Equality, Individual Rights, Modernity and Democracy

I must admit I was surprised to see a reference to the “lower orders” in Ramachandra Guha’s book (India after Gandhi) in connection with the voting in the 2004 elections in India (How Modern is Modern?). I was curious to see when this sort of characterization disappeared in Europe. Given that we dealt with Hobbes’ articulation of equality in the previous post (Individualism, Social Contract, Governance and Modernity) this also provides a neat opportunity to round off this discussion.

As we mentioned, Hobbes’ formulation in 1651 was a theoretical one. It is only when we get to the French Revolution that we see a concrete demonstration of how things changed. Tim Blanning provides a nice account in his 2007 book (The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815) of what happened when a crisis finally forced Louis XVI to call a meeting of the Estates General in 1789. This is how he describes the start of the meeting in Versailles:

At once they were deadlocked over the issue of whether they should sit and vote as three separate orders, which would allow the clergy (the first estate) and the nobility (the second estate) to dominate the commoners (the third estate) or whether they constituted a single body. Weeks passed in sterile wrangling until the deputies of the third estate cut the Gordian knot with three crucial decisions: on 10 June they announced that they would proceed unilaterally as if they were a single representative body and invited deputies from the other two estates to join them; on 17 June they adopted the title of ‘National Assembly,’ and on 20 June the took the … oath that they would not allow themselves to be dispersed until they had given France a new constitution…. In effect, what the third estate did during these great days in June was to proclaim the principal of national sovereignty and to claim for themselves the right to exercise it. This was the true beginning of the French Revolution. (Page 338)

Here is Blanning’s description of what followed:

The victorious revolutionaries were now able to set about creating a new France from the bottom up. At a very early stage in their deliberations they took an axe to the most fundamental attribute of the old regime – privilege. During a very excited session of the National Assembly, which lasted for most of the night of 4-5 August 1789, one privilege after another was cast aside in the name of liberty. Seigneurial dues and jurisdictions, hunting rights, the sale of offices, tithes and all those special privileges which distinguished one man from another, one group from another, all made way for a new order based on uniformity, meritocracy and standardization. In a word, the National Assembly introduced modernization. (Page 340)

And here is the description of the principles that were articulated to define the new France:

The most eloquent and most important was the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,’ promulgated on 26 August…. By declaring that ‘Man’ – and not just ‘French Man’ – had a natural right to liberty, property, security, equality of opportunity, fiscal equality, freedom from oppression and arbitrary arrest, equality before the law, religious toleration and freedom of expression, association and the press, the deputies threw down a challenge to all those regimes which denied their subjects some or all of these. (Page 340)

It should be clear that in South Asia we are nowhere close to this kind of political equality of individuals or attainment of natural rights, not even in India. We are still in the world of higher and lower orders, not in the law, but in how people think of each other and how they act in practice.

In an earlier post (Hierarchy, Dependence, Equality and Democracy) we had quoted Tocqueville to the effect that there could be no democracy without a fundamental equality of individuals before the law. Tocqueville also had this to say about how difficult it had been to achieve equality in Europe:

All the old political powers in Europe, the greatest as well as the least, have been founded in ages of aristocracy, and they represented and were more or less willing to defend the principle of inequality and privilege. To make the new wants and interests prompted by growing equality preponderant in the government, it was therefore necessary to overthrow or coerce the established powers. This led men to make revolutions…. I do not think there is a single country in Europe where the progress of equality has not been preceded or followed by some violent changes in the status of property and of persons and all these changes have been accompanied by much anarchy and license.

It takes a lot to get to a democracy that really makes a difference to the lives of the “lower orders.”

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