Tocqueville and the Revolution

Continuing my Tocqueville inquiries by reading The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution.  A wonderful book even where it is wrong-headed.  Tocqueville is addicted to grand generalizations.  He, quite obviously, believes that there are “laws” of politics akin to natural laws—and sees his job as the discovery and articulation of those laws.  But no matter.  His desire to probe to the underlying forces, the correct causal account, is his strength as well as his weakness.  He is not a chronicler of events; he is a discerner of patterns and a moralist through and through.  Pay no heed to the fundamentals and disaster must follow is his mantra.

By temperament, of course, I want to apply his moralizing to current conditions.  But that only succeeds to a very limited extent.  The world he describes is so foreign to 21st century America that the parallels are faint.  Most important is his utter ignorance of—and disinterest in—capitalism.  His social world is comprised of a fading but reliably selfish aristocracy (content to take the nation down with it as it slips into the trash can of history), a middle class that, far from being Marx’s capitalists, are merchants and public officials, and the peasantry.  In other words, Tocqueville is not interested in (or is blind to) the production of goods apart from the agricultural.  He never once considers the economics of empire, the accumulation of capital, or the games of financial speculation.  For him, the French aristocracy has ceded its power (its actual ability to influence the course government—and the nation—takes) in return for tax exemptions, thus enabling the “centralization” of power in the hands of the monarch.

That “centralization” is the great theme of the book.  Such centralization, Tocqueville argues: 1. necessarily entails the diminution, even the complete loss, of freedom—and is the form that tyranny takes in the modern age; 2. motivates the revolution at the moment when the loss of freedom becomes too great to bear.  This mostly conservative thinker, astoundingly, writes (in an aside that belies the significance of the claim): “revolutions, which are the final safeguards of nations” (106 in the Penguin Classic edition); and 3. is evidence of the revolution’s failure.  The whole thesis of the book is that the centralization of power originated under the pre-Revolution monarchy, was what caused the Revolution, and, yet, was only intensified by the events subsequent upon the Revolution (namely, the reigns of Napoleon I and, in Tocqueville’s own time, the reign of Napoleon III, whom Tocqueville hated with admirable passion).  Thus, the continuity of French politics from 1700 to 1850 is more important, Tocqueville argues, than any other changes (decline in the power of the Catholic Church or the abolition of the Bourbon dynasty) that the Revolution did bring about.

I will get into details in subsequent posts.  But two more general, orienting comments, are in order here.  First, Tocqueville’s distinctive understanding of “liberty.”  For Tocqueville, the two great political truths of the modern age are the passions for liberty and for equality.  And the great conundrum faced by the moderns is how to make those two desirables compatible.  “Liberty” to Tocqueville means, in a very Kantian way, obedience to laws of one’s own making.  Liberty is always opposed to license in his thought.  Tyranny is being subject to laws made by others—or being subject to the license enabled by anarchy.  Liberty is the political ability to make the laws oneself—but entails the responsibility of then following (obeying) those laws.  No liberty without corresponding duties and responsibilities.

Centralization is thus the enemy of liberty because it takes the power to govern out of the hands of the people and places it in the hands of the central government.  In this respect, Tocqueville is akin to Jefferson in celebrating the town meeting and local assemblies of all sorts.  Centralization is, also, the enemy of equality because it gives some people power while depriving others of it.  Accumulation of power is, just like accumulation of capital, a generator of inequality.

But, because he is not an anarchist, Tocqueville is a believer in authority.  It is all well and good to claim authority (ultimately) rests in the people, in the demos, but there will always be wielders of authority, its functionaries.  And how to prevent a divide, an inequality, to develop between those who wield authority and those who are subject to it is a perennial problem.

This leads directly to the second point.  Tocqueville is firmly in the republican virtue tradition.  His only way of addressing the problem of the possible abuses of power, of the ill effects of power being accumulated in certain key persons, offices, or institutions is to appeal to the virtues required of the people in those offices and institutions.

I am increasingly coming to believe the virtue tradition is not wrong.  My negative way of phrasing it shows how uneasy this conclusion makes me.  But I think the alternative is very, very wrong-headed.  We are not going to devise, once and for all, a fool and knave-proof system.  There is not some perfect constitution, some perfect legal code, that is going to get things right once and for all.  Dreaming of a perfect fix is disastrous politically. (Why?  Because it encourages the idea that we just need to do the engineering, then walk away and let the machine function properly.  This is Marx’s delusion about the withering away of the state because only administrative details will persist after communism is installed.  Politics is the perpetual give and take among interested parties. To think it is not perpetual is to cede the field to one’s adversaries.)

Whatever system one devises is going to generate efforts to game it.  Eternal vigilance is always required because knaves are ever present.  A system must define what virtue is, must try its hardest to prevent knavery where possible and punish it when it occurs (as it inevitably will), and revise itself as new problems arise or new capabilities are needed.  The system can aspire to be better than the imperfect humans who implement it, but it should never delude itself that it can transform those humans into angels.  Without virtue any system will fail.  With virtue, perhaps most systems will muddle along.

Tocqueville, in this book, is concerned with the ways the system of the ancient régime actually encouraged, even rewarded, the lack of virtue.  That’s a rich vein of thought—and one applicable, with attention to relevant differences, to our own time.  How are we to understand a society that seems organized to produce vice, particularly selfishness?

One Tocquevillian thought: those who wish to accumulate political power are well served by granting to other citizens the opportunity to accumulate economic power.  A quid pro quo.  We’ll leave you alone in the economic sphere if you let us have our way in the political sphere.  I don’t think that’s what is happening in today’s America–mostly because economic and political power are so closely intertwined–but it is an interesting way to think about liberalism over the long run (i.e. from 1750 to 1980) and, thus, perhaps a way to distinguish liberalism from neo-liberalism (the post 1980 order).

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