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Friday, January 06, 2017

Tocqueville - In Conclusion

 In the second part (originally published as a second volume) of Democracy in America, Tocqueville attempted to analyze the influence of democracy upon virtually every aspect of human life.  By "democracy," it bears repeating, Tocqueville did not refer primarily to an elected government orpopular liberties as enjoyed under the US Constitution.  He meant the opposite of aristocracy, a society without legal distinctions among different classes, special privileges, and traditions of deference.  He saw this kind of democracy spreading all over Europe, and he was not at all sure what kind of political institutions it might lead to.  Indeed, he clearly believed that it was at least as likely to lead to despotism, as it had in France under Napoleon, as to liberty, and he spends much of Part II warning of the dangers he saw.  While some of part II specifically discusses the United States, it is more about the whole future of western civilization.

The book includes echoes of two other great thinkers whose lives overlapped with Tocqueville, the older Clausewitz and the younger Karl Marx.  Democracies, he noted--as did Clausewitz--were potentially stronger militarily than aristocracies because they could command the whole resources of the people.  Clausewitz also made this point in On War,  and he added that the other European powers had only managed to defeat Napoleon when they, too, had incorporated some of the political changes that had occurred in France in their own nations.  At another point, he noted the tendency of industry to create both a new aristocracy of wealth and a new submerged class of poor laborers, and speculated that that might be a threat to liberty as well--anticipating Marx and Engels.  While in the United States he repeatedly noted that the central government remained weak, and the state governments more important, he fond the central power in Europe increasing everywhere, taking a keen interest in the direction of education, industry, and provision for the poor, and in short, threatening to establish a dictatorship.  This of course came to pass in the Fascist and Communist states of the 20th century, and a good many European citizens seem to feel that the European Union, whose bureaucrats are not elected, has achieved almost absolute power as well.  In the United States the central government also became far more powerful than in Tocqueville's day in the 20th century, but the prejudice against it has remained strong.

Turning to the question of mores, Tocqueville found much in the United States that tended to preserve stability and liberty.  Americans by and large were most interested in making money, although he repeats again and again that very few of them manage to make, and fewer still to conserve, great fortunes.  Tocqueville's claim that the United States lacked many rich men has been vindicated decisively by Thomas Piketty's 21st-century classic, Capital in the Twenty-First Century(2014), which found that because 19th-century land was so plentiful and cheap, capital--that is, wealth--was much lower relative to national income in the United States than in Europe at least until the second half of the nineteenth century.  The growth of great industrial enterprises was recognized as a threat to democracy in the United States from the Gilded Age onward, of course, and although as Piketty showed the Progressive era did not stop the growth of inequality, the Depression, the New Deal and the Second World War did reverse the trend until the 1970s.  Then, as I discussed in a series of posts on Piketty's book nearly three years ago, inequality of income and wealth began to rise rapidly, and many voters clearly now view this as a threat to their future and their liberty.

The Americans, Tocqueville said again and again, had moderate habits, befitting their moderately prosperous economic status.  Because they were not rich, they focused their energies on getting richer, and that made them supporters of a stable social order.  He was also profoundly impressed, like many other contemporary Americans and Europeans, by the stricter morality prevailing in America in the relations of the sexes.  Some of this he ascribed to social equality.  In France or Britain, a rich man might seduce a poor woman without fear of having to marry her, since society would reject such a match.  In the United States no one could claim this aristocratic privilege among free citizens.  Married women almost never betrayed their husbands, he noted, and although they had to submit to their will and share their good fortune and bad, they freely chose their husbands,  and rarely complained.  All this, too, has obviously changed so much as to have little relevance today.  Tocqueville could scarcely have imagined societies like contemporary America and Europe, where such a large portion of the adult population remains single for most or all of their lives.  We do not yet know what the consequences of this new state of affairs will be.

Tocqueville still provides a compelling framework for the analysis of the United States today.  Alas, perhaps the most important change in the last 200 years or so involves the political sophistication of the average American citizen.  In volume I Tocqueville showed how deeply ordinary Americans were involved in the local and state management of their political affairs, and how this gave them real knowledge and experience about government.  This, it seems to me, has not been the case for some decades, and although a higher percentage of the population has the right to vote, the number of qualified voters who actually exercise that right has probably fallen as a percentage of the total.  Few indeed are the Americans who actually understand where the money in state and federal budgets comes from and where it goes, and political rhetoric deals in generalities that often have no relationship to actual fact.  Tocqueville saw that emotion played an important role in American politics, but surely it has rarely if ever been so important as it was in the election of 2016.  And the breakdown in the people's relationship to their political leadership has led to the election of Donald Trump, who capitalized, it is increasingly clear, on very real economic grievances in the heartland of the United States to win election, but who will obviously do little or nothing to improve the lives of the voters who elected them.

The citizenry still enjoys all its basic freedoms--indeed, in some ways, it enjoys more of them than ever.  The legal profession remains an important obstacle to despotism, although it may not be able to protect our 11 million illegal immigrants, who represent a problem without parallel in Tocqueville's day.  Our greatest problem, I believe--echoing Tocqueville--is one of mores and values.  Greed has created a new elite, with tremendous consequences, and greed reigns unchallenged.  Associations, which Tocqueville thought so important in American political life, remain very powerful today--but nearly all the most powerful ones are on the right.  Half a century ago the NAACP and the AFL-CIO were perhaps the two most powerful lobbies in Washington.  Today they do not remotely compare to the NRA, AIPAC, the network of groups funded by the Koch brothers, or the Chamber of Commerce. 

Tocqueville ended Democracy in America with one of my favorite passages, one which I frequently quoted as history classes came to an end.  Democracy, he repeated--social equality--was the wave of the future, and nothing could stand in its way.  Attempts to preserve aristocratic virtues, he argued, were doomed, and should be abandoned--even though he himself had more inherent sympathy for aristocracy.  The future held many possibilities, and here were his last words.

"For myself, looking back now from the extreme end of my task and seeing at a distance, but collected together, all the various things which had attracted my close attention upon the way, I am full of fears and of hopes.  I see great dangers which may be warded off and mighty evils which may be avoided or kept in check; and I am ever increasingly confirmed in my belief that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous, it is enough if they will to be so.

"I am aware that many of my contemporaries think that nations on earth are never their own masters and that they are bound to obey some insuperable and unthinking power, the product of pre-existing facts, of race, or soil, or climate.

"These are false and cowardly doctrines which can only produce feeble men and pusillanimous nations  Providence did not make mankind entirely free or completely enslaved. Providence has, in truth, drawn a predestined circle around each man beyond which he cannot pass; but within those vast limits man is strong and free, and so are peoples.

"The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst.  But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness."



1 comment:

Bozon said...

Great commentary.

I may have to read Tocqueville some day. Should have done so long ago...

The Democratic Revolution, successful first and most fully here, failed to meet the ideals either of the reforming Enlightenment aristocrats and monarchs who first inspired it, or of the republican and Jacobin common men, and common colonists here, who transformed and ultimately benefitted most from it, to the ultimate detriment of everyone in the West.

There are a lot of reasons for that rather pessimistic conclusion. I can't go into them all here, obviously.

The Revolution 'from above' would probably have served everyone better in the long run here in the West.

Most people in the US, long steeped in anarchic democratic or laissez faire economic ideals now, will heatedly disagree. That does not bother me.

All the best