The Similarities Between OWS and The French Revolution
Is the goal of a Revolution Utilitarian or Universality? Is it done to provide the greatest pleasure, the greatest good or the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, or is to provide these things for everyone, with no exceptions?
Can a compassionate government truly govern? A just and fair government can, but can a compassionate government?
What if the cause you are fighting for is not for everyone? What if only 60% of the people would benefit? What if 90% of the people would benefit from your cause but 10% would die as a result of what you want to do? Or, even one. Is it still Ok?
Unlike the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution was not a revolution for Freedom, but one predicated upon the needs of the people. The French Revolution was caught up in and distracted by necessity, poverty and wants of the people. It was not about the pursuit of happiness, it was about the government providing happiness. It was about a government of compassion.
France at the time was a mess. There was a great deal of poverty and far too much tyranny. Basically, the situation for the poor at the time of the French Revolution was the same for the poor in general, even today, which is that after their self-preservation has been assured, their lives are without consequence. To paraphrase John Adams, “They stand in darkness wherever they go. They feel themselves out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. He is in as much obscurity in a crowd as he would be in a root cellar. He is not disapproved, he is not censured, he is not reproached; he is only NOT seen. To be wholly overlooked and know it, is intolerable. “
This is what appears to be frustrating the OWS crowd. Only as a whole, they are neither poor nor oppressed. They are indignant, some are unemployed, they are frustrated and they each seem to have their own set of grievances, but they certainly have no one cause other than social frustration and anger over the fact that they can’t get whatever it is that they want. They feel deprived and have come to believe that Big Business and Wall Street, not the government and this administration is depriving them. (IS Obama Robespierre with his own motives?)
The similarity then, between the OWS and the French Revolution is compassion. The problem is however, that only the predicament of poverty, and not either individual frustration or social ambitions can arouse compassion. And it is with the role of compassion in revolutions, that is, in all except the American Revolution, we must now concern ourselves.
The men of the French Revolution were inspired by the hatred of tyranny. Only what began as a revolution against tyranny and oppression, as was the case with the American Revolution, the French Revolution changed course and revolted against exploitation and poverty. Those who lead the French Revolution felt they belonged to the people and did
not need to summon up any solidarity with them. If they became their spokesmen, it was not in the sense that they did something for the people, be for the sake of power over them or out love for them; they spoke and acted as their representatives in a common cause. The concern is who exactly is heading up this OWS Revolution? Why are the unions like the SEIU involved? Why are there long time political activists like Sonia Silbert and union organizers like Marshall Ganz involved? Why is President Obama feeling a kindred spirit to this movement? I question the motives. Why? Because in the case of the French Revolution, the revolutionary governments they created were neither of the people nor by the people. At best they were for the people. At worst, which it really turned out to be, they usurped the sovereign power by appointing themselves as self-styled representatives who put themselves in absolute independence with respect to the nation. In the French Revolution, liberation from tyranny spelled freedom only for the few. The vast majority were now worse off than they were before the Revolution. As a result of the absolute failure of the first part of the French Revolution, a new Liberation came to be, only this time there was no common cause. This one was lead by Robespierre, who pushed for solidarity under the heading of virtue. For him, the idea of virtue was to have the welfare of the people in mind. (Sound familiar?) He wanted to identify one’s own will with the will of the people with the ultimate goal being happiness for the many. His idea was to make compassion the highest political virtue. Compassion now became the driving force behind the revolution. The revolution was no longer about Freedom and the creation of a constitution. For Robespierre and the Jacobins, they seized power from the Girondins because they believed in the people rather in the republic. For them, it was all about the natural goodness of a class, not about institutions and constitutions: “Under the new Constitution, laws should be promulgated in the name of the French People instead of the French Republic.” Said Robespierre. (Does this not sound like something that someone within the OWS movement would say?)
It was a shift from the republic to the people. It was a shift from a government predicated upon worldly institutions, to a government predicated upon the will of the people themselves. In other words, it was based upon the general will of the people as one and universal public opinion. It was no longer about factions and different groups with different opinions and grievances being heard, it was now about one will, like an individual… and like an individual it can change direction and opinion at any moment.
In other words, not only was it a near impossible task, but it was also very unstable.
So, how do you get 25 million Frenchmen to rally around a Free Constitution and agree on it when it is based upon the Will of the People. What would bind the many in to one? Unfortunately, this is the very same problem the OWS group is facing. Too many factions, too many differences of opinion of not only what is wrong, but what the solution is.
For Robespierre, the one force which would unite the different classes of society into one nation was the compassion of those who did not suffer for the ill-fated and suffering. For him, it was about those of the higher classes having compassion for the low people. Sounds good on paper, but again, this is a ruling government and nation representing all of the people we are discussing here, not a non-profit organization.
Robespierre, like many in the OWS movement, see compassion as the thing that opens the heart of both the sufferer and the non-sufferer to the sufferings of others. Compassion also establishes and confirms what should be this natural bond between men. The problem, which Robespierre firmly believed, was that the rich had lost the bond and their hearts were not open to the suffering of others. (Again, much like the OWS movement.)
John Adams, who had a huge hand in the Revolutionary War and became the Second President of the United States had two applicable quotes that pertain to both the French Revolution and the OWS movement: “People and nations are forged in the fires of adversity,” “The envy and rancor of the multitude against the rich is universal and restrained only by fear or necessity. A beggar can never comprehend the reason why another should ride in a coach while he has no bread, and still no one familiar with misery can fail to be shocked by the peculiar coldness and indifferent objectivity of his judgment. “
According to Hannah Arendt, “Compassion by its very nature cannot be touched off by the sufferings of a whole class or a people, or least of all, mankind as a whole. It cannot reach out farther than what is suffered by one person and still remain what it is supposed to be, co-suffering.”
The point being, compassion can only be extended so far. It is a micro, not a macro emotion. In the case of the French Revolution, and where the OWS movement seems to be headed, if you collapse political and legal authority and make the peoples’ wants, needs and happiness the focus, it requires the use of violence. Which in itself becomes a contradiction. It’s kind of like saying, “Let’s Stamp Out Hate!” In the French Revolution, the People did not merely interrupt the government, they erupted and over threw the government using violence. Violence was the tool they used to make the things they wanted to happen, and happen quickly. And as we all know from reading A Tale of Two Cities, the guillotine became their tool of choice. (The Revolutionary Tribunal, with Robespierre at its head (pun intended), ordered the execution of 2,400 people in Paris by July 1794. Across France 30,000 people lost their lives. Robespierre put forth the idea that terror is the best and most effective manner for bringing about “justice.” A concept that even Machiavelli opposed.)
The French Revolution, just as the OWS movement will, moved from being about forms of government and a republic to being about the common good of the people, it quickly disintegrated into a civil war full of violence. If liberation from poverty and the happiness of all the people were the true exclusive aims of the revolution, then the only way to achieve that is by anarchy where everything was permitted and anything goes.
Unfortunately, passion, compassion and emotions can only be found in the human heart. And the heart, which we all well know, is a place of darkness, which no human eye can penetrate. And no matter how deeply heartfelt a motive may be, once it is exposed and brought to the light of day for inspection by others, it becomes an object of suspicion. Actions, deeds and words are out in the open for all to see and all to hear. But motives,
behind such deeds, actions and words are destroyed in their essence through appearance. Once Robespierre equated virtue with the qualities of the heart, they saw intrigue, treachery and hypocrisy everywhere. A fateful mood of suspicion permeated and blanketed the French Revolution. No one could be trusted as paranoia abounded.
Their goal, like the OWS movement, was utilitarian at best and far from Universal. Only so many would be happy and so many more not. The greatest good for the greatest number wasn’t working. And in the end, it looked more like the greatest good for Robespierre than for The People. The same holds true for the OWS movement. Beware of the motive and beware of whomever takes power and control. For in the end, someone must. Ruling by the masses does not and will not work. And with no common cause to bind you, you are opening a door that another Robespierre can easily walk through. Interesting, isn’t it, that Obama is in full support of this movement and acts a bit like he helped create it. And, perhaps he did. Would not surprise me in the least.
In closing, the caveat is that every deed has its motives as it has its goal and its principle; but the act itself, though it proclaims its goal and makes manifest its principle, does not reveal the innermost motivation of the agent. To drag the dark and the hidden into the light results in hypocrisy.
The French Revolution failed because it failed to solve the social question of poverty and necessity just as the OWS movement will fail as well.
Fiat veritas et pereat mundus. “Let truth be told though the world may perish.”
Ubi est Mea. “Where’s Mine!?!”