James Poulos Says Something Very Important

by Caleb Stegall on October 22, 2009 · 3 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

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.”

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar D.W. Sabin October 29, 2009 at 6:01 pm

I find it to be a kind of willful lark that Poulos would suggest that the Neo-conservatives are chary of despotism. The neo-conservatives, as a general rule, were kept on as properly controlled think tankers in earlier eras, able philosophers who knew how to say artistically that the world was coming to an end . However, they were never accorded much real power directly, until the most despotic Executive in recent years took the helm and found the nation steeped in a state of quivering fear after 9/11. Neo-Conservatives, always adept at describing all manner of enemy were fully embraced and given the megaphone of empire and revenge. Their pin striped and perfumed baying for war has yet to abate and so to assert that they are somehow pro-liberty is to deal a wallop of a fable.

But, to be clear, barbarism is hardly gone and it remains the most bi-partisan default mode of the naked ape.

Tocqueville remains a remarkably perceptive analyst of the American arch type but something happened to us during this era of the glistening little electric box in every rumpus room…..we began to conduct ourselves in a manner much like our opposite bookend on the other side of Europe, the Russians. We began to imitate. Not Europe so much as Russia did but ourselves, a kind of caricatured, packaged and homogenized American. We continue to split infinity with the mimicry and a Media-Political Circus promulgates it into law and quarterly report. Hence, the confusion….a person makes a living as a mimic, reality tends to become alien. As they say, Buy the ticket and take the ride.

avatar James Matthew Wilson October 29, 2009 at 9:38 pm

By coincidence, I’ve been thinking about this very question. I’m not sure I follow the distinctions Polus makes — or rather, I would question the claims he’s making about the necessity of Rieff here. But let me just issue a basic assent: Tocqueville’s individualism dissolves societies into the soft but real bonds of the nuclear family (with a select few chosen others). What he seems not to have envisioned was that even these bonds could be dissolved and a true or pure individualism could come into being, in which the person knocks about the vast homogenous space of administered society like the lethargic irradiated sperm of Homer J. Simpson. It required, I suspect, not just the triumph of the therapeutic but the triumph of the headphone (or ear bud) to make this possible. Again, I’m not nitpicked and calling into question his argument (which is a good’n). I just think Tocqueville’s analysis is correct, save that the technocratic divisions he saw coming into being have continued to develop beyond what he could imagine.

There’s more to Polus’ argument, too, which I must digest.

avatar Stephen February 4, 2010 at 11:23 pm

“When they die, aristocracies explode; democracies deflate.”

“When it is demolished, an aristocracy bursts into a thousand vigorous individuals shooting violently across history; a democracy, when it disappears, deflates like a rubber ball.”

Nicolás Gómez Dávila

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