Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

TOCQUEVILLE: How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry

Adam Smith once wrote that the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another… is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals. We’re all psychologically geared for conducting business. In his opinion this is a good thing. We live in communities and everyone specializes in their work. That way we’re able to provide ourselves with all the necessities and comforts of life. But Maxim Gorky paints a bleaker picture in his short story “Chelkash” when he writes about the dockworkers: the powerful machines these men had made and which stood radiating well-being in the sunlight; machines which, when all is said and done, had been set in motion not by steam, but by the blood and muscles of those who made them. These men have become slaves of the very machines they’ve created. So which is it? Does business and industry make us better people or does it degrade our humanity?

Well, maybe both. According to Tocqueville there are a few people who get very wealthy but most people don’t. In this selection he points out that democracy favors the development of industry… industry may in turn lead men back to aristocracy. We may start out with a democracy where everyone is relatively equal. But in an industrialized society we soon become fragmented into the haves and the have-nots. This is a direct result from the division of labor. Adam Smith says it increases our wealth. Tocqueville agrees, but notes that the wealth tends to become concentrated into the hands of the owners of the business, while the workers fall further behind intellectually and socially. He writes that As the principle of the division of labor is ever more completely applied, the workman becomes weaker, more limited, and more dependent… thus, at the same time that industrial science constantly lowers the standing of the working class, it raises that of the owners… the worker is in a state of constant, narrow, and necessary dependence on the owner and seems to have been born to obey, as the owner was to command. What is this, if not an aristocracy? It may not be called an aristocracy but for all intents and purposes we’ll be living under conditions similar to the feudal arrangement of lords and serfs. Living conditions may be better because we’re able to produce so much more food and clothing and shelter. But the underlying conditions of work and compensation are decided by the owners of the companies, much the way they were decided by the lords of the manors in the Middle Ages. Of course neither the owner nor the workman admit this. It’s just an unspoken agreement between them: The workman is dependent on owners in general, but not on a particular owner. These two men see each other at the workplace, but do not know each other otherwise… The owner only asks the workman for his work, and the workman asks only for his pay. The owner contracts no obligation to protect the workman, nor the workman to defend the owner, and they are not linked in any permanent fashion either by custom or by duty. Thus, the worker is “free” to change jobs and move somewhere else. But wherever he moves there will be another owner who will set his wages and working conditions. Most people would argue that this is still an improvement. At least in modern times we’re given the choice of which “master” we’ll work for. But other folks feel that we’ve lost the sense of a stable community. They long for the days when there was more personal connection between people. In their view the sense of community has been sacrificed for efficiency. Tocqueville says the territorial aristocracy of past ages was obliged by law, or thought itself obliged by custom, to come to the help of its workers and relieve their distress. But the industrial aristocracy of our day, when it has impoverished and brutalized the men it uses, abandons them in time of crisis to public charity. Today we face many of those same problems Tocqueville predicted would happen. The hot news topics today revolve around pension costs, unemployment benefits and public health care. Tocqueville was right.


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