A Tocquevillian Look at American Egalitarianism and Egoism (Part I)
While reading a selection in Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America, I was struck by something in his reflections on the dangers of individualism and – more importantly – the relationship between the press, free civil associations, centralized government, and individualism. Much of what I had read from a conservative / neo-conservative standpoint regarding Democracy in America had focused on Alexis de Tocqueville’s stress on the existence of freely-convened civil associations and their necessity for the continued existence of liberty in a democratic society. To my mind, this stream of thought led me to believe that Democracy in America must surely be nothing more than a Frenchman’s panegyric reflections on the benevolence and generosity of the American spirit. It was not until I read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty that my interest in de Tocqueville was raised once more as I saw Mill reflect on the dangers of the tyranny of the majority and cite de Tocqueville as an influence in his thought. Upon further examination, I have come to see that Democracy in America is much more of a prophetic work regarding the influences and products of egalitarianism in democratic society.
Of all things that struck de Tocqueville about America and growing democracies was their tendency toward material egalitarianism and social unification (or de-stratification). Coming from a lesser aristocracy and from a European clime which had only so recently seen the downfall of some forms of aristocratic governance, this lack of social stratification in emerging democracies must have struck him deeply, for the entirety of the later portion of his work serves merely as a reflection on how egalitarianism affects the individual and social mentalities of the populace. Perhaps the most prodigious effect of this material equality and lack of stifling stratification was the fact that people quite easily established themselves as islands of individualism, separate from the greater portion of humanity. Often individualism is used pejoratively, although it also can have a meaning more akin to the expression “rugged individualism” which often denotes the attitude of the pioneering spirit. Nonetheless, this individualism also can lead one to the pernicious state of egoism or – as Fr. Justin Nolan O.S.B., one of my philosophy professors in college, would say – utterly crass individualism which forgets that there is a greater social unity.
Whatever the title be, egoism or crass individualism, one cannot doubt that such isolating forces can do nothing but tear a society apart. To assert such is both trite and common sense – at least in its assertion. However, what is more intriguing is the line of thought which leads one from social equality to crass individualism. We often glory over the middle class in America – and for good reason – for it is the middle class which can so often drive the kernel of society to either great things or mediocrity, given only its temperament and direction. So often, it is the middle part of society which works very hard to continually ameliorate past mistakes and expand the circle of their pecuniary and social influence, bringing forth new and better products for all of the society. It is this middle class which establishes a multitude of families which are able to brave some financial storms and not worry about whether or not food will be on the table on a given night. It is therefore this middle class which establishes that demographic of people which is – to varied degrees – assured of its own self-sufficiency.
This ruggedly individualistic middle class, the decrease of which is being lamented greatly by the political demagogues in this portion of the never-ending election cycle in our country, was at its apex of formal establishment in the generation of my grandparents, Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. It is of little surprise that the riots of the sixties and seventies where brought into being by the children of these iconic American workers who were able to provide for a period of great prosperity which solidified America’s central role in the world. It was commented by theologian Hans Kung that Pope Benedict XVI was able at first to be something of a (mild) radical in his early academic life because liberal exploits are easily undertaken when one has the surety of conservative stability. It was such for the hippies and other such protesters who took to causes great and small during the tumultuous period of my parents’ youth. For their own part, this generation was able to ride out the storms of their lives and establish a prosperous existence as well, effectively leveling much of the playing field in America for my generation.
However, as we come to my generation and the present day, it is quite easy to see that the individualism of the sixties, seventies, and (in a different form) the eighties was quite different from the rugged individualism of my grandparents. The world was much more comfortably established (not in all places, including my birthplace in southwestern PA) and able to be safely isolated from the vicissitudes which often accompany reality. It is my generation, more than any before, which seems to lust inordinately for the security of socialism and wholly believes, without much qualification, that it is right to say, “Nobody should ever tell me that my opinion is wrong.” Upon the stable foundation of the established, safe middle class, our culture is quickly moving toward a land in which we are ready to pay any price to maintain our individual egoistic spheres at the expense of liberty. De Tocqueville reflected that such is the natural tendency of those established in a secure social setting, for equality is much more palpable to maintain and also much more difficult to remove quickly when compared to liberty.
However, my intent in the next few blog entries will not be to take on the trite subject of individualism in America and its normal symptoms. Instead, I intend to focus on how we can easily see individualism in our habits of reading, musical activity, civil activity, and view on government. I will look at each of these individually and will then cap things up to give my thoughts a framework related to Alexis de Tocqueville’s prophetic reflections. I think that it is important to listen to these words of the past, for they may be able to stir us from some of the lethargy which is the end egoism of that rugged individualism which has made America such a great beacon of hope for the world. More importantly, as we approach what appears to be yet another involution of the world and find that individuals are becoming globalized (to use Thomas Friedman’s thought on the matter), it is of prime importance to me to reflect on what forces will destroy the beautiful possibility of a truly united world. Crass individualism will unquestionably destroy that possibility but a proper industrious spirit of individualism with free social bonds may be that which saves us from the only other method of world-wide unification, namely oppressive despotism.
Until my post on the morrow, highest blessings,