Part 1 of 3
An important project for the Alternative Right is the reclaiming of the ethno-nationalist and inegalitarian strands in Western thinking. This is often fairly easy to do: almost everything written before the 1960s was in some way or another politically-incorrect by the standards of today. I have previously attempted to do this regarding aristocratic, racial, and nationalist thought in Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic study, Democracy in America. In this article, I would like to look at another aspect of Tocqueville’s work, namely his incredibly insightful premonitions on the development of the American Republic.
One is struck at how prescient Tocqueville’s work is: he predicts the consolidation and exponential growth of a great American nation, rising to dominate half the world, he notes the perils of divided sovereignty and the possibility of civil war, and he is alarmed at the conformist, leveling, almost irresistibly stifling nature of American democracy. I will argue here that Tocqueville was in effect a kind of prophetic historian of the United States, who from the vantage point of the 1830s could already see much of America’s future course.
I do not say that Tocqueville is a divine prophet. Rather, he is farsighted insofar as, as a philosophical thinker, he identifies the underlying (more-or-less) universal human drive behind an immediate American political phenomenon. This allows Tocqueville to see what he calls “providential” trends (as opposed to “accidental” ones), such as the rise of democracy or the “European race’s” expansion beyond the Rockies (551; perhaps an early expression of Manifest Destiny). In human history, besides such things as natural disasters, providential trends are invariably reflections of the human soul, of our evolved psychology, of eternal drives who differ only expression according to circumstances.
The rise of democracy in such a scheme is the expression of the impulse in every human being to claim they are just as good as anyone else (a kind of individually-adaptive conceit) and the sentimental (northern) European attachment to equality (for is more unfair than in-born inferiority?). In an age of mass communications, both the conceit and the sentimentality are pandered to by democratic politicians. The European race’s crossing the Rockies was a providential trend reflecting nineteenth-century Europeans’ difficult lives and their ruthless pursuit of material well-being, the Amerindians be damned, before comfort had made them softer and more sentimental.
Tocqueville’s example helps us to think dialectically. The American traits Tocqueville identifies, notably individualism and egalitarianism, remain with us and will always be with us. Providential thinking is also of interest insofar as it helps us discern what is inevitable from what is contingent. That which is providential is inevitable, is part of our soul and Nature, and is that which we must learn to live with and love, whereas that which is avoidable and bad, we must learn to fight with absolute fanaticism. This is the meaning behind Tocqueville’s love-hate relationship with democracy, seeing it as suboptimal but inevitable.
Democracy in America is a particularly interesting study insofar as all the institutions and forces he describe are still at work – both in the lone superpower which is America, and in democratized and Americanized Western Europe – and because we can be sure these trends will still be at work in coming centuries. To think in providential, dialectical terms is to really prepare for the future, to lay solid foundations. Tocqueville’s critique largely prefigures later critical assessments of democracy by American thinkers such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, but it also helps to understand why these critics failed (Grant and Stoddard incidentally lived in an age when democracy was still weak enough that one could even voice such critiques).
Tocqueville’s prophetic narrative is as follows. The United States of America was a truly blessed country, enjoying a vast continental territory, regional hegemony, ethno-cultural homogeneity, and a dynamic Anglo-European culture. America was thus destined, if it could overcome the ambiguities of its founding (notably divided sovereignty between the states and the union) to grow to tremendous world power, notably over the little warring states of old Europe. If consolidated, a democratic America would naturally centralize.
In moral and intellectual terms, however, America had already peaked with the Founding Fathers. The trend was towards ever more democracy, more individualism, more deracination, and more conformism. Free spirits were to be crushed by the mob and, Tocqueville already notes, the mass media.
Such a system was both uniquely powerful and uniquely vulnerable to ethno-plutocratic capture. While Tocqueville does not predict this, capture was effectively achieved between the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the creation of Hollywood, the Judeo-liberalization of elite print media, and the rise of the Federal Reserve and Wall Street (particularly given the latter’s importance to campaign financing). The American Republic was hijacked and, partly under its own natural inclination and that ethnic distortion, was turned into the American Empire, a force for disintegration across the world.
The American Miracle
It is amazing to contemplate the speed of transformation of human affairs, especially in the modern era. The United States did not even exist two-and-a-half centuries ago, but through a uniquely fortuitous convergence of conditions, it came to be born and exponentially grow to become the world’s sole superpower. As Toccqueville notes:
[O]ne observes a wondrous accord between fortune and the efforts of men. America was a new land; however the [Anglo-American] people who inhabited it had already long practiced liberty elsewhere: two great causes of internal order. What’s more, America did not fear conquest. (208)
In short: a European culture, the most dynamic civilization in the world; English culture, the most dynamic nation of Europe; settled in safe hegemony in a vast continent two and a half times the size of Europe (to this day, the population density of the United States is eight times less than Great Britain and three-and-a-half times less than the European Union); with comparatively boundless resources. American power, with its steady, exponential rise to world predominance, is the expression of Anglo-European dynamism freed from the geographical, resource, and political constraints (notably the balance of power) of old Europe.
Tocqueville notes that the colonies’ population growth had been exponential from the beginning – doubling roughly every 22 years (594) – and, like Benjamin Franklin, he predicted this would lead to the rise of an awesome nation:
There will then come a time when we will be able to see in North America 150 million men equal among themselves, who will all belong to the same family, who will have the same starting point, the same civilization, the same language, the same religion, the same habits, the same customs, and through which thought will circulate under the same form and will paint with the same colors. The rest is uncertain, but this is certain. Well, here is an entirely new fact in the world, and which imagination itself cannot grasp the implications. (597)
This single Anglo-European nation-state of the highest quality would then be able to dominate the little nation-states of Europe. Tocqueville then makes his famous prediction, a century before the Cold War, of Russo-American domination of the world:
The American struggles against the obstacles which nature presents him; the Russian grapples with men. One fights the desert and barbarism, the other civilization with all its weapons: also, the American’s conquests are done with the laborer’s plowshare, those of the Russian with the soldier’s sword.
To attain his goal, the first relies upon personal interest, and lets act, without leading them, the strength and reason of individuals.
The second concentrates in a sense in one man the entire power of society.
One has as its principle means of action liberty; the other, servitude.
Their starting points are different, their pathways are diverse; nonetheless, each of them seems called upon by a secret plan of Providence to one day hold in their hands the destinies of half the world. (597-98).
The European Disaster : A Fratricidal & Tyrannical Balance of Power
Tocqueville provides some powerful observations which appear to meditate upon the contrast between the legacies of Napoleon Bonaparte as against the Founding Fathers: the great dictator and conqueror was a brilliant but ultimately vain shooting star, while American leaders set the foundations for the steady, peaceful, and unglamorous rise of a new superpower. The trends Tocqueville identifies help explain how liberal-plutocratic America came to dominate the warring states of her European motherland, of how ultimately Americanism utterly destroyed Prussiandom.
Tocqueville strongly emphasizes the fact that the United States, hegemonic and distant in North America, was so secure as to be able to experiment with a weak executive, individualism, and divided government, and indeed to further its development in peace. He emphasizes the trade-off: dictatorships tend to be stronger in crises and in the short term, democracies greater in the long term:
This relative weakness of democratic republics, in times of crisis, is perhaps the biggest obstacle which opposes the foundation of such a republic in Europe. For a democratic republic to subsist without difficulty with a European people, it would need to be established at the same time among all the others.
I believe that the government of democracy must, in the long term, increase the real strength of society; but it cannot unite at the same time, in a particular point and time, as much strength as an aristocratic government or an absolute monarchy. If a democratic country remained subjected for a century to a republican government, we can believe that after this century it would be richer, more populous, and more prosperous than neighboring despotic States, but during this century, it would have run the risk many times of being conquered by them. (337)
Tocqueville stresses: “Nothing is more fecund in marvels than the art of beings free; but there is nothing harder than learning to be free” (360). Such a system of government, while beneficial to society’s growth and dynamism, was unfeasible in old Europe, where the warring statelets necessarily turned into “military monarchies,” with all the fruitless wars, servility, and crushing taxation this implied. A stark statistic: at the time Tocqueville was writing, the U.S. federal government only employed 6,000 soldiers, utterly unthinkable for any European great power!
Despotism in contrast is seductively easy, promising order and justice, while ultimately providing only temporary quick fixes:
I think that administrative centralization is only liable to weaken the peoples who submit to it, because it tends to continuously reduce civic spirit among them. Administrative centralization manages, it is true, to unite in a given time, and in a given place, all the available strengths of the nation, but it undermines the reproduction of these strengths. It makes it triumph of the day of battle and weakens its power in the long run. It can then admirably contribute to the passing glory of a man, but not to the lasting prosperity of a people. (150)
In Europe, states were selected for tyranny through war:
[T]he people who have come to wage great wars have been brought, almost despite themselves, to strengthen the powers of government. Those who have not succeeded in this have been conquered. A long war almost always puts nations before this tragic alternative, that their defeat delivers them to destruction, and their triumph to despotism. (259)
For Tocqueville, bursts of nationalism and state power betray a deeper fragility and insecurity, whereas the steady rise of a democratic society is much more powerful in the long run. One can almost read here, already, the triumph of Americanism over Prussiandom:
What do you ask of society and its government? We must be clear.
Do you want to give the human spirit a certain elevation, generous way of contemplating the things of this world? Do you want to inspire in men a kind of contempt for material goods? Do you want to inspire and maintain deep convictions and prepare great devotion?
Is it a matter of polishing customs, elevating manners, to make the arts shine? Do you want poetry, clamor, glory?
Do you claim to organize a people so as to act strongly upon all the others? Do you commit it to attempt great endeavors, and, whatever is the result of these efforts, to leave a tremendous mark upon history?
If that is, according to you, the principal objective which men must propose to society, do not choose the government of democracy; it will surely not take you to this goal.
But if it seems useful to divert man’s intellectual and moral activity towards the necessities of material life, and to employ it to produce well-being; if reason seems to you more profitable to men than genius; if your object is not to create heroic virtues, but peaceful habits; if you prefer vices to crimes, and you prefer to find less great actions, on the condition of encountering less infamies; if, instead of acting amidst a brilliant society, it is enough to live in the middle of a prosperous society; if, finally, the principal objective of government is not, according to you, to give to the entire body of the nation as much strength and glory as possible, but to procure for each of the individuals who make it up the most well-being and to avoid them the most misery; then equalize conditions and constitute the government of democracy. (367-68)
To be sure, the apparently providential great man, the zeal of serving a noble cause, and death in battle all appear more glorious than the steady growth of a bourgeois republic. Yet, George Washington, in relinquishing power, ultimately left a more powerful material legacy than Napoleon Bonaparte in ferociously grasping for it.
No doubt, given our evolutionary history, only tribal warfare can appear glorious to us, a useful trait when the people must be rallied and unified in times of crisis. But in peaceful times, a sociey’s cultivation is better achieved through slow but steady growth and perfection, rather than revolutionary spasms, which by definition are an insecure gamble (concerning Prussia-Germany, Frederick II won his gambit, whereas Adolf Hitler did not). Perhaps modern Western history can be considered a kind of necessary oscillation between Americanism and Prussiandom.
1. Alexis de Tocqueville, De la Démocratie en Amérique (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), volume 1. To those seeking to find the equivalent passages in English translations, I can only say that Tocqueville’s text begins after a lengthy preface on page 33 and concludes with footnotes at page 625.
2. I could only find one really false prediction: Tocqueville predicts a bright future for South America. We are still waiting! (588).
3. Consider Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The fascist movements, in embracing parts of modernity and notably the notion of mass politics, can be considered to have gone with the grain of history and taken these providential trends into account, as against the inevitable failures of the conservative.
4. I am struck at how Janus-faced is the legacy of the French Revolution and Napoleon: one minute seeming to slope towards individualist-egalitarianism, the next towards collectivist elitism. As many have noted, in wartime our “democracies” in effect become authoritarian states. Carl Schmitt noted this concerning the First World War. Mahatma Gandhi would deem the Western Allies’ war efforts to be an attempt to “out-Hitler Hitler.”