History’s Long Road to Tyranny: Tocqueville and the End of Equality

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Devon, PA. I have just finished teaching Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America with my freshmen students.  In a way I have not witnessed before, they were compelled by his account of American culture and society, and they saw in his words what so many before them have: a prophetic element that commands attention.  We concluded our study with a discussion of the following choice paragraphs from the concluding pages of the book.  Their prescience strikes me as so great, that I thought I would share them with our readers to provide grist for reflection.

Accounts of Tocqueville vary, so, in preface, let me provide an abstract of my own.  Tocqueville came to America, having witnessed the combined success and failure of democratic revolutions in France and much of Europe.  The revolutions had succeeded in shaking the established order of absolute monarchy and a residual aristocratic culture (these were distinct, independent features of European society), and they had succeeded in establishing a principle of equality that made any reversion to the old order seem impossible, and the continued spread of equality into every aspect of human life to seem inevitable.  Because of this successful demolishment and establishment, modern Europe seemed plagued by uncertainty and listless regarding its fortunes.

A belief in equality had ripped old customs and creeds from the people’s hearts, but it had neither provided new substance to replace the old nor a clear suggestion as to how equal social conditions could lead to a flourishing society.  Tocqueville saw that America was in many respects an egalitarian society, but it had experienced neither the trauma of cultural or social revolution nor the wrenching psychological and philosophical transformations of one.  To the extent that American society worked, how did it work?  What were the elements that allowed it to appear so dynamic and humming, while the new states of Europe swayed moribund, back-and-forth between the old order and the new?

Equality seemed the inevitable course of history, observed Tocqueville.  Indeed, the one certainly that seemed in place prior to the writing of Democracy, and which informs the shape of the book, is that the ever-increasing spread of equality into every precinct of human life was fated.  Whatever goods might come with the spread of equality, its chief evil was the implanting of “individualism” in the heart of man.  The individualist looks out on the spectacle of his fellow citizens and concludes that he has no stake or part in that undifferentiated mass.  All men are equal, so let each man contend for himself.  He consequently turns inward, not on himself alone, but on a select group of his nearest family relations and a few friends; these are his only society, because such relations are the only ones that continue to appear natural and meaningful.  Because citizens in democratic countries are weak and, to the extent they are weak, unfree, the spirit of individualism makes such citizens ripe for despotism.  Indeed, jealous of their equality and largely unattached to those with whom they share it, they will tend to give up their particular liberties to a centralized state.  If they cannot be wholly equal and wholly free, they would rather be equal in slavery.  If they cannot rule themselves, they will suffer nothing but the State to do so.

Americans, from the earliest days of New England society, had cherished equality while avoiding the grave evil of individualism.  Tocqueville’s account of how they did so may be his most famous set of observations.  First of all, Americans embrace with cool practicality and warm affection the life of the nuclear family; the small family consisting of only parents and children was a novelity in the Nineteenth Century, but Americans had made it an efficiently functioning unit that held together chiefly through affective bonds and which trained children for adulthood early — for hard work and careful decision making.  American girls were more jaded and cautious than their naive but romantic European counterparts; American boys were enterprising industrialists with a keen sense of the flux of social and economic fortunes almost from the time they left grade school.  The nuclear family does not specifically counter the effects of individualism, but rather accepts them and finds a familial form that can survive the great ebb and flow of economic fortunes absent the stability of land and broader social attachments to neighborhood, village, and province.

Four other American practices more directly counter the evil of individualism.

First, Americans all accepted a general Christian creed, a civil religion, that was too general to interfere in much of daily life, but which provided a foundation for morality, and morality provided a foundation for law.  Without an unquestioned, if narrowly circumscribed, set of Christian beliefs, the naturally skeptical American would fall into the same state as the woefully “Cartesian” ennui that had taken over the mind of much of Europe.  Prophetically anticipating the rise of nationalist movements later that century, Tocqueville contends that, without Christianity, men become so anxious and insecure that they will seek the security of belief they have lost regarding God in the persona of a ruler.  Men cannot bear to doubt everything, and they will have their god one way or another.  As T.S. Eliot observed in a particularly Tocquevillian moment, “If you will nto have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”

Second, the primacy of local or township government in American society made it possible for a great number of Americans to participate in political institutions on a regular basis.  Whether as Fire Chief or head of the St. John’s Mint Festival, whether as Dog Catcher or Mayor, Americans were continually forced to turn away from themselves and to attend to the life and business of their neighbor.  The long habit of such participation in public life convinced Americans that, despite their equality, they need not and could not be indifferent to the particulars of social life.  This also preserved Americans from the tendency to invest their political beliefs in a few general ideas.  Accustomed to the details of daily participation in political life, they did not let what is often called (wrongly, I think) “ideology” substitute for active engagement in the public realm.  This was possible chiefly because the actions of political life were largely confined to the local level, even when the legislation directing that life occured far away.

Third, Americans formed and joined public associations outside of political parties with avidity.  A foreign student of mine sees this present even now, but Robert Putnam and others have shown that, however much Americans love to join groups now, they did so much more frequently in the past.  All public life and, indeed, all potentially “private” moral decisions found expression in some association or another.  As Tocqueville observed, teetotallers in America did not simply sit at home and drink water, nor did they (as in France) apply to the prefect to keep an eye on the taverns.  Rather, they joined a Temperance Union and marched through the streets of East Lansing — no doubt, on their way to a pancake breakfast to raise funds for future such marches.

Fourth — perhaps anti-climactically — Tocqueville observes the utilitarian spirit of American moral life.  If one can show that participation in social life actually advances one’s self-interest, then Americans will take to public life with pride and enthusiasm.  They will even do so, all the while insisting that their service to the common good is understaken entirely for “selfish” reasons.  Lacking a vision of ethics as the pursuit of the Good, Tocqueville is bit wary and even at a loss before this aspect of American life, but he sees it as a moral code well adapted to an age of equality.  “Self-interest rightly understood” teaches us that, in order to serve our own good, we must secure the good of others.  Even the convinced individualist can see that to advance his family’s interests, he must participate in a great number of public groups and actions — individuals in an egalitarian society are, after all, particularly weak when isolated.

Over the course of writing his brilliant account of American society, Tocqueville seems to have discovered something: the one preconceived certitude with which he approached his subject — the inevitability of equality — was his one definite error.  As he would explore more fully in his later writings, the timeline of history, with its undeviating arrow, did not point toward the spread of equality per se.  Rather, if one took a longer view than that of the recent European revolutions, or even than that of the founding of the American colonies, the trajectory of history seemed aimed at a different, not to say incompatible, end.  Centralization.

Recent decades had shown the spread of equality, but recent centuries showed that the West as a whole was driving toward the total centralization of political power in the hands of a unified state.  Feudalism and aristocracy had not broken down because, while making liberty absolutely possible for many, it did so at the equally absolute cost of equality (feudal society distributed loyalty, duty, and affection over a wide hierarchy; it gave many persons through the ranks leave to exercise their freedom, but at the cost of affirming nobody — absolutely nobody — was equal; to this I shall return another day).  Rather, it had given way to the centralization of the absolute monarch.  In Karl Barth’s words, this revolution from above would eventually beget a revolution from below.  One thing all revolutions, all wars, have in common is that they do not lead to the propagation of new liberties or even to the descent into prolonged anarchy.  They lead to the increased concentration of power in the hands of a single administrative state.  On this dark revelation, Tocqueville found himself staring after his years’ work on Democracy.  His observations were no less potent, but they gained in prophetic power.  I would leave you with them to ponder in your heart:

The state has everywhere reclaimed for itself alone those features which naturally belong to the sovereign power; in everything connected with government, the state does not tolerate anything standing between citizens and itself and it controls all matters of general concern itself.  Far from criticizing this concentration of powers, I merely point it out.

Years ago, almost all the charitable institutions were in the hands of individuals or corporations; they have almost all become dependent on the government and, in several countries, are administered by that power.  The state has undertaken almost exclusively to provide the hungry with bread, the sick with help and shelter, and the idle with work; it has become almost the sole relief against every misery . . . [one] perceive[s] that, over the last fifty years, centralization has increased everywhere and in a thousand different ways.  Wars, revolutions, and conquests have promoted its progress; every person has worked to increase it.  In this same period, when men, at a tremendous rate, have followed each other at the head of affairs, their ideas, interests, and passions have shown infinite variety; yet all have wished to centralize in one way or another.  The instinct to centralize has been virtually the only stable feature amid the general instability of their lives and thoughts.

Centuries past never witnessed any ruler so absolute or powerful as to undertake the administration, on his own and without the support of secondary powers, of every part of a great empire; nor did anyone try to subject all his people indiscriminately to the details of a uniform code of conduct; nor did anyone descend to the level of every common citizen in order to rule and direct him.

I wish to imagine under what new features despotism might appear in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.  Each of them, living apart, is almost unaware of the destiny of all the rest.  His children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he may be said to have lost his country . . . Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny.  It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed.  It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aims were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind.  It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it.  It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances.  Why can it not remove them entirely from the bother of thinking and the troubles of life? . . . Thus, it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen.  Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all things things and often even to see them as a blessing.

Readers have likely seen more than enough of my work to know what I think of these observations.  If Tocqueville’s conception of society is sometimes inadequate because his terms of evaluation — liberty and equality — do not help us answer questions about the good of the human person or the Good that is the end of all things and of the universal order, he nonetheless harnessed great resources to see into the heart of the “modern problem.”  I would be curious to hear what readers think of his evaluation.  I heard John Boehner on the news this morning, telling us all that there is a fundamental ideological difference between President Obama and himself on the scope and size of government.  So far as I can tell, however, that seems to mean that Republicans would like America to be roughly 2% less centralized than would our feckless leader.

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