What killed the Ancien Régime?

A reader might expect that before 1789: The Deciphering of an Absolute Regime France lives up to its subtitle and is a book on deciphering the old regime. Its author Jon Elster tells us that the book can be read as a long footnote to Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution (1856), and that is certainly a book about the protracted crisis of the old regime. His book is shaped by the need to understand the “transformation and collapse” of this regime. But unfortunately there is no transformation and no breakdown, there is no decryption here.

The book began, he tells the reader, as a study of the genesis of the American Constitution (1787) and the French Constitution (1791). But it grew. What we have now is the first volume of a trilogy: A Volume About America Before 1787: The Deciphering of a Colonial Regime Will Follow, and finally we will get the volume he originally intended to write, 1787 and 1789: The Making of Two Constitutions. Now it is quite possible that the discussion about the tedious decoding of the old regime appears in Volume 3; This seems unlikely, however, since this volume appears to be addressed to the years (in France) 1787-1791 and its purpose in this book was to “illustrate enduring features of the old regime”. So what we are actually getting is a study, not of dissolving, but of persistence, of things that went on as if they were immune to change.

So here we have a fundamental problem: this book that claims to be deciphering the old regime is actually about permanent features of the old regime, and a book on permanent features can, of course, “transform and collapse.” not treat properly. On the way from one project (a one-volume study of two constitutions and their creation) to a much larger project (a three-volume study of two revolutions), Elster seems to have become (I hesitate to say this). really confused about what he’s trying to do.

Explain collapse

If we turn to Elster’s account of Tocqueville’s book (in The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville), we learn that Tocqueville thought that the collapse of the old regime around 1750 was inevitable; it was just a question of what particular circumstances would trigger this collapse and how it would be dealt with. So a story of the dissolving would have to begin well before 1750, and it would show how the regime’s foundations had been imperceptibly eroded as the waves eroded a cliff until they finally fell. Of course, you can treat the cliff as a permanent feature until it collapses. But if you do, you won’t get any closer to the long-inevitable collapse.

Why did the old regime collapse, since its structure and functioning seemed permanent and immutable in many ways? That is the question. There seem to be two obvious lines of reasoning that one might want to use. The first, and certainly the easiest, is that it collapsed because it was built for war, but it was no longer able to successfully fund wars and as a result it began to lose them. It wasn’t because raising money got worse, but because other states got much better. So one would have to study the history of France during this period, for example alongside John Brewer’s The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (1989), and show how France failed where England was successful. In such a comparative study, the Seven Years War (1756-63) would likely mark the decisive turning point, although one could still fall back on the hopeless achievement of France given the rise of Prussia after 1740. But there is no trace of such comparative analysis in this book.

It may be that ideas are less important now; that in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Parler, gifs and memes are more important than facts and arguments. If so, our freedoms are at risk.

Aside from the fact that the French state has been overtaken by other, more modern states, it could be argued that it was slowly being undermined by the spread of Enlightenment ideas. Here we come to what is perhaps the strangest feature of this book: a complete failure to discuss ideas. Elster likes to write about what he calls “beliefs” (we could say assumptions and values), but not about ideas, these are the arguments and teachings that you find in books. In fact, he doesn’t discuss books at all. There is an obvious, extraordinary contrast here with Tocqueville, for Tocqueville devotes two important chapters to the ideas of the Enlightenment. And there is a remarkable distance from the recent discussion of eighteenth-century France: the text and bibliographic article, for example, do not contain a single reference to the work of the great historian of eighteenth-century France, Robert Darnton.

Why leave out ideas and thus books? Elster acknowledges that ideas can be of some importance, but notes that their effects are difficult to measure – one could reasonably protest that everything he discusses in this book is difficult to measure and certain aspects of the world of ideas (the Editions and prices (of books, for example) are actually quite easy to measure. The problem is more fundamental: it is that ideas do not fit into Elster’s project of describing human behavior in terms of rational and irrational decisions, which are believed to be of a universal nature. He discusses emotions in detail: The index (which I have to say by the way, is quite simply the worst index I’ve ever seen in an English-language academic book) indicates anger, contempt, enthusiasm, envy, fear, hatred, Hope, hubris, indignation, shame and sympathy. He makes fine distinctions between egoism and egocentricity, to name just one example. He even discusses arguing (defined as “conviction without the use of threats or promises”) and notes that it is difficult to gauge its importance, but that

However, it can be assumed that as with gatherings everywhere [note the slide by which books are implicitly excluded]Arguing sometimes resulted in the removal of a suggestion [note the preoccupation with choices] when it is shown to be Pareto inferior to another proposal (preferred by no one). As in meetings everywhere, some participants must have been sensitive to arguments ad hominem, in the sense in which Locke used the phrase, “to press a man with consequences arising from his own principles and concessions.” . .

But the book contains no trace of actual arguments or real debates. And on the subject of Enlightenment, of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Helvétius, etc., Elster (in fact there are passing mentions like the quote from Locke that we just saw) has nothing to say.

The importance of ideas

Let me now turn to a key example of this failure of analysis. In 1750 the state tried to tax the clergy. A work was commissioned to defend this policy: the Ne Repugnate by Daniel Bargeton (a work written in French despite its title). Shortly after it was published, the book (still in its first edition) was banned. A year later every pamphlet and book on the question of clergy taxation, for or against government policies, some forty in all, was banned and the government withdrew from its attempt to increase its authority. Elster claims that Ne Repugnate was “only published [in order] condemned, ”and this was intended to promote prejudice against the clergy among people who would never read the book.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that he actually read Ne Repugnate, which is an admirable example of what Tocqueville called “the dangers of pure theory”. Their argument is that government exists only to serve the happiness and well-being of the people. that when people enter civil society they do not give up any of their natural rights; and that privileges (like the privileges of the clergy) can only be justified if they serve the happiness and good of all. Bargeton admitted that on this basis it was difficult to defend the privileges of the nobility; Any intelligent reader would have understood that defending the crown’s privileges is just as difficult. Bargeton’s argument implied that subjects always have a right to revolution. It is an extraordinary text. If the government thought it would help their case, it can only be because a number of radical assumptions were so widely accepted that even the Crown thought it should pay them lip service.

The leaflet war of 1750-51 showed that the crown could not find a way to defend constructive innovations. Bargeton’s arguments were far too radical: they led directly to revolution. Conservative arguments trapped the monarchy in traditional structures that no longer worked. And the church, which has long supported royal authority, did not hesitate to attack the crown in defense of its own interests. The total ban on all publications dealing with this subject was an admission of the spiritual bankruptcy of the royalist position; It had become clear that any debate would only serve to undermine the regime. The waves had already cut away on the cliff; The regime was already on the brink of collapse. Indeed, 1750 was a turning point.

Bargeton’s text appeared in at least six editions after it was banned, was reprinted in at least four collections, and was extensively debated and attacked: as is so often the case, royal and papal condemnation (the work appeared in the index in 1751) only increased sales. The lesson readers learned from the condemnation was certainly not just (as a contemporary remarked) that the crown wanted to both appease the clergy and at the same time raise an argument against them; It must also have been that the Crown was ready to turn against its own supporters and was unable to offer a consistent defense of its own policies. Ne Repugnate and the royal condemnation stood side by side, promoting a simple fact: the Crown had run out of arguments.

In the years 1787 and 1791 ideas counted. They may be less important now; that in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Parler, gifs and memes are more important than facts and arguments. If so, our freedoms are at risk, because freedom requires cool heads and thoughtful thinking. “If every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates, every Athenian congregation would still have been a mob,” Madison wrote. The internet (I quote Jeffrey Rosen, who wrote in 2018) has created “virtual versions of the mob”; and now, in 2021, the mob is no longer just virtual. A comparative study of the American and French revolutions cannot possibly be successful without addressing the role of ideas in these extraordinary, catastrophic events. and such a discussion might perhaps help us understand the weakness of facts and arguments in our own political world.

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