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Democracy’s Sphinx

Andreas Hess

Democracy’s Sphinx
Andreas Hess
A new study of Alexis de Tocqueville emphasises his French intellectual background and makes the case that his classic analysis of American democracy may be understood as well, or even better, if it is considered primarily in terms of the old European society for which it was written.

Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty, by Lucien Jaume (transl Arthur Goldhammer), Princeton University Press, 360 pp, £24.95, ISBN: 978-0691152042

Like Jonathan Swift and Edmund Burke before him, Alexis de Tocqueville is often said to have been a conservative, if not with a capital C then at least with a small one. Being a conservative in the classical definition usually entails defending the status quo and the existing order. But the label seems inappropriate if we take a closer look at each of these three writers and their circumstances.

While it is true that Swift started out as a politicking intellectual mole in London, first for the Whigs and then the Tories, once appointed as Dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin he became a partisan for the Irish cause, appealing to an audience that extended well beyond the Protestant Anglo-Irish constituency which he might be supposed to represent. Similarly Edmund Burke, who railed against the British defenders of the French Revolution, Richard Price and Tom Paine, also defended the right of the Americans to protest against arbitrary British colonial rule and used the American cause as a means to demand that more attention should be given to improve Irish conditions.

Swift’s and Burke’s position could be explained by the tension that arises from what could be called “optimal marginality”. Both had Anglo-Irish roots and were part of the ascendancy; at the same time both were faced with situations in which blind support of British rule would be detrimental for their own situation and for Ireland –a reason why they became advocates of the Irish cause on more than one occasion. Tocqueville and the French case differ from these two Irish cases, although Tocqueville’s position can also be described of that of optimal marginality. In contrast to Swift and Burke, that marginality derives from the fact that he came from an aristocratic background but also realised that democracy’s rise was unavoidable. This tension between class background and intellectual insight is the subject of a new book by French historian Lucien Jaume, which, as the subtitle suggests, sees Tocqueville’s specific take on democracy as having been rooted in aristocratic notions of liberty.

Lucien Jaume seems to agree with political theorist Judith Shklar that there was always something odd in the way that the American republic had canonised and Americanised Tocqueville, and even more so if we think about Tocqueville as having been a Frenchman of aristocratic extraction. The story began in 1831, when he and his friend Gustave de Beaumont set out from Le Havre to the United States for a trip that would last ten months. Officially the plan had been for the two travellers to inform themselves about prison reforms, conduct interviews and collect other available data. The idea was that the new American republic treated the incarcerated differently, while in France they just seemed to be left to rot away behind bars. However, as we know from letters and diaries of Tocqueville and Beaumont, the real motivation behind the trip had always been to find out how it had been possible for the Americans to have had a revolution, establish democratic political institutions, retain stability and order and not pass through intense phases of terror, ending with dictatorship, as had happened in France.

Democracy in America came out in two instalments, in 1835 and 1840. The two parts were almost immediately translated and became bestsellers in the United States. Soon Americans had adopted Tocqueville as one of their discursive founding fathers. The book has never been out of print and as any visiting undergraduate student who has taken politics or sociology 1/01 at an American university can testify, it is still regarded as a modern classic. If we add to that the seemingly endless stream of comments and the many forms of Tocquevilliana one gets a sense of what Tocqueville means to Americans.

However, the widespread American appreciation does not necessarily give us a proper answer as to the conundrum that is Tocqueville’s analysis of America, never mind his more ambiguous statements about the future development of American society and politics. Indeed, one may ask, with Shklar, whether it is right to judge Tocqueville and Democracy solely by looking at the American side of the story. Was it not true that Tocqueville’s analysis was in content and in style that of a French jeremiad whose aim was mainly to report back to France and Europe? There can be little doubt that in the first instance Democracy wasn’t written to appeal to an American audience but with French readers in mind.

If Shklar is right, we need to take a closer look at Tocqueville’s formative years in France. Tocqueville and Beaumont were not just information-digesting figures without any history who processed and then regurgitated what they had been fed in America. Rather the two were steeped in the French intellectual tradition of their time. It was this education that provided the conceptual and intellectual framework and which allowed them to digest the information related to their American experiences, and Jaume is right to insist that it is this constellation which truly explains Tocqueville and Democracy.

In each part of his intellectual portrait Jaume provides us with a different aspect of Tocqueville’s thought. What did he mean by democracy? How do we have to understand him as a sociologist avant la lettre? And how as a French moralist? What was his relationship to and opinion of the literature and letters of the time? And, finally, with whom did he compete at the time; were there any rivals?

With regards to Tocqueville’s notion of democracy we need to understand that in post-revolutionary France and the first few decades of the nineteenth century democracy referred first and foremost to an arrangement in which civil equality in the legal sense mattered – not political equality. The term also reflected the rising importance and representation of the middle classes. As to the required regime-type, democratically-supported government was the preferred option – which also meant that more inclusive forms of suffrage appeared on the agenda, at least in the long run and independent of whether the historical actors wanted this. All these features were hardly new, and various aspects of all them had been intensely discussed before, during and after the French Revolution. What Tocqueville added to that discussion was to reduce the complexity of these features to two baseline stories: (1) the new institutional arrangements – the political “hard drive” that a new science of politics would have to address − and (2) how these were supported and reflected by mores and manners – the social or sociological “software” so to speak.

As Jaume shows, in the course of the nineteenth century public debate democracy became “naturalised” and stood for a new way of thinking that began to seem almost self-evident. Tocqueville, whose memorable phrases and critical insights contributed to that naturalisation or normalisation process, became the prophet of the democratic age. He was of course, as Jaume points out, not the first French thinker to think about democracy. There had been famous predecessors, ranging from Montesquieu and Rousseau to Benjamin Constant. Tocqueville was perhaps the most successful new thinker because he not only systematically employed comparisons and identified the crucial differences between the US and France but also because he conceptualised the democratic process in a way that made it more intelligible for many readers. Jaume’s argument is that he succeeded not despite his aristocratic background and intellectual formation but because of it.

Tocqueville seemed perhaps more sophisticated than his contemporaries, the teacher and later rival turned Machiavellian defender of raison de’état, François Guizot, or Michel Chevalier, a radical Saint-Simonist. For the conservative statesman Guizot and for the left-leaning Chevalier the state and its institutions were the only things that mattered (although for different purposes). However, where Chevalier could only notice power, politics and money and Guizot only the importance of government and state, Tocqueville could see further. For him, the lesson from America was that it was civil society and its practices that shaped the habits of the heart from which everything else flowed. Thus the state or government, economic or political interests did not come first but had their origins in civil society. Of course there was an interaction between the society and its political institutions, but to model society according to the raison d’état, the state’s or the goverment’s needs and wishes, could not make modern democracy work.

This argument did not necessarily imply that Tocqueville intended to transplant or copy American arrangements; rather, the aim was to come to a better understanding by way of comparison and to apply some of the insights sensibly. Thus, French institutions and manners and mores could be reformed in a less tabula rasa fashion than had been done during and after the French Revolution. Tocqueville understood, for example, that in France the rhetoric of universal principles and symbols was often too abstract and detached from practices that every citizen could understand or identify with. From America one could learn how local politics and town hall meetings made it easier to identify with and to connect to the democratic process. Being involved in local politics allowed for the expression of interests and prevented the passions from running amok. In other words, local politics could be a lesson in the exercise of public virtue, the town hall a kind of laboratory in which democratic behaviour could be learned and enlightened self-interest find its voice.

For Jaume, Tocqueville was a Durkheimian sociologist avant la lettre for whom modern democracy functioned like modern religion and for whom public opinion constituted a form of belief. The latter was, as Jaume points out, a repository on which democracy could always draw, yet without consciously being aware of how this bank of ideas and interests actually functioned. For Tocqueville the democratic process consisted of a kind of beneficial voluntary servitude which connected the citizenry, without them realising how exactly the process worked. Organised religion was part of that and helped to preserve democracy, particularly when church and state were kept formally separate. As Jaume notes, such separation “taught citizens to consider the limits of human activity and to think of the future (life after death), thus balancing the tendency of democracies to live only in the present”.

Just like Durkheim half a century later, Tocqueville noted the positive functions and effects of religion on civil society and the democratic process. There was a deep affinity between the two and a certain utility aspect. Tocqueville did not think for a second that every citizen had to believe by way of religion. Indeed he himself remained almost until the end of his life an “agnostic Catholic”, that is one who for reasons of his aristocratic roots, his tradition and education, would value the contribution that organised religion (in France’s case mainly Catholicism) made to society but who would not be of the ideological or dogmatic kind. His interest was in what helped to make democracy work – not in saving each citizen’s soul. The sociological and anthropological function of religion was important, not whether it was “true”; for him unbelief was the exception for society, not the rule.

The most obvious contradiction that Tocqueville’s notion of democracy had to confront was that of his good fortune in having been born into a family of “blue blood” and benefiting from the inherited privilege that comes with this, and on the other hand the idea of striving for equality in a democracy. Jaume recognises that Tocqueville, despite arguing for democracy, was never an uncritical promoter of equality. He sees equality rather as more “a practical experience than as a principle”. Were equality to mean “expected material pleasure”, and further, were equality to be based on a system that promoted and worked towards an “equality of conditions”, this would, he felt, have detrimental effects on democracy and could even lead to new tyrannical forms. As Jaume shows, such arguments in Tocqueville had their roots in his liberal religious upbringing and enlightened aristocratic family background. Against social legitimist and “retrograde” Catholics of his time Tocqueville would make creative use of the ideas he had been taught. As he well knew, for enlightened aristocrats “material well-being is not the purpose of life. It is a way of living. They look upon it, in a sense, as synonymous with existence and enjoy it without thinking about it”. It is the material purposelessness and the inclination to be successful in ways that cannot be measured by material outcome alone that Tocqueville advocates here. Democracy, in contrast, is in constant danger of developing a blind spot by promoting material well-being without seeing other purposes in life that are immeasurable in terms of material outcome. A look at American practices could perhaps convince the French to see success not just in materialistic terms. Jaume quotes Tocqueville again: “An American will attend to his private interests as though he were alone in the world, yet a moment later he will dedicate himself to the public’s business as though he had forgotten them”. In America “the collective acts as constraint and inspiration of informed self-interest”. It is in passages like these that Tocqueville “the sociologist reinforces the political scientist”.

But how, one may ask, does Tocqueville reconcile major contradictions like the one between modern individualism and social bonds? Again, he differed here from conservative thinkers like Bonald and de Maistre in his conceptualisation of how a modern republic works. The American example showed that it was possible to conceive of the sovereignty of the people in different and new ways by identifying the generative principle of the republic to be in line with principles that govern most human action. In America, so Tocqueville argued, “the republic is everywhere”. The institutions of the American republic were so constituted that they were able to reflect the dynamics of civil society, which in turn meant that the dynamics of general and individual reason did not contradict but rather reinforced each other. The power of the collective was conceived not to violate the interests of the individual. It is this “methodological individualism” that distinguished Tocqueville from those thinkers who thought of modern societies solely in collective terms. Here Jaume detects the influence of Montesquieu in Tocqueville. For Montesquieu’s well-regulated monarchy (as for Tocqueville’s new democracy) “subjects [or citizens in the case of Tocqueville, AH] are like fish in a large net, they think they are free, yet they are trapped”. Their sense of freedom is not totally an illusion, but if it is to be “well-regulated”, the conditions attending it must not be visible to the actors”.

What of Tocqueville as a moralist? Jaume observes that he often argues as somebody who wants to win over and convince his adversary, not just in terms of offering better social and political choices but also as having the more convincing moral argument. He aimed at a new morality and attempted to conceptualise a new “social individuality” that would be both a constituent part and a reflection of the new democratic order. This meant that Tocqueville’s democratic citizen had to combine negative emotions with positive ones. But how? Here Jaume sees the Jansenist and Pascalian influences shining through. Tocqueville, the moralist, had to think about how to combine hope with constant suspension and non-delivery: according to Tocqueville “in democratic nations men easily achieve a certain equality but not the equality they desire. That equality recedes a bit further every day, yet it never disappears from view, and as it recedes, it entices them to chase after it. Although they always think they are about to catch up with it, invariably it eludes their grasp. They get close enough to know equality’s charms but not close enough to enjoy them, and they die before having fully savoured its delights.” Tocqueville’s Jansenist leanings made it possible to conceive of democracy not as something that equals God or even creates a new God but first and foremost as an undertaking that is aware of the finitude of all human life and action. In this he sympathised with the critic Sainte-Beuve. Sainte-Beuve had never visited America but felt that Tocqueville had produced something special. He sensed that America was a case which illustrated the human condition and that therefore Democracy was not just another sociological or political science treatise but also an oracle of new prophetic qualities.

All these insights would not have been as appealing to the reader if Tocqueville hadn’t found a congenial form and style which allowed him to transmit his message. Had he chosen a democratic language his book would not have been so successful. It was the contrast with the older world and the voice in which it was expressed that revealed the difference with the new. In other words, it is the “old” aristocratic value system and language that illustrated the differences. Jaume notes: “Melancholy, ‘bitter regret’, ‘ideas’ that grip the mind: this, for Tocqueville, was the essence of literature, whose function was to move, to instruct, to elevate – in a word, to disquiet. The reader from an industrial society is thus forwarned of his future by way of his encounter with the world’s past.” Thus Tocqueville appealed to readers who found Chateaubriand’s romanticism attractive yet without ever sounding fatalist, conservative or even reactionary. It was the choice of language that allowed Tocqueville to become modern democracy’s sphinx.

Who were Tocqueville’s greatest competitors at the time? Surely, the most important was his former teacher Guizot. But Guizot had become too elitist, too statesmanlike, too conservative to many French readers. He never managed to tap into the democratic debate in the way Tocqueville did. Drawing on aristocratic values and mores, Tocqueville hung on to older notions of personal liberty and made them work in a new context – if only for comparative purposes. That made all the difference when compared to Guizot, who promoted old-style civilisation, political authority top-down, and an elitist, almost British style. There was nothing in his writings that hinted at what made modern society “tick”. Tocqueville, in contrast, made his case for “common action” and “sharing”. As an “aristocratic moralist” he stood between the camps, neither a convinced conservative nor a revolutionary. He remained, in Jaume’s judgement, “unclassifiable” yet intelligible, which explained why people found him so attractive.

Jaume’s book fills an important gap in the literature about Tocqueville. It highlights the blind spots of many admirers who have only looked to America to understand Democracy. To be sure, Jaume’s book is not the first to reveal the French side of Tocqueville’s thought. There is François Melosio’s study on Tocqueville and the French, which also takes Shklar’s hint seriously that we should treat Tocqueville first and foremost as a French Jeremiah and not as an American founding father. There is, however, one major omission in Jaume’s study: it is the failure to address his communications with those closest to Tocqueville. In the first instance that was his lifelong companion Gustave de Beaumont. The collected edition of Tocqueville’s works contains three volumes of letters between the two. It is hard to argue that such intense communication left no important traces in Tocqueville’s work. Beaumont had been the first to acknowledge his friend’s intellectual superiority; at the same time the two also developed a division of labour between them – Tocqueville would focus on the great political and social narratives of the United States, France and England, while Beaumont would look at those who had been left behind or were partly excluded by that great narrative – Indians and slaves, women and Irishmen. This would be no small omission for what would become one of the canonical texts of modern democracy.

Andreas Hess is (together with Christian Fleck) the editor of Knowledge for Whom? Public Sociology in the Making (Ashgate 2014) and author of The Political Theory of Judith Shklar. Exile from Exile (forthcoming, Palgrave Macmillan, April 2014).



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