Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
These lines from Yeats’s apocalyptic poem come to me as I read Citizens, Simon Schama’s definitive study of the French Revolution.
As Schama makes clear, many of the crises that erupted into open sedition under Louis XVI were due more to changing perceptions than actual problems. France of the late 18th century was hardly worse off than any other country, but its national fiber had been undermined by decades of muckraking journalism and excessive criticism of the government (sometimes lewd and pornographic in nature), coupled with a cynical mood in philosophy and morals. Now compare that with the level of obstructionism among certain elements in this country today, not only on the left but increasingly on the far right. Nor is it surprising that the two extremes will frequently combine against the middle, often for no other reason than exploitative publicity seeking rather than hard principles.
The danger is that when you have people who insist there is no chance of political reform, only collapse and radical change, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In the France of the 1770s and ‘80s there were similar challenges to reform on the part of entrenched vested interests as well as the ideological rebels. Schama makes the daring observation that the revolution originated at the top — from disaffected and self-seeking aristocrats who long had an axe to grind with the crown, who wanted to use the discontent of the lower orders for their own ends. As so often happens in revolutions, that discontent grew out of control and the mob turned on its masters. We know how that happens on the left. But it can also happen when desperate conservatives foolishly attempt to dabble in the volatile mix of crisis politics and heated populism. In 1933 Adolf Hitler exploited “useful idiots” on the right to gain his electoral victory.
Many of the grievances against the French system under Louis XVI were legitimate. But every time the king attempted genuine reform, he was thwarted and eventually blamed for the failure of others. His enemies weren't interested in making the existing order better. Of course, the biggest challenge for the French monarchy was that (unlike England or the United States) it lacked "voter confidence" because it was wedded to a clumsy and unpopular absolutism. In our own time, the problem is that extremists across the spectrum would undermine the representative, moderate nature of our institutions, resulting in similar levels of disaffection. While no system is perfect, violent polemics exaggerate society’s difficulties while distracting people from long-term, responsible solutions.