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From Europe to America and Back: Tocqueville and Democracy as Legacy and Future of the West

This paper was presented at Telos in Europe: The L’Aquila Conference, held on September 7-9, 2012, in L’Aquila, Italy.

I was born at the end of a long revolution which, after destroying the old world, it did not create anything lasting. Aristocracy was already dead when I came to life and democracy did not yet exist.
—Alexis de Tocqueville to Henry Reeve, March 22, 1837

It is with Tocqueville that the term democracy acquires a positive connotation. When the first part of Democracy in America appeared in 1835, the very title came as a surprise. It was radically new, and it struck people like a bolt from the blue. Tocqueville took another unprecedented step when he associated democracy and equality. According to Aristotle, equality is an aspect of justice, not democracy. The equality that Tocqueville had in mind was not political or economic, but social; it referred to a social condition arising from equality of condition and from a pervasive egalitarian ethos. The latter reflected, in turn, the absence of a feudal past in the New World. Back in Europe and France, Tocqueville lived through the events of 1848, when the notion of “revolution” gained a socialist character. It is at such point that Tocqueville perceives a conflict between socialism and liberty: socialism means equality without liberty, while democracy stands for equality and freedom. He thus starts a new debate, that of the problematic relationship between equality and liberty, which draws on his dual political experiences in Europe and America. He discovers that it is through their synthesis that a political system capable of combining the best aspects of liberty and equality might emerge. Liberal democracy could therefore be born of the encounter between Europe and America, that is to say, the two main parts of the Western World.

One of Tocqueville’s major innovations consists in drawing his conclusions from a direct experience of American society and its institutions. At the time, the United States continued to be considered a sort of province of Europe, meant to follow its path. Others, such as Hegel or Marx, believed that since the American experience was still embryonic, it was scarcely relevant. For this reason, Tocqueville’s political stand will not easily be appreciated by his contemporaries, who saw him as either an aristocrat or a democrat—to which he always answered: “I am a new kind of liberal.”

Democracy “in America”: Tocqueville faces his problem overturning the way in which eighteenth-century French democratic thought, from Rousseau to Condorcet, had addressed the issue. In fact, rather than logically deducing what form of government might pursue freedom and equality, instead of theorizing a rational utopia, to which historical and political reality had to adapt, he describes empirically the functioning of an existing democracy. This was a revolution analogous to the one made by Machiavelli who, moving from the traditional genre of the speculum principis, looks at the prince as he is and not as he should be. Moreover, Tocqueville also differs from the way in which, in an eighteenth century dominated by the memory of ancient republics, democracy was discussed, that is, leading to the unambiguous conclusion that “true” democracy was only possible in a “small state.” Tocqueville, on the contrary, though aware of all of these themes and problems, wants to describe democracy in a large state: in short, he prefers the democracy of the moderns to that of the ancients.

Tocqueville points out that a crucial political term is of recent invention: that of “individualism.” In the age of our fathers, wrote the French thinker, there was no individual who did not belong to a group and who could be considered to be completely alone. During the Middle Ages and the Old Regime, the ancient European “constitution” knew neither individuals nor societies. This suggests that the genealogy of the two concepts has much in common and marks the transition to modernity, constituting one of the hallmarks of Western identity.

Tocqueville’s lesson is to have understood that since the 1830s, “individual” and “society” are the general ideas that democracy needs to make its own twofold and controversial process of social equalization and moral pluralization politically manageable. The link between these two general ideas and the two processes, is precisely public opinion, which to work must acknowledge the primacy of the majority as much as the respect of the minority(ies).

Finally, there is another lesson that Tocqueville can give us today with regard to the future of democracy within and without the borders of the West, which allows us to better understand the West’s legacy. The comparison between America and Europe, between their two late eighteenth-century revolutions, enables Tocqueville to distinguish two different genealogies of freedom. All depends on how equality is generated.

In America, the matrix of individual freedom is “republican,” and it is older than equality. It creates, within American democracy, devices of self-government decentralizing the exercise of sovereignty: freedom of speech and of the press, “jury,” the idea of law as a duty to partake in public affairs.

In Europe, equality is imposed before individuals develop awareness of their own freedom and independently of any practice of the latter. The matrix of the continental idea of equality is absolutist and is ensured by the royal gaze. In The Old Regime and the Revolution, he wrote that “this kind of love for independence grows out of certain particular temporary mischiefs wrought by despotism, and is never durable; it passes away with the accident which gave it birth. What seemed to be love for liberty turns out to be mere hatred of a despot.” For Tocqueville a “habit of despotism” was ingrained in the French people, becoming a sort of widespread popular culture.

This process that Tocqueville noted in the first half of the nineteenth century remains the basis of the democratic formula that continues to roam the globe. Its dynamics and its internal aporias do not cease to have important consequences and must be investigated by those who want to grasp the real or alleged democratization of non-Western areas of the planet. I think that, understood as equality and individualism, modern democracy is an original product of the West for which it has long had the copyright. I also believe that only by examining the current political and social situation in India or China and their future evolution might we understand if this copyright will remain firmly in the hands of the West, or if it will instead pass into other hands and change its nature, acquiring new and various constituent features. Perhaps there might be a form of democracy not based on a idea of subjectivity as self-evidence and not centered on human will as self-expression. Will we see political systems that combine and bring together equality and freedom in reasonable doses, without following the same philosophical and social paths drawn by America and Europe between the eighteenth and nineteenth century? Or, perhaps, modern democracy can only be exported and implanted as it is, without modification or adaptation? Or, can we create a system that brings together equality and freedom in new ways in a non-western world?

In the case of an affirmative answer to the last question Tocqueville’s analysis loses relevance, because democracy will no longer be, or won’t only be the result of a movement of ideas born and dialectically developed between the two side of the Atlantic between eighteenth and nineteenth century. Or maybe not, if instead of being the result of a synthesis, modern democracy is seen as the daughter of a double genealogy, one American and one European, one that sees equality as the outcome of the escape from absolutism and one that considers it as the outcome of absolutism and its centralization. As if, in the end, there were two different forms of modern democracy. Is it possible that China could become a new future case of democracy brought forth by an immense absolute and hyper-centralizing monarchy?

To reread Tocqueville today, and to reflect on the definition that the concept of democracy acquired in the nineteenth century, may be a useful way of building a bridge between the history of political thought and political theory, especially a theory of democracy that urgently needs updating.

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