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The French Revolution: Eco-political Situation

‘Principles of Political Economy’ by J.S. Mills is a magnum opus about the polity and economy that ruled in the 1800s. The book is divided into 5 parts.

Book 1 is about production and elucidates the basic requisites of production. The two main requisites are labour and natural objects. Labour refers to the human effort put in for production, whereas natural objects are the bounties of nature, available in plenty such as land. Effort is put in to convert these raw materials to usable products, which is sourced from labour. Labour also creates utilities. Another major requirement of labour is the capital. Capital, according to Mills, is the accumulated stock of the products of labour. Mills also explores rather abstract areas of production such as cooperation.

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Book 2 talks about distribution. Distribution is the allocation of factors of production, property and produce. He talks about distribution of property from a communist as well as socialist point of view. Distribution of wages explains the wage fund theory. Workers and capitalists enjoy the advantages of labour and Mills acknowledges the difference between them.

Book 3 is on Exchange. Exchange of value, the value-price paradox, and its application to utility are few of the topics covered. Value is relative, since it is majorly dependent on quantity. The functions of money are discussed, the most important one being that it imparts value. Influence of credit on prices is similar to money. Joint price of two commodities contributes to its value in the market. Here the cost of production plays no role. Money is given prime importance as it is a conduit for trade and determines international values. It passes from country to country as a medium of foreign exchange and variation may affect trading prices.

Book 4 talks about the effect of societal progress on the economy. Thus the eco-politico nature of the book is brought forth. He talks about the connection between economic prosperity and societal progress. Societal progress is can be avoidance of war, increase in prosperity etc. he predicts that the newly empowered middle class will generate majority of the revenue.

Book 5 mentions government intervention in the economy. He dichotomises the functions of the government, into necessary and optional. The necessary functions are security, regulation, taxation and protection. Mills is an advocate of laissez fairism like the mercantilists. Mills believed that the government had ‘no business in businesses’ and should abstain from interfering with individual choice.

Les Miserables is a period musical film with its central theme revolving around the French revolution and the June uprising that took place in the 1799-1815. It shows the autocracy and its domino effect through the French economy, society and polity. The story highlights the plight of the proletariat during the uprising. We see Jean Valjean, an escaped convict who turns his life around and is compassionate by heart, yet he fears his past. We see a woman, Francine who was working under Jean become a prostitute and sell her hair and teeth, for a measly sum. These are just a few instances of the dreadful conditions that prevailed then. The setting is redolent of penury and a hard life. Wrong economic decisions taken by the then monarch led to such conditions of life. The climax of the movie is the June uprising that took place 17 years after the French Revolution. The Parisian uprising was an unsuccessful anti-monarchist revolution. The French Revolution that preceded this was more successful in granting freedom to the revolutionists. The common populace felt that their previous revolution was stolen by Louis-Philippe’s opportunist coterie, who handed him the power, thus giving the public an illusion of democracy.

Issues – Eco-Politico Causes of the French Revolution

Bankruptcy was one of the main causes of the French revolution. This cause has widespread ramifications on the economy and polity. Deficit spending by the monarch and hard taxes caused a major financial upheaval. France was involved in the Seven Year’s War and the American Revolutionary War. Thus war spending and other grandeur spending drained the coffers. France was bankrupt by 1789 and had borrowed large amounts of money. But the interest on the debt exceeded the GNP and thus there was heavy deficit spending. This sent the French economy spiralling downwards. There was a tax levied on the nobles. The tax system needed reforms because it was heavily skewed towards the bourgeois and the clergy, so when tax reforms were carried out the ecclesiastical bodies and the nobles revolted against the heavy tax. Rumours of increasing taxes sparked restlessness in the masses. Splendour spending in the court of Louis and Marie Antoinette was quite high, many guests stayed at the castle on the taxpayer’s money. The agrarian crisis of 1788-89 caused grave discontent.

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Political conflict regarding the draconian monarchy led to a revolt. Louis XIV faced vociferous revolt against his economic reforms, which taxed the nobility and the clergy. The privileged class resisted the reforms, which caused a rift in the court. Other successful revolutions such as the American Revolution and the England’s Glorious revolution gave impetus to the revolutionists. Louis XIV was an absolute monarch who inherited the throne in 1774. He was apathetic towards his subjects and their economic and daily needs. His power was limitless, even the Estate-General was called by the king, except the 1st and 2nd Estates. As the support to the king weakened because of the tax norms and the populace were already simmering, it culminated to the French Revolution in what is known as the Storming of The Bastille Prison. In France, people were divided into three estates. The First Estate, were the high ranking members of the church and the privileged class. The Second Estate, were the nobility and the privileged class and The Third Estate was everyone else, ranging from the bourgeois to the peasant class and the non-privileged members. Thus we can see that the eco-politico situation was the main contributor towards the French revolution. The economic reforms had a domino effect when the polity could not accept the higher taxation. Thus, the signing of the Third Estate took place. Yet rumours circulated that Louis XIV wanted to crush the national assembly, and hence the Third Estate stormed the Bastille Prison killing the guards.

A few social causes which affected the local populace were long drawn out before the revolution. The population of France was 26 million out of which 21 million earned their daily bread through agriculture. Even though they were better off than other agriculturalists in Russia and Poland, the famine and taxation norms made it hard to earn enough money. Thus the social inequality which existed because of the taxation norms angered the public. There was major scarcity of food as the famine in 1780s caused major grievances. There was a series of crop failure, which lead to paucity of grain availability, consequently raising the price of bread. Bread was the staple food of the general populace and this lead to great starvation. Speculation that the great starvation was induced by the nobility worsened the situation. There were bread riots which affected the daily functioning of the people.

Although an abstract cause, the spreading of free thought and inter-mingling of ideas from the Americans and English strengthened the French wish of democracy. Many French citizens had absorbed ideas by economic and philosophical thinks of those times and the slogan ‘Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite’. France sent its navy and troops to aid the rebelling colonists. During this time there was contact between the French and the Americans and the ideas spread. American diplomats like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, had stayed in Paris for a while and shared thoughts with French mercenaries. Furthermore, contact between American revolutionaries and the French troops who served as anti-British mercenaries in North America helped spread revolutionary ideas to the French people. In addition, the people wanted to express themselves.

Les Miserables and Principles of Political Economy by JS Mills reflect such a time when there was great political upheaval. We see instances of poverty and acute starvation in the movie which clearly reflects collective French sentiment during those times.


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