It was the French Revolution that shaped the fundamental principles of liberal democracy. The populace cried out for liberty, equality and fraternity. Some 320 years have passed, but we–the population of the world–are still crying out for liberty, equality and fraternity.
Are these our ideals and hopes? Is it something we dream about in our spare time? Why do these three words appear time and time again among those who are liberally-educated? The traditionalists, you could conclude, don’t believe in liberty, equality and fraternity. Right-wing politics is generally defined by support of the view that certain social orders and hierarchies are inevitable.
Social unrest always exists in every society. There is always a reason to grumble. It could even be about something like the weather. You like sunshine, I like rain. If we extend this concept to people, we could say that based on our whimsical preferences, we can easily and definitively decide not to like each other based on an arbitrary criteria. It has everything to do with our whimsical likes and dislikes, which can change at anytime without forewarning. Moreover, social unrest can and does exist even within a family environment.
In either case, when this social unrest, when this natural aspect and component of society is bolstered, fostered and incubated within larger than bearable inequities in economics–a revolution will, at some point, begin to rear its ugly head. When we study the deeply chaotic periods of history, we see patterns start to emerge.
Or perhaps, the only pattern that emerged was the one we thought we found. Perhaps the real pattern is something else all together.
The French Revolution
The French Revolution of 1789, which lasted ten years, has been posthumously upheld as the starting point which catapulted the birth of nation-states into existence. The upheaval was caused by widespread discontent with the French monarchy and the poor economic policies of King Louis XVI, who later met his death by guillotine. Although the French Revolution did not achieve all of its goals, it played a critical role in shaping modern politics by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people.
Beyond its national borders, the French Revolution was instrumental in the emergence and growth of nationalism: the idea that a state should represent and serve the interests of a group of people who share a common culture and history and feel as One. But before One can understand what a nation is, One must first understand what the idea of a nation meant to the people who lived during that time.
Nation, in the old Latin sense, referred to a people of the same origin. The most common criteria which constituted what could be considered ‘a nation’ were a shared language and history as well as a shared background and ideals.
While the causes of the French Revolution were many, a few are credited with having had the strongest influence. As the 18th century drew to a close, France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution, and two generations of extravagant spending by King Louis XVI as well as his predecessor, had left the country on the brink of bankruptcy. Not only were the royal coffers depleted, but two decades of poor harvests, drought, cattle disease and inflation had sowed the seeds of economic unrest among the lower socioeconomic classes. Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes and yet failed to provide any relief.
A few centuries have passed and despite the growing importance of regional organisations, MNCs, NGOs and other non-state bodies in international relations, it is still safe to conclude that most of the people living in the world at present inhabit a world of sovereign nation-states.
State legitimacy often hinges upon whether the state embodies and represents the values of a particular nation; and whether or not the increasingly diverse nations who live within a particular state have consented–usually vis-a-vis an election–to the leaders who will represent their interests.
There is nothing inherently ‘natural’ regarding the birth of a new world order that consists of sovereign nation states. Rather, the world that we live in today is a byproduct of a long and oftentimes bloody history.