Thursday, October 27, 2005

Tocqueville--my voyage of discovery

Let me begin with a personal aside. In my younger days I was very critical of the United States, based on my perception of its shallow optimism and materialism, and the pervasiveness of its popular culture. Growing up (like Susan Sontag) a fledgling intellectual in Los Angeles, it may be that this perception was inevitable.

The atmosphere of my parents’ home was quite politically oriented, so it was understandable that I should show some interest in political theory. First, I looked critically at Communism—to free myself from the indoctrination provided by my parents. I used what sources were at hand: Bertrand Russell, Ortega y Gasset, and above all Arthur Koestler.

By contrast, I avoided Tocqueville as the presumed celebrator of the American way. Some probably still see him that way, the author of a supreme tribute to our virtues by, of all people, a Frenchman.

In the past three or four years I finally turned to Tocqueville. Why? There have been new advances in scholarship, showing that he was the author not just of one masterpiece: but of two, as his Ancien Regime book, even though, unfinished, now ranks with Democracy in America.

Second, I felt a need to reexamine my own political views, which may be defined as libertarianism with sanity. In the age of Bush and Katrina this no longer seemed sufficient.

Thomas Jefferson, I believe, remarked that everyone has two countries: his own and France. I don’t know how that observation plays out for others, but it has been true for me.

Political theorists are of two types. First there are armchair thinkers, with no practical experience, who seek to work out theoretical principles from reading and observation. These, from Hobbes to Strauss, and the majority. Then there are the retired practitioners such as Machiavelli and (horresco referens) Kissinger.

Unusually, Tocqueville was both. He researched and wrote the main part of his Democracy in America while still in his twenties. He had had no political experience to speak of (though he did serve as a magistrate in Versailles). His later career was quite different, for he became a deputy in the French parliament and, for a few months, during the Second Republic, foreign minister.

The personal pathos of Tocqueville is that he recognized all too clearly that his class, the aristocrats, was moribund. He saw the growing supremacy of two transcendent forces: democracy and centralization. The advance of Democracy is inexorable and despite some drawbacks, desirable. In that sense America holds up to Europe the mirror of its future (as indeed it did). Prophetically, he saw administrative centralization as a more serious problem

He acquired the database for his first major work in his trip to US starting at the end of his twenty-fifth year, accompanied his bosom buddy Gustave de Beaumont. The official purpose of the trip (from May 11, 1831 to February 20, 1832—a little over nine months), was to study prisons, and many dutiful visits ensued. However, Tocqueville and Beaumont covered North America from Atlantic to the frontier, and from the banks of the St. Lawrence to New Orleans. Early on Tocqueville understood that it was his destiny to interpret the American national character, using a comparative approach involving France and Europe.

In a letter written shortly after his arrival he enounced one of his basic principles. There are no political institutions that are good or bad in and of themselves. Instead, everything depends on the physical conditions and the social reality of the people where they occur. In America he saw institutions that would devastate France. Others, suited to his own country would not work in America. In this key perception Tocqueville distanced himself from figures like Hegel and Marx, who stretched reality on a bed of system. His distrust of such approaches yielded a salutary antiformalism.

Although he had not yet visited Britain, Tocqueville regarded the Americans as the "truest Englishmen." In England the aristocracy was a veneer, serving to conceal the reality of the national type. The pluralistic Protestantism played a role, to be sure. Yet he saw the purest reflection of this character in the New England township system: This was democracy from the bottom up. Today, some observers, such as Robert Putnam, lament the decline of our voluntary institutions. Proclaiming this demise seems premature. First, we had in the sixties the new social movements of civil rights, feminism, and gays and lesbians. Now we have a new volunteerism in the blogosphere, an army of unpaid commentators who are reshaping the informational and political landscape.

As has been noted, unlike his contemporaries Hegel and Marx, Tocqueville shunned big theories. He preferred to suture phenomena one to another. As these connections are often counterintuitive, they tend to linger in the mind. Famously, he pointed out that religion flourishes mightily in America, despite—and because of—the absence of a state church of the type that Europeans tended to retain. Reflecting on his analysis of the last years of the ancien regime in France, he noted that the most perilous phase for a weak government is when it seeks to reform itself. Objectively, things are getting better, but at the same time the regime is cutting out the ground from its own feet. This point is true not only for the France of Louis XVI, but also for the Soviet Union of Gorbachev. Gorbachov’s perestroika was intended as a reformation preserving the hegemony of the Communist Party; instead, it destroyed it. Over and over again we see the relevance of Tocqueville’s ideas to today.

Another counterintuitive insight is his claim that America is the country where the precepts of Descartes are least studied but best applied. One may question this specific assertion. Yet there is no doubt that in all countries there is a largely invisible and unstated set of assumptions that are all the more powerful in that they are normally invisible. Perhaps our "Cartesianism" is one of these.

Tocqueville’s view of America was far less rosy than the celebrationist approach would concede. Early on, American hucksterism and money grubbing repelled him. He also held that the democratic spirit was not conducive to the production of great works of art and literature. These reservations are perhaps a matter of personal taste.

More serious is his concern that democracy could easily lead to the tyranny of the majority. He perceived an ongoing struggle between liberty and equality. Here he was less radical than Isaiah Berlin, who saw the increase of the one as automatically creating a diminution of the other, but he pointed to a serious problem.

One of his most insightful caveats was this. He foresaw that the great American Republic would survive only as long as its leaders could refrain from exploiting the principle of bribing the people with their own money. Unfortunately, we turned that corner some time ago.

We can be briefer in noting Tocqueville’s second great book on the Ancien Regime and the Revolution. He notes that ancien regime societies were everywhere the same in much of Europe. Why then did the Revolution break out in France? Many have seen the cause in the subversive writings of the intellectuals of the Enlightenment. Tocqueville went further. Eighteenth-century France already prefigured what was to become. That era saw the effective destruction of local aristocracy and a corresponding centralization of power in the king. It was only necessary to remove that person to complete the process. Tocqueville saw a great continuity in France from pre-Revolutionary to post-Revolutionary times. As one scholar commented, for him the French Revolution was not revolution at all.

Much else can be mined from Tocqueville’s copious writings, some of which (the letters) are only now being published. His very lack of system makes the process one of continuous discovery. I expect to be involved with him for some time.


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