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L'Ancien Régime Book II

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By:Thomas Fleming | January 31, 2011

 

In the second book, Tocqueville tries to demonstrate a double thesis, which may be summarized as: 1) The centralized authoritarian regime installed by the FR represents continuity with the old regime, not a break with the past, and 2) there is, nonetheless a qualitative difference between the benevolent busybodying of the Bourbons and the revolutionary and egalitarian take-over of private life in the Revolution.


AT lays his groundwork carefully.  He wants to show that the Revolution started in France, not because it was either more despotic or more impoverished, but precisely because there were so many land-owning peasants on whom the burden of taxes fell, causing them to hate the privileges of the aristocracy, who no longer were permitted to discharge their duties as responsible local magnates.  Local aristocrats no longer had administrative duties, he says, which were assumed by royal officials from the bourgeoisie.

Widespread property ownership began before and not as a result of the FR; indeed, he argues, it was a cause of the resentments that made it possible for the radicals to stage their coup in Paris.  "The French peasant had become a landowner, on the one hand, and, on the other, had completely freed himself from the dominances of his lord."  Thus he was acutely aware of aristocratic privileges.

In chapter two, he shows to what extent the centralization of the regime had replaced the old feudal political structures and paved the way for the FR's program of centralization.

By the 18th century, the powers to tax, maintain order, and provide public services were no longer vested in the historic municipalities that had secured charters in the later Middle Ages, but in royal officers appointed by the King and his ministers.  Even the needs of the poor had been centralized: "No one now had the legal duty of bothering with the poor in the countryside,  The central government had taken the foolhardy step of alone providing for their needs."

Tocqueville does concede that for a time "municipal freedom in France survived feudalism."  However, the royal government gained control over municipal offices and repeatedly sold them either to individuals or, for a fee, regranted municipal liberties only to reacquire and resell them.  In other words, it  was a fund-raising scam.

AT makes a general conclusion: "Almost every ruler who has destroyed freedom sought at first to keep its outward form.  This has been evident from Augustus down to the present day."  This general law is perhaps truer of the USA, where the genus of suckers known as conservatives is forever blathering about the Constitution, deluded by the pious references of the ruling class to that discarded document that all we need to make it morning again in America is to join Glen Beck in upholding a document that he of all people does not understand.  Augustus, to his credit, was trying to restore republican virtue and a measure of civil liberties to a society that had been destroyed by greed, class envy, and civil war.  What excuse the Americans have I cannot imagine.

Thus in the 18th century, certain outward forms of town government were maintained, but the reality was a network of tiny oligarchies that controlled local life under the authority of royal government.  Country parishes and towns did have opportunities and forums at which the people could blow off steam.  Thus, "When one compares this empty show of liberty with the genuine powerlessness which accompanied it, you, on a small scale, already see how the most absolute of governments can co-exist with some of the most extreme features of democracy, to such an extent that to this oppression is added the absurdity of being blind to its presence."

Anyone for tea?

(In II.4) One means of centralizing authority, used by the old regime but very familiar to us, was the transfer of judicial responsibility from traditional courts to a system of administrative law.  One effect of this transformation was to turn political contests into struggles over administrative control.  The administrators' thirst for power is almost always boundless, as is their contempt for the ability of ordinary people to run their own lives.  (II.6).  "What already typified French administration was the violent hatred it felt against all those nobles and middle-class citizens who wished to run their own affairs beyond the reach of teh government.  It was unnerved by the smallest independent body which appeared to want to come into being without its support.  The most modest free association. whatever its aims,was irksome to the authorities, which sanctioned only those they had set up arbitrarily and had control over."

One could cite countless examples.  Let one suffice.  The current belief, held fanatically by virtually everyone in government, that parents cannot be trusted to rear their own children or make decisions about their schooling.  The ideal solution, of course, is universal government schooling, but failing that private schools have to be licensed, regulated, and controlled, and independent-minded parents must be subjected to friendly visits from objective-minded experts who only have the child's best interests at heart.

Once again, I have to remind you all, that the Ancien Regime, while it interfered in the political process and regulated economic affairs, did not stick its nose into private life.  Even so, it used the technique, so familiar to us, of encouraging a bogus public "freedom of expression" to encourage the delusion that people free to discuss stupid ideas have the reality of political liberty.  "Since Frenchmen must always be allowed the sop of a little flexibility, to console them for their enslavement, the government allowed them to discuss very freely all kin of general and abstract theories in matters of religion, philosophy, ethics, and even politics.  It was quite willing to tolerate attacks against the fundamental principles upon which society then rested and even arguments about God  Himself, provided that is most menial agents were not the subject of their ramblings."

Today, of course, attacks on God and society are the principles on which the regime rests, but it is quite comfortable in tolerating the pseudo-opposition of talkshow hosts and websites so long as they do not get in the way of business.  When someone does, say Julian Assange, he finds himself the target of malicious prosecution.

More to come . . .

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