the following is an edited & expanded version of a response I gave to a friend during a very enlightening & intelligent discussion of the historical & ethical “meaning” of the French Revolution
as to Robespierre, I agree with you on him being a complex individual, but I don’t think he was a contradiction so much as someone who falsely believed human beings could control the development of history through compromise & constant action. He was too much theory without the introspection & introspection needed to put it into achievable action.
as to him behaving like a king or a god…. He never had as much power personally as the King did or even some of his ministers. He had to work with a powerful Comittee Of Public Safety & had to carefully juggle the needs/demands of the burgeoning proletariat & the newly empowered bourgeoises. Most of the actions that he took that contradicted his own moral & ethical beliefs he took because the People wanted them done, or at least the representatives of the People claimed it was what the people wanted or what the Republic needed.
I think his actions need to be put in context: France had just emerged, violently, from a nearly millinuim long tyrannical/feudal regime that effectively enslaved, maimed, starved & abritrarily imprisoned & killed millions over its existence. The Republic, whiche Robespierre & his compatriots, & many (but by no means all of course) of the people truly believed in, was born into immediate danger from the monarchies surrounding it & hoping to reenslave the people. Robespierre did some truly stupid & awful things, but he also set the example for a system that could aspire to rule in the name of the People instead of a the whim of one man’s, and his favorites, desires.
It of course did not work out the way it was intended, but that of course ascribes to the actors of the time a hindsight that no one possesses. Robespierre, in the end, went from being a theorhetician to a political actor, trying to preserve his ethics along the way. In doing so I think he found it was better to sacrifice his ethics for what he saw as the good of the people, & the survival of the Republican experiment.
Robespierre though, I believe sincerly, he was doing what was in the best interest of the public good & the good of the Republican system. Furthermore, he believed the Republicans system was essential to preserving the public good, to preserving any hope for a society not founded upon the divine right of kings or of the needs & rights of human beings be subordinated to the financial & social concerns of a miniscule, undeserving elite. We too often look at history as though it is a map leading us down a road to the inevitability of the present day. This is myopia common to Liberal, Conservative & Marxist historians, a failing we radical thinkers & actors should not shy away from admitting. It is one of the failings of Robespierre himself, a failure of imaginationm, of understand how there is not always one correct path. One thing Robespierre never lacked, however, was courage. One who was afraid to put his very life & morals on the line would never have written
It is time to designate clearly the purposes of the revolution and the point which we wish to attain: It is time we should examine ourselves the obstacles which yet are between us and our wishes, and the means most proper to realize them: A consideration simple and important which appears not yet to have been contemplated. Indeed, how could a base and corrupt government have dared to view themselves in the mirror of political rectitude? A king, a proud senate, a Caesar, a Cromwell; of these the first care was to cover their dark designs under the cloak of religion, to covenant with every vice, caress every party, destroy men of probity, oppress and deceive the people in order to attain the end of their perfidious ambition. If we had not had a task of the first magnitude to accomplish; if all our concern had been to raise a party or create a new aristocracy, we might have believed, as certain writers more ignorant than wicked asserted, that the plan of the French revolution was to be found written in the works of Tacitus and of Machiavel; we might have sought the duties of the representatives of the people in the history of Augustus, of Tiberius, or of Vespasian, or even in that of certain French legislators; for tyrants are substantially alike and only differ by trifling shades of perfidy and cruelty.
Is this the sentiment of a tyrant? Was Robespierre, he who desired no office or title more grand than Commitee Member & Citizen, he who died with little more than a meager pension & a pensioners flat to his name, was he this man out to “oppress and deceive the people in order to attain the end of [his] perfidious ambition”? I think not & I see no evidence in the historical record or in this man’s life or writings to justify condemning him to that political Tartarus inhabited by the likes of Stalin, the Borgia, Hitler, Ivan Grosny & so many more like them.
The Terror, that great, much maligined and mythologized means that has not yet reached a satisfactory end, was not a paranoid purge, or genocidal rage or even a spasm of revenge against a particular class. No, it was a fever in the body politik, the stupid, desperate, sublime, but most of all sincere striving of a people trying to understand & build an entirely new system. The Terror was no less than a cannibalistic attempt to purge itself of its own self-loathing & self doubt, the neurosis of people who had only ever known slavery & degredation. From this struggle was born the idea of The People as a dynamic, worthy force of history & nature. Nationalism, industrial militarism, and a new form of fascism were the deformed sibilings of this great moment of self-realization, but we must, as with anything else, take the good with the bad.
There is no dialectic without dialogue between our worst & best impulses as human animals. Today, we forgive violence that frees the slave, frees “markets”, and frees “hearts and minds”; why then can’t we seem to forgive the violence that midwifed our modern world, our contemporary praxis? It is with shame that one looks back on the violent, messy origins of oneself, ones’ being. It is no different for we post-modern People, we who live in the age which copes with the dirty secret of our own conception by mythologizing it, shrouding it in fantasy and telling ourselves, “that was then, that was they; now is better, we are who we need to be…” The lie of progress, the myth of outcome, excelsior, ever better, ever brighter…all the while more and more violence & terror is needed every year just to preserve the self-concious chaos we call the Modern World; more bloodshed & brutality than a hundred Terrors. I go back to the words of Robespierre, that man call, without irony, incorruptable
From all this let us deduce a great truth: the characteristic of popular government is confidence in the people and severity towards itself.
The whole development of our theory would end here if you had only to pilot the vessel of the Republic through calm waters; but the tempest roars, and the revolution imposes on you another task.
This great purity of the French revolution’s basis, the very sublimity of its objective, is precisely what causes both our strength and our weakness. Our strength, because it gives to us truth’s ascendancy over imposture, and the rights of the public interest over private interests; our weakness, because it rallies all vicious men against us, all those who in their hearts contemplated despoiling the people and all those who intend to let it be despoiled with impunity
If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs
Is this not the ethos, the creed, the moral gospel of the Modern age? The pivot upon which the contemporary world turns? Why do we continue to deny our birth, our origin, our founding creed? Is it not because we can no longer stomach the face we see reflected back at us by history’s mirror?
No More Nation States, for they are nothing but Kings without Crowns
No More Bankers, for they are nothing but thieves in $5000 suits
No More World Bank, for it is nothing but a caviar munching cartel
No More Austerity, for it is nothing but a scorched earth invasion without soldiers
No More Fascism, for it is the greatest perversion of politics ever conceived of by humans
No More Corporations, for they are Frankenstein Monsters assembled from the wealth of the People
No More Politicians, for they are nothing but a wall between The People and Power
No More Free Market Capitalism, for it is a death cult that feeds upon the dreams and labor and needs of humanity
No More Military, for the people can defend themselves
No More War, for it is just capitalism by violent means
This is A Coup!
And We Will Replace Austerity With Justice!
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Libertarianism and Democracy
Humanity may endure the loss of everything; all its possessions may be turned away without infringing its true dignity – all but the possibility of improvement.
–Johann Gottlieb Fichte
There are many who praise Liberty as the last best hope of humanity against tyranny, and I believe the come to this conclusion for the most part from a good faith point of view. They want to see justice done, and many genuinely believe that liberty is the way to achieve it for the greater human family. But the philosophy that sprang up around the concept of Liberty has lost touch with the original intent and meaning of the concept, and has joined the fetid ranks of self-justifying and essentially moronic political ideologies. To embrace absolute liberty is to embrace the animal fear that motivates the most disgusting and reprehensible pain we often inflict upon our fellow human beings. To believe in the truth, let alone the viability or possibility, of complete subjective liberty is a sign that one has lost their trust in and respect for the Social Contract. This fear leads to a sort of reaction in personal politics that amounts to an assault on the idea that there is anyone who can be trusted to keep the fear and the fearsome things in the world at bay. That is except for oneself. The abomination of fear based personal politics, as expressed through current libertarian thought, can be understood as a misunderstanding of the meaning of liberty as it relates to the Social Contract governing society and the betterment and general welfare of the same and the mechanisms and laws that allow for this…
“What we are witnessing is the closing of the American mind.” This not at all sanguine appraisal of the contemporary American condition is offered tonight by radio demagogue Mark Levin. This sage of American reactionary pedagogy is of course a corporate tool and shill for the capitalist establishment but that does not mean he does not have a certain understanding of the conditions underlying that problem that faces us today, albeit unwitting.
In a civil society you must have a moral order. Right versus wrong, good versus evil, just versus unjust, and means versus ends. They’re not the same thing, and when we talk about moral order, you must have a moral order to have a rule of law, for the free market to work, to advance national security.
This declaration of principles is an almost perfect elucidation of the reactionary capitalist doxa. The argument of Right and Wrong are a convenient dichotomy for those attempting to disguise their lack of moral authority. Compassionate conservatism (see compassionate capitalism) failed, globalized market based prosperity is a oxymoronic farce and supply side theology has been abandoned as the worst sort of wishful thinking by any capitalist economic theorist not wishing to be laughed out of the ivory tower. All that remains to the reactionary capitalist is the fantasy that what they do is for the Right against the Wrong; painting change as an intrinsic Wrong perpetrated against the “people”, in reality the consumer, the customer. Levin is also correct that there must be a moral order, or at least a beloved facsimile of one. This can be patriotism, or family values (actually Bible based Christian paternalist misogyny and authoritarianism), or the most potent, love for the free market. On that issue the American mind is indeed “closed”. Or at least it would appear at first glance.
The Now is the essence of the inevitable. What we experience and live on a moment by moment basis seems to demand the a priori acceptance of the conditions being experienced as inherent to existence. Or at least this is the case in the realm of societal evolution. The status quo is an addictive prospect and a potent intellectual narcotic. This is why it is so often drafted in the reactionary philosophy. “You must have a moral order to have a rule of law, for the free market to work, to advance national security.” Levin actually repeats himself three times in this sentence: the rule of law is the free market which is the main impetus and rational for the aggressive militarization of the police state and conversion of the military into a police apparatus known as National Security. “It’s a free country”, we are reminded by the political Right, their voice raising another octave. Of course, but freedom to what end? Freedom to consume? Freedom to choose where and when to consume? “Would you, sir, like to take the red train to hell or the green?” In an imperial system there is, by definition, no freedom. There cannot be. The peace maintained not for the proletariat but for those exploiting their needs and aspirations is the Pax Mercatus, the peace of the market. This peace of course is a false concept as it is in any imperially imposed idyll. Participate in the system or else allow it to drain you of life. But there then is the contradiction of freedom, the false choice; choosing to participate will just as surely drain you. So the peace, the inevitable, is the realization that life is as it is and there is no use in fighting that fact. At least you have some time and enjoyment while you are being drained! At least you get to ride the train. The freedom beloved by the people is the freedom to choose the method of their own exploitation, and of course even this is a false choice. Where do you hide in an all-pervasive system? How do you survive in a world of capital and greed by being poor and unselfish? You either consume or are consumed and of course the former is just a roundabout way of coming to the latter. So what is the moral order of the reactionary capitalist supporters? Inertia.
In his Discourses Machiavelli said
“Prudent men always and in all their actions make a favour of doing things even though they would of necessity be constrained to do them anyhow.”1
This is a delightfully pragmatic proposal that nonetheless exposes an insidious though essential aspect of the imperial capitalist system. The favour in this case is capitalist governmental structure’s maintaining the right to a stable and humane living through the fruits of one’s own labor. This labor is of course appropriated by the corporate system and the government whose main interest is in maintaining the capitalist power structure and divvied up the way this power structure sees fit. The tax structure in the USA maintains a token all but subsistence level “social safety net” and finances a full blown welfare system for corporate interests. This illusion of “prosperity” is the basis of the claim that the American system is the most successful and free in the world. The proletariat is given just enough to survive the work needed to maintain the system that keeps them in thrall to the corporate controlled government structure and just enough hope to motivate them into working beyond what is healthy or sane in order to grasp at an all but impossible future in the upper echelon of the class structure. Belief in this fantasy is inculcated in the population by an educational system, funded by the arbitrary tax value of property, that is increasingly maintained as a factory for creating minds ready and willing to participate in the capitalist market. Art, social studies, physical education or anything else that would lead to a rational mind and healthy body is eliminated in favor of class-biased standardized testing and even market based programs like “Sales”, “Business”, and “finance” classes. So in the end the “American Dream” is the appropriation of labor from the proletariat so that it may be given back to them in smaller and pre-determined allotments, minus the “surplus” needed to maintain th capitalist corporate welfare system that enforces the unending toil and exploitation required to make the proletariat create the wealth that can then be appropriated. No one ever said the capitalist system was not thorough.
This of course leads to the sublimation of any sort of proletarian activism or economic consciousness. “Hard work” is what leads to “success” but of course both concepts are arbitrary standards composed and maintained by a corporate business class that has a vested interest in cheap and overworked service workers. The American mind is not closing, as Levin argues, but is already sealed shut. For the majority of workers alienated from the means of production, the creation of capital, or the mechanisms of control there is no conceivable escape from this system. In fact any attempt by the leftist class conscious forces within society, where the in fact exist at all, is shunned and attacked by the working and middle classes as a dangerous affront against the system that gives them the chance to keep themselves “comfortable” and advancing towards the goal of entering the capitalist class of entrepreneurs and managers. As John Steinbeck said, Americans are not able to move beyond this vicious and exploitative cycle because in their own minds they are but “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” There is no better way to ensure servitude then to promise freedom.
National security is a key term to recognize and understand within the context of a global capitalist system. The national security state took hold as a seeming means unto itself around the time that the collapse of state communism left the capitalist authorities bereft of a raison d’etre relating to their increased militarization. The retardation of Communism was abandoned in favor of the expansion of the global free market. These concepts of course have essentially the same meaning; the maintenance of forces, systems, and circumstances that are friendly to exploitation of the local proletariat. The Pax Americana ended out of necessity so that the Pax Mercatus could rise, the latter being the post-national synthesis of multinational corporate capitalism with nationalistic imperialism. There is no locus of power beyond the financial centers and boardrooms of the corporate and managerial class. The entire world is feudalized and each human being owes a life-term of “hard work” to contribute to the capitalist system and its expansion.
Peace is needed for this sort of system to work, a certain sort of peace that preserves the prerogative of the market forces, which are of course merely the whims and wishes of the robber barons and multinationals. The multinational uses resources collected from the proletariat of the various industrialized nations in order to expand and maintain the status quo in regions of the world where democracy has not yet softened the desire of the proletariat to fight for a feature less assured but more humane in potential. The people of the industrial democracies do not dispute, for the most part, the choice of intervening in the affairs of “less developed” nations. This is because the potent mix of nationalism and xenophobia cultivated and stoked by the government and its reactionary tools in the media and cultural institutions. In this effort religion is less an opiate than a stimulant pushing society towards a violent hatred for and confrontation by proxy with the proletariat of another state. War is exported abroad in order to spread peace and prosperity at home. We are even told that through war will come peace, peace in the sort of way that only an un-wittingly exploited and placated democratic populace can comprehend. War is preferable to peace because peace would mean the inertia required to maintain the order would have more of a chance to be disturbed. Idle hands and idle minds tend to stray towards innovation or at least contemplation. Besides, as Lenin said
“a certain period of acute economic dislocation and chaos, which accompany all wars, and civil war in particular, is inevitable, before the resistance of the bourgeoisie is crushed”2
And the proletariat does not want war, it does not want upheaval and chaos and change. At least it does not think it wants it. Not yet at least. In this regard Levin is correct, but only by mistake. The American mind is closed, but that does not mean it cannot be opened.
- The Discourses, Machiavelli, Niccolo, trans. Walker, Leslie J, and Richardson, Brian, Penguin Classics Ed.
- 2. On The History Of The Question Of The Unfortunate Peace, Lenin, V.I., http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/jan/07.htm
25 years of madness dripped
From your gracious blade
You bore Napoleon
Wellington shed his tears
On the sword
Along with the crown on every
Hobgoblin monarch’s head
1 million bullets
Tore flesh from brittle
Nothing left for men to consign
To their pauper’s graves
A savage grace
Never came at such a cheap price
The bill came due to the highest bidder
Laughing as he reassessed his stake
Militant millipedes marching to the tune
Of a patriotic screams
And the cannonade
The bayonets and
The children’s fears
Of Boney man
And Gilly teens
And other such silly things
Nightmares of a generation born
From a Irish liar’s pen
Bash your head against the medieval walls
Break the siege with a wooden plank
Never keep headcheese past its date
Chew the cud and dance the pasa doble
They’ll shoot into the crowd either way
Rolling heads and cockades
Stumped on by a ingenuous King
One nation’s fury a dozen more’s
To let lose the hounds
Apres moi le deluge
Baying as the tide sweeps them away
As yet another Independence Day rolls around I’d like to propose a thought experiment:
It’s April 19th, 1774 and Edmund Burke gives a speech denouncing the Crown’s treatment of the American colonies:
Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it…. Do not burthen them with taxes…. But if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question…. If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face.
It’s April 19th, 1775 CE. The government of his Majesty King George III of the house of Hanover has decided to grant the Colonies representation in the Houses of Parliament. John Adams of Massachusetts (whose relation Samuel Adams has been imprisoned along with the leaders of the terrorist group “The Sons of Liberty”) along with Ben Franklin of Pennsylvania and James Madison of Virginia, with other representatives from the various colonies, are on a ship bound for England. A detatchment of British regulars led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith patrols near the towns of Lexington and Concord in Middlesex County Massachusetts Bay Colony looking for hidden “patriot” insurrectionist weapons and supply caches. The night before a group of rabble-rousers, including a silversmith named Paul Revere, were caught and imprisoned for attempting to promote rebellion against the British crown.
As the sun rises over Lexington a ragged group of colonists gather to meet the British Regulars. They carrying arms and military supplies. There is a stand-off. And then…The colonists drop their arms and supplies in a pile in front of the regulars, salute, and go about their business. They “patriots” have been betrayed, and the loyalists to the British crown have unilaterally decided to turn in the caches without a fight. The words of Edmund Burke ring true, and peace reigns throughout the American colonies.
But it gets even WEIRDER from there
In 1800 the Parliament votes on a bill introduced by newly elected delegate from Virginia Thomas Jefferson. The measure passes and the slave trade is abolished throughout the British Empire. The following year slavery itself is outlawed by another act of parliament, and all of the colonies, save for South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, comply. In response to this gross display of disunity and disloyalty, the British Army is dispatched to the southern colonies, backed by large numbers of colonial regulars from the North-East colonies. After a brief series of battles (in which the combined British and Colonial forces easily prevail against the rag-tag militia of slave owners and their paid mercenaries) the Imperial forces capture Charleston. Savannah falls a week later under threat of bombardment by the British Navy warships docked just offshore in the bay. British military governors are installed in the rebellious states and they implement the destruction of the slave economy of the southern states. It takes another years for the tensions to cool, but by 1820 the economy of the south has stabilized and the last remnants of the slave based aristocracy has been swept away forever.
But wait, there’s MORE
It is 1812 and the American Colonial army led by Andrew Jackson invades French held Louisiana and takes the city of New Orleans. In Europe Napoleon hears of this disaster just as he is preparing to invade Russia. He is forced to rethink his plans, and instead sends half the force back to France and other half he sends to relieve Louisiana. The British Navy surprise the French flotilla at Trafalgar and hem in the ships as they dock to resupply before the trek across the Atlantic to America. Napoleon is overthrown by his officers and a republic is declared. This new government sues for peace with Great Britain. In exchange for peace, the French Navy and army are reduced in size, and the Americans take over administration of the Orleans territory along with the Mississippi territory. This area later becomes the colony of Orleans. The British cement their grip on the continent by signing an agreement with the Western Indian Tribes united Under the great native leader Tecumseh. The lands West of the Mississippi and 3oo miles south of the Canadian territory are given over to Indian Administration under the protection of the Crown. Spain and her colonies are left to deal with the “Indian Problem”.
Need a moment to take this all in…
UH UH! We ain’t done yet!
It is 1860 and the American colonies are officially granted status as an autonomous but loyal Commonwealth of the British Empire. The CWA (Commonwealth of America) grants voting rights to poor whites, women, and blacks aged 21 and older. America elects its first Prime Minister and its first Independent Parliament. Queen Victoria is proclaimed head of State and the official anthem of the new Democratic Republic is “God Save the Queen”. War rages to the West between the faltering Spanish Empire and the vibrant and growing “Confederation of Native Tribes”. Within the decade the Spanish are expelled from America and the independent republics of Mexico, Texas, California and the Confederation vote to join the Commonwealth of the British Empire as well. There is a major movement towards greater freedom and representation throughout the Empire, and the parliament of Great Britain votes to withdraw all troops from the Indian Subcontinent after a brief transition period of 5 years. The various nations of the subcontinent gain various forms of autonomy and independence, and all choose not to join the Commonwealth. The last Indian state, Kashmir, declares Independence in 1901, as Queen Victoria dies in her bed.
PLEASE! Need a deep breath
But one final thing!
It is 2012. The past century has been a trying, but successful one. Germany, Imperial Japan and France were defeated by the British Empire and the Commonwealth of America in the “Great War”, and a general Pax Britannia reigns over most of the world. The Soviet Union rises in the east, but under the leadership of Premier Leon Trotsky it slowly but surely moves towards an enlightened Democratic Socialism. This political philosophy spreads across Europe and Asia, eventually reaching the shores of America. By 1970 the British Empire is dissolved in favor of a great Commonwealth of Independent Nations. Germany, France, and the Scandinavian nations eventually join, as does Italy, much of Africa and the territories of the former Ottoman Empire. Peace reigns across most of the world, and a pact of Mutual non-aggression is signed between the Commonwealth of Independent Nations, the nations of Hindustan and Persia, the Republic of China, The Empire of Japan, and the Soviet Union. This unified world of friends begins to push forward together to combat global climate change and deforestation, and in 2025 fossil fuels are banned as destructive to the world shared by all human beings.
THERE. All speculation of course, and not nearly a fully comprehensive, or entirely accurate, view of the world had the USA never gained independence, but a view nonetheless. It can be fun to think about what could have been, or what could still be. Happy Fourth of July.