Thursday, October 21, 2010

Blogging de Tocqueville, Part Three

I've been trying to post at least one of these a month, but it gets pretty depressing, actually, considering I'm an incredible pessimist about the future of my country. Regardless, it is very fascinating, enlightening, and revealing to wade through de Tocqueville's philosophical and sociological treatise on American political life during the early 19th century.

Part One
Part Two

One of the major topics I discussed was the situation regarding the legal system and the overwhelming power that the police and the courts dangle over the heads of common citizens.

Centralization of Government, Centralization of Administration, and the Subjugation of the Individual
To return to some of those themes, I am reminded of some of my analysis regarding George Orwell's 1984, particularly regarding the culture of surveillance, the elimination of privacy, and the thought-police. The subversion of the system is painful--it was originally designed to protect us from a tyrannical government, and yet the judicial branch has grown to encompass the police and create a political faction that no one seems to really notice. It has a very direct and immediate impact on the lives of all Americans, unlike the distant mandarins in Washington, D.C. whom we elect. De Tocqueville characterized the agents of law enforcement as invisible because free citizens of a democratic polity have social obligations towards the legal system--obligations of which we have been stripped.

De Tocqueville draws a definite line between a centralized government and a centralized administration, and argues that, of the two, the centralized administration is by far the more dangerous. A centralized government with no central administration will tend to try to accumulate centralization of administration anyway. A centralized government concentrates authority, but without a similarly concentrated administration, the actual power to enforce its authority becomes more distributed, forcing the government to macro-manage instead of micro-manage. Such a micromanaging government, with undiluted power, inevitably isolates and subjugates the individual, just as we see in 1984.

An overcentralized government seems to destroy itself.

"The legislative bodies daily encroach upon the authority of the government, and their tendency... is to appropriate it entirely to themselves. The social power thus centralized is constantly changing hands, because it is subordinate to the power of the people. It often forgets the maxims of wisdom and foresight in the consciousness of its strength. Hence arises its danger. Its vigor, and not its impotence, will probably be the cause of its ultimate destruction."
Whence comes this vigor? From the tyranny of the masses (more on this later). De Tocqueville felt that the decentralization of administration during his tour of Jacksonian America was excessive, giving society the appearance of disorganization to a European visitor. But where the administrative arm was weak, the American populace picked up the slack. "I am persuaded, on the contrary, that, in this case, the collective strength of the citizens will always conduce more efficaciously to the public welfare than the authority of the government."

De Tocqueville's amazement that criminal investigation is a co-operative effort between the populace and the authorities is a testament to how the individual feels that he/she personally has an investment in the laws of the land. It illustrates one of his major points that the average American citizen feels himself enfranchised as a miniature legislator, with a certain stake in the law and an immediate desire to see it fulfilled.

"In no country in the world, do the citizens make such exertions for the common weal. I know of no people who have established schools so numerous and efficacious places of public worship better suited to the wants of the inhabitants, or roads kept in better repair."

In Jacksonian America, the individual wanted to pick up the slack for decentralized administration. That initiative was a testimony to the popular sentiment of authorship for the very government that was over the citizen. Government undertakings succeeded or failed through availability of popular support.
"The American republics have no standing armies to intimidate a discontented minority; but as no minority has as yet been reduced to declare open war, the necessity of an army has not been felt."
Here, indeed, I feel that de Tocqueville's observation is especially telling and painful. The United States now does, indeed, have a standing army. And yet, that army is not a tool of oppression. There is no gendarmerie in America. Indeed, that duty is done by the police. And what branch of government is it to which the police belong? Some might argue the executive, since their duty is to enforce the law, but that is not necessarily the case. Indeed, I would argue that their duty is not to enforce laws, but to accuse people of committing crimes. The entire criminal justice system is a fantastic system of administrative centralization. The United States government has delegated the authority to decide who is a criminal and how to punish them entirely to the "justice" apparatus.

The system is centralized per state, but the existence of a network of state judiciaries under the Supreme Court actually serves as a unifying factor. The court system isn't actually subservient to the popular whim, but to its own inertia. It is a leviathan--having accumulated more power than it should have, it sustains itself by creating criminals and investing itself into an entire strata of American society. Its shadow looms over every single American, especially when they turn the key in their automobile's ignition.

Indeed, we have now entered an era where the police are interpreting the law. As I argued in my previous post, the system does not exist to see justice done, but to see laws satisfied. Those are two radically different, and occasionally opposed, ideas. But the complacency of the American electorate permits this sort of tyrannical and terrorist paramilitary organization to instill us with fear, and through that fear, compel our obedience and servility.

The Tyranny of the Majority
The big theme that de Tocqueville wishes to hammer home is the threat of a tyranny of the majority. Through a unified and majority, the voices of minorities are suppressed.
“The most absolute sovereigns in Europe today are powerless to prevent certain thoughts hostile to their authority from silently circulating through their states and even within their courts. The same cannot be said of America: As long as the majority remains in doubt, people talk, but as soon as it makes up its mind once and for all, everyone falls silent…I know of no country where there is in general less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”
What is paradoxical about current American affairs is the major transition we've undergone. The majority has been cowed into silence, and radical fringe minority factions have the voice. This goes directly contrary to what de Tocqueville said about the lone dissenter: in contrast to the physical violence done to the body, the masses would instead excommunicate the hapless individual for dissenting from common opinion.

Some bloggers perceive that de Tocqueville is drastically wrong about our current political climate--that it is the loud and obnoxious radical groups that are actually the minority here. And while I would agree, I would also point out that, in my opinion, the issues they are up-in-arms about are actually smoke-and-mirrors. The general apathy and disgust that the average American seems to hold for politics is actually a reaction by the masses against this extremism. Oddly enough, the university system has guilted large swathes of the masses (but not all) into remorse for any attempted tyrannical oppression of dissenting opinion.

But nowhere is that brutal ostracism of the soul, which de Tocqueville describes so acutely, more apparent than in the American school system. Middle and high schools in the United States are often dominated by hierarchical systems based on popularity. While large numbers of students (especially in high school) may not care much for the "popular crowd," they still implicitly go along with the current out of apathy. Those who seek to "march to the beat of their own drummer" and follow activities, hobbies, or interests that are not popularly sanctioned, or who perform too well in their courses, find themselves outcasts.
" are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow-citizens, if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you, if you ask for their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow-creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn."
De Tocqueville would not be so surprised or amazed, however, at how the majority seems to be so anti-tyrannical. Invective and hatred is poured upon the fringe groups through their own rivalries, but the silent majority stews in disgust, by-and-large. Most people find themselves leaning left- or right-of-center, and often are pulled into a faction by the polarities, but when you engage them as individuals, they often fail to prove themselves extremists.

Part of this is because it is a polar system. There are two opposing points on the spectrum that pull at the general populace, and it slowly and sluggishly vacillates between the two sentiments. But it is still caught between them. More radical or new ideas are often greatly resisted.

But the presence of counter-culture has actually weakened the tyranny of the majority as an active force. Counter-culture has allowed many fringe groups to have a voice, not just in society, but in politics. Counter-culture has generated art and great literature, where de Tocqueville had once lamented that we had no writers of genius because there could be no freedom of opinion.

What is most dangerous, actually, is the apathy of the majority. The fact that the majority is so willing to accept its culpability as an oppressive tyranny, it allows itself to be pulled around by the extremes. When the majority decides to sign away its freedoms, the minorities which wish to retain them will find they are stripped of their rights and their voice most violently. The decline in artistic value in much of American entertainment, coupled with the oppression of video games as an artistic medium, hint at the growing decline in the complexity and fortitude of the American character.

De Tocqueville attributed the small number of actual statesmen, compared to demagogues and bootlickers to the demos, to a growth in majority tyranny. He feared the debasement of the American character, and indeed, he would not be surprised by the devolution of American culture into a morass of consumerism. The omnipotence and omnipresence of the majority has taken the shape of a Lovecraftian entity, something amorphous, grasping, full of appetites and little else. It is like one massive mouth that must be fed, and so long as the warring factions keep it fat and happy, it will vote as they wish. What appears to be a conflict between various political ideologies is, actually, the result of a massive war for the opinion of a gigantic slothlike creature that has grown bloated and grotesque from glutting itself on consumerism and the empty calories of pop-culture. Politics are just another form of entertainment.

Thus, the legislature can pass laws that we no longer even know about. Thus, enormous bills, thousands of pages long due to rampant pork-barreling, can be passed by Congress and signed into law by a President, and we have no idea what they say--indeed, the Congress that passed them does not actually know what it was they passed, since the bill had been written by a committee in the first place.

And thus, the new shape of the tyranny of the masses. "If ever the free institutions of American are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the omnipotence of the majority." De Tocqueville may just be right. The minorities of which he speaks, those who are forced to resort to physical violence and who destabilize society, ushering in anarchy, are not those minorities we see on television and in the newspaper. They are minorities we've yet to see.

"Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be, pursued until it can be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit."

This apathy allows the legislature to ram through laws that no one understands. These laws then, in turn, give power to the police and judiciary that oppresses the people. The legislature, as de Tocqueville says, is the slave to the populace. But since the apathy of the populace is so potent, and they are so driven by base appetites, the authority of the fourth, and most powerful, branch of the government (the demos) goes unexercised.

I close with this following thought:

"Centralization easy succeeds, indeed, in subjecting the external actions of men to a certain uniformity, which we come at last to love for its own sake, independently of the objects to which it is applied, like those devotees who worship the statue, and forget the deity it represents. Centralization imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business; provides skilfully for the details of the social police; represses small disorders and petty misdemeanors; maintains society in a status quo alike secure from improvement and decline; and perpetuates a drowsy regularity in the conduct of affairs, which the heads of the administration are wont to call good order and public tranquility; in short, it excels in prevention, but not in action. Its force deserts it, when society is to be profoundly moved, or accelerated in its course; and if once the co-operation of private citizens is necessary to the furtherance of its measures, the secret of its impotence is disclosed. Even whilst the centralized power, in its despair, invokes the assistance of the citizens, it says to them: 'You shall act just as I please, as much as I please, and in the direction which I please. You are to take charge of the details, without aspiring to guide the system; you are to work in darkness; and afterwards you may judge my work by its results.' These are not the conditions on which the alliance of the human will is to be obtained; it must be free in its gait, and responsible for its acts, or (such as the constitution of man) the citizen had rather remain a passive spectator, than a dependent actor, in schemes with which he is unacquainted." (Emphasis added by me.)

Such is the lot of the American citizen today--a passive spectator in schemes with which he is unacquainted.

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