Revue de Presse: September 8

8 September 2019


Would Tocqueville have gone to Burning Man? The New York Times describes the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer and his interest in the annual desert festival frequented by anarchists, artists, and free spirits—dubbing Romer “de Tocqueville among the Burners.” Romer, who’s increasingly fascinated by “charter cities” and the economics of urban planning, thinks there might be lessons to learn at northwest Nevada’s yearly bacchanal. Is a well-designed street grid enough to inspire cooperation in the midst of chaos?


Another of this week’s comparisons between Tocqueville and the present comes from Harvey Mansfield, the Harvard political theorist (and translator of the UChicago Press edition of Democracy in America). In City Journal, Mansfield confronts Tocqueville and Donald Trumps’s very different vision of American “greatness.” The difference, as Mansfield sees it, rests on a distinction between between “liberal democracy and untaught democracy.”


Writing for Aeon, Paul Kosmin discusses the emergence of universal and linear time-keeping in the 4th century BCE, which marked a profound shift in humanity’s relationship with time. Kosmin contrasts the linear model of time-keeping with the local, irregular, geography-dependent modes of previous eras. He emphasizes how the standardization of time and dates, beginning in the Seleucid Era, upended human beings’ relationship to  empire, history, and the narrative of politics.


As far as our relationship to linear times goes, Thomas Piketty isn’t so sure we should think about “progress” in a linear, or deterministic way. This has key implications in his forthcoming book Capital et idéologie (translated by our own Art Goldhammer). Piketty, the French economist best known for Le Capital au XXIe siècle, here argues that inequality is not merely a historically tolerable cost of progress, but a deliberately-maintained ideological structure, which persists despite general scientific and humanitarian advancements. In this exclusive excerpt offered by Le Monde, Piketty focuses on the way that our refusal to see historical struggles as anything but a series of necessary sacrifices encourages us to normalize oppression as a natural state of human affairs.


In a review for the New Republic, Sarah Leonard critiques Daniel Markovits’s new book, The Meritocracy Trap. Contra Markovits, Leonard argues that the elites who benefit from the meritocratic system can play no role in dismantling the ladder to success. Markovits believes that elites must recognize the rat race and reform the system from their position of power, yet Leonard has a more Marxist reading of the situation: these elites are capitalists, sure of their own enlightenment, but inevitably bound to fall to the revolt of the proletariat.


Philanthropy might sound inherently redistributive, but the Stanford political scientist Rob Reich argues private donations are actually making democracy less egalitarian. In this analysis of Reich’s book Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, Nick Burns of the Hedgehog Review draws out Reich’s core opposition to the modern day phenomenon of tax-deductible “charitable donations.” There is no usage of capital that does not confer an ideological “buying power” to the donors, Reich contends. Billionaires actively funnel their money into projects that shape American democracy according to the predilections of elites. Reich makes clear he’s advocating the opposite of Tocqueville’s Memoir on Pauperism: individual charity is not preferable to the welfare state. Burns, however, wonders what Tocqueville would have made of Reich’s utilitarianism.  


The Italian far-right leader’ Matteo Salvini is a master of ideological ambiguity. In this profile for the Atlantic, Rachel Donadio describes Salvini as a “turbocharged techno-populist.” He has a penchant for raw rhetoric and Machiavellian power posturing, but his actual convictions remain nebulous. Donadio paints a picture of the former deputy prime minister as a politician who plays with populism like a search term for generating ad revenue. He’s a political chameleon who constantly changes his colors via social media.


Does literary fiction accomplish what the typical essay cannot? Jennifer Neal answers this question with personal reflections on the latest edition of Roxane Gay’s new magazine, Gay Mag. In spite of  fiction’s long history of using “a gaze that is white, male, and straight,” Neal argues that writing stories provides a way for survivors of trauma to affirm their identities in a genre that’s not beholden to analytical essays’  “pain pornography.” Neal provocatively argues that, in a white man’s world, black women ought to embrace fiction as a form of therapy.


But to take a different genre, what about the dark magic of Charles Schulz’s beloved comics? In the Atlantic, Bruce Handy lovingly explores what made Peanuts so compelling (and so very depressing). Schulz brought cruelty to the fore in a world of children, creating an existential picture of youth in cartoons that spoke to just about everyone—and all through the lens of one exceptionally unlucky Charlie Brown.



Tocqueville 21’s weekly revue de presse recaps some of the most thought-provoking articles we’ve seen on democracy and politics in the US, France, and beyond. As always, the articles we relay here do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and interns that put this list together, just what we think is worth reading.


Photo Credit: Adeolu Eletu, Businessman with a suitcase, via Unsplash.

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