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How Socio-Economic Classes Contributed to Events in 1800 Europe Essay

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Described as “the divine distribution of men into different ranks, and at the same time uniting them into one society” (Gladstone, 1896), the socio-economic class order formed the structure and foundation of society in Europe. Consisting of three distinct entities and with a strong correspondence between economic prosperity and social standing, it would also serve as the backdrop for which historical phenomena would occur.

Europe’s social order was not just the environment in which these events would materialize, but also a fundamental causal factor in three notable events; The French Revolution (1789-1799), The French Revolution of 1848 and Britain’s Industrial Revolution (1750 onwards).

However, the origins of these events were also contingent upon other circumstantial factors. The roots of the first French revolution, arguably, are in The Enlightenment; the period of the philosophers.

New philosophies advocating human rationality came to form by the mid 1700’s and were propelled into popular thought after the isolated, and highly charged, Jean Callas incident . Philosophers like Voltaire found the perfect vehicle in this incident to question the arbitrary use of power so prevalent in French society.

The monarchy and the presence of the Social Order soon came into question. Across Europe, cafes sprung out to host discussion centered on the common theme of reason. Society cleaved toward enlightened ideas of rationality, equality and liberalism, leading to the growing questioning of the existing monarchial power structure.

Alternative political ideologies for the state, from personalities like Rousseau and Locke, sprouted and undermined the legitimacy of the monarchy. While The Enlightenment is responsible for creating pressure from society against the monarchy, these ideas would have been impotent without suitable ground. The socio-economic categorizing of European society is a more fundamental cause of the first French Revolution because it provided this ground. The rigidity of the social order in late 17th century France accounts for the origins of the first French revolution.

In theory, the social divisions were permeable and promoted mobility (Roberts, 1997). Across Europe, titles and estates could be purchased and so also, the privilege of the nobility. However the reality was often different. In light of booming trade, the demand for titles from the French bourgeoisie and returning nobility outstripped the number permitted by the social order . Furthermore, while the bourgeoisie enjoyed increasing economic power and could live equally, if not exceedingly, extravagant lives as the nobility, the social order shut this community out from the benefits of social privilege .

This was exacerbated by the nobility’s stress on privilege in response to the new Bourgeois economic threat. The system’s disregard of merit in place of hereditary, and the fundamentally irrational social construct sowed discontentment within the second and third estate, where the ideals of enlightenment; rationality and equality, would find willing subscribers. Riding on the resentment toward society’s order and fuelled by The Enlightenment’s ideas did the French Revolution tear its way through to the Bastille.

While the first French revolution was understandably a social battle, one could argue that the revolution of 1848 was born out of opposition to economic factors than on society’s social construct. The time leading up to 1848 was a time of gradual industrialization for France. Its products; rapid urbanization and changes in economic practices, broke familiar social patterns of the working class. For instance, the commercial system was rewritten by doing away with the cottage industry and previously public lands, privatized.

Added to this, a burgeoning population, severe industrial and agricultural depressions in 1846 and Louis-Phillipe’s inaction in alleviating rural and urban poverty culminated to create great peasant discontent. The economic change that accompanied its deterioration galvanized the working class, triggering the third French revolution in 1848; aptly, also known as a Worker’s Revolution. However, it is artificial to separate economics from social class since there is a correspondence between social hierarchy and wealth. They are, after all, aptly named “socio-economic” classes.

In analyzing yet another French revolution, an important observation to make is the persistence of Europe’s social order. Though the 1830 revolution delivered another great blow to the old social order (Magraw, 1987), and promised equality in opportunity and economic liberalism manifest in the abolishment of seigneurial practices for all, much had remained the same. Succinctly captured by Cobban’s argument that ‘it [did] not matter whether we [called] it aristocracy or bourgeoisie” , the cleaving of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie shows an adaption, not an eradication of the social order.

The aristocracy kept to their ranks by continuing their distinctive politics and marriage practices (Magraw, 1987). Since most engaged with capitalism, they were mostly able to maintain their privileged lifestyle and control of much of the land . The Bourgeoisie continued to thrive, especially under the “Bourgeois King” and even went as far as to convert their wealth into land ownership. This neo-feudalism masquerading as the product of laissez faire economic practices, and the continuation of aristocratic dominance came at the expense of the working class. Thus did the working class continue in their economically disadvantaged positions.

Their economic dependence on the old order’s aristocracy, had merely been replaced with a dependence on remnants of the same old order and a new Bourgeois one. The social order is a more fundamental account for the workers revolution, since it was responsible for creating the economic grievances of the working class which became the fuel for the 1848 revolution. The European social order again features as a causal factor in Britain’s Industrial Revolution. It is the very hierarchical nature of the class system that functioned as the engine for the Industrial Revolution.

The industrial entrepreneurs of Britain, the main thrust for the innovation that characterized the revolution, took hold of Britain’s mineral resource advantage to affect rapid development. The motivations behind entrepreneurship are traced back to the make-up of society. Since social privilege was linked with economic wealth, successful merchants strived to purchase titles and convert their wealth into social status (Briggs, 1979). In this way, the extravagance of noble life, held in high regard, could be emulated. However, it is admittedly reductionistic to exclusively use the quest for noblehood to account for an entire revolution.

Coupled with the desire for social advancement were also ideas from The Enlightenment and The Scientific Revolution; laissez faire economic practices and technological advancement respectively. Society as a whole was geared toward revolutionary development, equipped with the necessary ideology and possessing the necessary scientific capability. Nonetheless, the power of science and the power of thought would have remained a means without an end if not for the existence of Europe’s social class as the motivation to individuals for conomic advancement. Furthermore, the narrow elite which feature in Europe’s social order meant that there was a prolific number from the working class available for cheap employment and indeed, were the working class called upon for this. By 1850, more than 50% of the population were living in towns and city to work in factories and city-bound industries. The abundance of cheap labor comes from the old social order’s narrow top and wide base, and it sustained and accelerated industrialization to revolutionary measures.

Thus, we trace back the origins of the Industrial revolution to socio-economic classes. Social hierarchical ascension was the motivation, and the demographic make-up, the sustenance. Evidently, the causality of the three historical events covered is not monolithic. Though the contributing factors are layered and many, the role of socio-economic class is central. Its rigid, persistent and hierarchical institution shaped the motivations of humanity and in doing so, account for the origins of major events in History.

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