Sociology 15: foundations of sociological theory 2009

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Handout THREE

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Tocqueville attempted to make sense of the same world as Marx, but in a distinctive way. Both his theories and the way he wrote are very different from Marx's. Marx was the philosopher, the great intellectual system builder; Tocqueville was the ethnographer, the great describer of human affairs. So, start afresh with Tocqueville.

The current political fate of Marx and Tocqueville are also quite different. While Marx exists on the margins of society, Tocqueville is greeted with universal praise. Presidents of the United States routinely cite him. Scholars and political activists on Left and Right claim him as one of their own.

Often, however, this is a mixed blessing. The eagerness to extract the political message from Tocqueville often overlooks his important sociological insights.

Tocqueville argues that democracy or equality of conditions is the central, ineluctable tendency in modern western societies, and it worries him: Though it seems inevitable, it is fraught with dangers. In a world in which ardent democrats battled ardent monarchists, no one was trying to figure out how to make democracy work. What is needed, says Tocqueville, is "a new political science ... for a world itself quite new." (12) That is, we need a new understanding of society if we are to make the new democratic society work. Tocqueville seeks this new political science in the United States, because there he believes democracy has progressed furthest, but without many of the inherent drawbacks. "I admit that I saw in America more than America," he writes. "It was the shape of democracy itself which I sought."(19) Keep in mind that the America Tocqueville saw was Jacksonian America in the early 1830s.

Keep in mind two caveats here. First, although an aristocrat himself, Tocqueville was no fan of aristocracy. He believed, all in all, that democracy benefited more people and that its potential virtues outweighed its potential vices. The question, again, was how to make democracy work. Second, although Tocqueville studied democracy in America, “democracy” and “America” were two separate subjects for him. Democracy was a general kind of society that was especially well developed in the U.S. American society was democratic, but it had many features that were not inherent in democracy. Hence Tocqueville can look for institutions and mores unique to America that might help democracy work better.

Democracy in America, originally published in two volumes in the 1830s, is one of Tocqueville's two great works, the other being The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Had we but world enough and time, we would read them together. The former examines a case in which modern society works (as Tocqueville sees it); the latter, a case in which it doesn't. Put another way, America of the 1830s embodied all of Tocqueville's hopes; France, all his fears.
Reading Tocqueville
All of the authors in this course challenge our reading skills because they make complex arguments about very big topics. To articulate and understand these arguments, we need a clear reading strategy.
Because each author writes differently, we need a different reading strategy for each. Each work presents us with different challenges and different opportunities for meeting these challenges.
Tocqueville is easy to read in one sense because he clearly states what he is writing about and why.

He defines a condition called “democracy” or “equality of conditions.”

He explains the problems that might emerge from this social condition and suggests ways for solving these problems.

He has a systematic argument which organize all the features of a democratic society—its politics, its education system, even the habits and beliefs of its people—into a coherent, logical whole.

He has an introduction which actually says what will happen in the book.

He has a detailed table of contents which tell us what he is doing at every point.

In another sense, Tocqueville is difficult to read even though he has a systematic argument because he presents it in bits and pieces.

This is partly because he wants to tell his European readers a lot about American society. This is a sprawling book.

So, we need to figure out where the most important pieces are. He summarizes his work clearly at several points, but we have to figure out where they are.

The detailed table of contents is less useful here: The important parts aren’t always obvious.

This is where I come in: By selecting and organizing the readings, I make it easier for you to focus on what is important.
Democracy and Tyranny (Tocqueville #1)
Democracy. Tocqueville identifies democracy (which he also calls equality) as the central feature of modern society. The concept has the same central role in his thought as "capitalism" does in Marx's. Although Tocqueville may not seem like a systematic thinker, nearly all the features of democracy fit together into a logically coherent whole. Tocqueville sees democracy or equality of conditions as having an "immense influence ... on the whole course of society." (p. 9) More generally, he argues that the “social state" is "the prime cause of most of the laws, customs, and ideas" in a society. (p. 50) You might consider how this claim compares to Marx's assertion that social existence determines consciousness.


So, what does Tocqueville mean by democracy? Be careful! He is not talking only about governments elected by universal suffrage (i.e., political democracy), though that is part of it. Note that he describes democracy as a social state or condition.

Central to democracy as a social state is a certain distribution of property, wealth, income, and hence opportunity. What are the important features of this distribution?

Perhaps a key here is what is missing: There is no aristocracy. What exactly is an aristocracy?

To push further, pay special attention to three parts of the reading:

Pp. 31-36 argue that at least in New England a rough equality prevailed from the start. What does Tocqueville mean?

Pp. 51-53 discuss how inheritance laws can shape the degree of inequality in society. What does he mean when he says that "it was the law of inheritance which caused the final advance of equality"? (51)

Pp. 572-580 discuss the distinctive relationship between masters and servants in America. How are master/servant relations different from those in an aristocratic society?

Tyranny. Tocqueville says that democracy tends toward tyranny--an odd claim to us, perhaps, accustomed as we are to regarding the two as antithetical. To understand his claim, we need to ask what kind of tyranny Tocqueville has in mind. Although the term consistently denotes absolute, arbitrary power, Tocqueville discusses at least three different kinds of tyranny at different points in his analysis.

1. “The authority of a single man.” (p. 56-57)

2. Tyranny of the majority (see pp. 250-256).

3. Toward the end of the book, he pictures a quite different tyranny: a kind of provident state that doesn't torment people as much as it degrades them (pp. 690-695)


What is each of these kinds of tyranny? What special kinds of power do the second and third exercise? Why/how is democracy conducive to each kind of tyranny?

Democracy and Individualism (Tocqueville #2)
Volume II of Democracy in America examines the impact of democracy on the "sentiments" and "mores" of Americans. That is, it presents a social psychology of democracy. Tocqueville, however, does not leave politics behind; indeed, his analysis of American character deepens his understanding of how democracy might lead to tyranny. We also see Tocqueville's "social determinism" at work. He derives individualism, materialism, and other features of the American character directly from the social conditions of democracy.

This is most obvious in his discussion of individualism. (p. 503 ff),

“taste for physical comfort (p. 530 ff), and “restlessness” (p. 535 ff)

What is individualism, according to Tocqueville? How does democracy (equality) promote individualism? How, in turn, is individualism conducive to tyranny? How do Americans "combat the effects of individualism by free institutions"? Tocqueville says, "Americans have used liberty to combat the individualism born of equality."(511) What does he mean??? Finally, how do Americans "combat individualism by the doctrine of self-interest properly understood"? (Again, strange-sounding formulations. Individualism is counter-posed to freedom and connected to tyranny.)

How is democracy conducive to a “taste for physical comfort,” and how does it make people “restless”?

Making Democracy Work (Tocqueville #3)

Tocqueville wants to determine how to avoid the slide of democracy into tyranny, so much of Democracy in America analyzes mitigating or countervailing factors. Tocqueville presents a plethora of these, but let us also try to get the general argument or principles underlying them. The core of this argument, I think, is that a democratic republic can survive when it maintains a sense of civic or public spirit. (See pp. 235-237 for the clearest discussion of this.) This argument comes across particularly well in Tocqueville's discussions of local government and of juries. Consider also what role each of the following play: religion, civil association, a free press, and anything else you can find.


Why does he say, "Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science"? (63)

What does he mean when he says that trial by jury may not be good for the litigants, but that it is "very good for those who have to decide the case"? (275)

What role do each of the following play: lawyers, political association, freedom of press and of assembly, and religion?

Ponder, if you will, the following quote (p. 195): "EXTREME FREEDOM CORRECTS THE ABUSE OF FREEDOM, AND EXTREME DEMOCRACY FORESTALLS THE DANGERS OF DEMOCRACY." What can Tocqueville possibly mean by this!

Democracy, Inequality, and Revolution (Tocqueville #4)
Although Tocqueville emphasizes that equality of a certain kind is a central feature of modern western societies, he doesn't wholly ignore the issues of class, race, or gender.

Tocqueville has a vivid description of alienated labor in modern industry that would fit well with Marx, yet he argues that the United States is unlikely to develop a stable bourgeoisie or a large proletariat. He also discusses the status of African Americans in both the slave-holding South and the "free" North. In effect, he says that the North is as racist as the South. He also sees slavery casting a shadow over America even after it ends.


Why does Tocqueville think that democracy is not conducive to industrialization?

Why does he say, "The most formidable evil threatening the future of the United States is the presence of blacks on their soil" (340)? Why does he claim that “slavery…does not attack the American confederation directly, through interests, but indirectly, through mores?” (376)
Frankly, Tocqueville pays little explicit attention to gender, but what little he does say is worth pondering. “While there is less constraint on girls [in America] than anywhere else," he writes, "a wife submits to stricter obligations."(592) (You might compare this brief analysis to the longer argument developed almost 150 years later by Nancy Cott in The Bonds of Womanhood.)


What is Tocqueville getting at here?

Finally, let's bring Marx back in. The most obvious contrast between the two is that Marx predicted that modem western societies would be transformed by a great revolution, while Tocqueville argues that "great revolutions will become rare."


Why the different predictions about revolution? Hint: It is not

just a matter of the difference between equality and inequality.


The USA that Tocqueville saw
The America that Tocqueville visited was a society in flux. In 1815, America was a largely agrarian society, in which the reach of the market was limited by technology. By 1848, American was a continent-wide power, made possible by innovations in communications and transportation (railroads, canals, telegraph, the steamboat, steam-operated print press and innovations in papermaking). In addition, the mechanization of agriculture and mass production had begun. These innovations both increased the standard of living and promoted democracy by making possible the proliferation of newspapers and magazines and hence political parties and voting.
The important political issues and events around the time that Tocqueville visited include the following:

1. Andrew Jackson had been elected president by a landslide in 1828 and would be re-elected in 1832. The Washington elite viewed him as a dangerous outsider, who was stupid, uncultivated, and intent on becoming a dictator.

2. Jackson was the first president to talk directly to the American people on a regular basis, largely through his newspaper and public speeches and to claim that he had the right to do so.

3. For Jackson the central threats to democracy were government reinforcing the privileges of those who already had a lot and institutions like the Second Bank of the United States, which Jackson viewed as serving elite interests and lacking accountability to the people. For his opponents, the central threat to democracy was Jackson himself, a man who sought to strengthen the presidency vis-à-vis Congress and who claimed to speak for and to the people in a way that Congress or the courts did not.

4. In addition to the Bank, another important issue was tariffs and nullification. The manufacturing interests in the Northeast got high tariffs on imports to protect domestic industry. The South opposed such tariffs because they believed they hurt the export of cotton. Some southerners, notably South Carolinians, developed the argument that states could nullify Federal laws that they disagreed with. Much bigger issues came in here, especially the nature of the United States and the relative strength of Federal and state governments. Slavery too is an issue, largely a latent one lurking behind the tariff question. The big debate about the nature of the Union, especially speeches by Webster, Haynes, Benton, etc. took place from December 1829 to May 1830.

5. Although Jackson claimed to speak for the common people, those were notably white common people. He strongly supported slavery, siding with the South even as he battled with that region over tariffs and nullification. He brought about the removal of Indian tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaws and Creeks) from prime southern farm land to territory across the Mississippi river, a process that Tocqueville directly witnessed.

So what does all this mean for Tocqueville? He visited at a time when there was a mix of equality and inequalities in the USA. He visited at a time when the USA was taking off economically. He visited at a time when the issue of despotism was very real to many and when the relationship of Federal and state governments was a very live issue. He visited at a time when the issue of slavery simmered just below the surface of American political life.

Many have argued that Tocqueville underplayed the degree of inequality in American life and the extent to which the spread of the right to vote was contested and uneven.

For more on Tocqueville’s America, see Daniel Howe, What Hath God Wrought and Jon Meacham, American Lion.
Where Tocqueville went
Tocqueville and his traveling companion Beaumont arrived in the United States on May 11, 1831 and departed about nine months later on February 20, 1832. Formally, they were French officials sent to study the American prison system. They were often greeted with great acclaim. A half century after the American Revolution, the French were still remembered as an ally and as a kindred republican spirit. In addition, Americans were eager to show off their innovative institutions for reforming criminals.

They spent substantial chunks of time in American cities, punctuated by periods of often arduous travel. They met extensively with officials and economic and social elites at all levels, including the sitting President, Andrew Jackson, one former president, John Quincy Adams; and one “president” to be (of the short-lived Texas Republic), Sam Houston.

The cities they stayed in included New York City (May 11-June 30), Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore (Sept. 9 – Nov. 22), Washington, D.C. and New York City again (Jan. 18 – Feb. 20).

From June 30 to Sept. 9, they went by boat and coach through upstate New York, Michigan, the Great Lakes, Canada, and back east to Boston.

From Nov. 22 to Jan. 18, they went, again by coach and boat, across Pennsylvania, encountering bitter winter conditions in the Allegheny Mountains. These conditions scuttled their original plans, which were to head south, ending up in Charleston, S.C. Instead, they headed down the Ohio River to Cincinnati, with the idea of getting to the Mississippi and heading south. However, the Ohio froze over, as did the upper Mississippi. They continued a very difficult transit by coach until they finally got to Memphis, where the Mississippi wasn’t frozen over. They embarked on a boat that took them to New Orleans. From there they made their way slowly back to Washington, D.C.

The change of plans and time constraints meant that Tocqueville and Beaumont never had an extended stay in the South. They did, however, get some sense of both New England and the “West.” They had extended discussions in a number of cities about slavery and race and witnessed racism and racial inequalities in both free and slave states. They met Native Americans at several points and noticed how different reality was from European fantasies of “noble savages.” At one point in their trip down the Mississippi, they ran into a tribe of the Choctaw nation being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands to further west. In a letter home, Tocqueville remarked on the “general air of ruin and destruction.”


Andre Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988)

George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959)

After Democracy in America
After leaving the USA, Tocqueville maintained a lively correspondence with a number of friends he made during his visit. In these letters, Tocqueville expressed increasing concern about where the USA was heading. He worried about political corruption, the growing nastiness of American party politics, America’s imperial ambitions and their corrosive impact on democracy, increasing immigration, and above all, slavery. See Aurelian Craiutu and Jeremy Jennings, Tocqueville on America After 1840: Letters and other writings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

His concern about immigration focused on the large numbers of Germans coming to America. He wondered how a democratic society could assimilate large numbers of people shaped by “two centuries of absolute government, sixty years of centralization, and a very long habit of administrative dependence.” (Craiutu and Jennings, 161) Such people are suited only to “servitude or revolution.”

Tocqueville’s central concern, however, was slavery. In 1839, his first legislative contribution in the Chamber of Deputies was drafting a law abolishing slavery in the French colonies. In a letter to the Liberty Bell in 1855, T wrote,

I am pained and astonished at the fact that the freest people in the world is, at the present time, almost the only one among civilized and Christian nations which yet maintains personal servitude; and this while serfdom itself is about disappearing…from the most degraded nations of Europe. (169)

As “an old and sincere friend” of America, he worried about how slavery would retard the progress and tarnish the image of the USA. As “a man,” he was “moved at the spectacle of man’s degradation by man.” He hoped “to see the day when the law will grant equal civil liberty to all…, as God accords the freedom of the will, without distinction, to the dwellers upon earth.”

While he was pessimistic about eradicating slavery in the states where it had already existed, he was especially horrified by the extension of slavery to new places, “one of the greatest crimes that human beings could commit against the general cause of humanity.” (195)

Tocqueville wasn’t the only one
Tocqueville was not the only European observer to travel around America and write about it. Travel to the United States was the exotic tourism of the time. A number of Europeans came here expecting to be delighted, appalled, or at least have the thrill of temporarily feeling a part of this new society. Tocqueville’s French readers were familiar with a number of other works by French visitors to the USA.

One of the most thoughtful visitors was Harriet Martineau, a middle-class English woman with radical political sympathies. Her book, Society in America, bears comparison with Tocqueville’s work. Like Tocqueville, Martineau focused on the broad distribution of property, the individualism of Americans, and their characteristic restlessness. However, Martineau did not see democracy as problematic, but blamed all of America’s problems on failures of democracy. She also spent considerable time analyzing life in the American South and the evils of slavery. Finally, as a feminist, she was especially attuned to gender inequalities and found gender relations in America especially oppressive to women.

Were Hamilton and Madison smarter than Tocqueville?
In the 26 May 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books, legal scholar Cass Sunstein reviews the arguments of The Federalist Papers. He points out that Hamilton and Madison articulated a different notion of republican government. The traditional notion, articulated by Montesquieu, for example, was that a republican government could flourish only in a relatively small-scale setting. In such a setting people were more likely to develop a sense of a common interest and to cultivate civic virtue. The Anti-Federalists, who opposed the new Constitution in the late 1780s, took up this argument. In contrast, the Madison and Hamilton argued that in a small setting it was more likely that a well-organized faction could gain control and govern in its own interest to the detriment of the majority (or the minority). In a larger polity, in contrast, any one faction would find it harder to hold sway. Different factions were more likely to balance each other out and make room for deliberative democracy.
So, here’s the question: Where does Tocqueville come down? He talks a lot about local government, obviously, and that part of his argument seems vulnerable to Madison and Hamilton’s claim. Is this balanced by his discussions of political association and the freedoms it requires?
Why is Tocqueville still important?
Tocqueville, like Marx, got so much wrong: We are not a society of small shopkeepers, farmers, and artisans. We industrialized. The general trend in the U.S. has been toward growing inequality of wealth and income since Tocqueville wrote, except for the 1930-1975 period.

Still, Tocqueville, like Marx, is still important. He combines a critique of the modern state with a critique of contemporary individualism (and in effect, some features of capitalism).

Tocqueville identified the development of a new kind of political institution, the modern state. Compared to previous kinds of polity, this state was more centralized and it reached into everyday life more deeply and broadly. Examining the process of state making has become a central theme of political sociology (e.g., see Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States).

Central to his critique of the state are several insights into power that are still useful: He envisioned a new kind of “popular dictator," whose concentration of power is reinforced by a broad popular appeal. The first half of the 20th century was littered with such figures. He pictured a kind of "mild despotism” whose power would insinuate itself into the workings of everyday. Foucault’s “disciplinary power” is not that different. (Discipline and Punish). He identified a kind of power that shapes consciousness rather than controlling action. The contemporary notion of “hegemony," which focuses on the power of culture, is quite similar.

Still Tocqueville erred when he claimed new kinds of tyranny inevitably built themselves on an atomized, indifferent populace. The hallmark of twentieth-century fascism, for example, was mass mobilization. Fascist parties thrived not in atomized societies, but in ones with high levels of “civic associationism.” (See, for example, Dylan Riley, “Civic Associations and Authoritarian Regimes in Interwar Europe: Italy and Spain in Comparative Perspective” American Sociological Review, 2005, Vol. 70 (April: 288-310.)

Tocqueville mixes this critique of power with a critique of social relationships that encourage atomized individualism. (For a more recent version of this critique, see Bellah, Habits of the Heart.)

Above all, Tocqueville was concerned with promoting what now is called "civic community” or "civil society," a network of associations that tie people together and engage them in societal life. This idea is everywhere today and connected closely to the concept of “social capital.” (For a very Tocquevillian analysis of democracy, see Putnam, Making Democracy Work.) Tocqueville recognized what American conservatives still don’t know, that state and civil society work best when they work together. (See Theda Skocpol, “The Tocqueville Problem: Civic Engagement in American Democracy” Social Science History 21:4 (Winter, 1997) pp.455-479.)

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