Let Them Have Debt: Money and the French Revolution
By Patrick HydeDecember 4, 2015
Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution by Rebecca Spang
OUTSIDE OF A VOTING BOOTH in Greece, a young man held a printed piece of computer paper. A large ฿, the logo of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, covered one-third of the white sheet. Two QR codes sit at the bottom of the page. A message written in Greek reads: “I drop the Bitcoin in the ballot box in order for the world to understand the power they hold in their hands …” On a popular forum dedicated to the discussion of the decentralized digital money, the voter explains that he “voted for Bitcoin” in the 2015 Greek National Elections in a “symbolic and allegoric move” to “spread the idea of human oriented economy.” Some members of the Bitcoin community shared their approbation for this political gesture. Others denounced the act as futile. “Not trying to be a downer,” one commenter responded, “but isn’t this like voting for ‘Potato’ or ‘Lamp’?”
The Bitcoin faithful often endorse their money with the language of liberation. To them, a bitcoin transaction is more than an economic exchange; it is a transcendental gesture, a protest against a neoliberal financial establishment that can no longer be trusted in the wake of the Great Recession. The only problem is that there are not a whole lot of places they can spend the stuff. A vignette from Rebecca Spang’s new book, Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, provides an 18th-century parallel that likewise illuminates the complex social and political nature of money. In the tumultuous year of 1792, Gabriel Noël, a young patriot of the new French Republic, was in charge of buying groceries for his regiment. Filled with a love of patrie, Noël felt duty-bound to purchase the bread and beer with the assignats, the paper currency and national money of the French Revolution. Unfortunately, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker all refused to accept the things, and the authorities had to lend a coercive hand. All the emancipatory rhetoric withers in the face of a harsh reality: money is only as good as where you can spend it.
The lesson to be learned from both of these young men makes Spang’s latest work all the more compelling: money, as she describes it, is “central to and constitutive of the politics of everyday life.” She applies this observation to the French Revolution. If money is central to political life, she asks, what would happen if we studied the French Revolution not from the perspective of violence, but from money? The answer is an authoritative monograph on the assignat that doubles as a masterful history of material culture in late–18th century France. Spang’s dazzling reassessment of the assignat makes this book a must-read for any specialist in the field. And, while the text occasionally suffers from a lack of broader political context, Spang’s witty prose and carefully selected anecdotes might sway nonspecialists to purchase it with plastic.
When the National Assembly, composed of the Third Estate and sympathetic allies in the nobility and clergy, spun off from the Estates-General in 1789, they struggled to implement political and social changes in the midst of a massive financial crisis. In the name of egalitarianism they attacked those vestiges of the Ancien Régime that embodied the gross inequalities embedded in the old order, while building a system that maintained the principles of a laissez-faire economy. But in attacking privilege, the legislators of the National Assembly also eliminated crucial revenue streams, including most of the main taxes. Constructing a new financial infrastructure would be a long and laborious process, and the state’s many creditors were unlikely to wait patiently while the details were worked out. Desperate to stave off bankruptcy and meet interest payments on the state’s substantial debt, the legislators of the National Assembly created the assignat, a paper currency whose value derived from the confiscated lands of the Catholic Church. In hindsight, this expediency turned out to be a complete financial and political disaster. Worthless by 1795, the assignat entered the history books as a cautionary tale for any government tempted to invent and print paper currency.
But Spang has little patience with the textbook interpretation of the assignat as a “disastrous experiment” concocted by radical statesmen who deluded themselves into thinking that they could cheat the laws of economics and get away with it. Instead she argues that lawmakers conceived of the assignat out of consciously conservative impulses. The assignat was originally designed to function as a temporary expediency that conformed to traditional understandings of financial principles. But, as Spang argues, lawmakers “opted for policies that turned out to be far more disruptive than they expected or intended.” To analyze just why the assignat was so disruptive, Spang insists that we should not turn to the writings of an elite coterie of economists, but we should instead investigate how people used and thought of money in their day-to-day lives. Specifically, Spang wants us to think of money in terms of temporality, or popular perceptions of historical time, and indebtedness to understand how commercial and political factors intertwined to determine the course of the French Revolution.
A common misconception about the French Revolution has it that the Bourbon monarchy was crushed by the weight of unprecedented state debt. But, as Spang demonstrates, there was nothing unusual about debt in Old Regime France. In fact, credit and debt were essential not only to the government but also to the whole economy. All but the poorest were entangled in an intricate web of financial obligations, and the circulation of goods without an exchange of currency was the norm. The people lived just as the king of France did, on systems of credit and interest.
What was unprecedented, however, was the politicization of the state’s debt. Other historians have drawn a similar conclusion, but Spang in effect refinances our understanding of indebtedness and thus restructures our understanding of the French Revolution. As she tells it, Louis XVI and his financial minister Jacques Turgot tried to introduce new taxes that would force the elite to pay their fair share of the country’s massive expenditures. They were not happy to do so. The Catholic Church, whose clergy made up the First Estate, owned ten percent of all land in France but was exempt from any direct taxation. Instead, they gave an annual “gift” to the king, changing the amount from year to year. The nobility, who made up the Second Estate, had the right to collect taxes from the peasants who lived on their lands and enjoyed all sorts of tax exemptions. The rest of France occupied the Third Estate and they were the ones bearing the entire brunt of taxation. Turgot wanted a land tax for all, but the nobility and clergy fiercely protested.
Elsewhere in the world, a band of rabble-rousers had successfully banded together to fight taxation without representation. This idea resonated with the French elite, and they launched a smear campaign aimed at the supposedly destitute condition of the nation’s finances in protest against the new taxes. Louis XVI had barred the parlements, or regional law courts, from meeting and refused to convene the Estates-General. So, without a voice in the government, the nobility distributed pamphlets haranguing the king for the state of the country’s finances and labeling his attempts at new taxation despotic. The king flinched in the face of this political pressure and convened the Estates-General, kicking off a chain of events that quickly spiraled into the French Revolution. The same men who politicized the debt issue thus inherited the problem. They demanded to be a part of the financial decision-making process and became agonizingly acquainted with what that entailed.
Spang uses temporality as an analytical category to explain why the Assembly’s response to indebtedness disrupted French society. She isn’t the first to use time in such a way; historians of all disciplines have latched on to temporality as a phenomenological category of analysis to describe how people frame their present situation in relation to an understanding of the past and anticipations of the future. Scholars have used temporality with varying levels of success to explain how people experienced everything from transatlantic slavery to the advent of modernity. While temporality sometimes feels clunky and unnecessary, Spang is careful to demonstrate how exactly it is necessary to understand indebtedness. It allows her to look beyond a circumscribed set of sources relating to a few revolutionaries and broaden her analysis of the Revolution to the whole of the French nation.
She recalls a fundamental but oft-forgotten fact: that a system of credit relies on the expectation that things will continue in a more or less predictable manner in the future. The political changes rocking France upset people’s trust in the state and unsettled their anticipation of the future. People stopped accepting credit because they were unsure what tomorrow’s political landscape might look like and instead demanded cash for all goods and services. The French economy was ill-equipped for this massive transformation. As credit disappeared, a cash shortage emerged and became another problem for the National Assembly. For a period of time, money stopped working. With no other choice, they were forced to monetize the assignat, something they never wanted to do.
The assignat’s success as a national currency ultimately depended on people’s trust in the authority of the National Assembly, and that trust was not always there. Spang tells us everything we ever wanted to know (and for some readers, much more than they ever wanted to know) about the logistical difficulties of preparing the assignat to circulate as paper money. Besieged by counterfeiters and slow production, the assembly symbolically linked the currency to the political revolution as a way to inspire confidence in the new currency. As they prepared to print the money, they imprinted in it the language and imagery of liberty and equality. This would, they expected, inspire confidence in both the new political structure and the currency that would allow its economy to function properly. This expectation proved bankrupt; the emphasis on equality only heightened the very real financial inequality that still existed in France. As Spang tells it,
the Assemblies’ ideological choice of monetary deregulation at a time of cultural and social dislocation proved profoundly unsettling. Individuals’ heightened sense of uncertainty had calamitous effects on an economy largely based … on trust, habit, and credit. A feedback loop of sorts was established: “freedom” of money disrupted economic life; that disruption made liberty and equality seem all the more elusive and desirable; supporting liberty meant defending the free trade in money which, in turn, led to further uncertainty and disruption.
Instead of soothing economic anxieties, the assignat inflamed them. Desperate to defend their money and thus their ability to live, people turned to popular agitation, and their trust in the state, and therefore the assignat, deteriorated. While historians still debate the success of the Revolution, they all agree that the assignat failed.
State-building, then as now, is hard work. In trying to strengthen the economy, the revolutionaries inadvertently weakened the state. Spang’s account makes a powerful argument that politics and the economy were intimately linked in determining the Revolution’s course. Radicalization occurred not because it was inherent in the ideology of the revolution itself, but as a reaction to financial realities.
Scholars of the French Revolution will undoubtedly appreciate Spang’s innovative and astute handling of the process of radicalization, the definition and scope of political terror, and above all, the assignat. However, Spang’s work is not the best introduction to the Revolution. She emphatically states that she is not concerned with the origins of the Revolution, a favorite subject of scholars that she thinks can lead to an infinite regress. As a result, she omits structural details about the larger geopolitical context and crucial developments in the Revolutionary era, stating briefly a list of developments “we know” happened in the years leading up to the French Revolution. This is all well and good for the reader who is acquainted with the basic chronology of the French Revolution, but beginners may want to start elsewhere to help contextualize Spang’s findings.
Stuff and Money touches on a number of major historical developments at the end of the 18th century, but it also offers lasting insights on market relations. In this book a reader will find reflections on the Consumer Revolution, on the potency of symbols in political processes, and on the process of radicalization during the French Revolution. This is a history of the French Revolution that stresses the importance of contingency and unintended consequences over long-term structural forces. Contemporary observers can apply many of Spang’s findings to the Eurozone crisis today. As debt-ridden European governments debate which currency they should use, dissatisfied young people, like the Greek who voted for Bitcoin, express their dissatisfaction in the language of money. Though the specifics of the work are grounded in the history of 18th-century France, the general principles Spang unearths are just as relevant today.
Patrick Hyde is a graduate student in the University of Houston’s History program.
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