Thursday, May 30, 2013

Despotism of Democracy

Alexis de Tocqueville was a 19th century French political thinker and a historian. He is best known for his excursions in, then newly born democratic country, America (United States of America). In 1835 and 1840, he published his famous work, Democracy in America, on the basis of his observations of the American society and its democratic political state during his travels. In this book's later parts - vol 4, chapter 6, What Type of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear (Liberty Fund edition) - he warned the people of the world about the kind of possible despotism that can arrive in a democratic country. I am reproducing his warning here because his prophesy turned out to be totally correct. As Robert Nisbet, after reproducing the same paragraphs of Tocqueville in his The Quest for Community, said, here, in these paragraphs, lies one of the most astonishing prophesies to be found anywhere in political literature. Here is Tocqueville writing in 1840:
"I think that the type of oppression by which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing of what preceded it in the world; our contemporaries cannot find the image of it in their memories. I seek in vain myself for an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I am forming of it and includes it; the thing that I want to speak about is new, and men have not yet created the expression which must portray it; the old words of despotism and of tyranny do not work. The thing is new, so I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.

I want to imagine under what new features despotism could present itself to the world; I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

Above those men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?

This is how it makes the use of free will less useful and rarer every day; how it encloses the action of the will within a smaller space and little by little steals from each citizen even the use of himself. Equality has prepared men for all these things; it has disposed men to bear them and often even to regard them as a benefit.

After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; in certain moments of great passions and great dangers, the sovereign power becomes suddenly violent and arbitrary. Habitually it is moderate, benevolent, regular and humane; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd." (bold mine).
Nisbet further said, the merit of Tocqueville's analysis is that it points directly to the heart of totalitarianism-the masses; the vast aggregates who are never tortured, flogged, or imprisoned, or humiliated; who instead are cajoled, flattered, stimulated by the rulers, but who are nonetheless relentlessly destroyed as human beings, ground down into mere shells of humanity. 
And that's exactly what the dreaded democracy has done to our societies and its individual members. This is a new type totalitarian despotism: despotism of democracy; and it is the most dangerous form of despotism we have seen so far in human history. It is very subtle and so not easily perceived by its victims. As long as people don't realize that they are victims of democratic despotism, it is difficult to get rid of totalitarian democracy. Democratic states right now are going through crisis - economic, political etc. - and we have to see whether they withstand this crisis or collapse in future. If people become aware of their enslavement by democratic governments then only the chances are high that the latter event will take place in future. 

1 comment:

  1. dear raj, the timing of your article couldn't be more perfect.i have never read tocqueville's works before but recently, i have come to the same conclusion as well..i want to add that,in my opinion it is not just democracy but capitalism as it is practiced today along with neo-burgeoise who will lead the society to such a state..they are all vested interests


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