At the time of Alexis de Tocqueville’s writing, the French Revolution still loomed over minds and, with it, memories of a bloodbath and of a new kind of tyranny. The American Revolution seemed to offer grounds for rosier hopes about democracy. Convinced that there was no turning back to the old days, Tocqueville set about assessing whether humanity could have a bright future.
Tocqueville nurtures a deep nostalgia for the times when societies were aristocratic, when their leaders were men others could look up to because of their eminent virtues, and he views the advent of egalitarian societies as a backward step in many respects. He feels very guilty, however—so much so that he struggles constantly to show those were also unjust societies and that the development of equality is the result of some providential disposition. His obsession—an aristocratic one, no doubt—with equality as the idee mere of modern societies is, for him, a source of many meaningful insights but also the cause of his ultimate failure to understand American democracy.
I believe that American history reveals that there were actually two Americas. The American Civil War was a cultural war, almost a clash of civilizations. Two social spirits had been sewn together into a sort of improbable body. For better or for worse, the truly revolutionary spirit, the Yankee spirit, won and became the spirit of America. This spirit is the only one Tocqueville observed.
To summarize his two lengthy volumes in a few words—a daring proposition, indeed—I would say that, for Tocqueville, equality generates two main dangers, which are (to make things simpler) of a somewhat contradictory nature.
Men who are deemed equal cannot be governed but by themselves—hence the principle of popular sovereignty. Tocque-ville’s first concern is to show how, through procedures of public discussions and elections, starting at the level of the township, American citizens actually implement that sovereignty.
The more democratic France became, the more tyrannical: That was the legacy of recent French history. Are not, asks Tocqueville, the same ghosts of despotism looming over the New World? Isn’t it obvious that, whenever people are endowed with absolute power (and what power can be more absolute than a power that is deemed sovereign?), they are bound to make limitless use of it? When the will of the people is the people’s only master, even God is overruled, and anything is permitted. Now, isn’t that tyranny compounded by the condition that, since it is highly unlikely to be unanimous, there will be dissenters, and the majority of the people will feel entitled to disregard and prevail upon them? Again, we can clearly hear a man in the tradition of Locke or Montesquieu who fears the vociferous empire of the populace, led by demagogues, upon competence, virtue, and thoughtfulness.
But equality seems to have had, in Tocqueville’s eyes, a result of an altogether different nature. (That seems to be the reason for his second discourse.)
Equality, he claims without further explanation, engenders materialism (an exclusive devotion to material well-being). And, as far as individual liberty is concerned, Tocqueville sees that devotion as a drawback. For running one’s own business means losing all interest in public affairs. Forgetting what he said about the active involvement of citizens in their local communities, Tocqueville insists more and more, as the book unravels, on the danger of a new kind of despotism.
Being immersed in their private petty activities, living as if isolated from one another, the power they could wield when united becomes fragmented and useless so that actual power comes to rest in the hands of the ever fewer who care to run the common affairs of the community. Finally, Tocqueville mentions that equality breeds envy, and citizens tend to prefer everybody to submit to one and the same power rather than to bow to some better part of themselves. (In other words, they hate the idea that they might be aristocrats.) However, since all citizens care mostly about their own material comfort, Tocqueville dreads above all the rise of a sort of gentle, benevolent, paternal despotism.
Now, where does all of that lead us? First of all, the relationship is not clear, to say the least, between the two tyrannies democracy seems bent on giving birth to. At times, it is as if the people exercised too much power; at times, as if they did not want to bother using any. Are the American people to be blamed for being tyrants, or for being busy and obedient ants?
Second, Tocqueville seems to think that, whatever these dangers, Americans have overcome them both. Some of the vaccines he refers to do not seem very potent even to himself. For instance, he maintains that local government fathers an interest in government at large, but he does not really show how: Local issues have a direct impact on people, while national issues are far more remote. Or he mentions what he calls the “judiciary mentality” (l’esprit legiste): Since the law, he says, is the true ruler in democracy, and the guardians of the law tend to love its slow and lengthy process, they naturally oppose the impetuosity of popular will; at the same time, he writes that judges are nothing but public opinion vested with the power to judge.
Thus, we are left with only two effective remedies for the disease of American democracy.
First and foremost, the American miracle, he says, is the alliance between the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion; men who are free to do anything they please in the political world will stop short because of their spiritual beliefs. This is, by his own word, a miracle: What can one do, he exclaims in another passage, against the tyranny of the majority? Invoke the sovereignty of God? No, he answers: the sovereignty of Mankind. This is revealing, but, again, the reader is at a loss. And all the more so, because, in his second volume, not only does religion seem to play into the hands of materialism (it helps to see beyond the short term), but it is nowhere seen to alleviate the benevolent despotism that he sees coming.
The sturdiest prop of American democracy seems to be enlightened self-interest. Men who run their businesses run across other people’s paths and quickly learn that public affairs matter to their private ones: They understand that their private, enlightened interest is to become active citizens. However, since Tocqueville pointed out that it is concern for their private affairs that is primarily responsible for their acceptance of benevolent despotism, we are again at a loss to know which side of the coin will win out. So what then? Tocqueville was a Frenchman writing at the very time and in the very country where socialism was coined and the first drafts for implementing it were drawn up. At the back of Tocqueville’s mind is the idea that people preoccupied with their well-being tend to cooperate, but there comes a point at which cooperation (the catchword of the French socialists of the time) becomes organization, even an authoritarian one, which is willingly accepted provided the material expectations of the individuals are met. So that American democracy is threatened by a kind of nice, peaceful, methodical, desire-fulfilling socialism, which Tocqueville finds personally repulsive, because it turns men into industrious, disciplined, and unthinking ants. In other words, he no longer fears Robespierre but Saint Simon.
Tocqueville’s observations are often penetrating and fruitful, but his general outlook is wrong: America in the 19th and 20th centuries was very different because it was fostered by a very different idea, and the issues raised are becoming more and more outdated as America changes into something that his point of view prevented him from seeing.
Tocqueville’s contention that religion is the only bulwark against democratic tyranny is, from the viewpoint of simple logic, shallow, because it is contradictory. If the people are sovereign, then God is not, which is to say that there is no God any more. Why could not each citizen have a religious conscience and vote according to his beliefs? Very simply, because the nature of individual sovereign conscience is not to recognize what is good and then obey it but to obey only what it has decided to be good. Any democracy is atheistic in principle, whether consciously or not.
Our path is hereby blazed: If religion is not a plausible remedy against democratic diseases, and if America is not a tyranny, then why is she not, and what is the nature of these religious feelings with which Americans are so obviously imbued?
Let us turn to Tocqueville’s second claim that America is threatened with gentle, comfortable socialism. Tocqueville is obsessed with the development of equality and, at the same time, absolutely adamant when it comes to believing that, eventually, equality turns out for the best. Conveniently forgetting the eruption of hatred and violence unleashed by the spirit of equality during the French Revolution, Tocqueville asserts that the real outcome of the love for equality is a general softening of behaviors and habits, a growing desire for peace, an increasing reluctance to aggressiveness and a propensity for compassion—as if men, by becoming more equal, would become more mediocre but less dangerous animals. For him, equality begets people satisfied not with sovereignty but with playing at being sovereign (which is why they are content with the play-acting of elections); equality begets materialism, but that means only a satisfaction with standardized rewards, for which people work assiduously and obediently; equality breeds liberty, but a liberty which amounts to nothing more than having no kings.
Material equality, however, has just the contrary outcome. Equality does not necessarily breed materialism. (Christianity taught men that they were equal because they are spiritually equal.) Materialism, however, breeds equality, and of a very nasty and aggressive kind. For, when materialism prevails, there is no reason why a man should bear to be deprived of a pleasure that he sees another man enjoying. He ends up thinking like those friends of mankind who, at the peak of the French Revolution, proposed, for the sake of human happiness, that, if a man had the qualities that would enable him to stand out above his fellow citizens in any conceivable way, he should be punished and, if necessary, beheaded for conspiring against mankind.
If I am right, Tocqueville’s case for enlightened self-interest is a very weak one, indeed. Enlightened or not, interest in material well-being remains interest in material well-being; it may lead to more subtle ways of waging war on others, but it does not preclude waging it.
The real issue is that Tocqueville was right beyond any possible doubt about American materialism. One could even claim American society to be just as materialistic as any communist society. That, however, is precisely the point: American society—until today, at least—has always been as unlikely to become communist as hell is to freeze over. The question is: Why?
I think the archetypical American (which is, to me, the Yankee, because he was the type that eventually prevailed) is not primarily in search of equality, and certainly not economic equality. His driving passion strikes me as being freedom, meaning individual freedom—from domination, from submission, and also from material dependence. Americans yearn to be their own masters, to believe, to think, to work, to live as they wish. Materialism comes second. It is derived from the desire for independence, because independence begins as a capacity to support oneself. Self-sufficiency is the main characteristic of Americans. Hence, the tantamount importance of property rights in America. In Europe, criticism of private property has been heated for centuries. In America, who until recently has ever given a second thought to abolishing it? Americans are sons of Locke and Jefferson. And many American values are rooted in the same instinct: Isn’t the family the average American’s private kingdom? (While most Americans today do not have much control over the source of their income, the hidden, if not always fulfilled, ambition remains to be one’s own boss.) Where Tocqueville sees equality stifling souls, sapping energy, and numbing wills, I see a passion for independence that constantly stimulates energy, will, and cleverness.
The core of Yankee America is made up of tough (to the point of coarseness), hard-working, fiercely proud, self-reliant, small or even miniscule individualistic homeowners, whose horizons are rather narrow, who do not care much about what is going on yonder and frankly dislike anybody entering their realm, especially to interfere. That America is the land of pioneers, whose main ambition is to be masters of their land, who are used to fighting for themselves and know that freedom is never granted but has to be earned by lonely hardship. Individualistic as they are, they may still have a sense of community born of their common appraisal of what life is supposed to be; hating to be intruded upon, they do not like to intrude but will help their neighbors build their barns: Private freedom is safe as long as society is limited to an exchange of services. On a more urban level, we find the same American, but the scale of his activities is of a totally different order. The sense of community progressively recedes as the size of his business precludes any relationship other than that of commercial exchange.
In both cases, the key word is exchange: The typical relation that Americans enter with their fellow men is that of exchange. That, I believe, stems again from their craving for independence, because exchange is the only way for individuals to enter a mutual relation while remaining entirely independent—and, I would say, indifferent—to one another; it is the only relation through which anyone can use someone without forcing him, and in which the freedom of each comes into play equally at the same time.
That is why America is a commercial nation, whose borders are only boundaries at which the domestic market stops and the international market begins. That is how Americans come to be entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs are people that do not have a boss and are not afraid to rely on themselves alone. How can those traders also be fierce warriors, Marines or Green Berets or Special Forces, if not because a good soldier is not only a disciplined soldier but a lone ranger capable of autonomous decisions and solitary combat? Why are Americans good engineers, if not because they feel restrained when they cannot go beyond the limits that nature seems to have imposed on mankind? (Isn’t making a carriage move without horses a victory over nature?) Why are Americans so attached to money, if not because there has not yet been found a better way to do what one wishes anywhere, any time? Why do their social gatherings require so much alcohol, if not because any one of them is like an atom that goes its own way without having anything to say to another? Why are Americans so fanatical about sports, if not because sport is an activity in which one is constantly required to exceed his natural limits and in which each individual is entitled to go his own way and prevail upon the opponent, while still maintaining some social relationship with him?
I do not mean to say that Americans reject equality. They certainly do not. Their idea of equality, however, is far removed from egalitarian equality. They seem to give it two meanings. One is the utter denial of any idea that there may be men to whom nature has given a right to command their fellow men: They hold it as a self-evident truth that no one is obliged to yield to any other unless he freely consents to do so. And, consequently, equality means equality of opportunity, not equality of results (as if it were unfair and unacceptable that some be what others are not): Again, equality means freedom.
If individual freedom is so potent, wasn’t Tocqueville right to stress the threat of anarchy in American society? To a certain extent, there has always been an underlying current of anarchism in the American mentality. How could it be otherwise? Americans, however, are no anarchists, very simply because they widely share the same cultural propensity to be self-reliant individuals, to judge they are each better off left to themselves, but more or less consciously agree that there is no better way to play the game than to follow certain rules. That is not a creed, not a theory; it is just the American way of life, and they cannot conceive of ignoring what is required to live it. Americans are very parochial, often mistaken for people who have reached the ultimate wisdom in social thinking and want to impose it upon the world: It is not that they wish to be imperialistic; it is just that they cannot imagine how one can live otherwise than in a free and peaceful society, which is their brand of democracy.
I do not understand Tocqueville’s fear of tyranny in America. Americans are economic, not political animals; politics have very seldom played a decisive role in this country, except on one account: foreign policy. Even then, it could be argued that meddling with world affairs is basically alien to them: Each time they go to war, they have to be more or less lured into it. As for domestic politics, how can there be any divisive issue, in the European ideological fashion, when all Americans agree on the fundamentals (it’s the economy, stupid!) and argue mostly over details. How can they be politically minded when they are not interested in enforcing any grand scheme? Americans do not seem to be very anxious to wield their sovereignty, even if they are obviously eager to retain all its trappings. (It would be suicidal for a politician not to appear to ask their opinion, not to make a show of governing in their name, not to behave as if the people’s will were his.) It is not that they do not exercise sovereignty; they use it, however, mostly in a negative way. They want to be sure they will not be forcibly enrolled in something that would drag them away from their private business for any significant time. They want to be sovereign to be sure nobody will prevent any of them from being left alone as much as possible. This is a far cry from Tocqueville’s conception of democracy. His idea that they participate at the central level because they do at the local level is particularly misleading: They are sensitive to what matters in their daily lives, but they know only too well that a central government has a very limited capacity to deal with what is of immediate relevance to them.
Considerably revealing, I believe, is therefore the huge proportion of abstentions or the difficulty that candidates in a national election have in finding issues that may be meaningful for the masses, not to mention how difficult it is for them to oppose one another seriously, once the issue has been found, for fear of losing a substantial number of voters. Government in this country seems to me a sort of piecemeal affair, a day-by-day solving of a constant stream of small problems, inventing solutions that can satisfy as many voters as possible without antagonizing any, leaving little time at all for any real thinking of encompassing reach. Is there any way really to govern such a mass of conflicting interests, for any unified, centralized power to lift and carry such a weight?
Religion in America is not what it was in Europe. In Europe, religion was conceived of as a demand that one alter, more or less radically, one’s way of living: the more religious one is, the more one’s everyday life loses its primary importance. (My kingdom is not of this world.)
Religion, for Americans, is very strongly reminiscent of 18th-century European deism. It smacks of John Locke. What was God to deists if not that all-powerful, all-wise Being who endowed man with reason, with the very capacity to live on his own, by his own means, for his own goals—in other words, to do away with God completely except to thank Him for the way He made us?
From that deism, it is no great leap to accepting yourself: God has made me what I am; why shouldn’t I obey God? There is a logical connection between an Episcopalian homosexual bishop and so many American, (very) unchristian businessmen who, nevertheless undoubtedly nurture Christian feelings. Are they praying for men’s souls to become not what they are but what they should be, and for God to help them to overcome their selfishness, worldliness, and shortsighted views of life, all of which dooms them to no more worthy endeavor than accumulating dollars, far beyond their needs? Or are they, as Voltaire was, thankful to God for making things go their way (isn’t the Thanksgiving celebration a typically American rite?) and praying for things to remain ever the same? For Locke, there was no doubt: You could love God and make money all the more, because hoarding gold does not deprive anyone of anything he can eat, while you can, by using it wisely, be of great help to others.
All in all, religion among religious Americans is more like something you can add to your life, possibly to make it more livable for you or others, as you would add some spice to your meal to make it tastier, more digestible, perhaps even more profitable. And, since everyone naturally has his own tastes (some prefer sweets; others, salt), in the same way, there is a sect, if not for every, at least for a great variety of tastes. Religion in America does not forbid materialism; it just makes it more palatable.
What, however, could be the reason for charity in a Lockean universe? I see two main reasons, both stemming from the very core of American society. This society is a harsh, relentless environment, in which everyone is basically left to himself, and in which the loneliness of the individual is extreme, so much so that it is only natural that he come to suffer from his constant solitude. He can never escape it, but at least something can alleviate it: the very simple feeling that there are others experiencing it around him, that he is part of the same crew undergoing the same hurricane, even though each member has to fight it on his own at his particular station. After all, even gladiators were a tight community and were known to help one another, though they earned their livings fighting one another. Hence, a propensity to obey rites which give some reality to an illusion.
The second reason is that pity must be a very widespread feeling with people living a tough life in which work is not always enough and chance is a hidden hand whose power is inescapable. For pity is precisely that feeling which arises when you see somebody in a situation in which you have been, or know you could have been, yourself. (One should not confuse charity for the unlucky with those spectacular endowments that have probably more to do with personal gratification than with anything else; notwithstanding the tax incentive, does the Rockefeller Foundation come from the heart of a man who built his wealth by being inhuman to himself as well as to others, or from a desire for a perpetual testimony to what he had achieved?)
This whole description amounts to formulating a vast riddle: American society contains all the ingredients of communism, but it is obviously not a communist society. America is a society of harsh, often crude materialism, in which individuals relate with a not-so-hidden violence, mostly in terms of rivalry, each man for himself, and general aggressiveness, in which there are winners and losers, richer and poorer, in which greed is more active than love, envy more frequent than selflessness—but which succeeded, because everyone seemed to plod doggedly on, without complaining, without constantly crying foul play, making no gifts but asking no mercy, and certainly not expecting much from anybody. It has been a long time in Europe since these factors started giving birth to different types of socialism, all based on the assumption that, if there are poor people, it is because there are rich ones who have created their wealth by stealing from them. Where does the American difference come from?
The New World had a new creator, who was undoubtedly Calvin. Calvinism, however, has been misinterpreted.
It has generally been understood as Max Weber understood it. God was supposed to have receded from human sight, but not from human preoccupations: He was still present in human hearts, though no longer as an inspiration, since He had left men to their sins, but as a worry, because, since man could not be saved except by his election, it was only natural to wonder whether one had been elected: hence, the constant effort to behave according to whatever commands God had left and a tendency to see one’s success as a sign of election. Puritanical, fundamentalist behavior is an historical fact, but deriving capitalism from puritanism is far-fetched: Blue America is not puritanical, and you do not see puritans driving SUV’s.
The story must be told in slightly different terms. God has left man’s world, period, which means that He has left men to their own sinful little dealings. Which, again, means that whatever was left of God’s will (e.g., the Bible) could not even be properly understood. It was therefore left for anybody to interpret as he wished, which finally means that there is hardly any difference between giving God’s words more or less arbitrary significance and not bothering to try to determine what the heck He really wanted. In other words, an excess of pessimism is self-destructive, and the real outcome of Calvinism was, be it unwittingly, humanism: The world belongs to man.
This humanism must be understood against the gloomy background of its somber birth: Man is left to his own endeavors and can go wherever he pleases, but he has no clue where to head, and he no longer possesses any compass except himself. He is alone—utterly and hopelessly alone.
So it is only natural that, if he does not choose suicide, he starts worrying about his own material survival above all. Robinson Crusoe’s first goal is to better his material conditions. Materialism is a natural enough product of atheism: The instinct for survival becomes prevalent. And the even more crucial point is that Crusoe knows he is alone: He has to fight it out on his own or perish.
Here, we have come to a crossroad. Under traditional Christian faith, the day-to-day life of individuals was pretty much supervised by superior authorities, guided by the spiritual rule of the Church more or less reflected on the temporal level by the rule of the king. The Christian was never left to himself. This is generally considered today to be the hallmark of constant tyranny: The Middle Ages are the Dark Ages. What is carefully concealed is that those two guidelines were supposed to be benevolent. Admittedly men, even churchmen and noblemen, are only men, and there were bad rulers. But men’s ideas about reality actually make the reality they live in, so that nobody, even kings, can evade their spell. More often than moderns care to think, rulers try to rule for the good of their realm.
Thus, whatever the historical reality, the idea remained that it is natural for the average citizen to be protected, that his protection is the natural duty of rulers: There lies, it seems to me, the reason why Europeans, like the French, are so prone to socialism. God has died, but the atheistic state has taken up His role and the part played by traditional authorities. Even though socialism, because it is only human, constantly fails, the old vision constantly kindles new hope.
Things have taken an altogether different and equally logical turn in America, where people also believed God had left forever: Since only God could give reliable guidance, all reliable guidance has gone, and there is no possible replacement for it. Every man is henceforth a living Robinson Crusoe on his own little island, in the midst of billions of other little islands.
Men live together, however, or at least that was the situation when God left them. So this is their choice: They can move apart from one another, into a wilderness where they will settle and organize their lives on a solitary basis, possibly not too far from, but never too close to, a few others who have decided to settle nearby; or they will decide to keep together, forming a society—but one whose unique characteristic is that it will be basically forced out of men who still live in moral solitude like the famous lonesome cowboy. At the same time, since each lives near the others, he may enter some kind of relationship consisting of an exchange of goods, services, or reciprocal help.
Now, this relationship will bear as its trademark the inner conviction that nobody owes anybody anything, that nobody has any reason whatsoever to consider that anybody is in any way a benevolent, generous, selfless, loving creature. The citizens of this new city will be basically indifferent to others’ fortunes, and, since there is no reason why anyone’s projects should harmoniously combine with anyone else’s (and, on the contrary, every reason to foresee a clash between individual endeavors), the unavoidable conclusion is that all citizens will have to consider their fellow men as potential threats.
That finally means that, expecting nothing from others, they cannot be disappointed when others behave in a hostile manner. Pessimism about human nature cannot breed resentment between men. And, since it cannot breed resentment, it breeds acceptance of tough combat but without hatred.
Only one feature is needed to complete the picture: Since everybody may be prepared to fight, but nobody wishes to die in the process, it is only natural that everyone play hard and tough but fair—i.e., within rules mutually agreed upon.
Thus was born the American society of sportsmen who fight hard, but bear no grudge when they lose to those who play better.
Thus, Tocqueville was wrong when he saw equality as the idee mere of American society and ascribed anarchy as well as benevolent socialism to egalitarian individualism, religion being the only bulwark against popular tyranny. Pessimistic individualism, I believe, is the cornerstone of American society, which gave birth to orderly anarchy, to nonegalitarian liberty, to nonsocialist materialism, to irreligious but negative and nontyrannical popular sovereignty. Pessimism is the reason Americans are devoted to material needs but are not hedonistic, why they are fully conscious of other people’s wealth but would rather emulate than destroy them, why they are harsh but compassionate, irreligious but convinced that God extended His protection over America.
The Yankee spirit has successfully run its course until today, and probably will until tomorrow, but pressures are building within it precisely in proportion to its success: The growth of any organism is also the growth of it weaknesses. Americans have become an object of worldwide admiration and envy—and, for that very reason, hatred.
Industrialization, which is deemed today to be the way of all progress, is a threat to individual independence, because, ironically, industrialization goes hand in hand with the massive production of standardized goods, for which America is famous. With the requirements of mass production, individuals become less and less equipped. They may still be useful here and there, but only as employees of corporate conglomerates seeking profits, entirely dependent on the corporation’s good will or good health. (In that respect, financial capitalism, which supports huge multinationals, is obviously a poison in disguise for A