POLITICAL ECONOMY TURNED AGAINST MORAL ECONOMY

The chief dilemma facing French Catholicism in the mid-nineteenth century was how to retain and renew the guiding principles of the faith in an increasingly secular and positivist world, how to mediate between conservatism and liberalism while offering a compelling alternative vision of the nation united in the Church (Reardon 1975, vii-viii). While many young Catholics saw in political liberalism a path to modernize Catholicism by specifying the relation between Church and State, they were highly suspicious of an economic liberalism that lacked the guiding force of Christian morality (Harrison 2014, 103-48; Faccarello and Steiner 2008). Many of these liberal Catholics turned toward Ultramontanism—the privileging of papal authority over that of the Gallican Church—as a protest movement against the conservatism of the latter. But for Louis Veuillot, Ultramontanism offered a deeply conservative rejection of liberal politics and economics alike, a position he proclaimed as editor of the leading voice of conservative Catholicism, the newspaper L’Univers (Gough 1986, 60-102).

Unlike in the revolutions of 1789 and 1830, in 1848 even the Catholic Church joined in the ebullient welcoming of the republic (David 1992,

222-26). With the sudden victory of revolution in February 1848, L’Univers proclaimed the arrival of a period of Christian fraternity to be a divine judgment and called on its readers to care for the poor: “God speaks through the voice of events. The Revolution of 1848 is a notification from Providence. . . . The first man who called another man: My brother, was a Christian. It is a Christian also who first brought himself to voluntary poverty . . . in order to give his possessions to the poor.”40 Letters flooded into the newspaper’s office and onto its pages from clergy around the nation, with the Archbishop of Lyon calling on all Catholics to “pursue with zeal . . . your holy mission, care for the poor, contribute to all the measures that can improve the lot of the workers. Hopefully,” he added, “we will at last show a sincere and effective interest in the working class.”41 Meanwhile, the Bishop of Marseilles called on the faithful to honor the dead of the February revolution by contributing “your charity for the poor and unemployed worker.”42 These Catholics rallied to support a revolution that was social as well as political, that saw its duty as the amelioration of the conditions of the working class cast into poverty by the economic crisis. Even Pope Pius IX signed his name to a fundraising drive to provide charity for the unemployed French worker.43

Despite its initial enthusiasm for the February Revolution and calls for support on behalf of the French unemployed, L’Univers offered a paternalist and preservational philanthropy in its prescriptions to remedy social ills (Duroselle 1951, 474-75). The authors of L’Univers feared that working- class and especially socialist demands for state intervention in the economy were republican in name only and, in fact, an existential threat to the four social foundations of property, family, religion, and order as well as to the three republican principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.44 To defend the republic against the threat of socialism, contributors to L’Univers could not rely on the same source of truth as the social Catholics promoting moral economic solutions to the present malaise. If moral economy relied on an idea of established or traditional morality to determine the justice of state action or inaction, it would be difficult to convincingly counter with the binary opposition of another category of ethical analysis. This was especially true when both competing moral economies drew from the same religious source of moral principles. But moral economy also existed in dialectical antithesis with political economy, where the opposition lay in the reliance on either the market order or moral precepts as the determinant of what constituted just economic conditions.

For moderate republicans, state interventionism in 1848 far overstepped the bounds of responsible governance. The National Workshops quickly became a catchall for unemployed men and women throughout France, who flocked to the city to enroll in the program; within months, the National Workshops had swelled to support nearly one hundred twenty thousand workers. Given the lack of shovel-ready projects, however, the National Workshops were never able to provide work for more than fourteen thousand people on any given day, and even these positions generally required only unskilled manual labor and paid a correspondingly low wage (McKay 1933, 22-33). Nonetheless, the overall costs of the program spiraled out of control and placed a heavy burden on the young republic struggling to honor the debts of the previous regime. By the time of national elections in April, the French propertied classes and peasantry had come to resent bankrolling what increasingly appeared to be an institution of Parisian indolence. The result was a resounding victory for moderate republicans and conservative monarchists, and their freshly elected representatives arrived in Paris determined to shutter the failed experiment in public works (Price 1972, 120-21).

This determination solidified into a conservative reaction hostile to any state intervention in the labor market that May as workers in Rouen, Limoges, and Paris rose up against rumored threats to the National Workshops and had to be put down with force (McKay 1933, 80-104; Merriman 1978, 1-24).45 The Constitutional Assembly’s clumsy, overeager, and sudden decision to disband the National Workshops in mid-June prompted one of the bloodiest revolutionary uprisings in French history, the June Days, as fifty thousand Parisian workers confronted the forces of order arrayed under the command of General Eugene Cavaignac. By the time the battle was over, thousands of workers and soldiers lay dead, and thousands more were in prison.46 To many French citizens and especially to their elected representatives, these events proved that there was an inexorable line leading from the right to work and the National Workshops to socialism and the death of the Republic (Demier 2002).

In the summer of 1848, L’Univers attempted to counter social Catholics’ religious justifications for state intervention by supplying its own religious justifications for state abstention. As the newspaper explained to suffering workers, “To live poor in precarious work, that is nothing. That is how most of humanity has always lived and will always live. God made this law, without which society would be impossible; man can therefore suffer.”47 The Bishop of Langres emphasized the need for workers “above all to live according to God; however, in order to stay within God’s established order, we must know how to respect the inequality found in the goods and pleasures of this world.”48 Appealing to immutable and divine morality to justify continued widespread poverty could hardly be expected to convince the working class to embrace this preservational moral economy.

In place of a Christian moral economy, therefore, in the spring of 1848 Veuillot steered L’Univers away from social Catholicism and toward a Christian political economy in which God acted through the natural laws of economics (Duroselle 1951, 422, 480). Socialists, he argued, had promised

“the kingdom of God on earth,” but could never truly “understand God’s law” the way political economists could.49 Contributors to L’Univers insisted that the State could not intervene in market outcomes because these outcomes came as the result of market forces over which the State had no direct control.50 Efforts undertaken by the Provisional Government to shorten work hours while retaining wages thus “suppose a profound ignorance of the laws of production” and instead demonstrated the impossibility of socialism.51

In the pages of L’Univers, these divine natural laws of economics stemmed from the self-interested actions of individual actors. “From the economic point of view,” the paper argued, “labor is human will applied to production. If it [labor] is the essence of free will, how can it be hoped that labor would one day submit itself to a fixed and immutable rule?” Within a free society, therefore, competition and dislocations were inevitable: “Competition is war, and in all war there are dead and wounded; we cannot change human nature. This is the price of civilization.”52 Thus, individual self-interest was ultimately the source of all wealth and operated as a natural law. Republishing in several installments a letter from Abbe Calinon, a French missionary serving on the South Pacific island of Tonga-Tabou, the newspaper argued that communism there had led directly to extreme poverty, indolence, and starvation because it had violated the conditions necessary for individual self-interest to motivate labor and thus unleash prosperity.53

Within a laissez-faire economy, however, the pursuit of self-interest would lead to the harmonization of competing interests and the benefit of society as a whole, provided the social order remained intact. “If competition has done bad, it has also done good,” because it was competition driven by the profit motive that led to mechanization, readily available consumer goods, and a higher standard of living for everyone in society. And even if the hard work of the capitalist entrepreneur resulted in an unequal repartition of wealth “Man should be content,” L’Univers concluded, “he will be a well-fed beast of burden.”54 Worker and employer, each in pursuing his own self-interest, entered into a social relationship whose consequences appeared as the result of natural laws impervious to the will of the State yet forming a fragile balance. “We must not forget that the conditions of labor that weigh on the worker also weigh on the manufacturer.” To the authors of L’Univers, this was the essence of political economy.55 Their understanding of the invisible hand as the harmonization of self-interested actors served to justify or excuse inequalities within the existing social order because the division of labor meant that the division of wealth occurred as the result of natural laws according to the abilities and motivation of the separate actors. Each party was equal in that the same laws of the market applied to both and apportioned the proceeds accordingly.56

The employment of the logic of political economy by L’Univers fulfilled dual political purposes in the preservation of the status quo. First, it naturalized and thus justified the existing social order as the inevitable result of impersonal and eternal laws established by God. Second, it proceeded from this position to argue against socialism by declaring the impossibility of state intervention to change the status quo. In both senses, conservative Catholics invoked political economy as a regime of truth to declare that the status quo represented the best possible condition. “The State, in any case,” the paper declared, “should not enter private industry.”57 The only course of action open to the State to repair the faltering economy was to announce a rigid policy of nonintervention in order to “engender the security and the confidence that are the bases of public credit” and thus allow production to return “to the private workshops, which are the true national workshops.”58 We see in this logic the dual process by which the market order established itself as the source of truth only to negate the outcomes of the market process. L’Univers argued that through a policy of reassurance, the State could allow the economy to heal itself as workers and capitalists attempting to maximize their own wages and profits were able “to determine themselves the quality, the quantity, and the price of their products. . . . So unemployment would be if not impossible, at least exceedingly rare.”59 L’Univers, having embraced political economy as a weapon against socialism and founded its political position on the market order as site of veridiction, now turned away from the very truths of the market evident in declining wages, rising unemployment, and epidemic bankruptcies. It could dismiss these very real sufferings “because it is not in the nature of human institutions to be perfect; but these moments [of economic crisis] are of short duration, and the malaise only ever reaches a small part of the population.”60

The journalists contributing to L’Univers resorted to hyperbole and summoned up the specter of a slippery slope leading directly from state interventionism to social and economic collapse. Creating public works projects, they argued, would “paralyze all industry” and make all workers into slaves of the State.61 A progressive income tax, meanwhile, would disincentivize business, eradicate luxury spending, and thus lead to mass unemployment culminating in communism.62 Finally, they appealed to the wisdom of the political economists, those who “reason armed with facts, with figures, adorned and almost armored with good sense,” to demonstrate “the rapid consequences that lead infallibly from the right to work to the organization of labor, from the organization of labor to communism, from communism to barbarism.”63 The political role played by political economic reasoning manifested itself clearly in an article appearing in L’Univers on April 29, 1848. The authors dismissed the moral economic justification of the right to work, which they called absurd and impossible, by shifting the source of truth from Christian morality to the market order. The logic underlying their argument was that “labor is the application of will to production,” or the pursuit of self-interest. In order to maximize productivity, therefore, it would be necessary to recognize the contributions of the “capitalist” class with a new slogan: “What is the producer? Nothing! What should he be? Everything!”64 This emphasis on the contributions of profit-driven entrepreneurs reflected the belief that the aggregated actions of individuals create a natural law external to the control of the State: “A decree will not change the quantity of wheat, of wine, etc. that France produces. [The State] can create for production and liberty the best conditions for existence and development and thus prepare the moral and material improvement of the people. . . . The improvement of our kind depends on us and not on the government.” Therefore, any state intervention in the economy could only disrupt it and worsen unemployment because the status quo was already the optimal possible outcome. Finally, the article concluded with the warning that granting the right to work would “lead logically to universal ruin by communism” and the death by starvation of all of France.65 The very next day, L’Atelier published a response calling “the Christian political economy of L’Univers” decidedly unchristian. This article argued that L’Univers had been driven by a middle-class fear of social revolution and of a slippery slope from the right to work straight to communism, to abandon its religious roots in favor of “a doctrine so odiously selfish,” that is to say political economy.66

Thus, in its struggle against socialism, L’Univers had fully shifted from a moral economy founded on the legitimation of Christian ethics to a political economy founded on the authority of the market order that transcended into a preservation of the status quo.

 
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