The Information Master
By Jacob Soll
How do you build an effective police state? Louis XIV’s famous minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) knew that well-paid scholars potentially make effective and sometimes brutal intelligence agents.
He also knew they had the requisite skills to make state surveillance systems. With their knowledge of law, feudal history and archival practices, Colbert trained a number of top ecclesiastical scholars such as Étienne Baluze and Joseph-Nicolas Foucault, and the d’Hozier family to help him make and manage police and tax files on French parliamentarians and nobles.
Baluze helped Colbert create a library system which he used for politics and policing. He also helped Colbert police radical thought and the book trade. Joseph-Nicolas Foucault was trained as a philosopher and canon lawyer, and became a famous antiquarian, but he also helped Colbert seize libraries, archives, crush Protestants and bring unruly churchmen and scholars to heel. He helped him develop sinister police files on incompliant parliamentarians with full personality analyses (drunkard, weak, corruptible) and even personal economic information to use to exert pressure on political opponents.
Colbert’s learned police force generally worked. He crushed the Parisian book trade, sent political subversives packing and put up a good fight against the constant stream of seditious pamphlets which were unending between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. With his agents help, and his massive archive, Colbert himself became an expert on feudal and canon law and thus limited the powers of the Parlements and Church. His information web brought industrial and diplomatic information to his central hub and helped in pursuing effective policy. He built an internal intelligence agency in his library which used his database to write secret policy and legal memos which often became law.
But oppression has its downside. Once the world of the learned Republic of Letters realized Colbert was using them to crush intellectual freedoms. Many publishers and scholars such as Pierre Bayle fled to Holland. The once great Parisian book trade temporarily withered and ceded its place to Amsterdam. Other scholars began to criticize this new tyranny of letters and call for more open government in response to Colbert’s massive and secret archives. Worst of all, Colbert’s information system was so secret that when he died, it perished with him. Many scholars, no longer on the payroll, turned to their old habits: criticizing government.