Tocquevilles Political Economy

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That at least was the theory. On the basis of his travels and observations, Tocqueville predicted that American democracy would in future have to confront a fundamental dilemma. Democratic mechanisms, said Tocqueville, stimulate a passion for social and political equality that they cannot easily satisfy.

He thought there was much truth in the view of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that democratic perfection is reserved for the deities. The earthly struggle for equalisation is never fully attainable. It is always unfinished. Democracy lives forever in the future. There is no such thing as a pure democracy and there never will be a pure democracy. Democracy as Jacques Derrida later put things is always to come. The less powerful ranks of society, including those without the vote, are especially caught in the grip of this levelling dynamic, or so Tocqueville thought.

Irritated by the fact of their subordination, agitated by the possibility of overcoming their condition, they rather easily grow frustrated by the uncertainty of achieving equality. Their initial enthusiasm and hope give way to disappointment, but at some point the frustration they experience renews their commitment to the struggle for equality. America found itself caught up in a democratic maelstrom.

Nothing is certain or inviolable, except the passionate, dizzying struggle for social and political equality.

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He was not the first to use the term in its modern sense see my earliest works Democracy and Civil Society and Civil Society and the State , but he did find the new American republic brimming with many different forms of civil association, and he therefore pondered their importance for consolidating democracy. Tocqueville was the first political writer to bring together the newly-invented modern understanding of civil society with the old Greek category of democracy; and he was the first to say that a healthy democracy makes room for civil associations that function as schools of public spirit, permanently open to all, within which citizens become acquainted with others, learn their rights and duties as equals, and press home their concerns, sometimes in opposition to government, so preventing the tyranny of minorities by herd-like majorities through the ballot box.

Through their participation in civil associations, they come to feel themselves to be citizens. Tocqueville called upon his readers to understand democracy as a brand new type of self-government defined not just by elections, parties and government by representatives, but also by the extensive use of civil society institutions that prevent political despotism by placing a limit, in the name of equality, upon the scope and power of government itself.

Tocqueville also pointed out that these civil associations had radical social implications. Under democratic conditions, civil society never stands still. It is a sphere of restlessness, civic agitation, refusals to cooperate, struggles for improved conditions, the incubator of visions of a more equal society. Readers of Democracy in America often brush aside this point. While they admit that Tocqueville was well aware that democracy is prone to self-contradiction and self-destruction, they note that he tended to exaggerate the momentum and geographic extent of the busy levelling process that was underway in America.

According to this view, Tocqueville, who was blessed with a remarkable sixth sense of probing the difference between appearances and realities, sometimes, when looking at life in the United States, swallowed whole its own best self-image. Consider the Italian fashion of visiting the new democratic republic, to see what it was like. The same visitor was struck by the way American citizens casually wore caps and hats, how they spurned moustaches, chewed tobacco, and liked to chew the fat, hands in pockets.

Truth, always truth. No prejudices, no red tape. Tocqueville was much less sanguine about the fledgling American democracy. Many of his observations were both astute and prescient, for instance concerning the grave political problem of slavery. Tocqueville was perhaps the first writer to show at length why modern representative democracy could not live with slavery, as classical assembly-based democracy had managed to do, admittedly with some discomfort.

Black people in America were neither in nor of civil society. They were objects of gross incivility. Legal and informal penalties against racial intermarriage were severe. In those states where slavery had been abolished, black people who dared to vote, or to serve on juries, were threatened with murder. There was segregation and deep inequality in education.


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Lurking within these racist customs was a disturbing paradox, Tocqueville observed. The prejudice directed at black people, he noted, increases in proportion to their formal emancipation. Slavery in America was in this sense much worse than in ancient Greece, where the emancipation of slaves for military purposes was encouraged by the fact that their skin colour was often the same as that of their masters.

By the act of the master, or by the will of the slave, it will cease; and in either case great calamities may be expected to ensue. If liberty be refused to the Negroes of the South, they will in the end forcibly seize it for themselves; if it be given, they will long abuse it. He was right as well to be anxious about the magnitude of the problem. By , at least ten million African slaves had arrived in the New World. Some , had settled in North America, but their numbers had multiplied rapidly, to the point where all the states south of the Mason-Dixon line were slave societies, in the full sense of the term.

Even in New England, where there were comparatively few slaves, the economy was rooted in the slave trade with the West Indies.

Tocqueville, Democracy and Social Reform

They cleared forests, turned the soil, planted and tendered and harvested the exportable crops that brought great prosperity to the slave-owning classes. So successful was the system of slavery that after Southern politicians and landowners and their supporters within the federal government agitated for its universal adoption. As a mode of production, and as a whole way of life, slavery went on the warpath, as Abraham Lincoln made clear in his not inaccurate claim that Slave Power was hell-bent on taking over the whole country, North as well as South.

The aggressiveness of Slave Power during the s and s disturbed the dreams of some Americans; it forced them to conclude that the American polity required a re-founding. Reasoning with their democratic hearts, they spotted that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of free and equal citizenship. These same opponents of slavery were to some degree aware of a contradiction that lurked within the contradiction. In the end, as we know, armed force decided, bringing with it four years of terrible misery.

An ugly struggle between two huge armies that locked horns 10, times, the Civil War was the first recorded war between two aspiring representative democracies, whose political elites were prone to think of themselves as defenders of two incompatible definitions of democracy.

Tocqueville’s Fear With Democracy: Soft Despotism

The conflict was in a way a clash between two different historical eras. Robert W.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Robert A. Thomas J. James M. Buchanan, Jr. Lord Peter T. The Alexis de Tocqueville Award Born to aristocratic parents in shortly after the French Revolution, Alexis-Charles-Henri de Tocqueville was to become the greatest classical liberal thinker of the 19th century.

In his analysis of Federalism and, what he calls, a Compound Republic, Vincent Ostrom draws on Tocqueville to show the importance of the role of ideas and language in human cultural evolution. According to this framework, human interactions, based on beliefs and emotions, lead to the formulation of rules regulating common life. Such an explanation overcomes what would otherwise seem contradictory statements in Tocqueville; but, more importantly, it shows the limits of unidirectional mechanisms, common in standard rational choice theory.

Tocqueville's Political Economy by Richard Swedberg | | Hardcover | Barnes & Noble®

Keeping in mind a distinction between democratization and democracy —separating transition effects from equilibrium effects — it has been widely acknowledged in the literature that, according to Tocqueville, in democratic times equality might become more important than freedom, leading to an undesirable rise of a new kind of despotism.

A recurring explanation of this situation is that whereas equality has almost immediate benefits for individuals, freedom only has long term ones. Moreover, the short-term costs of freedom seem to outweigh its long term benefits. This offers an interpretation of the love of freedom in Tocqueville that not only reinforces the noninstrumental value of this passion, but also the impossibility of artificially generating it, in order to guarantee that, in the future, society will arrive at the desired equilibrium represented by a stable combination of democracy, equality and freedom.

Whereas the former refers to the distribution at a certain moment, the latter has to do with high social mobility. Maybe this lack of unity allows Elster to find parts of Tocqueville that seem particularly interesting today, and which make him a stimulating conversation partner, capable of talking and understanding our modern terminology.

Tocqueville appears as an inspiring thinker, with an outstanding perception of his times, and to some extent of ours.

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This is not a complacent reconstruction of a past author, neither an attempt to show his influence on his contemporaries, nor to reconstruct a system of thought, or to replace the author in his own context. Elster presents a contemporary Tocqueville, someone who has something to tell us for today. By showing the reader all his insightfulness, and his actuality, Elster also shows us his shortcomings and limitations.


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  • Elster introduces Tocqueville within an analytical framework that is not his own; even if we accept that Tocqueville did not have one, it is this ability of making Tocqueville talk within this framework which renders the conversation so fruitful.

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