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Tocqueville Between Two Worlds by Wolin Sheldon S.;

Author:Wolin, Sheldon S.;

Language: eng

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Publisher: Princeton University Press

Published: 2008-07-11T16:00:00+00:00

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Tocqueville Between Two Worlds by Wolin Sheldon S.;

CHAPTER XVII

DESPOTISM AND UTOPIA

I

 

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Tocqueville Between Two Worlds by Wolin Sheldon S.;

Author:Wolin, Sheldon S.; , Date: July 12, 2019

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Author:Wolin, Sheldon S.;

Language: eng

Format: epub

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Published: 2008-07-11T16:00:00+00:00
CHAPTER XVII

DESPOTISM AND UTOPIA

I

What then is the majority, taken collectively, except an individual who has opinions and more often interests contrary to those of another individual, called the minority? . . . My strongest reproach to democratic government, such as it has been organized in the United States, is not . . . its weakness, but its irresistible force. What I find most repugnant about America is not the extreme freedom which rules there, but the few guarantees against tyranny.

Tocqueville1

If “political” or “communal liberty” was the great discovery of the first volume of Democracy in America, the theory of modern despotism was perhaps a greater theoretical achievement: the intimation of a postdemocratic “beyond” that did not yet exist.2 In the first volume Tocqueville had raised the possibility that despotism might emerge from American democracy, that is, grow naturally out of it rather than be imposed on it. The unlimited discretion that Americans allowed their elected magistrates might enable one of them to exploit the dogma of the unlimited authority of the people to establish despotic rule.3

When Tocqueville resumed the discussion of despotism in volume 2 he did not cast it as a response to the breakdown of institutions, or to a crisis that provoked a demand for a “strong man”; or to the emergence of a charismatic leader, such as Andrew Jackson.4 In fact, despotism did not represent a specific response but a configuration resulting from certain tendencies in the symbolic life of democracy and their cultural repercussions in the psychic lives of individuals. To grasp it required the equivalent of a conceptual revolution.

In one of the last chapters of the second volume, “What Type of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear,” he remarks that although he had recognized in volume 1 that a democratic social condition furnished a potentially fertile ground for despotism, he had assumed that the despotism would be similar to the kind of “oppression” that had weighed upon “several of the peoples of antiquity.” Now, however, “after five years of new meditations, my fears have not at all diminished but their object has changed.”5 Tyranny remained the most pressing danger but it did not lay in the potential excesses of majority rule or in the threat of a new-style democratic Caesar: “the type of oppression which threatens democratic peoples has no precedent; our contemporaries will find no image of it in their memories. I myself have vainly sought for the expression which would exactly capture the conception I have formed.”6

Why was it difficult to name despotism? Over the centuries political theorists and historians had not been at a loss in describing or agreeing about the characteristics of despotism.7 The despot gathered all power to himself; would not tolerate rivals; eliminated political life; ruled by personal whim; lived extravagantly while demoralizing economic life; and, as Montesquieu emphasized, used cruelty to create a climate of fear that paralyzed opposition and stifled cultural creativity. These conceptions were all inconceivable without the dominating figure of the despot himself. The state of society was a projection of him.

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