Thursday, August 6, 2015

Chateaubriand and inequality: two centuries later

I decided that my Summer reading of 2015 would be Chateaubriand’s memoirs (Memoires d’outre-tombe or in English Memoirs Beyond the Grave).  I wanted to read them ever since I bought the books in the mid-1970. In the edition I have, the memoirs are published in three volumes (they are enormous). I read parts of volumes 1 or 2, but never touched volume 3. But now as my eyesight worsens, volume 3, conveniently printed in large font, beckoned. So I took it. It is a book of some 700 pages. It could have been organized much better (but I will not discuss that) and it covers years 1828-1838.

For these who do not know who Chateaubriand was I would suggest checking it on Wikipedia. A one sentence description would be that he was famous in politics as a “loyalist”, somebody who defended the French monarchy, went into exile because of it, then returned under Napoleon when amnesty was declared for the exiles, and under the Restoration became French Minister of Foreign Affairs;  in literature, he is known for his “romanticism”. Thus, we have the usual combination of conservatism and romanticism.  

But it is not that simple: while Chateaubriand was in favor of the Bourbons, he was quite aware that the revolution and afterwards Napoleon  broke the back of hereditary monarchy and destroyed that mythical link between people and its monarch. Republic was henceforth inevitable. Ideally, Chateaubriand might have liked the English solution, a monarchy that maintains the appearance of legitimacy and appeals to the ancient beliefs but does not rule. Interestingly, he never mentions the English solution explicitly although he was of course well acquainted with the British system, not the least from having lived there during the exile and being briefly the French ambassador to the UK.

Like every great book—and let me say, it is a great book despite its many shortcomings—Chateaubriand’s makes the reader think not only about the issues of the time he describes, but more generally, about the issues that concern us today. I selected three although I could have found more.

The role of true believers in politics.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Chateaubriand was infatuated with the idea of “legitimate monarchy” which, in the French case, goes back to the House of Capets, some 800  years ago before Louis XVI was guillotined. But that infatuation like every infatuation has some silly features. Chateaubriand endowed monarchy with a glow, imagined rather than real,  that he thought, it must have had under the most famous rulers like Louis IX and Louis XIV. Everything short of that—and contemporary people, including kings and would-be kings, invariably fell short of that high, imagined, standard—was unacceptable. By having such high ideals, he managed to alienate those whom he was supporting. They found Chateaubriand troublesome (one figures that reading between the lines), perhaps even insufferable, silently critical whenever he found the kings not up to his own highly raised bar.  Thus, he was mostly kept aside (à l’ecart) by the practitioners of “real” politics during the Restoration despite his short glories as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador to the Pope.

In all of this, Chateaubriand reminded me of the true believers in socialism who were also found an annoyance and embarrassment by those who were involved in “real” politics. It is no surprise that gradually such true believers were eased out and while those whom they ostensibly and grandiloquently supported could not exactly get rid of them (although Stalin did), they were kept at a safe distance.

Why is it relevant today? Because a similar play is being cast in Greece today. To many on the left, who believed in Oxi, Tsipras’s turnaround is incomprehensible, almost treasonous. But to the people who have to make real decisions, these true believers are a bother: they are good to bring you to power, but useless for ruling.  Moreover, the rulers (say, Tsipras today) may not know whether the true believers are merely naïve or living in their dreams or are clever schemers who, under the cover of an ideal, want to get more power for themselves. Many people may ask that question of Varoufakis: is he supportive of Tsipras, is he fighting for an idea, or is he in it for himself only? Varoufakis’s position with respect to Tsipras is the same as Chateaubriand’s was with respect to “legitimate” French kings: somebody to have around, but not too closely since, be it because of his dedication to the high principles, or Machiavellism, he may at any point become a loose cannon, or even a foe.

What are the circumstances, giving right to higher income, that we find acceptable?  Since Chateaubriand, was a believer in hereditary monarchy, he understandably believed that the heir to the throne, in virtue of his birth, had special and unique rights. He thus laments the horrible fate that deprived of this right not only Louis XVI (who, one could say, lost it himself), but also the young son of Charles X, who indeed was too young to have done anything wrong. What we would today consider a pure circumstance (birth which should give no special rights to a  person who, arbitrarily, benefited from it) for Chateaubriand becomes precisely the opposite: the circumstance that gives the right to a high position and wealth.

Chateaubriand however was not blind to the unfair role of circumstances in general. Both with respect to himself, and even more strongly with respect to Talleyrand (whom he despised) he writes of the advantages conferred by noble birth. So he  knew of unfairness when he saw it; but in the special case of an heir to the throne, he thought that the advantage it conferred was fine.

We are not different today in our rather arbitrary inclusion or exclusion of circumstances (i.e. separate from effort) that we believe give the beneficiary special rights. Obviously inheritance is one such case: how much inherited wealth is okay, and from whom should that wealth come. But similarly to Chateaubriand, in today’s existing monarchies, the rights of the monarch and his/her family--the rights which come with enormous emoluments, freedom from taxes etc.—are  seldom questioned whereas equality of opportunity is openly proclaimed. Why does equality of opportunity so blatantly stop there—indeed as it stopped in Chateaubriand’s own thinking?

Or why does the desire for equality of opportunity stop at national borders: higher income received thanks to being born in a rich country is also held to be beyond reproach and often even beyond discussion.   

Religion and economic inequality. Chateaubriand, a strongly religious man, in awe, as we have seen, to royal legitimacy, has of the use of religion the same opinion as Marx.  It is the opium of the people; even if Chateaubriand would not give it as wholly negative connotation as Marx does. Here are two quotes from Chateaubriand (my translation):

“A political  state of things where some make millions while others die from hunger, can it continue when religion is not there with its other-worldly hopes to explain the sacrifice?”

“Great inequality in conditions and wealth was bearable as long as it was hidden. But as soon as that inequality was generally noticed, it received a fatal blow. Start anew, if you can, telling aristocratic fictions; try to convince a poor man who can read and no longer believes in God, and who has the same education as you, yes, try to convince him that he needs to accept these privations while his neighbor indulges in superfluities.”

Thus, so long as either (1) large disproportions in income and wealth are not seen, or (2) religion  is there to “explain” them away, the very unequal order to things can continue. (A thought not foreign to Keynes who in the first chapter of his  Economic Consequences of the Peace thought that income inequality is acceptable so long as the rich do not consume but invest their higher incomes.)  But Chateaubriand was also a pessimist. He thought that with the fall of the long-established monarchies and the weakening of religious feelings, inequality will naturally lead to revolutions.

He was not against some redistribution of wealth, although, I think, equality in the formal sense (e.g. peasants having the same formal rights as the nobles) would have probably been too much for him. But mostly he was afraid that the revolutionary pendulum, once set in motion by  inequality no longer hidden from view and in a society without a God to “justify” it, might swing too far. The love for what he calls “absolute equality” may spread further than to equality in economic conditions. It might go on to imposing equality in moral and physical domains and produce the vilest servitude of the “soul”.  He was quite prescient in that: the excesses of the French revolutions were only amplified by the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and attempts to create “absolute equality” led to tyrannies.

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