Modern history


The old-regime version of benevolent capitalism never expressed its evolutionary cheerfulness so eccentrically as in the extraordinary Testament of M. Fortuné Ricard. Published as a supplement to the universally popular French edition of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, the Testament was written by Charles Mathon de La Cour, a Lyonnais man of letters and art critic. In the text, the fictitious M. Ricard remembers his own grandfather, who had taught him reading, arithmetic and the principles of compound interest whilst Ricard was still a lad. “‘My child,’ he had said drawing 24 livres from his pocket, ‘remember that with economy and careful calculation, nothing is impossible for a man. Invested and left untouched, at your death you will have enough to do good works for the repose of your soul and mine.’”

At the age of seventy-one Ricard had accumulated 500 livres from this original sum. Though this was no great fortune, he had great plans for it. Dividing it into five sums of 100 livres each, he proposed leaving the first for one hundred years, the second for two hundred and so on. Each would thus generate sums from which a progressively ambitious program could be funded. The first sum, after a century, would yield a mere 13,100 livres, from which a prize would be awarded for the best theological essay proving the compatibility of commerce and religion. A hundred years later the second sum (1.7 million) would expand this prize program into eighty annual awards for the best work in science, mathematics, literature, agriculture (“proven through the best harvests”) and a special category for “virtuous deeds.” The third sum (three hundred years on) would amount to more than 226 million, enough to establish throughout France five hundred “patriotic funds” for the relief of poverty and for investment in industry and agriculture, administered by “the most honest and zealous citizens.” A remaining sum would endow twelve musées in Paris and the major towns of France, each to house forty superior intellectuals in all fields. Lodged in comfort but not opulence, they would have a concert hall, theater, laboratories of chemistry and physics, natural history shops, libraries and experimental parks and menageries. The libraries and art collections would be open every day free to the public and members of the musées would give public lectures in their respective fields. Members would be admitted “only after having submitted proof, not of nobility, but of morals” and would take an oath “to prefer virtue, truth, and justice over everything.”

This is heady stuff but it is nothing compared with what was to follow in the fourth and fifth centuries of the Ricard will. The fourth sum (30 billion livres) would suffice, he thought, to build “in the most pleasant sites one could find in France” a hundred new towns each of forty thousand people, planned on ideal lines of beauty, salubriousness and community. With the final sum (3.9 trillion livres) it would be possible to solve pretty much all that remained of the world’s problems. Six billion would be enough to pay off the French national debt (even at the rate the Bourbons were spending); 12 billion as a gesture of magnanimity and the opening of entente cordiale would do the same for the British. The remainder would go into a general fund to be distributed among all the powers of the world on condition they never went to war with each other. In such an eventuality, the aggressor would forfeit his bonanza, which would be transferred to the victim of the attack. And from a special sum earmarked for France, all kinds of perplexing problems would be cleared up: venal offices would be bought out all at once; the state would establish a system of salaried midwives and curates; half a million uncultivated lots would be cleared and given to peasants in need of land. Schools would cover the country as well as “Hospices of the Angels” intended for seven-year-old girls. There they would be brought up to a life and instruction of useful domesticity and provided with a dowry at eighteen when they graduated. Finally, towns would be provided with parks, squares and fountains, and sources of contagion eliminated – swamps drained, cesspools dried, cemeteries removed to remote and pleasing valleys.

This comprehensive utopia – a hybrid of Rousseau’s and Condorcet’s visions of the perfect republic – would come about not by revolution or violence but by the simple and gradual operation of compound interest. It was the ultimate fantasy of a painlessly modernized France transformed by collective wisdom and husbanded capital into the benefactor not only of itself, but of the entire world. Mathon de La Cour’s vision of the future embraced modernity without much sense of apprehension. Indeed its castle in the clouds was built on what he saw as the unfolding and potentially limitless achievements of enlightened government. Its telling stipulation that members of its intellectual elite prove “not their nobility but their morality” was not a tract against, but in keeping with, the times.

For others, however, modernity was increasingly judged not a blessing but a curse. The same concentrations of capital and technology, of urban manpower and rural commerce that exhilarated “modernists” like Condorcet, colored other commentators with gloom and foreboding. Most of all, modernity filled many of them with the kind of righteous indignation that turned them into revolutionaries.

Many of these pessimists were recanted optimists. Simon Linguet – whom we find everywhere as the voice of pre-revolutionary alienation – had published his first memorandum on economic concerns in 1764. He had then proposed the dredging of the Somme and the cutting of a new canal through Picardy to connect the city of Amiens with the sea. He knew that this would be met with opposition from the privileged textile masters of Abbeville, a town just a few miles from the mouth of the river. But his vision was for the kind of investment that might reconcile the two urban interests and in place of their mutual suspicion create a common economic energy. His model was Holland where, he (quite wrongly) supposed, the commonwealth lent its support to such projects and eschewed worthless vanities like monumental buildings and patrician town houses. The project, though eloquently argued, was tinged with realistic pessimism about the prospects for agreement. (In fact, in the 1780s it was revived on a much larger scale and would probably have been built but for the Revolution.)

However disappointed, the Linguet of the 1760s did at least embrace the culture of commercial modernity. Ten years later he had changed his mind and, during Turgot’s ministry, directed on the free grain trade policy an attack so devastating that it was ordered suppressed. In the course of arguing against the physiocrats’ obsession with long-term benefits and their disregard of present wants, Linguet painted a grim view of the horrors of industrial society. Returning to Abbeville, with its masters tyrannizing the labor of their hands and taking or jettisoning it as business cycles dictated, he stood on its head the physiocratic/Condorcet equation of capital and technology with prosperity and happiness. In any two cities “you can be sure that the one where the most human beings are at the point of dying of hunger is the one where the most hands are employed in working the shuttle. No city in France has more looms than Lyon and Lyon is consequently the city of France with the largest number of poor who lack bread.” In such a heartless place there could be a brand-new hospital but it could never be big enough to shelter “all those who having toiled fifty years over silk… come there groaning to die on straw mats.” Industrial capitalism, he thought, promised heaven and delivered hell. It created a new lord of the entrepreneur and made subhuman troglodytes of his urban peons. They were doomed to live in “dwellings,”

regular burrows like the ones beavers build; dark holes where herds of laborious animals hide out, breathing only a fetid air, poisoning one another with the contaminations unavoidable in that crowd, inhaling at every moment the seeds of death while toiling without respite to earn enough to protract their wretched lives.

Linguet’s rhetoric was apocalyptic, his solutions (such as they were) peculiar but not without sense. His answer to the perennial bread crisis, for example, was to wean the French from their obsession with grain and towards a diet of potatoes, fish, maize, vegetables and rice. He was even prepared to try to persuade them that chestnuts (regarded as worse than starvation), properly prepared, might be both palatable and nutritious.

There were others, too, whose revolutionary fire was ignited by their rejection of commercialism and the modern city. Their hatred of the old regime paradoxically was directed not against what it preserved, but what it had destroyed. They idealized a whole parade of imaginary and exemplary human types: the independent craft artisan (vide the watchmaker, whose children they so often were) who had been ruined by machines, turned into a nomadic knife grinder or chimney sweep left to degrade himself as a huckster in the urban jungle; the cultivator who had been ruined by the greed of seigneurs who fleeced him to pay for their grandiose town houses, or who, in the name of absolute property rights, annexed the common fields on which he grazed his cows and goats or refused him access to the woods where he gathered his fuel. The polemics were applied Rousseau, but in 1789 they would have a distinctive appeal for large numbers of people who had indeed been disadvantaged in exactly the ways described. For those people, the onrush of a modernizing monarchy had aggravated, not alleviated, their condition. And what they wanted was not social enlightenment or public works but primitive justice.

No work expressed this sense of rage against a world divided into luxury and destitution better than Mercier’s twelve-volume Tableau de Paris. Like Linguet he too was a reformed optimist, though his optimism had always been a weaker force than his skepticism. In The Year 2440 France had been transformed into a paradise of Rousseauean virtue, rising over the ruins of Versailles and the rubble of the Bastille and governed by a modest and conscientious king. Meritorious citizens wore hats with their names on them but the hereditary nobility had disappeared. All this seemed to have happened by political magic. “It only needed a powerful voice to rouse the multitude from its sleep… Liberty and happiness belong to those who dare to seize them,” the visitor to the future was told. Yet there did not appear to have been that apocalyptic convulsion of violence that Mercier very soon saw as inevitable.

Fascinated both by the geology that suggested the regularity of great upheavals in primordial history and the archaeology that implied its counterpart in earlier civilizations, Mercier became something of a connoisseur of catastrophe. From the perspective of his exile in Switzerland he surveyed a France, and especially a Paris, rushing along the tracks prepared by science and commerce towards their own doom. This he positively welcomed as a catharsis, terrible but necessary to cleanse the metropolis of the excesses of both riches and poverty. “Will war, a plague, famine, an earthquake or flood, a fire or a political revolution annihilate this superb city? Perhaps rather a combination of these causes together will bring about a colossal destruction.”

Paris was, at one and the same time for Mercier, a rotting, oozing place of ordure, blood, cosmetics and death, and a kind of irrepressible, omnivorous organism. It sweated with meaty animal pleasure and buried itself under a sickly shroud of misery and destitution. It was the fair of the Palais-Royal that Mercier loved and the horror of the huge open pit of bodies at Clamart. It was the parades and farces of the boulevards and the spectacle at Bicêtre of condemned prisoners smashed with iron barsagainst the wheel; whores in gilded carriages; gourmands so crammed with delicacies that their palates had jaded; stench rising from the open sewers and gutters; suicides throwing themselves from the Seine bridges.

On this vast metropolitan empire of money and death, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, the apostle of Rousseau writing of the urban inferno from his view of Mont Blanc, declared war. His Romantic imagination, working at a vision of the sublime and the terrible, imagined a vast, cosmic convulsion. In such a second Lisbon earthquake, the ground would tremble and open, and “in two minutes the work of centuries would be overturned. Palaces and houses destroyed, churches overturned, their vaults torn asunder…” It would be the reckoning of justice with materialism, and only from some such day of judgment could a true republic of citizens be born.

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