From Robert Zaretsky at Le Monde Diplomatique – Revolution: 1848 and 2011:
The dead weight of brutal and autocratic rulers; a young and professional middle class deprived not just of liberty, but jobs; a deep and persistent economic crisis; and a revolution in communications that renders traditional borders obsolete and, finally, the bursting of the dam that unleashes a surge of revolution that sweeps across a continent: these conditions describe not only North Africa and the Middle East today, but Europe in 1848. If nations from Tunisia to Bahrain are, in fact, reviving the so-called “springtime of peoples”, the winter of political disenchantment may not be far away.
The backgrounds to the two series of revolutions are eerily similar. The Great Recession of recent memory was a blip compared to the economic depression, known as the “hungry years,” that flattened Europe in the 1840s. Disastrous harvests pushed up grain prices across Europe; city dwellers, spending more on food, bought fewer commodities; industrial and commercial activity slowed to a near standstill. No wonder Alexis de Tocqueville recoiled from the consequences: “a world divided between those who had nothing joined in common envy against those who had everything joined in common terror.”
New forms of communication nevertheless bridged Tocqueville’s world divided…
Forms of social networks much older than Facebook also contributed to the stunning events of 1848. For example, cafés subscribed to newspapers to attract and retain customers. They thus provided a public space where the clientele not only read the news, but also debated and discussed it…
The revolution of 1848 in France was crushed by a new kind of authoritarian regime that had the wit to exploit the language of populism, wiliness to co-opt potential opponents and will to crush those who refused to fall into line. It is, of course, too early to say if conditions in Egypt, for example, will encourage a “Bonapartist” solution. But it is not too early to recall Tocqueville’s observation, made after Bonaparte had buried the Republic: “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”