The idea that democracy and despotism are mutually exclusive is based on a mistaken understanding of both.
Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have just painted, could be combined better than one imagines with some of the external forms of freedom, and that it would not by impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.1
I would be curious to know what reaction a modern reader coming to these words for the first time might experience – whether they might elicit unease or dread or confusion in the soul, or rather a kind of slightly perplexed complacency, or perhaps even a kind of pleasant and vague agreement, as if to say, ‘Yes, this is true, such a state of affairs really would be regrettable!’ It may well be that these words are a testing stone for the contemporary soul.
The passage in question, which never fails to send a cold shudder through my heart, and the more each time I return to it after long absence, comes from one of the most intelligent and prescient minds of modern times. I have always considered it a mark of shame on my country that the greatest book, the deepest and most incisive thoughts, ever written regarding America, were penned by a foreigner; and it is an amusing twist on that shame that they should have sprung in particular from the mind of a Frenchman.
The writer is Alexis de Tocqueville, and the words are excerpted from his monumental work Democracy in America. They occur nigh the end, in a chapter entitled ‘What kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear’. Not only this chapter, but the book in full should be read by anyone of our day who is genuinely interested in comprehending the nature of contemporary democracies, and who is not blind, or wishes at least to open his eyes, to the greatest limitations of contemporary democracy, and those malign forms which unhappily may be its consequence. The chapter here cited would be difficult to adequately understand in and of itself, without the light of the whole book to cast it into proper relief. This is the moreso true, as many today, blinded by the special and especially widespread form of propaganda that surrounds us, will at first consider the very idea of ‘democratic despotism’ to be an oxymoron. Yet it is precisely the danger of a despotism arising within democracy as its special modern outgrowth that Tocqueville would awaken us to.
Tocqueville’s vision of despotism in a democratic state takes at least two forms. One, the more classic of the two, is very similar to that kind of despotism which is reviled and feared as much in our day as in the past. It is in a word a kind of classic tyranny into which democracies may atimes stray. We can infer moreover the horrifying form that this tyranny might take when combined with a technology which permits it, as past tyrannies never dreamed, to regulate all aspects of human life. We have called that specter Totalitarianism, a concept which is in need of much deeper critique than it has received,2 and we live yet near enough to it that the memory of its many horrors may yet protect us from it, to some extent. Having suffered the long illness of it, if only by proxy in our war with the Soviet, we are to some extent inoculated against it, so long as it does not arise in a new and more virulent strain. It is at least true that the awareness of this menace has been deeply enough lodged in our spirits, that there is no shortage even of public awareness of it, some of it even exaggerated and false. This last is to be glimpsed each time someone rises up in hyperbole and calls, in true democratic fashion, some peccant public figure a ‘Hitler’ or a ‘fascist’.
But there is another and, as it were, more insidious possibility which Tocqueville identifies, and it is to this we should most emphatically turn our attentions: the possibility of a specifically democratic despotism, which replaces the bayonet with the cold shoulder, and the forcible oppression of dissidents with the infinitely more effective response of – utter silence.
In America the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them. It is not that he has to fear an auto-da-fé, but he is the butt of mortifications of all kinds and of persecutions every day. A political career is closed to him; he has offended the only power that has the capacity to open it up. Everything is refused him, even glory. Before publishing his opinions, he believed he had partisans; it seems to him that he no longer has any now that he as uncovered himself to all; for those who blame him express themselves openly, and those who think like him, without having his courage, keep silent and move away. He yields, he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.
Chains and executioners are the coarse instruments that tyranny formerly employed; but in our day civilization has perfected even despotism itself, which seemed, indeed, to have nothing more to learn.
I wonder if this description of life in America in the time before the Civil War will not seem chillingly familiar to some of us? Certainly, it must cast into a new light the various campaigns of defamation and deplatforming which are brought against us, and which are often enough painted as though they had been the inventions of this morning. We are at war with a much older beast than we sometimes seem to think.
Naturally, one may well believe – and hardly will one be mistaken! – that the situation which Tocqueville so masterly sketches is after all not so bad a fate, as compared to that which awaits one in truer tyrannies. For in tyrannies, one may not speak without feeling the lash, and perhaps one will lose one’s very freedom for the liberty one has afforded to one’s tongue, or pay for one’s words with one’s life. The terror of this is under no circumstances to be belittled. Yet those of us who are not blind to the beauties of the soul nor numb to its finest products, would do well to listen on a time the longer to what Tocqueville would teach us:
Under the absolute government of one alone, despotism struck the body crudely, so as to reach the soul; and the soul, escaping from those blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leave the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says to it: You shall think as I do or you shall die; he says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains to you; but from this day on, you are a stranger among us. You shall keep your privileges in the city, but they will become useless to you; for if you crave the vote of your fellow citizens, they will not grant it to you, and if you demand only their esteem, they will still pretend to refuse it to you. You shall remain among men, but you shall lose your rights of humanity. When you approach those like you, they shall flee you as being impure; and those who believe in your innocence, even they shall abandon you, for one would flee them in their turn. Go in peace, I leave you your life, but I leave it to you worse than death.
That is chilling, and I will not be alone in feeling the bracing touch of it. As for its consequences:
If America has not yet had great writers, we ought not to seek the reasons for this elsewhere: no literary genius exists without freedom of mind, and there is no freedom of mind in America.
Fortunately, our nation is not without great writers. But it is to this day without wide appreciation of the few it has produced, and their particular histories (its greatest writers have consistently been misunderstood, unacknowledged, and spurred into voluntary exile) do not much console. Those of us, at least, who do not satisfy ourselves with Norman Mailer and Sinclair Lewis – nay, nor even Steinbeck or Poe – must we not admit that, although the Tocqueville’s statement here is not literal, it is, nonetheless, alarmingly generally accurate?
The terror of ‘mild despotism’ should be lost on no one who has love of greatness in his heart. Tocqueville himself was such a lover, and was well aware of the distressing qualities of democratic or mild despotism, also known today as ‘soft totalitarianism’, though he himself considered it preferable to that more classic form of tyranny which might issue from democracies. One has of course to agree with him – given the political situation of two hundred years ago. Indeed, apart from its inherent ills, Tocqueville seemed to consider the greatest ill of mild despotism, its proclivity to degenerate into pure despotism.
But despite the fact that the judgements laid forth by Tocqueville, though they are nearing their two-hundredth anniversary, stand almost unqualifiably valid also in our own day, so thorough, trenchant, and ingenious were they at their birth, there have been in the intervening centuries only two events which compel a revisitation of Tocqueville’s conclusions regarding democratic politics and mores: one, an event of ‘history’, the other, of philosophy; one to challenge certain aspects of Tocqueville’s diagnosis of the illnesses to which democracies are prone; the other to widen the scope of his prescriptions.
The first event is nothing more nor less than the great technological revolution, possibility of which was foreseen by the greatest minds of past generations, but consequences of which are becoming visible only now for the first time in history. Tocqueville’s analysis must therefore be emended, for the advent of technology in our day has altered the quality of the democratic despotism that Tocqueville feared in a single fundamental respect: it has made it in principle perpetual. As Leo Strauss so forcefully put it at the close of his response to Alexandre Kojève in their exchange on one of Xenophon’s dialogues,3
Thanks to the conquest of nature and to the complete unabashed substitution of suspicion and terror for law, the Universal and Final Tyrant has at his disposal practically unlimited means for ferreting out, and for extinguishing, the most modest efforts in the direction of thought.
What we speak of here is the perfect conflation of despotism and democracy, the unification of the two apparently contrary principles into a single horrifyingly sinister synthesis.
To appreciate the gravity of this possibility, one can surely do worse than to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which a most convincing portrait of such a world is drawn with a sure hand, by a man who was no stranger to the hard sciences and the ways in which they might be made to conform to tyranny.4 This is not Huxley’s deepest nor most penetrating treatment of the question of science’s effect on human life – for that, one must turn to Point, Counter Point – but it is certainly that work of fiction which so far as I know most clearly demonstrates the kind of despotism which we of today ought most to fear. Thanks to the conquest of nature and to the increasing and increasingly unabashed substitution of public opinion for law, the total debasement of the human spirit could radically be effected, not just for the next decades or for our historical epoch, but for centuries to come, if not for the remainder of human existence, by means of practices and institutions which might result in irreversible damage to our humanity.
We live, I am not afraid of saying, quite blithely unaware of the possibility of this kind of nightmare. We have been inculcated by our contemporary ‘philosophy’ and by the experience and outcome of long and terrible wars to believe that democracy and despotism inhabit two mutually exclusive and perfectly separate political spheres. We presuppose this simple dichotomy, believing tacitly that although one form might lead or give way to the other, the first leaves off exactly where the second begins. Were the cleanliness of these divisions really guaranteed, I would be considerably more sanguine about our prospects, and might rest content at holding my tongue on certain questions. I might even be a qualified ‘friend of democracy’. But this must be impossible to anyone who perceives with sufficient an immediacy that danger against which Tocqueville warns us.
Now, Tocqueville himself was a somewhat unwilling prophet of democracy. He regarded its coming, not without regret at the world that was departing; he viewed it as an inevitability that must be accepted by equanimous souls, a dispensation of fate itself and an inescapable result of the great plan of God. He consoled himself for the splendour and human greatness which would be lost to the world through it, by reflecting on the increase in humaneness and the reduction of unhappiness and pain the coming democratic revolution would, if managed well, entail. His faith in God, and his consequent faith in mankind, was his specific against the vision of ‘universal uniformity’ which ‘saddened and chilled’ him. There is a very dire question as to whether or not we may any longer permit ourselves such consolations. For the ‘plan of God’, whatever it might be, includes also the element of human free will; then when the time for war arises, we must be ready to take up arms, rather than sitting quietly on our belief in Providence or in the final aims of the higher powers. If we look the matter squarely in the face we must surely face also the dread of it, particularly when we look think a moment in an untimely way, when we gaze beyond, and consider somberly the vilest possibilities that even now technology has made possible for a future and last humanity, compared with that more splendid vision of an unrealized human greatness, that we even now cherish in our hearts.
Tocqueville, we may say, learned to come to terms with democracy, and everywhere expresses his belief that aristocracy is no longer possible, that it cannot return to mankind in any guise whatsoever. His aim was therefore in teaching how the weaknesses of democracy might be strengthened, the dangers of democracy averted, and the strengths of democracy reinforced. In this he was master, and we would do well to make ourselves his intelligent pupils – to apply his teachings where they are still relevant, to supplement them where they are deficient, and to replace them in those few areas that they no longer seem adequate.
One of, if not the greatest of all, dangers to human greatness is to be found in the enervation which might seize promising individuals, when they find themselves utterly isolated in the democratic crowd, shunned without being punished and spurned without being oppressed, encircled in a suffocating sphere of opprobrium – a perfect prison of invisible walls, which bears the name of solitude above its impassable door. It is a rare and superhuman strength which can persist even so long as a few years in radical ideas, without even a shred of sympathy or agreement from one’s fellows: imagine, then, the strength that would be demanded of an entire life like this. One who is divided from all others by his own rarity is doomed to the worst kind of oubliette, such as not even the wicked genius of the torturers of the past might have invented.
In drawing attention to the dangers inherent in even the most popular of our modern technologies (such as, for instance, our dubiously named ‘communication technology’) I risk saying things which are not likely to be very popular. I am willing in any case to press the matter quite far indeed, by expressing my belief that our technology today poses problems to far outweigh its advantages, and that we ought to be much more prudent in its use, its development, and its promulgation than I know we will be. It is, so far as I am concerned, the most troubling development in all of modernity, and the one most likely to do irreparable harm to our future. I think it suffices to note that our technology is the only invention ever to come of human hands capable of destroying the entirety of the race. And the ways in which it might do so are hardly limited to nuclear holocaust or the artificial production of a superdisease (though it goes without saying that these, too, are very real possibilities).
It will be responded, to be sure, that if it is capable of such evil it is capable of as much good. I do not deny this; I only doubt that it suffices as a counterargument. For precisely if this is true, then the decisive question is not the power of technology itself, but the virtue and responsibility of the hand that wields it. We have granted this power to no one individual, but to the entirety of humanity. Only the most doctrinaire liberal will claim that ‘humanity’ as such is responsible enough to bear such a power: and often enough, it is precisely the most doctrinaire liberal that contradicts his own belief, in his terror at the damage to our ‘environment’ that popular technology is even now wreaking. Today, technology has been given the power to inflict unquantifiable destruction, and that this power has been given willy-nilly to the most short-sighted and greediest human beings among us, who are even encouraged in their vices by an untrammelled economic ‘liberty’ and a general furor for the latest bit of technological ‘progress’. This not to speak of the special dogma of our day, according to which we are all on the upward road, and the future must be greater than that past! On what grounds, then, are we permitted to suppose that the good of the results will even nearly approach the ill?
The destruction that this unbridled technological development could bring need not be physical. The Bomb is not the only threat that technology has birthed. Perhaps it is no longer even the greatest. But if this is so, and if what I have said so far is correct, then technology is the mightiest weapon that has ever been offered to the hands of humanity’s greatest enemy – an enemy which does not, alas, become the less terrible for being so very benign in its intentions. I am speaking of that very personal inertia and meekness which Tocqueville identifies as the greatest threat in democracies, as that which will lead them to that mild despotism we have already discussed.5
A final passage of Tocqueville is worth citing, for the terrible degree to which it describes our present plight precisely:
I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and regular pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel then; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.
Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principle affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?
So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of it from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all these things; it has disposed them to tolerate them and often even to regard them as a benefit.
We may ask ourselves – no, it is our pressing duty to ask ourselves, with all due ruthlessness – just how far this portrait is our own, and to what extent our much-vaunted technology has become the principle power that the ‘tutelary power’ today holds over our heads – its greatest and most precious tool in the cowing of our souls. My own position, I think, has been suggested clearly enough.
But if it is true – as I believe it is – that technology is a potent weapon in the hands of a dangerous and largely unintelligent ruler, it is only good strategy to take that weapon, and turn it against its master.
Tocqueville notes in many places the importance of association in any effort to counteract democracy’s worst tendencies. In Tocqueville’s day, of course, the possibilities of association were for clear reasons limited. Restrictions on means of travel and those eternal barriers to communication (distance and time), set up natural borders to association. To mention no other difficulties, it would not have been a simple matter for a radical American of fifty years ago (radical either toward the left or toward the right, as my reader prefers) to find the company of others like him, particularly if he did not reside in one of the great cities of the country. Even his chances to associate would be few and far between.
Today, thanks to the internet, these distances have been all but nullified. This is a situation ripe with perils all its own, some of which we are only now just beginning to glimpse in dim outline. But it has this to its favour, and this is no small advantage: the internet has made real diversity of opinions possible, in a way it was perhaps not in even the recent past, by providing individuals possessed of utterly eccentric ideas to find their peers, the which often dwell in distant places or even in other countries. The solitude of the idiosyncratic today is less prevalent than ever before, and in consequence ideas that are not favoured by the majority, ideas that are even regarded as obnoxious and pernicious, may yet root and grow, reinforced by nourishment of distant aquifers. To anyone who does not believe that the truth is the unique preserve of one or even both of our popular political parties, this cannot help but appear as a hopeful sign. It has often been noted the degree to which this has played into the advent of populist leaders and parties in our day; and whatever may be said against them, it is clear they at least buy us much-needed time to be about our deeper work. If, as price for this, we must accept the exponential increase as well of ignorant, vulgar, and superficial opinions, that is in the end may well be an acceptable price to pay.
I leave off, after these dark thoughts, with a more hopeful vision of the future, as found in the closing of yet another monumental book, this time a work of cultural history. From Dawn to Decadence was accomplished at the exceptional age of ninety-three by one of our greatest intellectuals, the late Jacques Barzun. This book is also eminently worth reading for any lover of European culture. I cite here but choice fragments of Barzun’s closing prophecies, as imagined from some day in the year 2300. The quotation marks are Barzun’s.6
‘Some writers have called our time the end of the European age. True in one sense, it is misleading in another: it overlooks the Europeanization of the globe. … The shape and coloring of the next era is beyond anyone’s power to define; if it were guessable, it would not be new. But on the character of the interval between us and the real tomorrow, speculation is possible. …
‘The population was divided roughly into two groups; they did not like the word classes. The first, less numerous, was made up of the men and women who possessed the virtually inborn ability to handle the products of techne and master the methods of physical science, especially mathematics – it was to them what Latin had been to the medieval clergy. This modern elite had the geometrical mind that singled them out for the life of research and engineering. …
‘It was from this class – no, group – that the governors and heads of institutions were recruited. The parallel with the Middle Ages is plain – clerics in one case, cybernists in the other. The latter took pride in the fact that in ancient Greek cybernetes means helmsman, governor. It validated their position as rulers over the masses, which by then could neither read nor count. But these less capable citizens were by no means barbarians, yet any schooling would have been wasted on them; that has been proved in the late 20C. …
‘As for peace and war, the former was the distinguishing mark of the West from the rest of the world. The numerous regions of the occident and America formed a loose confederation obeying rules from Brussels and Washington in concert; they were prosperous, law-abiding, overwhelming in offensive weaponry, and they had decided to let outside peoples and their factions eliminate one another until exhaustion introduced peacableness into their plans.
‘After a time, estimated at little over a century, the western mind was set upon by a blight: it was Boredom. The attack was so severe that the over-entertained people, led by a handful of restless men and women from the upper orders, demanded Reform and finally imposed in the usual way, by repeating one idea. These radicals had begun to study the old neglected literary and photographic texts and maintained that they were the record of a fuller life. They urged looking with a fresh eye at the monuments still standing about; they reopened the collections of works or art that had long seemed so uniformly dull that nobody went near them. They distinguished styles and the different ages of their emergence – in short, they found a past and used it to create a new present. Fortunately, they were bad imitators (except for a few pedants), and their twisted view of their sources laid the foundation of our nascent – or perhaps one should say, renascent – culture. It has resurrected enthusiasm in the young and talented, who keep exclaiming what a joy it is to be alive.’
Barring the advent of a technocratic totalitarianism such as we have intimated above, the gravest future we might imagine is a gradual descent into a new European Dark Age, in which the inimitable cultural patrimony of Europe is once more threatened with extinction by the twin dangers of stagnant forgetfulness and violent and barbaric animosity. If such a future really is come upon us, as is suggested by many signs, we can hope for nothing more than that, this time, those of us who are wakeful both to past and to future, will know to prepare for its coming as no one in the last Dark Age could have known. We are in a position – we who will not sleep though our neighbours drowse and slumber, we who will not despair though hope becomes dim to our eyes, we who will learn again how to build for the centuries, perchance even the millennia, as much as lies in our small power – we are in a position today to prepare for this contingency as never before, and to ready ourselves before the necessity of bearing this torch across the bleak times ahead of us.
There are households in the very land wherein I dwell, which have kept alive the embers of their hearths for as long as any human memory or any human tradition can recall. We must bear fixedly before us their modest example.
1All quotations from Democracy in America in what follows are taken from the Harvey C. Mansfield translation of Tocqueville. See Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America (Chicago and London. University of Chicago Press: 2000).
2A few notes in the right direction: in the first place, it should be observed that this concept arose in democratic times as a means of joining together Nazism, Fascism, and Communism all into a single category. The fingerprints on the idea are thus unmistakably ‘democratic’; it is clearly a concept formulated by the winners of World War II and the Cold War in order to justify their victory on an intellectual and moral level. Yet it is clear that Nazism and Fascism were already two very distinct phenomena – not to speak of the much more salient differences between these forms and Communism! – and it would be well, both for our intellectual conscience but also for the formulation of the principles of the Deep Right itself, to understand these differences with a degree of rigour. Only then would it be possible to correctly diagnose their similarities as well, which is to say, the extent to which they all employed propaganda, scenery and celebrations, parades, and technological control in order to maintain their reign. This point of similarity, which is essentially modern and which is essentially common to all these forms, could then be understood as the specifically ‘totalitarian’ element of these regimes, and could be understood, and evaluated, in its own right. But until we have done the initial work of analysis, this final work of synthesis is not only premature but also doomed to end in confusions and confoundment.
3See Strauss, Leo. On Tyranny, Revised and Enlarged (Ithaca. Cornell Paperbacks, Cornell University Press: 1963), ‘Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero’.
41984 will also come to mind; but I believe that the specific danger it warned against was extinguished with the fall of the Soviet Union, and could, moreover, have only come to fruition in the world through a most remarkable series of global accidents. In particular, the notion of three superstates engaged in a perennial and unwinnable war seems to me unbelievable. Much more credible would have been a single world government, in unambiguous possession of the entire globe, which, using its tyrannical and unchallenged power, might fabricate wars wholesale, pitting its citizens against one another in a great theatrical display unheard of in the history of the world. For, barring the advent of a technological superstate à la Brave New World, Orwell’s point does stand: a society without enemies cannot long continue.
5 I direct the enterprising reader, who would more intimately understand the thought here presented, to the following chapters of Democracy in America: Volume I, Part 2, Chapter 7 and Volume II, Part 4, Chapters 6-7; cf. Volume II, Part 2, Chapters 20.
6 Barzun, Jacques, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present. 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (New York. Perennial: 2000).