Sunday, July 17, 2005

Scattered Notes from a re-reading of Tocqueville

I was moved to re-read Toqueville’s Democracy in America by the following comments in a talk by Mario Tronti at the Università Nomade seminar on Democracy and War, January 2005:

Tutta la storia recente dopo l’ultimo novecento, dopo gli anni settanta, gli anni appunto poi del movimento ma gli anni del feminismo, tutta la storia che è seguita questo come risposta si può leggere in una chiave di recupero di un egemonia capitalistica attraverso il ritorno della figura del bourgeois. Fino a che viene a cadere la distinzione contrapozione tra bourgeois e citoyen, perché questo ultimo viene recuperato in quello. E l’incontro questo sia appunto di carattere epocale tra homo economicus e homo democraticus. Gli spiriti capitalistici hanno proprio questo sogetto che l’anima democraticum. C’è questa figura insomma ormai dominante di borgese massa che e il vero sogetto interno al rapporto sociale. Non ci sara’ una vera efficace critica della democrazia senza una grande affondo antropologico in questo senso. Antropologia sociale ma anche appunto individuale. Anche qui appunto individuale nel pensiero pratica della differenza. In questo campo c’e bisogno di dare molto attenzione all’ imaginaro, al simbolico: molto molto si gioca tutto sul questo terreno. E vedi il modo come viene giocato questo terreno, il mythos che ritorna, e ritorna dagli stati uniti verso di noi, della società dei proprietari. Viene appunto dall’ America di Bush e dei noecons questo interessante episodio di rivoluzione conservatrice che si sta realizzando li, che bisogno mettere molto sotto gli occhi dell’ attenzione. Questo ci dice che la democrazia è sempre Democracy in America. Gli stati uniti hanno sempre esportato la democrazia con la guerra. Si meraviglia perche lo facciano adesso ma lo hanno fatto sempre. L’ hanno portato in Europa anche attraverso le grande guerre. Gl eserciti alleati non ci hanno liberato, ci hanno democratizzato. Infatti, è dopo l’età delle guerre civile europe-mondiale che la democrazia è veramente trionfato. E la vittoria dell’ occidente nell’ ultima guerra, la guerra fredda, è stato l’evento decisivo.

Here's a rough translation:

All the recent history of the late 20th-century, after the 1970s - the years of the movement and feminism - all that followed as a response to this can be read as the recuperation of capitalist hegemony through the return of the figure of the bourgeois. Up to the point of the collapse of the distinction between the bourgeois and the citoyen - since the latter is absorbed in the former. This is the epochal encounter of homo economicus and homo democraticus. The capitalist spirit has a democratic soul. The true subject of social relations is the dominant figure of the mass bourgeois. There can be no truly effecitve critique of democracy without a deep anthropological exploration. Social but also individual anthropology – individual, that is, in the practical thought of difference. In this field, one must give great attention to the imaginary and the symbolic, since much is at play on this ground. And you can see this in the mythos of the society of proprietors that returns from the US toward us. From the America of Bush and the neocons comes this very interesting episode of conservative revolution – to which we must really pay attention. This shows us that democracy is always Democracy in America. The US has always exported democracy with war. People are astonished that they are doing it now, but they have always done it. They brought democracy to Europe through the great wars. The allied armies did not liberate us, they democratised us. In fact, it was after the era of the European-world civil wars that democracy really triumphed. And the victory of the west in the last war, the cold war, was the decisive event.

Tronti also has a discussion of Tocqueville and the critique of democracy in the fourth of his ‘Tesi su Benjamin’ [Theses on Benjamin] (available here in French) in his 1998 book La politica al tramonto. Again, a rough translation:

Tocqueville prophetically foresaw the antipolitical destiny of the modern democracies. Political demoralisation arrived punctually, reaching its completion at the end of the 20th century in political atheism. The great liberal saw the end of modern politics realised in American democracy, a heavy announcement of the future of the world. Umberto Coldagelli has intelligently located in Tocqueville’s distinction between political science and the art of government the ‘substantial dualism’ between democracy and liberty. With this immediate consequence: ‘the safeguard of liberty comes to depend exclusively on the capacity of the art of government to oppose the spontaneous propensity of the political state to hide itself in the social state.’ And he reports this variation in the Democracy of 1840: ‘The social state separates people; the political state must bring them together again. The social state gives them a taste of wellbeing; the political state must give them grand ideas and emotions.’ The distinctive mark of bourgeoise modernity is a ‘natural’ subjectivity of social action and an ‘unnatural’ subjectivity of political action. ‘Conscience and ideas do not renew themselves, the soul does not expand and the human spirit does not develop, if not by the reciprocal action of men upon each other. I have shown that this action is near absent in the democratic countries; it must therefore be created artificially.’

It's no surprise that a political thinker as ambiguous as Tocqueville gets pulled in all directions. The most recent republication of Democracy in America was greeted by the New York Times with a review entited ‘Tocqueville for the Neocons’. And Roger Kimball followed by arguing that Tocqueville’s warnings about despotism in democracy augur the rise of political correctness. Intellectual Conservatism lists Tocqueville as an icon of conservative thought alongside Ratzinger, Hayek, and Strauss. But, as with Schmitt, Tocqueville has important lessons to teach, particularly regarding the nonequivalence of freedom and democracy. At the present juncture that would seem the crucial point.

Join the dots:

  • Can it be believed that the democracy which has overthrown the feudal system, and vanquished kings, will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists?
  • The people have learned to despise all authorty, but they still fear it.
  • In America, there are factions, but no conspiracies.
  • America is therefore a free country in which, lest anybody should be hurt by your remarks, you are not allowed to speak freely.
  • In the United States, then, that numerous and turbulent multitude does not exist, who, regarding the law as their natural enemy, look upon it, with fear and distrust.
  • Accurately speaking, there is no such thing as a mixed government in the sense usually given to that word, because in all communities some one principle of action may be discovered which preponderates over the others.
  • Scarcely any political question arises in the United States which is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.
  • In speaking of philosophical method among the Americans I have shown that nothing is more repugnant to the human mind in an age of equality than the idea of subjection to forms. Men living at such times are impatient of figures; to their eyes, symbols appear to be puerile artifices used to conceal or to set off truths that should more naturally be bared to the light of day.
  • I am persuaded that, in the end, democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man, and fixes it on man alone.
  • The taste which men have for liberty and that which they feel for equality are, in fact, two different things; and I am not afraid to add that among democratic nations they are two unequal things.
  • Freedom has appeared in the world at different times and under various forms; it has not been exclusively bound to any social condition, and it is not confined to democracies. Freedom cannot, therefore, form the distinguishing characteristic of democratic ages.
  • I should be surprised if mysticism did not soon make some advance among a people solely engaged in promoting their own worldly welfare. It is said that the deserts of the Thebaid were peopled by the persecutions of the emperors and the massacres of the Circus; I should rather say that it was by the luxuries of Rome and the Epicurean philosophy of Greece. If their social condition, their present circumstances, and their laws did not confine the minds of the Americans so closely to the pursuit of worldly welfare, it is probable that they would display more reserve and more experience whenever their attention is turned to things immaterial.
  • The aristocracy created by business rarely settles in the midst of the manufacturing population which it directs; the object is not to govern that population, but to use it. An aristocracy thus constituted can have no great hold upon those whom it employs, and even if it succeeds in retaining them at one moment, they escape the next; it knows not how to will, and it cannot act.
  • I do not assert that men living in democratic communities are naturally stationary; I think, on the contrary, that a perpetual stir prevails in the bosom of those societies, and that rest is unknown there; but I think that men bestir themselves within certain limits, beyond which they hardly ever go. They are forever varying, altering, and restoring secondary matters; but they carefully abstain from touching what is fundamental. They love change, but they dread revolutions.
  • If ever America undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States -- that is to say, they will owe their origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality, of conditions.
  • I am of the opinion that a restless and turbulent spirit is an evil inherent in the very constitution of democratic armies and beyond hope of cure. The legislators of democracies must not expect to devise any military organization capable by its influence of calming and restraining the military profession; their efforts would exhaust their powers before the object could be attained.
  • Nothing is strong in a democratic country except the state.
  • Democratic nations often hate those in whose hands the central power is vested; but they always love that power itself.