Xi Jinping is not Louis XVI
While watching a video produced by the Hoover Institute’s Human Prosperity Project, one of the presenters, Niall Ferguson, mentioned that a book written in 1856 by Alexis de Tocqueville, the Ancien Regime and the Revolution, was prominently featured at the bookstore of the Communist Party of China. Apparently, Wang Qishan, then Secretary of the party’s Central Commission of Discipline Inspection, reportedly said at a conference in 2012, “I would like you to read Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime and the Revolution, definitely.” Mr. Wang has been a lifelong friend of Xi Jinping and is currently the Vice President of the People’s Republic of China. Apparently, Mr. Wang’s book recommendations are taken very seriously in China.
But why, I wondered. Like many of you, I have read Tocqueville’s book, Democracy in America, and reference it often in my commentaries. But I had not read the Ancien Regime. Until now.
Like Communist China, the Ancien Regime of France, featured a highly centralized bureaucracy that supported an absolutist ruler, in the case of France the King, Louis XVI. The Capetian kings had ruled France for over eight hundred years. And France was still a powerful nation in the eighteenth century even though it was on the losing end of the debilitating Seven Years War, which saw France lose most of its colonial possessions in North America and the Caribbean.
The French had what we would call an upside-down tax system, where the royals and aristocrats were exempt from tax, while the peasants and townspeople were forced to bear the brunt of the taxes. This tax system was a derivation of the feudalism of the medieval period where aristocrats were granted land in return for military service, and the landed aristocrats lived off the peasants farming their lands. As nation states grew in size, the need for large standing armies replaced the reliance on regional warrior chieftains. The loss of military power and influence by the aristocracy also meant a loss of political influence. Standing armies also increased the government’s need for revenue far outstripping the ability of the royal estates to support the king. In a largely agricultural country, most of the productivity was generated from the land so it was the workers of the land that had to support the kingdom.
The exemption from tax also freed the aristocrats from the need to actively work the land as they lived on the rents paid by the peasants who farmed on their lands. Freed from the necessity of working the land and from providing military service, the aristocrats began to leave their country estates and move to the center of activity in France, Paris. In a highly centralized country such as France, the seat of governance is not just the capital of the country, it is also the sole source of opportunities, of special grants of favors and all the other necessities that ambitious people seek.
The governmental powers of the centralized French kingdom were concentrated in the Royal Council, which not only exercised the executive administrative functions, but also created the rules and regulations of the country and was also the supreme court of the land and could quash the judgments of all ordinary courts. As Tocqueville noted, “the council was not made up of great lords but of persons of middling or low birth, former intendents and other people skilled in the practice of public affairs.” Tocqueville wrote that this council “disappeared behind the splendour of the throne” but that, “it was so powerful that it affected everything.” This was the deep state of the Kingdom of France.
In feudal times, the power of the king and his central authority was limited, not by political philosophy, but by bad roads and difficult communications. Thus, the local lords and town councils exercised a certain level of civil authority and even practiced primitive forms of democracy in the gathering of the three estates (aristocrats, clergy and commoners). But with the progress of civilization the central authority was eventually able to extend its power to the far reaches of the kingdom. The local systems of governance continued but with no real power to enforce their decisions. Tocqueville asserted that, “when one compares this empty show of liberty with the genuine powerlessness which accompanied it, you can, on a small scale, already see how the most absolute of governments can co-exist with some of the most extreme features of democracy, to such an extent that to this oppression is added the absurdity of being blind to its presence.”
The reign of Louis XVI was intended to be one of reform. Louis was an enlightened king who wanted to extend greater freedoms to his people. He got rid of some of the holdovers from feudal times such as the forced labor of peasants to build and maintain local roads. He had tried to reform the tax system and to lighten the burden carried by the peasants. But Tocqueville noted that, “Going from bad to worse does not always means a slide into revolution. More often than not, it occurs when a nation which has endured without complaint – almost without feeling them – the most burdensome of laws rejects them with violence the moment the weight of them lightens.” He continued, “the most hazardous moment for a bad government is normally when it is beginning to reform. The evils patiently endured as inevitable, seem unbearable as soon as the idea of escaping them is conceived. “
Surely, there is much here for the cadres of the Communist Party of China to learn. And understanding Tocqueville and the Ancien Regime provides insight into the recent actions of Xi Jinping. Remember, it was Wang Qishan, Xi’s friend and mentor, that recommended Tocqueville in the first place. It explains why Hong Kong had to be brought to heel by communist China. It explains the crackdown on dissent in mainland China and Xi’s emphasis on the discipline of the CPC enforced by closed-circuit television, facial recognition software guided by artificial intelligence and the social index scores for each Chinese citizen.
But Tocqueville’s analysis of the Revolution to end the Ancien Regime also has powerful warnings to which the United States must pay heed.
In the Ancien Regime, Tocqueville saw that one of the key factors that eventually led to the Revolution was the division of the French people into separate spheres of interest. Various policies serving the centralized state government had the unintended consequence of separating the interests of the three estates and dividing the countryside from the towns and cities. In the relatively homogenous France of the time, these divisions were along class lines. In highly diverse America, politicians of the left and right find a cornucopia of identities to use as a basis for dividing people and defining their unshared interests.
During the Ancien Regime Tocqueville noted that France was considered the most literary of all the countries of Europe but that the writers and academics “readily conceived a distaste for ancient ways and tradition and were naturally drawn to a desire to rebuild the society of their time following an entirely new plan.” The Economists, a group of French intellectuals of the time, were early proto socialists and believed in the communal ownership of land and total equality. Etienne-Gabriel Morelly wrote in La Code de la Natur in 1755, “where no property exists, none of its pernicious consequences could exist” much as the modern Marxist economist Tomas Piketty (also French) wrote in his book, Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century. Another precept of these so-called Economists was the end of the nuclear family and the communal raising of children which is also a precept of the Black Lives Matter movement as boldly announced on their website.
Tocqueville recognized the good intentions and benevolent motivations of these proto socialist Economists (as I do of current day progressives) but also felt that “a great reservoir of contempt lay within this benevolence towards these wretched people.” Much like the soft racism of low expectations.
Tocqueville noted, that the passion for equality was accompanied by a “obstinate and often blind zeal.” Liberté may have inspired the Revolution, but it was égalité that inspired the Reign of Terror because “there is no more dangerous example than violence motivated by goodness and exercised by people of goodwill.”
Ironically, the highly centralized absolutist monarchy that the French Revolution overthrew was replaced by a highly centralized absolutist dictatorship. Tocqueville keenly observed that the resulting government, that exists to this day, retains many of the forms and institutions of the Ancien Regime unlike the decentralized and self-reliant democracy he wrote about in his earlier book, Democracy in America. Americans have even more to learn from Tocqueville’s book, The Ancien Regime and the Revolution than does the Chinese Communist Party.