Too Early To Tell
Has America Stumbled Into a Gilded Age Or its Ancien Regime?
n oft-repeated anecdote has it that when Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, he asked Zhou Enlai whether he thought the French Revolution had been a success. “It’s too early to tell,” Zhou answered. This conversation apparently occurred, but in reference to the events of May 1968, not those of 1789. Everybody tells the first version, though, because it is so suggestive. Was the “liberation” of China in 1949 a kind of continuation of the French Revolution? The idea that Mao, Zhou Enlai, and crew picked up where Robespierre, Danton, et al. left off is seductive when you consider the parallels between the two Revolutions. Both pitched themselves as the vanguard of an inevitable global future. For both, the people were sovereign, possessed of a “General Will,” and leaders claiming to channel that will enforced their claim through terror. In both cases wealth was redistributed officially and unofficially, such as stopping people on the street to tug jewels from their fingers and yank them from their necks.
It is tempting, though adolescent, to think that justice works its way out through history Hegelian-style, each revolution inching closer to an optimal political organization. Since Kant and the American Revolution, democracy has been supposed to be the basic formula. Self-government: the only legitimate government is one with the participation—or at least consent—of all its people. Seeming to imply equality and liberty in the same breath, democracy gambles that adults are adults, capable of ruling themselves—if not through the sagacity of the individual, then by the collective wisdom of the crowd.
The men and women fighting for the Chinese Communist party in the first half of the twentieth-century thought they were fighting for democracy. It was understood that a brief transition period would require a proletarian dictatorship but when communism proper reigned, democracy would, too. As time went on, the repressive campaigns only intensified (the Hu Feng “Incident,” among others) and then when the Cultural Revolution launched a death spiral lasting ten years, the men and women of 1949 realized that equality and liberty are distinct concepts that don’t necessarily go happily hand-in-hand, but in fact tend to conflict. Many of that generation fell into a devastated mourning at that point, grieving the failure of the unifying idea that had animated them for decades.
We forget the degree to which the ideals of communism were entangled with those of democracy. By the end of the Cold War, the crude equation had concretized in which America equaled democracy and the Soviet bloc, communism. But Karl Marx wrote romantic sentences like this: “Democracy is the resolved mystery of all constitutions.” “In democracy the formal principle is simultaneously the material principle,” he wrote; “For that reason it is the first true unity of the universal and the particular.” The term “democracy” drops out in what scholars call Marx’s mature work, but he never disavowed the concept, and arguably it continued on as the sentimental backdrop to the hard-headed analyses of appropriated surplus value. As strange and even heterodox as it may sound, for Marx as for twentieth-century liberals like Francis Fukuyama, democracy was the final solution.
For Marx as for twentieth-century liberals like Francis Fukuyama, democracy was the final solution.
e have good precedent for believing that utopian experiments are doomed. Rousseau’s idea of natural man uncorrupted by perverse society, Marx’s idea of collective ownership of the means of production: these ideas presumed that man was not the inherently fallen, lustful, competitive, manipulative, and greedy species Christianity and Freud said he was. But a Rousseau-inspired Robespierre called for the head of his best friend Camille Desmoulins. And everybody around Mao except the supremely diplomatic Zhou Enlai was destroyed or near-destroyed by his jealousy and megalomania—not to mention the thousands (in the French case) and millions (in the Chinese) of other lives cut short.
In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt argued that the American Revolution was the only revolution to succeed in part because it didn’t realize it was one. The fight against taxation without representation turned into the war for independence almost by accident. Wonky beginnings lacking melodramatic heroics boded well and, according to Arendt, this down-to-earth quality sustained the Revolution throughout. Nobody imagined he could magically harmonize all factions or even see to it that everybody got fed. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, et al. were not aiming to reconcile all interests but to design mechanisms by which power might be shared and negotiated. No ultimate truth or General Will here. Branches of government. Checks and balances. Arendt would have us understand that the American republic endured because it was built on pragmatic, not utopian, foundations. The most utopian idea was Jefferson’s insistence that each new generation should be completely unbeholden to the past: free to tear up previous rules and start fresh. And even this idea is, of course, deeply anti-utopian, since its guiding insight is not that a particular configuration will ensure paradise but that no blueprint deserves to be sacrosanct over the future.
But has the American romance with its own beginnings paradoxically blinded us to the reality in which we now live? (Surely for some people on the right it does. And does the popularity of shows like The Americans demonstrate that liberals have their own version of this romance, this one focused not on the war of independence but on the Cold War?) For all the thinking that went into how to keep power from concentrating in a few people, that’s exactly what has happened. In an essay for Politico, Kenneth P. Vogel quotes President Obama as saying to a group of benefactors, “You now have the potential of 200 people deciding who ends up being elected president every single time.” Obama was responding to a question about the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which, as Vogel puts it, “gutted campaign finance restrictions and marked the beginning of a new big-money era in American politics.” In Beyond Outrage, Robert Reich writes:
I have never been so concerned as I am now about the future of our democracy, the corrupting effects of big money in our politics, the stridency and demagoguery of the regressive right, and the accumulation of wealth and power at the very top. We are perilously close to losing an economy and a democracy that are meant to work for everyone and to replacing them with an economy and a government that will exist mainly for a few wealthy and powerful people.
Democracy is meant to work for everyone, Reich says. We like to think, as Marx did in his early writings, that democracy is the best way to reconcile the individual and the group, the particular and the universal. Technically, though, all democracy means is majority rule. Majority rule can be ugly (think Nazi Germany). It might be ugly here if we had it, but we don’t. By no stretch of the imagination are we a country in which the majority rule. Whatever one might say for or against democracy, it is modern. The majority did not rule for most of human history. What we are today, though, is not modern: it is something more feudal.
“We haven’t experienced this degree of concentrated wealth since the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century,” Reich says. With the publication this year of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, this kind of talk is ubiquitous. “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age,” for example, is the title of Paul Krugman’s discussion of Capital in the Twenty-First Century in The New York Review of Books. Piketty’s book shows that capital grows faster than earned income. The rich will continue to get richer and the poor, poorer. If not corrected through politics, the inequality gap naturally widens. The best thing about Piketty’s work is that due to the way it has saturated the media recently, the word “redistribution” is appearing in publications that shunned it for years.
re we in a new Gilded Age, or has financial capital so eclipsed industrial capital that what we are is more ancien regime, with inherited financial assets akin to the gentry’s inherited land? I don’t know enough about either political or economic history to say. But even if the Gilded Age is the more apt comparison, I still think of us as the ancien regime before the French Revolution because if we entered the modern age once, we have retreated from it. The aristocracy—the stratospherically wealthy—rule because the politicians are beholden to them. The rest of us are the politically irrelevant peasantry. Any number of books have come out in recent years stockpiling evidence for the thesis that the wealthy control politics because they have the power to determine who wins elections. (I recommend Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost. Lessig’s main points are distilled in a TED Talk.)
In 1774, thirteen years before the French Revolution erupted, King Louis XVI appointed Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot as his Finance Minister. Influenced by Enlightenment thought and wishing to be the most modern of monarchs, Louis XVI chose Turgot because he would boldly reform the morally and economically bankrupt regime. And Turgot did try. He pushed to abolish tax exemptions for the landed elite and clergy, abolish corvee (unpaid, enforced labor periodically imposed on peasants by the state), and abolish the hated lettres de cachet which flouted any kind of legal justice. He pushed to implement progressive taxation, prohibit nepotism and corruption, and develop infrastructure through an extra tax on the wealthy. But by the time Turgot was done figuring out how to save the country from bankruptcy and simultaneously make it more just, everybody who currently benefited from the status quo hated his guts. The nobility were rebelling and the King felt cornered into firing him. Turgot died a few years later, “gout-ridden and embittered,” David Andress says in The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France. Louis XVI’s head rolled fifteen years later. Had Turgot lived long enough, he would have had the bittersweet satisfaction of knowing that history had proved him right.
Like pre-revolutionary France, America is in debt, is experiencing a high degree of inequality, and our politicians are utterly helpless to pass desperately-needed reforms. We don’t even have a Turgot. We have Timothy Geithner. Our finance ministers reinforce the power of wealth in order to stabilize the economy rather than redistributing the wealth in order to rehabilitate the country. Geithner temporarily saved the economy, and I suppose we might be a little grateful for that. But we might be even more grateful for the fact that the way he did so fully exposed the lie that we live in a democracy. The wealthy are protected and the ordinary person flounders. Obama, surrounded on all sides by people who want to be re-elected, is not unlike the cornered Louis XVI. So long as politicians wear the golden handcuffs of those who benefit from the current economic policies favoring wealth over labor, we are a society run on patronage—not any kind of politics remotely worthy of the term “politics.”
“Two types of evil can topple democracy,” Robespierre said in 1794. They are “the aristocracy of those who have the government in their hands; and the disdain of the people for the authority it has established itself.” We have both of these situations now: an aristocracy who calls the government’s shots, and our own disdain for this corrupt and broken process. Robespierre was condemned to death five months after this speech. “I demand to die!” he said after he heard the verdict—as if he were still in control of a world that had always been much bigger than him.
Jennifer Ruth is a staff writer. She is the author of Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel, and recently wrote about visiting China’s Museum of the Cultural Revolution.