Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life
by Sheldon S. Wolin
Both Sides Now
A review by Stephen Holmes
For many Americans, Alexis de Tocqueville was a source of insight and reassurance throughout the Cold War. Not only did he caution prophetically against the perils of an over-mighty central state, but he also divined the first omens, within democratic society itself, of morally debilitating welfare-state paternalism. But that was then, this is now. Fear and loathing of "the state" is no longer in the air. If American democracy is threatened at all, it is less by government omniscience and an immoderate concern for the welfare of the disadvantaged than by the ineptitude and the distraction of political authority at home and, even more likely, by its unraveling abroad. We are especially worried by laxly supervised borders, under-regulated corporations, unpoliced swaths of the globe, internationally financed extremist sects wresting control of education and other public services from insolvent governments, and the proliferation of mass-casualty weapons into the hands of non-state actors.
Such symptoms of the incapacity and the deficiency of the state are not Tocquevillean themes. That Tocqueville remains nonetheless central to political analysis today is testimony to his seemingly inexhaustible treasure-house of ideas. In The Ancién Regime and the Revolution (1856), for instance, he denied that social upheaval and movements of rage have their root causes in poverty and inequality, since poverty and inequality (and hopelessness, too) have persisted in many periods and places without unleashing revolution, mass mobilization, or political instability. Instead he located the origins of revolutionary anger and turbulence in more subtle psychological factors: in bitter humiliations, heightened expectations, and contentious narratives of injustice.
In Democracy in America (1835 and 1840), similarly, he acknowledged that the fear of losing control typically dissuades wielders of power from inviting previously excluded strata into processes of political decision-making. Yet he forcefully argued that the political inclusion of potentially unruly groups, however threatening to the powerful in the short run, is in the long run the most reliable method for managing social resentment. He especially emphasized the way universal suffrage and freedom of association can blunt the popular appeal of clandestine radicals inclined to use violence to achieve their aims. So crises come and go, but Tocqueville retains an undimmed influence on our struggle to make sense of the world.
In this very long book, Sheldon S. Wolin has little to say about these ideas, or indeed about any of Tocqueville's provocative claims, which continue to shape the way students of political order and disorder frame questions and seek answers. A dominant voice in American political theory for decades, Wolin is unimpressed by Tocqueville's appetite for digging underneath historical conditions in search of ever more explanatory factors. Tocqueville's method was relentlessly comparative. Much of The Ancién Regime is devoted to answering the question: why did the Revolution of 1789 occur in France and not in Britain or Germany? Even though he devotes two dense chapters to The Ancién Regime, Wolin barely mentions Tocqueville's remarkable and eminently disputable answer to this question. Why some political arrangements are robust and stable and others are rickety and agitated does not interest him especially. He generally downplays Tocqueville's speculations about complex causal relations in social life, though this is arguably the most original and stimulating side of Tocqueville's work.
Wolin is an exceptionally vigilant reader of texts, and so it cannot be an accident that he scants or bypasses Tocqueville's explanatory enthusiasms. He is unmoved by Tocqueville's ingenious attempts to explain insurrection and docility, and so he has elected not to write a study of the nineteenth century's most imaginative social scientist. Instead he offers what he calls a "postmodern reading" of "this bundle of contradictions, poses, anachronisms, absurdities, and willfulness, this 'Tocqueville.'" He wants to draw attention to the "several Tocquevilles" that he thinks inhabited one and the same writer.
At the very least, Tocqueville was divided between two worlds. But which worlds does Wolin have in mind? Sometimes he seems to be referring to America and Europe, sometimes to modernity and tradition. Sometimes he focuses on the opposition between the life of a participant or activist and the life of a penetrating observer or moral judge. But the book begins to make sense only when we realize that a deeper contrariety is at stake. What matters most to Wolin is the polarity between Tocqueville the bland liberal and Tocqueville the visionary democrat.
An egalitarian with sympathies for the student movement of the 1960s, Wolin is quick to distance himself from Tocqueville's "class snobbery" and "reactionary sympathies." The author of Democracy in America, Wolin acerbically notes, denied that poverty and privilege were intrinsically degrading. He even felt, we are told, a hygienic revulsion for "malodorous" crowds. Tocqueville's right-wing admirers, who (unlike Wolin) associate the American counterculture with Weimar-era attacks on civilization, are not altogether wrong, therefore, to see him as "a 'conservative liberal' who is alert to the danger of 'too much democracy' and who commiserates with the burdens borne by political elites, not the least of which is the periodic invasion of the political realm by the masses."
But barbs of this sort, skewering Tocqueville for his class prejudice, tell only part of the story. For Wolin simultaneously introduces us to a theoretically more likable Tocqueville. The works of a reactionary snob can appeal to a radical egalitarian because they identify an ideal political standard against which a sham democracy such as the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century can be exposed for what it is, namely, a "postmodern despotism." Wolin claims to have discovered this ideal standard in Tocqueville's two great works.
Wolin christens this ideal "the political," an enigmatic expression that he first elaborated forty years ago in his shrewd and learned book Politics and Vision. Like the earlier volume, to which it is in some sense a belated sequel, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds strongly suggests that political theory, when practiced correctly, can "possess the quality of political grandeur" and can be a nobly heroic calling, even though it usually involves disengagement from day-to-day politics. To explain himself here, Wolin associates the Greek term theoria with stories told by travelers from distant lands, adding, with an eye to Tocqueville, that "political theorists have always been great journeyers."
Ideally, traveling gives the traveler some perspective on his own world, relativizing the familiar and "loosening the preconceived boundaries" of the possible. Yet this is not an especially accurate description of Wolin's foray into Tocqueville's oceanic works. For neither of the two Tocquevilles whom Wolin encounters there are to him even slightly unfamiliar. On the one hand, he finds the stock figure of "the liberal," who warned against participatory excesses and defended the class privileges of the rich by luring the revolutionary "demos" into the joyless quest for joy of consumer society and incarcerating any deviants who refuse to be sated or sedated. On the other hand, he finds an uncompromising visionary, whose approach resembles Wolin's own to a remarkable degree. The reader does not have to guess which is the good Tocqueville and which is the bad.
So who was the good Tocqueville, as Wolin presents him? The signature idea of Wolin's Politics and Vision was "the political" and the perhaps insurmountable difficulty of reviving it in an age dominated by technological dynamism, bureaucratic managerialism, insatiable capitalist greed, and the insipid culture of consumerism. Journeying through Democracy in America and The Ancién Regime, Wolin discovered that "the abiding concern of Tocqueville's thinking, the referent point by which he tried to define his life as well as the task before his generation, was the revival of the political: in his phrase, la chose publique." The challenge was already immense at that time because early nineteenth-century society was already characterized by a retreat from civic engagement into a private sphere. As a theorist of "the political," Tocqueville was therefore rebelling, if only bookishly, against his times: "The elevation of the political and the making of a public self were conscious gestures of opposition to the privatizing tendencies for which he, as much as any other writer of his time, provided the authoritative critique."
To describe "the revival of the political" as a goal that sets would-be revivalists on a collision course with society and history is not to imply that it can easily be achieved. In the end Wolin denies that such a happy ending will ever occur. But even if "the political" is not a plausible goal of action, it remains a plausible standard of criticism and protest. The wielder of such a "counterparadigm," he thinks, can articulate the longings for fulfillment defeated by the blighted world in which we are condemned to live. And the Tocqueville whom Wolin admires does just this. He is a rebellious visionary, a retriever of "sensitive meanings" in an anti-political age.
This good Tocqueville was, first and foremost, a myth-maker, identifying "the most exalted political life" with "a life of disinterested service to the common good and the striving for a politics of grandeur" and "a politics that is at once exuberant and virtuous." His myth of the political epitomizes everything we are not, conjuring up the haute fantaisie of a humanly fulfilling politics that is now defunct. Modernization replaced engaged citizens with "depoliticized man," with "beings who are totally immersed in private concerns," mired in a life of "lavish consumption" that encourages "a yearning for the joys of private life." Thus we now live in an "undifferentiated society, an unpolitical night," filled with "stunted individuals who have embraced lives emptied of political responsibility," and where even "the human ties that supply life with a bottomless fund of interpretable experience" have been "deliberately snapped."
By asserting, in his own name, that a political utopia has been "lost," Wolin might make readers believe that it once existed. But he will not tell us when and where all citizens managed to realize themselves fully and harmoniously with no trace of injustice, because then we could check with our own eyes and discover whether any hidden defects or disadvantages accompanied his idealized polity's alleged virtues. In the same spirit, Wolin praises "local democracy," but always with tactical vagueness, lest we inquire about symptoms of stifling parochialism. The "critical theory" that Wolin practices invokes visions or myths that cannot themselves be criticized. Trust me, he seems to be saying, I know what I am regretting.
What he is regretting is "a genuinely political regime" that has never existed and cannot exist, what he calls "the idea of the political as the common good" affiliated with "lofty notions about heroic politics." Or perhaps he regrets merely the lost longing for such an ethereal goal. In either case, Wolin not only advocates an uncompromisingly visionary or anti-empirical approach to politics. He also attributes it to Tocqueville, who, we are told, "exalted the political as noble deeds, actions that were at once individual and altruistic, self-publicizing and public-spirited." To emphasize the utopian dimension of their allegedly shared approach, Wolin describes Tocqueville as "a political man with no politics to which he could attach himself, who drifts toward the plane where the political is so rarefied as to be virtually devoid of politics of the quotidian variety."
These comments are not made pejoratively. Neither is Wolin's remarkable description of Tocqueville as "a political hero manque who spouted an embarrassing amount of romantic mush about his longing for the opportunity to perform great and noble public deeds." This is not, on balance, a criticism. Wolin recognizes that Tocqueville's "belief in his own chosenness" is "likely to produce an unforgiving estimate of him," but on this matter he refuses to side with Tocqueville's detractors. On the contrary, he is favorably disposed toward precisely the easily ridiculed Tocqueville who, as he puts it, "heroized his own theoretical achievement as an epochal encounter with the gathering power of equality." Here we find the key to what Wolin means by a "postmodern reading" of Tocqueville. Instead of asking what Tocqueville was trying to say, the postmodern interpretation asks why his readers today find him so "absurd."
That we scoff sophisticatedly at Tocqueville's "romantic posturing" tells us less about Tocqueville than about ourselves. It is, Wolin asserts, a sign of our mean rejection of the heroic ideal, a symptom of "how distressingly low the theorists and politicians of interest politics have set their sights." By deriding Tocqueville's non-empirical vision of the political, we reveal ourselves to be creatures bereft of "higher" aspirations: "In the self-consciously postmodern world of 'the cool,' it would be difficult to find any resonance for Tocqueville's conception of the grandeur of the political as the noblest of human settings, of public life as the highest calling, and of the public good as the supreme object of political action." That many of us today have a hard time taking seriously rhapsodies to political participation is a sign not that Tocqueville has gone over the top, but that the ground has dissolved beneath our feet.
The assumption that Tocqueville and Wolin share a common sense of bereavement is the key to this book. But how warranted is this assumption? For Wolin, modernization is essentially "dispossession." To live in modern times, especially in modern America, is to feel and to be "depleted." Wolin's understanding of the modern age, it should be said, owes more to Heidegger (via Hannah Arendt) than to Tocqueville. What impresses him is the combination of "the world of huge and unprecedented powers" with "the struggle to subdue nature" whereby science, technology, and the division of labor have made it possible for a paternalistic state, ruling over a privatized economy, to satisfy the material desires of passive citizens. The following passage, which adds Western imperialism to the mix, is representative: "The growth of modern science, the organization of it around technological applications, the phenomenal expansion of economic production, the development of ever more destructive weaponry, and the growing penetration by Western nations of the non-Western world all meant that powers of unprecedented magnitudes were reshaping the world, uprooting traditional social and political forms, and reconstituting nature." Why a radical American leftist would feel free to recycle in this way the imagery and the rhetoric of hieratic European conservatives is never completely clear.
In an oddly circular attempt to illuminate the essence of modernity, Wolin adds that "meaninglessness signified the appearance of new magnitudes of power that threatened to deplete the social world of its meaningfulness." Modernization destroys meaning by making impossible a certain kind of politics, namely a politics dominated by memorable heroes in the ancient mold. Great impersonal forces, "insatiable" and "bloated," now dominate historical change, marginalizing would-be heroes. They crush "the possibility of significant individual action" and seem "bent toward preventing the individual from standing out." Reproducing the formulas of the Frankfurt School, Wolin tells us that the modern individual becomes "a reproducible object rather than a creative subject," signaling "the defeat of particularity by repetition, reproduction, and ultimately domination." And commercialism, too, fosters "a culture that turns literary pursuits into an 'industry.'" For Wolin, standing out and being remembered are a source of "meaning." By casting "heroes," including literary ones, into the night of anonymity, modernity breeds meaninglessness.
During the past two hundred years of world history, mankind has watched helplessly as meaninglessness was spawned by great magnitudes of power. That, at least, is how Wolin sums the centuries up. He admits in passing that this is not exactly the way Tocqueville looked at the matter. "The oddity of Tocqueville's conception of the modern was that science hardly figured in it, and industry and technology fared only marginally better." Still, Tocqueville denounced centralization, the culture of conformism, "the specter of mass 'pleasure' and 'materialism,'" the eradication of local differences, and the spread of solitude and "disconnectedness." And, come to think of it, he actually did have something to say about industrialization, especially about "the new aristocracy of factory owners [that] was presiding over the production of a species of social inferiority, of 'brutes.'" Indeed, the "postmodern despotism" that Tocqueville rightly foresaw in democracy's future would be "unimaginable without the presence of modern industry and its combination of a power to attract human desires, while subjecting human desires to 'regular habits' and human energies to 'uniform motions.'"
These sweeping panoramas of the modern age are Wolin's own, though some could have been articulated with equal fervor by any disciple of Leo Strauss. In any case, Wolin focuses selectively on passages in Tocqueville's works that resonate with such onedimensional views, rather than helping us to navigate the kaleidoscopic thinking that we actually find there. When Wolin chooses to descend into the details of a text, admittedly, his formidable skill as an interpreter can be eye-opening. A good example is his commentary on Tocqueville's long chapter on the three races inhabiting the United States in the first volume of Democracy in America. Wolin argues that "Tocqueville's theoretical scheme began to unravel as he moved toward a conclusion for Volume I." Before turning to consider the grim fate of blacks and Indians, Tocqueville announced that the splendid advance of democracy and equality in America was virtually foreordained. His subsequent chapter on the three races, Wolin therefore claims, "comes close to subverting the entire enterprise for it is a devastating finale that reveals the dangerous depths of antidemocracy in the United States." Indeed, America may not have been a democracy at all, because "all Americans knew, and most approved, of the enslavement of one race and the extermination of another."
"Tocqueville ... was perfectly willing to defend democracy while acknowledging its serious imperfections."
This "theoretical disarray," Wolin argues, is not simply a mistake or a weakness in Tocqueville's book. It is, rather, a reflection of a deep political crisis in the country that it examines. Tocqueville unintentionally portrays America as "a deeply divided city," a country suffering from "an arrested development with regressive elements." This is the hidden drama of Democracy in America. Alongside the bravado and the self-confidence, Tocqueville lets us see "a challenged, irresolute democracy unsure of its identity." Tocqueville acts out, in his own book, the "cognitive dissonance in a democracy that conceived itself as the embodiment of freedom and equality while it practiced slavery and genocide openly."
This interpretation of "On the Three Races," while somewhat strained, is original and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, Wolin's achievements as an interpreter get lost in his blanket indictment of the entire modern age. Thus he goes on to present slavery and genocide in America not as historical aberrations peculiar to the new world, but as revelations of the essence of modernity. The same acquisitive "civilization that destroys nature" also "corrupts its representative, the Indian." Chattel slavery and the extermination of Native Americas were the local American versions of the same "modern power" that helped the major European states brutally seize control of half the earth.
Continuing at this windy level of speculation, Wolin stresses what Tocqueville took to be one of modernity's central features, namely, "the acceleration of superficial change," "the corrosive effect of rapid change," and an "unlimited potential for recurrent social dislocation." Modern times gave birth to a "kinetic society" where "disappearance had become an everyday occurrence." No human agency can stop "modernity's plunge into an abyss of its own creation, the meaninglessness of existence when the Whirl of endless change is installed as King." Rapid change dooms not only the leisurely meditations of philosophers and the unhurried deliberations of citizens, but also, paradoxically, the revolutionary plots of radicals. Rebels cease their attempts to overthrow the status quo once the status quo starts changing so rapidly that no one can keep up with it. The "heightened tempos of modernity," therefore, explain "the triumph of modernity over revolution itself, of relentless incremental change over radical rupture." Wolin depicts the replacement of heroic revolutionaries by financiers and industrialists as a fall from poetry into prose, whereby "the extraordinary of revolution turns into the banality of change."
This left-wing anti-modernism is interesting or not, depending on your point of view. But it is related only tenuously to Tocqueville, who always assumed the intrinsic ambiguity of "progress." Gains and losses, ups and downs, advances and retreats, are mixed together promiscuously in the historical changes that he studied most closely. He would not have described his own theorizing in Wolin's words, as "a political teaching in dark times," less because the phrase is platitudinous and puerile than because he believed that, in modern Europe and America, light and darkness were intermingled and blurred.
Some people—and Wolin seems to be one of them—have a hard time loving anything that has ever disappointed them. Tocqueville obviously had a different approach to the world. He was perfectly willing to defend democracy while acknowledging its serious imperfections. For this reason, it makes little sense to press the analogy, as Wolin does, between Tocqueville's America and Plato's Atlantis or Fourier's utopia of sexual gratification. Neither America nor any of its regions was a utopia for Tocqueville. He saw slavery there as well as freedom. He saw genocide as well as jury trials.
He also sighted many pathologies in the old regime, which he never treated elegiacally as an "absolute past," as Wolin would sometimes have us believe. Tocqueville did not mourn ramshackle custom. He deplored old-regime criminal procedure and wrote a book to explain that pre-revolutionary France gave birth to dictatorship, even while emphasizing some of its compensatory virtues. Likewise, he thought that the French bourgeoisie, although a culturally petty class, was probably the last pillar of civilization. He understood the idealistic impulse behind the first phase of the French Revolution, but he also saw the Revolution as a violent civil war fueled by hatred and envy. He defended what to some extent he disliked, and he admired what to some degree he feared.
Wolin instinctively distrusts such ambivalences. He especially disapproves of Tocqueville's willingness to engage politically with unclean desires for wealth and power. Yet the utopianism and the black-or-white thinking that Wolin is bent on discovering in Democracy in America and The Ancién Regime play only a small role there. Wolin is perversely magnifying some of Tocqueville's least interesting rhetorical flights and psychological quirks into his principal contribution to political theory.
Even though he freely criticizes faulty social practices and institutions, Tocqueville was not enough of a visionary to engage in the root-and-branch criticism of entire social systems that, for Wolin, is the essential vocation of a political theorist. Indeed, if we were forced to summarize Tocqueville's "concept of the political," we would probably emphasize his claim that direct involvement in political life cures people of their utopian longings by making them concentrate on the urgent problems and the necessary trade-offs at hand. Civic engagement may foster "critical thinking," but not the sort that excoriates actual politics from a standpoint wholly outside the perishable world. The very last thing we would say is that "Tocqueville thought that politics was sacred ... because it held the possibility of being theoretically or truthfully constituted" or that democratic politics, for Tocqueville, should be "a vessel of the truth," where ordinary citizens can become "agents of the immaterial."
Where Wolin seeks a vessel of truthfulness, Tocqueville observes an arena of candor and deceit, values and nonvalues, successes and defeats. Wolin describes "civic democracy of the New England township" as "a community at once political and moral" that is "sacramental in character." He even claims to have discovered the outlines of a "political utopia" or "a lost political world" in the early chapters of the first volume of Democracy in America. But, as Wolin then parenthetically concedes, Tocqueville never paints the New England township as a realm in which private interests are excluded in favor of pure considerations of the common good. Indeed, politics there was distinctly prosaic, being "conducted over relatively small stakes of power, money, and prestige."
What this suggests is that a non-heroic politics tainted by the profit motive could nevertheless win Tocqueville's partial admiration. Disinclined to proselytize for an idealized vision of political life, Tocqueville was also unwilling to accept uncritically the stylized contrast between noble political life and base economic life. He even described entrepreneurs as "heroic," as Wolin himself admits. He marveled at the vibrancy of associative life outside the sphere of politics proper. And he eschewed economic determinism, insisting that a materialistic culture and flourishing commercial economy were compatible with democracy as well as with dictatorship.
Wolin also believes that we should "value political life for its own sake." We could debate this thesis on its merits, but we cannot fairly present it as a balanced summary of Tocqueville's views. One of the principal themes of Democracy in America, after all, is that self-government, while defective in itself, has many indirect consequences (such as the diffusion throughout society of "a restless energy, a superabundant force") that make it finally an admirable system. In fact, Tocqueville values democratic participation mostly for its indirect effects, and very little for its own sake.
As a conscientious reader, Wolin notices Tocqueville's many instrumental justifications of democracy. He also realizes that Tocqueville was exaggerating for effect when he quipped that politics is the only pleasure an American knows. And yet Wolin stubbornly under-emphasizes whatever conflicts with the idea that political participation is the heart and soul of a meaningful human existence. He acknowledges Tocqueville's claim that the Americans whom he observed easily combined public and private roles, shifting effortlessly from the pursuit of material self-interest to concern for the public weal and back again. But this amphibious existence sorts ill with Wolin's sharp polarity between the base pursuit of material gain and the noble life of politics. Faced with the clash between Tocqueville's observations of the hybrid life of Americans and his own belief that "the political" and "the economic" cannot be commingled, Wolin asserts, without evidence or argument, that the human heart cannot remain divided against itself.
That Wolin is not a perfectly reliable guide to the human heart is also suggested by the way he confuses Tocqueville's political ideals with his religious yearnings. He tells us that "Tocqueville's theoretical structure was not shaped to produce the triumph of certainty over doubt or truth over error but to avert a plunge into the abyss of meaninglessness." And although Tocqueville remarks in the Souvenirs, a memoir written in 1850-1851 but published only posthumously in 1893, that the danger of violent class warfare on the streets of Paris provided momentary respite from his chronic melancholy, he is much too faithful to Pascal to accept Wolin's suggestion that the "Pascalian abyss" of meaninglessness was limited to the modern age or that it could be overcome politically. Pascal would not have discovered "plenitude" or "truth" in New England townships. And Tocqueville's notion that ruins and gravestones are the most lasting forms of architecture does not suggest that he dreamed of finding consolation in politics for the mortality of everyone he loved.
Wolin's attempt to remake Tocqueville in his own image, as a utopian struggling against impossible odds to restore a lost fantasy world, would not be so mystifying had Tocqueville not made this very posture a principal target of his polemic in Democracy in America. To his reactionary friends and family members who viewed democratization with distrust, Tocqueville's main message was: do not spit into the wind. The transition to democracy is less peaceful in France than in America because, among other things, conservative French elites, unwaveringly attached to an idealized past, have inflamed previously excluded social groups by opposing the inevitable broadening of the franchise. A more constructive approach requires them to abandon their backward-looking utopias and to compromise with the new and admittedly imperfect France.
The author of Democracy in America, Wolin wants us to believe, lingered over the "highly decentralized, participatory politics in the United States," especially in the New England townships, in order to dramatize the fact that the modern state, with its deadening and all-encompassing paternalism, "had not been transported to America." There was a federal government of sorts in America, to be sure; but besides being terribly weak, it was also a "far less admirable species of democracy from that represented by communal democracy." When the modern state arises, "democracy" begins to dissolve, or at least it "must accommodate by accepting a more perfunctory, less participatory conception of the political."
Since he associates the authority of the modern state with this "grand betrayal," Wolin also fails to clarify some major themes in The Ancién Regime. He is inclined to make the state's "dangerous simplifying, centering tendency" into the Kafkaesque core of Tocqueville's diagnosis of modern society. "For Tocqueville," Wolin explains, "modernizing means the founding of centralized and bureaucratic power," and that means "the triumph of administration over political governance." Centralized authority spelled the obliteration of "the political," which entails an emptying of the plenitude of the world. The modern state is "the antipolitical." It is a quintessentially anti-democratic power, spreading meaninglessness in its wake.
This diagnosis of centralization may be right or wrong, but it differs in essential respects from what we find in Tocqueville, whose attitude toward the modern state was considerably more nuanced. For one thing, Tocqueville strongly favored the rationalization of public administration (in the area of taxation, for instance) and strongly preferred the executive branch to the legislature. It is also misleading to say that "in his discovery and celebration of local democracy and its participatory politics Tocqueville would tacitly side with the Anti-Federalists." Wolin makes this unpersuasive claim even though Tocqueville's entire argument about the tyranny of the majority, borrowed from Madison's attack on small homogeneous republics, referred to state governments, not to the American federal government.
True, Tocqueville stressed problems associated with a highly centralized power, such as the vulnerability of France to deadly urban riots. The unrivaled preeminence of Paris created a single point of failure, to which multi-centered countries such as the United States were not susceptible. He believed that administrative centralization could undermine economic vitality and individual initiative. And he argued that the strategy of the French crown, especially under Louis XIV, of depriving French nobles of their local administrative responsibilities had backfired, as an elite deprived of all custodial duties lost its managerial skills and became wholly unaware of simmering social problems, so that it could not help to stabilize royal authority.
Yet none of this implies that Tocqueville was opposed to centralization tout court, or that he identified it with the extinction of meaning. To disentangle Tocqueville's attitude toward centralization from Wolin's rendition of it, we should recall the claim, in Democracy in America, that "for my part, I cannot conceive that a nation can live, much less prosper, without a high degree of centralization of government." This is obvious in a way. Tocqueville loved France as much as he loved Normandy, and if there had been no centralization there would have been no France. This would have been highly embarrassing to Tocqueville, for whom national eclat was what Wolin would call a source of meaning.
France must be strong not only in Europe, Tocqueville believed, but also in its colonies. After all, it was a unified French army, drawn from all parts of the country, that brought glory to the patrie by its conquest of Algeria. Tocqueville's writings on Algeria alone are enough to disprove Wolin's contention that "Tocqueville remained committed to localized power." Democracy in America also makes it clear that "war...must almost automatically concentrate the direction of all men and the control of all things into the hands of the government." And since Tocqueville was not opposed on principle to war, or for that matter to imperialism, he was not wholly opposed to centralization, at least not in the way that Wolin asserts.
There is a theoretical problem here, not merely an interpretive one. For Wolin suggests at times that the primary motor behind the growth of state bureaucracy is the ravenous desire of the administrative apparat to preside over every aspect of our lives. There may be something to this argument, but it should at least be confronted with an alternative perspective that focuses on the way state power grows in response to social demands. As women join the workforce, for example, voters address a difficult-to-ignore social demand to political authorities for elder care to be transferred from working-age daughters to taxpayer-funded social services. I mention this example because it suggests the weakness of Wolin's premise that democracy and the growth of the modern state are somehow inherently at odds.
Indeed, Wolin's idea is bizarre on its face, since democratization presupposes state-building. Majority rule assumes a prior decision about who is a member of the community, and this prior decision cannot, in principle, be made democratically. Moreover, there is no reason for excluded groups to seek influence over the lawmaking process unless citizens and other inhabitants of the country obey the law, that is, unless coercive authority is in place. And in a large, industrializing, and commercially dynamic country, only a centralized state can respond effectively to social demands for managing economic externalities. For Tocqueville, quite commonsensically, democracy has something to do with a consultative and responsive state. For Wolin, democracy recedes as soon as the state raises its head.
They disagree on this point because they think differently about the relation between democratization and state-building. Since Tocqueville recognized the dependency of modern democracy on relatively stable institutions, he could not have been the uncompromising anti-etatist that Wolin makes him out to be. This is made inadvertently clear by Wolin's two chapters on the Souvenirs. Of Tocqueville's three books, this is the one that Wolin finds least congenial. He even opines that "Souvenirs could have been subtitled, 'A Memoir of Aristocratic Ressentiment'." For he encounters there only the unreconstructed class snob reacting in horror to the mob. This unappealing Tocqueville embraces what Wolin dubs the "stalled ideology" of liberalism, which is basically a cover-up for elite domination, managed by propertied insiders who are obsessed with denying political access to the majority. Tocqueville may have written about the glories of heroic political action, but "when an actual revolutionary caesura opened in 1848, [he] chose, instead, to retreat to a spectator's box and to comment, meanspiritedly, on the efforts of his contemporaries to cope with extraordinary events."
Tocqueville recoiled from "the political," to Wolin's dismay, when it took the form of an urban insurrection. To explain Tocqueville's failure of radical nerve, Wolin introduces a distinction between the revolutionary majority and the electoral majority. On the one hand, we have the people as "the street" that bursts into flames periodically and overthrows despotic powers, but then disperses homeward to eke out a living. On the other hand, we have the people who are continuously involved in debating policy and exercising power. The first majority is euphoric; the second majority is sober. The first needs only cobblestones and wide boulevards; the second requires institutions, such as the suffrage, parliament, specialized ministries, and rotation in office.
Tocqueville and Wolin estimate these two majorities differently. Tocqueville accepted the institutions of the liberal state. He advocated the right to vote because he saw it, roughly speaking, as a routinization of the right of rebellion. Wolin, by contrast, prefers the raucous to the routine. Where Tocqueville sees a menacing mob driven by vindictiveness and envy, Wolin sees a "heroic modality of human action." Wolin exhibits a low tolerance for stable institutions, even if they permit the admission of large numbers of ordinary people into a sphere of decision-making previously reserved for a few.
...his volume helps us to understand the fate of the philosophy of 1968..."
To express his distaste for boring elections and prosaic representative government, Wolin notes that both involve a falloff of civic involvement from the ideal of direct democracy. Voters are not citizens. They want only to feel free while shifting genuine responsibility onto officeholders. Wolin observes in this context that "the perfect expression of these conflicting desires is the wish for a strong centralized government based on elections. For then the citizen can 'relax.'"
Wolin realizes that the "diluted" quality of political involvement in modern democracy owes as much to equality as to bureaucracy. For democracy in a large and densely populated country will necessarily be representative, not direct. Since Wolin knows this, he insists that democracy is an unattainable ideal in an age of large nation-states. And yet, even when echoing Rousseau and the antiFederalists, he cannot coherently sustain the opposite thesis: that egalitarian democracy could have easily found a home in communal government, bypassing the centralized and coercive institutions of the modern state. In the American context, for one thing, "localism and selfgovernment" have been historically "associated with inequality and the defense of slavery." This presents a major dilemma not for Tocqueville, as we are told, but for Wolin, who is committed to defending both localism and egalitarianism. For it turns out that the best and perhaps the only protector of poor and weak members of the community is the centralized state. The egalitarian cause will, therefore, in Wolin's words, "gravitate toward centralization in hopes of enforcing 'equal protection' for all." But then how can Wolin, a radical egalitarian in America, continue to insist that small is beautiful, and to refuse all commerce with the power of the centralized state?
Uncompromising advocates of participatory equality cannot accept representative democracy in a large nation-state, for in their eyes such a system entails diluted citizenship. But neither can they retreat to local government, for municipal authority is perennially associated with corruption as well as with discrimination and inequality. In other words, Wolin has nowhere to turn. Or, rather, he has nowhere to turn except toward the disruptive and transgressive politics of the barricades, the episodic outburst of civic involvement, doomed to subside after a brief moment of glory. And so Wolin consistently sides with disturbance against order, identifying himself with "demotic powers welling up from below." This recalls what he has elsewhere labeled "fugitive democracy," meaning presumably democracy that does not last long enough to inflict any serious harms or to implicate its participants in disagreeable chains of events.
Wolin makes some attempts to associate Tocqueville, too, with the innocence of a transient politics, invoking the latter's "fascination for the extraordinary." But this involves another muddying of obvious distinctions. In order to idealize deadly urban riots, Wolin has to censor Tocqueville's thesis that rebelliousness and servility have common roots, as well as his perception that the motives of the crowd in the French Revolution were mixed, simultaneously idealistic and vindictive. On some level, be it noted, Wolin is reconciled to the evanescence of "the political" in today's world: "Unable to nurture a democratic political life, modernity assigns it a fleeting existence — of protest, outrage — but never a settled condition; always a losing struggle to preserve what seems increasingly anachronistic." The regret here is artfully conveyed, but the underlying attitude is passive-aggressive, not tragic.
Wolin wants to excite his readers' imaginations with visions of a heroic politics devoted to the common good. His reasons for so doing may be excellent or they may be dubious, but few readers of Democracy in America or The Ancién Regime will accept his claim that the paramount interest of those works lies in their utopian image of political participation. Tocqueville no doubt believed that something "grand" had been lost with the political weakening of France's landed nobility; but he also associated political life with making compromises, conciliating interests, choosing the lesser evil, and adapting to the realistic possibilities of his times.
Wolin slights these aspects of Tocqueville's thought because he focuses excessively on Tocqueville's oscillations between aspiration and disappointment. He treats us to a Tocqueville who sometimes idealizes political life as a plane of spirituality above the squalor of commerce and who then turns to curse political life as "tasteless" and "not worth a damn." In the process, Wolin strives to make Tocqueville's balmy hymns to "great passions" and "manly virtues" seem theoretically interesting, even though they are easy to explain as overcompensation for a lifelong sense of political ineffectiveness. He also slights the way such longing for the heroic and such disgust with bourgeois dullness led Tocqueville to glamorize militarism and conquest. And he ignores the religious or pre-political sources of Tocqueville's frequent despondency, which was unrelated to disillusionment with the modern age.
This selective approach to Tocqueville, admittedly, is no more tendentious than many others. What makes it especially disappointing is what it leaves out, namely, the source of Tocqueville's power and lasting influence as a political theorist — I mean Tocqueville's view of social change as an implacable fact, beyond good and evil, beyond praise and blame. It was against this fundamental conviction, seemingly incomprehensible to Wolin, that Tocqueville developed his distinctly non-utopian concept of democracy. Much of the time, at least, Tocqueville manages to avoid fatalism while treating democratic politics not as an unrealizable ideal, but simply as more compatible with morality, order, and property than French reactionaries believed. And he also described democratization, including a widening of the suffrage, as an effective way, in this imperfect world, to manage the resentments of the poor.
In Democracy in America, along these lines, Tocqueville sometimes suggests that he is planning to save France by applying lessons from America about how to combine stability and democracy. But sustained attention to the deep historical and contextual roots of social order was bound to cure him of youthful illusions about the ease with which individual reformers can steer large societies according to preconceived plans. Taking historical preconditions into account, Tocqueville eventually admitted that few lessons from America could be applied in France. American democracy was compatible with political stability because of non-transferable factors such as cheap land and the open frontier (outlets for lower-class unrest), the remoteness of military threats, the lack of a single center such as Paris, the lack of a parasitic aristocracy needing to be uprooted, and the absence of a tradition of hostility between republicanism and religion.
Wolin recognizes all this, but he uses it only to reinforce his peculiar view of Tocqueville as a wholly impractical visionary. The most inspiring visionaries, after all, saw their visions defeated by an inhospitable world. To understand why he would find a defeated visionary so appealing, we need to return to Wolin's idea of critical theory as a theory that cannot be criticized. To disclose the defects of the perishable world, the political theorist must promulgate a vision of incorruptible civic virtue. The vision or the myth of the political must be completely untainted by compromises, power games, or conflicts of interest. Wolin fails to mention that political life would be far from ideal even if all rival material interests were excluded. Selfless citizens devoted to the common good still might engage in self-destructive conflicts, since they could always disagree violently about the nature of the common good or about the best way to achieve it. Wolin skips lightly over this obvious problem because, rankled by private interests, he conceives the common good as a solution, not as a problem.
The same can be said about the way in which he treats "the heroic impulse," that is, "the drive to achieve something Plutarchian, epical," an impulse that he often associates with "the political." Wolin takes the palpable innocence of his own thinking so much for granted that he does not even bother to distinguish his "concept of the political" from Carl Schmitt's Begriff des Politischen, where heroism has somewhat less savory connotations. In Schmitt's conception, "the political" lifts humanity high above the squalid economic sphere where individuals scramble to satisfy material needs by forcing a decisive and manly response to the existential threat of being killed by members of a hostile state or group.
Wolin's heroic politics, by contrast, is rinsed clean of male aggression. The resulting ineffability may be frustrating; but it is also intentional. Many people have much clearer ideas about what they do not want than about what they want. Wolin speaks to them. He gives them a counterparadigm, not a paradigm. He offers them a nebulous hope, not a painful choice. He rallies them around a negative, without committing them to a positive aim that might divide them from each other or fail to work out as they wish.
For Tocqueville the visionary, we learn from Wolin, "the political concerned what was right, good, or proper for the whole of society." What did such a politics leave out? Examined more closely, Wolin's ideal politics turns out to be purged not only of "the fragmented politics of interests" (allegedly invented by liberals), but also of partisan rivalries, bureaucratic hierarchies, coercive authority, clandestine networks, manipulative rhetoric, organized institutions, routine procedures, stable roles, scarce resources, painful trade-offs, unintended consequences, nationalist bigotry, palace intrigue, public posturing, insider deals, second-best alliances, and, indeed, all the other things associated with politics as we know it. This is Wolin's point. Tocqueville reported all such rotten goings-on in his book on America, but as a visionary he deleted them from the concept of the political.
Non-visionary students of politics adopt a humbler or less discriminating approach. They deliberately shun conceptualizations that make "democracy" so flawless that no actual government could ever qualify as democratic. They define democracy not as the unachievable "rule of the people," but as a system in which parties lose elections. Such a realistic concept is useful in comparative analysis because it fits some actually existing political systems while excluding others. For Wolin, however, such genuflecting before an imperfect reality registers the servility of most if not all social science. It reflects a decision to stabilize sham democracies by making them appear normal, thereby sedating the public into complacency.
To unsettle the complacent, Wolin advocates a "destabilizing" or "abnormalizing" form of political thinking. The best way to destabilize, he suggests, is to articulate a vision of political perfection that itself can never be destabilized. This is the point at which the reader begins to feel suspicious. For if a vision is so remote from reality, so obviously unreachable, why would it destabilize the powers that be rather than reinforce feelings of impotence and habits of resignation? Moreover, might not Wolin's curious attempt to immunize his vision from critical appraisal be some sort of cover-up?
What do we find if we unwrap "the political," as Wolin conceives it, and examine its contents rather than what the concept excludes? What we discover is a cacophony of irreconcilable values. There is heroism in there as well as impartiality; dramatic showdowns as well as recurrent attention to everyday needs; egalitarianism as well as localism; democratic distrust of elites as well as the hidden paternalism of the political theorist as "masked legislator" who makes myths in which the majority sheepishly acquiesces. These ideas obviously clash among themselves. How could a great hero be satisfied with the minuscule stage provided by a local, self-sufficient pre-industrial community?
Instead of helping us sort through these tensions, Wolin disguises the disharmony among his own values by ascending into mistiness. He prefers mysterious allusions, oblique intimations, and swarms of unanswered questions to forthright statements of propositions he is prepared to defend. It might seem a little unfair to accuse him of studious vagueness; but his convoluted tactics for lifting his concept of the political beyond the reach of understanding certainly do not make life easy for his critics.
Occasionally Wolin says that his vision of an untainted political life has a practical purpose, namely, to strengthen the resolve of political activists and reformers. This suggests that a third option exists between the uncompromising visionary and the slavish apologist for the privileges of a few. Indeed, many readers claim to have found just such an intermediate figure, a practical idealist, in Tocqueville. Wolin himself comes closest to this attractive approach when he asserts that "the political domain" in modern times "has become increasingly directed by corporate economic powers." This leads him to associate "the suppression of politics" with "the secretive regime of cronies."
All this sounds interesting and plausible, especially in light of recent events. In passages such as these, Wolin resembles a reformer rather than a seer. And many of us would agree that the disproportionate influence today of, say, the oil and gas industry on American foreign policy is underwritten in part by "a thin culture of inattentive citizens." This is not only true, but well worth emphasizing. So why complain? Are not unrealistic aspirations for a "higher" kind of politics valuable if they stimulate marginal improvements in quotidian politics? Is Wolin not trying to cure the pathologies of secret government by damning "an administered society without citizen politics" and thereby encouraging more intense forms of civic watchfulness and engagement?
The answer is no, he is not. Solving solvable problems is not Wolin's aim. It is much too prosaic, for one thing. It is also excessively upbeat. His myth of the political as a domain of virtue, heroism, and devotion to the common good is food for pessimists. It is meant not to incite higher voter turnout, but rather to remind us of the sink of civic privatism in which we are engulfed. The same can be said of Wolin's claim that "postmodern despotism consists of the collapse of politics into economics and the emergence of a new form, the economic polity." He is not implying here that citizens need to be more alert to the secret influence of economic interests on the formulation and the implementation of national policy: such a warning might trigger a search for improvement. No, Wolin is saying that our community has been so thoroughly depoliticized that "modern power" can no longer be brought under human control.
In other words, Wolin informs us of "the passing of democracy" and "the virtual disappearance of the culture of participation" in order to commemorate our defeats, not to strategize how to reverse or to moderate them: "Myth becomes a means not only of dealing with loss but of conveying the experience of traumatic loss, of loss unresolved." In the apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil, then, evil has won. Wolin does not openly endorse such a radically gnostic view, admittedly; but something of the sort lurks at the edges of his thought, and it explains what he means when describing Tocqueville, admiringly, as "burdened by dispossession."
If we take on board Wolin's myth of the political, the idealized image of a civic domain purged of all impurities, and compare it to the deeply entrenched injustices and rapacious egoisms that everywhere surround us, all we can reasonably do is pull up stakes and take to the hills. From there we can rage against the mediocrity and the conformism of Americans, among many other things. For Wolin, in sum, a "practical visionary" is a contradiction in terms. He fully accepts "Tocqueville's conviction of the futility of political involvement." Indeed, he has one-upped his subject, replacing Tocqueville's complex "desire-and-revulsion response to politics" with a simple revulsion response. Withdrawal from the political world in disgust — not agitation for, say, campaign finance reform — is the only appropriate behavior for anyone who has learned to breathe the rarefied air of his imaginary political realm.
Wolin's lengthy paraphrases, generous citations, and pungent commentaries make this a useful book for all those seeking to deepen their understanding of Tocqueville. But this is not, alas, the sum of his achievement. In fact, his interpretations are secondary to his diagnosis of the "postmodern despotism" characteristic of "late modernity." Why he has taken the trouble is not exactly clear, given his conviction that "the politically innovative theorist has little chance of a hearing." But we can be grateful nonetheless, since his volume helps us to understand the fate of the philosophy of 1968, and especially the way elements of the New Left still desire to keep their hands immaculately clean by idealizing "participation" and refusing any compromise with stable institutions, hard choices, and actual power.
Having taken forty years to publish a sequel to Politics and Vision, Wolin has been quite unlucky in his timing. For his readers in 2002 are bound to be painfully aware, as he could not have been while writing his book, of the kind of politics that is often associated with backward-looking utopias and fundamentalist reactions against modernity. He cannot be blamed for this, heaven knows; no one would suggest that. But images of a visionary and a hero who hates America while promulgating myths of purity, recruiting "agents of the immaterial," attacking the secular nation-state, and blaming modernization for having depleted the world of meaning are too fresh and too bitter to allow us to read an unorthodox work such as this, as we no doubt should, with a relaxed enjoyment of its eccentricities. By historical accident, the innocence that Wolin ascribes to his own quixotic views seems for the moment disquieting and not, as we might otherwise have thought, simply without foundation.
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