From Robespierre To Bush: The Politics Of Fear

Maximilien RobespierreThe French Revolution produced many horrors, but none more so than The Reign Of Terror when thousands were sent to the guillotine in the name of public safety. The name most often associated with the horrors that transpired at that time in France is Maximilien Robespierre. Robespierre was one of the leaders of the French Revolution that culminated in the beheading of King Louis XVI.

The Revolution that began with the slogan Liberté, égalité, fraternité quickly turned inward on itself. With France engaged in war with Austria and Prussia Robespierre ascended to head the Committee of Public Safety which held the executive power in revolutionary France. Robespierre began to consolidate power to protect the Republic from enemies foreign and domestic. He began to see enemies everywhere. To protect the French population from these terrorists and enemies of the state, Robespierre launched The Reign Of Terror. The Committee of Public Safety began to deploy spies everywhere. Any hint of dissent was viewed as against the public good and the dissenters were quickly dispatched via the guillotine.

In unleashing the Reign of Terror, Robespierre believed he was upholding the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity by protecting the Republic from terrorists that sought to undermine it. The ends began to justify the means. Ultimately however, the Terror that he unleashed not only consumed the Revolution, but its also consumed Robespierre himself. Robespierre was sent to the guillotine by the very forces that he set into motion.

Robespierre was a follower of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau, in  The Social Contract (Penguin Classics) and subsequent works, argued that a social contract exists between the governed and the ruler. The contract rests on the belief that there is a notion of a general will of the people that the ruler is given the authority to protect and defend. The ruler is endowed with unlimited executive power to protect the general welfare of the governed. Rousseau’s theory does not allow any constraints on the power of the ruler in defense of the general will. In other words, the ruler has inherent power to ignore laws of the Republic. Rousseau was one of the first modern thinkers to formulate the ideas of the Unitary Executive. A number of corollaries quickly follow from Rousseau’s theory. Since the ruler is charged with defending the general will any opposition or public dissent is deemed to be against the greater good of the general will and the Republic.

By taking Rousseau’s social contract to its logical extreme, Maximilien Robespierre became arguably the first practitioner in Western Civilization of the theory of the Unitary Executive.

Today in the United States we are again confronted with Rousseau’s Unitary Executive. Fortunately there are no guillotines in the streets; however, the stakes today are equally high. The Unitary Executive is being used to justify violations of the Fourth Amendment, indefinite detentions, excessive secrecy, leaking of classified information for political purposes; and torture.

The Unitary Execute theory grants the President the power to determine what is in the public interest. Thus, today we were told by the President’s Press Secretary that when the President leaks classified information it is for the greater good, when a whistleblower leaks to the New York Times about warrant-less spying it’s aiding the terrorists. Mr. McClellan took the theory even further today by accusing anyone who questions the President’s motives in leaking the classified information as being "crass" and anti-American. Any dissent, true to the logic of the Unitary Executive, is considered aiding and abetting the enemy.

The Unitary Executive as the rise and fall of Robespierre demonstrated has one major systemic flaw. The belief in the rightness of the ruler to be the soul arbiter of what is in the general will, or national interest, leads to a stifling of ideas within the Executive. Any hint of dissent, even from within, is dealt with harshly. Ultimately the internal contradictions of this theory cause the Executive to cannibalize itself.

I believe signs of this collapse from within have been growing in the Administration. The departure of Scooter Libby was only part of this long slide into failure. We have now seen Andy Card leave and soon we will see others leave or be pushed out (the political equivalent of the guillotine) as this Unitary Executive proceeds to emasculate itself.

In the end, we are left with a touch of irony as the Administration that famously despises all things French is now crumbling under the burden of the Unitary Executive – a theory devised by the French philosopher Rousseau.


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19 Responses to From Robespierre To Bush: The Politics Of Fear

  1. drich says:

    “when a whistleblower leaks to the New York Times about warrant-less spying its aiding the terrorists.” – should be “it’s”

    regardless, excellent post. the last two paragraphs are especially intriguing. if they prove to be prophetic, then your initial thesis gains even more credibility. i certainly hope this turns out to be the case.

  2. drich says:

    (sorry to go all copyeditor, but i like to see great ideas put forth in flawless writing … shouldn’t the semicolon in the first sentence be a comma?)

  3. Mash says:

    I could use a copy editor 🙂

    Fixed the two issues you raised.

  4. drich says:

    i’d also like to say that, after a very brief perusal of your last few posts, that i already find myself enjoying your blog more than the typical lefty blog fare. i meandered over here after following your link in your comment on the most recent c&l thread and thoroughly enjoyed this post. you seem to be a bit less shrill than many other bloggers, and more interested in a genuine intellectual evaluation of the current sociopolitical conversation, considering disparate ideas on their own merits. again, this is an observation based on a very cursory analysis, but if it is indeed part of your purpose, then bravo.

  5. Mr. Bill says:

    Bravo, Mash!
    For my part, I’ve wondered about the similarity of theories of a dictatorship of the Proletariat and the claims that Bush2 somehow exemplifies and expresses the true American soul….
    “Them wut sez they’s behind the Prezydent should get out in front, where they can watch ‘im.”-Mr. Dooley

  6. Mash says:

    Thanks Mr. Bill and drich for your kind comments. I do feel that to win at the ballot box, we have to win on the big ideas.

    It is a cliche to say that “those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it”, but that is exactly what we have here. There is a kind of arrogance involved in ignoring history – the notion that we know better and will succeed where all before us have failed. There is a line between bold and reckless and I suspect we are to the right of that line now.

  7. Craig says:

    A brilliant, insightful essay! I hope your blog and your writings become more and more widely read. My congratulations and thanks for your work.

  8. Bonkers says:

    A really good essay. The way you brought your brief history of Robspierre full circle to the Bush Administration was deft and efficient, but with having to pander by cutting your points too short.
    I found you through a post you left at Crooks & Liars and plan to be back.
    Nice job!

  9. dzman49 says:

    You might mention that Rousseau’s theory of the “unitary executive” was formulatated in the prevailing context of the French monarchy’s absolute power. Rousseau’s emphasis was not on the “unitary” aspect of government organization (which had been de rigeur for quite a few centuries), but on the social contract aspect.

    A contract is an agreement between two freely consenting parties. A “social contract” was antithetical to the “divine right” concept by which monarchies claim their authority to govern, even if it didn’t specifically deny a monarchy’s authority to govern absolutely.

    Call it a wedge issue of the era. The “social contract” idea led to the American and the French revolutions.

    Sic semper tyrannis.

  10. Mash says:

    dzman49, I have to respectfully disagree with you on two points:

    • that Rousseau’s emphasis was not on the "unitary" powers
    • and, that the "social contract" idea led to the American Revolution (it certainly led to the French as I mentioned)

    I hate to get into the weeds here in the comments, but… Rousseau’s social contract stressed that there was a "general will" that each indididual in society had to submit to to be part of that society. He believed that the executive had the power according to the contract to act on behalf of the "general will". The will of the whole was greater and more important than the will of the individual. As a consequence, he did not believe in representative democracy, where the people choose their representatives with the sovereign’s power divided into atleast two (executive and legislative) and in most instances three (adding the independent judiciary) branches of government. Rousseau’s social contract, though it as you pointed out, replaced the divine right with the social contract, nonetheless moved society from monarchy to socialism, not from monarchy to representive democracy. The founding of America was a rejection of Rousseau’s social contract, specifically the core of it in the notion of "general will". Instead the framers carved out a representative democracy where the rights of the individual (as protected in The Bill of Rights) trumped any "general will" that may be thought to exist in a society. Rousseau’s theory died in this continent at the alter of American Democracy (and rightly so) until it was resurrected in the recent past with Unitary Executive coming back into fashion. The ramifications of Unitary Executive are grave and strike at the underpinnings of Representative Democracy.

  11. Excellent post, Mash! (I found my way here from your comment at firedoglake.)

    And here I thought they pulled this Unitary Executive idea out of their ass last week (like they did in Bush v. Gore) — who knew it had a pre(American)revolutionary pedigree?

  12. I haven’t read this post yet, but I will especially since you seem to be talking about Robespierre! (Aside: I’m kinda busy with exams and should actually be studying…My parents don’t know.)

    I had to wear a make-shift wig because of this guy for my history class! We had a mock watchamacallit parliament? Basically we were reenacting the political discussions at that time on whether or not to kill King Louis.

    It was pretty fun. Lol, it’s only been 2 years and I’ve already forgotten those memorable days…

    Thanks for bringing those memories back with that post! I will definitely read it after exams!
    Keep em comin!

    ~ you’ve converted me into your fan /d^_^b\

  13. Mash says:

    Fob, get back to your books! I do not want to be accused of corrupting the future of this world 🙂

  14. Bengali Fob says:

    Lol! I just read your reply. That’s just too funny!

    You can relax. It was a pretty good exam and inshallah, I did well. “Fob, get back to your books!” LOL –> to the point of tears.

  15. Thomas says:

    Fuck off, asswipe.

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  19. This is a great subject to talk about. Thank you for putting up this site. I’m sure there are a lot hunting for this kind of discussion.

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