Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Awake to Glory, Children of France!

With the words of the title, today we remember the signature event of their revolution, the storming of a prison fortress 220 years ago. Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé ! So what is a revolution and how can we tell one has occurred?

Two centuries ago, France was organized politically, economically and socially as the private estate of a very small hereditary elite. In that France lived the fattened clergy that blessed all the king did, the merchants and bankers who greased the wheels of the nobility's carriages, the courtiers and courtesans who tried to eke a living on the leavings of the privileged few and the very, very many who were the hereditary human beasts of burden.

Today the nobility is largely gone. The merchants and bankers have supplanted them. But the very many have unions and public schools and vacations and cars. Today only 6.2 percent of the French population lives under their official poverty threshold, which is higher than that of the United States.

Less than a century ago, Russia was a vast plantation in the hands of the Romanov family and their favorites. Not counting the papacy, which was not a nation-state at the time, in 1917 the czarist regime was the last remaining absolute monarchy of Europe.

Imperial Russia's elected legislative body, the Duma, was merely an advisory body with little effective power except to complain; from 1907 on, the leftist parties, which had won significant pluralities in the first two elections elections, were almost completely suppressed as electoral law was changed to favor propertied, land-holding voters. The nation was still not industrialized and its agriculture was primitive and in the hands of newly liberated serfs who had effectively become, as in the American South, penniless sharecroppers. The educated middle class was miniscule.

Today, with all its troubles, Russia's income inequality is lower than that of the United States -- the Russian Gini coefficient index stood at 40 in 2005, compared to 46.9 in the USA, albeit both higher than for most European Union member states.

In 1776, what is today the United States was divided into a vast territory held by native tribes and secondarily a set of European colonies comprising a string of small seaboard settlements held (in order of size) by Spain, France and England. In the English colony, a relatively small elite of freeholders and wealthy merchants decided not to pay taxes used to finance their defense from neighbors tired of their predatory behavior.

Their revolt was led by a few high-minded slaveowners and by merchants and bankers who proceeded to make enormous war profits by lending and supplying materiel to the fledgling government. In the new nation's eventual compact, proclamations of freedom did not apply to natives, African slaves nor indentured English servants, who were not even counted as full human beings for the purposes of electoral apportionment. In a process of roughly two centuries, still unfinished, each one had to shed blood to gain a semblance of fairness.

Today, 12.5 percent of all U.S. inhabitants -- or about 36 million people -- live below the poverty threshhold ($10,830 for an individual; $22,050 for a family of four). That's double the proportion in France, living at a lower threshold.

"In the French Revolution, when laborers' wives were mud-splattered by a passing carriage, they yelled at the marquise studiously ignoring them in her cabin, saying "One day we will all be marquises,' " a literature professor once remarked, adding, "while in the Russian Revolution they cried, 'One day you will be a peasant just like us.' "

We in the United States like to think our people are historically like the French. But that is not quite true.

On the American carriage rode a slaveowner who called out to the rabble, "Go die for me so I can avoid paying British taxes, go till my land and work my factories and build roads for my goods, go work, work work, and God will make you rich like me!"

And as the fools followed their pied piper, the gentleman's gales of laughter were drowned out by the cobblestone clopping of his hastening horses.
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