in such a way that he was doomed to be defeated.
Napoleon’s record as a social reformer is similarly mixed and confused. Although he rose to power supported by the burgeoning middle classes of France by vowing to defend the redistribution of Church and aristocratic property confiscated during the Revolution, Napoleon put in place a confusing and economically regressive system of managed trade (internal and external) known as his “Continental System” which was an intellectual continuation of the mercantilist Colbertism of the French monarchy, which was aimed at disrupting the trade economy of Great Britain and thus its willingness and ability to fight but which ended up proving more aggravating and ruinous to those same middle classes, as well as the economies of various French political allies.
France had reached only the level of industrialization that Britain had enjoyed in 1780, an indictment of revolutionary, Directory and Napoleonic economic policy and the Colbertism they all followed. ‘I never saw him reject a proposition that was aimed at encouraging or supporting industry,’ recalled Chaptal.
The Continental System was truly byzantine, an irony given that the multitude of taxes and trade regulations put in place by the French crown prior to the Revolution bred a nation of smugglers and tax evaders which sowed social instability and a lack of respect for the crown’s authority:
Different types of licenses costing different amounts authorized different companies from different departments to trade in different prescribed commodities with different foreign ports. The rules were constantly changing, seemingly capriciously, with endless clauses and sub-clauses covering every likely combination and permutation.
How could Napoleon’s regime achieve stability under such economic conditions induced by this policy? In fact, Napoleon specifically “rejected the idea of competition and free exchange as positive phenomena”, a formula almost guaranteed to produce conflict at home and war abroad. A zero-sum world is inhabited by predators and prey alone. Combined with Napoleon’s reckless and nearly constant warfighting, the French economy was very nearly wrecked, as evidenced by the fact that “at his best, he was forced to borrow at higher rates than Britain at its worst.” The upkeep of the military and the logistics of fighting far from home had a devastating effect on the finances of Napoleon’s state.
Napoleon put in place a system of mulcting conquered territories via “contributions” which were to help offset the costs of the wars. He also forced occupied territories to pay for the provisioning and billeting of troops. Despite these policies, Napoleon had to raise taxes and customs duties at home and engage in egregious borrowings. Rather than being a profit center, the wars were a weight around the neck of French society:
The war did not pay for the war, but only for 60 per cent of it, with the remaining 40 per cent being picked up by the French people in various other ways.
This problem was exacerbated still further by deploying this capital to fight wars of conquest in economically backward locales, such as Egypt:
the country had no watermills and only one windmill… [Napoleon and his savants spent time pondering questions such as] could Nile water be made drinkable; were watermills or windmills better for Cairo; [could they] teach Egyptians the benefits of wheelbarrows and handsaws?
And despite this incredible expense, nearly every one of his campaigns finds Napoleon writing letters to his quartermaster demanding basic provisions for his troops such as shoes (and terrible necessity given the thousands of kilometers his troops would travel on foot), adequate food and medicine. If the Napoleonic state couldn’t adequately provision its soldiery, the political backbone of the regime, how could it ever hope to innovate and reform its domestic economy?
Clearly, Great Britain got the better of the bargain in pursuing a policy of subsidizing proxy combatants:
In 1794 payments to allies amounted to 14 per cent of British government revenues… Although the grand total of GBP65,830,228 paid to France’s enemies between 1793 and 1815 was astronomical, it was markedly less than the cost of maintaining, and then fielding, a huge standing army… In 1815 alone, Britain subsidized no fewer than thirty European Powers.
The cost of war on French society, on any society, is not just financial. It is primarily physical, and it is truly horrible to behold as the nuances of warfighting are catalogued throughout the book in excruciating detail:
‘Everyone was scratching [due to the scabies mite],’ recalled a veteran, and one report to the Committee of Public Health stated that there were no fewer than 400,000 scabetics in the army. Napoleon later set up special hospitals for them during his campaigns [which he himself contracted earlier in his career].
Meanwhile, the battles and sieges, far from being conducted with a gentlemanly honor, routinely inflicted mass casualties on civilian populations caught up in the mix:
Genoa surrendered on June 4, by which time around 30,000 of its 160,000 inhabitants [almost 25%!] had died of starvation and of diseases associated with malnutrition, as had 4,000 French soldiers…”If one thinks always of humanity — only of humanity — one should give up going to war. I don’t know how war is to be conducted on the rosewater plan” [Napoleon later said].
The failed march on Russia in 1812 is later described as an “equinocide” in which literally tens of thousands of horses, almost the entire stock of France and the German States at that point in time, die of exposure, starvation, disease and battle. The waste of capital and life even before the dawn of mass warfare is staggering to behold for a person who loves civilization and peaceful trade.
While his early campaigns seem driven by ambition and his middle campaigns seem driven by a strategic belief in attacking as defense, his latter campaigns seem defensive and desperate. At a certain point, Napoleon realized his chance of a long reign was diminished the more he exhorted his state to fight. Unfortunately, his political status as an usurper and an upstart meant he had little realistic chance of a durable peace– his neighbors were committed politically to removing him from power and reinstating a monarchy. He antagonized them still further by placing his relatives on the thrones of various satellite states, but this was a further blunder in that many proved to be unreliable allies whose own search for power and permanence led them to follow policies contrary to Napoleon’s own desires. It’s hard to imagine a strategic environment where he would’ve been allowed to reign until his peaceful passing, at least so long as he pursued a disruptive domestic economic policy combined with an aggressive international trade paradigm that severely restricted the free flow of goods and services.
Far from a Great Man, then, we see Napoleon for what he mostly was– extremely intelligent and talented, yes, but subject to the same flaws and cognitive biases of all of us which led to numerous “unforced errors” which accumulated to the point of his downfall. Irrational loyalty to his spendthrift, cuckolding wife; doctoring public records to allow political prestige that was illegal; making up the results of democratic elections; being motivated deep down by a desire from childhood to be thought of as a historical figure. All the personal charm and the biggest library of wisdom and human experience in the world (Napoleon was a notorious bibliophile) couldn’t stop a person so hell bent at times on being their own worst enemy.
This “Life” was interesting to read in many ways and I found myself highlighting and underlining all manner of passages. It did get me to think more deeply about some of the questions I came to it with, as well as others that were raised along the way, but it didn’t succeed at getting me to fundamentally rethink any of my existing principles. And ultimately, although it demonstrated a great amount of research and personal expertise on behalf of the author and was pleasurable as a narrative at times, I found myself less inspired and moulded by this study of Napoleon than I had hoped to be and I doubt I’ll refer back to this title again in the future.
Was the American Revolution (and the War of Independence) a popular political movement?
After reading A.J. Langguth’s Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, it sure doesn’t seem to have been. With a total population in the colonies somewhere around 3 million, the patriots were only ever able to field a few thousand (and in total, a few ten thousand) men at arms in most of the major battles and the Congress was apparently not popular enough to convince the colonies to let it raise its own taxes to properly feed and clothe its army. Considering that the right of parliaments to levy taxes to pay for wars was a key aspect of British legal philosophy which had been developing for centuries since the Magna Carta, the inability of the Congress to avoid resistance to the issue of taxation to support the war effort appears to be as strong an indication as any that this was a minority struggle engineered by a crafty competing elite.
Given its lack of popularity, and the fact that many of those who were first agitating for the conflict had become wealthy by circumventing mercantilist trade laws in the colony (what we might crudely call “smuggling contraband”, much like a modern drug trafficker), the even more puzzling question is why they bothered to start it in the first place? Wouldn’t men like John Hancock have been better off collecting the monopoly rents granted to them by the system of restraints on trade in place which they so profitably worked around? Why were new laws like the Stamp Act, which would have only increased the profitability of their operations, the cause for a major escalation in the dispute between colonial citizens, their local (British-approved) magistrates and the Crown and British Parliament itself?
Unfortunately, “Patriots” doesn’t spend much time pondering or attempting to answer questions like that, which to me is a shame because the reason I bought the book was that both the title and the insinuations of many of the reviewers seemed to suggest it had some conspiratorial light to shed on this momentous historical series of events.
My expectations ran high in the initial chapters of the book. Langguth’s chosen motif, if it isn’t obvious, is to highlight a key personality in the chronological narrative in each chapter. He starts with “Otis”, “Adams” and then “Henry”, but quickly ventures off the rails with “Riots”, and “Politics” and eventually “Saratoga” and “Victory.” The first few chapters outlining some key legal and social goings on, centered primarily in Boston, are exciting, detailed and alive with the moment. The author succeeds again and again at painting a neat little portrait of each major player as they enter the stage such that you get a sense of their personality, their motivations and ambitions and some of their personal back story that helps to create a context for why they’re involved at key moments and why they might have acted as they did. He excels in these early parts at providing interesting data, economic, demographic and otherwise, that help the reader to draw inferences about the larger context of each disturbance, one of my favorite being that the British customs service (responsible for enforcing the system of tariffs that bolstered the mercantilist relationship of the mother country to its colonies) cost 8,000 pounds sterling to operate each year but only managed to collect 2,000 pounds sterling in revenues and fines. Considering the public and private corruption the customs service engendered, why bother with such a system if only to operate it at a 6,000 pound loss every year? It is a piece of data that leads one down many puzzling philosophical paths!
But as the conflicts in Boston move from the courthouses and legislatures to the streets and, eventually, the towns and fields of battle, the narrative structure loses its way. It becomes clear that this is a story that is much too complex to fit this “great personalities” framework and the author seems to willingly abandon it but not before introducing a cavalcade of new characters along the way without fanfare or suitable explanation. In one chapter, a teenage Alexander Hamilton pops his head in for a paragraph in the form of hoping for a war in a letter written to a friend in New York but we hear nothing from or about him until almost two hundred pages later and even then he plays a minor role seemingly mentioned only because of the narrative omniscience that he’ll mean more to American history at a later date.
Aside from covering some of the major struggles in Boston, Langguth talks about issues being debated in Virginia in the House of Burgesses. The rest of the colonies (11 out of the 13 total, mind you!) go essentially without mention in terms of their own internal problems with British authority culminating in their decisions to join an armed rebellion. They only pop in here and there when their representatives make some motion in the Congress, or one of their militia bands achieves some glory (or disgrace) on a battlefield somewhere. If you went off of Langguth’s telling alone, Boston was the only intellectual and politically active place in the 13 colonies and it somehow managed to drag all the rest of the population into a conflict that they had nothing to do with.
Equally puzzling is the intense focus on the military campaign in New England, centered around action in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York state. Though references are made several times to the “Southern campaign” and the “Northern army” engaged in key battles at Saratoga, Canada and elsewhere, it is almost as if there wasn’t a brutal, guerrilla war despite the colonial military campaign somehow abruptly concluding with Cornwallis’s entrapment and surrender in the Southern (Virginian) Yorktown. Now how on earth did Yorktown become decisive when the fighting all seemed to take place in New England?
There were a few takeaways that seemed clear to me. War and military combat is horrible and there is nothing glorious about it, not even when fighting (nominally) for political freedom. Descriptions of the bayonet charges, of men having their heads pulverized on impact by cannonballs, of the mutilations and amputations that are left after a major battle all made it clear that war is inhumane. Another takeaway was that war is not carried out by men shooting at each other on battlegrounds alone. Spying and intelligence gathering, bribery and loyalty-negotiation and even market forces are all things a commander needs to contend with. Finally, while I certainly don’t believe it is reasonable to expect men to be “better” than this anytime soon, it was fascinating to see how many of the various “Patriots” were what might be described as traumatized, ego-driven personalities who struggled vainly for glory and treasure and were willing to do violence because of these passions. It really got me thinking about how little conflict the world would be engendered by if it wasn’t populated by men willing to abandon their loving families for years on end to engage in oratorical parlors (Congress) or to carry out war and destruction for a little excitement (Hamilton, Washington, etc.).
One of my biggest frustrations with the book turned out to be the fact that over half of the book followed the military campaigns of the Revolution, but it was difficult and at times impossible for me to parse Langguth’s narrative to understand what, physically, was occurring on the battlefield and why. There are clearly reasons why men with rifles and cannon did what they did to defeat one another in those days, but it was rarely clear to me a.) what it was they were actually doing and b.) why they determined it to be advantageous. I know very little about how war is conducted, in this era or any other, and this author didn’t help resolve my veil of ignorance.
Note: I found this in my old accumulated notes and had it labeled as “abridged”. I am not sure if it is abridged or not, and if I did the abridging or someone else. A link to the full, original article can be found at LewRockwell.com, which is probably where I originally found it.
If We Quit Voting by Frank Chodorov, July 1945, abridged
The theory of government by elected representatives is that these fellows are hired by the voting citizenry to take care of all matters relating to their common interests. However, it is different from ordinary employment in that the representative is not under specific orders, but is given blanket authority to do what he believes desirable for the public welfare in any and all circumstances, subject to constitutional limitations. In all matters relating to public affairs the will of the individual is transferred to the elected agent, whose responsibility is commensurate with the power thus invested in him.
It is this transference of power from voter to elected agents that is the crux of republicanism. The transference is well-nigh absolute. Even the constitutional limitations are not so in fact, since they can be circumvented by legal devices in the hands of the agents. Except for the tenuous process of impeachment, the mandate is irrevocable. For the abuse or misuse of the mandate the only recourse left to the principals, the people, is to oust the agents at the next election. But when we oust the rascals, do we not, as a matter of course, invite a new crowd? It all adds up to the fact that by voting them out of power, the people put the running of their community life into the hands of a separate group, upon whose wisdom and integrity the fate of the community rests.
All this would change if we quit voting. Such abstinence would be tantamount to this notice to politicians: since we as individuals have decided to look after our affairs, your services are no longer needed.
There is some warrant for the belief that a better social order would ensue when the individual is responsible for it and, therefore, responsive to its needs. He no longer has the law or the lawmakers to cover his sins of omission; need of the neighbors’ good opinion will be sufficient compulsion for jury duty and no loopholes in a draft law, no recourse to “political pull” will be possible when danger to his community calls him to arms. In his private affairs, the now-sovereign individual will have to meet the dictum of the marketplace: produce or you do not eat; no law will help you. In his public behavior he must be decent or suffer the sentence of social ostracism, with no recourse to legal exoneration. From a law-abiding citizen he will be transmuted into a self-respecting man.
Would chaos result? No, there would be order, without law to disturb it.
But, let us define chaos. Is it not disharmony resulting from social friction? When we trace social friction to its source do we not find that it seminates in a feeling of unwarranted hurt, or injustice? Then chaos is a social condition in which injustice obtains. Now, when one man may take, by law, what another man has put his labor into, we have injustice of the keenest kind, for the denial of a man’s right to possess and enjoy what he produces is akin to a denial of life. Yet the power to confiscate property is the first business of politics. We see how this is so in the matter of taxation; but greater by far is the amount of property confiscated by monopolies, all of which are founded in law.
While this economic basis of injustice has been lost in our adjustment to it, the resulting friction is quite evident. Most of us are poor in spite of our constant effort and known ability to produce an abundance; the incongruity is aggravated by a feeling of hopelessness. But the keenest hurt arises from the thought that the wealth we see about us is somehow ours by right of labor, but is not ours by right of law. Resentment, intensified by bewilderment, stirs up a reckless urge to do something about it. We demand justice; we have friction. We have strikes and crimes and bankruptcy and mental unbalances. And we cheat our neighbors, and each seeks for himself a legal privilege to live by another’s labor. And we have war. Is this a condition of harmony or of chaos?
So, if we should quit voting for parties and candidates, we would individually reassume responsibility for our acts and, therefore, responsibility for the common good. There would be no way of dodging the verdict of the marketplace; we would take back only in proportion to our contribution. Any attempt to profit at the expense of a neighbor or the community would be quickly spotted and as quickly squelched, for everybody would recognize a threat to himself in the slightest indulgence of injustice. Since nobody would have the power to enforce monopoly conditions, none would obtain. Order would be maintained by the rules of existence, the natural laws of economics.
That is, if the politicians would permit themselves to be thus ousted from their positions of power and privilege.
I doubt it.
Remember that the proposal to quit voting is basically revolutionary; it amounts to a shifting of power from one group to another, which is the essence of revolution. As soon as the nonvoting movement got up steam, the politicians would most assuredly start a counterrevolution. Measures to enforce voting would be instituted; fines would be imposed for violations, and prison sentences would be meted out to repeaters.
It is a necessity for political power, no matter how gained, to have the moral support of public approval, and suffrage is the most efficient scheme for registering it; notice how Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin insisted on having ballots cast. In any republican government, even ours, only a fraction of the populace votes for the successful candidate, but that fraction is quantitatively impressive; it is this appearance of overwhelming sanction that supports him in the exercise of political power. Without it he would be lost.
Propaganda, too, would bombard this passive resistance to statism; not only that put out by the politicians of all parties — the coalition would be as complete as it would be spontaneous — but also the more effective kind emanating from seemingly disinterested sources. All the monopolists, all the coupon-clipping foundations, all the tax-exempt eleemosynary institutions — in short, all the “respectables” — would join in a howling defense of the status quo.
We would be told most emphatically that unless we keep on voting away our power to responsible persons, it would be grabbed by irresponsible ones; tyranny would result.
But the argument is rather specious in the light of the fact that every election is a seizure of power. The balloting system has been defined as a battle between opposing forces, each armed with proposals for the public good, for a grant of power to put these proposals into practice. As far as it goes, this definition is correct; but when the successful contestant acquires the grant of power toward what end does he use it — not theoretically but practically? Does he not, with an eye to the next campaign, and with the citizens’ money, go in for purchasing support from pressure groups? Whether it is by catering to a monopoly interest whose campaign contribution is necessary to his purpose, or to a privilege-seeking labor group, or to a hungry army of unemployed or of veterans, the over-the-barrel method of seizing and maintaining political power is standard practice.
This is not, however, an indictment of our election system. It is rather a description of our adjustment to conquest. Going back to beginnings — although the process is still in vogue, as in Manchuria, or more recently in the Baltic states — when a band of freebooters developed an appetite for other people’s property they went after it with vim and vigor. Repeated visitations of this nature left the victims breathless, if not lifeless, and propertyless to boot. So, as men do when they have no other choice, they made a compromise. They hired one gang of thieves to protect them from other gangs, and in time the price paid for such protection came to be known as taxation. The tax gatherers settled down in the conquered communities, possibly to make collections certain and regular, and as the years rolled on a blend of cultures and of bloods made of the two classes one nation. But the system of taxation remained after it had lost its original significance; lawyers and professors of economics, by deft circumlocution, turned tribute into “fiscal policy” and clothed it with social good.
Nevertheless, the social effect of the system was to keep the citizenry divided into two economic groups: payers and receivers. Those who lived without producing became traditionalized as “servants of the people,” and thus gained ideological support. They further entrenched themselves by acquiring sub-tax-collecting allies; that is, some of their group became landowners, whose collection of rent rested on the law-enforcement powers of the ruling clique, and others were granted subsidies, tariffs, franchises, patent rights, monopoly privileges of one sort or another. This division of spoils between those who wield power and those whose privileges depend on it is succinctly described in the expression, “the state within the state.”
Thus, when we trace our political system to its origin, we come to conquest. Tradition, law, and custom have obscured its true nature, but no metamorphosis has taken place; its claws and fangs are still sharp, its appetite as voracious as ever. In the light of history it is not a figure of speech to define politics as the art of seizing power; and its present purpose, as of old, is economic.
There is no doubt that men of high purpose will always give of their talents for the common welfare, with no thought of recompense other than the goodwill of the community. But so long as our taxation system remains, so long as the political means for acquiring economic goods is available, just so long will the spirit of conquest assert itself; for men always seek to satisfy their desires with the least effort. It is interesting to speculate on the kind of campaigns and the type of candidates we would have if taxation were abolished and if, also, the power to dispense privilege vanished. Who would run for office if there were “nothing in it”?
Why should a self-respecting citizen endorse an institution grounded in thievery? For that is what one does when one votes. If it be argued that we must let bygones be bygones, see what we can do toward cleaning up the institution so that it can be used for the maintenance of an orderly existence, the answer is that it cannot be done; we have been voting for one “good government” after another, and what have we got? Perhaps the silliest argument, and yet the one invariably advanced when this succession of failures is pointed out, is that “we must choose the lesser of two evils.” Under what compulsion are we to make such a choice? Why not pass up both of them?
To effectuate the suggested revolution all that is necessary is to stay away from the polls. Unlike other revolutions, it calls for no organization, no violence, no war fund, no leader to sell it out. In the quiet of his conscience each citizen pledges himself, to himself, not to give moral support to an unmoral institution, and on election day he remains at home. That’s all. I started my revolution 25 years ago and the country is none the worse for it.