Democracy in America

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* Book: Democracy in America. Alexis de Tocqueville.



Jonathan Bi:

"Tocqueville writes in a time where everyone had a philosophy of history. People believed that you can't understand politics without understanding the mechanisms of history.

There are two general narratives of how political revolutions/progress occurs. The Aristotelian accounts is that any regime can dissolve into any other regime. The Platonic account is that there is a teleological progression (circular or linear) between different types of regimes. In this regard, Tocqueville is more of a Platonist. He believes in the inevitable progression of democracy.

Tocqueville's philosophy of history is heavily Christian. There was once a period of a rule of law. Effectively a caste system. Christianity brought down this caste system by enabling anyone to join in the ranks of the clergy. The clergy entered the government and started wielding power. Then lawyers and the bourgeoise slowly developed. The new middle class was spawned by Christian destruction of the old caste system and it was this new middle class that yearned for a new political system.

The leftist interpretation is that society is trending towards the good after this radical break happened. The right believe that society is declining. The right have three options: 1. withdraw from society 2. attempt to undo the revolution 3. begin a new revolution that brings old aspects back stronger than before (20th century Fascism).

Democracy in America is mostly addressed to the right. He doesn’t necessarily think that democracy is trending towards the absolute good but he does believe it is unstoppable. He wants the right to give up an illusion of the return."



Tocqueville's Principle on the Relation between Equality and Inequality

Jonathan Bi:

"The famous Tocqueville principle states that the more a society tends towards equality the more the inequalities look like great crimes. This is because they become muhc more apparent and unjust. So as society becomes more equal, people feel they are less equal and become more resentful (This is a different argument from GIrard).

One can imagine men enjoying a certain degree of freedom which wholly satisfies them. Then they savor their independence free from anxiety or excitement. But men will never establish an entirely satisfying equality. No matter what a nation does, it will never succeed in reaching perfectly equal conditions. If it did have the misfortune to achieve an absolute and complete leveling, there would still remain the inequalities of intelligence which come directly from God and will always elude the lawmakers. However democratic the state of society and the nation’s political constitution, you can guarantee that each citizen will always spot several oppressive points near to him and you may anticipate that he will direct his gaze doggedly in that direction. When inequality is the general law of society, the most blatant inequalities escape notice; when everything is virtually on a level, the slightest variations cause distress. That is why the desire for equality becomes more insatiable as equality extends to all. In democratic nations, men will attain a certain degree of equality with ease without being able to reach the one they crave. This retreats daily before them without moving out of their sight; even as it recedes, it draws them after it. They never cease believing that they are about to grasp it, while it never ceases to elude their grasp. They see it from close enough quarters to know its charms without getting near enough to enjoy them and they die before fully relishing its delights. Those are the reasons for that unusual melancholy often experienced by the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of plenty and for that distaste for life they feel seizes them even as they live an easy and peaceful existence.

The Inevitability of Equality

The gradual unfurling of equality in social conditions is, therefore, a providential fact which reflects its principal characteristics; it is universal, it is lasting and it constantly eludes human interference; its development is served equally by every event and every human being.

Tocqueville, in the introduction to his book, explains one of the core reasons for the writing of On Democracy in America: the inevitable democratic destiny of Europe. While this destiny is guaranteed, for the reasons I will soon discuss, its successful implementation is not so, a fact that was blatantly obvious in, say, the French Revolution. Investigating why Tocqueville believes the march of democracy and its egalitarian ideals is inevitable is not only critical to understanding the motives behind his work but will also be informative in analyzing the trajectory of the modern world, a world in which democratic regimes are showing increasing signs of strain.

The rise of democracy coincided with one of the defining characteristics of modernity: capitalism. Capital revealed the stubborn class distinctions that were so entrenched in society to be a hinderance on commerce: before the eyes of a trader, everyone is equal in so far as they can pay. The great equalizer of the free market began eroding previous class distinctions in favor of the more egalitarian meritocratic system: “The influence of money began to assert itself in state affairs. Business opened a new pathway to power and the financier became a political influence both despised and flattered.”

While this trend may have been operating in the background, the inflection point happened, so Tocqueville suggests, at two key junctures. The first juncture is the introduction of private property as opposed to owning property within Feudal tenure. This is, for Tocqueville, an inflection point because it seems that the very introduction of private property set up a system in place that began eroding concentrated power of the wealthy that gradually lead to egalitarianism:

As soon as citizens began to own land on any other than a feudal tenure and when emergence of personal property could in its turn confer influence and power, all further discoveries in the arts and any improvement introduced into trade and industry could not fail to instigate just as many new features of equality among men. From that moment, every newly invented procedure, every newly found need, every desire craving fulfillment were steps to the leveling of all. The taste for luxury, the love of warfare, the power of fashion, the most superficial and the deepest passions of the human heart seemed to work together to impoverish the wealthy and to enrich the poor.

This, in our era when the examination of political economy has been so influenced by Marx and neo-Marxian thinking, is a deeply interesting and surprising claim. The introduction of private property, contra Marx, isn’t responsible for wealth concentration but rather wealth dissemination. (I guess Marx would agree that capitalism is more equal than feudalism) Unfortunately, Tocqueville does not give further elaboration as to why every improvement to industry and the economy post-property is an equalizing force. A first, and frankly quite uninteresting resolution, would be that it equalizes the old strongholds of power within Feudalism. While this could be included into what Tocqueville was hinting at, I doubt this explanation covers the entirety of his claim.

The second inflection point, one whose exact emergence is much harder to pinpoint than the first, is when we began to control nature with rationality:

From the moment when the exercise of intelligence had become a source of strength and wealth, each step in the development of science, each new area of knowledge, each fresh idea had to be viewed as a seed of power placed within people’s grasp. Poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought, all these gifts which heaven shares out by chance turned to the advantage of democracy and, even when they belonged to the enemies of democracy, they still promoted its cause by highlighting the natural grandeur of man.

His idea seems to be that every act of human achievement over the natural world or manifestation of cultural brilliance has also contributed to the development of democracy. This may also be quite a surprising claim for the modern academic that has associated the control of nature with the oppressive and non-democratic control of society by a minority. What is most surprising is his final sentence within this arch: that even those who use these advancements of control against democracy, accelerate the emergence of democracy by displaying the goodness and power of humanity at large. What’s implicit in his argument is that should one believe in the grandeur of man then a democratic society, a mode of organization which gives the most freedom for this grandeur to naturally develop, would also be preferred.

Tocqueville further broadens the scope of this already surprising claim. Every action in history, whether for or against democracy explicitly, has engendered it in some way:

Everywhere we look, the various events of people’s lives have turned to the advantage of democracy; all men have helped its progress with their efforts, both those who aimed to further its success and those who never dreamed of supporting it, both those who fought on its behalf and those who were its declared opponents; everyone has been driven willy-nilly along the same road and everyone has joined the common cause, some despite themselves, others unwittingly, like blind instruments in the hands of God."


Tocqueville on the Necessity and Desirability of Dogmatism

Jonathan Bi:

"The Necessity of Dogmatism

Dogmatic is necessary, in a first sense, simply because we do not have the intellectual capacity nor time to examine each and every one of our beliefs. We must take a subset of beliefs for granted and build meaningful structures on them.

If I now consider men as individuals, I find that dogmatic beliefs are no less vital for a man on his own than for when he acts in common with his fellows. If man was forced to prove for himself all the truths he employs each day, he would never reach an end; he would drain his energies in initial experiment without advancing at all. Since there is not the time, because of the short span of our lives, nor the ability, because of the limitations of our minds, to act in that way, he is reduced to the taking on trust a host of facts and opinions which he has neither the time nor the power to examine and verify by his own efforts but which have been discovered by abler minds than his or which have been adopted by the populace. Upon this primary foundation he erects the structure of his own thought. He is not brought to this manner of advancing by his own will but is limited by the unbending laws of his own condition.

Every great philosopher in the world believes a million things upon the authority of someone else and supposes many more truths than he can prove.

Even if one could labor to examine all of his or her opinions, dogmatism would still be necessary, in a second sense, for the formation of societies. The argument goes as such: individuals will simply come to too fundamental of disagreements, they won’t be able to coordinate collaborative action, and there can be no society. I found this eerily similar to the state of nature which the Chinese political philosopher Mozi detailed. It is neither amour proper, nor glory, nor a lack of resources which troubles Mozi’s state of nature but rather a difference in opinion. From there on his elucidation mirrors that of T.’s: when people couldn’t agree on things, they couldn’t act collectively, when they couldn’t act collectively, they could not overcome nature and her challenges.

Depending on the times, beliefs of a dogmatic character are more or less common. They arise in different ways and can change their shape and object; but it is not possible for such dogmatic opinions not to exist— that is to say, opinions which men take on trust and without discussion. If every man chose to form for himself all his opinions in an isolated pursuit for truth along paths followed by himself alone, it is unlikely that a great number of men would ever come together in any commonly shared belief. But it is easy to see that no social grouping can prosper without shared beliefs or rather there are none which exist in that way; for, without commonly accepted ideas, there is no common action, and without common action, men exist separately but not as a social unit. For society to exist and all the more so, for such a society to prosper, all the citizens’ minds must be united and held together by a few principal ideas. This could not possibly exist unless each of them occasionally draws his opinions from the same source and agrees to accept a certain number of ready-formed beliefs.

The Desirability of Dogmatism

But T. goes even further, and argues that not only is Dogmatism necessary but in many instances it is highly desirable. Christianity, at least for the US, is the prime example. T. takes the conclusions of Christianity which govern one’s worldly pursuits, general duties, and relationships with others to be of immense practical benefit to society independent of its more transcendental consequences. Even if one could reach such conclusions through reasoning alone, one would still be plagued with doubt in their actions compared to the religious dogmatic. Dogmatism, then, appears to be desirable because only through it can one reach certain highly beneficial (for oneself and community) beliefs about the world and, more importantly, only through it can one hold said beliefs with high conviction.

Men have, therefore, a huge interest in creating fixed ideas about God, their soul, their general duties toward their creator and fellow men; for any doubt about these first concerns would put all their actions at risk and would condemn them in some way to confusion and impotence. This is, therefore, the most important matter upon which each of us should have settled ideas. Unfortunately, it is most difficult for each of us, if we are alone, to arrive at such settled ideas using only our own reason. Only minds freed completely from the ordinary preoccupations of life, minds of great depth and astuteness can, with the help of ample time and attention, penetrate such vital truths. Even then, we see that philosophers themselves are almost always hedged around with doubts, that, at every step, the natural light which illuminates them grows dim and threatens to be blotted out and that, in spite of all their efforts, they have as yet managed to uncover only a small number of contradictory notions upon which the human mind has floated endlessly for thousands of years without managing a firm hold upon the truths or even finding new errors. Such studies are quite beyond the average human capacity and, even when the majority of men were capable of such pursuits, they clearly would not have the free time.

Problematic Dogmatism

But in our appraisal for dogmatism, let us not forget T.’s heed against the tyranny of the majority, a form of dogmatism so crude, disastrous, and soul-sucking that he termed it “enslavement”. “I observe how, beneath the power of certain laws, democracy would blot out that intellectual liberty supported by the social, democratic state in such a way that, having broken the shackles formerly imposed upon it by class systems or men, the human spirit would be closely confined by the general will of the majority.”

Dogmatism therefore, like many things in T., occupies a paradoxical position. On one hand it is necessary for society and produces many desirable consequences, on another, it is responsible for the greatest form of tyranny. Is there something more we can say to differentiate between productive and unproductive dogmatism?

Clearly, there are not two distinct species of dogmatism that are fundamentally different. Dogmatism is dogmatism: conviction in beliefs without examination.

The distinction must be either of degree, topic, or subject. That is how much one is dogmatic, about what one is dogmatic, and who is dogmatic that may separate productive dogmatisms from their unproductive counterparts.

First, T. might hold the position that dogmatism is only productive if, when presented with sufficient evidence, one agrees to change one’s position. While this sounds productive empirical, T. might reject that it is better, at least when religious or patriotic matters are concerned, to have a high degree of dogmaticity.

The second way to distinguish between these two forms is what one is dogmatic about. Perhaps for T. we should compartmentalize our intellectual freedom and curiosity to only certain arenas that do not challenge the moral and cohesive fabric of society, like the modes by which we conduct commerce.

Lastly, T. could also plausibly hold the position that only the majority should be dogmatic, while the intellectual elite who has abundant time and talent should challenge traditional assumptions and push society forward."



See: [[Tocqueville's Typology of the Tyranny of the Majority]