During the Ancien Régime, prior to the French Revolution, society was divided into these three classes (or Estates).
The first Estate comprised the entire clergy, traditionally divided into “higher” and “lower” clergy. Although there was no formal demarcation between the two categories, the upper clergy were, effectively, clerical nobility, from the families of the Second Estate. In the time of Louis XVI, every bishop in France was a nobleman, a situation that had not existed before the 18th century. At the other extreme, the “lower clergy” ( about equally divided between parish priests andmonks and nuns) constituted about 90 percent of the First Estate, which in 1789 numbered around 130,000 (about 0.5% of the population).
In principle, the responsibilities of the First Estate included the registration of births, marriages and deaths. They collected the tithe (dîme, usually 10 percent); served as moral guides; operated schools and hospitals; and distributed relief to the poor. They also owned 10 percent of all the land in France, which was exempt from property tax. The church did however pay the state a so-called “free gift” known as a don gratuit, which was collected via the décime, a tax on ecclesiastic offices.
The French inheritance system of primogeniture meant that nearly all French fortunes would pass largely in a single line, through the eldest son. Hence, it became very common for second sons to join the clergy. Although some dedicated churchmen came out of this system, much of the higher clergy continued to live the lives of aristocrats, enjoying the wealth derived from church lands and tithes and, in some cases, paying little or no attention to their pastoral duties. The ostentatious wealth of the higher clergy was, no doubt, partly responsible for the widespreadanticlericalism in France, dating back as far as the Middle Ages, and was certainly responsible for the element of class resentment within the anticlericalism of many peasants and wage-earners.
The first estates had to pay no taxes to the second and third estates.
The Second Estate is traditionally divided into “noblesse de robe“ (“nobility of the robe”), the magisterial class that administered royal justice and civil government, and “noblesse d’épée“ (“nobility of the sword”).
The Second Estate constituted approximately 1.5% of France’s population. Under the ancien régime, the Second Estate were exempt from the corvée royale (forced labour on the roads) and from most other forms of taxation such as the gabelle (salt tax) and most important, the taille (the oldest form of direct taxation). This exemption from paying taxes led to their reluctance to reform.
The Third Estate was the generality of people which were not part of the other estates.
The Third Estate comprised all those not members of the above and can be divided into two groups, urban and rural. The urban included the bourgeoisie 8% of France’s population, as well as wage-laborers (such as craftsmen). The rural includes the peasantry, or the farming class (about 90% of the population). The Third Estate includes some of what would now be considered middle class—e.g., the budding town bourgeoisie. What united the Third Estate is that most had little or no wealth and yet were forced to pay disproportionately high taxes to the other Estates.
So what does this have to do with America today? As a free post revolutionary society we have cast off the notions of nobility. While the clergy are influential, they are not a class of their own with greatly disproportionate power and privilege as during the Ancien Régime. Nor are they homogeneous in their points of view. Yet, it seems to me that this basic class structure is taking shape. For some time I have been trying to determine in our modern society which would be most analogous to the First and Second Estates of France. Here is my go at it:
The First Estate consists of the individuals that control the entrenched large corporations, including banks, that dominate the modern economy. These are a priestly class. This Estate bears resemblance to the First Estate of the Ancien Régime in the following ways. The individuals are often from America’s entrenched wealth and the continuation of their power is contingent on maintaining the established order with minimal changes. They use their power to grant special privileges, such as the low tax rates owed by Hedge Fund managers, the evasion of criminal consequences for their conduct, and their special influence over the Second Estate. Further, like the clergy of old, they are often held up as role models, moral guides, and chief benefactors of many charities and political candidates. The First Estate are also the keepers of the mystery of Neo-Liberal Economics. All threats to their power are shrugged off as socialism, a form of heresy. The First Estate is also supported by most vocal and politically organized of the clergy in the West.
The Second Estate consists of the government. This is fitting in that the government originally had a role of benevolent rule combined with special obligations and sacrifices. In early France, the nobles were entrusted with governing authority, but it also fell on them to raise armies and fund wars from their own purse. So with authority came sacrifice. The nobles owned much of the land and had the power to extract rents and levy taxes on other landowners. But in return they had to provide sound local administration. By the eighteenth century the nobles had either left for Paris or those left in the country had degenerated into petty oligarchs. At one time the nobility had lived among the ordinary people, related to them with both empathy and responsibility and felt their fates tied to the fate of the Third Estate. Today’s US Government is a second part of the power axis, hand in hand with the First Estate in ruling over the average citizen. The Second Estate is becoming more and more corrupt as shown in innumerable headlines and this insightful piece today. The Second Estate shuns those that would return the government to its rightful role in society, such as Elizabeth Warren. It heeds not the calls of the Third Estate for such a reformer.
The Third Estate consists of the rest of us. As in the Ancien Régime, this largest of classes includes academics, writers, most professionals, laborers, craftsmen, etc. As during the Ancien Régime, this class pays a disproportionate share of the taxes and receive no special benefits. W-2 wage-earners get creamed. Most have no defined pension plan, pay ever more for their health care, and have little political clout. Like before the French Revolution, these citizens are divided and do not know their common interests. They are becoming impoverished by the deflation of their most important assets, declining personal income, and inflation in staples. Further, The Third Estate is becoming obsolete at the whim of the First, which is a dangerous mix, because like the French Third Estate, we have an inextinguishable hatred for inequality.
These are only some similarities and are meant to provide a paradigm for thinking about the structure of power in this country. Some will point out that there are huge and obvious differences that historians can comment on at length. It is not the differences that concern me, it is the similarities. One of the differences is that this is so large and diverse a country that it may not be possible for the Third Estate to assemble in any meaningful way. Of course, that is what the nobility thought in France as well. De Tocqueville, no supporter of the Revolution, stated that:
When the middle classes has thus been isolated from the nobleman and the peasant from them both, when a similar process persisted at the heart of each class itself and small individual groupings had formed in the Center of each of them, almost as isolated from each other as the three classes were between themselves, then it was found that the whole nation was no longer anything more than one homogeneous mass whose parts were, however, no longer linked together (paradoxically) Nothing was arranged any longer to hinder the government any more than it was to shore it up. The result was that the whole structure of the King’s greatness could collapse together and at once, as soon as the society which served as its foundation started to tremble.
So the question in the title is translated, “What is the Third Estate?” from a pamphlet of the time that argued that the Third Estate was a complete nation and did not need the dead weight of the privileged classes. The government should not allow this idea to take hold. To prevent it more bold steps are required, including the appointment of Elizabeth Warren.