H03 - Political Theory and Alexis de Tocqueville
Date: Jun 4 | Time: 10:30am to 12:00pm | Location: SWING 310
Chair/Président/Présidente : Sophie Bourgault (University of Ottawa)
Discussant/Commentateur/Commentatrice : Sophie Bourgault (University of Ottawa)
“Working at the Same Time to Animate and to Restrain”: Tocqueville on the Problem of Authority: Robert Ballingall (University of Maine)
Abstract: Alexis de Tocqueville is often seen as a champion of personal liberty and human greatness in the face of the conformism and mediocrity of the democratic social state. In this light, his vision of “soft despotism” anticipates familiar reservations about state managerialism and political apathy. Yet this picture risks eclipsing one of Tocqueville’s most pregnant ambiguities. Though deeply concerned by threats to liberty posed by modern mass society, Tocqueville is alive to the special need such societies have of authority, particularly moral authority, and hence of restraints to liberty itself. The freedom to decide how best to lead one’s life must become self-destructive, he contends, without a corresponding inclination to look outside oneself for prudent leadership and counsel. This paper elucidates the reasoning behind this paradoxical position. I argue that beneath the need of authority Tocqueville detects an enduring human problem, though one that takes a unique and even insuperable form under modern egalitarianism. I suggest that dwelling on this problem promises to enrich debates about the cynical nativism now menacing liberal democracies. Its origins are to be found less in economic upheaval and communication technology run amok than in the decay of civil religion and civic virtue, a trend that runs very much with the grain of democratic society and whose progress may be irrevocable.
Deadly History: Alexis de Tocqueville and Colonial “Legitimacy”: Katrina Chapelas (Columbia College)
Abstract: Tocqueville’s writings on Algeria suggest contradictions. The dissonance of Tocqueville’s seeming promotion of liberal democratic principles and his bellicose endorsement of French colonialism is the subject of many scholarly debates. Moreover, his writings evoke two contradictory conceptions of Europe. At times, Europe is a collection of individual nation-states engaged in a struggle for power and influence, and Tocqueville asserts that France needs the Algerian colony to keep pace in this struggle. Other times, Europe is a single civilization with common values and modes of social organization, and he suggests that a successful Algerian colony depends on adopting this shared culture. Through analyzing Tocqueville’s writings on Algeria and "Democracy in America", this paper makes two arguments. First, it contends that Tocqueville’s work implies that the effective forces behind both colonialism and modern world historical development are European social and cultural processes—processes which will inevitably spread around the world and prove deadly for both non-European societies that cannot adjust to them, and for European societies that cannot keep pace with their evolution. Second, it argues that Tocqueville conceptualizes democratic commitments—rights, equality, liberty etc.—as world historical forces first, and as moral principles, second. It posits that given this, Tocqueville’s stance on Algeria can be read as consistent with his reflections on democracy. The paper concludes by suggesting that Tocqueville’s position contains a cautionary message for contemporary society: conceptualizing democratic principles as world historical forces can legitimize intergroup violence and exploitation even for individuals who see such violence as morally reprehensible.