Chad Denton
Oct 9 · 16 min read

“What a sight is this of the royal family and a few hypocritical and grasping courtiers raising the banner of opposition to the fixed sentiments of the whole nation…”, wrote the Marquis d’Argenson in judgment of the reign of King Louis XV in mid-eighteenth century France. Argenson’s memoirs are more or less a bitter registry of complaints about not just the king and his family, but an entire political system that seemed to be suffering from paralysis. As a historian of France in the United States, I cannot help but gleam at least a little bit of the present in such observations of the ancien regime in its sunset.

I would bet that such a comparison conjures for readers images of Donald Trump as King Louis XVI, mismanaging a decaying kingdom from the comfort of a gilded cocoon. While Louis XVI undoubtedly would have been much better off as a modern-day figurehead European monarch than a king in a time and place where royal authority still had great weight, Louis XVI was no Trump. For starters, he was the first king of France in almost a century and a half to never commit adultery. Also, Louis XVI, contrary to some modern beliefs and even accusations by his contemporaries, did significantly cut court expenditures at Versailles. If anything, Louis XVI better resembles Barrack Obama for having a quiet and dull family life but also for trying to push through moderate, incremental reforms for a nation in crisis that met disproportionate hostility from the closest thing ancien regime France had to a Congress, the parlements that represented Paris and the regions of France.

Still, as much fun as it would be to speculate on Jean-Jacques Sanders or Nancy Mirabeau, the much more compelling — and sobering — similarities lie in trends, not in personalities. Perhaps the most obvious of these is income inequality. That was the exact point Sofia Coppola made in her 2009 film Marie Antoinette, but even ad campaigns have recently consciously channeled the specter of Versailles in their visuals. Nor has the invocation of full-out revolution over income inequality just been limited to playful or artsy metaphors. In 2014, billionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer caused a stir when he wrote, “What sets me apart, I think, is a tolerance for risk and an intuition about what will happen in the future… And what do I see in our future now? I see pitchforks.” Some may have taken the wrong lesson from prophecies like Hanauer’s if the number of Silicon Valley magnates who are apparently investing in homes in New Zealand and underground bunkers are any indication.

This looks like outright paranoia if you have been following articles with titles like “How Obama Rescued The Economy” and “What if the Economy and Markets Are Even Better Than They Look?”, but it is not hard to find numbers that also tell less of a fairy tale and more of a dystopian story. 40% of Americans claim they don’t have $400 to cover an emergency expense, and, while wages have recently gone up, overall they have only significantly grown for the top 10% of wage earners over the past four decades. In fact, according to data collected by the Social Security Administration, 48% of Americans made less than $30,000 last year. This quagmire pulls the most at millennials, who spend nearly half their income on rent, more than other modern generations. So, at the exact same time as the rich are richer and control even more of the United States’ total wealth, suicide rates have been growing since 1999, especially in rural areas, and there is an opioid crisis linked to poverty, with some places seeing 100 drug overdoses per 100,000 people. Not unlike Ul Quoma and Besźel from China Miéville’s The City & The City, America the wealthy and thriving nation somehow occupies the exact same geographical space as America the country whose poverty has no equal in the rest of the post-industrial world and sparked an extensive United Nations report.

In the era of Versailles, France, too, was a country known for both splendor and destitution. In 1717, when France was still indisputably Europe’s greatest military and cultural power, Tsar Peter “the Great” happened to be in France on a state visit. He was impressed enough by the lifestyles of the royal family and the haute noblesse at Versailles that it later influenced how he would shape courtly life at St. Petersburg. In almost the same breath, Peter remarked upon the poverty he personally witnessed while on the road to Paris. Modern analysis has vindicated the tsar’s observations. Although naturally eighteenth-century France doesn’t have nearly as much raw data to sift through as the twenty-first-century United States, we are not quite in the dark. In 2000, two economists, Christian Morrison and Wayne Snyder, argued in an article for the European Review of Economic History that, by the second half of the 1700s, economic inequality in France was either just a little better than that of Britain, which was at the time undergoing the painful metamorphosis into the world’s first industrialized economy, or was the worst in Europe.

It is true that France, like much of Europe, was still in the midst of a massive economic expansion that saw the emergence of new luxury goods markets, the shifting of wealth away from rural aristocratic landowners to the urban bourgeoisie, and the improvement of living standards across classes. Nonetheless, nowhere in Europe did the benefits rain down equally on everyone, and this was even more true in France because of inequalities built into the system. Although feudalism had mostly died out as an actual socio-economic system in France as it had almost everywhere in western Europe, it persisted in the unwieldy and decentralized system of French taxation, which fossilized certain exemptions for some regions and towns but not others. Even more dramatically, it endured in certain onerous legal obligations like the corvée, a mandate that peasants work on local roads for a certain number of days per year without pay. Another vestige of feudalism was the fact that the clergy and the nobility, while owning a tenth and a quarter of the land across France respectively, were exempted from the taille, the main direct tax, and, through the personal use of loopholes or organizing political resistance in the parlements, smothered reforms designed to push them toward contributing more revenue. For example, historian Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret estimated that the Princes of the Blood, the highest rung of the nobility, collectively should have paid 2,400,000 livres one year through the capitation direct tax which applied to noble landowners, but instead they only paid 188,000 livres. In addition, indirect taxes, like the widely hated gabelle (salt tax), were highly regressive and ensured that the tax burden fell heaviest on rural peasants and urban workers since the urban bourgeoisie had their own exemptions and loopholes. Further, in France “land rents doubled between 1730 and 1780, and the price of agricultural goods rose faster than agricultural wages”, as Walter Scheider explains in The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. While under Louis XVI there were ambitious attempts to reverse France’s economic stagnation, Morrison and Snyder found it likely that inequality in France only began to improve under the policies of the First Republic, namely the total overhaul of the ancien regime’s taxation system on a more progressive foundation and the redistribution of land previously owned by the nobility and the clergy.

While the United States could not be described as “feudal” except in a strictly metaphorical sense, there are parallels even here. The American system is notoriously inefficient and complex, riddled with exemptions and benefits even less affluent middle-class people have to consult a private service like Jackson Hewitt to effectively navigate, and at the same time offers fewer tangible benefits to the average taxpayer compared to other developed nations like low- or no-tuition higher education and universal state-subsidized health care. The effective corporate tax rate in the United States was actually relatively high compared to that of some other western governments at 35%, a number conservatives never fail to invoke and which was reduced further to 21% after President Trump’s tax reform bill. Yet, through a plethora of loopholes and tax benefits, in 2017 the auto industry as a whole already paid a rate of only 21% and seven out of 30 major corporations paid less than 21%. In 2015, research published by Pew indicated that all American local and state taxation systems are regressive. While some states and localities are worse than others, it means that, due to sales and excise taxes, the poor tend to pay a higher percentage of taxes than the rich. In ten states, as a result of regressive indirect taxation, the bottom 20% pay as much as seven times in taxes as the wealthy. Even worse, an article from The New York Times concluded that the 400 richest Americans pay less in taxes than the lower income brackets.

Given that income inequality has made it to the lips of American politicians in recent years, none of this may be surprising. More unexpected may be the fact that ancien regime France had its own version of “fake news” even without the convenience of its own Internet. The eighteenth century was when the modern publishing industry was truly born as writers no longer had to pay for the services of a printing press themselves or rely on a rich individual or institution to be a patron. These new second-party book publishers nearly doubled the number of books published from the 1600s to the 1700s alone. While it wasn’t quite the information revolution that either the first European printing presses or the Internet would be, it did help make possible a thriving international ecosystem of writers, publishers, and readers, one that totally overwhelmed the royal censors in France whose job was to approve or ban books. Adding to an already unmanageable problem was that France neighbored Amsterdam, London, Neuchâtel, and Geneva, metropolitan centers with their own thriving book industries that existed under governments that were much more lax about censorship. The trade in smuggling and selling forbidden books promoting ideas considered subversive or blasphemous in France, many of them written by French authors, was lucrative.

The list of bestselling illegal books nearly perfectly overlaps with the most influential books of the Enlightenment, titles and authors assigned casually in college courses or which today are only of interest to specialists in French literature and history. But it also included dozens of fake memoirs and letter collections attributed to prominent figures in the French royal court — in the case of The Memoirs of Louis XV, the king himself — or anonymously written books with titles like The Scandalous Chronicle that promised readers an exclusive inside look at the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. One bestseller was Anecdotes about Mme la Comtesse du Barry, an anonymous book written by a self-described historian about King Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry, that presented her as a former prostitute who, along with her former pimp, runs and then bankrupts the country via the seduction of a lecherous and senile king. Despite the author’s claims of scholarly rigor, the book is, of course, fake news in practically every sense of the phrase. Du Barry was of working-class origins and had worked as a shop girl, but there is no evidence she was ever a prostitute. Nor was she responsible in any way for the dire financial shape of the kingdom by the time of Louis XV’s death.

Outside counterfeit memoirs and letters, fake news in eighteenth-century France led to widespread belief in the so-called pacte de famine, a conspiracy theory eighteenth century-style that held that the elites were deliberately starving the poor. The pacte de famine can be traced back to the 1760s, but it gained steam in the 1770s when the reforms of the finance minister Anne Robert Jacques Turgot targeted age-old price controls on grain in a time of bad harvests, leading to full-scale peasant riots deemed the Flour War. However, the most famous victim of eighteenth-century fake news by far was Marie Antoinette. 1781’s Historical Essay on the Life of Marie Antoinette, written from the queen’s point of view, makes Anecdotes look like a mild, respectable biography. “Catherine des Medicis, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Messalina, my deeds have surpassed yours, and if the memory of your infamies still provokes a shudder,” the author has Marie Antoinette lavishly proclaim, “if its frightful detail makes the hair stand on end and tears pour from the eyes, what sentiments will issue from knowledge of the cruel and lascivious life of Marie Antoinette…barbaric queen, adulterous wife, woman without morals, soiled with crime and debauchery, these are the titles that are my decorations.” In this and similar works, Marie Antoinette was having bisexual affairs including with her royal brothers-in-law and a long litany of guards and servants, poisoned royal ministers, murdered her eldest son, and schemed to have Paris razed. It might feel impossible to believe that such stories were taken seriously enough that the educated men who conducted Marie Antoinette’s show trial in 1793 genuinely accused her of routinely raping her own son and the heir to the throne, the Dauphin Louis. Similar tales of a “satanic cabal of elites” still captured the attention of Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and his son and inspired a man named Edgar Maddison Welch to fire on a Washington, DC pizza parlor. As the historian Robert Darnton writes in his book The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France about Anecdotes, the author of Anecdotes about Mme la Comtesse du Barry made the narrative thread of the scandals about more than just the “influence of individuals”, but rather presented the problem as “systemic, a matter of corruption at the core of the monarchy, of the monarchy itself.” Pizzagate was, beneath the insanely implausible details, a genuine condemnation of the entire Beltway elite of the United States many could sympathize with.

This still leaves open the question, how does a ruling class become so hated? In both France and the United States, there are two interlocked phenomena, the loss of faith in institutions and the widening gap between the beliefs of the general populace and the elite. Recent events, as of this writing, have sharpened this general point. Donald Trump was handed the presidency not by the popular vote, but through the electoral college. His nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, now occupies a decisive post there, despite being the least popular Supreme Court nominee since Robert Bork in 1987. In addition, his nomination now means that the lifetime-appointed and highly influential Supreme Court has four out of nine members who were nominated by presidents who did not initially win the popular vote. Even the House of Representatives often fails to, well, actually represent its voters. As the Brookings Institute found, whichever majority party wins the House also gets a “seats bonus” that is out of proportion to the number of voters.

However, the problems manage to now run even deeper than our peculiar fidelity to an electoral system designed at a time when the country was much smaller and when generally only land-owning white men were allowed to vote. Recent research published in The American Political Science Review bore out something voters have long suspected; that members of Congress from both parties act as if the general public is more right-wing than it actually is. Indeed, the list of differences between what the dominant Republican Party currently wants and what a majority of Americans want is quite lengthy. Although Americans’ views on gun control are complex and break down along partisan and gun ownership lines, generally more Americans favor stricter gun control measures. Meanwhile, Republicans under the Trump administration have blocked even moderate attempts at gun control. For example, according to a NPR poll, 94% of those polled support expanding background checks to all buyers. However, even a bipartisan effort to extend background checks to online and gun show sales has failed three times, but, while a majority of Americans oppose allowing public school teachers to be armed, the idea has gotten serious mainstream consideration from President Trump himself. In spite of the recent tax reform bill that lowered the corporate tax rate, only 24% of Americans want to see the corporate tax rate lowered and 52% instead want to see it increased. At the same time, in the face of the Trump administration’s harsh anti-immigration stance, 65% of Americans take a generally positive view of immigration. Despite some prominent and vocal defectors, Republicans in Congress still broadly oppose marijuana legalization efforts, even though 62% of Americans favor it. By now, 70% of Americans support Medicare For All and 48% back some sort of guaranteed minimum income, two policy ideas that are still among the Republicans and even, to an extent, among some Democrats treated like bizarre, fringe proposals.

With numbers like these, it is not all that surprising that Americans have little faith in their political institutions. Not many Americans ever had a lot of confidence in the presidency, but during Bill Clinton’s two terms and George W. Bush’s first term, according to Gallup, the number of people who had “very little” confidence in the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was in the 10s. By 2006, when the Great Recession broke out, that number tripled. The number dropped back to 19 by the time Barack Obama became president in 2009, but by the next year the “very little” confidence numbers were back in the 30s and have risen even further to the 40s with President Trump. Admittedly, since Gallup started measuring the approval ratings of Congress in 1974, Congress has never been particularly beloved either except in brief periods like after the 9/11 attacks. But the average disapproval range has jumped from the 30–50 range it was at through much of the 1990s to the 60–80 range since 2005. Even the Supreme Court, which is still the most approved of the United States’ branches of government, has seen its approval rating steadily drop 11% from 2000. Overall, approval ratings in the media, banks, and the medical system have also declined.

Unfortunately for historians, nothing like Gallup existed in eighteenth-century France. Even with such a handicap in play, I do believe that a similar crisis in trust can be glimpsed. For example, something like a royal approval rating actually did exist. As John Hardman noted in his biography of Louis XVI, in 1744, when Louis XV was deathly sick, 6,000 candles were lit in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Thirteen years later, after a failed assassination attempt on the king, a smaller but still sizable number of candles were placed in the cathedral. When Louis XV was on what would prove to be his deathbed in 1774, only three candles in the Cathedral were dedicated to his recovery.

In fact, for both twenty-first-century Americans and the ancien regime French, faith in organized religion has taken a hit. Again, we lack polling data, but we do know that through the eighteenth century the number of religious pamphlets and books being published and wills granting bequests to monastic houses fell throughout the century. The Marquis d’Argenson observed in his memoirs that “the philosophers and almost all people of education and good intelligence are disillusioned with our sacred religion.” Of course, multiple historical factors could be driving this decline in faith, but it is difficult not to draw parallels between the wealthy aristocratic clerics of the ancien regime and the rich mega-church evangelicals of the twenty-first-century United States. True, no prominent American evangelical has — yet — gone as far as Loménie de Brienne who expected to be named Archbishop of Paris because of his impeccable credentials even though, as Louis XVI himself quipped, he was a known atheist. Still, the two groups have in common a twisting of theology to sanctify their wealth and the status quo and a worldly political ax to grind against the social movements of their day. Essentially, in their view, the Enlightenment was as much to blame for the downfall of society and religion as feminism and gay rights today. Also, I suspect Jerry Falwell Jr., who has recently been hounded by reports about his and his wife’s mysterious relationship with a handsome young pool boy, would have benefited from comparing notes with the Père de La Ferté, a priest who served at the court of King Louis XV who had a boyfriend/pimp associated with a gay sex ring that included other clerics.

Much of this loss in confidence in institutions across the spectrum can be attributed to widely read celebrities of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Fontenelle, Helvetius, and others who were all but uniform in promoting ideas like freedom of religion, the full abolition of torture and public executions, and legalizing divorce. There were a couple of trends independent of explicit policy in favor of these ideas, like the decline in public executions for sodomy throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as a few exceptions in government policy that came very late in the history of the ancien regime, like 1787’s Edict of Tolerance which extended civil rights to Protestants and Jews (while still stopping short of offering religious liberty). Nonetheless, until 1789, the government of eighteenth-century France was rigidly unreceptive to enlightened blueprints for reform.

In addition, there were flash points where the views of the government and church were shown to diverge dramatically from those of the French literati. The case of François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre, a 21-year-old French nobleman who was tortured and executed before his body was burnt with a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary pinned to his chest, was made into a cause célèbre by Voltaire himself. De la Barre was executed for singing blasphemous songs and vandalizing a large wooden cross in the town of Abbeville under the secular government’s edicts against sacrilege and blasphemy. Voltaire’s writings on the case wrongly claimed that de la Barre was only arrested and killed because he did not take off his hat to salute a religious procession and that church authorities had incited the execution, but, regardless, de la Barre struck a vein of outrage against the Catholic Church. Less gruesome but just as pivotal was the legal scandal surrounding Joseph-Jean-François Elie Lévi, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who sued for the right to divorce his Jewish wife on the grounds that the marriage was sealed under Jewish law, which allows for divorce. Lévi’s lawyers not only argued that the Bible allowed a convert to divorce a non-Christian, but also tapped into the Enlightenment argument that indissoluble marriage placed an unrealistic burden on human beings. The parlement of Paris, which was more or less ancien regime France’s own Supreme Court, flatly rejected the suit, much to the disgust of educated opinion.

While I do think these are revealing connections between now and the past, they should not be taken as a warning that we are on the same path as France straight toward violent upheaval. Historians are among academia’s biggest spoilsports, and there are reasons why, even though there is a great deal to learn about the present and even the future from history, the history books are not oracles. Obviously, there are vast differences between the twenty-first-century United States and eighteenth-century France. The United States is a constitutional republic with a post-industrial, service economy (something that would have been incomprehensible to even the most radical, forward-thinking economist of the eighteenth century). Pre-revolutionary France had an agrarian economy that was still half a century away from industrializing and a monarchy operating under an unwritten “constitution” of precedents and traditions. Nor did the experiences and oppression of metropole France’s two largest, most oppressed minorities, Jews and Protestants, truly profoundly shape French politics and society the same way the treatment and struggles of African-Americans have formed American history.

With all those caveats in mind, 1789 (and, frankly, in of itself 1792, the year the Revolution transitioned into its infamous “Reign of Terror” phase) should loom large in this current moment of uncertainty, of growing systemic and generational poverty co-existing alongside unprecedented wealth, of anxiety over foreign interference in elections and encroaching global environmental cataclysm, and of rage against one’s leaders, elites, and even neighbors. If nothing else, the one warning to be taken away from this exercise in looking into the past is this: no one even as late as 1788 saw the events of 1789 coming.

Chad Denton

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Chad Denton is a PhD in History and is the author of “Fall of Empires: A Brief History of Imperial Collapse.”

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