In Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, Rebecca Spang turns to one of modern history’s most infamous examples of monetary innovation to demonstrate that money is as much a social and political mediator as it is an economic instrument. In her tracing of the creation and abandonment of the assignats—a currency initially defined by French revolutionaries as “circulating land”—we gain not just a new understanding of the Revolution but also greater insight into larger truths about the chasms that can arise between intentions and outcomes, political ideals and practical realities. With those lessons in mind, we asked Spang how the French Revolution’s failed monetary experiment may help us understand the present eurozone impasse.
In the eighteenth century, fiscal-monetary crises provoked two major revolutions. “No taxation without representation” was an early rallying cry of the American Revolution and something similar is true for France, as well. Throughout the eighteenth century, the French monarchy repeatedly tried to tap the vast wealth of the nobility and the Catholic Church. The rich and the super-rich stymied these attempts at more equitable taxation by charging the monarchy with “despotism” and positioning themselves as defenders of the public good. Noblemen and magistrates thereby successfully protected their own privileges—including their largely tax-exempt status—by claiming to be at the vanguard of resisting oppression. Some would say this is what anti-EU Conservatives in Great Britain are doing today; you could also think of the Koch Brothers and other wealthy Tea-Party supporters in the US. In the short term, it was an effective strategy. But it had its limits.
After several years of stalemate and near government shutdown, the King agreed that the Estates-General (the French parliamentary body) would be allowed to vote on any new taxes. It was men elected to that body who rejected centuries-old procedure and instead—speaking, as the elites had done, in the name of “the public”—took the revolutionary step of proclaiming a National Assembly. The French Revolution was a case where no one was trying to start a revolution: the King and his ministers wanted to increase tax revenues, while the political elite wanted to protect their wealth. Similarly, when European officials say that Greece needs to honor its debt, they are taking a conservative position. But it’s one that is having radical effects.
Looking at the case of the French Revolution, we see that trying to hold onto power and privilege by claiming to have the public good at heart can easily backfire. It empowers others to make the same claim. In this sense, calling a referendum was a stroke of genius on Alexis Tsipras’s part. It lets Syriza take the political-moral high ground, and rightly so. At the same time, the Revolution’s history is the story of one unintended consequence after another. So I find it hard to join those who are cheering the current situation as a victory for “democracy” and the beginning of the end of neoliberal austerity. Because I know we don’t know what comes next.