Attempted prophesies: Never say coup (Yet you’ve said it)


The Locksmith and his Dysfunctional Key

I prefer that we discuss the following matters in the present tense—as best as we can.

So here you have it, the nation of France—a world power in 18th-century Europe. A nation having a distant past of sheer prosperity; positioned, then, as the world’s leading power. With great power comes great enemies and squabbles; great enemies come the need to show off power—so then, the Seven Years’ War. Spanning the periods of 1756 all the way to 1763, this war principally fought between France and Britain ran, bankrupting France in the long run. The great nation of France is left in financial ruins under King Louis the XV. Eleven years on, King Louis XV chooses to die; not to war but to disease, leaving the economic crisis of the nation unresolved; leaving this ailing nation in the hands of a twenty-year-old gentleman. The ill-equipped, some say ‘ill-bred’ Louis becomes king—all hail the frail King Louis XVI. A nation in ruins, falling to an ill-equipped King, all so misfortunate—particularly so because these events are set in no other era but the Age of Enlightenment itself.

Things we take for granted: the Age of Enlightenment

[I prefer we discuss the following matters against a backdrop of a cognisance of the Eurocentric nature of supposed ‘world history’ as we know it; and with a continental pride that we too have for ourselves, our own history of progression—yet a history buried deep, almost indiscoverably deep down in the chests of history, owing to it having not been spelt out in ink. That being said, we proceed with Europe’s written history; in this particular case, of ‘enlightenment.’]

Almost two centuries prior to the reign of Louis XVI, René Descartes had written in his famous piece ‘Discourse on the Method’ these poignant words: ‘cogito, ergo sum’—’I think, therefore I am’—helping sow the seed of Enlightenment ideas. Ideas which were then, ridiculously revolutionary for the subcontinent of Europe. Ideals such as: reason over dogma, the separation of church and state, tolerance, democracy, freedom, equality, etc.

18th-century France, still crippled by the charade of war, and finding itself in the lap of an incompetent King, was to find itself in further decline as this King, seeking revenge for his nation and past ancestor, chose to insert himself in yet another war—this time around, that which ensued between the supposed ‘new world’ America and their imperial overlord, Britain.

The American War for Independence from Britain beginning in 1775, became to Louis XVI, one telling dilemma. On the one hand, he yearned so badly for a revenge for the defeat suffered his nation in the hands of the Brits during the Seven Years’ War. On the other hand, this revolution sought by the Americans was one very much spurred by the ideas of the Enlightenment. And characteristic of this Enlightenment movement was the overthrowing of dogma. There was, then, no dogma greater than the institution that was the monarchy. The Enlightenment favoured democracy over monarchical rule. How then does a monarch find kindred spirit in this ‘new world’ that they become allies of war? Alas, it was Louis XVI’s hatred, then, for Britain that won the day. It remains one of the greatest ironies of European history that Louis XVI helped finance a war against his own self—against an institution of which he himself formed a part, the monarchy.

And that is how a nation already deep in debt, chose to sink further deep into economic distress.

The people are hungry

The people were hungry, poor, and thus angry. Knowing that they wanted things changed, they weren’t sure precisely how they wanted this change to ensue. However, driven by the certainty of hunger and anger, they were to undertake steps that resulted in certain crucial certainties—the overthrow of the monarchy, for one. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here…

In the small town of Versailles, the castle of the French monarchy sat. King Louis XIV—Louis XVI’s ancestor—wanting himself separated from the ordinary people over whom he ruled, built for himself this palace of a city, Versailles, and moved the capital of France to that petite city in the year 1682. So Louis XVI grows up very much out of touch with the harsh reality of his people. And it is with this same defect of ‘out-of-touch-ness’ that Louis begins his rule. This, in itself, is a bad recipe for the mid-to-late-18th-century financially-crippled France.

Empowered by Enlightenment thinkers, the hungry people of France begin forming coalitions, and begin demanding of the King, reforms. The King, he obliges, and appoints a minister of finance named Turgot in 1774.

‘Monsieur Turgot, what do you think ought to be done to stabilise the economy and bring relief to my people?’ The King asks his minister.

Turgot responds with something to the tune of: ‘Cut down on your (the clergy and nobility’s) lavish spending; uproot your endemic corruption; relieve the poor from their crashing tax burden, tax the rich—by rich, I mean, the undeservedly, traditionally privileged First and Second Estates.’

We discussed this last week: the hierarchical system of France had at its bottom the Third Estate (the large mass of citizenry) slaving away for the enjoyment of the First and Second Estates. The clergy (i.e. First Estate) and nobility (i.e. Second Estate), being atop the French food chain, for centuries, paid no taxes into the national pot—this same pot from which they ultimately took the largest share.

The weak King, Louis XVI, unable to stomach the kickback such a revolutionary reform will receive from the clergy and nobility, draws back from this foolproof plan, and fires Monsieur Turgot.

After Turgot came the famous Necker—Jacques Necker, a wealthy and brilliant man of the Enlightenment. ‘Monsieur Necker, any views on how to save the economy and secure for my people, better living?’ Necker responds to Louis XVI with this same revolutionary pronouncement, ‘Cut down your lavish spending; oust corruption; relieve the poor from the crashing tax burden, tax the rich—and by rich I mean the First and Second Estates.’ This makes good sense, the King agrees. Yet enforcement was never to be, because this weak King, he succumbs to pushbacks received from the privileged. So the King, he once again fires the peoples’ man, Jacques Necker.

After Necker came Calonne—Charles Alexander de Calonne—as minister of finance. ‘Monsieur Calonne, how do you propose we save the economy, and bring sound relief to the citizenry of this country?’ The King asks Calonne. Calonne responds with: ‘Cut down your lavish spending; uproot corruption; relieve the poor from the excruciating tax burden, tax the rich—by that I mean the First and Second Estates’? Well, no. Not this time around. Because Calonne, he must have heard of the fates that befell the first two ministers of finance, so he gives the King a sycophantic response: ‘To save the French economy, the King, his aids, and the First and Second Estates will have to spend even more lavishly than they are presently spending.’ Calonne is popular with France’s upper 2%—the First and Second Estates. But it wasn’t long before he, after the French economy reached an all-time low, reverted to reality—proposing the very same policies Necker and Turgot proposed. But of course yes, Calonne too is fired, becoming the third fiscal head to lose his head to the rich’s guillotine.

By this time the people were tired. With the appointment of each minister of finance, with the proposing of each citizen-centric policy, the people’s hopes were lifted, only to be crashed with the canning of each of these ministers. Anger was reaching its boiling point.

The failed King, he found yet another outlet. And this time around he found it not in one man, but a congregation of men—the Estates General. The Estates General was a parliament, a consultative assembly categorised according to the hierarchical system of France. On this June day of 1789, the Estate General convenes—an assembly which had not, for 175 whole years, met. And it is on this day that we meet brilliant, energetic young minds like the lawyer, Maximilien Robespierre. A young man deeply influenced by Enlightenment ideals, he stands before the Estate General, making a moving case for the people he represents, commoners like himself—the Third Estate. Finally, the people’s voice is to be heard. Yet it is during this gathering that the final blow is struck the people. They, representing 98% of the population of France, their vote meant nothing against the 2% clergy and nobility. So once again, their call for reform had been defeated. This leviathan of a system had failed at allowing upon itself, reform. The people’s final recourse was then to work outside the system—defeat it not from within, but without.

The People Are In Charge

First, they form for themselves a parliament and governing body, the National Assembly in August of that same year. This becomes arguably the people’s first democratic move. They avow to enact a new Constitution that will rule the land and shall be for the people. Aided by Thomas Jefferson (being himself an American and part of the leaders of a revolution which King Louis XVI had a few years prior aided), the French revolutionaries declare loudly their aspiration in writing, in the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.’ To defend themselves from the King’s military, the French Guard, the revolutionaries, they form a militia of their own, the National Guard. The people needing ammunitions for their militia, they storm the nation’s afore-then-very-formidable political prison, the Bastille, where they will commit the revolution’s first bloody act. Emptying the building off its weaponry, they kill its guards and governor. And infamously, they impale the head of the governor on a spike. Just like that, a bloody coup had been born, with ‘head on spike’ as its signature move. The King and his family were whipped out of their utopian space that was Versailles, and forcefully escorted to Paris—to live among the real people.

Was the monarchy over and done with? Well, not just yet. What France had now was a constitutional monarchy. The King is maintained as figure head, while the revolutionary government ran the nation. The King and the First and Second Estates were all stripped off the woefully unfair rights they enjoyed—no longer were they to sit as ready, fertile stomachs awaiting feeding from the labouring populace; no longer were they to live on the French soil free of taxation. The First and Second Estates were too ‘commoners’—they were also ‘common people’ for the purpose of statehood. The coup d’état, it seems, had been successful.

This reads all too easy, does it not? With our experience of the world as baseline, this relating of events we have done right here seems all too easy, does it not?—all too smooth sailing…

The New Regime Becomes the Old

People are easily bound when it is to confront a common foe. But when such foe is finally disposed of, these former-oppressed people begin to, most often than not, find in their own selves, foes. They are quick to realise that unity requires a foundation stronger than a common enemy. And this is exactly what ensued in post-Louis XVI France. Because, for one, the revolution did not bring about an end to the starvation of the people—a principal cause of the revolution itself.

Soon there were disagreements between the revolutionaries themselves. The newly instituted National Assembly disagreed, among others, on matters of citizenship, the overruling of the church, and even the revolution itself. There were some within the camps of the revolutionaries called the ‘moderates’ who wanted the King kept as figure head. On the other end of the spectrum, you had ‘radicals’ like the Jacobins who wanted the monarchy completely obliterated. Opposing political clubs and sometimes segments within the same political clubs began to lock horns.

Internal squabbles aside, what picture have we just painted of 18th-century France in relating the history of its revolution? We have painted a picture of a France completely isolated from and impervious to global politics. Certainly, during the 18th century, globalisation had not yet morphed into the mammoth it is today. Yet, foreign influence in national matters were very much the order of the day even then. So in the subcontinent of Europe, the revolutionary government of France had on its hand external forces to fight. These neighbouring European states, these monarchs, fearing the infiltration of the French insurgencies into their territories; fearing the infiltration of these Enlightenment ideologies into their nations, they gave the French revolutionary government a hard time. The revolution, it was decided—even by some of its moderates—could not remain tame. As it hardened itself to better fight enemies—both from within and without, both real and imagined—the revolution slowly but surely adopted all the features of tyranny. Slowly but surely, former moderates like our young, eloquent lawyer, Robespierre morphed into tyrannical leaders.

With external pressures and threats mounting, the continuous existence of the King, the monarch, was proving to be more trouble than anticipated. It wasn’t long before Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, numerous royals and members of the clergy, were one-after-the-other brought for trial for their shiftiness, for treason, and were executed—by guillotine.

To protect the revolution, heads had to literally roll—internal and external heads alike. People were tried and convicted for treason each and every passing day. ‘Prosecutors’ and ‘executioners’ of today were the ‘executed’ of tomorrow. Revolutionary leaders of today were heads prepped for the guillotine tomorrow. It wasn’t long before Robespierre himself, once touted as ‘The Incorruptible’ for how staunchly and heroically he fought for the revolutionary ideals of equality, liberty, fraternity…Robespierre ‘the incorruptible’ now corrupted with power…it wasn’t long before he was brought before the guillotine as a failed, tyrannical leader, deserving to be rid off his head. The revolutionary era had become poorer and bloodier than the monarchy had ever been, it seemed.

From the periods spanning the glorious 1789—when the revolution was birthed, all through to 1799 when the young, ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte staged the ultimate coup… From the periods in between these years when this former monarchical nation attained its dream of Republican-ness… During this era of ‘coup attempts upon coup attempts’, ‘heads upon heads lost to the guillotine’—with freedom, it seemed, meaning freedom of the head from the body… From the ousting of Louis XVI all the way to the Age of Napoleon, when wars were for the nation, the order of the day; yet being a brilliant military leader, with Napoleon winning for France, these countless external wars… From the overthrow of this monarchy in 1789, and this period of the French Republic that followed it, all the way to the year 1804 when the ruler, Napoleon laid waste to and made a mockery of this tedious process of revolution by declaring himself Emperor—sending France all the way back to square one, a monarchical state, under tyrannical rule… What description does one give to all this—these periods and processes, these uneasiness, these unrests? The answer arguably is: a nation finding its feet.

A Nation Finding Its Feet

Nationhood has proven itself one of the toughest journeys yet undertaken by humankind. Histories spreading across borders, across races, point to this fact. Ideals of statehood—one that allows for the smooth running of nations; one that allow for the change of governments, the smooth change of governments in fact…these ideals seem so common to us in the modern world, that they are easily categorised as innate, hence are easily taken for granted. Many of today’s developed countries have for their formative years, the 18th century. And unrests, symptomatic of childhood and teenage years have been suffered by these countries in this distant past. And wouldn’t humankinds be beasts if they do not and cannot find even longer years of tranquillity, after suffering years of unrests? Wouldn’t humankinds be animals if they are unable to learn from their past, and chart for themselves, better futures?

So then, statehood has, for each nation of the world, been a journey of misdoings, learnings, and rectifications. The smooth change of governments has been one of the many learnings of statehood. This is a lesson learnt and adopted by many of the nations of this 21st century, including nations like ours, Ghana.

But we’ve been hearing some people toy with the word ‘coup’ recently—right here in this country of ours. This 64-year-old Ghana, having charted its own share of tumultuous journey of statehood in the not-so-distant past, having suffered in the 20th century, what countries like France suffered in the 18th century, having now settled in to the state of statehood as all nations in the end tend to do… this nation of Ghana, still in its incipient journey of growth, has within it, some few mouths throwing around recklessly, the word ‘coup.’

We will have to cut for time, and continue this next week. But we will have to end with this: when a nation does finally find its feet, it behoves of itself not to cut those feet off—no matter how feeble those limbs may look now.

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