The Political Economy. The Invocation of Liberal Economics by the Catholic Press in the French Right-to-Work Debates of 1848

Nicholas O'Neill

As 1848 dawned on France, despair and disillusionment permeated the nation. For generations the Parisian working class had confronted stagnant subsistence wages, deadly urban overcrowding, and a precarious dependence on wage labor as industrial capitalism reshaped the economy around market- oriented transactions (Levy-Leboyer and Bourguignon 1990, 20; Marchand 1993, 27-35). Then, in 1845 and again in 1846, poor harvests across the continent led to a sharp rise in grain prices that further decimated the working-class family’s already meager level of subsistence (Sperber 2005, 23-25, 109-12).1 As credit froze and consumer demand for non-agricultural goods plummeted, a financial and commercial crisis shocked the economy into recession at the end of 1847 and ignited a manufacturing crisis that culminated in the unemployment and further immiseration of the urban working class. In Paris, whose market-oriented economy was hit particularly hard, general unemployment topped 54 percent and in some trades reached over 90 percent (Traugott 1985, 5-12). In response to these economic conditions and a growing lack of confidence in the laissez-faire policies of the July Monarchy, on February 22, 1848, demonstrators from all classes of society turned out in the streets to protest the state suppression of reform banquets. After just three days of mass unrest, the reign of Louis Philippe collapsed with but a whimper and opened the door for the coming of the Second French Republic.

While citizens of all political and religious backgrounds joined hands under the restored tricolor banner of French republicanism, it quickly became apparent that their understandings of the republic differed (Price 1972, 95-98). As Samuel Hayat (2014) has argued, the first three months of the Second Republic—what he has labeled the “February Republic” between the revolution in February and the commencement of the Constitutional Assembly in May—marked an uncertain period. Power itself was divided between the Provisional Government dedicated to stabilizing the nation and preparing elections; the Luxembourg Commission, focused solely on organizing labor; and the National Guard, which served as the guarantor of order. More importantly, each of these institutions was also supported by different sources of legitimation: on the one hand, the will of the people understood as the manifestation of popular opinion in elections with universal male suffrage; on the other hand, the will of the people understood as the true interest of the most marginalized members of society. Was this to be a republic that represented its citizens in the abstract or that represented its citizens directly? Was the voice of the people to echo in the ballot box or roar from atop the barricades? Would the Second Republic be a moderate republic or a democratic and social republic?

To answer these questions, political actors appealed to the authority of the revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. As Hayat (2014, 21-24) has emphasized, however, these principles formed a common discourse for both the moderate and radical republicans of 1848. Each side justified its own position by invoking the republic against its “double.” There was not one understanding of the Second Republic in 1848, but two. Those on the left and those on the right each claimed that their vision for France represented the real, authentic, or true republic; and that of their political opponents represented a double, mirrored, or false republic.

Given the presence of competing claims of legitimacy invoking the same rhetoric within a polarized political discourse, this paper argues that political actors debating policy actions in 1848 were forced to justify their claims by appealing to two external sources of authority: moral economy and political economy. Michel Foucault (2008, 33-35) has theorized that those attempting to define the limits and path of the State rely on what he termed “sites of veri- diction.” For Foucault, a site of veridiction serves as “a site of verification- falsification for governmental practice” that establishes an overarching “regime of truth” within which truths or truth-telling can be established. This regime of truth serves not as “a law of truth, [but] the set of rules enabling one to establish which statements in a given discourse can be described as true or false.” Such sites of veridiction and regimes of truth offer an external vantage point from which to evaluate the actions of the state in relation to established criteria of justice.

For the political actors of 1848, the disagreements over the spirit of the republic that played out in policy debates, being expressed in the same language, had to reference competing sites of veridiction as external sources of authority and legitimation to prove that their understanding of the republic was the true, the authentic one, and that of their political opponents was the false, the double one. In addressing the problem of unemployment and the distribution of wealth, radicals relied on a moral economy that justified state intervention in the economy while liberals and conservatives invoked a political economy that urged state inaction in favor of an order determined by market processes.

This chapter examines the invocation of liberal political economy within the French Catholic press of 1848. First, it describes the moral economy advocated by social Catholic journalists who relied on Christian moral teachings as the site of veridiction from which to advocate interventionist policies for a more just distribution of wealth and the elimination of unemployment. Second, it outlines three core elements underpinning liberal political economy as a regime of truth in the mid-nineteenth century and two resulting laissez-faire policy implications. Finally, it explains why conservative Catholics abandoned their criticism of political economy based on moral economic grounds during the violent unrest of 1848 when they discovered that liberal political economy offered an effective rhetorical weapon for the preservation of the existing social and economic order. This chapter contributes to conversations about the morality of the market order by problematizing its adoption as a site of veridiction and thus highlighting the impact of political discourse and power relations on ideology.

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