France Before 1789: The Unravelling of an Absolutist RegimeJon Elster
Princeton University Press
263 pages|₹ $39.95
A caricature of the Cabinet Noir, 1815
THE CABINET NOIR or the black room was an infamous practice of opening letters of high officials, members of the nobility and virtually anyone who mattered in the ancien régime. Put in place during the reign of Louis XIII (1610-1643), it became a regular practice under his successors. One could dismiss it as fulfilling prurient desires on part of French monarchs or even spying on notables in his kingdom. In reality, it was a device to scour for authentic information in a country that was notoriously opaque. Imperfect centralisation and secrecy on part of the three classes—the clergy, the nobility and the commoners—made such indirect methods of getting information a regular practice in 18th century France.
In reality, these methods were thwarted as Jon Elster shows in his neat exploration France Before 1789: The Unravelling of an Absolutist Regime. He writes, ‘Orchestration of letters in the expectation that they would be opened also occurred. A might fake or instigate a letter by B to C knowing it will be read by D (the king), the last being the real addressee.’ The result was the spread of unusual complexity in whatever the government did. To give another example, taxation led to second and third-order effects. In the first round, the monarch imposed new taxes to fund France’s interminable wars and other needs. In the second round, the people of France became suspicious of any enumeration/survey/census as they assumed it was a prelude to another round of taxes. The third-order effect of this state of affairs—the government being unable to directly gather the information it required for administration—was ever more emphasis on indirect sources of information. In the cases of taxes, for example, the central government resorted to asking the clergy for its local, parish-level records to understand who owned how much land and other assets.
The result is a very different picture of pre-revolutionary France that contrasts vividly with stories of bread riots, queens asking people to eat cakes and the venal nature of the monarchy. Billed as the first volume of a three-part study that compares a similar unravelling in colonial America of the British regime and a final volume looking at constitution-making in the two countries, Elster’s project is ambitious. His ambition lies not just in the scope of what he seeks to explore but also in bringing novel methodological tools to explore politics from the ground to the top. This is in contrast to the macro and microhistories that have spawned an entire industry of writing on the events before, during and after 1789.
Of all the scholars to have written on these topics, Elster is perhaps the best-equipped to look at the microfoundations of ‘big’ political events. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that microfoundations, for long an obsession with economists who sought to explain observed economic aggregates such as output, inflation, exchange rates etcetera, came of age in social science at large with Elster. From Ulysses and the Sirens (1979) to France before 1789 (2020) is a period of more than four decades. During this period, Elster—now 80 years of age—has expanded rational choice and methodological individualism to explore a vast expanse of political and social behaviour, from the interaction of emotions in everyday life with political choices to revolutions and from chaotic events to constitution-making in different countries and ages. It is one thing to use mechanisms—on paper—to describe and understand events in the abstract but something altogether different to explore an actual revolution that is far removed in time.
So how does one make sense of a book like this? For anyone who is familiar with standard methods of historical research and writing, this book will at first glance evoke incredulity. Modern understanding of past events is based on observing facts and then subjecting them to interpretation. Momentous events like those of 1789 are usually ascribed to some cause and causes. Very often interpretations have an ideological edge. In the French case there are conservative interpretations such as those of Pierre Nora, François Furet and, if his work is considered interpretative history, Joseph de Maistre. There are leftist versions as well. But in none of these efforts is there a description of ‘micromotives’ of officials and subjects.
Revolutions, it seems, happen because the price of bread crosses a certain threshold. On that explanation hunger, it seems, leads to anger and everything else follows in its wake. Because this—obviously—is not how events pan out, ‘ground up’ histories are often tinged with political explanations about ‘people’s’ behaviour, leading to circularities: the assumption (of people being endowed with revolutionary politics) and what is sought to be explained (the revolution itself) often get mixed up. Another ‘explanation’ rests on people being exploited and the process getting out of hand. But why were the people exploited to such an extent that it provoked a revolution? Was the exploiter (or the exploiting class) irrational to such a degree? Somewhere along these causal chains, a degree of brittleness enters the equation, making it hard to believe.
Cabinet Noir or the Black Room was an infamous practice in France of opening letters. It was a device to scour for authentic information in a country that was notoriously opaque
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Elster follows a different track, often using a combination of emotions (fear, hatred, envy, etcetera) and microeconomic assumptions and then building an explanation. His novelty for explaining the actions of different actors has an interesting twist on the standard belief-desire model of action. In the standard model, individuals’ desires lead to gathering of an optimal amount of information and then belief-formation. This, in turn, leads to action as a rational pathway. (There is, of course, a direct route from desires to action: the irrational-choice path.) There is no room for emotions in this model. In contrast, Elster allows emotions to loop back from beliefs to desires, complicating the path to action. Perhaps readers in the age of Twitter where desires are a straight product of emotions can comprehend Elster much better than dry historical fare. The result is a stunning interplay of emotions between the three classes in pre-revolutionary France. The first estate (clergy) hated the third one (commoners); the second (nobility) felt envy towards the third, and the third had contempt for the second. These insights were known to Alexis de Tocqueville when he wrote his history of the ancien régime. Elster puts them on a strong analytical and factual basis. Hatred far more than hunger can compel a person to pick arms; bread prices are a mere sideshow.
He concludes, ‘I suggest that the French Revolution became inevitable when the reaction of members of the third estate to the contempt of the nobles changed from shame to anger. I leave this remark as an unverifiable speculation.’ Perhaps, he will elaborate on this in the planned volumes. For a history writer who started with a model and then sifted through a gigantic—but incomplete—mass of facts, documents, interpretations and more, France before 1789 is an achievement of a high order.
Is such a historical exercise replicable in other settings, say Mughal India or British India as the latter was a period with an abundance of data, testimonies, memoirs and documentary evidence? The prospect is tantalising even as it is dim. An exercise of the kind Elster has done requires not only mastery over historical material but also a methodological orientation that understands the importance of individual motivations in history. Material interpretations, the darling of Indian historians, hover up in the air where humans seem like ants.