Does the Growth of Cities Contribute to Revolutions?

Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are ostensibly “working class” candidates (and draw their support overwhelmingly from white voters,) and yet, Trump and Sanders voters don’t see themselves as allied or their candidates as advocating for the same people.

As usual, I’ve actually been reading about the French Revolution, rather than modern American electoral politics.

To summarize quickly, just in case it’s been a while since you read anything on the subject, much of the revolution was driven by hoards of hungry peasants roaming around the streets of Paris, marching on Versailles, breaking into the democratic assemblies, etc. These hungry, mostly urban peasants are generally credited with helping start the revolution and driving it to the left.

Their most frequent and vocal demand, quite sensibly, was bread. France had some very bad winters/harvests around that time, and liberalization of trade policy with Britain put a lot of textile workers out of business. The result was high grain prices and unemployed people, which leads, of course, to starvation, and if you’re going to die, you might as well do it trying to get food from the king than just succumbing in an alleyway.

The trend in the countryside tended to be the opposite of that in the cities–rural peasants felt the pinch of taxes and bad harvests, but at least they had their own farms to depend on, and rarely had the population density to march on anything, anyway. The peasant revolts in the French countryside during the revolutionary years, like that in the Vendee, tended to be counter-revolutionary and intended to push the country in a more conservative direction.

The counter-revolution in the Vendee was ruthlessly suppressed, unlike uprisings in the city.

Peasants in the city got listened to, at least early in the revolution–perhaps simply because they were in the city; they could both put pressure directly on the government, which happened to be located in the cities, and they had more opportunities to converse with and gain the ears of government officials.

Revolutionary changes that made life better for peasants in the city often made life worse for peasants in the country (whence the counter-revolutions in the countryside.) City peasants chiefly desire lower grain prices; country peasants chiefly desire higher grain prices.

In both the French and Russian Revolutions, the urban poor became convinced that high grain prices were some sort of rural conspiracy–perhaps an anti-revolution urban conspiracy–with rural peasants supposedly hording grain instead of selling it in order to drive up the price and, perhaps, destroy the revolution.

In both cases, the revolutionary governments responded by forcibly confiscating grain from the peasants (in Russia, this led to mass starvation in the countryside, as the peasants truly had not been hoarding grain!) and introduced price controls.

Communism (or more mildly, socialism,) is supposed to be about all of the poor, but in practice it often pits the needs of one group of peasants against those of another group. The growth of cities themselves may contribute to the tendency toward instability by creating a new group of people who do not have their own farms to fall back on when food prices rise and whose income is dependent on economic cycles/factors outside their own control, leading to hungry times in the city whenever a factory has to lay off workers due to a slowdown in production.

 

Bernie Sanders’s supporters basically see themselves as supporters of the urban poor; Donald Trump’s supporters basically see themselves as supporters of the rural poor.

On a related note, from the NY Times, 2/13/16 (h/t Steve Sailer)

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Mrs. Clinton asked the audience of black, white and Hispanic union members, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the L.G.B.T. community?,” she said, using an abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. “Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

At each question, the crowd called back with a resounding no.

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7 thoughts on “Does the Growth of Cities Contribute to Revolutions?

  1. ““If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Mrs. Clinton asked the audience of black, white and Hispanic union members, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the L.G.B.T. community?,” she said, using an abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. “Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

    At each question, the crowd called back with a resounding no.”

    I find this fascinating because each of the things Clinton enumerates are fictional. There is no such thing as racism, discrimination against LGBTs, or a feeling of welcoming immigrants. Those are the modern equivalent of witches… or kulaks.

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  2. We are thinking about the same things, again. I suspect that the problems of modernity are very often an issue of density. Relationships change once a community grows past the point of its members’ Dunbar numbers, and then again when it moves past the size of facial recognition (i.e. at the point where one no longer recognizes all the faces he sees in a day). A revolution is a breakdown in social order, combined with rage at the other. We evolved to be social in groups much smaller than the ones we live in today.

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  3. I’ve actually called for Trump to pick Bernie as his running mate. (If he does it, you all owe $100 each!) I think Bernie signals support for the Other, but it’s only skin deep. He’s an old-school class-warfare class-identity socialist and does, in fact, deeply care for the trod upon whites (qua trod upon) that have flocked to Trump.

    Mrs. Clinton is pure tool. She claims to care about what’s “important”: racism, LGBT rights… what she’s actually standing up for is what’s really important: Making damn sure TBTF banks stay utterly unbroken up.

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    • That would be a very interesting election to watch. Don’t think Bernie would go for it, though. Personally, I’ve been advocating for Carson as Trump’s running mate, just to watch everyone’s reactions.

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  4. Excellent analysis! Very thought-provoking.

    The elite crushing the self-sufficient peasants to help the dependent peasants.

    It seems to me self-destructive for the elite to crush the productive members of the host. But they can’t help themselves. They aren’t into sustainability, they are into maximum short-term profiteering. And they know that if they crush the rural peasants too hard and that leads to famine, the elites will be the LAST to starve, so not a problem.

    Another interesting dynamic is the De Jovenel argument in “On Power,” which is that insecure central power is jealous of any subsidiary powers and seeks to crush them to further secure the central power from any threats. This urge extends all the way down to the “power” of a rural peasant to be self-sufficient.

    Anyway, great post.

    And, that quote by Clinton is absolutely amazing.

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