Bastille Day: Gothic Reflections

by Elias Blum

Today is the 223rd anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, one of the most dramatic and symbolic events of the French Revolution. Those of us who were schooled in the anti-revolutionary assumptions of British education were probably taught that the French revolution was singular moment of financial crisis and misplaced hope that soon collapsed into tyranny, the terror and war. The lesson we are supposed to learn was this: fear God, honour the Queen, revere the ancient laws despite their absurdity, do as you are told, mind your own business, be thankful for your lot whether great or meagre, and be suspicious of well-meaning people with principles. “Principles, dear boy, lead to guillotines.”

Of course it is true that the French Revolution led to terror and war. Yet it need not have done. The first French Constitution, of 1791, was radical in its way. It abolished feudal and clerical privileges, created a unicameral Parliament elected on a wide (although far from universal) suffrage, enshrined the rule of law, the rights of citizens, and the independence of the judiciary, and established a limited and constitutional monarchy, in which the King would be a little more than symbolic figurehead while responsible Ministers governed in conjunction with the Parliament. If Louis XIV has been a bit less of a stick-in-the-mud, and had a better sense of his own interest and the interest of his dynastic successors, he could have kept his oath to the Constitution, resigned himself to the life of a constitutional figurehead, and saved France and Europe from years of pain. But he had no such intention. For him, it was quasi-divine absolutism or nothing. He conspired against the Constitution, violated his oath, and lost his head. This unleashed the next stage of the revolution – the Republic of the Enlightenment, with its brutal attempt to obliterate all the remnants of the civilisation of medieval Christendom, even down to renaming the days of the week.

The republic gave way to the plebiscitary-military dictatorship of Napoleon, who became ‘Consul for Life’ in 1802. Yet Napoleon’s rule, for all its faults, left France with two great and enduring institutions: the Civil Code and the Council of State. These gave the French state an administrative regularity which protected equality under the law and defended the rights of citizens from arbitrary power.

In 1814 the precariously restored monarch, Louis XVIII, granted a Constitutional Charter. This was more timid and conservative than the Constitution of 1791. The king retained important personal prerogatives and was expected to take an active role in governing. A Chamber of Peers, consisting of hereditary aristocrats and peers nominated for life from amongst the ‘great and good’ of restoration society was created to act as a bridle on the power of the elected Chamber of Deputies. The electoral franchise was narrow: essentially, only rich landowners could vote, and only very, very rich landowners could be elected. Yet the Charter was also a monument to the permanent gains of the revolution. The Civil Code was retained. There was to be no return to absolutism. Feudal and clerical privileges were not restored.

The French revolution, the terror, and its aftermath, divided French society for a century, condemning the country to an unsettling oscillation of regimes. The restored monarchy collapsed in 1830, to be replaced by the ‘July Monarchy’, under a slightly more liberal Charter, with a marginally wider franchise.  This collapsed in 1848, giving rise to another failed republic, which in turn was replaced by another Napoleonic plebiscitary dictatorship.

It was not until 1875, with adoption of the Constitutional Laws of the ‘Third Republic’, that this long period of post-revolutionary division and instability was brought to a close.  In the pragmatic words of the ever-trimming politician Thieres, the liberal, moderate republicanism of the Third Republic was ‘the form of government which divides us least’. Although anti-revolutionary and anti-democratic elements persisted right up to the Second World War, most of the clerical right ‘rallied to the Republic’, accepting the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy, even if they did not like the anti-clerical revolutionary heritage which had created it. It was this period, incidentally, that saw the first appearance of the Christian Left in France, with the publication in 1894 of ‘Le Sillon’, a journal which sought to connect Catholicism with the workers’ movement and the political campaign for social justice.

Examining the ‘long nineteenth century; of French history, from 1789 to 1914 (ignoring the oscillations and the isolated data-points to focus on the ‘trend line’), the nature of the transformation is clear. In 1789, before the revolution, France was a feudal society, in which rights, liberties and privileges were heritable property. The state, for all its absolutist pretensions, was ‘parcelled out’ to barons and corporatations. The hand of the state was not heavy, but it was arbitrary and unjust: it bore down on the peasant, but protected the baron; it punished the dissident with severity, but was blind to the licentious misdeeds of corrupt courtiers. The privatisation of power was taken to such an extent that offices could be bought and sold, and farmed-out for profit. By 1914, all this had been overturned. The private privileges of barons were replaced by the universal rights of citizens. The Republic had become a truly ‘public entity’ (res publica) – not, as previously, the personal patrimony of any individual, nor cut up and sold off for the profit of a wealthy few, but instead a collective enterprise of the whole citizenry, exercised through parliamentary institutions, a code of universal laws, and a professional civil service.

Looking back at the gains of the French Revolution through the lens of the 2008 financial crisis – and all that has led up to it, and flowed from it – I am struck by the sense that we are living in the midst of what Chris Baldick, a scholar of Gothic literature, called a ‘historical reversion’.

As I look around this country, at the rows of boarded-up shops, the To Let signs, the grey concrete buildings and the anxious, careworn faces of the people, it seems if if there is a great darkness in our midst, a blood-sucking force sapping our vitality. Reflecting on this, I am forced to confront, in Baldick’s words, ‘the nagging possibility that the despotisms buried by the modern age may prove to be yet undead’. Thanks to the effects of thirty years of neo-liberalism, the gains of the French Revolution are being squandered. We are stumbling into a new feudalism, where hard-won universal rights are once again transformed into tradable privileges, and where a new corporate baronage holds us in thrall. The vampires of a decadent, corrupt, evil past have come back to life to torment us again. The monsters we once though to have been slain by our ancestors have returned, in mutilated and modernised form, to stake their claim to ancestral rights, and to drive us all back to the slum, the sweatshop, the workhouse and the serfs’ chains.

The cult of neo-liberalism is gothic in itself. It is based upon the superstitious, idolatrous worship of ‘market forces’. Its holy orders of economists chant the repetitive mantra of ‘privatise, cut, deregulate’, and hide beneath their expert cowl a wanton, heedless lust for the alchemical elixior of ‘perpetual growth’. Safe within the walls of their generously-endowed enclosures, they preach the duty of obedience and submission to the innocent, ravaged villagers. “If only you will appease the market vampire,” they say, “if only you will take a pay cut, extend your hours, forgo your benefits, pay more taxes – then perhaps you will be spared.” Most fall for it. After all, the alternative, like Greece, Spain, Italy and Ireland, is to have your blood sucked out.

Neo-liberalism puts nothing above the market-orientated ‘choices’ of self-seeking rational egoists. It never challenges whether to be self-seeking is ethical. Indeed, it derides any such appeal to ethics, to notions of the ‘Common Good’, or social justice, or even the ‘good life’. Neo-liberalism proclaims, with Hobbes, there is no ‘good’ only ‘utility’. We are taught to see ourselves not as people, but as commodities to be sold, and as ‘human resources’ managed, and to see others not as our fellow brethren, but as competitors or tools in the endless struggle for advantage. It opens the  door to an economy devoid of all restraint. It sees nothing wrong the poor selling their kidneys to the glutinous rich. It only seeks to find ways in which to profit by speculating on the kidney futures market. The morality of the transaction cannot be challenged, so long as there the theoretical right of ‘freedom of contract’ is preserved. “Can’t pay your bills? Facing eviction? Your fault, should have sold a kidney.”

As a consequence of this rejection of the Common Good, neo-liberalism is inevitably opposed the ‘res publica’ – that is to the principle that the democratic collective action of all can – and must – counteract and restrain the private powers, privileges and dominion of the few. Its approach to the body-politic is essentially parasitic: it loves to get its fangs into the state, and to turn the state – through lobbying, and special interest legislation intended to defraud the public – to its own monstrous ways. So now we have private prisons, and private prison companies lobbying for the increase in sentences for minor crimes, so that their dungeons can be filled. We have private healthcare companies buying up chunks of the National Health Service, sucking blood out of the system to swell their own veins.

Now, 223 years after the French Revolution, the state is no longer a ‘res publica’, or ‘common-weal’. It is no longer a collective entity of fellow-citizens coming together to provide for their common good. Instead, it has become an instrument for the peddling of private advantage – a tradable commodity, put up for sale to the highest bidder. Just as feudalism privatised and personalised power, so the corporate baronage can now buy public powers and exercise them, as corporate fiefdoms, for their own profit. With the powers of the ‘good king’ (i.e., the democratic state) neutralised, the corporate barons are free to exploit us with impunity: the obedient serfs get a minimum wage job, lucky them, while the corporate barons get the profits.

Just as we needed a revolution in 1789 to end feudal privileges, we now need a similar legal revolution to end corporate privileges. We need to reassert the priority of the democratic state, the res publica of citizens, over their corporate baronage. In my mind I see an image of the storming of the Bastille, the Sans Culottes rising against the dark castle, its gothic stones symbolic of violence, injustice, blood and oppression. The image looks strikingly similar to a Hammer Horror portrayal of a group of brave villagers, rising en-masse to hunt down the aristocratic vampire that terrorises them and to drive a stake, once and for all, through his cold heart.

So, on this Bastille day, let us join in singing the universal hymn of liberty. As we do so, let us proclaim our attachment to the values of the Republic. Let us – in our speaking, our voting, our organising, our peaceful and lawful protest – tear down the strongholds of vampiric power. Let us challenge the self-serving superstitions of the neo-liberal economists with a clearer gospel of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

Aux armes, citoyens
Formes vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!