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Friday, March 18, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare

In this excerpt from Democracy in America Tocqueville claims that grand revolutions aren’t likely to happen in America.  Why not?  For starters Tocqueville has this to say about Americans: “None of them has any permanent right or power to give commands, and none is bound by his social condition to obey.  Each man, having some education and some resources, can choose his own road and go along separately from all the rest.”  Americans are free to choose their own path, be it politics, religion or culture.  Why should they revolt?  Who would they be revolting against?  Themselves?  We might argue that many revolutions happen because of inequality of wealth.  Why don’t poor Americans just rise up and take some of that vast wealth?  Tocqueville observes that “among a great people there will always be some very poor and some very rich citizens.”  There have always been some very poor Americans and some very rich Americans.  But here’s the difference.  Tocqueville says “as there is no longer a race of poor men, so there is not a race of rich men; the rich daily rise out of the crowd and constantly return thither.”  In America the rich don’t always stay rich and the poor don’t always stay poor.  The hope of getting rich makes many poor people reluctant to overthrow the system.  The key, as Tocqueville sees it, lies in the concept of private property.  He says “any revolution is more or less a threat to property.  Most inhabitants of a democracy have property.”  Poor Americans may not own their own homes but most people do have cars or other valuable belongings.  They may not have everything they want but they want to keep the things they have. 

Then Tocqueville moves on to consider the middle class: “it is easy to see that passions due to ownership are keenest among the middle classes.”  Between these two segments of the population, the poor and the middle classes, “the majority of citizens in a democracy do not see clearly what they could gain by a revolution, but they constantly see a thousand ways in which they could lose by one.”  The hope of someday living a more comfortable life is a stronger motivation than risking everything and possibly losing it all.  America, more than most countries, has hitched its wagon to capitalism.  One American President said the business of America is business.  This may be a crucial factor in America’s caution in taking up revolutionary causes.  As Tocqueville sees it, “I know nothing more opposed to revolutionary morality than the moral standards of traders.  Trade is the natural enemy of all violent passions.  Trade loves moderation, delights in compromise, and is most careful to avoid anger… it makes them inclined to liberty but disinclined to revolution.”  The thing business wants most of all is a stable political, economic, and social environment.  This approach generally appeals to the middle and even to the lower classes because “no one is fully satisfied with his present fortune, and all are constantly trying a thousand various ways to improve it.”  So what do people want?

Karl Marx wanted revolution.  He once wrote that Labor “produces palaces for the rich, but shacks for the workers” (Alienated Labor, GB1).  And Max Weber made the observation (The Spirit of Capitalism, GB4) that “people only work because and so long as they are poor.”  He goes on to say that “a man does not by nature wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose.”  In Weber’s opinion people don’t necessarily want to be rich.  What they really want is leisure.  And this point isn’t lost on Tocqueville.  Countries undergoing revolutionary turmoil aren’t leisurely places to live.  But here’s the irony.  Neither are democracies.  Tocqueville says “indeed, there are few men of leisure in democracies.  Life passes in movement and noise, and men are so busy acting that they have little time to think.”  That’s what Tocqueville saw in America in 1831.


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