Times They Are A Changin', Or Are They?
By Karen Nakamura
"If...we discount the middle class, which was still very small... it would be fair to say that... nine out of ten of [France's] King Louis XIV's subjects worked hard and thanklessly... to permit the tenth to devote himself comfortably to the life of bourgeois, nobleman or mere idler... this tenth of the population lived on the vast revenues of the land, scraped from the soil of the kingdom by the inhabitants of the countryside and swelled and transformed by their labor and those of the workers in the towns." [This tenth included] "nearly all the nobility, most of the clergy and the whole of the bourgeoisie, all those privileged persons... who also enjoyed the benefits of their own special legal system, the 'leges privatae." From Pierre Coubert's Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen."
In the current atmosphere, and including the middle class, it's fair to say that nine out of ten Americans work hard and thanklessly to permit the tenth a life of luxury and power. It's also fait to access our legal and tax systems as favoring the privileged.
It's said we need to learn from history. What happens when we compare, then, 1661-1715 to the United States in 1961-2015? What can we deduce about the future from the past? On examination, we find perhaps, too many similarities. What's beyond the flaunting of riches and creation of incredible art, great literature and famous architecture? Has anything really progressed in the 300 years since? A time that includes the end of the serf/share-cropper system, formation of a strong middle class, the rise of democracy and civil rights.
Louis XIV was an absolute monarch with a handful of advisers. Currently, America is ruled by a small council serving a president who has assumed absolute control. At first, Louis was not particularly religious. Like America, a great creative flowering took place in the 60s and 70s. But by 1169 the king had become "born again" and held little tolerance for anything but the most conservative religious views. These were imposed with ruthless singularity. Any opposition, such as the Jansenists, Huguenots or Port-Royal-des Champs nuns, was often viciously squashed. With the basic checks and balances of American government given way to conservative Christian control, history tells us the current trend will bring about persecution of non-believers and resisters.
Louis' reign began at a time when Europe was digging out of serfdom. In 1961, the US was building its middle class. In both, growing trade and semi-peaceful conditions necessitated stabilization of commerical contracts and growth of workers' unions and guilds. The poor, in either society, barely noticed as they still suffered from unemployment, drought, illness and war.
However, when Louis XVI took the throne in 1661, he started a massive building program creating Versailles and other civic projects. He spent money wildly but spent it in such a way as to benefit the common man as well as the nobles. The middle class grew as merchants broke into the lucrative West and East Indies markets.
This was also the state of America in 1961 and continued until Nixon's administration. We poured massive money into infrastructure and public projects. Manufacturing was high and jobs were plentiful for the lower classes. America was also expanding its world markets. Both countries jockeyed for position in the world. Louis laid down a tradition for quality. Made in America meant something in the 60s. The world watched the antics of the Jetset while Versailles is still renown for its excesses.
In 1664, while France was relatively peaceful except for tax revolts across the countryside, the war between England and Holland erupted. 1964 saw the application of America's military might in Viet Nam and the growth of the civil rights movement across the US. By '67 both France and America were involved in war.
Things changed in 1972. While trade disputes were rampant on the high seas, Louis' quest for glory and expansion fueled a feud between he and Charles II of England. France attacked Holland and began a decade of expensive wars and skirmishes which ended by bankrupting the country.
The Viet Nam War proved costly in manpower and coin. The country was still recovering when the Shah was overthrown and Reagan was elected in 1981. From then on, world domination has been the goal of conservative administrations. The 80s were replete with Central American invasions and assaults from the US and their conservative allies in the region. France conducted similar "reunions" in the 1680s, taking over chunks of other countries on shaky legal basis and enforcing its will through the notorious Dragonnades, a military unit that bears resemblance to graduates of the US's School of the Americas.
After ten years of shifting alliances and borders, in 1695, Louis made his conversion to strict conservative Catholicism. He intensified persecution of the Huguenot craftsmen and professional classes. This caused new immigration to the benefit of Louis's enemies. Taxes increased as prosperity declined. War depleted the treasury once more and the young men, dead on the battlefield, could no longer plant crops. Foreign and domestic agendas were considered ruthless.
The straw that broke the camel's back came when, in 1689, Louis chose to attack Germany and, in particular, to sack and burn the Rhineland. France's moral standing in the world was severely tarnished. A European coalition was formed to take Louis down a peg or two. By 1695, however, after years of bloodshed, France had not secured even the Spanish Netherlands. By 1701, Europe's fears were heightened when Louis placed his fellow Bourbon, Phillip V, on the Spanish throne. By '02, the Spanish War of Succession erupted and lasted until 1713. In 1989, the US was destroying Central America. In 2002, Europe grew fearful of Washington's aggressions in the Middle East and formed a coalition to ward off our powerplays.
According to Will and Ariel Durant's Age of Louis XIV, practically all of Europe west of Poland and the Ottoman Empire was involved. By 1705, France was in a retreat that lasted years. By 1707, revolts broke out across the land. According to Durant, "Living skeletons of starving people clamored at the gates of Versailles for bread." Those seeking to get aid were condemned and their books were banned. By 1713-14, Louis sued for peace and the treaties of Utrect and Rastatt were signed. An uneasy peace prevailed.