Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tocqueville and Epstein

Me to one and all:

May I suggest, at a minimum, Chapter 10 of this book--but by all means read it in its entirety, if not the the original texts--for the most (indirectly) withering critque of Obama's follies imaginable as Epstein in this Chapter is magnificently synoptic in taking hold of Tocqueville's, itself illuminating, The Old Regime and the Revolution: Notes on the French Revolution and Napoleon, if not mystically channeling the great man. Even if you don't relate this Chapter 10 to the follies of Obama, it is so chocked full with insight and wisdom, you will need to take not a few deep breaths.


So, what is it in the attached para gives you leave to beat up Obama?

Despite his obvious admiration for American republicanism, much of Tocqueville's analysis is devoted to the sociological problems engendered by democratic life. Democracy ‘serves the well-being of the greatest number’, yet it brings with it a tolerance for mediocrity that disturbed the aristocrat within Tocqueville. In politics, the electoral mechanism means that the most able do not necessarily govern, and that present goods are rarely sacrificed for future benefits. Of most concern is the possibility of the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Tocqueville is worried not about majorities as persistent political factions in a Madisonian sense. Rather, he is referring to the oppressive effects of popular opinion, the contempt of the masses for the potentially enlightened minority. Tocqueville also laments the tendency to isolation (anomie) resulting from the destruction of the traditional institutions of the aristocratic order. The danger of ‘individualism’ is that citizens withdrawn from society are open to exploitation by potential despots. Participation in civic life should thus be understood as much more than altruistic activity—it is a necessary condition for sustaining individual liberty (‘self interest rightly understood’).


Leaving Obama to the side, Tocqueville has some concern with democracy engendering a desire for material well being by creating the conditions for progress towards one of his animating ideals--“equality of conditions”. And there is in him some nostalgia for the bursts of greatness apparent in the aristocratic order; and there is some concern over the flattening and homogeneity democracy may usher in, if equality trumps liberty too strongly. But the thrust of his argument, in his Democracy In America, which is to be read back into his thinking about France , is to herald the American experiment as brilliantly positive in liberating men, in throwing off the weight of the past, and in virtually building a new world.

There are, to be sure, tensions in his thought all over the place, the overarching tension being resident in the paradoxes of equality and liberty. But it, I think, to misreads him to read too much of the aristocrat about him into the centrality of his thought. Tocqueville championed oppressed minorities and records his great sympathy with the American Indians and the enslaved Blacks who he sought out and met with on his American tour. Tocqueville, therefore, consistently, in his thought, worries over the possibility of the tyranny of the majority. But I understand his concern not so much driven by his championing of elites, by definition, of the minority, in a certain sense, as more driven by the homogenizing potential of majorities—correlative to the ascendance of equality over liberty—to impose hegemony over minorities, those marked in varieties of ways as different from the majority.

Also, against a view of his aristocratic yearnings, is the powerful argument he makes for the, I'd call it, inalienable equality of all men, and his trashing of any kind of a priori status or determinstic characteristics thought to fall to some people as an incident of their race, for example. See his great quarrel about this with his good friend Gobineau. He writes to his friend:

"Do you not see that your doctrine (racial determinism) brings out naturally all the evils that permanent inequality creates--pride, violewnce, the contempt of fellow men, tyranny, and abjectness under all its forms?"


"...human societies like indviduals become something only through the practice of liberty... No, I will not believe that this human species, which is at the head of visible creation, should become the debased flock that you tell us it is and that there is nothing more to do than to deliver it without future and without and recourse to a small number of shepherds who, after all, are not better animals than we and often are worse. You will permit me to have more confidence than you in the bounty and justice of God."

He also has a very sophisticated understanding of power, especially having served as for about half a year as Foreign Minister. And the darknesses that appear in his work on the French Revolution are born of the absurd and terrifying horrors that the impulse to liberty as an excess, as the manifestation of power by the powerful at the expense of equality, can lead to. His experience and intense studies that preceded his work on the French Revolution chastened him, but not out of aristocratic bent, into, in his later years, a certain Burkean conservatism. (Burke was also a champion of the American Revolution, by the way.) For Tocqueville, and Burke, too, of course, adherence to tradition, with the “burden of proof” on those who counsel departing from it, is a check on the horrendous eruptions that liberty’s excesess, unmoored from equality and tradition, could lead to, as manifest in the Reign of Terror.

The analysis of this, of attenuated rationality dissociated from experience--here you get to Obama, and particularly the critique of the roots of that in the French Enlightenment, by Tocqueville in his writing on the French Revolution is fascinating to take in. And, as I say, Epstein, in his own Chapter 10, does a great synoptic job getting to the essence of Tocquville’s reflections here.

Me (p.s.):

p.s. I omitted to mention that there was at least some of the Madisonian in Tocqueville.

When he was on the committee designing a constitution for the Second Republic, he argued hard for a bicameral legislative structure.

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