Today marks the official launch of the Tocqueville21 site, so what could be more fitting than to begin with a quote from Tocqueville himself:
Among the new things that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me more forcefully than the equality of conditions.
Not so long ago, but in what seems like another era, President Obama said that “inequality is the most important political issue of our time.” And yet we wake this morning to find Le Monde leading off with this titre choc:
Les riches, grands gagnants des premières mesures de Macron, selon l’OFCE
The hoopla surrounding Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (2014, which I translated into English) seems to have been forgotten along with Obama’s prediction. And who can be surprised by that? Almost exactly one year ago, Benoît Hamon won the Socialist primary and proceeded to run for president on a platform that emphasized precisely the need to equalize “conditions,” as Tocqueville would have put it. Piketty’s sister-in-law managed his campaign, and Piketty himself was closely involved. Yet Hamon lost, and lost badly–so badly that the continued existence of his party is now in question. Equality may, as Obama asserted, be the most important political issue of our time, but so far, at least, it has not proved to be a winning issue.
Why not? Was Tocqueville wrong? Was the drive toward greater equality not so inexorable and irresistible a force as he believed? Certainly that would be putting the case too strongly. The prevalence of widespread protest against the inegalitarian status quo is evident in the transnational revolt sometimes dismissed under the pejorative label “populism.” Populism is at bottom a refusal to be ignored. It reflects the conviction of many that even if their rulers were benevolent and asked them to state their grievances in a cahier de doléances, they would not be able to articulate them in a language capable of persuading the powers-that-be.
The problem of the anti-inegalitarian party, of which Hamon’s ill-fated Socialists were but one example, it that it doesn’t address the chief grievance of its constituency, which is not inequality but exclusion. Hannah Arendt, in a previously unpublished essay, noted that the real problem of the oppressed is not a matter of rights denied but rather one of exclusion from full participation in the body politic: “Liberties in the sense of civil rights are the results of liberation, but they are by no means the actual content of freedom, whose essence is admission to the public realm and participation in public affairs.” And this exclusion is first and foremost a matter of language: the excluded cannot be heard by their governors, who speak a fundamentally different language. That language may be one of brutality and ruthlessness, but it may also be one of genuine concern and benign rather than malign in intention. Yet its foreignness still excludes those who do not speak it.
Often the excluded turn to demagogues precisely because they feel an affinity with the language of the demagogue. The crude belligerence of Donald Trump’s “best words,” the derisive gouaille of Marine Le Pen’s mocking taunts to those in power–these are the instinctive responses of a certain breed of political animal to the distress they sense among their fellow creatures.
Tocqueville believed that the drive toward greater inequality was inevitable because it was inherent in the nature of the human species. He put this in religious terms, despite his religious doubts: equality was a dictate of Providence because all souls are equal before God. But God in this judgment is a hypothesis for which there is no need. Every man and woman wishes to be recognized by his or her semblable, as Tocqueville put it–recognized, understood, and addressed. Equality cannot therefore be achieved merely by redistribution, though redistribution is certainly an aspect and a consequence of recognition. Hamon, whose campaign was improvised in haste, had no solution to this problem, though he surely sensed it. The question about Macron is whether he is sensitive to it at all. The charge embodied in the Le Monde headline–“president of the rich”–which thus far encapsulates the sum total of oppositional thinking, be it from Mélenchon or Le Pen–thus misses the point. The question is not whether Macron intends or not to do anything for those who do not wear beaux costards but whether he cares what they think and how they feel, whether he believes that they have a right to full and articulate participation in the body politic or are rather noisy disturbances to be finessed, as he once suggested in an offhand remark. Reducing income inequality is not enough; the inequality of respect comes first.