I know of no country in which, for the most part, independence of thought and true freedom of expression are so diminished as in America … In America, the majority traces a tremendous circle around thought. Within its limits, the writer is free, but a great misfortune will befall those who depart from it. [The dissenter] will face disgusts of all kinds and everyday forms of persecution. [Those who condemn the dissenter] will speak loudly, and those who think like him, without possessing his courage, will stay silent and away. [The dissenter] yields and folds under the pressure of everyday life; he grows silent, as though taken with remorse for having voiced the truth … In Spain, the Inquisition never succeeded in preventing the spread of books that went against the religion of the masses. The Empire of the Majority fared better in America: it suppressed in the masses the very idea of publishing dissent.—Alexis de Tocqueville, my translation
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1869), the great French diplomat, essayist and political thinker, did not live to see the age of identity politics, social media, grade inflation, concept creep, safetyism, the mental health crisis, mass rewritings of history and a public culture increasingly preoccupied with grievances, moral outrage, sanctified victimhood and bottom-up modes of censorship. But, though he never names them in those terms, all these related symptoms are already apparent and crystallizing into something of a cultural syndrome in his study of American democracy in the 1830s, and his analysis of the changing historical conditions that led to the French revolution of 1789. Tocqueville’s work traces the roots of grievance culture to human nature itself, and to the pre-modern cascade of social transformations that culminated in novel, American forms of tyranny: a tyranny of the entitled masses, of the kind that contemporary Tocquevillians and postcolonial theorists alike might recognize as stemming from the elite ethos of North American campuses, via the infrastructure of social media. But this story is much older, and points to a timeless, universal human dilemma.
Fragile Systems and the Paradox of Individualism
It is demonstrable that those who regard universal voting rights as a guarantee of the goodness of choices are under a complete and utter illusion.—Alexis de Tocqueville
Among classical liberal thinkers, Tocqueville is remembered as a defender of liberties and proponent of a strong civil society. To new left thinkers, he is remembered as an elitist aristocrat and suspicious proponent of small government. In his day, Tocqueville sat (both metaphorically and physically) in the centre-left of the French parliament. His biggest motivation was to combat all forms of tyranny, which he saw as an imminent risk, manifesting in the unchecked demands of both individuals and groups—large or small. A system designed to profit a powerful minority would certainly constitute tyranny in his view; so would, albeit in very different ways, one designed to fulfil the growing needs of the majority. “If one admits that a man in his full power might abuse his adversaries,” Tocqueville asks, “why not admit the same of a majority of men?”
In his search for balance between individual and civil liberties, Tocqueville remains one of the most nuanced thinkers of the western political canon—and a fine diagnostician of enduring psychosocial problems and the systemic conditions in which they arise.
Tocqueville’s writings illuminate a deep paradox arising from modern forms of democracy—as is evident in common misconceptions of his critique of the tyranny of the majority. For Tocqueville, the real tyrant in democracy is not so much the group as the individual; or rather individualism as we know it—entitled, selfish, envious, consumerist, insatiable—which arises when certain conditions of collectivist populism are in place. The erosion of extended kinship structures, religion and broader systems of ritual and meaning—which afford both a source of support and a sense of duty to others and to a project greater than oneself—are certainly partly to blame. But Tocqueville also directs our attention to the most perverse level at which modern individuation operates: that of what becomes imaginable, desirable but ultimately unattainable in the democracy of the masses. You might call this the cognitive-affective dimension of democracy. Once a certain ideal of equality—however ill-defined as a normative goal—is in place, envy and upward social comparison become the norm. Since anyone can become more of anything or anyone at any time, something akin to entropy increases. In affective terms, social and psychological entropy become something we now call anxiety. Life scientists tell us that all life forms must resist entropic decay in order to stay alive (self-organized). But the real information-theoretic story is a little more nuanced. Rather than a synonym for chaos, you might think of entropy as the number of possible states that an organism might visit within a given system. Fragility may arise when a system exhibits too few or too many possible states: when it is too rigid and resistant to change, or too jittery to conserve its key adaptive strategies. A healthy dynamic for a system involves reaching the mathematical point of criticality—the optimum number of possible states—near the boundary between order and chaos. An agrarian society that relies on a single crop to feed many people is fragile, as a single failed season will bring it to collapse. A society with too many competing goals and survival strategies is fragile in different ways, as nothing is coherent enough to hold it together as a dynamic system. Tocqueville never employs metaphors from the physical sciences to describe social dynamics, but his work draws similar conclusions. He also points to more literal ways in which modern democracy brings about fragility. “The more people resemble one another,” as Harvey Mansfied sums up the Tocquevillian view, “the weaker one person feels in the face of all the others.” Tocqueville describes the massively anxiogenic effects of the novel forms of social comparison that arose after the American and French revolutions:
The division of fortunes narrowed the gap that separated rich and poor; but in getting closer, rich and poor seem to have found novel reasons for hating each other. Casting on each other a gaze full of fear and envy, they exclude one another from power. For either of the two, the idea of rights no longer seems to exist, and brute force dawns on them both as the foundation of the present and the sole guarantee of the future.
As the good-enough life always lies just beyond the next hill or the next promotion (or in your neighbour’s driveway), people in modern democracies often adopt a deficit-based understanding of their lives. There is nothing wrong with an aspirational mindset—how else would our species have invented and transcended so much? This is all well and good—until this deficit view becomes a raison d’être of modern existence.
The Rise of Homo Fragilis
We note that humans, when faced with an imminent danger, rarely remain at their habitual level; they rise far above, or sink far below … but it is more common to see, among men as among nations, extraordinary virtues born of the immediacy of adversity.—Alexis de Tocqueville
Neither fragility nor weakness are moral flaws in themselves, or unworthy targets of attention in a good social project. The mutual recognition of each other’s fragility is our species’ greatest strength, and lies at the root of our evolutionary success.
Humans are not only among the physically weakest of mammals; human offspring also have the longest childhoods, the slowest maturation process and the longest period of physical and nutritional dependence on the group. For biological anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, the evolution of human intelligence and sociality rested on two key traits: the ability to care for others and understand their needs, and the ability to elicit care from others. It certainly takes a village, Hrdy tells us, with everyone from sterile grandmothers to never-wedded aunts all working together to raise the weak, and this has been true since at least the Homo erectus lineage, a full two million years ago.
When and how, then, does fragility become a problem? From babies to the elderly and the sick, weak humans are uniquely skilled at mobilizing the attention and care—at times tyrannically—of others. Take the old problem of sibling rivalry. Signalling one’s needs and the fact that one is suffering—from, for example, hunger, loneliness or cold—is a crucial survival trait. In competing for parental attention and care, children will frequently learn to over-signal their suffering—often to the point of self-deception. Children often implicitly learn to outcompete each other in vulnerability-signalling. Victimhood arises here as a sense of envious injustice for not being recognized and sufficiently accommodated as a deserving sufferer. Children in excessively validating contexts will thus learn to recognize themselves and their relationships with others—to construct an identity in modern lingo—though a sense of victimhood.
Sickness, suffering, weakness, fragility and true victimhood are universally recognized as bona fide ailments to be combatted for the greater good. The extent to which they are perversely elevated as sui generis virtues, however, is variable across societies, and has changed over the course of history. Judging by the masochistic tenets of at least some readings of many religions and of the present historical moment, the veneration of victimhood as a desirable end has remained a problem for all human societies. The mark of a good society—like the mark of good child-rearing—is its ability to foster a balance between necessary dependence and autonomy. “Strengthen him,” as Maimonides said of Tzedakah “so he does not fall”—to which we might add, and so he may in turn strengthen others.
Under what conditions, then, does the tyranny of victimhood arise?
Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton has diagnosed the present day as afflicted with “solipsistic reality”: an ideology in which the ultimate sources of reality and truth are the experiences and needs of the self. Tocqueville helps us understand how, beyond healthy aspirations to better ourselves, the ultimate demands of mass democracy can often veer towards the perpetuation and competition of incompatible—and unnecessary—fragile selves.
De Tocqueville prophetically foresaw fragility itself as both the defining condition and the ultimate demand of the masses:
Society is at peace, not from reckoning with its strength and well-being, but on the contrary because it believes itself to be weak and sick. Society fears its own death from engaging in the least effort. Each and every one senses Evil, but no one has the courage or energy to seek something better. People feel desires, sorrows, and joys that cannot last, like the passions of old men that only lead to impotence.
Rather than constituting an essentialist mockery of “the masses,” grounded in a naive belief in the natural giftedness of the elite, Tocqueville’s comments on equality describe a maximally entropic social configuration, which, by eliciting too many impossible goals, brings out the most childish and most anxious traits in all of us. Equality, in other words, brings everybody down to the same level, in the most literal affective sense.
“It is impossible, no matter what one does,” he writes, “to elevate the masses beyond a certain level.” For Tocqueville, this basic law of social physics also applies to the naive aim of “democratizing” education—that is, making the ambitious goals of specialized learning (with the resulting promise of high social status) available to everyone, while at the same time adapting the contents and methods of teaching to cater to the quirks and whims of every individual. “One may make human knowledge accessible, improve teaching methods, and render science cheap,” he contends, “but all one will achieve is to lead people to educate themselves and hone their intelligence without dedicating any time to it.”
According to the natural laws of entropy minimization, it is precisely when information is abundant and cheap that our mental filters will hone in on the most childish and primitive cues that confirm our fears, and our desire to be fragile. It is in this sense that Tocqueville foretold the disaster that is competition over fragility gone wild on social media, and the systemic allergy to nuance and dialogue in the age of clickbait culture: “People will always make judgements hastily, and latch on to the most salient of objects. Thence come charlatans of all kinds all too versed in the secrets of seducing the masses. Most often in the mean time, the masses’ true friends fail in this regard.”
All quotations from Tocqueville were translated from the French by the author, from the book La Tyrannie de la Majorité, an abridged version of De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
For the original French sources, see the following addendum.