The French Revolution: Interpretations & Causes

We are not supposed to like the French Revolution too much. We acknowledge the virtues of its founding principles, liberal notions that persist to this day: liberty, equality and 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sfraternity. When it comes to the public killing of aristocrats and royalist sympathizers, however, we condemn the Reign of Terror as an early form of totalitarianism, where the state decides who lives and who dies, who serves the common good and who threatens it. Liberalism praises the slow, organic process of evolution, of gradual reform reached through negotiation and compromise. It opposes the bloody and righteous severing of a new order from the status quo. Such a righteousness crusade, it is claimed, leads to the ends outweighing the means, inevitably resulting in purges and deliberate famines — or even outright genocide. In the popular imagination, the guillotine represents not just the specific time of the Terror, but also an early form of state-sanctioned terrorism. It is the epitome of the state using political violence to quash dissenters and silence critics. In a liberal and pluralistic society such as ours, where freedom of thought and speech are valued, the Terror stands as an aberration, a warning to us that the French Revolution ultimately betrayed its noble goals of bringing France from feudalism to modernity.

The problem with this perspective is that it presumes peaceful pacts toward progress are the norm. The reality is that harsh departures from the past are sometimes necessary. In the context of the French Revolution, the victory of liberal republicanism was not assured; on the contrary, it was under constant and continuous assault by an array of reactionary forces. Noble émigrés, religious peasants, and foreign invaders all desired a return to the traditional feudal system. Moreover, the revolutionaries themselves competed to shape the final product of their social upheaval. Constitutional monarchists, moderate liberals and radical utopians from the middle class shifted between allegiances with aristocratic reformers, the urban poor and starving peasants as they sought to steer the revolutionary state through uncharted waters to the unknown shore of a more just and prosperous society. Unlike “the Party” in George Orwell’s 1984 that desires only power for its own sake, even the most despotic figures in the latter stages of the Revolution believed they were imposing order to lay the foundation for a better world. They wanted to wreck any chance of the old order restoring itself, and while in the short-term they failed, in the long-run they succeeded. They showed that society arranged according to the feudal era was in essence antagonistic to the class relations created by the socioeconomic and cultural changes witnessed in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution made the French Revolution unavoidable. The French Revolution in turn has undermined the ability of tyrants and oligarchs worldwide to rule, their very regimes constantly called into question.

Monarchs wielded political power after the Revolution (and inexplicably still do in many countries), but never in the same way again. Common laborers, though failing to achieve many of their demands, came away realizing the potential of people power. Most importantly, power in France shifted irreversibly to the bourgeoisie. Although many would become supporters of imperialism (under Bonaparte) or the monarchy (the Legitimists and Orléanists), they believed such regimes would be the best for France, not because they desired to exclude themselves from politics. The French Revolution taught its contemporaries and continues to teach future generations about their ability to affect incredible political and social transformations when adequately organized.

Interpreting the French Revolution

In academia, debate rages over two rival interpretations of the French Revolution. The classic Marxist interpretation, associated with historians Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, describes the Revolution as a bourgeois uprising against feudalism to obtain the economic freedom to develop early capitalism. Revisionist historians like Albert Cobban and François Furet argue that the Revolution did not advance the development of France into a capitalist state, and rather than a equalizing event, regard it as a precursor to totalitarianism. In their view, the Revolution was more about barbarism than progress.

It is rather comforting to find parallels between the killings of the Terror and, say, the 172px-cruikshank_-_the_radicals_armskilling fields of Cambodia. It is easy to lump the two together and condemn them both. This knee-jerk judgement rests on the fallacious presumption that, historically, liberal democracy has relatively little blood on its hands. Truthfully, liberalism was just as violent as fascism and communism in remaking the social fabric, especially in its promotion of capitalism. Marx never wrote about the French Revolution, but he wrote extensively about the blossoming of capitalism. He makes it clear that capitalism and classical liberal views about free trade and individualism did not grow peacefully out of feudalism; they destroyed it and replaced it. We remain ignorant of this fact because textbooks recount the killing of kings and nobles, but are largely silent on the main victims of early capitalism: the peasants and craftsmen who once enjoyed secure places under feudalism.  The turn to commercial agriculture and industrialization that defined the Industrial Revolution uprooted these people and removed their very livelihoods. They could either cling to the old ways or become workers in the new proletariat class. Marx writes eloquently not just about their exploitation under capitalism, but also about their alienation and creation of a false consciousness. People who had at least been connected to their labor under feudalism became unskilled wage-earners. The whole of their economic activity fell under the control of the developing bourgeoisie.

Even in places where the liberal replacement of feudalism went mostly unopposed, such as England and the nascent United States, regular people suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The major difference between those cases and France is that the bourgeois revolutionaries of the French Revolution attempted to create a new society in a matter of years, not decades or centuries. As we shall see, vested interests fought intensely to deny that. In 1800, it was possible for Jeffersonian republicans to lead a political revolution in the U.S., but in 2016, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than a major change to the political or economic system. Similarly, in 1789, the idea of challenging a feudal system that had ruled France for over 600 years was considered extremist and dangerous. That is, however, what the Revolution sought to do, and in so doing, inspired generations of people to question the present order and struggle to create a better world.

We should also consider the path France could have taken had it undergone peaceful reform rather than violent revolution. There is no assurance it would have become a liberal democracy. Barrington Moore touches on this in his seminal work on dictatorship and democracies. In Germany and Russia, the nobility allied with the bourgeoisie to organize industrialization through state-directed initiatives. When those countries underwent revolutions circa World War I, the republics that emerged were too weak to rule, leading to states of alternative ideologies. These states attempted to impose their own systems and principles as the liberal order they opposed, but with the swiftness and audacity of the French Revolution. Many observers take this to mean the French Revolution inspired fascism and Bolshevism. It is more apt to say Bolshevism and fascism were inspired by liberalism and how it forged new views of seeing the world. We often take for granted that the default ideas and systems of today were once considered radical and revolutionary.

The Absolute Monarchy

In order to understand the causes of the 1789 Revolution, it is necessary to consider both long-standing structural problems as well as more short-term crises that prompted a complete social collapse. To start, France was (ostensibly) an absolute monarchy in 1789, with power primarily centralized in the throne. While we might think feudalism is inherently dictatorial, in fact the opposite is true. The cornerstone of feudalism is vassalage: regional counts and barons ruling at the local level, but swearing their fealty to a higher lord. The king (or queen) was at the very top of the social pyramid, but his (or her) rule depended on the continued obedience of the vassals. To keep those vassals mollified, it was common practice for monarchs to extend their nobles special rights. The most infamous of these was the droit du seigneur (or jus primae noctis) that permitted nobles to have sexual relations with their female subjects on their wedding nights. There is no actual proof French lords (or any European nobles) invoked this right. French nobles did, however, exercise rights to rents from those who worked on their estates or domains, as well as a percentage of the crops harvested by peasants on the nobles’ lands.

It was not until the 17th century that the French monarchy began to erode the liberties vassals enjoyed under feudalism. These, of course, were the freedoms that protected nobles from the power of the monarchy. For example, French nobles had been able to take complaints on royal overreach to appellate courts called parlements (not to be confused with English parliaments) that would invalidate regal pronouncements if they infringed on convention. (Compare this to the unwritten constitution that still perseveres in British politics to this day.) The 16th century had closed with wars of religion across Europe, as the Protestant Reformation ruptured the glue that held the feudal order together: Catholicism. Cardinal 290px-richelieu2c_por_philippe_de_champaigne_28detalle29Richelieu, the de facto head of the French government and well-known nemesis to the Three Musketeers in Dumas’ novel, sought to keep France in a strong position on the Continent and to profit from the disorder caused by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Local lords were brought to heel and the religious tolerance of Protestants was revoked. Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, furthered these policies until the nobility tried in vain to reassert its power independent from the crown in a series of civil wars that finally ended in 1653. In the meantime, Louis XIV of France, the so-called “Sun King,” grew up as a child king, accustomed to unrivaled power. Under his reign, from 1643 to 1715, France was perpetually involved in wars over succession disputes, expansionism and counter-expansionism. France had become the hegemonic power of early modern Europe and behaved as such, diplomatically and militarily.

The Aristocracy & Bourgeoisie

The French nobility, although having lost some of its autonomy, remained quite powerful. The upper ranks of the military and the clergy, the pillars of absolutism supporting the crown, included only nobles. The most affluent attended the royal court at Versailles, engaged in intrigues and entertainment, living off the taxes and duties leveled on the peasants who worked their land. (Some hereditary peers living in rural areas, however, fared little better than the peasants they lived beside.) For those outside the noble class, it 197px-charles-alexandre_de_calonne_-_vigc3a9e-lebrun_1784was possible to become ennobled through the sale of judicial and administrative offices. In the 17th century, the sale of offices was so common in order to fund constant warfare that, in the 18th century, access to the nobility became much more restrictive. The hereditary nobility had contempt for the bourgeoisie “diluting” their class through the purchase of a savonette à vilain (the commoners’ soap). The bourgeoisie who had already bought their way into the nobility also had incentive to block others from reaching their level, as they wanted their titles to become hereditary as well, securing fortunes for future generations. By 1789, social climbing was still possible, but much more daunting for members of the bourgeoisie. They were paying for the operation of the state, but were excluded from participation: a form of taxation without representation. This was a huge motivation for revolution.

The very nature of the French economy also discriminated against the bourgeoisie. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the Sun King, had implemented a mercantilist system that featured heavy protectionist policies meant to develop French industries by promoting exports and depressing the demand for imports. Although France never equaled the English or the Dutch in foreign trade, the French state became incredibly powerful in terms of state-led production. The early bourgeoisie were thus merged into the existing feudal structure, overseen by a powerful bureaucracy. As a result, legal defenses of property rights and private economic competition did not blossom; on the contrary, the state reigned supreme in economic matters, just as it did politically.

As discussed, members of the bourgeoisie that wanted greater power exchanged trade and 472px-new-france1750commerce for titles and fiefdoms. For example, a financial counselor to Louis XIV, Antoine Crozat, rose from peasant stock to become a wealthy merchant before purchasing the barony of Thiers in 1714. Like many other bourgeoisie of his time, Crozat was heavily involved in France’s overseas colonies. In 1712, he received a royal charter granting him dominion over all trading and moneymaking licenses in Louisiana for 15 years. Sadly for Crozat and other bourgeois colonial overlords like him, the once profitable fur trade in North America had diminished, and colonialism on the new continent never prospered for the French empire the way it would for the United Kingdom. Crozat lost around $1 million even with his trade monopoly in Louisiana. When France lost the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) with Great Britain, the peace agreement stipulated that France turn over control of its North American colonies to the British. (It would later regain Louisiana from Spain, only to sell that territory to the U.S. in the Napoleonic era.) France was humiliated, leaving the feudal system in debt and in doubt. Absolutism and mercantilism had made France the strongest country in the world, but perpetual conflict and divergent class interests had taken their toll. The government could no longer take the “commoners” for granted. Importantly, this materialistic conflict also coincided with an intellectual movement that supplied an impetus to bourgeois reformers to challenge the very character of the feudal regime.

The Enlightenment & Rousseau

Political change in the late 18th century was synonymous with the Enlightenment, a philosophical revolution that sought to bring the rigor and dispassion of scientific analysis to human behavior, including theories of government. Direct experience and concrete evidence became privileged over blind faith and static doctrines. Operating according to reason and rationality, Enlightenment philosophers argued, educated men could rule themselves rather than be ruled by feudal lords or organized religion. The French philosophes included 299px-voltairecandidfrontis2bchap01-1762Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot, the primary editor of the famous secular Encyclopédie, the most famous Enlightenment publication. It embodied the desire to provide general information to the public (or, more accurately, the literate classes.) On political issues, the philosophes opposed arbitrary power or rule through fear and superstition, but fell short of unanimously endorsing participatory democracy and universal suffrage. As men of letters, they believed in their own intelligence and judiciousness, but did not extend this faith to the illiterate, “unenlightened” masses. (It should be noted that U.S. revolutionaries like James Madison, influenced by Enlightenment ideals, argued for the “protection of the minority of the opulent from the tyranny of the minority.”) Most philosophers wanted to remove the obstacles that hindered them from realizing their skills and talents as intellectuals; this was their definition of “freedom.” In terms of enabling the impoverished, uneducated working classes to obtain the same advantages and resources they possessed, the leading lights of the Enlightenment were silent. Still, their strident atheism and devotion to reason pervades all stages of the French Revolution.

The later, more radical Revolutionary period is more accurately tied to the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a contemporary of the Enlightenment philosophes, but 190px-rousseau_in_later_lifephilosophically their opposite. In his Discourse on Inequality (1754), he argued that people are innately decent, but that institutions corrupt and degrade them. He admired the “noble savage,” primeval man innocent of education and the sciences, and his ability to live in harmony with the natural world. This looking backward with rose-tinted glasses was anathema to the philosophes. In his commentary on the work, Voltaire wrote: “One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours.” Whereas Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers saw higher learning as separating man from beasts, Rousseau believed that human morality in the raw state of nature was rough but organic. “Civilized” society brought with it private property, and by extension, inequality and disillusionment. People come into the world without distinctions or obligations; it is society that confers upon them different backgrounds and statuses, dividing them and driving them into competition with each other.

This viewpoint would become the foundation for Rousseau’s chief political work, The Social Contract (1762), which would have an immense impact on the French Revolution. He argued against an elective representative system, calling such a system “elective aristocracy,” and supported democratic rights for everyone, including women. Like Hobbes’ Leviathan, the sovereign for Rousseau is the sum of all individuals coming together and forming the “general will” – the conceptual manifestation of what is in the common interest. Each individual, motivated by virtue, willingly pledges himself or herself to the shared general will, as it comprises rudiments of each person’s desire. If there are incongruities about what should be the general will, these conflicting opinions annul each other, leaving the general will to arise naturally. This spontaneous direct democracy may sound utopian, but Rousseau was a romantic. His emphasis on emotion and virtue expressed an extensive estrangement with the world as it was. Rousseau craved dynamism and change, repressed in a cold and conservative feudal culture, and he yearned to restore the suppressed springs of life. Many shared his restive spirit, and it can be perceived in the sentimental novels and poems of Goethe, Pushkin, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and other Romantic artists. As we shall see, many of the most radical leaders of the Revolution (especially the members of the Jacobin Club) regarded Rousseau as their philosophical guide. His political theory was incompatible with the old order; it had to be overturned and destroyed, with a more virtuous popular democracy created in its place.

The role of ideology in social revolution is vital. It is important to consider how a new ruling class attempts to convince other classes to assent to its ethical, political and social values. It was not enough for the bourgeoisie to affirm their economic power in their historical moment; they had to transmit their mindsets through cultural power. As the educated class, 18th century intellectuals made a case for “rule by experts” that is still deployed in modern politics. It is the language of meritocracy: rule by talent, not birth. This argument omits that some people are born with more advantages than others. The thinkers who influenced the leaders of the Revolution articulated a negative liberty that suits the bourgeoisie: freedom from government regulation, censorship, and social immobility. This libertarian mentality is still the one most often deployed in our current politics, where government is constantly criticized for its invasion of our private lives, rather than as a democratic system of empowerment for the people.

Rousseau, however, was a deviation from the norm. He railed against inequality and argued for a positive freedom that would level the playing field in a sort of primitive 135px-rousseau_pirated_editioncommunism. It would be erroneous to draw parallels between Rousseau and Marx’s scientific socialism, as science and Rousseau’s romanticism are integrally conflicting. It is more accurate to compare Rousseau with the utopian socialists that preceded Marx: Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. Like Rousseau, these thinkers sought to spread a “new social Gospel” (as Marx and Engels call it in the Communist Manifesto) without paying due diligence to class antagonisms or revolutionary potential. In the manner of other philosophers, Rousseau plucked his idealized republic from his own imagination, more as an intellectual exercise than a program for action. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the social aspect of the French Revolution ran into great difficulty when philosophy was put into practice. The theoretical strength of Rousseau’s work did, however, form a union of bourgeois and working class interests that would take the Revolution in its final decisive direction.

The Petite Bourgeoisie & Peasantry

Minor property holders made up the bulk of the lowest stratum of the 18th century French social hierarchy. The vast majority were peasants, emancipated serfs who owned or rented land and made up the backbone of the agrarian economy. They had to pay noble lords for the “right” to use mills and wine presses required for agricultural production. In the main, they were more concerned with the concrete duties of the state — namely, to provide them with bread and security — than the changing of their social existence. As Marx observed, peasants tended to be conservative, prone to protecting their minor holdings and not putting it at risk. It is an underappreciated fact that the French peasantry were instrumental in moderating the Revolution and bringing the Terror period to an end.

In the cities and towns, factories were still a relatively new development, and the proletarian class was small. There were, however, artisans and craftspeople that produced basic consumer goods. There were also traders and shopkeepers that sold them. Marx referred to this class as the “little” or “petite” bourgeoisie. In the context of the French Revolution, 176px-sans-culottethey are known as the sans-culottes, so called because they wore trousers rather than the knee breeches of the upper classes. In 1789, the bourgeoisie had been so squeezed by war and economic crisis that the “little bourgeoisie” was essentially indistinguishable from common urban laborers. Like peasants, their priority for joining the Revolution was greater economic security and the provision of food at fair prices. The sans-culottes saw the benefits of the philosophical principles espoused by the “big bourgeois,” but their continued support for the revolutionary government depended on whether their more immediate basic needs were met. They were willing to give their support to any government that would intervene in the economy to ensure an affordable price for food, whatever its philosophical principles. If the bourgeois members of the Revolution hungered for freedom, the sans-culottes simply hungered for bread.

Bread and Taxes

In 1774, newly crowned King Louis XVI appointed the economically liberal finance minister Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Turgot sought to improve France’s economic situation by liberalizing commerce, subscribing to a “laissez faire” philosophy. This included deregulating the grain industry, which was significantly monitored and policed by the state. Grain merchants tended to hoard their grain rather than sell it, inflating the price and raising their profits. They would also dilute flour with other material, including chalk and grinded-up bone. This caused the working classes to riot in 1775, in the “Flour War.” The riots were put down by force. Although the riots indicated the precariousness of the feudal regime, the negative impact of economic freedom on affordable food was a working class grievance, not a bourgeois one. As such, bread alone fell short of cutting across class differences and inducing revolution. The bourgeoisie would not be motivated to commit to insurrection until the monarchy attempted to do the most vile sin in the eyes of bourgeoisie anywhere, everywhere: the government tried to raise its taxes.

France had joined the American Revolution around the same time as the Flour War, 320px-surrender_of_general_burgoyneseeking revenge for the embarrassment England had inflicted on the French by taking France’s North American colonies. The American Revolution succeeded and humbled the English, but it cost France 520 million livres in loans, issued at incredible interest rates. A series of finance ministers all wanted to raise taxes, but French appellate courts all feared higher taxes would place more of a burden on the nobility (especially the bourgeoisie who had bought their way into the nobility precisely to escape taxation). These courts, once rendered irrelevant to royal diktat, reasserted their influence and blocked the increasingly vulnerable crown in its desperate attempt to raise more funds.

To break the impasse, the king assembled the Estates-General, an assembly made up of representatives from the three estates of the realm: those who prayed (the clergy), those who fought (the nobility) and those who worked (the commoners). It had not been summoned for over a century, and it in no way mirrored the complex and multilayered reality of 18th century French society. It did, however, provide an avenue by which the monarchy could, with the help of the old nobility, impose a greater tax burden on the bourgeoisie. The calling of the Estates-General, however, had a major unintended consequence: it gathered the bourgeoisie together and gave them a platform by which they could express their dissatisfaction with the regime. The concerns of the poor masses went unheeded; the delegates of the Third Estate were uniformly called from the “big” and “little” bourgeoisie. As such, the Estates-General was primed for a bourgeois hijacking.

A political pamphlet entitled What Is the Third Estate? by Abbé Sieyès became the unofficial bourgeois manifesto. He called for double representation of the Third Estate – 320px-estatesgeneralthat is, the Third Estate having twice as many members as the other two estates combined. He also asserted that all three estates should meet together instead of separately, as was custom. With votes counted numerically rather than by status, the Third Estate would essentially control the political agenda. The nobility and clergy would essentially have token representation but little influence. Most of the representatives from the Second Estate, parish priests rather than bishops and archbishops, sympathized with the Third Estate. This was because many low-ranking priests were the second or third sons of the bourgeoisie. A handful of nobles also defected to the Third Estate, the most famous being Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans. He belonged to a cadet branch of the ruling Bourbon dynasty and supported a constitutional monarchy. When the Third Estate finally met in Versailles, in June 1789, it proclaimed itself a National Assembly. Far from semantics, the bourgeois delegates consciously distanced themselves from the Estates-General and thereby all the trappings of the feudal past. The crown was not amused. Barred from their meeting hall, the Assembly met in a nearby tennis court, and swore the Tennis Court Oath: a pledge to not convene until they had drafted a new constitution for France. Public support swung to the National Assembly, especially in the cities.

Like the 320px-le_serment_du_jeu_de_paumeAmerican Revolution, the French Revolution was posed to be bourgeois revolution. The old system depended on the fruit of capitalism but shunned capitalists. Encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy, the bourgeoisie made a case for society being constituted around them. Despite their conviction, they preferred reform to violence. The Revolution, however, would not proceed as the bourgeoisie alone wanted; they could not impose themselves on the other classes. The monarchy especially would resist the abandonment of feudalism. The nobility, with some exceptions, wanted to retain their feudal privileges and opposed modifying France’s economic orientation, as they were its main beneficiaries, along with the crown. Most nobles feared what would happen if their minor commercial investments had to compete in a more liberal economy. Some open-minded aristocrats favored a constitution to give certain bourgeois freedoms legal backing, but they did not want to be made a secondary or even symbolic element of society. They were “superior” to the “common” people by their very nature, and did not want to be subordinated to them – especially when some noble families had spent decades clawing their way up from peasant or merchant stock into the upper classes. Those nobles that did defect to the bourgeoisie envisioned some form of advisory role for themselves in the new system, similar to the oversight function of the House of Lords in Great Britain.

Storming the Bastille

In July 1789, Louis XVI sacked Jacques Necker, his reformist finance minister. Necker had not respected the Estates-General as anything other than a means toward changing the tax system. It was rumored, however, that he supported political reform if it meant coming closer to resolving France’s major economic problems. The royal dismissal of Necker indicated to the bourgeoisie that the monarchy refused to brook any challenge to its authority. For the working classes, this meant that a suppression of dissent would not be long in coming. They had experienced the pattern over numerous uprisings, including the recent Flour War. The entire Third Estate, bourgeois and laborers alike, realized that the monarchy would use its most powerful extension, the military, to quell any rebellion.

Both groups sought weapons, and it made sense that arms could be found at the Bastille, a medieval fortress prison that stood in the center of Paris. Its presence represented the antiquated, passé ideas of the Middle Ages. In function, it served a state that operated according to dictatorial measures that afforded no respect to the average person. Bourgeois 320px-prise_de_la_bastilleleaders sought to negotiate with the soldiers holding the Bastille, and even accepted an invitation to breakfast with the fortresses’ governor. Apprehension gripped the sans-culottes that were present, however, as time was not on their side. They were acutely aware that the army would start massacring residents in the poorer Paris districts at any moment. The masses fought their way forward, raging through the prison, releasing inmates and seizing gunpowder. Fighting erupted, but the Bastille governor surrendered when the rebels fixed cannon on his men. The raiders killed the governor and placed his head on the bike. Other members of the garrison also died. The Republic rewarded the original Bastille insurgents with medals, and mostly, they were sans-culottes. They had the most to lose if there was a counterrevolution, and thus were the most proactive in wanting to neutralize a potential reprisal by the state. The “big bourgeoisie” may have dominated the Assembly, but it was the “little bourgeoisie” and the urban poor who directed the Revolution from below.

In the countryside, the collapse of central authority throughout July 1789 resulted in the “Great Fear,” major peasant revolts that featured improvised farmer self-defense leagues commandeering manor houses. Peasants feared that, with all the unrest in the capital, they would continue to be ignored unless they took matters into their own hands. They also knew that by taking control of noble estates that they would be massacred if the Revolution failed. In the meantime, bandits would exploit the lawlessness of a divided France to prey on the vulnerable peasantry. All this chaos led to the hysterical hoarding of weapons and property. Bit by bit, the regular people of France were dismantling the old regime and throwing their support behind the National Assembly. The slate had been cleared; the question became what new system should be created in place of the old one.

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The Truth About the “Great Surge”

Steven Radelet, Georgetown’s Donald F. McHenry Chair of Global Humansurge Development and former USAID chief economist, recently published a new book, The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World, the gist of which is that life has actually gotten better for people in the Global South. Radelet credits this improvement to the effects of globalization and developmental aid programs. He also takes great issue with how international development has traditionally been portrayed pessimistically by scholars such as William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, and with the general negative view of international development presented by the mass media.

Radelet belongs to the Jeffrey Sachs faction of the great international development debate, and the two have collaborated in the past. Sachs soared to great recognition and renown in recent decades, enlisting the support of celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Bono in his grandiose crusade to eradicate extreme poverty and advance the quality of life for the planet’s poorest people. However, Sach’s failure to achieve his ambitious goal and his hubristic character as chronicled in Nina Munk’s 2013 book The Idealist did much to diminish his star. Radelet went untarnished in Sach’s fall from grace, but his decision (or the decision of his publisher) to prominently feature Bono’s exultation of Radelet’s description of “humanity’s greatest hits” on his book’s back cover does him no favors. Somewhat tellingly, only one academic – Larry Diamond – features in the choir of admirers displayed on the rear flap, with the rest being political leaders (Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whom Radelet advises), establishment D.C. policy wonks and, of course, a celebrity philanthropist. To be fair, the book is not intended as a academic treatise, but more as an attempt to persuade the average person to be far more sanguine about the mission to develop the regions of the world judged to be “left behind.”

According to the Radelet, the good news is this: more and more people in the developing world are escaping poverty, incomes are on the rise, and basic needs like health care and access to education have improved. He ascribes these positive trends to increased economic growth, declining population growth rates and the advantages of individual freedoms ushered in by widespread transitions to liberal democratic systems. In other words, the status quo is working, and rather than getting worse, the developing world is witnessing the “great surge” that could see it catch up with its wealthy counterparts among the advanced industrialized nations. Granted, Radelet does not guarantee that this will happen, and conditions further success on “strong leadership” and greater “market integration.” He makes particularly good cases for rich nations to combat climate change (as higher temperatures and more frequent natural disasters will hit the Global South hardest) and for greater representation of the Global South in the international institutions that set development agendas.

Essentially, what Radelet writes is what the development community wants to hear. He picks and chooses anecdotes and statistics that, when taken in isolation, reassure those who want to believe the current programs and policies are working and doing good. He adopts the tactic of the policy memo: presenting facts and tidbits without context and circumstance, yet when listed all at once appear to convey a complete analysis of a subject or issue. Upon closer inspection, the proof Radelet offers read less like a list of “humanity’s greatest hits,” as Bono put it, and more a disturbing reflection of the Global South’s underdevelopment.

Let us first take the claim that millions of people are no longer impoverished and that incomes are on the upswing. On this front, thepoverty work of Jason Hickel, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, is very valuable. Hickel has demonstrated that how groups like the World Bank define poverty is very misleading, such as how the Bank has modified the International Poverty Line (IPL) from $1.02 per day to $1.08 per day to most recently $1.25 per day. Thanks to such shifting goalposts, millions of people have rendered “out” of poverty. However, if you take the view that $1.25 per day is not a high enough benchmark, and that a person requires at least $5 a day, then 80% of people in the world are living in poverty, according to the World Bank’s own World Development Indicators.

What, then, about the “success stories” among emerging markets, like the so-called “BRICS” countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)? The problematic history of that Goldman Sachs buzzword aside, the key point is that, even as those countries have undergone continuous stages of economic growth, the wealth created by that growth has not been distributed equally. Throughout OECD countries, the average income of the wealthiest 10% is approximately nine times that of the poorest 10% of the population. This is an increase of seven times from 25 years ago. Even in instances where income inequality has decreased, the most affluent members of society enjoy incomes 25 times greater than their poorest citizens. In other words, even if the poorest people in the developing world are getting more, what they are actually getting is the scraps falling through the rapacious hands of domestic upper classes.

What is more, it remains questionable just how viable “success stories” like the BRICS are in the long-term. It has become a common trend for a developing country or group of developing countries (the Asian Tigers, other economic “miracles”) to experience astonishing growth, only to eventually stutter, decline or implode. This is because, as scholars like Oswaldo de Rivero have noted, these periods of economic growth result from enormously capricious injections of foreign capital based on financial speculation. China, for example, may have become the assembly plant for the industrialized world, but it still lags behind in terms of being an innovative technological contributor to the global economy. Apple products may be assembled in Chinese factories, but the investment in research and development is firmly taking place in San Francisco. Additionally, most African and Latin American countries are still reliant on the minerals and raw exports that made them so desirable in the colonial period. If such countries were actually modernizing their exports and growing their high-tech industries, that would be far more indicative of a “great surge” in the developing world than the orthodox neoliberal panacea of growth alone.

In fact, that the developing world is still contingent on the attitudes of foreign investors is evidenced by the recent news that emerging marketsMcol_money_bag.svg have underwent the most significant case of capital flight since the 1980s due to the declining value of raw materials. The Financial Times reported last year that the Institute of International Finance predicted foreign investment to emerging markets to drop to rates beneath those observed after the 2008 financial crisis, with total capital outflows reaching $540 billion. Countries like Brazil have attempted to mitigate the damage of such outflows by encouraging domestic producers through lowering interest rates and cutting public sector salaries. In the end, however, private businesses have repeatedly chosen more profit over more production, engaging in currency gambling and other forms of financial speculation. Consequently, the once dynamic Chinese economy is on the downturn, while Brazil is headed to its worst economic crisis since 1901.

So not everything is rosy for the developing world in terms of economic development. What about Radelet’s claims about betterments in human development? This may have less to do with ability of poor states to provide more services for their people than it does with the boom in non-government agencies (NGOs) filling a void created by the West in these states. In much of the developing world, Western-based international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have conditioned loans to struggling developing countries on the adoption of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), which are basically neoliberal policy prescriptions: less economic regulation, privatization of public utilities, and cuts to social spending. As the states in these countries shrink, NGOs enter the scene, essentially replacing the state as providers of social goods. If there have been increases in literacy rates and drops in child mortality, we have to wonder if this is because developing countries are increasing their capacity to care for their citizens or if NGOs, backed by powerful charitable foundations, have been effective in hiving off welfare responsibilities that are, in the West, considered to be state duties.

Some might say that the question is irrelevant; a literate and healthy child is still a literate and healthy child, regardless of how he or she becomes that way. Besides, as Radelet points out, declining child mortality means families in developing countries have less children, which in turn means less of a burden on those countries in terms of food and energy consumption. In addition, human rights and democracy advocacy NGOs act as “watchdogs” on behalf of the people they serve, working to battle corruption and expose abuses of power, discrimination, torture and so on. For those whom only results matter, there should be little problem with this reliance on NGOs to make lives better for long-suffering populations.

We should ask ourselves, however, about the implications of NGOs, “civil society” and other “third sector” groups taking up the role of the state in providing social services, and who really benefits from this operation. Thengos answer is obvious: multinational corporations and neoliberal ideologues who believe that states should concentrate on maximizing profits and growth, not on taking care of the neediest and most vulnerable elements of society. NGOs and “civil society” treat poverty, malnourishment and illiteracy as problems in and of themselves, when the reality is that these things are the product of a larger system where a few prosper and the masses suffer. In other words, they work to heal the symptoms, but not to cure the disease. Of course, such work is better than nothing, in the same way a food drive or homeless shelter has value; but much more valuable is devising the means to reform the system so that hunger and homelessness are abolished entirely. In that respect, the work done by NGOs and “civil society” groups is important, but not nearly sufficient for real change.

In fact, John Harriss in Depoliticizing Development illustrates how NGOs effectively dampen or remove the grievances that would otherwise birth and foster social movements that could lead to long-term, far-reaching reforms and even revolutions. People in developing countries who would otherwise be protesting or taking up arms about the failures of their leaders to provide for them are depoliticized, made docile and accepting of their conditions. This is in stark contrast to what happened in most of the West during the Industrial Revolution, where the brutal condition of the working classes led to the blooming of highly efficient trade union movements, general strikes and political campaigns for everything from universal suffrage to universal health care to safer working conditions. The fact that the vast majority of the developed world (except the U.S.) has socialized medicine is not a testament to the altruism of Western leaders; universal health care had to be fought for, won and protected. In the developing world, however, social services are becoming “social enterprises” – with local “entrepreneurs” taught that health care and education are not public goods to be championed for all, but lucrative businesses with fellow citizens regarded as clients and consumers.

Who needs revolutions, though, when democracy is on the rise in the developing world? Radelet argues that, since the end of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union are no longer fighting proxy wars,320px-Election_MG_3455.JPG propping up dictators like Mobutu and Pinochet, so once suppressed pro-democracy movements are being allowed to flourish. Radelet notes that not all countries that call themselves “democratic” actually are so; he concedes that just because Robert Mugabe permits elections and signs “power-sharing” agreements does not make Zimbabwe a true democracy. Instead, he relies on democracy indices like Freedom House and Polity IV, groups that measure things like checks on executive power, competitive legislatures, civil rights and personal freedoms. They then ascribe them scores based on those measures. Radelet admits that the ratings of countries in the developing world are imperfect, that there have been flawed elections and scandals, but he argues that developed countries have also seen their fair share of governmental gridlock and indignities.

The problem is that democracy means different things to different people. Freedom House, for example, is known for prioritizing rights and freedoms, including instances of “economic liberty” – the ease of doing business in a country, for example. It is therefore possible that a country an arguably too-powerful executive that nevertheless adopts a laissez-faire attitude – including when it comes to markets – could be seen as making progress in transitioning to democracy. Indeed, studies have shown that Freedom House rankings of countries have tended to correspond to neoliberal narratives concerning democratization. Other measures of democracy highlight phenomena like political participation and contestation, but these rubrics are problematic too. Just because two or three political parties rotate in and out of government, how much room is there to implement actual change and to challenge vested interests? If most voters stay home during elections, is that a sign of freedom of choice, or an indication that democracy is failing because engagement is low?

An even bigger problem arises in the shift from a minimalist, election-oriented and process-focused definition of democracy and move to a more comprehensive definition that includes facets of social and economic justice. If we accept that (arguably token) representation is not enough, that elections are meaningless unless real change is possible, and that there should be a general commitment to limiting and even eliminating social ills, then the standards for democracy are raised significantly, and the scores of (ostensibly) democratic countries drop – across the board, admittedly. However, the question must be asked: why not push all countries to aspire toward the highest measures of economic and human development, such as that of the Nordic model? We answer this question by posing the same question mentioned before: Who benefits? To whose advantage is it to keep the metrics for democratization minimal?

The inherent promise of neoliberalism once the Cold War ended was that unfettered markets and greater openness would bring peace and prosperity, especially to those nations that had been outside “the free world” and the U.S. sphere of influence. There has thus been a strong incentive to show that promise is being delivered on. The U.S. model, the Washington Consensus, and World Bank and IMF prescriptions are the “truths” that must be proven and reinforced. Setting a low bar for democratization belies the fact that, globally, democracy is essentially the “only game in town,” much in the same way monarchy and autocracy were the governmental norms before World War I. Fascism and Soviet-style communism simply lack the capital they had in the 1920s and 1930s. Granted, China practices one-party rule, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but China lacks both the desire and the means to project its model in the same manner as the U.S. and its allies did during the Cold War and after. The international discourse from 1945 on, from the Western perspective, is that elections and personal liberties (primarily of the negative liberty variety) are the appropriate systems for states.

For the most part, countries in the developing world have been willing to go through the motions, which is precisely why we have such an abundance of “hybrid regimes” – countries that persist in showing how flawed indices that purport to measure democracy are. Elites know that if they have (mostly) fair elections, if they ease business regulations, if they allow a squabbling and likely ineffective parliament to form, they will receive a largely arbitrary ranking (what exactly is the difference between a “4” and a “5” in a democracy index, anyway?). They then get an influx of aid and support from the U.S. and its allies as a potential “success story.”

More and more academics have been looking less at cases of overall democratic transition and more at surveys inquiring about democratic satisfaction in developing countries. Unsurprisingly, many people in these countries like the idea of democracy, but do not believe that the democratic system is working properly in their country. Some scholars argue that a high level of democratic dissatisfaction is positive, because it demonstrates that such people are “critical citizens” who will aggressively and assertively fight to make their governments more transparent and accountable. The problem with this theory is that there is little indication that dissatisfied democracy advocates are more politically active than others; they are not so much a vanguard of democratic activists than representative of a growing concern that, for all the steps toward the democracy promoted by the West, the advantages they have come to expect are not manifesting. The neoliberal promise appears broken.

Admittedly, all this being said, it does not appear as though Maoist revolutions are brewing across the developing world (events in Nepal and Angry_mob_of_fourIndia notwithstanding). Even if the sunny alternative Radelet offers to the so-called “doom-and-gloom” view of development is wrong, it would also be mistaken to claim that the Global South is on the cusp of an extensive rebellion against the neoliberal West. However, there are plentiful signs of unrest to be observed. The “pink tide” that swept over Latin America in past decades, as well as the Chiapas conflict in Mexico, indicate that for many people in those countries, especially among the indigenous populations, there are stark injustices that still need to be addressed. The current phenomena of the Islamic State is rooted not so much in Sunni-Shia tensions as it is a long-standing political Islamism that seeks to challenge the hegemonic integration of the Islamic world. In Africa, there is spreading concern that not only will the continent continue to suffer from continued dependency on Western markets (with a major debt crisis on the way), but also there is now a new “scramble for Africa” – this time on the part of the “successful” emerging markets. Meanwhile, in the industrialized world, popular anger and anxieties are even more evident, from the rise of racist nationalists (Svoboda, Golden Dawn, Trump) to left-wing radicals (Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn). If the argument behind international development has always been “a rising tide lifts all boats,” the world at present seems not so much like a buoyant ocean than an angry and boisterous tempest, a storm of rage and apprehension.

The truth is that Radelet is not wrong about a “great surge” having occurred, but it is not the ascent of the developing world, as he claims. Instead, it is the ongoing and deepening stratification of the world system, with globalization and the neoliberal agenda having further consolidated the gap between the extremely wealthy and the impoverished masses. His book is not an accurate representation of the world as it is, but instead the latest creation of an industry that profits on selling the idea that the status quo is not broken or corrupt, but on the contrary, is working as intended. Unfortunately, it is the assessment of a realist, not a pessimist, that from the developing world to the developed world, things have gotten worse.

The Capitalist Peace, Dependency Theory, and Imperialism

We are living in an age of capitalist peace, at least according to some scholars. It may seem unlikely that capitalism, which even its most ardent defenders admit is based on stratification, would foster peaceful relations between people, but there is no shortage of scholarly pieces devoted to the analysis of how trade and interstate conflict interact. While surveying several works on this topic, from the sanguine to the skeptical, it becomes clear that there are aspects of the theory, ranging from the arrangement of the international economic order to the drive of capital accumulation, that are missing from studies that could potentially greatly benefit from their conclusion. Although dependency theory and imperialism are no longer popular in academia as they once were, they do offer perspectives that would serve to make academic studies of the “capitalist peace” more critical and more robust.

More than two centuries after Kant advanced it, the validity of the claim that liberal states are pacific in their relations with other liberal state continues to attract scholarly interest. One of the key arguments articulated in its defense is that liberal states prefer peace as it fosters trade, and as states become integrated into the global marketplace, the costs of conflict are outweighed by the profits of peace. Oneal and Russett (1997) declared this assertion correct after performing a rigorous analysis of data from the post-WWII period320px-McDonalds_Times_Square that illustrated a “separate peace” between liberal states during the Cold War built around shared democratic values and economic interdependence. In a later study, Lupu and Traag (2013) extend this argument further, arguing that indirect trade between members of joint trade communities is as instrumental as direct economic linkages in discouraging conflict, as war generates negative externalities for the trade partners of combatants in addition to the combatants themselves. As trading communities tend to be geographically clustered, they see the influence of indirect trade dependence as the driving factor behind increased regional security agreements in the era of globalization. Trade, from the perspective of these authors, acts as the classical liberals said it would: bringing states together in a “harmony of interests,” where the clarity of gains from tranquility and cooperation would logically overtake and supplant the primal desire of “winner take all.”

What is missing from the above accounts is a consideration of the historical conditions that shaped the “separate peace” enjoyed by liberal states during the postwar era. For example, there was a conscious attempt by the triumphant Allies not to repeat the “Carthaginian peace” of the Treaty of Versailles, which had led to economic collapse and 171px-Europe_Plan_Marshall._Poster_1947a surge in radical politics. Instead, the wealth and might of the United States was directed toward rebuilding the infrastructure of the defeated Axis nations while simultaneously reshaping their politics to be amenable to the support and expansion of U.S. hegemonic power, both in Western Europe and East Asia. The peace that followed was less an organic development and more a purposive political project to shore up support for Washington while also countering the communist critique of capitalism broadcasting from Moscow. To extrapolate from the experiences of the great powers a natural, normal emanation of liberal values is to ignore the critical compulsions those powers had to abide in order to protect and project the interests of capital at the historical moment. The impact of economic power from the developed world onto the developing world is much more telling, as it reveals much more about the hierarchical nature of global capitalism.

Several scholars that have written on economic interdependence and conflict have broached this topic. Morrow (1999), in expressing skepticism that trade prevents conflict, notes that economic interdependence leaves poorer states inclined to preserve the status quo, making their coercion more likely. Moreover, powerful states can utilize economic linkages to send costly signals to their partners, damaging trade flows but nevertheless successfully imposing their will on others. Gartzke, et al (2001) build on this by demonstrating how countries dependent on capital investment are especially at risk of economic disruption brought on by a communication of resolve from a capital-rich partner. In their view, trade itself can be a medium of conflict as wealthy countries push their agenda on poor ones.

For those countries that have existed in a state of underdevelopment in the postwar era, this should not come as news. The work of dependency theorists like Andre Gunder Frank (1966) and Samir Amin (1976) explains in detail how developing countries find their economic and political options placed largely out of their hands due to their involvement in391px-Imagination_Graphique_64_Capital the world economy organized and orchestrated by the affluent industrialized countries. Required to follow neoliberal policy prescriptions to access long-term finance, developing countries are thus unable to implement programs to protect and grow domestic industries or to reduce inequality through redistributionist measures, thereby ensuring that their societies remain strained and unstable. Hence such countries remain at the bottom of vertical economic order, their political development stunted as it is often difficult to appease foreign capital and domestic forces demanding equality and redistribution. The all-too-common outcome (and one conveniently ignored by advocates of “pacific liberalism”) is that developed liberal states provide support for dictators and death squads in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, so that elites in the developing world commit violence on their behalf to keep their counties and, by extension, industries stable. Of course, it should not be omitted that those same developed liberal states, especially the U.S., has not hesitated to intervene directly in Iran, Guatemala, Chile and elsewhere to violently remove populist leaders who dare to privilege sovereignty over capital access. Yet, because “conflict” is so often defined as direct and fitting in with expectations of conventional war, liberal states that finance right-wing guerrillas and generalissimos or back coups are still considered “pacific” in their relations.

We encounter further trouble with definitions when we consider how liberal theory treats the arena of domestic politics when it comes to the dynamic between trade and conflict. Copeland (1996) focuses on how the benefits and costs of economic interdependence interact in the minds of rational decision-makers along with predictions concerning the 370px-Pyramid_of_Capitalist_Systemfuture trading environment between states. The weighing of peace versus war must also include examinations of fluctuations in trade levels. Brooks (2013) studies the ways in which economic actors within states may lobby state leaders for peace or war before boldly proclaiming that such lobbying no longer needs to occur: foreign direct investment is an able substitute for gunboat diplomacy and the rewards of globalization alone induce elites to accept peace in order to “play ball.” Of course, in all instances the emphasis is on rational decision-makers or pluralistic democratic institutions in crafting policy. What is missing from the analysis are the structural forces that drive capital accumulation in capitalist states that exist distinct from the public sphere of politics and instead reside in the more private sphere of vested interests. After all, the capitalist liberal state depends on the continual development of its productive forces; capitalism abhors a vacuum. If we acknowledge this to be true, it seems unlikely that estimates over shifting trade levels would restrain the untamable drive of capital, much less that global capitalism itself would remove agency from states so they fall naturally together into the rhythm of globalization. Global capitalism may indeed deny human agency, but rather than a force for peace it is more likely a force for imperialism.

To understand the workings of capital accumulation and imperialism, it is worthwhile to look beyond modern liberal scholars and turn to scholars such as Rosa Luxemburg (1951), who wrote in 1913 about capital penetration into “primitive” economies. If accumulation160px-Rosa_Luxemburg was allowed to stagnate, then the collapse of capitalism would necessary follow, so surplus must be converted into capital and expanded into the world market. Her work would be built on by Bukharin (1929) and Lenin (1967), who argued that finance capital and the financial oligarchy hold tantamount power in regards to all other forms of capital – a claim that has echoes in Gartzke, et al (2001) – and pushes states toward imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. States thereby act in the interests of the capitalist class, inducing their citizenry toward ideologies such as nationalism and militarism that create public support for actions that are rooted in economic projects. For example, Brooks (2013) dismisses the 2003 Iraq invasion by the U.S. as not being indicative of lobbying by economic actors because U.S. firms did not already have a presence (and thus a stake) in the Iraqi oil industry. It does not seem to occur to him that the invasion, superficially presented as being about combatting terrorism and bringing down a war criminal, could have been motivated by an imperialist impulse in his view of benign liberal calculus.

It would not be correct to give the impression that all scholars presume beneficence on the part of liberal states. There have been studies undertaken from the perspective that states can be ruthless opportunists. For example, Li and Reuveny (2011) found that, all other things being equal, a state will choose conflict with a trading partner if that conflict is expected to increase its exports of energy goods and manufactured goods (due to an abundance of buyers) and its imports of manufactured goods (due to an abundance of suppliers). This undermines the traditional liberal view that trade will always lead to peace between trade partners, as conflict can actually boost trade gains. The authors also present their results, however, as questioning the neo-Marxist/neo-mercantilist tenet that asymmetric trade will inevitably lead to conflict due to insecurity, as depending on the trade flow and sectors involved, peace may be promoted instead. Besides the aforementioned objections about how conflict may be defined, it would also be interesting to see if domestic actors (with the tacit support of liberal state benefactors) changed the equation so that direct conflict was no longer necessary, or if liberal states merely lacked the political capital to initiate a conflict due to it not fitting within the ideological structure normally used to generate popular support for military intervention. Although Li and Reuveny are somewhat unique in postulating a theory of trade wherein trade is actually a conflict-inducing variable, they nevertheless do not scale back the magnifying glass to consider the confluence of factors that work at the systemic level of the global market. If they did so, they may find, as dependency theorists and neo-Marxist scholars have found, that the contradictions of global capitalism rest upon a stratified world order predicated on keeping poor states undeveloped politically and economically while the more affluent and industrialized states carry on at the top, crediting their dominance to the rightness of liberal norms and institutions rather than the capitalist system that enriched them and their capitalist classes.

The question of whether trade promotes peace will likely be one that persists in academic circles for a long time to come, but it is apparent there is a need for more critical voices in the discipline. Presumptions that liberal states and their pacific federations emerged organically need to challenged by historical examinations of how they were planned rather than naturally grown. Scholars that express reservations about the capitalist peace are right to consider how economic dependence can lead to coercion and costly signaling, especially when capital is involved, but they must push onward to more penetrating analyses of the global economic hierarchy and how globalization foments polarization and instability in the developing world. Additionally, studies of domestic economic policy should not be limited to rational mediations centered on liberal institutions but state and social apparatuses that exist outside the public sphere, furthering capital accumulation through various means, imperialist or otherwise. It may not be fashionable in the present climate to return to classic works on dependency theory or imperialism, but that does not mean that a good deal about the world we live in cannot be explained – and hopefully enriched – by bringing their approaches into scholarly theoretical research.

Contracts Rule Everything Around Me: On the John Campbell/Kickstarter Situation

It stinks getting ripped off. We’ve all been there. You pay for a good or service, but rather than getting what you were expecting, you either get something far below your expectations or, even worse, you get nothing at all. Sadly, because we live in a world where so many are willing to put profits before people, cutting corners and misleading advertising are all too common. However, we now live in a world where it’s easier to share information, so it is relatively simple to take to social media or blogs and shame a person or company that has stolen your hard-earned cash by defrauding you, decrying their manipulative ways and shameless opportunism.

This has been largely been the reaction to the news that John Campbell, the artist behind the darkly comedic Sad Pictures for Children comic, has decided to burn a quarter of the books he promised to donors on Kickstarter, a crowd-sourcing Web site that allows people to donate money toward an enterprise (in this case, the second hardcover collection of Campbell’s comic) in exchange for promised rewards. In his announcement on the Kickstarter Web site, a clearly troubled Campbell bemoans the intense pressure he feels around the economic management of the Kickstarter campaign as well as life in general. He states that “if you spend your life in a small room thinking, you deserve to live and breathe the same amount as someone who spends their life doing intense physical or mental labor, or who has money that ‘makes money.'” He claims that a good chunk of the money he earned through the donations ended up going toward providing books to the people who donated the most, and also notes that a lot of the money he has earned in the past has gone toward settling debts, including those stemming from student loans.

Most of the responses I have read out there accuses Campbell of being a “ballsy” jerk who is ungrateful to his fans and donors. A few admit that he appears to be “in a bad place,” but then dismiss his criticisms of capitalism as naive and unrealistic. “You want someone to pay for you to sit around? Me too, John, me too!” Campbell’s “crime” of abandoning his end of the bargain outweighs the reasoning or even the emotion that went into it, despite how naked that reasoning is, how blatant the emotion is. And while it may well be true that Campbell is lying and that his post was just an excuse for him to hold on to money he claims he doesn’t have, I don’t think that is very likely. He’s either a soulless spawn of Satan faking depression or a very troubled artist who is sick and tired of the rat race and “just getting by,” constantly trying to please others and ignoring his own needs and desires. Considering the obvious consequences of his actions in terms of ever getting donations again, it’s hard to see how the former presumption has any support.

It bothers me that there seems to be more shock and concern over the integrity of the Kickstarter system than there seems to be for John Campbell the human being. If you like someone’s art enough to pay them for it, I would assume what you really value is the artist and the creative juices he or she possesses, not just the art for it’s own sake. In other words, you would express hope that the person espousing a disconnect from the world and its emphasis on material gains and wage labor as “real work” finds someway to cope and not be so overwhelmed by feelings of alienation or isolation. Instead, everyone writes off Campbell as a “ballsy” con artist or a sheltered utopian. iT wouldn’t surprise me at all if Campbell sinks even deeper into depression because, after pouring his heart out about how he feels, the general consensus is “Stop crying, baby, and follow the rules of capitalism!” rather than any interest in his welfare as a person. It only goes to show that the commodity is assigned more value than the person producing it.

The Hunger Games As Class Warfare

One of the risks one runs in romance is seeing very bad movies enjoyed predominantly by members of the opposite sex, and this weekend I endured over two hours of The Hunger Games, the latest set of books intended for teenage girls but inexplicably favored by a much larger crowd. I knew very little details about the story going into the film, save for someone describing it as “Running Man meets Degrassi High,” and that it was mildly notorious for its fundamental premise of “kids killing kids.” Ultimately, however, while the movie did achieve some mildly suspenseful “hunger” in the lead-up to the “games,” a combination of undeveloped characters, zero chemistry between protagonists and no real moral ambiguity despite the controversial subject matter meant I came away underwhelmed. Still, I was grateful I had not relived the nausea that accompanied date-induced viewings of Eat, Pray Love and Sex and the City 2.

Critics have pointed to political commentary within The Hunger Games as a redeeming quality, although taken at face value this commentary is facile: totalitarian regimes are not fun to live under, reality TV can be exploitative, etc. In other words, critics acknowledge that this cinematic cupcake is mostly empty calories, yet there is just enough substance beneath the frosting for adults to savor it as well as kids. These same critics bemoan this fact, arguing that the writers (including the book’s author, Suzanne Collins) and the director could have taken advantage of some relatively open goals to do incisive observations on gritty political and social phenomena instead of just gently treading the surface of an admittedly very pretty pool.

In truth, I thought that the movie did manage to convey some subconscious interpretations of the world we live in, probably unintentionally. The movie, purposefully written to be shallow and unchallenging, is so shallow that the shallowness gives way to accidental depth, although it requires you to “stand outside” from the film to perceive it. I do not know for sure, but I assume Collins, the other screenwriters and Ross are not anti-capitalists, yet there is an unmistakable yet ethereal Marxian (if not Marxist) theme running throughout the movie. Admittedly, I have not read The Hunger Games, so there may be some departure between what comes across in the movie and what may be found in the book, but of the things I noticed and mentioned to my date, I have been assured that these things feature even more prominently in the book than on the screen.

WARNING: Spoilers below.

The Hunger Games As Class Warfare

The main protagonist of The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, the eldest daughter of a working class family in District 12 of Panem. We are told quite clearly that Katniss is a strong character, as she becomes the “rock” of her family when her father dies in a coal mining accident and later serves as a breadwinner by hunting birds and squirrels and selling them. It is obvious from the outset that Katniss is the by-the-numbers feminist hero, possessing the most positive qualities associated with her sex — beautiful, reserved, concerned with authenticity – yet adopting traditionally male characteristics as well – courage, pragmatism, an assertiveness in the face of appearing weak.

The film, however, also denotes a certain purity and simplicity to her proletarian background, evidenced by the clothes she and the other residents of her district wear when summoned for “The Reaping” – the ceremony where the children who will fight in the Hunger Games are selected. In this scene particularly, District 12 invokes a portrayal of West Virginia coal country, the people plainspoken and uniformly Caucasian, the wardrobes suitable for church and unassuming, the attitudes darkly humorous in their practicality. After Katniss volunteers and Peeta Mellark is conscripted as “tributes,” their fellow district dwellers are encouraged by a state representative to applaud their sacrifice, but instead collectively make a motion of remembrance and honor – a comical device that shows blatant rejection of state propaganda, but expresses a consciousness of what is truly appropriate for the situation. Although certainly not a happy place (as no place is, in this dystopia), District 12 has a rustic, salt-of-the-earth honesty that portrays working class community as glum and hopeless, yet simultaneously natural, virtuous and even innocent.

When Katniss and Peeta arrive in the Capitol, however, the contrast is evident. The people wear outlandish, garish costumes, and are so willing to embrace falsity that they dye their hair fluorescent blues, greens and reds. What especially struck me is how male fashion in the Capitol is incredibly mincing and unreservedly effeminate, a stark antithesis to the rugged, overalls-wearing miners in District 12. The Capitol population is soft and spoilt, and it is no coincidence that the movie depicts none of the Capitol population engaged in any sort of manual labor. Indeed, the only “work” we see “average” Capitol people do is operate the murder machinery that makes the Games possible. Also tellingly, despite their desperate need to be entertained by the spectacle of the Games (see below), the Capitol residents do not come across as creative, save for devising new ways of possibly murdering the Games’ contestants.

(Sidenote: It is interesting that the one person expected to be dressed the most bizarrely, the fashion designer Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz, wears simple black garments and only a modicum of eyeliner. At first glance, this contradicts the stereotype that fashion designers are prone to the most radical fashion choices. Yet is it more probable that Cinna is in fact making a statement, that by eschewing flamboyance in favor of modesty he is being rebellious?)

In Panem, the mode of production is organized almost exactly like that of late capitalism. The dominant class (the Capitol residents) enjoys easy living and decadence, although their leisure is dependent on workers exchanging labor power for monetary compensation (the District dwellers). One might note that, while it is not fully elaborated, Panem’s economy is more about a monolithic state controlling the means of production than a society built around property rights and private enterprise. One should recall, however, that Engels predicted that capitalism, at its penultimate stage, would essentially be state-controlled capitalism:

“But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head.”

Lenin also called imperialism the highest stage of capitalism, and Panem is clearly an imperialist state. In fact, Collins’ literal description of a series of outlying districts providing raw materials to a central powerbase runs parallel with Immanuel Wallerstein’s Modern World System, in which countries in the periphery – the Third World – supply vital resources to the core – the First World – who in turn keep the periphery underdeveloped and repressed. This anti-imperialist undertone within Collins’ work is highlighted by the major characters from the Capitol having the name of ancient Romans (Cinna, Seneca, Caesar, Claudius, Coriolanus) in addition to the use of chariots when introducing the Games’ contenders and the gladiatorial nature of the Games themselves. It is likely Collins employed these references out of laziness and unoriginality, but the negative connotations she was tapping into run deeper than even she could realize.

Unconscious as it is, Collins’ inadvertent step into Marxian class analysis and even dependency theory is imperfect. Most strikingly, the image of the working class is idealized, almost dreamlike, and when it comes to actual autonomy, the workers of Panem have none. Their dalliance with rebellion comes through as riots, self-inflicted wounds that suggest the “mob” can only act in spurts of emotion. Must Panem’s workers only be galvanized to insurgency by the acts of teenagers? Where are the underground councils and secret communes that surely must have been in place well before the confrontation with authority spearheaded by Katniss’ largely symbolic gestures?

Collins paints a convincing picture of inequality, indolence and exploitation, because it is portrait of our actually existing conditions. Observations from the corner of her eye in this life have no doubt influenced the corruption of Panem as it comes across in her books and the movie. Yet the idea that her characters, so woefully undeveloped compared to their environment, are able to inspire revolution lacks plausibility, and Collins has clearly fallen victim to the popular vilification of the masses as irrational and hysterical, even if she does accept the romantic, almost pastoral notion of their “pure and simple” lifestyles.

The Spectacle: The Opiate of the Masses

In the essays he wrote while in prison, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci commented on “cultural hegemony” – how the dominant class imposes certain value systems and traditions on to other classes, creating the illusion of shared beliefs and symbols when in actuality the classes are opposed to one another in genuine interests. The Games can be seen as a stand-in for this hegemony rather than just an example of it, both because of their origin and their intended effects upon the people of Panem. The competition is the brainchild of the state, designed and managed by state actors, and it succeeds in dividing the Panem proletariat while at the same time instilling in them a false consciousness centered on hope and aspiration.

In the film, the Games are explained through a patriotic film-within-the-film. The districts rose up against the centralized state, lost, and subsequently agreed to allow their numbers to be culled every year by sending two of their young people to compete in the Games. (Interestingly, the film-within-the-film portrays the peace treaty as identical to the U.S. Constitution.) We, the audience, may obtain some amusement from this naked propaganda, presenting as it does a horrifying prospect (that children will be taken from their families and most likely killed) as a noble and worthwhile thing (shedding blood as a sign of fidelity to an oppressive, autocratic state). We laugh because the absurdity is obvious, as it always is in jokes about fascism or pseudo-fascism, e.g. “the beatings will stop when morale improves.” Strangely, we are not moved to be so flippant about the autocracy we see in our daily lives. When TV ads urge young people “to be all they can be” by joining the military and potentially dying in conflicts that are generally pointless and without strategized exists, we treat it very seriously. When politicians call for the poor and vulnerable to follow the Protestant ethic of working hard and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, not everyone laughs in their faces. The values we associate with military service and atomized individual accomplishment do not derive from our own natures, but are placed there as means of control, just as surely as Panem’s dictator wants the districts to give up their children to die and also be happy about it.

What exactly does the state instill in its audience with the Games, however? It is interesting that, while the event it commemorates was the districts being collectively crushed by the state, the Games are “every man and woman for himself,” with the districts fighting one another and between themselves. The objective here is to crush feelings of solidarity and independence. Much as how modern states use religious, ethnic and other cleavages to divide the working class and hinder their organization, the state of Panem uses the Games to foster competition rather than cooperation between the districts, although they have more in common with one another than anyone in the Capitol.

Katniss rebels against this by allying with another “tribute” from District 11, a young black girl named Rue. When Rue is later killed by a boy from District 1 (a district of jewelers, possibly an accidental reference to the petty bourgeoisie), Katniss exposes herself and performs an elaborate death ritual for her comrade. Watching this on screen, District 11’s black workers honor Katniss with the same hand gesture seen earlier in the film at the Reaping and then riot. Katniss transcends the “divide and rule” tactics utilized by the state and achieves a cross-district camaraderie, which in turn motivates District 11 to make a frenzied lunge for freedom. Later, when Katniss is about to be killed by a knife-throwing girl from District 2, she is saved by Rue’s counterpart from District 11, who somehow knew about Katniss’ taking Rue under her care.

Unfortunately, this is done in a very patronizing way, and Collins actually undermines the superficial anti-imperialism noted earlier. The heroic white girl saving the helpless black girl and consequently being thanked for this protection reeks of the sort of condescending neo-“white man’s burden” we encounter in the form of Kony 2012 or the Save Darfur campaign. Rue, the visionary, devises good ideas, but is unable to execute them on their own, relying on Katniss to do the actual “heavy lifting” with her superior skills and knowledge. At no point is it suggested that Rue could win the Games on her own as an independent actor, and by saving Katniss, Rue’s fellow District 11 inhabitant actually worsens his own prospects by allowing Katniss to survive. Somehow, he is obligated to put aside his own individual desire to maximize his situation to celebrate/save the “white savior” in his midst.

In a very telling scene, President Snow reproaches Seneca, the state official overseeing everything, that he is allowing the Games to give the people too much hope. The message is that the people of Panem might be allowed to believe that they could overcome the odds of the Games to succeed, but they can never overcome the odds of overthrowing the state. This is the same message we get from all cultural sources today concerning liberal democracy. In actual reality TV shows, we indulge in “rags to riches” fantasies, in which “regular” people achieve fame and fortune through their own talents. In fiction, we thrive on depictions of struggles against injustice, where the hero triumphs over stock characters that are generally obvious in their evil, be they fascists, communists or evil wizards who cannot be named. We consume the American Dream and American Exceptionalism: that we are a place where anyone can make it if they try and where we are specially chosen for a unique and incomparable existence. For all that, however, a struggle against the status quo itself would be fruitless, as we have reached the “End of History,” and it is more conceivable to imagine the end of the world than it is the market-oriented democratic republic. People are given the ability to “hope a little” – to buy wristbands that say a certain thing, to buy organic food instead of processed food, to perhaps even march around with signs – but cannot “hope too much” – to disrupt the system, either through civil or unlawful disobedience, in the name of ideologies that have no place in the time of post-ideology.

Katniss, however, never has to get her hands dirty in urging people to “hope too much.” In the course of the movie, she only really kills one person directly, and this is in the process of defending herself, and this itself is only a contrived set-up for Rue’s death. Even when it comes to the finale of the Games, she only uses her weapon to free her lover so that he might push their enemy from a height to be devoured by crazed dog-like creatures. Like the modern liberal who seeks to overturn the status quo, Katniss does not find herself required to stray into morally questionable territory. She wants to win without paying a high cost, and she essentially does so. When the Slovenian social critic Slavoj Zizek talks about Coke without caffeine or war without casualties, he is also talking about Katniss winning without having to truly murder. Of course, she lives in the world of fiction. For the progressive who wants social revolution without the revolution, obtaining the benefits without having “done the work” is fanciful.

The Hunger Games and Social Alienation: The Complete Lack of Chemistry

Jennifer Lawrence, who portrays Katniss, and Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, have zero chemistry throughout the movie, despite the rather critical plot point they are supposed to be in love with one another. While this did hurt the film overall, it did add to the point that their romance begins in a false fashion, as a means to get the public to like them and cheer for them – in other words, to make them more marketable. Ironically, Lawrence and Hutcherson are playing the same game but in real life, attempting to sell us the suspended disbelief that they are in love, but in failing so miserably, expose to us how, in reality, we have been conditioned only to believe in something when the appearance of sincere emotional connection is present. We are so alienated from one another that a fiction only becomes appealing when it offers the passion we lack in our daily lives.

For the characters in the movie, event after event denies self-actualization. The clothes one wears to the state’s mandated rally are chosen for you. Lenny Kravitz dresses you when you arrive at the Capitol in the run-up to the Games. In a highly scripted interview process with Stanley Tucci’s character, you pretend to be charismatic and confident even when you are shy and facing certain death. When the Games themselves begin, although you are under constant observation, there are only a handful of characters that make any kind of connection, and these are neither believable nor meaningful. Rue comes and goes, but it is her young age that makes her passing poignant, not because we get to know her. Similarly, because Lawrence and Hutcherson have feelings for each other like tepid tap water, we do not know if their mutual professions of love are heartfelt or manipulative ploys to get the other to let his or her guard down. When, near the end of the movie, Katniss and Peeta swear to eat poisonous berries so they will both die rather than having to kill one another, this moving scene becomes an exercise in suspicion. Will the other person really eat the berries if I eat them first? Dare I ask them to eat first? How do I know she will not spit them out after I have eaten mine? What if this is just a teenage crush and I am about to die for a fleeting, hormonal impulse? We are not supposed to think these last few questions, but because we do not know for sure how the characters feel in the movie – as devoid of feeling for one another as they are – we stare into the reflection of our own self-denial, our own self-doubt. We come away with no resolution, but because we do not actually care about the characters, it seems proper – very similar to our own detached, indifferent interactions with most people and objects.

This apathy is reflected in the very shocking and daring premise of the movie (children killing children), which certainly has been done in the arts before, and echoes the school shootings in this country’s recent past. This movie would have been unthinkable in the wake of the Columbine massacre or 9/11, when we were held in the grips of social concern. In this day and age, however, where Afghani and Iraqi children are regularly shot down in the name of “just war,” we are so disconnected from the death of children in and of itself that it only becomes objectionable when it is our own children. The death of fictional children – be they the children of Panem who exist only in Collins’ novels, or the death of Middle Eastern children who exist only in headlines – do not resonate; they fall flat with us.  The fact that there has not been more objection to the “kids killing kids” plot, or even that it is being used as a vehicle for a very uninspiring film, speaks volumes about how ambivalent we have become as a society toward social cohesion.

These have just been my own personal ruminations, and I think they would be bolstered with an inclusion of a feminist critique about The Hunger Games as possibly feminist cinema. Since I am not equipped for that sort of analysis, however, I will conclude here.

It is plain on the face of it that The Hunger Games is an utterly forgettable movie, much like the franchise it is based on – entertainment for population consumption, to be digested and then passed over once the novelty fades. In the meantime, however, if we cannot get amusement from taking this stuff seriously, perhaps we might get some amusement from taking it a bit tongue-in-cheek.