Alexis de Tocqueville about the problem of social stability of democratic societies (through the analysis of North American States history)

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №3 - 2011

Author: Veremchuk Lyudmila, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

The problem of the future development of democratic societies, stability of their social and political life plays an important role in the works of the French historian of the first half of the 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville. He tried to solve this problem by analyzing European democratic societies of his time, the establishment of which he could witness. But the richest material for analysis was drawn by de Tocqueville from the thorough study of the history of the North American states.

This aspect of de Tocqueville’s concept still remains relevant today when western democracies undergo complicated transformations and changes, and young liberal democratic states, which have appeared on the post-Soviet territory, go through difficulties in their development and growth, in many aspects resting on the historical experience of the past.

Studying this aspect of de Tocqueville’s views is of great importance for the science since both domestic and western authors touch upon it indirectly through the general analysis of the concept of democracy[1].

De Tocqueville treated the problem of social stability of democratic societies judging from the assumption that, alongside with civil equality, the democratic society is immanently characterized by an absolute dominance of fairly well off proprietors in its structure. Besides this major social constituent he also mentioned two other elements of this structure, which, on the one hand, included wealthy proprietors - the rich - and, on the other hand, the poor. He viewed these two social layers as minor both in terms of quantity and degree of social importance.

De Tocqueville thought that such organization of a democratic society provided it with a greater communicativeness and stability comparing to other societies based on considerable civil and material inequality.

Developing this idea de Tocqueville wrote: “Between these two extreme layers of a democratic society there are countless numbers of people who can be called neither rich nor poor, whose property is considerable enough to make them want social order and small enough to arouse envy”.[2]

De Tocqueville affirmed that such social organization contains many factors which were responsible for disapproval of revolutionary forms of changes in social relations by the democratic society. The most important of the factors in his opinion was the fact that the overwhelming majority of the democratic society owned certain property, since the revolution would have been a threat to that property. “Any kind of revolution, - wrote the scientist, - would be a certain threat to private property. The majority of population in democratic countries owns some property; and people are not just proprietors, they live in a society, where property is of great importance”[3].

De Tocqueville was one of the first to pay attention to the fact that proprietary psychology was characteristic of the minds and attitudes of the middle class. “Since the middle class representatives are still quite close to the poor, they clearly see suffering caused by poverty and are frightened of it. The small property they own separates them from the poor, and all their anxiety and hopes are connected with this property. Constant concerns about property and daily efforts aimed at increasing wealth make representatives of the middle class attached to their properties to a greater degree. The very thought that they can lose even a small part of their property is unbearable to them, while a complete loss of property is seen as the worst of the disasters. But the equality of conditions provides continual growth of the number of such zealous, anxious small proprietors”; no other class demonstrates “such persistent and strong sense of propriety as the middle class does”[4].

This peculiarity of social position and attitudes makes the middle class the only enemy of any social perturbations. Its sluggishness “keeps everyone in the superior and inferior positions in the quiescent state, adding stability to the entire society”[5].

Describing proprietary psychology of the democratic society citizens de Tocqueville stated that their fundamental idea was irresistible striving to increase their existing property and improve comfort of their living. This induces the desire “for any social unrest to start some time later, not now”[6]. “Concern about satisfying the slightest needs of the body and acquiring the smallest conveniences in life occupied mind of the Americans all over the country” [7], and their appreciation of prosperity became “a leading feature of a national character” [8].

De Tocqueville considered social tranquility to be an important factor of social stability of the capitalist society and the most necessary condition for successful development of industry and trade, which requires certain caution, persistence, capability to compromise [9].

Besides, as de Tocqueville said, owners of movable property, who comprise the basis for industrial and commercial entrepreneurship, suffer from revolutions to a greater degree than landowners, since, “firstly, their property can be easily seized and, secondly, can be lost once and forever” [10].

De Tocqueville paid attention to the fact that the democratic majority is vested with the civil rights, the very existence of which contributes to development of legal conscience, deep respect toward law and rights, habits to follow the stereotypes of social behavior in everyday life and, consequently, holds them away from revolutionary ideas and aspirations [11]. These characteristics of the democratic society and democratic conscience are viewed by the scientist as a solid foundation for social stability, which hadn’t been characteristic of any western society of the past [12].

This observation persuaded de Tocqueville to think that “people, who live in democratic societies, not only lack the desire to start a revolution, but are afraid of it” [13]. Revolutionary turmoil, if there is any, will be “of less violent character and more rare than it is usually supposed” [14].

De Tocqueville repeated this idea more than once [15], emphasizing once and again that severe property and civil inequality characteristic of the feudal society caused envy, anger and class hostility, and democracy, which brought civil equality and considerably reduced property inequality, made social life more peaceful.

At the same time, de Tocqueville was far from believing that new societies are insured against revolutions. He thought them quite possible. Moreover, he warned his contemporaries that in such societies revolutionary turmoil is more dangerous for the subsequent development than in other societies of other types, since the very nature of democracy implies prerequisites for despotism, the threat of which increases significantly in the times of revolution [16].

Elements of civil inequality, first of all inequality of black and white population were viewed by de Tocqueville as the most negative factor capable of destabilizing the American society and giving birth to the outburst of the revolution.

Expressing his concerns de Tocqueville wrote: “Concentrated in one spot of the Earth, unfair from the point of view of Christianity, pernicious from the point of view of economic policy, slavery cannot exist for a long time in the society of democratic freedoms and contemporary trend for public education. It will disappear either through the struggle of the slaves or by the will of the masters. In both cases the process is expected to be accompanied by much turmoil” [17].

The author of “American Democracy” considered this confrontation as antagonistic and believed it could cause a severe conflict fraught with revolution: “If Americans ever experience the storm of the revolution, will be caused by the presence of the black population on the territory of the United States, which means the revolution will be caused not by the equality of the living conditions, but, on the contrary, their inequality” [18].

This statement is in fact a prognostication of the civil war between the North and the South which took place two years after de Tocqueville’s death – another prognostication in the row of brilliant predictions that came true and up till now strike us with the depth of de Tocqueville’s intuition, deep understanding of history and unique power of observation.

The scientist considered discontent of opposition electorate minority, always ready to stand up against the society majority, as the factor which could destabilize bourgeois society. “In the democratic society, - wrote de Tocqueville about this threat, - only few groupings and minorities welcome revolutionary changes, and sometimes these minorities happen to bring them in” [19].

Finally, de Tocqueville pointed out that another force capable of causing revolutionary instability is excessive ambitions of political leaders, their status seeking and mercenary interests [20].

De Tocqueville saw the same kind of threat coming from the struggle of political parties that disturbed, shook and tore up the society [21]. He saw that such unstable situation in a democratic society was caused by multiple pre-election campaigns and the elections which is the foundation of a democratic poitical system.

In particular, characterizing presidential elections in the United States, he wrote: “When crowds of people gather in a public place to elect the head of their state, they run the threat of not only dangers of the election system itself, but also the threat of the civil war, in which the elections can result” [22]. De Tocqueville was concerned that in the final run such instability can become habitual for the citizens of a democratic state [23].

De Tocqueville highlighted the dynamism, the strive for novelty, the inclination for changes so characteristic of the democratic societies and comprising a certain destabilizing background of the everyday life and contributing to the revolution outburst [24].

On the whole the scientist believed that in the democratic processes all these factors taken together will constantly give rise to a complex relations of stability and instability, conflict and consensus, which cannot be easily balanced by new societies, thought it is not at all impossible.

In this connection it is necessary to emphasize the fact that de Tocqueville distinguished to types of political instability which he characterized in the following way: “One of them, which concerns secondary laws, can exist for a long time without undermining the foundations of society. The other, constantly shaking the foundation of the constitution and destroying principles of making laws, leads to turmoil and revolutions. Such instability affects societies which live through the processes of rough changes. It is known that there are no certain ties between these two types of legislative instability. In different epochs and in different places they existed together and separately. In the United States we can witness the first type of instability. Americans often change laws, but they treat the constitution with great respect” [25].

De Tocqueville emphasized more than once that he never claimed that democratic societies are guaranteed against revolutions: he just meant that “their social structure not only does not lead to inevitable revolutions, but rather takes them away from revolutions” [26].

The researcher thought that his contemporaries were mistaken in their opinion that democratic equality causes “chronic, recurrent revolutions” [27]. In his works of the 30s he tried to persuade them that such revolutions and anarchy, which accompanies them, are not “natural for democratic nations” [28]; he deeply believed that major revolutions, which change the structure of the society, would become history together with extreme social polarity of democratic societies; he could not find a place for them in a democratic society; he believed that in new social systems they would be deprived of sufficient prior beliefs.

De Tocqueville saw the real threat for these societies not in the revolutions, but in values of democratic mentality related to order and stability and thought that these values, when rendered absolute, in perspective could lead the society to stagnation and eliminate opportunities for dynamic advancing development.

He voiced is concerns in his book about American democracy: “When I think about the fortunes of the future generations, the thing I am concerned least of all is the revolution. If people of the country are limited in their interests by a small circle of their private household interests, there is an opportunity that eventually powerful civil feelings which agitate nations and at the same time stimulate societies for development and renovation will be beyond their comprehension”; he feared that a burning thirst for ownership will after all bring people of democratic societies to “the breaking point when all new theories would be considered annoying troubles, and all signs of public progress would be seen as the first step to the revolution, out of fear of which they would refuse to evolve” [29].

Another negative consequence of initial values of democratic mentality related to order and stability in de Tocqueville’s opinion was the threat that the “burning” thirst for ownership could cause despotism in democratic societies, and that for the sake of their property and quiet existence the citizens of these societies would infinitely strengthen the executive power and allot it with extreme prerogatives.

De Tocqueville paid attention to the fact that the inclination of such people to the stable public life was becoming “the only political passion”, which was constantly strengthening while other political aspirations were declining: “this in a natural way disposed citizens to allotting more rights to the central power, since they believed that only this power, protecting itself, was interested in protecting them against the anarchy and had opportunities for that” [30]. Due to these aspirations they are capable of demonstrating “slavish obsequiousness” and “accepting the power of the master” [31].

On the whole the research of American democracy contains the conceptual vision of the author concerning the perspectives of the social revolution, which can be called “looking” into the past and which in this respect shows signs of resemblance with the theory of class struggle developed by the French historians of the Restoration period – Guizot, Thierry, Mignet.

The concept of bourgeois society and the social revolution developed by de Tocqueville attracted attention of the historians of the “consensus” school [32].

In particular, they accepted his opinion that civil equality and relative property homogeneousness of the democratic society contain prerequisites for development of a certain social consensus which can become the foundation for its stability.

This idea became a starting point for their reasoning about balance, quietness and absence of conflicts in the American society of the past and in the present. Historians of this school revived the notion of «consensus universalis», which was coined and brought into circulation by de Tocqueville, and recognized him as the founder of the explanation of the Jacksonian democracy based on this principle.

Such interpretation of de Tocqueville’s views reflects different aspects of his vision of American democracy, and, at the same time, to a certain extent distorts their content. This interpretation, in particular, fails to consider his understanding of the American society as a form of society in which consensus and conflict coexist and are interconnected.

A detailed analysis of this aspect of de Tocqueville’s views by the historians of the “consensus” school was made by S.A.Issayev. Having studied the part of the research in which de Tocqueville used the notion «consensus universalis», he came to a well-grounded conclusion: the treatise “Democracy in America” did contribute to the development of “egalitarian myth” about Jachsonian America, but it has nothing to do with the development by the historians of this school of its “vulgar variety” [33].

Summing up the analysis of the problem under study we shall mention that de Tocqueville did not consider democratic societies as having no conflicts or being socially homogeneous, but he believed that civil equality, characteristic of such societies, and absence of big-scale property conflicts contain sufficient prerequisites for alleviating their social conflicts and for their sustainable stabilization.


[1] See in: Исаев С.А. Алексис Токвиль и Америка его времени. СПб., 1993; Дементьев И.О. Политическая теория А. де Токвиля и французский либерализм первой половины XIX в.: Автореф. дис. канд. ист. наук. Калининград, 2004; Pessen E. Riches Class and Power before the Civil War. - Lexington, 1973; Remond R. Tocqueville et la démocratie en Amérique // Livre du centenaire. - P., 1960; Hartz L. The Liberal Tradition in America. An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution. N.-Y., 1955;

[2] Токвиль А. де. Демократия в Америке. М., 2000. P. 460.

[3] Same source.

[4] Same source.

[5] Same source.

[6] Токвиль А. де. Демократия в Америке. P. 461.

[7] Same source. P. 389.

[8] Same source. P. 391.

[9] Same source. Pp. 460-461.

[10] Same source. P.. 461.

[11] Same source. Pp. 190, 195.

[12] Same source. P. 462.

[13] Same source. P. 460.

[14] Same source. P. 462.

[15] Same source. Pp. 287, 461, 462, 466, 484, 495, др.

[16] Same source. P. 488, 502.

[17] Same source. P. 266.

[18] Same source. P. 462.

[19] Same source.

[20] Same source. P. 461.

[21] Same source. P. 145.

[22] Same source. P. 115.

[23] Same source. P. 168.

[24] Same source. Pp. 190, 393-394, 405.

[25] Same source. P. 287.

[26] Same source. P. 462.

[27] Same source. P. 459.

[28] Same source. P. 463.

[29] Same source. P. 466.

[30] Same source. P. 484.

[31] Same source. P. 485.

[32] See in: Drescher S. Dilemmas of Democracy. Tocqueville and modernisation. Pittsburgh. Univ. of Pittsburgh press. 1968; Idem. Tocqueville′s two democraties // Journal of the History of ideas. 1964. Аpr.-juin. Vol. 25. № 2; Idem. American Historians and Tocqueville′ s Democracy // Journal of American History. 1968. Déc. Vol. 55. № 3; Gargan E.Т. Tocqueville and the problem of historical Prognosis // American historical Review. 1963. Janv. Vol. 68. № 3; Idem. De Tocqueville. N.-Y., 1965.

[33] Исаев С.А. Алексис Токвиль и Америка его времени. P. 55.



Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №3 - 2011

  
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