James Poulos Says Something Very Important


Straussians in basic agreement with Kristol answer yes to the first question. Though no great critics of Plato, pro-Tocquevillian Straussians must concede that Tocqueville’s vision of democratic despotism significantly qualifies or steps beyond Plato’s judgment that democracy must degenerate into tyranny because democratic souls are unable to save themselves from succumbing to the tyranny of desire. In short, Plato teaches that social order is ultimately untenable in democracies because too many democratic individuals slip too far into a love of transgression that comes to rule their souls. For Tocqueville, quite differently, only in aristocratic ages do individuals really allow debauchery and decadence to rule their lives. Democratic individuals are too busy, too equal, too distracted, too conflicted, and not wealthy enough by far to become de Sades. Not great transgression but great quietude will destroy democratic social order; rather than a fury of bad behavior, the democratic individual will slip into a fugue of comfort, surrounding himself in bourgeois self-satisfaction with handpicked friends and family. In Tocqueville’s dystopia, history will die whispering, not banging. Soft despotism will appear to perfect democratic social order; but it will sap the springs of true human greatness in such a way that democratic social order will fade or euthanize itself, to be replaced by something like the “oriental despotism” of China or Egypt, an anti-order of servitude, ignorance, forgetfulness, and anonymity. Our recognizably human character will be smudged away. Rieff takes a different view. He is clear that Tocqueville — who showed clearly enough that America will forever be without the “officer class” required to authoritatively maintain sacred and social order — is wrong about the way we live today. Rather than enclosing ourselves in solipsistic and quietly gratifying boutique relationships, we create complex strategic distances between ourselves and our supposed intimates. Where Tocqueville’s American readily reposes in committed relationships, Rieff’s American hops from relationship to relationship, alternating between ‘therapies’ of commitment and decommitment that reveal all commitments to be at bottom merely temporarily useful performances. Where Tocqueville’s American is ever more gentle in his mores, Rieff’s American revels in the primacy of possibility unleashed by charismatic transgression. Instead of quietude, Rieff prophesies a new barbarism, truly barbaric because we will lose the ability even to recognize ourselves as barbarians. But Rieff goes on to note that even democratic barbarism pulls us downward into an equality of boredom. Where Nietzsche can’t quite accept the possibility that the aristocratic barbarism of the “blond beast” has been historically foreclosed, Rieff suggests that democratization spells the end of barbarism as a force for creative destruction. Barbaric democrats will bore themselves, and one another, to death. Perhaps Tocqueville’s and Rieff’s dystopias converge after all: but you’d only know it reading from Rieff to Tocqueville, and not the other way around. And Rieff pulls no punches in prophesizing the bloody lengths to which barbaric democrats will go in a final, fatal effort not to be bored.”

I have elsewhere called these democratic barbarians “plastic sinners,” which is the intersection of Rieff and Tocqueville — a “quiet transgression.”

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