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vague reflections on tocqueville

rb.richx's picture

I apologize ahead of time; most of this is personal notes, questions, and unformed thoughts. There isn’t much (if any) flow to it.



Tocqueville seems to believe that some of what makes the US great is equality, freedom, and the democratic way the system has potential to operate. Tocqueville seems to appreciate how there is a structure of government in which the federal power is supposed to counterbalance rather than command. I disagree somewhat, but anyway.

This equality is not necessarily of power or money as much as “conditions” (3), including art (which are briefly mentioned).

I also think Tocqueville argues that true equality in this sense almost requires the elimination of the law of inheritance (well, the general destabilization of aristocratic notions) as well as a homogenous people. 


“… the influence of this [equality?] same fact extends well beyond political mores and laws and that it holds no less sway over civil society than over government. It creates opinions, engenders feelings, suggests customs, and modifies everything that it does not produce.” 

I find this interesting — this idea of societal opinions coming from the people. The idea comes off as somewhat liberal, but also is the idea of democracy. But it’s hardly as decentralized as Tocqueville makes it sound. It is white men, who probably also have other forms of privilege (cisgender, abled, etc.) who create this communal thought and continue to reinforce it through institutionalization. 


“… Changes in the body of society would be orderly and progressive. Such a society would be less brilliant than an aristocracy but also less plagued by misery. Pleasures would be less extreme, prosperity more general. Knowledge would be less exalted but ignorance more rare. Feelings would be less passionate and habits milder.” (10)

Tocqueville’s concept does not take into account a number of things — for example, the pockets that will always disagree with the larger society; the oppression and historical context behind a moment of society; and that people will still be inclined to grow, change, and have a sense of identity outside of the society as a whole that spurs pleasure, education, passion, etc.


But he does later say almost exactly that which I think he misses — “See the external world reflected for the first time in the still-dark mirror of his intelligence… Take note… of the first battles he is obliged to fight. Only then will you understand where the prejudices, habits, and passions that will dominate his life come from. In a manner of speaking, the whole man already lies swaddled in his cradle. Something analogous happens with nations. Every people bears the mark of its origins. The circumstances that surround its birth and aid its development also influence the subsequent course of its existence.” (31) so what did i miss???? 


“Gripped by terror or envy, each [the rich and the poor] rejects the other’s claims to power. Neither has any idea of rights… The poor man for the most part clings to his forebears’ prejudices without their faith and to their ignorance without their virtues. He accepts the doctrine of interest as the guide for his actions without understanding the science of that doctrine, and his selfishness is as unenlightened now as his selfless devotion was before.” (11) This is such liberalism, lol. 


Also the whole thing about freedom and religion is off but whatever. It is important to the idea of freedom. While he would not argue that religious freedom of all (i.e. not only Christians) is part of freedom, I believe that his insistence on religiosity is important to understanding freedom. “Intimate union of spirit of religion and spirit of liberty.” (31, 48) He critiques but also praises the religiosity. I think he then is sort of appreciative of it but in moderation; I don’t know how I feel about that, but I do believe that it is important to the understanding of freedom for Tocqueville, and indeed as a mode of resistance. 


“… love of order is indistinguishable from the lust of tyrants” (13) I think toward the end of the introduction, Tocqueville begins to argue that equality is not the same as freedom, and that freedom is perhaps greater?


He goes on a bit of a tangent on intelligence on p.59, which I want to at least say that intelligence is a social construct of those in power, but that’s probably something for another time. I think that there’s something there to say more about, but I’m not sure what. 


Also, that bit about equality making it difficult to defend independence? What is that about? I don’t see the logic behind that at all.


The genocide of Natives and the enslavement of Blacks, the huge plantations, the divide between the classes that we currently see now more than ever, relate to the aristocracy and colonization that Europe inflicted - a fact that Tocqueville, quite notably given our focus on incarceration, notes with imprisonment, bail, and how such legislation affects the poor but not the rich (50). He also uses an analogy: “American society, if I may put it this way, is like a painting that is democratic on the surface but from time to time allows the old aristocratic colors to peep through.” (51) I don’t I don’t think he fully understands the effects that aristocratic history has (as he implies that there is no class in the US, p.59), but he does recognize that the much is passed through generational knowledge.

He pointedly distances himself from slavery and genocide, but these are serious issues that make it difficult for me to reconcile to truly consider a lot of his arguements.


"There is no other country in the world where the law speaks so absolute a language as in America or where the right to apply it is divided among so many hands." (Goldhammer, trans., p. 80)

Absolute does not inherently mean equal, though I think that Tocqueville probably meant it that way.

  • I believe that, perhaps unintentionally, the sentence refers to the nigh impossible way of arguing against law. The law is statement of fact, to be followed regardless, 
  • Because there is a supposed checks-and-balances system, it is difficult to argue that a law is unjust.
  • Because of the number of hands a law passes through, the number of ways its intentions can be altered, despite the idea that the number of hands is intended to change a law for larger societal appeal. For example, “pork” is added to the law. 
  • Also, it makes the process so fucking long. An incarcerated person can be tied up in the system for ages.
  • Intentions of the law?
  • one tradition becomes a law because it is expected; “Laws, moreover, are the children of habit” (88)