De Tocqueville in 1831 saw the America of today
a passage from de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
. Not for the first time, one can only stand in amazed awe of what de Tocqueville saw in the America of 1831—or rather what he intuited about an America that was then far, far in the future. How did he intuit it? What was the basis of his intuitions?
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?
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Ed H. writes:
Never let anyone say you cannot predict the future, Alexis de Toqueville did. Contained in this one paragraph, provided by Kristor, is an understanding of why America has never achieved a high culture, why the creation of Hollywood, and professional sports would be inevitable, the tormenting loneliness of daily life that is only assuaged in mass conformity, the utterly submerged mental life of the mass public manipulated by advertising and pop culture, the rise of ever more sensationalistic religions, cults, drugs, the nanny super state, the loss of all sense of nation, the indifference to mass immigration, the descent into mob-o-cracy and ever more vulgar demagogues all giving the people what they want, ie. “more freedom” “more equality”. But there has been a resistance movement. The great men of the American Republic can be defined by a shared awareness of how mass democracy must always self destruct, and struggled to provide antidotes. The liars, the demagogues, the frauds can just as handily be defined by their promotion and exploitation of our country’s central weakness.
“The thought of what America would be like If the Classics had a wide circulation troubles my sleep.”
—Ezra Pound, Instigations 1918
James P. writes:
Synchronicity of a sort—this past week, I have also had a look at the same passage as Kristor. In De Tocqueville, Book 2, Chapters 6 and 7—What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear—is worth reading in their entirety.
De Tocqueville argued that democratic tyranny would be mild. I am less confident of this. He imagined this would be so because Americans would have achieved uniform equality before the despot came to power, and there would be no reason to tyrannize a mass of equal subjects. Yet we know that the Left does not consider that all Americans have achieved equality; some are more wealthy and successful than others, and are obvious targets for leveling. Worse than this, we know that the Left considers that whites are inherently unequal to blacks; the mere fact of being white confers “privilege” over blacks. Therefore, the Left will always think that tyrannizing whites is justified. The more their efforts fail to result in equality, the more the Left will blame whites and punish them accordingly.
De Tocqueville is generally held out as an admirer of democracy. In fact, he was quite pessimistic. His prediction that Americans would evolve from lovers of liberty into a servile herd eager to vote for gratification has already been amply fulfilled.
Malcolm Pollack writes:
Yes, this passage is for me is the climax of Tocqueville’s mighty effort to understand the great experiment of democracy in America, and where it might lead in the decades and centuries following his analytical survey.
But we must also include the next passage, which I have quoted often at my own website:
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described, might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom; and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people. Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite; they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain. By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.
His prescience seems almost supernatural.
James W. writes:
Tocqueville did not predict the future so much as the past. He saw the past more clearly by far than any other men, before or since, and there were particular reasons for that other than his great talent. His parents had been held at the Bastille awaiting their execution during the Terror. At 3 p.m. each day people of their acquaintance were carted to the guillotine, the executions finally ending when Robespierre was deposed. Tocqueville’s father, who was then 22, had seen his hair turn entirely white. So it was that in the home in which Tocqueville grew up his father took a nap at 3 p.m. each day.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 09, 2013 07:20 AM | Send
“The desire to use knowledge is not the same as the desire to know. I am quite sure that, here and there, some men possess a burning and inexhaustible passion for the truth which is self-supported and a constant source of joy, without ever reaching any final satisfaction. This is the burning, proud, and disinterested passion for what is true which leads man to the abstract springs of truth from were they draw their basic knowledge.”
His reflection upon America were extremely positive. He was both instructed and delighted to see that they had made the republic work, and he describe in detail the methods which were used. He also noted precisely the ways in which it could be lost.
“I have made the distinction between two types of centralization; the one called governmental, the other administrative. The first exists solely in America; the second is almost unknown (there). In the United States, the majority, which often has despotic tastes and instincts, still lacks the most developed tools of tyranny. If the direction American societies (took) … combined the right of total command with the capacity of total execution … freedom would soon be obliterated in the New World.”
Commenting later of democratic movements at large, he wrote “Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain. By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.”
“I add that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them. The democratic nations that have introduced freedom into their political constitution at the very time when they were augmenting the despotism of their administrative constitution have been led into strange paradoxes. To manage those minor affairs in which good sense is all that is wanted, the people are held to be unequal to the task; but when the government of the country is at stake, the people are invested with immense powers; they are alternately made the play things of their ruler, and his masters, more than kings and less than men. After having exhausted all the different modes of election without finding one to suit their purpose, they are still amazed and still bent on seeking further; as if the evil they notice did not originate in the constitution of the country far more than in that of the electoral body.”
“They derive consolation from being supervised by thinking that they have chosen their supervisors.”