Our Thermidor, and Napoleon’s

54653306_1265127210_talleyrandRevolutions are typically accompanied by huge property-transfers. (Redistribution, robbery: whatever.) The people who lose their patrimony in the revolution become the great partisans of restoration thereafter, which provides the reaction with a fair amount of talent and influence. However, every “transfer” has both winners and losers. The lands that the revolutionaries seize do not sit idle; they are awarded to powerful revolutionaries, or auctioned off to the revolution’s supporters to finance further revolutionary activities, or divided among military veterans when the conflict is over. Sometimes the title changes hands several times.

However it may be, when the reactionaries are ready to act the “lost” property (recovery of which is a powerful motive to them) already has publicly recognized owners. In many cases these lands have accumulated in the hands of men of wealth and power. In other cases, to get them back would require confiscating a large part of the property of an entire class of men. In all cases, the difficulty of figuring out which émigré should recover what from whom represents a formidable barrier to any actual restoration of the confiscated property to its pre-revolutionary owners. To avoid the chaos and uncertainty of such a process, and even more importantly to win the support of the power-brokers of the revolutionary regime (and the acquiescence of its former foot soldiers), the ruler who restores order typically recognizes some or all of the revolutionary property-transfers. To keep the loyalty of the enemies of the revolution (or to gain it), he offers only compensation — typically, the tyranny of finance ministers being what it is, partial compensation.

This arrangement facilitates the restoration immensely: the ruler who “ends the revolution” can purchase the support of most of the (important) remaining revolutionaries and most of the enemies of the revolution while only meeting part of the demands of each. But the half-measures destabilize the regime founded upon them. Logically a reactionary faction, having accomplished its restoration, should simply become the most loyal and self-conscious supporters of the new political order; but reparations follow a logic all of their own. The “reactionary” orientation becomes identified with the most exacting revanchisme, and the restoration’s chief supporters use the power their support won them to push for more compensation.

This is already destabilizing on its own; but to the extent that the compensation is paid out directly as a pension or as a government bond, the political crisis is disguised as a fiscal crisis. (Everyone loves a good fiscal crisis!) A related dynamic is the dissociation of ancien régime status from ancien régime responsibilities. Before the revolution, aristocrats (and the foundations they endowed) took care of all sorts of important functions, from patronizing writers to building infrastructure. When the restoration reshuffles property, the state typically makes up for its inability to restore the fortunes of its reactionary supporters fully by giving them an income while absolving them from the responsibilities formerly attached to it. But then who is to build the roads and feed the poets?

Often the state agrees to take full responsibility itself, at a certain risk to its fiscal health. (Moldbug says somewhere that a sovereign entity should be profitable, but he neglects to clarify for whom, and where on its balance sheet this profit is generally registered. In many post-revolutionary states, both public debt and statutory liabilities are very profitable.) In other cases the state delegates the responsibility to some private organization or clique, or — what amounts to nearly the same thing — waives the state’s authority to regulate and police the activity in question in order to make the sector profitable and self-financing.

This kind of delegation of functions contributes insidiously to the instability of the restoration. One important bulwark of any established state is uncertainty and fear of disorder should the state collapse, in light of which even the most incompetent king can count on the firm loyalty of any law-abiding subject. But if an important function is in the hands neither of the state, nor of anyone whose resources depend on his rank or on special legal protections, but in fact is in the hands of men indifferent to the state or secretly hostile to it, then there is every reason to think that they will try to perform their function through war and rebellion. Indeed, they may collaborate with rebels to make sure their operations are not interrupted; they may actually be on the side of the rebels themselves.

That is in itself just a slight blow to political stability, but many of these functions actually offer some pretext for informal power, which gives the politically-motivated an incentive to become involved in such functions, and gives whoever performs the function an incentive to pick political fights. This dynamic can be destabilizing in itself, aggravating deeper wounds elsewhere, but it can also culminate in the cliques that wield such powers triggering a political crisis, or actively picking sides in a revolutionary situation.

But do the rulers of restored states take special care to minimize the accumulation of important functions in the hands of mavericks? Generally, no; in fact, quite the opposite. Just as the restored ruler balances the material interests of the enemies and supporters of the revolution, so he typically balances their political interests, attempting to allay both sides’ fears of a state-apparatus dominated by the other. This balance is effected by stressing the technical virtuosity of the civil service, and appointing the best diplomats, engineers, generals, and so on to the relevant councils of state, without regard to — sometimes with flagrant disregard of — their political orientation and ultimate loyalties. Ultimately, though, the ideal pick for this kind of position is the bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, the man who considers his job to be important and the identity of his boss to be an irrelevant detail.

Such civil servants reassure both sides. Reactionaries and revolutionaries can be assured that the government is not going to murder them in their beds the very moment it has secured its position. But ultimately a government which won’t murder anyone in his bed to uphold the sovereign won’t risk getting murdered in bed, either. These civil servants will happily work for whatever new regime manages to seize the capital, provided it pays their salaries and protects their pensions. (And if it won’t protect their pensions — watch out!)

The end result is that historical restorations often lead to a “see-saw” effect, where a council of state continues to administer society without interruption while a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions constantly replaced the head of state who is nominally the civil servants’ lord and sovereign.

There are many lessons you could draw from these dynamics. I will only make one very modest point: post-revolutionary settlements tend to be driven by two factors (the need to compensate émigrés without alienating existing stakeholders, and the corresponding desire for an apolitical civil service) which are irrelevant today. Today, reactionaries have no concrete reparations-bill drawn up, and consider the technocratic state itself to be their most powerful enemy and their chief target. So do not take the parallels between Thermidor and TCY too literally.

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9 thoughts on “Our Thermidor, and Napoleon’s

  1. On the other hand, our Thermidor will almost certainly (if not too desirably) have plenty of Muscadins on the street taking out radicals. They probably won’t be dressed anywhere near as dandy, though.

    Thermidor as such was a really modest counterrevolution, however. The Directory that followed continued the hostility against the Gallican Church, urban life became ever more decadent and of course the whole ‘export the revolution through sister republics’ thing. Pius VI had it quite bad.

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    1. Someday you may get to write the definite history of The Hipster, Carlsbad: “From the White Negro to the White Terror”.

      (And you’re quite right – I was using Thermidor as a figure of speech. The Directory was still revolutionary, but set the stage for Napoleon’s rise. The dynamics I’m talking about started under Napoleon and continued under Artois and Orléans.)

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  2. Was the rise of Napoleon really a reaction? In the American context, what is the ancien regime that we would be going back to?

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    1. I don’t want to split hairs. There’s a sense in which 1795 wasn’t a reaction but 1799 was; and another in which 1799 wasn’t but 1813 was; and probably a third in which 1814 wasn’t, but 1815 was!

      But for my purposes, the structural instabilities that plagued post-restoration France were already evident under Napoléon, so I included him under the framework. (Indeed, he enshrined some of them, notably the Conseil d’État.)

      As far as general usage goes, I’d be inclined to say 9 Thermidor was a reaction (because that’s how the French saw it at the time: http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/constant_benjamin/des_reactions_politiques/reactions_politiques.pdf ) but that the Directors were not reactionaries.

      Oh – and as for our “ancien régime”, part of my point is that we don’t have one, or at least we don’t have a pre-revolutionary élite waiting in the wings to try to regain their former status. That means that an American reaction, were it to come, could be a lot more flexible. In a looser sense (where the political order that all reactionaries want to restore is one that existed at some point in the past, and then was disrupted) our ancien régime would be constituted by the state of various institutions as they were somewhere between 1750 and 1950, before they were mangled by “progress”. (So for example the family was probably still quite healthy in 1950, or 1900 on the outside, whereas with respect to the franchise you need to go back to the 1790s. But here, ofc, I am killing the metaphor by trying to give it a mechanical interpretation!)

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