A soft despotism for America?

This is the last in a series about the death of our political regime — caused by changes in the American character.  This is an almost inevitable evolution, seen clearly by  Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840, described in Democracy in America.  Here he describes a likely fate of our Constitutional experiment, a soft despotism by an increasingly powerful central government.

We are well on our way there.  The almost inevitability of this outcome is proven by our easy acceptance — almost without awareness — of this multi-generational trend.  Fortunately, few folks read original history.  The masses watch TV, in which everything is now (i.e., people in previous eras were like us, just with different styles in hair and clothes).  Undergraduates are fed only predigested pap as history.  To do otherwise risks arousing needless discontent with our lives and government.  As Allan Bloom says in The Closing of the American Mind, “Students now arrive at the University ignorant and cynical about our political heritage, lacking the wherewithal to be either inspired by it or seriously critical of it.”  And so they leave it, most of them.

So, what does de Tocqueville have to say about our time — so distant in time from his own?

Excerpt from Volume II, Book 4, Chapter 6

Democratic governments may become violent and even cruel at certain periods of extreme effervescence or of great danger, but these crises will be rare and brief. When I consider the petty passions of our contemporaries, the mildness of their manners, the extent of their education, the purity of their religion, the gentleness of their morality, their regular and industrious habits, and the restraint which they almost all observe in their vices no less than in their virtues, I have no fear that they will meet with tyrants in their rulers, but rather with guardians.

I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.

… Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions only exhibits servitude at certain intervals and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.

I add that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them. The democratic nations that have introduced freedom into their political constitution at the very time when they were augmenting the despotism of their administrative constitution have been led into strange paradoxes. To manage those minor affairs in which good sense is all that is wanted, the people are held to be unequal to the task; but when the government of the country is at stake, the people are invested with immense powers; they are alternately made the play things of their ruler, and his masters, more than kings and less than men. After having exhausted all the different modes of election without finding one to suit their purpose, they are still amazed and still bent on seeking further; as if the evil they notice did not originate in the constitution of the country far more than in that of the electoral body.

It is indeed difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people.

A constitution republican in its head and ultra-monarchical in all its other parts has always appeared to me to be a short-lived monster. The vices of rulers and the ineptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin; and the nation, weary of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions or soon return to stretch itself at the feet of a single master.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts in this series about America, how we got here and how we can recover it

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  3. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  4. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  5. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  6. A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
  7. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  8. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  9. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  10. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  11. Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  12. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  13. Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
  14. The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008 

For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.

10 thoughts on “A soft despotism for America?”

  1. When we talk about contemporary America, we’re talking about a mass society, dominated by entertainment, consumption, propaganda, sensational news –mezmerized and distracted by what French writer GuyDebord calls “spectacle”. (Though Debord is a socialist, any reader of this blog would benefit from his witty and trenchant observations on the workings of popular culture.

    It makes no sense to hold up deToqueville’s 19th century observations as intellectual guideposts for the 20th century. We’re past the point where religion could be a unifying influence, and not itself another form of tyrannical power.

    Fabius ascribes our current political dilemma to weakness of character, to the pursuit of equality and prosperity rather than excellence (in Matthew Arnold’s sense). Of course this is an elitist view, as if there could be democracy without equality, or as if excellence in the few would eventually trickle down to excellence in the many.

    In Fabius’ view, there are two actors: a “central government” with an insatiable appetite for power; and a populace which sheepishly submits to it. What’s missing in this view — the elephant in the living room — are the players who really have the power, the agents of concentrated private wealth. Without them, without their influence on elections, on legislation (through lobbying and think tanks), on public opinion through their wholly owned media, democracy as envisioned in the Constitution would work just fine. Of course, that original democracy never was more than a wish; the “right people” who elected and controlled the government then were simply less visible than now.
    Fabius Maximus replies: (1) Observations and forecasts of long-ago are interesting when accurate as they provide possible insights which we lack to perspective to see. That is, that these observations are from the 19th century makes them more interesting IMO, not less. They are not gospel in either sense — neither good news nor without error.

    (2) “Fabius ascribes our current political dilemma to weakness of character”

    Yes, as a first guess. More precisely, to changes in our “national character.” Or perhaps “weakening of our national character.”

    “pursuit of equality and prosperity rather than excellence”

    Not anything I recall saying. It is an interesting idea, although I am uncertain what this means.

    “there are two actors: a “central government” with an insatiable appetite for power; and a populace which sheepishly submits to it.”

    Not quite. We actively submit. The central government offers gifts (real or imaginary), which we collectivley have accepted — and they have a high price.

    “What’s missing in this view — the elephant in the living room — are the players who really have the power, the agents of concentrated private wealth.”

    I see these as equivalent formulations –much like seeing subatomic entities as waves or particles. They are just different perspectives. I use both, often refering to our ruling elites rather than the government. The government is just a collective expression of or appartatus for powerful groups.

    “that original democracy never was more than a wish; the “right people” who elected and controlled the government then were simply less visible than now.”

    This is the “Zeno’s paradox” so often seen in these comments: “change is impossible” The past must be just like today. It is IMO an expression of resignation and repudiation of responsibility. Sounds good, however. And totally self-fulfilling.

  2. & I thought that all of the above as described by Mr. de Tocqueville only exists in Asia, particularly in South East Asia…

  3. Wow — what a nearly perfect description of Political Correctness, men are seldom forced to act but are constantly restrained.

    The degradation of character is in the conflicting desires for both types of freedom: a) from responsibility (as of a child), and b) to act (as an adult — bearing the consequences). Politicians who lyingly promise both freedoms get elected more often than those honestly discussing the tradeoff reality.

    Like teens, most Americans want all the freedom to act, to make decisions, that adults have (and Fannie Mae was given), but if there are bad results of the decisions, the ever-teen Americans (especially the rich elite) want Uncle Sugar to pay the consequences.

    The coming democracy destruction due to baby boomer outrage at Social Security inadequacy is part of where folks want to get more benefits out of the gov’t than they pay in. If any such gov’t power is allowed, in general, it is inconceivable that such power won’t be captured by the rich and powerful elites and used to increase the wealth and power of those elites.

    So the Dem Party continues to support more gov’t power to “punish” the rich, but the existence of such power makes the active rich (and corrupt) more powerful and richer. And the Rep Party elite don’t mind so much, merely paying lip service to smaller gov’t (and pro-life causes).

  4. Has anyone here ever read Howard Zinn’s *Peoples’ History of the United States*? Among other things, it makes clear that this ideal democracy of “the founders” never existed in the first place. We were a government of well-to-do merchants and land-owners from the start. Kevin Phillips’ book *Wealth and Democracy* shows how the small original ruling class evolved and diversified through the 19th century (often through war!).

  5. Guy Debord’s “Society of Spectacle” is an amazingly prescient screed on the devolution of western civilization as a whole – but of which America is only a part. He was a Marxist, but just as critical of the USSR as liberal democracies.

  6. We actively submit. The central government offers gifts (real or imaginary), which we collectivley [sic] have accepted — and they have a high price.

    Fabius, I love your work but you are starting to sound a bit like the Republicans of the 1930s, railing about how the New Deal meant the end of the American ideal.

    People didn’t choose the economic model we have today out of a “kid in a candy store” mentality, grabbing for goodies. They chose it because the 19th-century model of unfettered capitalism was an unmitigated failure in the modern world. It yielded poisoned air and water, shockingly dangerous workplaces for those who could find work and 25% unemployment for the rest.

    Every advanced nation grappled with this problem over the period 1900-1950; the system of regulated capitalism that America developed is probably among the freest of any of the systems that were devised to deal with it. (Certainly it is more compatible with the individualist ethic than were Russian communism, German-Italian fascism, or Anglo-French social democracy.)

    It’s worth remembering that the world economy that shaped de Tocqueville’s thinking had, by the mid-20th century, died and been reinvented not once but twice: first when the agricultural world of the 18th century yielded to industry in the early 1800s, then again when the crisis of capitalism hit in the 1920s. It’s in the process of dying and being reinvented again as we speak (a process the final outcome of which nobody can see). We will have to evolve new solutions to preserve the American ideal in this new world. It’s anybody’s guess how successful we will be in this task, but we could do a lot worse than the architects of our current system did when faced with their crisis.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not recall even discussing the suitability of our economic model, let alone advocating a roll-back to a pre-1930’s version. Are you posting on the correct website?

    I believe the American citizenry has become politically disengaged, leaving a power vacuum that someone will fill if we do not. Several commentators on this site say this retreat results from defeat or resignation in the face of too-powerful elites. While this may be true (I am agnostic on the question, as there is much evidence on both sides), I consider it irrelevant. Freedom is an expensive good, and must be bought anew every few generations.

  7. 1) Zinn makes a lot of good points, but he’s not perfect — he’s extremely biased by his Communist ideology. He speaks some important truths, but not everything he has can be trusted. It’s true that the Constitution is less populist than the Articles of Confederation, but Zinn is not unbiased re the Constitution.

    2) Guy DeBord is definitely worth a read. A lot of anarchists cite him.

    3) The technocratic means of mass surveillance and record-keeping are an important tactical factor in repressing activism and dissent. Credit records, security cameras, etc. allow computers to track dissidents more efficiently than Pinkertons ever could.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for the references! Point #3 is very powerful and deserves thought. I do not know how important this is today, but could be of great importance in the future.

  8. I do not recall even discussing the suitability of our economic model, let alone advocating a roll-back to a pre-1930’s version. Are you posting on the correct website?

    You may not have meant to lay out an argument against the New Deal economic regime, but if that’s the case you should be aware that your argument (that we have traded our freedom and individuality for security provided by the Federal government) is commonly associated with advocacy of a regime of unregulated capitalism and opposition to the social safety net.

    The shape of a nation’s economic system is inextricably tied up in the political decisions made by its elites — we would have a very different America today if Jeffersonian political philosophy had prevailed over Hamiltonian — so the two subjects are not as distinct as you imply.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not believe that a discussion of this nature — 1,000 word post, coments of 100 – 200 words — under the rules you describe. Yes, politics is tightly linked to economics — and sociology, and many other things. We use reductionism in order to focus on a subject of manageable size.

    And almost any line of analysis has probably been used or misused by advocates of some extreme or improper ilk: racists, nativists, eugenicists, flat-earthers, or whatever. So what?

    We could ask WordPress to program in some automatic notices on these points, but I think most folks are aware of them — and instead just deal with the text on its own terms, keeping these limitations in mind.

  9. I concur with judasnoose’s point #3. The rise of a global panopticon, where activism & dissent may be cracked down with ease by repressive regimes (the danger of the U.S. becoming one).

    The onlt things that CCTVs were unable to deter were the terrorists involved with 9/11 & the London bombings in 2005.

    How are the Peoples of the U.S. ( & the rest of the world) to prevent the elites in their country from turning their country into one MAJOR jaillhouse? Revolution? Scenes from the Terminator movies are replayed in my mind.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Our elites lack the ability to do anything in America without our consent. Their is no apparatus like that in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Our greatest danger is cowardly surrender out of needless fear.

  10. Tocqueville’s relevance still speaks to us across the decades.

    I will opine that these small, complicated rules have become the lion’s share of our service economy in these united states. IRS regulations are now equaled by IRA distribution requirements, privacy disclosures, and infinite documentation for compliance purposes. Successful middle class professional careers can be built on providing services to navigate these artificial constructs.

    When does the rule of law become the tyranny of legislation? Even today, as we face a financial crisis unequalled since the Great Depression, free market mechanisms that could help resolve the unfettered excesses of the mortgage market, but major market players are unwilling to move without specific legislation.* Is this the invisible hand of Adam Smith’s free market, or it is the heavy hand of the status quo seeking only to save their own necks? It seems that Schumpterian creative destruction is only applicable to the many, not the few. Or, the usual refrain: “All animals are created equal. But some are more equal than others.”

    Once upon a time, when we were a people with a shared morality, there was less need for such an extensive coda. But as a perception of a failing of morality occurred, the legislation of morality accelerated and finally, legally supplanted morality. It no longer matters, “Is it moral?”. Rather the question is, “Is it legal?” Do these codes serve the purpose for which they were designed? Do our legislators have any incentive to alter these codes if they do not? And what hope does the common man have without the specialized training necessary to navigate these complexities?
    *Paulson Aims to Speed Birth of Covered Bond Market, Sidestepping Congress”

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