“Picture a country at the height of its international power and prestige. It has military forces stationed around the globe. It is an intellectual leader….” It’s not the one you’re thinking of.
Picture a country at the height of its international power and prestige. It has military forces stationed around the globe. It is an intellectual leader. Its citizens are pleased to insist that the national idea, their country’s way of life, is a beacon of enlightenment and human rights for the rest of the world. Indeed, they are wont to harp on the notion that the country embodies the very concept of Western Civilization.
But beneath the façade of greatness there is creeping rot. The rich (who are accustomed to getting their way in all things) corrupt the system and buy the people’s representatives in this venerable democracy. The country lurches towards political polarization and, predictably, the machinery of orderly governance becomes gridlocked. The politicians of the right, who take every opportunity to bellow for increased spending on the military, refuse to raise the revenues to pay for it. Why?
Because the wealthy citizens who happen to own these representatives refuse to pay a single cent in additional income taxes. Their class solidarity as alleged “‘job creators”‘ who are owed unconditional deference outweighs their loyalty to the nation at large. They successfully demand that even the crushing expense of a long war should be paid for by loans from abroad (the interest payments on which merely add to the expense) rather than by direct taxes from those citizens best able to afford them. Naturally, a growing share of the population develops a visceral sense that the system is rigged.
There is worse to come. There gradually coalesces a bitterly reactionary political alliance between the plutocratic rich; a retrograde religious Right seeking to roll back the secular state; hidebound militarists; and the species of glib, pseudo-intellectual malcontents who are drawn to political extremism like iron filings to a magnet. They all seek a purported restoration of a country that never existed: a pious, socially harmonious nation where everybody else knows their place. The political groupings of the center and left, on the other hand, are dithering, irresolute, and have not the courage of their own alleged convictions.
This uncomfortably familiar-sounding litany of social dysfunction actually refers to the French Third Republic (1870-1940). One of the most informative, and for English-speaking readers, popularly accessible accounts is still William L. Shirer’s magisterial “The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940.” Shirer, although a sentimental Francophile himself, delivered a damning indictment of the pathological tendencies of the Third Republic. The immediate cause of the stunning German breakthrough at Sedan in May 1940, and the subsequent French surrender, may simply have been defective military technique. To Shirer, however, the deeper cause was a depressed national morale fostered by political polarization, governmental gridlock and an upper class that had psychologically seceded from the country.
Shirer’s account of the Republic’s efforts to put its finances in order after the enormous expenditures of World War I bears an eerie resemblance to the current farce in Washington. There was a theoretical limit on what the Bank of France (a privately held entity like the Federal Reserve) could advance to the government that was much the same as the statutory debt limit in the United States. This was no problem for the conservative Poincaré government: the breech was committed, and went unremarked in the press. But when the moderately left-of-center Herriot government breeched the same limit, a cacophony arose about fiscal irresponsibility. And when the Herriot ministry sought to redress this fiscal crisis with an overdue levy on France’s wealthy, the cacophony became a firestorm in the plutocracy-owned media. Herriot’s proposed solution also met with blackmail: the possessing class threatened to expatriate its capital in the manner of the present-day American tycoon who incorporates himself in the Cayman Islands or Singapore.
Several of the French overclass proceeded to attack the basis of parliamentary democracy itself. François Coty (of the perfume fortune) bought the mildly conservative Le Figaro and turned it into an extremist rag, while later pouring millions of francs into right-wing anti-parliamentary movements, some of them overtly fascist paramilitaries. When the moderately socialist government of Léon Blum was elected in 1936, the estrangement from France of much of its millionaire class and the right-wing groups they supported was such that they adopted the slogan “Better Hitler than Blum!” Their preference for a German dictator who had spoken and written for 15 years about his unshakable determination to militarily subjugate France to a government that had proposed a 40-hour work week requires no further analysis. When the German panzers broke through at the River Meuse and France fell, many of France’s better sort were not unduly discomfited. The next year, the racing season at Longchamp carried on much as before, with Paris’s high society turning out in all its finery.
Consistent with its penchant for creating its own reality, the American Right is fond of fabricating quotes about the way the world works. A creative variant is when the Right attributes such quotes to famous historical figures to give the words an aura of timeless sagacity. One such chestnut is this: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largesse out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.” This quote has been variously “credited” to Benjamin Franklin and Alexis de Tocqueville, among others. Its actual origins appear to be no more exalted than the opinion page of the Daily Oklahoman of December 9, 1951. But it accurately distills the right-wing conceit about the cause of decadence in democracies.
A compelling counterexample to this “wisdom” about how the rabble with its boundless sense of entitlement supposedly destroys democracy is furnished by the French Third Republic. In that country, the native plutocracy, and the corrupt reactionary politicians who did its bidding, refused to act as citizens bound in patriotic duty to give as well as take. They meanly betrayed the majority of their countrymen and left the nation – once the world’s inspiration as the cradle of the rights of man – a squalid dictatorship.
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