Rising costs on everyday necessities, no good job opportunities, and a crushing national debt. Sound familiar? They were the primary triggers for what became the French Revolution.
While the parallels to today’s political experiences (most notably the Tea Party, and now the Occupy Wall Street movement) aren’t direct, both eras of social movements evidence the consistent unwisdom of crowds.
The parallels sure are intriguing, though. When King Louis XVI convened a meeting of the Estates-General in May of 1789 to deal with the nation’s crises, it drew commoner legislators from across France, including a book-smart provincial bumpkin named Robespierre. Few of them possessed any capacity for compromise or effective governance, but those shortcomings were overshadowed by the pure conviction of their ideals. Many of them arrived with “lists of grievances” they wanted corrected.
Within a month, they’d walked out of the meeting and formed their own governing body, and in no time mobs roamed the streets of Paris, the Bastille was stormed, and the nation was consumed by fear. By July, commoners in many towns formed militias and began attacking the homes of the wealthy and other symbols of power in a month-long campaign of terror known as The Great Fear. Things went only downhill from there.
A shifting list of ineffective legislators and governing bodies tirelessly tried to anticipate, give voice, or respond to the will of The People, which was in reality a crowd that was often a contradictory, if not a somewhat made-up invention. Grievances became hatreds and excuses for violence. Broadsheets, placards, tavern conversations, and other social media propagated inspired protestors to remedy each new infraction.
The outcome? A renamed calendar and state religion; tens of thousands beheaded or otherwise murdered in support of the cause; hundreds of thousands killed across Europe by the invention of total war that occupied much of the revolutionaries’ time. Oh yes, and it gave the world Napoleon Bonaparte.
I don’t mean to suggest that we’re on the brink of armed rebellion, but I think this story tells us at least three things about crowds:
- First, crowds destroy institutional authority, by definition, and posses none themselves. So to ask the Wall Street occupiers what they want presumes there’s a unified they that has cohesive demands, let alone the ability to vet them, or the willingness to live with the consequences should they get implemented.
- Second, social movements are inherently undemocratic. Leaders eventually emerge or, in the case of the Tea Party, movements are taken over by other organized interests. They also tend to get more virulent the longer they operate on their own, like a sauce left too long at high heat on a stove. They start only listening to themselves.
- Third, imaginary participation is a dangerous distraction for everyone. The easy embrace of symbolism moves activists to do dumb, ineffective things, while allowing the targets of their ire to unfairly denigrate them as mobs and hope that their windows won’t be broken. Both approaches are wrong. We can’t Tweet our way through this moment in history.
The solution, of course, is conversation and collaboration. The only way to keep social movements from falling off the tracks is to incorporate their legitimate issues into real debate and action, while allowing the nuttier ones (and their proponents) the ignominy they so richly deserve. Nobody has the right to talk on behalf of The People because all of us are them. When we wait for social movements to take further steps as if we’re spectators, we simply encourage them to metastasize.
Only by participating in the social spaces we all share can we, together, turn the shouts of an unwise crowd into the dialogue of a thoughtful democracy…and perhaps fix the price of bread.
(Image credit: keeping Marat from Wall Street)