History, Privilege, Top Stories

The Problems of “Privilege”: Lessons from the French Revolution

In recent years, ‘privilege’ has become an important concept in modern politics, academia, and popular culture. It appears in an increasing and disorienting number of forms, from male privilege and white privilege, to “gay privilege,” “black male privilege,” and “family privilege,” and these claims about privilege animate a wide array of political stances. Supporters of Hillary Clinton criticized voters for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein as privileged radicals risking a Trump victory for the sake of inflexible principles. Supporters of the latter candidates returned fire, targeting Hillary voters as privileged centrists out of touch with America’s economic and racial inequalities. Donald Trump, of course, as countless media outlets insist, is (white, male) privilege personnifed; his supporters, meanwhile, are said to demonstrate the extent of their own privilege by denying that privilege exists. In the classroom and in the media, people are increasingly asked (or made) to measure, acknowledge, and strive to reduce their privilege. “Privilege studies” is a growing field, with more and more scholar-activists devoting themselves to its practice.

In the midst of all this discussion of privilege, it has almost been forgotten that the concept of privilege, and critiques of privilege as the source of society’s ills, are nothing new in history. The current focus on privilege among academics and activists grew largely out of the work of Peggy McIntosh in the late 1980s. Yet for most of the late medieval and early modern era, Europeans understood privilege to be the basis of political, economic, and social life. The first attacks on privilege appeared in the years before the French Revolution, and these critiques inspired many of the Revolution’s transformations. This neglected history of ‘privilege’ as a polemical concept offers sobering warnings for the present.

‘Privilege’ is derived from the Latin words for ‘private’ (privus) and ‘law’ (lex); in the Roman legal system, and in the medieval European traditions derived from it, a privilege was conferred by a special law concerning a single individual, corporate body, or community. Originally understood as exceptions to general legal principles, privileges gradually became part of the organizing structure of European societies. In the medieval and early modern eras, Europeans imagined themselves, not as citizens of their states equal to all other such citizens, but as members of different groups with specific rights, duties, and privileges attached to their various legally defined identities.

A man might belong to the local shoemaker’s guild, the members of which had the exclusive privilege to make and sell shoes, jealously barring all others from this line of work. A woman might belong to the corporation of market women, who alone enjoyed the privilege to sell retail goods in the city square. Authors and booksellers had to seek a ‘privilege’ each time they wanted to print a new book. The ability to make shoes, sell goods, or print books was a privilege because it was something specially granted by the king to a distinct group of people; no one had the right to do such things merely as an individual with ‘natural rights.’

The best privileges, naturally, went to social elites. Kings granted wealthy investors the privilege of controlling lucrative state monopolies. Entire sectors of the economy, like trade with Asia, were handed over to such privileged groups as the East India Company. Members of the nobility were particularly privileged, enjoying such benefits as exemptions from taxes or the right to be tried in court only by fellow nobles. But while nobles might have possessed the most power and wealth, the fact that they were privileged was not what separated them from other members of society. Before the French Revolution, almost everyone in European societies, from cobblers to counts, made their livings and made sense of themselves through a dense network of privileges, large and small.

By the eighteenth century, a social order composed of various communities and individuals each possessing specific gradations of exemptions, exceptions, and extraordinary rights began to seem intolerably confused and unjust to some self-consciously ‘enlightened’ intellectuals. French thinkers, in particular, turned against privilege, seeing it as the source of many of their country’s problems. France’s economic backwardness compared to Britain or the Netherlands seemed to be the fault of privileged guilds stifling innovation. The burdens and inefficiencies of France’s tax system seemed to be the fault of privileged nobles not paying their fair share. And indeed, wasn’t the hereditary monarchy itself, with its lavish expenditures on palaces and wars, the ultimate expression of the danger of privileging some people over others?

One of the first systematic attacks of prejudice appeared in Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert’s famous Encyclopaedia. A sprawling work, the publication of which ran to multiple volumes and editions spanning the years 1751-1772, the Encyclopaedia was a landmark text of the Enlightenment. It not only contained up-to-date knowledge on a staggering variety of topics, but also filtered into its articles radical critiques of the nobility, monarchy, and social system of pre-revolutionary Europe. The entry “Privilege,” written by Diderot, described its topic as “an advantage given to one person over another. The only legitimate privileges are those given by nature itself. All others can be seen as injustices against everyone in favor of a single person.” Cheekily, Diderot filed this incendiary political sketch under the heading of “Grammar.”

The suggestion that French society should be transformed through the elimination of privilege might have remained only a daring idea aired in philosophical debates, had the debt-ridden French monarchy not stumbled into a desperate crisis in the late 1780s. Previous attempts by the monarchy to push through reforms of the French judicial and economic systems had been stymied by traditional institutions representing the interests of the nobility. Now, as reform seemed more urgent than ever, many were ready for radical solutions. In 1789, as crowds stormed the Bastille, and as non-noble elites proclaimed themselves to be a ‘national assembly,’ the previously obscure cleric Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès placed himself in the center of French politics with an essay singling out privilege as the cause of France’s woes.

This essay, What is the Third Estate?, came to be seen by many revolutionary politicians as a justification and elucidation of their own inchoate demands. Sieyès himself became one of the most prominent figures of the revolutionary decade of the 1790s, and saw many of his ideas put into action. In What is the Third Estate?, Sieyès condemned France’s ‘Estates system,’ by which people were identified as clergy (First Estate), nobles (Second Estate), or the rest: the vast majority of the population (Third Estate). He called for a new kind of society in which elites would be chosen not on the basis of their bloodline, but on the basis of ability and merit. People like himself—smart, ambitious men from comfortable but non-aristocratic backgrounds—should make the decisions that mattered.

Sieyès’s argument hinged on a polemical reinterpretation of privilege. Ignoring the fact that nearly everyone in French society possessed some form of privilege, he insisted that the nobility and religious elites were the “privileged order.” Under the monarchy, privileges were necessary even for such humble tasks as running a market stall, and being a member of society at all meant being a part of one privileged group or another. Yet Sieyès argued that “a privileged class is dangerous … by its very existence” to the rest of society. Denying that the Third Estate had privilege, he claimed that it, and it alone, was the real “nation,” while “everything privileged by the law in whatever way is no longer part of the common order … and thus not part of the Third Estate.” The “privileged order” of nobles was not even part of France, but a foreign menace, a parasite. By “removing” it, Sieyès insisted, “the nation would not be something less but something more.”

The decades before the French Revolution had not been a time of increasing disparities between nobles and non-nobles. Indeed, historians today insist that the nobility was quite open, with wealthy non-nobles buying their way in, and with social and legal barriers between noble and non-noble elites fading into irrelevance. The monarchy was increasingly tolerant of religious minorities like Protestants and Jews, and eager to promote what it thought were enlightened reforms. But even though privilege was widely distributed throughout French society, and the nobility was far less powerful and oppressive than it had been in previous centuries, it was at this moment that ‘progressive’ voices like that of Sieyès could wield the concept of privilege as a political weapon, marking the ‘privileged class’ for destruction.

What is the Third Estate? didn’t clearly distinguish between getting rid of the nobility institutionally through political reforms, and getting rid of nobles individually through violence. On August 4, 1789, the National Assembly abolished the nobles’ privileges, and suppressed the very existence of a hereditary nobility the following year. Of the country’s tens of thousands of former nobles, some fled the country, and the majority who remained began to seem increasingly like threats to the revolutionary agenda. After France abolished the monarchy and declared war on its neighbors in 1792, former nobles went to the guillotine. The execution of thousands of them—and thousands of non-nobles suspected of harboring sympathy for what was now called the ‘Old Regime’–during the Terror had been prepared in some measure by Sieyès’s eliminationist condemnations of the privileged. After all, if nobles were by their very nature privileged outsiders hostile to French society, what could be more patriotic than getting rid of them by whatever means necessary?

The French Revolution floundered in its own blood, buffeted by coups and counter-coups, before being smothered by Napoleon. But Sieyès’s ideas went on their triumphal way, setting the tone for modern politics. Aristocratic claims to superior birth gave way to new ideologies of merit, in which individuals of any background should be able to ascend to economic and political power by virtue of hard work and intelligence. Sieyès, however, never intended merit to work for everyone. Most Frenchmen, he wrote, should be considered as little more than machines or beasts of burden working for an intellectual elite. Even if they were allowed to vote, the poor and uneducated should not be allowed to run for office. What he said about people of African origin can’t be repeated in polite company.

Although it was offered by revolutionaries as the solution to privilege, the ideology of merit has often worked in modern Europe and North America as a means of perpetuating the privilege of the powerful. Indeed, it is in some ways more insidious than the Old Regime form of privilege, insofar as it works clandestinely, disguising itself as a natural quality. When sociologists like Charles Murray argue that economic inequality results from the fact that higher-IQ people in a meritocratic society naturally earn more wealth and congregate with each other, some have wondered whether merit and intelligence aren’t just twenty-first century synonyms for noble blood. Systems formally based on merit and equality seem increasingly suspect to critics who see privilege lurking in the very structures that were designed to stamp it out. And a sense that contemporary American society is less meritocratic, and indeed systematically structured in favor of certain groups at the expense of others, motivates many critiques of privilege today.

As Sieyès’s own case shows, such critiques cannot simply be dismissed. Ironically, however, sweeping condemnations of privilege seem most plausible to political actors at moments when they least describe reality. Nobles, who had never been less powerful than in the years before the French Revolution, appeared to revolutionaries as the diabolical masters of French society. White men, who have never been relatively less powerful in the United States (or a smaller proportion of the population), appear to white liberals’ favorite expert on race as the bearers of a “glowing amulet” of privilege filled with “eldritch energies.” Sieyès’s legacy should alert us to the dangers hidden in such purple prose. Language that identifies specific groups as vectors of the supposedly dangerous, anti-social force of privilege sunders society into the good, oppressed victims and the wicked, oppressive victimizers. Everything that the former might do to the latter, by this logic, is merely self-defense. The French Revolution is a testament to the dangers of such thinking.

Filed under: History, Privilege, Top Stories

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Blake Smith is a historian of European interactions with South Asia and a postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute. His essays regularly appear on Aeon.co, Scroll.in and other media.

21 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your essay very much. However, I do not know anything about the topic, so that might be relevant to any judgment based on mere enjoyment!

    When sociologists like Charles Murray argue that economic inequality results from the fact that higher-IQ people in a meritocratic society naturally earn more wealth and congregate with each other, some have wondered whether merit and intelligence aren’t just twenty-first century synonyms for noble blood.

    Of course, one has to ask those who allege that privilege lurks beneath IQ tests how they would create privilege-free assessments.

    • Also the contemporary critiques are specifically about unearned privilege. Clearly privilege in some form is necessary for society to function on its most basic levels, e.g. people do jobs they’re trained/equipped for, private property, even free association into groups. All of these things require that some people have opportunities available to them that others don’t.

    • yandoodan says

      It is completely natural — indeed, unavoidable — that people seek out the best for their children. This means that a meritocracy will last little more than a single generation, as meritocrats use their influence to advance their mediocre children. Such children then see their position as a birthright.

      And so you get rule by an entrenched privileged class with no more ability than the first hundred people in the phone book (as William F Buckley put it).

    • Taupe Pope says

      AFAIK SJWs have two contentions with IQ:
      1. The tests are culturally biased. In which case the cultural items on the test should be removed.
      2. Deprivation and abuse (poverty and bigotry) can reduce IQ so measures should be taken to reduce these especially as they disproportionately affect people of colour and queer people.

  2. conchapman says

    Harvard Law School recently abandoned the Law School Aptitude Test as a basis for choosing among applicants. Harvard had originally been one of the proponents of the LSAT as a means of weeding out those who got in on the basis of privilege (family and connections) but who were unlikely to finish the three-year program of rigorous study. In other words, privilege was abandoned in favor of aptitude (of one kind)-based meritocracy. Now they’ve abandoned an anti-privilege objective mechanism in favor of a subjective standard–i.e., “diversity,” holistic assessment. I expect other schools to follow, if only to avoid litigation of the sort that is proceeding against various schools including Harvard on the grounds that despite an objective standard, members of some groups are favored over others even when their test scores are lower (Asian-Americans are typically the plaintiffs in these cases). So yesterday’s anti-privilege becomes today’s privilege.

  3. Michiel says

    Interesting essay, but I’m a bit confused by the paragraph:

    “…the ideology of merit has often worked in modern Europe and North America as a means of perpetuating the privilege of the powerful. Indeed, it is in some ways more insidious than the Old Regime form of privilege, insofar as it works clandestinely, disguising itself as a natural quality.

    When sociologists like Charles Murray argue that economic inequality results from the fact that higher-IQ people in a meritocratic society naturally earn more wealth and congregate with each other, some have wondered whether merit and intelligence aren’t just twenty-first century synonyms for noble blood. ”

    Is the author agreeing with those who wonder this? The first sentence reads to me like the “language that identifies specific groups as vectors of the supposedly dangerous, anti-social force of privilege” that the author seems to be warning against. But maybe I’m reading it wrong…

    It seems self-evident to me that IQ is a “natural quality”, in that you are born with whatever IQ you have and there is very little you can do to really change it. Why is this “insidious”? A high-IQ person can no more help the fact that he or she is born with a high IQ, than a low-IQ person can. It also seems logical that higher IQ people will, on average, do better for themselves economically than lower IQ people, simply because they can develop more complex skills that are valued more highly (since they are more rare). History shows pretty clearly that noble blood certainly didn’t have any direct correlation with intelligence.

    • Intelligence is one of the psychological traits best explained by heredity. The paradox is that invironmental variables also has important impact on that trait, i.e. poverty explain low QI results as well as heredity.

      This means the richer the country, higher Qi of the inhabitants, and poorer, lower the IQ.

      It’s like a QI-resources uroboros.

  4. Ex Marxist says

    Except White privilege is a neo-Marxist myth. See that “100 years of insanity” ad below with Lenin? You’ve part of it when you teach Marxist social theory.

  5. defmn says

    // Ironically, however, sweeping condemnations of privilege seem most plausible to political actors at moments when they least describe reality. //

    Not sure why this is ironical. It is actually exactly how it works. As the will to rule (white males these days) degenerates due to the softness that privilege – what we used to call advantage – builds over generations those who have not had those advantages advance their case with the increasing vigour that comes from disadvantage.

    History is full of similar examples.

    I would say, however, that the whole idea of ‘white privilege’ is, at best, a proxy for the culture designed by Hobbes and Bacon. That they were ‘white’ is really no more than incidental.

    Technology is the signature aspect of western culture that allowed it to attain privilege and it is not an accident. It is a result of a gift from that unique aspect of western culture – political philosophy. Bacon’s ‘New Organon’ and Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ are the blueprint. Or, to use Hobbes own words.

    “Reason is the pace, Encrease of Science the way, and the Benefit of man-kind the end.

  6. W/B/L/R privilege are the socio-econ-political benefit consequences of living in terms of a WiP intl law social contract [eop-v-wip-law.tygae.org.za]

    A copy of this comment is posted at eop-leg-sub.tygae.org.za

  7. French here…
    I disagree with the article, not on the conclusions, but on the on the path you took to reach them.

    it is true that there was at the time of the French Revolution a profond egalitarian and universalist movement, that is, an ideology where the people was painted as a self-consistent homogeneous political force.

    There was also another one, whose goal was to build decentralized government, where each province would have had the opportunity to govern itself, with minimal interference from the capital. It was a libertarian force, very similar to anglo-saxon libertarianism.

    Because France was a catholic country, highly centralized, libertarians never managed to gain political power, and with the wars wedged by other European countries, no time was left for political dissent. A ruler had to take power.

    For this reason, the republic’s founding principles were stated as universal. Killing was then a logical option against political dissent; unlike Americans who favored robust discussions about ‘self-evident’ principles, the French chose to chop heads off. When Americans found opponents in a political debate, the French looked for an enemy.

    Sieyès, just like Robespierre, and later Napoleon, used the same narrative of nation-building, based on universal principles. In contrast, Americans called their republic ‘this experiment’. I really recommend you to read George Washington ‘s farewell address, to understand the difference between those two visions. The first 100 pages of ‘Democracy in America’ will help as well, in particular when Tocqueville describes how Americans are involved in the political choices of their new country.

    Long story short, Sieyès‘ speech doesn’t explain why Sieyès‘s ideas eventually won, not Tocqueville’s or Montesquieu.

    The original sin, in my view, was a choice of semantics. Universal vs self-evident, in a country that would give an unfair advantage to only one of them.

    Today, this old battle is still relevant. All across this world, peoples now fight for universal principles, everywhere they can, by any means necessary, hoping to rebuild their empire.

    More worrisome, America has become the old Europe, only interested in absolute truths. The truth of capitalism, of socialism, of Christianity, or Islam. The whole country has become a battlefield of universal ideas, trampling each other on their way to Pennsylvania Avenue.

    Just like the French, heads will roll.

  8. Pingback: 04 Nov: Chris Patten: Re: Project Syndicate: China’s New Emperor; Quillette: The Problems of “Privilege”: Lessons from the French Revolution – EoP Legal Submissions

  9. Pingback: 03 Nov: Quillette: Problems of Privilege: Lessons from the French Revolution – EoP Legal Submissions

  10. Frank says

    Many Leftists accept the influential reality of culture, but still argue that education can triumph across cultural lines. They claim third world cultures can prosper economically if education becomes a hallmark value and that differences among cultures are little more than superficial qualities once any given culture values the importance of universal education. Leftist arguments gloss over the fact that genetically conditioned behavioral traits, differences in IQ, personality and temperament, may act as a surrogate factor. Economic success is considered commensurate with higher levels of educational attainment, but what about higher average IQ levels? How do Leftists explain the track record of East Asian and Jewish sub-cultures? By considering the value placed on education and merely disregarding comparative averages in innate ability levels?

    Around the world, the average Intelligence Quotient for East Asians centers around 106; that for Whites, about 100; and that for Blacks, about 85 in the United States and 70 in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the early research was conducted in the United States, but some was also performed in Canada and the Caribbean (Eysenck, 1984; Jensen, 1973; Osborne & McGurk, 1982; Flynn, 1980; Kamin,1974; Lewontin, Rose, & Kamin, 1984).

    • Carl Grover says

      You nailed it, Frank. The left can quickly, and alruistically, prescribe cultural changes in foreign lands that would have positive results, yet dismiss cultural changes at home, that would amount to the same outcome. One need only look historically at Dunbar High School, and the black schools in the south run by northern teachers, according to information I gleaned from Dr. Sowell’s work.

  11. When the authoritarian Left use the term ‘privilege’ they mean ‘advantage’. All other things being equal, being male or white prefers an advantage over those who are female or black.

    Except, of course, that ‘all other things’ are seldom equal, and if we take ‘all things’ into consideration we suddenly find ourselves dealing with people as individuals instead of members of groups – and the collectivist Left will have none of that.

    The term ‘privilege’ is used to imply that, where equalityies exist, there is a privilege that should be taken away rather than a right for the disadvantaged to be promoted.

  12. Taupe Pope says

    Why shouldn’t anti-privilege be most strident when privilege is waning the most? Philosophy and politics do not have to be the vanguard of culture and intellectuals may only be interpreters of the cultural moment rather than originators of its ideas.

  13. Aleph37 says

    Hi, good article. You might also consider then-MP Talleyrand’s writting of the 6th article of the 1789 Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme (more or less “all men can become civil servants without distinction except for their virtues and talents”), and also his answer to officials in Bordeaux who sought confirmation that Jews were to be treated like the other citizens and not discriminated against anymore (more or less “of course they should be treated indifferently, you stupid”). Have a nice day.

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