The first analyst of the American experiment was French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). His landmark 1835 work, "Democracy in America," was quoted Thursday by Thom Hartmann on his RT news program, "The Big Picture," and that quote was used to open his conversation with actor and social commentator John Fugelsang. Their subject was the quest for the American Dream as Fugelsang described it from his part in Roger Weisberg's new film, "Dream On." The film's central themes were exactly what you'd expect from artists with a progressive perspective, and Fugelsang articulated them well.
But I want to get back to Hartmann taking the opportunity to relate the de Tocqueville quote to what I've taken to calling "the narrative" that we are fed by corporate mainstream media.
A website supplied the complete passage containing the quote used by Hartmann, and the site has these introductory words about it: "The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville... describes what form of tyranny or despotism would come to America: it would be relatively mild, retain some of the 'external forms of liberty,' but the people would behave like timid 'animals' and the government would act like their shepherd."
For just the part that Hartmann used, scroll down to the asterisks and read below them. But the whole passage speaks chillingly to our times, warranting consideration of all of it.
Here's the famed French philosopher's original observation:
"Democratic governments will be able to become violent and even cruel in certain moments of great agitation and great dangers; but these crises will be rare and passing.
"When I think about the petty passions of the men of our times, about the softness of their mores, about the extent of their enlightenment, about the purity of their religion, about the mildness of their morality, about their painstaking and steady habits, about the restraint that they nearly all maintain in vice as in virtue, I am not afraid that they will find in their leaders tyrants, but rather tutors.
"So I think that the type of oppression by which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing of what preceded it in the world; our contemporaries cannot find the image of it in their memories. I seek in vain myself for an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I am forming of it and includes it; the old words of despotism and of tyranny do not work. The thing is new, so I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.
"I want to imagine under what new features despotism could present itself to the world; I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.
"Above those men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances;k how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?
"This is how it makes the use of free will less useful and rarer every day; how it encloses the action of the will within a smaller space and little by little steals from each citizen even the use of himself. Equality has prepared men for all these things; it has disposed men to bear them and often even to regard them as a benefit.
"After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
"I have always believed that this sort of servitude, regulated, mild and peaceful, of which I have just done the portrait, could be combined better than we imagine with some of the external forms of liberty, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people."
-- From "Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 4."
The website that makes the full passage available is actually a conservative site. De Tocqueville has always gotten traction across the American political spectrum. That site followed their presentation of the full quote with their bit of spin, and it's useful for our consideration:
"About this Quotation: In a number of quotations we have looked at writers who have likened the people to sheep who are protected by the shepherd or 'state' in order to better shear them of their fleece or slaughter them for meat. John Milton was quite clear on this analogy and stressed the importance for the state of creating 'sheep-like minds' in the heads of the people. Alexis de Tocqueville can be added to this list. In the longer version of the quotation he talks about the importance of 'agitation' and 'crisis' in creating the precondition for the expansion of state power; that in democratic America the state will create a new form of tyranny, being part despotism, part 'tutorship', and part 'paternalism' of the people; that various external forms of liberty will remain but the sheer number of 'uniform rules' will reduce the people to a timid and sheep-like status with the state acting like the national shepherd."
To which I respond to the editors at that site:
Your focus is a singular fear of government, and in that, you miss the bigger picture. Government turns out to be but one actor, and being not very well funded, it is incapable of being the principal malevolent actor. Your commentary regarding de Tocqueville seems stuck in his time, not ours. His words resonate and apply to us and the situation in which we find ourselves, in a world of a 1% who are not accountable to the 99% because they are not holders of political office. This is the first time in history that such a fabulously wealthy and wholly unaccountable 1% has controlled over 90% of all the wealth of an entire society.
De Tocqueville did not foresee that, but his words apply to these oligarchs because his analysis does not limit his warnings solely to those who gain their power through government. Where your site's commentary fails is in its inability to see the malevolent desire for gaining total control of a society through exerting a comfortable consumerism paradigm of comfortable acceptable total control, which is inescapably a psychologically managed power madness by the oligarchs and the wannabe plutocrats among them. The ability to secretly spend unlimited sums of money to buy office holders and the politicians who appear to challenge them assures a legislative agenda that always goes their way (take ALEC, for example) and a simultaneous demand for austerity that starves government so that it cannot regulate their casino behavior in its manipulation of the global and national economies.
We allowed a point to slip past us in there. We also want to ask the site's editors, Where's your recognition that de Tocqueville's expectation of the masses behaving like animals is demonstrated in consumerism run amok, with riots for the brushed chrome iPhone, and at every Day-After-Thanksgiving sale (that actually seems to have supplanted Thanksgiving, of late)?
Thus, we get de Tocqueville's expectation of comfortably acceptable despotism that masquerades as democracy. And the government which arrests us for joining with Native Americans to oppose tar sands oil pipelines arrests us, then appears to benevolently, even responsively, yield, but only as the safety valve on the boiler. Meanwhile, the $20 billion in arms sales to a dangerously extremist Middle East kingdom quietly goes forward because it maintains their profit ratio.
Even as 0% interest rates assure we must spend our money on mall-bound orgies of consumerism, before sales end and prices go up, because there is no reason to save money that loses purchasing power. Even as all the repossessed and foreclosed homes from the 2008 Depression were not recycled into the housing market for young families just getting started, but went, in bulk, to the same oligarchs to add to their inventories of rental properties (rich people do like to amass "collections," don't they?) Even as trains crash into stations in New Jersey because austerity prevented modern train control devices from being installed to prevent runaway trains and crashes Even as publicly-owned properties, developed with taxpayer dollars, go to oligarchs as profit-making monuments to themselves (like Trump buying the landmark Old Post Office in DC, and making it a luxury hotel for global oligarchs). And on and on.
But hey, you still get pizza coupons on your cyber-monitored cell phone when you email a friend about stopping for a bite to eat, because your benevolent Cyber Big Brother knows you like pizza. Ahh, life is so good under see-all, hear-all, know-all, benevolent Big Brother, isn't it? Just don't commit any Thought Crimes. Remember they don't just know, they sell all, so if you ever want to work for any of the Koch Brothers 60+ companies, better keep that in mind. Enjoy your discounted pizza.
If only George Orwell could have sat down with Alexis de Tocqueville. Two subversives. Nicola Tesla might've joined them. A far better gathering than Che Guevara and Daniel Ortega, I should think. But not on the fashionable reading list, where it would distract from celebrity divorces and fad diets and all the other carefully contrived distractions.
Certainly no debate moderator or interviewer will ever formulate a question for candidates from de Tocqueville's or Orwell's writings. That would take time away from learning who else Trump thinks is a fatso. No, no. Just stick with the tried-and-true: diversion, distraction, transference, obfuscation, stacked-deck half-truths, and that unchallenged king of all propaganda tools, fear.
Welcome to 2016, Mr. de Tocqueville. A time and a land devoid of intellectual honesty, where the promise of the Fourth Estate as the ultimate check and balance on the three branches of government and the forces of society was lost when the mainstream media became a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporatocracy. I hate to say it, mon frère, but your predictions for the resiliency of America do seem to be tied to your aside about democracy morphing into a corrupted charade maintained, not by the Romans' bread and circuses, but as you foresaw, by the illusion of liberty and freedom. And we must add, and by the blood of anyone who can be nominally labeled as a tyrant to justify a continuous state of war.
Just remember you're not a real 'Murican unless you assemble with the lemmings to ratify the choice of the corporate partisan duopoly, as thoroughly explained by the corporate mainstream media's nonstop droning presentation of "the narrative." After all, the freedom to choose the lesser of two evils is the ultimate illusion of democracy and of liberty itself. What's that? WHO isn't standing up for the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem's strains about bombs bursting in air? They can't do that! They're violating our freedom! Call the robocops!