Political Readings of Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville has been taken up within many perspectives: Religious Conservative, Libertarian near Anarcho-Capitalist, Neo-Conservative, Communitarian Left-Liberalism, Any other definition of Liberalism that might exist, Post-Marxist Democratic Theory, and no doubt a few positions I’ve overlooked. Despite this wide ranging appeal, some Marxists and near Marxists take him as the enemy. His support for, and involvement in the French colonisation of Algeria, and his assumption that Islam is culturally, intellectually and morally inferior to Christianity. are always emphasied by that tendency whoa re rather quieter about the racist and colonialist assumptions that can be found in Marx and other leftists of the time. Foucault’s Society Must be Defended provides an account of how left-wing and democratic thought originate in an idea of a kind of ‘race war’ with a ‘foreign’ elite.
Universalism and Competition between Nations
The support for colonialism has been regarded favourably by some Neo-Cons as a committment to universalising liberal-democratic ideas, though surely at its best Neo-Conservativism shows more respect for all religions and the right of all nations to self-government, even if with the assistance of US intervention. There is evidently an element of Islamophobia round the fringes of Neo-Conservatism. The Marxists and Neo-Cons are rather too keen to drag support for European colonialism in the 19th Century into another context. Tocqueville’s views on international relations were a mix of Realism and idealism. He was a Realist in the sense that he believed that nations conflict around questions of national pride and it is right to support the pride of your own nation. This itself refers to the element of this thought which emphasises the role of pride and the search for superiority in the human imagination, itself rooted in in his reading of Rousseau and Pascal. He was an idealist in the sense he believed that national policy should be directed to moral universalist goals like abolishing slavery, and he was certainly never at all attracted to the idea that any race is inferior or superior to any other. This post is principally concerned with his views on democratic theory and we will progress to that theme.
Tyranny of the Majority
The main concern here is to contest the assumption from a variety of directions that Tocqueville was for localism against the central state. We need to look at what he meant by the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Beofre we even consider Tıcqueville’s view of the ‘tyranny of the majority’, we have to deal with the widespread belief that John Stuart Mill coined that phrase. Mill used th phrase in On Liberty, but took it from Tocqueville, who he had met. Their relationship ended awkwardly, but Tocqueville certainly made an impact on Mill, who thought it worth writing long reviews on both parts of Democracy in America. Tocqueville used the phrase ‘tyranny of the majority’ in the Democracy to refer to local spirit in small town America. Though Tocqueville has enormous respect for the spirit of self-government in small town America, he also had deep concerns about the way that public opinion imposes conformity and crushes individuality in local communities. He thought a strong central state was necessary in order to balance that small town spirit. The inhabitants of the small towns needed to be able to appeal to a federal centre to resist the conformity of small towns. It is important to note that Tocqueville though public opinion could be just as dangerous to liberty as the state. That was the basis of his concern that democracy might lead to the worst kind of tyranny if a government resting on public opinion imposed the majority view in an authoritarian manner. Tocqueville should not, therefore, be invoked in support of the view that local participation in politics or the moral spirit of small communities, is the basis of liberty. This places Tocqueville closer to the more statist aspects of the Federalist Papers, than to the Jeffersonian belief in the absolute value of local community autonomy
Law and Conserving Liberty
Conservatism, in the sense of defending law against the tyranny of the majority, was best upheld by a new aristocracy, of the legal profession, which is necessarily committed to defending law and to its administration in a hierarchical structure headed by the central state. For Tocqueville the aristocracy was important in limiting monarchical power in the pre-democratic world. His
father was deeply connected with the ‘ultra-monarchist’ current in French politics. This is a misleading label in the sense that this current was for the aristocracy and against strong central monarchical power. Again for a good diagnosis, see Foucault, Society Must be Defended. Tocqueville caused great resentment in his family by adopting liberal constitutional democracy, which in the French context meant accepting the strong sovereignty of the National Assembly. Nevertheless, the concerns of the ultra-monarchists are in some way present in Tocqueville’s political thought.
Tocqueville and Republicanism: Politics and Human Spirit
Two points here: Tocqueville provides an alternative to recent Republican theory; Tocqueville cannot be associated with anti-political forms of Libertarianism and archaeo-conservatism. This is also present in the Marxist and anarcho-communist wish to abolish the state. These currents tend to find politics degenerate compared with the emergence of decisions from the ‘natural’ authority present in established communities. Tocqueville’s thought is Republican. He
thought politics was a part of the spirit of human communities and is necessary to liberty. He recognised that it rests on pride, envy, egotism and ambition, within himself and all who participate in politics, but considered competitive politics as the best way of using those tendencies in human character.
Tocqueville and Republicanism: An alternative to Current Republican Theory
The very welcome revival of Republican theory in Phillip Pettit and others, is largely a social democratic theory which places social and economic equality at the centre. Tocqueville recognised the need for state sponsored welfare, but was a lot more cautious about state action to promote equality, he thought the state has a role in preventing destitution not in redistributing property. Tocqueville provides an example of Republican participation as and end of human character, based on moderate welfarism and deep respect for property rights as the foundation of liberty and property, and the necessary basis for the independence of all from the state. Current Republicanism is very close to Communitarianism in assuming moral grounds for collective limitation of individualism, while adding more interest in politics as a part of human life. Tocqueville provides an alternative to the economic egalitarianism and to the moralistic view of politic as an instrument for moral goals.