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More runaway trains

21 August 2010 (Part 2 of post of 17 August)

The French Revolution was another striking example of history moving like a runaway train. The monarchy had been in dire financial and moral straits for almost a century, since Louis XIV’s grandiloquent expenditure on follies like Versailles and his disastrous wars. Subsequent wars led to more humiliating defeats at the hands of the hated British, the loss of Canada and ever-mounting debts. Helping the American rebels defy the British crown brought brief satisfaction, but took France to the verge of bankruptcy and inspired patriotic aristocrats like Lafayette to dream of liberty for France. Brilliant writers like Voltaire and Montesquieu catalogued the many failings of an absolute monarchy that was both incompetent and unjust.

By 1786, interest payments on debts consumed half of the crown’s income and no more could be borrowed. Radical reform was clearly necessary, but without constitutional change the elite refused to cooperate. In 1788 Louis XVI finally agreed to summon the closest thing France had to a representative assembly, the long defunct Estates General. His suggestion that each part of France should draw up lists of their grievances generated a mountain of paper. In the months leading up to May 1789, when the Estates finally met, expectations and excitement rose to fever-pitch. The King’s failure to treat members of the Third Estate (commoners) with respect dashed almost everybody’s hopes. Nobody wanted to replace the monarchy, merely to reform it, but events spiralled out of control and Louis had no idea what to do.

These years of mounting political crisis coincided with a social and economic one: a series of bad harvests culminated in widespread failure. As supplies of grain ran out in 1789, the price of bread soared, just when manufacturing slumped and there was no other work to fall back on. All over France rumours spread that aristocrats, corrupt officials and hoarders were conspiring to starve a desperate people into submission. Violent riots erupted everywhere.

The revolution really started in June when the Estates defied the King, proclaimed a National Assembly and swore to give France a constitution. Louis responded by summoning troops to Paris, but when they fraternised with the people, he lost his nerve and withdrew them. On 14 July revolutionaries stormed the Bastille to get their hands on arms. There weren’t any but they hacked the governor to pieces, and lynchings became commonplace and patriotic. Across the country peasants sacked chateaux and attacked grain merchants and tax collectors. In August, the Assembly voted a Declaration of the Rights of Man, but France was becoming ungovernable. In October an armed mob marched on Versailles and forced the Royal family to return to Paris with them.

From that point on Louis was almost a prisoner in the Tuileries and head of the government in name only. A cacophony of eloquent voices in the Assembly, urged on and sometimes intimidated by the Parisian mob, debated abstractions and produced a succession of constitutions. In 1791 Louis tried to escape, confirming suspicions about his loyalties. In 1792, war broke out with Austria and the Duke of Brunswick threatened Paris with ‘exemplary vengeance’ if the King were harmed. This triggered an orgy of violence and the declaration of a republic. Armed gangs massacred over a thousand innocent prisoners in what Danton, the Minister of Justice, called ‘an indispensible sacrifice . . . to appease the people of Paris’. Terror became the order of the day and politicians competed in ferocity, often directed at each other.

In January 1993, Louis was sentenced to death. The Queen and thousands of other ‘enemies of the people’, including Danton, followed him to the guillotine, and the streets of Paris ran with blood. Civil war in the West of France cost the lives of 400,000. The fall of Robespierre in July 1794 ended the nightmare of the Terror, but France only achieved stable government with the military dictatorship of Napoleon. Nobody had wanted five years of violence and chaos, but nobody had been able to end it. Everyone was at the mercy of uncontrollable events.

There is no shortage of comparable cases – the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s are two other horror stories from the last century. Some, like the collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe in 1989, were benign rather than catastrophic. (Though not of course for the apparatchiks and party loyalists whose worlds fell apart.) The cycle of events feeding on each other is often fuelled by a mixture of hope and fear that change is in the air, expectations that quickly become self-fulfilling. In the velvet revolutions in Poland and East Germany, the hopes and confidence of the protestors rose steadily, while the morale of officials crumbled.

Feedback loops are of course a metaphor for how change accelerates, but the best one we have to describe the general phenomenon – virtuous circles can easily spiral into vicious ones. They are never the cause of a war or a revolution, of a singer suddenly becoming a star or a business collapsing into bankruptcy, but they play a crucial catalytic role and the concept helps us to understand some of the complexities of change. Very few things in life have single causes, and complex events like revolutions, the rise to power of dictators and the explosive growth of businesses like Google and Facebook have many. It’s when they interact and reinforce each other that feedback loops speed things up and surprise us.

One big global tide of change that seemed to be entirely to the benefit of the English-speaking world has been the growth of English as the universal second language. One international group after another – air traffic controllers, scientists and, crucially, businesses – adopted English as their lingua franca. The more people who spoke it, the more others wanted to. Between 1975 and 2000 the number of people speaking English as a foreign language rose from 100 million to 700 million, and growth has intensified since. Fewer and fewer young people now study other languages, especially the English themselves, but this has left them as the only monolingual group in a multinational world. English people working in European organisations can find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. Feedback loops almost always produce unexpected consequences.

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