Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Blogging de Tocqueville, Part Four

I should really start picking up the pace with these and posting more than once per month. This particular post covers my readings of Part One, Chapters XVI to XVIII, where de Tocqueville rounds out his discussion on the tyranny of the majority with factors that mitigate it, as well as preserve democratic tendencies within the early American cultural-political framework. The final chapter is a brief look at what the future might hold for the United States from his point-of-view.

Part Three
Part Two
Part One

In my last post on Democracy in America, I lamented the current cultural situation we find ourselves in, what I now consider to be similar to what the ancient Greeks called στάσις (stasis). The subjugation of the individual is alive and well in American society, but instead of a monolithic, unified majority of Anglo-American culture (as de Tocqueville observed across the Jacksonian socio-cultural landscape), the current American outlook is one divided between rival factions and coalitions of factions. Identification with a faction is often integral to the individual's identity. Nevertheless, acceptance into and alienation from one's faction generally follows the guidelines that de Tocqueville describes regarding the individual amidst the majority in Part One, Chapter XV.

It is in Chapter XVI where de Tocqueville begins to discuss the existence of lawyers as an independent and powerful social caste. And yes, I do purposely utilize the word caste, although some may feel class might be a more accurate term. Lawyers are a sort of aristocracy amidst the absence of an actual landed nobility, de Tocqueville feels, and there very existence is a check not only to majority rule but to the very existence of democracy itself. They are, by their very nature, anti-democratic.

During the Jacksonian era, de Tocqueville observed how the wealthy had no common tie to unite them into a social class. Sadly, this has changed, as the rich and wealthy are, ironically, perhaps the most class-conscious segment of American society today. The modern wealthy are an outgrowth of the American emulation of the British aristocracy during the Gilded Age. This emulation injected a sense of social separateness and created the identity of a class of wealthy citizens that are set apart--many of these people have become movers and shakers in the broader corporatocracy that has so much influence over politics through finance, banking, and control of the Federal Reserve.

But that's an aside. During de Tocqueville's lifetime, the lawyer was the only apparent aristocratic element in American society. My own personal take, however, is that the lawyer is a priest as opposed to a noble, and for the very reasons that de Tocqueville goes on to describe.
"The special information which lawyers derive from their studies insures them a separate rank in society, and they constitute a sort of privileged body in the scale of intellect. This notion of their superiority perpetually recurs to them in the practice of their profession: they are the masters of a science which is necessary, but which is not very generally known: they serve as arbiters between the citizens; and the habit of directing to their purpose the blind passions of parties in litigation, inspires them with a certain contempt for the judgment of the multitude. Add to this, that they naturally constitute a body; not by any previous understanding, or by an agreement which directs them to a common end; but the analogy of their studies and the uniformity of their methods connect their minds together, as a common interest might unite their endeavors."
If it weren't for their practice of an arcane, poorly understood form of knowledge (i.e. the science of law), I'd agree with de Tocqueville that the lawyers were simply a sort of American aristocracy. But it is the practice of this knowledge, and its possession, that makes the lawyer much more like a priest. His knowledge is something the common public is assumed to be incapable of grasping. Not only that, the layperson can never practice it without being properly ordained by the bar. Law school and the bar examination are a sort of progression from postulate to novice to vested and ordained practitioner. The procedures of the courtroom are a kind of liturgical ceremony intended to awe and instill a sense of wonder and fear before the power of justice and law itself. The very fact that the judge is often a lawyer is not lost to de Tocqueville, nor the fact that many public figures were as well. This latter de Tocqueville blames for the injection of legal procedure, method, and jargon into the bureaucratic workings of statecraft.

The primary safety-valve that de Tocqueville isolates that preserves the democratic spirit in the courtroom is the trial by a jury of one's peers. De Tocqueville heaps no small amount of praise upon this institution as a bastion of political freedom and an assurance of democratic ideals. The privilege of judgment is shared with the people. Each American citizen is given a stake in seeing the laws upheld, and service in a jury not only should instill an appreciation for the rule of law, but provide a means of enforcing public opinion and sentiment in the courtroom, in spite of the sentiments of the priestly lawyer caste.
The jury contributes powerfully to form the judgment and to increase the natural intelligence of a people; and this, in my opinion, is its greatest advantage. It may be regarded as a gratuitous public school, ever open, in which every juror learns his rights, enters into daily communication with the most learned and enlightened members of the upper classes, and becomes practically acquainted with the laws, which are brought within the reach of his capacity by the efforts of the bar, the advice of the judge, and even by the passions of the parties.
Woe to the American people that the duty of the juror has, in turn, been made subservient to the legal system instead of a complement and check to it. My comments on jury nullification in "Blogging de Tocqueville, Part Two" should remind the reader of the amount of cultural and political damage that has been wrought.
Following his discussion of lawyers and jurors, de Tocqueville examines the preservation of democracy in the United States from a variety of other angles--geographic, social, and cultural. While he does admit that the North American continent is blessed with resources and an abundance of land that makes both wanderlust and the American οἶκος (oikos, self-sufficient household-farm) possible are vital to the upkeep of American democracy, he doesn't attribute the status of primae causae. After briefly touching on immigration and westward migration, he contrasts the American continent with the Hispanic states in South America, and concludes that culture, and not geography, must be the inherent cause of democratic tendencies within a society.

In other words, for de Tocqueville, the whole of a society must genuinely value and love the concept of democracy and be willing to sacrifice for it in order for a democratic regime to take shape and perpetuate.
"It is true that the Anglo-Americans settled in the New World in a state of social equality; the low-born and the noble were not to be found amongst them; and professional prejudices were always as unknown as the prejudices of birth. Thus, as the condition of the society was democratic, the rule of democracy was established without difficulty.

"...The manners and laws of the Americans are not the only ones which may suit a democratic people; but the Americans have shown that it would be wrong to despair of regulating democracy by the aid of manners and laws."
What de Tocqueville terms as "manners" here would now be referred to as culture and values. It is the values of a culture (and by extension the laws they enact) that determine whether or not a democratic government can be maintained by a society, and those are aspects of Hispanic society to which de Tocqueville attributed the failure of democracy to take hold in South America.

De Tocqueville closes Part One of Democracy in America by discussing the future prospects for Europe and America alike. He focuses far more attention on Europe, especially in light of the possibility for there to arise a set of brutal tyrannies now that popular support for monarchism has dwindled throughout much of the continent. His fears prove prescient, especially when one views the dismal decades of the early-to-mid twentieth century.
"If absolute power were re-established amongst the democratic nations of Europe, I am persuaded that it would assume a new form, and appear under features unknown to our fathers.

"... Since religion has lost its empire over the souls of men, the most prominent boundary which divided good from evil is overthrown; everything seems doubtful and indeterminate in the moral world; kings and nations are guided by chance, and none can say where are the natural limits of despotism and the bounds of license.

"...When kings find that the hearts of their subjects are turned towards them, they are clement. ... But once the spell of royalty is broken in the tumult of revolution... the sovereign is no longer regarded by any as the father of the state, and he is feared by all as its master. If he is weak, he is despised; if he is strong, he is detested. He is himself full of animosity and alarm; he finds that he is a stranger in his own country, and he treats his subjects like conquered enemies."
The restrictions of old are gone. All of the social safety-valves which limited and contained the excesses of tyranny have been removed by modernity, leaving society far more vulnerable to the abuse of absolute power in the hands of an individual. Modernity has also stripped the thrones of the earth of their sacrosanctness, ensuring that social control by any would-be Caesar requires domination of politics through force. The age of military dictatorships, of fascism in Europe, and the tumultuous wars of the early half of the twentieth century, would likely have not surprised de Tocqueville, though I have no doubt they would have grieved him.

De Tocqueville's final predictions of American development are quite prescient, though not prophetic, and are proof of what an analytical mind can do when projecting possible future events. De Tocqueville anticipated the westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean with a certainty borne on having witnessed the dynamism of American settlement firsthand. His analysis of American infiltration into Mexican territory through the settlement of Texas prompted him to predict an eventual conflict between Mexico and the United States.

What is a bit surprising, however, is his foresight into conflicts between the United States and Russia.
"Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned of their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

"All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived. The American struggles against the obstacles which nature opposes to him; the adversaries of the Russian are men. The former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its arms. The conquests of the American are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the Russian by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm. The principle instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe."
There's not much one can really add to this quote. The origins of American power are exactly opposite those of Russian. The Russians emerged from beneath servitude and subjugation to challenge the more civilized nations of Europe. Their rusticity is comparable to that of the Americans, yet the nature of their struggles are exactly the opposite. The Americans have tamed the wilderness while the Russians have battled off European civilization in order to achieve their strength. This, indeed, goes beyond the United States vs. the Soviet Union, as many other readers of de Tocqueville have assessed. Indeed, anyone who understands modern Russian culture and society will readily realize that a great deal has not changed since de Tocqueville penned the above passage. Indeed, although due to economic disaster, American power is waning, Russia is perpetually crouched above Central Asian wealth.

De Tocqueville seems to believe very firmly in democracy, and his deep and incisive analysis of American democracy is not a blueprint for Europeans, nor is it a critique. Rather, it is an idea-mine. De Tocqueville's Part One is an examination of what makes American democracy work, and asks what the Europeans can learn from the Americans. De Tocqueville admits that there's a lot that cannot (and should not) be applied to the European democratic society, because though these elements might function well in the United States, they are not suitable for Continental culture. De Tocqueville insists that democracy is possible in Europe, and indeed preferable for its inhabitants, and looks to America for proof of the cultural and societal bounty that can be reaped from having an active and healthy democracy.

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