Oberlin Undergrads = the Revolutionaries of 2016?

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I just read a description of the origins of the French Revolution that caught me off-guard, by Nathan Heller in the May 30 New Yorker. Heller’s description of France in the 1780s is tucked inside an article about student activism at Oberlin. It is meant as an analogy for the feeling currently on the ground in Ohio’s hotbed of radicalism, yet it seems oddly off-base on economics.

As the author writes:

“We hear a lot about the hunger and the song of angry men, and yet the truth is that, objectively, the French at the start of the seventeen-eighties had less cause for anger than they’d had in years. Tocqueville thought this wasn’t a coincidence. ‘Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested,’ he wrote.  His claim helped give rise to the idea of the revolution of rising expectations: an observation that radical movements appear not when expectations are low but when they’re high, and vulnerable to disappointment.”*

Hellers’ view is more or less consonant with George R. Havens, who describes Louis XVI’s finance ministers’ efforts as doomed in advance, because no one (in power, anyway) wanted to change anything: “Calonne, Brienne, then Necker again, became ministers, but were unable to curb the insistent demands of privilege or to reform the vicious system of spendthrift finance. A swifter and swifter current was sweeping the country toward the brink. The very prosperity of the middle classes made demands for change in the government more imperative. […] But the leaders of the privileged classes, for the most part, would not yield except to superior force, and they hoped to have that on their side.”**

It also aligns with Georges Lefebvre, who writes: “the Third Estate was by no means the first to profit from the emergency, contrary to the general opinion, taken over from the Revolutionists themselves, who declared ad nauseum that ‘the people rose up and overthrew despotism and aristocracy.’ No doubt it did end that way. … the clergy … and the nobility… forced the king’s hand. ‘The patricians began the Revolution,’ wrote Chateaubriand, ‘the plebeians finished it.’”***

Nevertheless, Simon Schama throws an interesting wrench into the scenario by reminding us that money was an issue. Among the Second Estate (nobility), for example, 60% of its members—some 16,000 families—lived in conditions that ranged from “modest dilapidation to outright indigence.” And furthermore, many of these impoverished country gentry experienced life a lot like the peasants who surrounded them. These were the illiterate, angry hobereaux that Arthur Young described in his Travels. Interestingly, “it was the poorest of the nobility who clung to their privileges with the greatest tenacity.”****

So, yes, Heller, we see what you mean. But you must admit that the demands made by people in the 1780s—even the so-called “privileged” people of the Second Estate, as well as the artisans, professionals, and peasants of the Third (who enjoyed privileges of their own)—were far, far afield of our compatriots who consider themselves “cisgender” or “Afro-Latinx” (51, 52). Their lives were far less confined by their sensitivity to cultural slights about their bodies or microaggressions encountered at the Student Center. At least some of them were concerned about starving.

 

*Nathan Heller, “Letter from Oberlin: The Big Uneasy. What’s Roiling the Liberal Arts Campus?” The New Yorker (May 30, 2016), 53.

**Havens, The Age of Ideas: From Reaction to Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France (New York: The Free Press, 1955), 414, 424.

***Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution, trans. R.R. Palmer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947, 1989), 3.

****Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1989), 120.

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