The tides of democracy and dictatorship…..
I have often pondered the swirling of political democracies and dictatorships through time and what hastens the momentum that unleashes such change. It can seem all it takes is a spark to set the pendulum in motion but often change is a melting pot simmered to boiling. For all our tinkering at the edges to make society work, surely how the people are represented and considered is one of the most fundamental to a good life.
‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ was the chant that could be heard during The French Revolution as the people rose up to overturn the monarchy and a constraining feudal system. A consequence of a confluence of events that had caused widespread unhappiness in France in the late 17th Century. The simmering pot of change overflowing.
King Louis XVI, the reigning monarch and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, lived extravagant lifestyles, bankrupting the French Treasury in the process. Their callousness was pitted against a backdrop of droughts, poor harvests, poverty, escalating food prices and a booming population. With no thought for the suffering of their people, taxes were raised stoking the embers of resentment. Initially the people responded by striking, looting and rioting but as anger seeped into bones, the homes of tax collectors, landlords and nobles were burnt to the ground.
In 1789 in order to address the dire financial straits of the country, the King convened the Estates — General of approximately 1200 individuals, coming together for the first time since 1614. This was an Assembly that represented France’s clergy, nobility and middle and peasant estates. In those times the estate to which you belonged conferred various rights, fostering seething tensions within the Assembly. The first estate, the Church, representing 10,000 people owned 6% of the land yet paid no taxes. The nobility numbering c400,000 owned approximately 20% of the land and operated feudal rights which included the gathering of taxes from the third group of the Assembly, the lower class. This third group of the Estates — General represented more than 98% of the French population but could still be outvoted by those who constituted the remaining 2% — the Church and the nobility.
In the lead up to this convention, the middle and peasant class pressed for equal representation in the Assembly so that each person carried a single vote rather than each estate carrying a single vote (the noble veto). Ugly eruptions ensued as the Church and nobles did not want to give up power. In June 1789, the Estates — General was renamed and reformed by the third estate into the National Assembly, grudgingly accepted by the King. Violence and insurrection continued to rack the capital with the famous July 14th storming of the Bastille fortress in Paris, a symbol of the monarchy, as the populace attempted to gather arms.
In August 1789, The National Assembly abolished feudalism and committed to replace it with a system based on equal opportunity, freedom of speech and representative government. As the months carried on, the Assembly grappled with the development of a written Constitution for the governing of the country of which the first version gave the King power to appoint and veto ministers. This did not sit well with the likes of extremists such as Maximilien de Robespierre. He wanted to create a united France and jostled for the trial of the King who by that time had tried unsuccessfully to flee the country further fanning anger towards him. In August 1792, the King was arrested by insurgents (Jacobin’s, left wing revolutionaries). Waves of violence followed where insurgents fought counter revolutionaries. The Assembly was replaced with The National Convention which proclaimed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the French Republic.
King Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine in January 1793 for crimes against the state and his wife Marie Antoinette followed 9 months later. Despite these acts, violence persisted. In 1793 the Jacobins took control of the National Convention attempting to abolish Christianity. Under Robespierre a 10 month period of mass guillotining was unleashed in a period known as The Terror. It is believed over 17,000 people lost their lives as they were considered to be against the revolution. Tensions calmed with the execution of Robespierre who was regarded as obsessed with creating a perfect Republic no matter the human cost. A more moderate time was ushered in.
In 1795, the National Convention approved a new constitution, laying executive power into the hands of a five member Directory. The army propped up the Executive and crushed dissent in the populace. It was led by a charismatic General named Napoleon Bonaparte who slowly subsumed more power. In 1799, Bonaparte abolished the Directory and appointed himself ‘First Consul’ (Emperor) of France escorting a period of dictatorship. And so ended the interval known as the French Revolution which is a fulsome example of how the swirling tides of democracy and dictatorship revolve.
When we look back through history and even to the present, we can see changes in how a country represents its people come about for many reasons. I’m going to generalise because the prevailing situation significantly impacts how such movements flow. Political extremism can encourage parties to change the terms of co-operation; power brokers no longer feel the on-going political system is in their interests. The populace determine they need involvement or want to devolve responsibility from frustration at the status quo or through political apathy. Revolutions can occur violently, by way of a slow stripping of democratic rights or mass political movements encouraging the political powers that change is also in their interests.
The truth is we are still learning about how the political tides move. We as subjects should be concerned about our representation because how we are spoken for and the choices we can establish are the basis for determining a good life. And if the past is any guide, that we should never take for granted. But sometimes as dwellers we are so absorbed in the day to day we don’t step back to view the shifting political pattern around us. Here in the UK we have had a dilution of judicial power and steps to reduce scrutiny of our politicians which at a micro level seem to have little implication for us, the citizen….but I wonder given history — should we be so complacent?