“There were no revolutionary circumstances, but rather a revolution that reacted to circumstance.” – Francois Furet on the French Revolution.
The Trump and Sander’s movements stem from a similar shift in historical consciousness to that which Francois Furet highlighted as unleashing the French Revolution. Americans feel like the current political system has failed them, it no longer works. Hence the establishment needs to go. This same stirring of consciousness is happening in Europe. The juggernaut in Brussels continues to grow and antagonism continues to rise. Marine Le Pen’s National Front is now one of the largest political forces in France, Austria very narrowly avoided electing a right wing president. Instead they went for a member of the Green party and not an establishment candidate. .
Something is stirring, and I can’t help but get the feeling that we are living in historically significant times. As a British permanent resident of the US I can’t vote in this country, but if I could, I think I’d feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Two of the candidates offer, in different forms, a revolution. This frightens me. As Furet’s quote attests, once unleashed these movements have a momentum all of their own. Checks and balances go out the window, if you aren’t for the revolution, if you don’t tow the party line, you are its enemy. The third candidate offers little solution, but rather a continuation of the type of politics that bred this shift in the first place.
It is not yet clear whether this conscious break has gone far and spread deep enough to make revolution in one form or another inevitable. But I pray this isn’t so and have hope that it may be avoided. What I believe the Anglosphere needs is not a revolution, but a return. A return to the foundations of individual sovereignty on which both America and Britain were founded. We need to put the individual’s basic natural rights back at the center of politics. Without this we can’t help but feel failed by the system. Without this we can’t help but fall into revolution and all its attendant violence.
The failure of modern politics has been its steady move away from these principles. This is also why the French Revolution failed. The people of 1789 hoped for a revolution that would give man his natural rights after centuries of oppression by the Old Regime, but by creating a system that placed sovereignty in the state and not in themselves, they actually gave up their ability to exercise them. Robespierre’s revolutionary government forged itself as a moral body. The state dictated what equality and ‘rights’ would look like. Unlike the American system, it was not a government principally designed to protect individuals and to legislate against the actions of those who threatened their wellbeing. It also took on the job of policing ‘morality,” with notoriously bloody consequences.
Our current governments have morphed more and more into the French model. They enact policies that don’t protect individual rights and freedoms but rather restrict them based on ideas of what the state itself deems to be right or wrong. This is not to say that the government should never do this, but rather that this should only be the case when a fundamental right is in danger. For example, a person should never be discriminated against simply due to their gender or race, but it is not the government’s job to tell me or anyone that it is wrong to drink a certain size soda, or that it is now illegal to use my dependable vacuum cleaner because it’s now deemed “too powerful.” No matter how futile these examples may seem it is dictatorial policies like these, and the way they make individuals feel, that has led to the dissolution with the current system. This has caused many to seek radical alternatives, whether that be on the right or the left. And what is most scary about the revolutions offered by both Trump and Sanders is that they threaten to fix the ‘morality’ of the state more firmly on one side or the other. Pure democracy in a sovereign state, rather than in a state made up of sovereign individuals IS democracy by the guillotine.
The word return will likely scare many people that read this, it brings up notions of regression, of going back to an age when the rights of many individuals were not recognized. To advocate for the importance of natural rights embedded in historical documents such as the American Constitution or the British Bill of Rights as the way to regain a healthy government apparatus is not to advocate for a return to those time periods. The world is a very different place from 1689 and 1776. Centuries of civil rights movements have, and continue to remind us, that natural rights cannot be exclusive or restrictive by their very being.
Really, return isn’t the word I’m looking for, how can we return to something that is transcendent? Rather, we need to re-orientate ourselves to these fundamental notions of what it means to be free. This brings me to the EU. The EU model is fundamentally antithetical to the Anglo tradition of individual sovereignty. It is a top down system that draws up laws then asks later. The people answer to the commission, the commission does not answer to the people. Of course there are many who will disagree with me, who will believe that for them the role of government should be to wield a heavy paternalist hand over its ‘peoples.’ That is not freedom to me, that is not equality for anyone, and that is why I will be voting to leave on June 23rd. Britain finds itself in the unique position were we have an opportunity to halt the tide of further radicalization, resentment, and division. The choice on June 23rd is a choice between a revolution or a re-orientation, a stemming or an opening of the floodgates. Even if Britain chooses to stay (and if they do I pray that choice is respected by those that disagree,) I can’t see the EU continuing as it is. A shift is coming. I just hope it’s the right one.
America doesn’t appear to have it as lucky as Britain. Whatever happens in the American election, it’s looking like the individual will lose out. But perhaps Americans can also reflect on the significance of these times to push for a third way. The Anglosphere would do very well to take heed of the advice of one of its most eminent politicians. When asked about the enforcement of her religious settlement in England Elizabeth I quipped “I would not open windows into men’s souls.” Though not wholesale, Elizabeth brought a semblance of peace and prosperity to England that it had not seen in years of bloody religious war. Perhaps if we were to once again make this notion an intrinsic part of our political outlook we too can avoid revolution and all its unyielding forces.