Signpostings

Relationships in a World of Individualism

  • rWorld

    The rWorld is about more than Dale Kuehne's book Sex and the iWorld.
    The rWorld is a New England based, non-profit (in formation), that is composed of a growing number of people and organizations from many faith and ideological backgrounds worldwide. We believe that much of the fulfillment for which women and men are looking can be found by enhancing the quality of our relationships. While the individual freedom we enjoy in the West is a gift, the love and intimacy for which humans yearn will not be found in self-serving materialism or hedonism, but in a variety of healthy relationships.

    Contact us if you'd like get involved:
    scr.im/rwld

  • Dale Kuehne

    Sex & the iWorld

    Professor of Politics and The Richard L. Bready Chair for Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good at Saint Anselm College, Manchester, NH.

    In this blog I'm highlighting signposts of the world in which we presently reside as a means of helping promote a civil, and meaningful dialogue about what kind of world in which we wish to live. I am particularly interested in exploring how might we reconcile the individual good and the common good, and where reconciliation isn’t possible, which should take precedence and why.

    I also blog at Sharewik.com

    [Content Caution]

It’s Déjà vu all over again (Tocqueville on America, Conclusion)

Posted by Dale Kuehne on March 17, 2010

“I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles.” Pete Townshend, The Who Sell Out (1967)

I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Bk 4, Ch. 6 (1840)

Can Tocqueville see for miles?

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4 Responses to “It’s Déjà vu all over again (Tocqueville on America, Conclusion)”

  1. Ann F-R said

    What I find interesting is how Tocqueville abstracts the collective force of individual human actions and inaction into something exterior to their collective will. It’s as if the “government” he posits isn’t an agency of humanity, but an amorphous force. I don’t find that credible. I agree with the trajectory he foresees; yet, that trajectory is guided by the self-interests of powerful and the wealthy humans, not by the amorphous force. I would argue that his “government” is the acting in concert of humans who seek only their own individual goods, not that of humans within community. So, the difference between our observations of humanity have to do with disagreement over the fundamental assumption he makes, here: “The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.”

    Were humans equal in birth, gifts, privilege & power, the force he theorizes might possibly be exterior to the will of humans; however, we are simply not equal by birth, by position, by opportunity to attain or seize any of our self-interests. The congenital inequality (or diversity) creates a relentless striving to covet what any other has, to seize their goods by whatever means it takes. Combined with the real and perceived scarcity of material resources, this striving negates the good of the community for the individual’s desires. The “government” then, in my estimation, becomes the cacophonous concert wherein the selfish interests of the better positioned are constantly challenged by those positioned lower by any reason and their interests. Few work for the interests of the others, because to do so is fundamentally counter-intuitive. In story, this becomes the default position of voters in a system governed by self-interest. When we lived in Italy I questioned a thoughtful and informed friend about why he’d voted for a man convicted of corruption, fraud, theft, etc. His response was, “who better to govern Italy?”

  2. Ann, I was on the verge of disagreeing forcefully with you, but I am glad I read on. You do take a lot into account, and it surprises me when anyone does that.

    Tocqueville sounds both libertarian and anti-libertarian here, doesn’t he? But there is a counterbalance to this summation of interests, red in tooth and claw, which he himself noted earlier in this work. I have a little experience in Eastern Europe, both with Habitat and with Christian volunteering in general. They find Americans amazing in their willingness to voluntarily cooperate for a local societal good. It takes many years in a country before Habitat is able to attract a sizable number of local volunteers in most countries. They have to rely on Americans (and Canadians) coming in to demonstrate how volunteering is done. If nationals volunteer at all, it is along family and loose clannish, tribal lines. This is slowly changing, but it well illustrates that despite the reputation Americans have for serving only our own individual interests, the opposite appears to be true when compared to other societies – including Western Europe. We do indeed have this enormous drive to selfishly look after ourselves – and yet not. Somehow, we have built a culture of generosity so that even robber barons look to use their wealth in libraries, museums, colleges, religious works, and arts. How exactly this came to be I barely understand. Yet it is there, and we should not always reflexively kick ourselves for American selfishness. Unless, of course, kicking ourselves turns out to be the spur that prompts us to do better!

  3. Ann F-R said

    I’m glad you read on, AVI. (I can’t bring myself to shorten your “name.” 🙂

    There have been some interesting studies in recent years about the benefits of altruism/volunteerism for us individually & communally. However, if people get caught up in the perception that they must eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, win or lose, it’s very easy to lose sight of the community we live in and how to support one another in the best ways possible. We more readily participate in a vicious cycle of selfishness and self-protection (by all means & at all costs), rather than in the cycle of creating good and benefiting others.

    I agree with your observations from my experiences in Africa, Europe & here in N. America. People will more readily help family, friends, & those with whom they have some affiliation. I think it’s a general experience, even here, that volunteering hours have decreased as more people have emphasized employment and material gain. The not-so-free market has become a tyrant, in my opinion. Notice who has profited and dictated terms to whom in the current economic debacle.

  4. PiterJankovich said

    My name is Piter Jankovich. oOnly want to tell, that your blog is really cool
    And want to ask you: is this blog your hobby?
    P.S. Sorry for my bad english

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