Tocqueville, Theorist of the State

29 January 2019

This article is adapted from Demos Assembled: Democracy and the International Origins of the Modern State, 1840-1880, by Stephen W. Sawyer (University of Chicago Press, 2018).


Perhaps no one in Europe or the Americas did more to push the democratic question to the center of politics during the modern period than Alexis de Tocqueville. John Stuart Mill captured his significance when he unabashedly stated that Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was “the first philosophical book ever written on Democracy, as it manifests itself in modern society.” More than a century and a half later at the outset of the twenty-first century, political philosopher Sheldon Wolin opened his vast exploration of Tocqueville’s work by noting that “Democracy in America represents the moment when democracy first came into focus as the central subject of a political theory.” Tocqueville’s work convinced many that democracy was the inevitable path of modernity. In the decades that followed the publication of his first opus, political thought and practice would attempt to work through the many implications and contradictions inherent in the democratic problem as he understood it. Any attempt to place democracy at the center of an international political history of the state in the second half of the nineteenth century necessarily starts with Tocqueville.


Tocqueville has overwhelmingly been interpreted as a critic of the modern administrative state. According to the dominant interpretation, his account of the inevitable push toward a democratic “equality of condition” rendered central state administrative institutions a constant danger. From his celebration of an American weak state and vibrant civil society in his Democracy in America to his critique of the triumph of an overbearing French statism in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Tocqueville’s account prophetically warned of the perils of a centralized administration in the modern world. He understood, we are told, that isolated individuals were produced by—and proportionately ill-equipped to resist—the omnipresent threat of a modern bureaucratic despotism designed to look after their every need. For Tocqueville, the individual equality necessary for distant administrative institutions to govern threatened individual liberty, which therefore could only be ensured by vibrant civic associations opposed to the state. To be preserved in this age of mounting equality, the story thus concludes, liberty required a relentless critique of administrative power.


There is no doubt that this interpretation captures an essential, perhaps even one of the essential, lines of reasoning in Tocqueville’s thought. Tocqueville did negotiate the tension between liberty and equality through a critique of state power. He did posit equality as a social condition. And he did think that liberty required an uncompromising recognition of the dangers of a centralized administration for modern liberty. Our awareness of these central strands of Tocqueville’s thought reach far back into the politics of Tocqueville’s rediscovery in the twentieth century, especially in the context of anti-totalitarianism, the rise of communist socialism and neoliberal critiques of the welfare state. Raymond Aron laid the cornerstone of Tocqueville’s rediscovery along these lines when he explained “Tocqueville means by the term democracy, a social state and not a form of government.” Following in this tradition, François Furet similarly noted that this emphasis on democracy as a social form blinded him to the positive potential of the state: “[Tocqueville] accumulated the political inconveniences of statification [étatisation], without yet presenting any of its practical advantages.” And Sheldon Wolin’s commanding intellectual biography states straightforwardly that for Tocqueville “the democratic state is a contradiction in terms.” Indeed, it is precisely as a liberal critic and theorist of democratic society—as opposed to a theorist or historian of democracy as a form of state—that Tocqueville’s work has been so generative for more than a half century.


And yet, there are some deep historical problems with such a reading of Tocqueville.


For one thing, it has entirely evacuated any positive conception of administrative power found throughout Tocqueville’s work. Of course, like his liberal contemporaries and predecessors, Tocqueville shared a suspicion of the absolutist and terrorist state. The state nonetheless sat at the center of his preoccupations. As we know, on a personal level, Tocqueville spent the better part of the July Monarchy and the Second Republic in the state’s service, not to mention his off-and-on lifetime engagement with local government in Normandy. Tocqueville spent the central years of his life as a “statesman.” This alone might raise doubts about a profound anti-statism in his work.


Beyond the personal, however, such an approach projects back onto Tocqueville a relatively limited conception of the state, one that is largely borrowed from twentieth-century European social theory and sociology—especially interpretations of Weber’s account of state power. Tocqueville clearly conceived of the modern state as a bureaucratic hegemon invented by absolutism and then realized through the despotic tendency within post-revolutionary French political culture. However, alongside this institutional account, Tocqueville also explored a history of different ways of deploying power, a diversity of technologies and objects around and through which regulatory capacities and administration were constituted. For Tocqueville, administrative power was not a thing, nor some singular mechanism that operated in the same way in all times and all places. It did not have normative or monopolistic properties which lorded over all societies across time and space. Rather, administrative power contracted, expanded, structured, invented, and interacted with a variety of other governmental and social practices over the longue durée. In short, for Tocqueville the state was a historical process.


What follows brings this line of thought under new light to understand how Tocqueville’s work contributes to a history of the democratic state. To do so, it shifts away from the overwhelming emphasis in Tocqueville’s thought on democratic equality and instead examines his perspective on the problem of inequality in modern democracy. An investigation of Tocqueville’s understanding of the problem of inequality reveals a profoundly revised vision of the relationship between democracy and the administrative state in his work. What appears is both a consistent critique and a recognition of the importance of administrative power and administrative law in modern democratic regimes. In other words, Tocqueville cultivated an ambivalence toward public administration that at once recognized its potential dangers while maintaining the imperative of effective administration in a modern democratic regime.


While one cannot deny Tocqueville’s usefulness as a critic of modern administrative power, it is equally important to recover this parallel stream in his work, which highlights his positive conception of administration. Across his oeuvre Tocqueville posed the question of how to cultivate an administration and public law that provided public services in the interest of the citizens within a democracy. From Democracy in America through The Old Regime and the French Revolution, and especially in his lesser-known texts on administrative law, he recognized that public administration and extensive regulatory power was necessary in modern democracy.


Tocqueville’s positive theory of the administrative state therefore went beyond prophetic foreboding, seeking to understand how this state could develop the infrastructural power and mechanisms necessary for the provision of services and goods in the public interest. He theorized a state in society: a state that did not so much dominate society as emanate from it. In doing so, he established a foundation upon which an entire generation of democratic thinkers would begin to reconsider the state in democracy.


Analyses of the problem of inequality can be found in many of Tocqueville’s texts, large and small, suggesting that this topic was of central importance to his conception of democracy. Tocqueville remained convinced that, if left unchecked, modern capitalism in a democratic society would generate what he called “a new aristocracy.” In his “Memorandum on Pauperism,” written following his visit to England in the 1830s, Tocqueville clearly admitted that “industry has preserved a form of aristocracy in modern nations, just as all the institutions and mores to which aristocracy gave birth are disappearing.” Tocqueville’s political economy was in effect pulled in two directions at once: toward a conception of an “equality of condition” on the one hand, but also toward a new form of modern inequality on the other. As he wrote in his discussion of the industrial proletariat in Volume II of his Democracy in America: “This state of dependence and misery in which one finds a portion of the industrial population is in fact exceptional and contrary to all that surrounds it.”


While there had always been inequalities, the situation of the new industrial proletariat was very different for example from the poor peasants of the past. “The isolation of distinct classes” was for Tocqueville an innovation of the eighteenth century. However, the modern centralized administrative state that had emerged from Absolutism and the late phases of the Revolution was poorly placed to overcome the new kinds of inequality emerging within democratic society. The new technologies of government that emerged during the administrative revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were more suited to isolating and levelling individuals than actually helping them. In the realm of the administrative state, this paradox raised the issue of how to solve modern social and political problems democratically without reinforcing the state’s nefarious tendencies to disempower individuals. Any remedy, in effect, ostensibly worsened the disease. So how could public authority respond to the tendency toward inequality without worsening the social atomization and disparities structurally produced by a central administrative power?


The response lies in a recognition that the history of administrative power in Tocqueville’s work is characterized by the coexistence of two historical forms of administrative power. “Under the old monarchy, there were only ever two ways of administrating,” Tocqueville argues, pointing toward administration by assembly or by a single appointed official. Let us refer to these two modes of administrative power under the titles local police regulation and central state administration. The former was traditionally used to govern cities, and as Tocqueville points out in The Old Regime and the Revolution, “the assembly not only governed and oversaw the administration, but administrated as well.” Local police regulation was inherited from the medieval period, slowly displaced by the new absolutist administrative apparatus. This new technique of government paved the way for a Revolution designed to “abolish the political institutions that had, for many centuries, reigned without rival.” Local police regulation, however, had not entirely disappeared: “In France, even in the eighteenth century, there are still a few vestiges,” he writes. Indeed, in some places he suggests that the competition—and incompatibility—between these two administrative forms helped shape the Revolution.


As is well known in the Tocquevillian story, absolutist central administration introduced a form of equality that would ultimately prepare the foundation for the democratic revolution. But, surprisingly, Tocqueville suggests that there was an earlier “democratic” form of administration grounded in local police regulation. “Louis XI restrained municipal liberties,” Tocqueville argues, “because their democratic nature frightened him; Louis XIV destroyed them without fear.” Tocqueville speaks of this “democratic” principle on a number of occasions. “During the middle ages,” he explains, “inhabitants administered themselves democratically . . . even in eighteenth-century France one could still find traces.” Hints of this previous democratic administration could be found everywhere: “Up through the end of the seventeenth century one can still find [cities] that continue to form little democratic republics.” And in some cases, it continued even up to 1789: “Until the Revolution, rural parishes in France conserved within their government something of this democratic nature.” This previous democratic tendency of local police regulation was distinct from modern democratic equality prepared by a centralized administration, since it had been largely dismantled by the new central state. Tocqueville’s history of administration and its relationship to democracy was, in fact, double.


But if it existed as a historical alternative, how did this regulatory power, this “democratic” administrative edifice, that Tocqueville introduces actually operate? Tocqueville provided a fairly clear analysis of his conception of this form of public authority. He defined the possibility for effective democratic intervention along three essential lines. First, as he insisted on numerous occasions, this public authority was not an autonomous territorial administrative apparatus. In keeping with the chiastic nature of modern democratic inequality, the construction of any permanent large-scale administrative structure would necessarily increase equality as well as servitude and atomization. It would therefore create a class of poor people without social resources, unable to respond to the periodic crises of industrial capitalism that increased modern inequality. But while it was necessary to avoid the construction of a habitual administrative apparatus, it was still necessary to have a public authority that intervened regularly into the daily lives of citizens.


The notes to his chapter on New England administration in Democracy in America reveal a kind of fascination with the effective regulation of daily life in New England. “Observe the Town Officer,” remarked Tocqueville, adding the extraordinary display of administrators in the smallest county: “Select men, Assessors, Collectors, Schools, Surveyors of highways.” Observing this list of administrators, what struck Tocqueville was not so much their incapacity to act, but rather their extraordinary penetration into everyday life: “Law descends into the minutest details,” noted Tocqueville in Democracy in America: “It determines both the principles and the means of their application; it encloses the secondary bodies and their administrators in a multitude of obligations.” He then provided a series of examples: “The State forbids traveling on Sundays without motive . . . the selectmen authorize the construction of sewers, designate places for building slaughterhouses, and where it is acceptable to build certain types of commerce that may be harmful for the neighborhood.”


So, as central as Tocqueville’s critique of administration was, it did not by any stretch lead to a blanket condemnation of intervention on behalf of public authority. Tocqueville’s argument was as far as one could imagine from a laissez-faire liberal critique of all public authority—it was a recognition of the capacity for regular public action in a potentially thriving democratic regime.


As Tocqueville understood it, this intervention of public authority was also often driven by necessity. That is, it needed to be able to intervene in moments of emergency or crisis in the public interest. This was particularly the case in the context of pauperism: “I recognize not only the utility, but the necessity of public charity applied to inevitable dangers . . . ; I further insist on its momentary utility in times of public calamity.” And then, highlighting the importance of state intervention in these cases, he writes: “The alms of the State are in such cases as instantaneous, unpredictable and passing as the harm itself.” The ambition of public authority was to act effectively and immediately when necessity called.


Finally, central to Tocqueville’s conception of the public authority was that it could not operate by creating an overarching, permanent and centralized administrative system. Instead, this model of public intervention had a larger, more ephemeral goal—it helped maintain and regulate public welfare. “This simple exposé speaks for itself,” noted Tocqueville in his essay on pauperism: the state is responsible for “the interest of order and public morals.”


So how might one explain the apparent paradox between Tocqueville’s critique of central administrative intervention, and his interest in this capacious mode of public interference into both the exceptional and the everyday features of modern democratic life? Throughout his work, Tocqueville’s conception of the relationship between democracy and the modern administrative state had a double character. Yes, there existed the dangers of excessive administrative centralization which engendered an alienating mode of individual equality. But there remained a second mode, which tied to the problem of alleviating inequality. This, more democratic administration in his view was grounded in modes of popular participation through both administrative surveillance and regular public consultation. Tocqueville imagined a robust regulatory power, operating the name of the public interest, acting in moments of social need and public crisis, and carefully adapted to its time and place. It was this second mode of state action, he argued, which offered a foundation for a just and effective mode of democratic administrative power.


Photo Credit: Author’s own.



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