Tocqueville mostly discusses political centralization, the collecting of power in the central state. He shows how that centralization empties out the provinces in two ways: 1. It leads elites to move to the metropole and to the court, an especially severe problem in France because Paris becomes everything; and 2. It turns provincials into imbeciles because they have no responsibility for their own welfare or governance. Strip people of any ability to shape their own destiny and of any responsibility to see that things actually function and you make them passive, sullen, apathetic, cynical, and bitter (perhaps not all five, but some combination of this soup.)
Tocqueville is less interested in economic centralization. But he does recognize that economic inequality is a serious problem for any polity. His way of thinking about this is curious. He believes that all Frenchmen are becoming increasingly alike. His basis for this claim, never made explicit, seems to be that everyone now pursues economic gain. Self interest of the Adam Smith variety is now universal. It is here that Tocqueville’s idealization of the “manly virtues” (a term he uses constantly) of the aristocracy is hardest to credit. “The men of the eighteenth century were hardly aware of that form of passion for material comfort which is tantamount to being the mother of servitude, a feeling, flabby yet tenacious and unchanging, which is ready to fuse and, as it were, entwine itself around several private virtues such as love of family, reliable customs, deference to religious beliefs and a lukewarm and regular practice of established Christian ritual. While this supports integrity, it forbids heroism and excels in turning men into well-behaved but craven citizens. Those men were both better and worse.” Against this timid middle class, always worried about its financial well-being and security, we get the “ancient idols” of the aristocracy: “Courage, reputation and, I dare say, generosity” (122 in the Penguin Classic edition).
But that aristocracy has been destroyed and we must acknowledge that “much more freedom existed then (during the ancien régime) than nowadays,” although Tocqueville admits that this freedom was “disjointed and spasmodic” and “almost never went so far as to provide citizens with the most natural guarantees they needed” (123). I can only guess that by “guarantees” he means rights established in law and protected in practice. The aristocracy’s “generosity” never extended so far as to provide such rights for “citizens” (a concept that was itself foreign to aristocratic thinking).
His view on economic inequality seems to be this: we need an aristocracy that is above economic worry. But that aristocracy only gets that privilege if it makes sure the rest of the nation doesn’t suffer penury. By not resisting the monarchy’s over-taxation of the non-aristocrats, using its power instead to secure exemption from taxes for itself, the aristocracy of the ancien régime created the conditions for the Revolution—and the intense hatred of the other classes for the aristocracy. If, instead, the aristocracy had resisted the monarchy’s centralization of power by attending to the local communities over which it once held sway, then the old order would not have collapsed. Once they ceded power over the local community to centralized government, the aristocracy no longer had a distinctive function—and they became just like everyone else.
How to characterize “everyone else”? Tocqueville understands the new reality of “equality” to mean that all the classes share the same desires—for “material comfort” as he puts it. Thus, like Arendt much later, Tocqueville thinks the triumph of commercial society—and of the levelling that it produces by turning everyone into economic agents—also entails the destruction of a political class, a group of men (it’s always men) who pursue glory and honor, not wealth, and discover the “public happiness” of political effort.
Now comes the hard part. Tocqueville believes that having different classes, ones with very different desires and ambitions (and, although he does not say it, very different duties and responsibilities), gives us more interconnection between the classes. When each station has its duties, then we don’t get the competition of all against all, and we also don’t get the effort to be utterly self-reliant. Each class needs the others—and will live amidst the others. Paradoxically, then, less class division means less class interaction. Once everyone is equal, once everyone is pursuing the same course of action, there is no need for interaction. Instead, we get segregation, with like only dealing with like.
The big picture: we are all slaves to money. We acquiesce in political centralization because we want to be left alone to pursue our fortunes. And we have very little contact with our fellow citizens beyond commercial relations because we have no need to “associate” with them. And, of course, just those local, small-scale “associations” are what Tocqueville believes provide the best security against the tyranny of centralization.
What he doesn’t see, of course, is the centralization of economic power. Partly that’s because he is in deep denial about the aristocracy’s economic position even as he idealizes its political role. He simply doesn’t seem to register economic coercion, the ways in which economic necessity tramples on freedom. And he doesn’t see the rise of the corporation, of the urge to centralize economic power that is as much a threat as the urge to centralize political power.
Still, when we today are obsessed with the ways that economic inequality has undermined the interaction among classes (which it certainly has), it can be useful to think of the institutional and geographic formations of inequality along with tracking the dollars. Instead of fixating on the billionaires, maybe we should think about the places—Wall Street, Silicon Valley—and the institutions—the Stock Exchange, Google—that reside in those places. What happens when the rest of the country is emptied out—both of people and of economic resources? Surely it is right to claim that parts of America are more foreign to each other in 2017 than they were in 1960. Even as other parts of America—black America, gay America—are less foreign than they once were.
I know, I know: putting it this way implies “less foreign” to a certain segment of “privileged” white America. Allow me that solecism for the nonce; I am in search of other game at the moment. And, of course, “less foreign” hardly means anything like fully transparent. But the point isn’t some kind of Kantian “universal communicability.” It’s about opportunities for interaction, for daily collaboration in some common enterprise. The Tocqueville and Arendt complaint is that we don’t have such opportunities except in commercial enterprises. We don’t any longer govern our small communities together as places we must make work for all of us. We have out-sourced that responsibility to central government—and, I am adding, we have also outsourced making the goods we need (food, clothing etc.) to large corporations. In that way, the local food movement is a Tocquevillian project.
The larger point is the way that Tocqueville sees equality and freedom in tension (whereas we are liable to see them as complementary). Freedom needs to be enacted—and, for Tocqueville, it is enacted through collective action: the making of the laws and social arrangements that we then obey because we have made them ourselves. But equality discourages collective action. (Here is where Tocqueville is absolutely distinct from Arendt, who firmly believes that equality enables, is a sine non qua, of collective action.) How so? Equality fosters individualism, the competition of all against all, even as it also generates a sense of the individual’s political powerlessness (this from Democracy in America). How can my one vote make a difference? Thus equality provides lots of incentives to being non-political, of simply not partaking in collective decision-making or collective implementation of those decisions. Again, let’s just out-source those tasks. We’ll hire our political servants to do that work for us.
The result is “thin” as opposed to “thick” democracy. And a society in which different groups barely interact beyond commercial transactions.