Sunday, October 30, 2005

Use and Abuse of de Tocqueville for Life



This passage, from Sudhir Hazareesingh's The Saint-Napoleon, made me laugh:
Lurking behind these ideological representations is one of the most potent legends about nineteenth-century France: the Tocquevillian myth of a prostrate/nation, overwhelmed by a strong state and incapable of sponsoring autonomous forms of civic action, let alone anything resembling a genuine "civil society." Alexis de Tocqueville's remarks about France's inordinate love of centralization and the overwhelming power of the state are legion.

This Tocquevillian image has long shaped our understanding of the French nineteenth century and in many respects continues to do so. In its political form, it portrayed a succession of strong states seeking to impose their notion of the good life upon a more or less unwilling and helpless society, assisted by a ubiquitous and powerful bureaucracy; hence, also, the ideological failure of liberalism in France."

In territorial terms, it projected a vision of an atrophied political community so comprehensively dominated by Paris as to negate any possibility of genuine local civic activity (especially at municipal levels). In its depiction of social groups, this Tocquevillian image highlighted the weakness of associationalism and the political and cultural backwardness of the rural population, saved only through the republican state's transformation of "peasants" into "Frenchmen" at the end of the nineteenth century.

Ironically, —given Tocqueville's wariness of republicanism, this image of nineteenth-century France has long been incorporated into the republican myth, according to which a querulous and fragmented society was forged into a nation by the Third Republic. These two myths, if anything, have fortified each other.

Over the past few decades, research in various aspects of French political and social history has seriously undermined this mythology. In particular, the antithesis between a particularistic "local" sphere that was largely devoid of civic activity and a "national" sphere that epitomized universal cultural and political values has been broken down by a range of scholarly works. This new research has underscored the energetic and creative nature of local civic life before 1880, whether in terms of village and communal politics; peasant politicization; municipal theory and practice; political socialization through religion; associational activity; and the reconstruction of local memory and local heritages.

In sum, nineteenth-century France now appears much less Tocquevillian than was readily (perhaps all too readily) accepted by earlier generations of social and political historians. To complete this aggiornamento, recent research has also redefined the national public sphere, demonstrating that the "centralizing" republic was much more subtle and flexible in its accommodation of peripheral social and cultural concerns than has traditionally been believed—notably on the issue of education.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the standard bearer for what is wrong with France, was not really the man that Americans think he is. A critic of the governments of Paris, he opined that democracy was the only solution to the ills of France. But he had pretenses to aristocracy, and he loathed the democratic and republican movements that would challenge both monarchy and empire. Essentially, he would empower the people but held his nose while among them.

His attitude reflected back into his writing. He wrote much about the ambitions of the July Monarchy and the Bonapartists to rationalize and centralize France, but little about opposition thereto. Indeed, both regimes had neither the reach nor the tools to transform the nation into the centralized (and centralizing) machine, as Eugen Weber noted. They could do little without collaboration, and thus the nation, "one and indivisible," was far from being achieved in the mid-nineteenth century. If the monarchy and empire did not cultivate local politics, they were nevertherless healthy. The departmental assemblies (conseils généraux) could be forums for opposition, even if they had no legislative powers. However, they could also serve as meeting grounds for state bureaucrats and local elites.

De Tocqueville's image of France, especially in comparison with America, is incomplete, dated (considering the work of centralization came later), and colored. Communalism, which he wrongly found missing in France, was a substitute for the types of corporations that contemporary Americans would despise. Moreover, his interpretation of democracy is difficult to swallow:
Tocqueville appreciated democracy, at least in its transatlantic guise, but not its politics or habits. He described it as a system where men are governed but not dominated, obey but do not respect, accept subjugation but not inferiority. (Project Muse Required)
[ETA:] It's a little like monarchy without the king.


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