It is two hundred and twenty years today since Louis XVI, King of France was executed at the guillotine in Paris, after being convicted for treason. The French Revolution is all the rage at the moment as Les Misérables continues to wow critics, dominates cinemas and now the cast is taking over the charts. The big question is, can this period of radical social and political upheaval in eighteenth century France teach anything to the twenty first century western world?
The French Revolution began against a backdrop of a financial crisis and an incredibly regressive tax system. Undoubtedly there are some parallels that can be drawn as much of Europe still reeling from the impact of a banking crisis, while the richest in society wangle their way out of any and every tax possible - Depardieu’s deflection to Russia is a prime example. Even in Britain, the home of the stiff upper lip, there are echoes of the ‘revolution’ taking hold. 2010’s London riots were denounced by many as pure opportunism. But is the looting by disenfranchised, ‘futureless’ youths all that different from the storming of the Bastille?
Perhaps the riots are a poor example. The violence was an anomaly, not the norm. What has, instead, become more prevalent is a form of social rebellion – the participatory revolution through grass-roots activism and social movements.The ‘swinging sixties’ were a turning point in conventional politics. New concerns began to come to fore of the baby-boomer generation. These were underpinned by distrust and dissatisfaction with political parties and major social and political institutions raising questions about future development. Such disenchantment is particularly poignant today, as we continue move beyond the conventional spheres of partisan politics.
The social movement model as an instrument within the realm of conventional politics, with social protest, and other tactics such as petitions, is becoming increasingly common. Perhaps the most effective is the ‘green lobby’ that has relentlessly transformed over the years to enter partisan politics. Green parties have been particularly successful in Western Europe forming part of parliamentary coalitions and giving way to more fluid issue-based politics.
Technological leaps and bounds of the last three decades have created a different existence. Supporters of social movements began to experience the inextricable link to wider global structures. This link illustrated the demand for global action and convergence. Indeed, social movement activism has enhanced democratic representativeness and responsiveness of political institutions on a global scale in the form of international charters and agreements.
Unfortunately, these movements remain on the fringe making our comparison to the French Revolution is rather superficial, as we are unlikely to see any bankers, monarchs or presidents being hauled up to the guillotine any time soon (depending on location). Although that would probably kick-start the era of change that is needed. Societal values are organic. They change and adapt. The political process, however, remains relatively rigid. It does not progress with these changes. That is not to say that it is unable, perhaps just unwilling. After all, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ – and this seems to be the motto across the spectrum.
It is broken. There is no easy fix. Thankfully, not all is lost. The broadening of the political system has been a success – inclusion of minority groups, and issues such as human as well as equal rights have been elevated to the top of the agenda of mainstream politics. Evermore, these groups act as advisory bodies and contributors to actors within the system. Although it does seem that social progress is more of a dawdle than a race.