HISTORIANS AND POLITICAL DISCONTENT
often view calamitous periods in human history through too many
lenses. Take an imaginary happy kingdom, Ozarkia, ruled over by
a hereditary monarch, Clinton Jefferson Williams. Here is a ruler
with little interest in public affairs but an abiding interest in
private ones. He allows his officials to terrorize the people and
launches a minor war now and then, when public relations require
it. Let us imagine that within a twenty year period there are, in
addition to misrule, a drought, a famine, a flood, a pestilence,
a plague, an earthquake, an unusual lineup of the planets, and a
striking cluster of sunspots. During these twenty years the people
are destitute, unhappy, and irritable. An historian brings the usual
evidence tax records, diaries, rebel manifestos, et cetera,
to bear on the problem. Out of all these conjunctural factors, he
will conclude more times than not that the people’s
unhappiness was due, in the main, "to the malfunctioning of
the market economy."
VAN CREVELD ON STATES AND WARS
have previously discussed Martin Van Creveld’s The
Rise and Decline of the State. That book and
its writer were central to a conference held this
past weekend at the Ludwig
von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. I shall
not summarize the conference except to say that it
was very stimulating and that the scholarly clashes
were carried on with great civility. I think that
much good future research and writing will result
from the meeting.
than review the conference, let me briefly recapitulate
Van Creveld’s theses. He contrasts governments and
states. He sees the "state" as a purely
modern phenomenon dating from the 15th
century. It is an abstract, corporate, legal person,
which exists apart from its personnel and any titular
"sovereign" king or emperor. Older governments
lacked such an exalted juristic and theoretical status.
OF THE NATION-STATE
medieval kings waged a two-front struggle against
the universal Church and the Holy Roman Empire which
limited their authority. The Reformation gave kings
Protestant and Catholic alike the chance
to turn their "national" churches into departments
of state. Church and Empire were not the kings’ only
opponents. Monarchs had to tame their "over-mighty
subjects," the nobility, and deal also with the
rising "bourgeoisie," who in Italy and northern
Germany had reinvented city-state government on a
footing of commercial capitalism. For a short while,
wealthy city-states leagued together to threaten royal
MONARCHS WORK HARDER
Van Creveld notes, kings won nobles over with gifts
of land stolen from the church the Henry the
Eighth Principle. French kings gradually established
their claim that nobles’ titles were mere grants of
royal favor. Having sought to play townsmen off against
nobles, kings soon addressed the bourgeois threat
by destroying town fortifications and disarming urban
populations. Details of this process vary greatly
by country but, in the end save for the Netherlands
and (partially) England kings stood triumphant,
even if the victory was incomplete and the new bourgeois
economy was allowed to unfold.
THOROUGHLY MODERN STATE
became both bureaucratic, sedentary, and permanent.
Now kings could more effectively fight neighboring
states of the same kind. To this end, they sought
to manage their people as valuable resources in a
shepherd/sheep relationship. Ideological innovations
underwrote the new order, and the older "king’s
household" gave way to the new managerial apparatus
which would, in time, shove the kings themselves aside.
So Van Creveld’s analysis.
states undertook to learn in detail
their exact boundaries, population, and resources,
and more. It was springtime for map-makers and statisticians.
This good work aimed at maintaining internal control
and preparing for war.
GENERAL CRISIS OF THE 17th CENTURY
increased fiscal demands of states set off a series
of reactions – the Fronde, Puritan Revolution, and
others, which taken together, constitute the General
Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. Some states emerged
with new paper limits on their power, which they would
seek to overcome later.
historian Hugh Trevor-Roper kicked off the notion
of a "general crisis" of the 17th
century in a famous article in Past and Present
(1959). He took some notice of interstate wars and
the resulting fiscal pressure as causes. Other historians
have put different content into the notion. Marxists
look for causes in the rise of capitalist economic
relations. Other historians espy a crisis in everything,
with the weather and economic downturns thrown in
the drought, famine, flood, et cetera, mentioned
earlier. Many just see the political events in question
as raw material for theorizing about revolutions in
general, although it is unclear what we are to do
with the theory.
IF THE CRISES WERE LOCAL, WHAT WAS GENERAL?
have been struck by the cluster of rebellions, especially
in the very middle of the century: The
English Civil War (1641-1658), the Fronde in France
(1648-1652), the revolt in Catalonia (1640-1652),
the Portuguese struggle for independence (1640-1668),
and the revolt in Naples (1647-1648), to name perhaps
the most important. This was the highwater mark of
political discontent. Far away in China, we see the
collapse of the Ming dynasty (in two phases, 1620-1644
and rising taxes provoked a set of popular reactions.
The case of France no longer fully feudal but
likewise not fully bourgeois is especially
arresting. The King’s alliances with Protestant powers
against the Austro-Spanish Hapsburgs caused discontent
among Catholics, including members of the royal family.
The exactions of tax farmers weighed heavily on the
people. Public debt was not yet perfected the
English did that for us from 1699 on so hard-pressed
monarchs had to find new revenues however possible.
the southwest, rebels known as Croquants (1636) rose
in arms, demanded a return to traditional taxes, no
new taxes (! some one tell Dubilla), unless
an Estates General agreed to them. At Poitou, a peasants’
assembly ordered their constituents to keep and bear
arms and be ready to act when the alarm was given.
Various manifestos catalogued popular grievances,
stating that already poor, the people have been obliged
to "fall into debt, or mortgage their land
to townspeople or to the privileged persons of the
locality" (Mousnier, 70). In the end, rebels
were forced to yield, although assaults on tax-collectors
and other royal agents continued into 1642.
Normandy, there was the revolt of the Nu-Pieds (1639).
Here, there had been a plague, 1619-39, leaving
fewer taxpayers to pay current levies as well as the
arrearage. Local officials went on strike. Makers
of the playing-cards and tarot-cards struck. Tavern-owners
stirred people up against new taxes on wine. Prominent
gentlemen were involved in the illegal salt trade.
Salt-makers were at the heart of the revolt. Similar
events took place in Brittany in the 1670s. In these
cases, too, the revolt was suppressed without major
such rebellions, we find local officeholders,
gentry, and town-dwelling professionals in league
with peasant rebels against new taxes. Local officials
resented the king’s "packing" their jurisdictions
(which they owned as benefices) with new officials,
with whom they have to share revenue and duties. The
"revolutionary coalition" cut across class
lines and pitted locals against the feds, so to speak.
Something similar happened in the English Civil War
(Puritan Revolution), although religious questions
played a major role there.
SET OFF THE GENERAL CRISIS?
historian Niels Steensgaard argues that what we know
of the 17th-century economy does not suggest
that economic forces brought on the crisis. We
do see "a transference of production to the country
districts" in order "to dodge the guild
regulations and taxation of the towns"
(Steensgaard, 34). That transfer was central
to what historians now refer to as proto-industrialization.
makes the important observation that 17th-century
governments were "undoubtedly the strongest buyers."
The effects were not neutral but made for widespread
"redistribution" of wealth and opportunities.
He writes: "Early modern Europe was, to a large
extent, a ‘subsistence economy,’ and the role of the
State as an entrepreneur was correspondingly greater"
17th century witnessed "the largest
armies since the time of the Roman Empire" (p.
38). In many parts of Europe, people "already
taxed to starvation level" were hit with additional
taxes to finance wars. Steensgaard writes that taxation
in France almost certainly "increased more rapidly
than production" (p. 39). High taxes for defense
depressed economic life, even in areas not involved
in the fighting. Further, "increased taxation
pressure... may be one of the most important causes
of the demographic and agrarian crises that hit Europe
in the seventeenth century.... by forcing craftsmen
to emigrate and merchants to reinvest in privileged
undertakings such as land, states loans or offices...."
(p. 40). He writes that, all in all, "[t]he production
of protection was the seventeenth century’s ‘leading
sector’" (p. 41).
Steensgaard’s view, historians who treat wars as something
external to economic life have missed the boat. He
concludes that: "If the governmental actions
were revolutionary and the revolts reactionary, if
we are to seek the dynamic factor in conjunction with
the State and not with the people, we must abandon
the stereotype conception of absolutism as a passive
instrument for the nation or class" that
is, bring politics back in as Charles Tilly and Theda
Skocpol and others would say. States were instrumental
"in forming [their] society" (p.
48, my italics). Maybe that’s the problem.
SORT OF OPPOSITIONS WERE THESE?
questions cut across issues raised by the rise of
stronger states locked in life-and-death competition
against one another. Opposition was traditionalist:
a defense of established ways and practices. These
were real conservatives, who would not be welcome
at a GOP soirée. Opposition spokesmen generally
appealed to the constitution, an unwritten body of
law and tradition which protected society as it was
and had been, as opposed to society as it ideally
notion of the "patria" as used by
opposition spokesmen reflected their "reactionary"
outlook. This was "patriotism" something
quite different from nationalism. Patriots looked
to existing local and parliamentary institutions,
like Estates Generals, to defend existing rights.
Here was no ideological party committed to total destruction
and rebuilding of society. With a few exceptions,
there was not even a doctrine of political
revolution sophisticated enough to justify replacing
the state rulers with new ones, while leaving society
itself largely intact. These movements to preserve
society as it existed were unsuccessful.
POLITICAL CONSTRUCTIONS AND GOING BACK TO DRAWING
with success, major states were soon fighting worldwide
for imperial and commercial gain. Spain’s fortunes
sank, while Britain ran France out of the empire business
in India and North America. Sweden yielded regional
power to Russia.
state ideologies put an end to an older "discourse"
about war, which had included "just war"
theory. Now it was just War: a "public"
activity calling for sacrificing anyone and anything
in the name of winning. The French Revolution drove
the last nail in the coffin of medieval constitutionalism
and states overcame their practical and ideological
limits. The citizen’s "freedom" to be conscripted
and killed hundreds of miles from any concrete local
interests and attachments was firmly entrenched. The
result could only have been those Total Wars which
made the 20th century so interesting.
OLD CAUSES AND LOST CAUSES
sad story, indeed. But before we leave it, let us
at least raise a glass to the non-theorizing, traditionalist
"enemies of our enemies" (so to speak).
We can start with Bonny Prince Charles. Bring back
the Stuarts as figureheads, I say; just don’t give
them, or anyone, any real power.