1848: The Contagion of Ideas

1848 saw the contagion of becoming; 1849 the return of idea-filiation. These concepts, which did not exist before 1848, include: nation-states, the right to work, manorialism, colonialism, revolution, counterrevolution, autonomy, assembly, government, executive, newspapers, freedom of the press, the novel, freedom of speech, repression, three-coloured flags, liberals, radicals, monarchists, and order. 

In the 19th century, they taught everyone to read so that millions could be controlled. Why? Because the time of the town-crier had ended: the oyez oyez’s of the village square, aimed at announcing the will of the State, were no longer effective in carrying out their employer’s orders, while those who might sow revolt couldn’t be contained within reasonable delimitations. They could irrupt at any moment; the medieval passages, giving rise to a thousand, more, correspondences were demolished and we lost the contamination of ideas by chance, fed by famine, poor working conditions and a utopia, long promised, but seemingly unachievable given the political manoeuvrings.

We can talk about the spread of revolution, from Sicily, through France to Germany and then onwards. The Hapsburg Empire, Italy, Russia, Hungary, the Slavic lands, Scandinavia, the United States, and ‘the colonies’ beyond. But we can only talk about this post hoc and the very fact of talking about it lends itself to structure and territorialisation. 

Lamartine, a poet, declared on the 25th of February that ‘the age of the people’ had begun. Lamartine was a poet, someone who could use honey’d words to whip up the crowd or calm them with poetic words. Yet, at this moment, where Europe was offered the chance to continue the values of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Wo/man, what followed?

“They launched public works projects on a scale that exceeded anything attempted during the Restoration era. They embraced a technocratic romanticism focused on the improvement of infrastructure and the pursuit of a form of material progress that would make the polarised politics of the 1840s obsolete.” (Christopher Clark in LRB

In a word, they turned to capitalism. 

Zola’s 1872 novel La Curée, written at a time when the Republic had returned and the Second Empire was becoming an embarrassing memory, talks about the profiteering, racketeering and speculation bubble that the building projects of Paris conjured. The existing hierarchical structures had learnt better how to control the people and it was that tied and tested technique: bread and circuses. But now it wasn’t that: it was housing, railways, literacy rates, public fountains, museums, etc., and boulevards wide enough to fit an army. 

The right to work was proclaimed, while millions more could vote: the State will provide and the State will give the people democracy. A street urchin cried out on the barricades ‘God is giving us refreshments’ – he was referring to the storm that enveloped Paris on the 24th February. The storm wasn’t nourishing – it was blowing away the old, making way for the rise of… of what? Of whatever was going to take its place. 

Could it have been socialism? Could I let myself imagine that actually in 1848 there was a chance to change human nature, for us to move from the Neo-Renaissance and back to the rhizomatic Middle Ages? Or even further, back to a time that has never existed? Instead, the State learnt how to control the people better: it allowed them to destroy what remained of the old inside their heads, and to look for a future. And then it capitalised on that future and it made it their own.

International networks had opened up, but the pathways were not strong enough for the revolutionaries to organise themselves well enough and so the ironically named counter-revolutionaries (or the professional soldiery of the old status quo) bolstered their network and crushed the movement. The war machine was called on and used by those who needed it most; desperation turned them violent, like a spoilt child who kicks and screams because they didn’t get what they wanted.

1848 gave rise to the age of assemblies, of meetings, of unions, of clubs. Organic discussion and that natural passion for clustering was formalised, provided with quorum, agendas, minutes and ordres du jour. In the minds of those who wished it, this was supposed to be the next, logical step in the revolution; but for those who willed it, it was the simulacrum of democracy, while the innards of society could be carved out and replaced by guns, germs and steel. From the mid-century 19th century, the people no longer had a say in their lot, but were told over and over again that their inheritance of the world was just around the corner. 

And that’s how the 19th century produced the two worst elements to come from that period: late-stage colonialism and the goose-step of nationalism. The former fuelled the latter, for it was a time, not for exploration, but for exploitation, for the feeling of authority, for the enrichment of one people at the expense of several others. Furthermore, the purported failures of 1848, manipulated by gain and greed, bred preordained Nations to exist and therefore to dominate. It was not only the revolution that lost its innocence in the summer of 1848; liberty became sham, equality an ersatz inspiration to trick an entire continent, and fraternity a euphemism for alienation. 

We could have let go of control, not double down. We could have spread out, not down. We could have embraced chaos, not timidly return to order. But those leading the fray impressed upon us the weight of History, while the desire to be remembered and to live for ever in heroic immortality was touted by false prophets. And here we are, waiting for another swing of the pendulum. 

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