Bez kategorii · democracy · Great philosophers · political philosophy · Political Theory · politics

What kind of despotism we should fear?

Democracy in America by Tocqueville has been the best book that I have read in 20016. It is toc-bookbeautifully written book on democracy and its perils. Through insightful observation of American democracy Tocqueville understood not only American system but also political situation of European countries. Tocqueville is one of the few philosophers, who offered unbiased analysis of democratic system. The beginning of the book might suggest that he was deeply impressed with American democracy. However, the further you go into book the more illuminating it becomes. Tocqueville warns us that democracy might be a source of a serious and very hard to overcome evils.  Those evils are: tyranny of majority, tyranny of individualism, tyranny of materialism and tyranny of centralized and protective state. While each of these tyrannies are worth discussion, I would like to focus on the tyranny of centralized and protective state because I believe it is the most illuminating of all.

To start with, Tocqueville said people in democracy are the most comfortable with being directed by a single power (p.789). As conditions become more equal, individuals seems less important and society seems greater. Or, when everyone become just like all the others, slowly gets lost in the crowd (p.790). In other words, the society becomes privileged and the individual rights do not matter anymore. “The idea of society’s all- powerful and in a sense unrivalled right is taking place” (p.791). Tocqueville emphasized that unitary, ubiquity, and omnipotence of the social power and uniformity of its rules is the most distinguish feature of all political systems established in recent times (p.791).

Nowadays people are far less divided than ever before and the interesting thing is that they fight about who should wield the power but they agree as to the duties and rights of that power (p.791).

Tocqueville emphasized that it is very easy to establish despotism in democracy (p.816). What is happening now has never happen before. Never before the king tried to wield absolute power over all people. There were secondary powers, which were responsible for part of the sovereign’s responsibilities (p.816). Even during the era of Caesars, various people were subjected to the same monarch but they lived in provinces which had separate administrative rules (p.816).

Tocqueville explained if tyranny would happen in democracy it would have totally different character than in the past. It would be more extensive and milder; it would degrade people but would not destroy them (p.817). In democratic state it is much easier to grasp all public power into hands of sovereigns and penetrate the private lives of the citizens. (p.817). What Tocqueville was afraid of wasn’t that the people would find tyrants among their leaders but rather protectors (p.818). The old words “despotism” or “tyranny” do not apply to the new phenomenon because people have not experienced this kind of oppression before.

In democratic state, there is an immense tutelary power that claims to take full responsibility for securing people’s pleasure and look after them (p.818). He said this power resembles the parental authority. Parents’ aim is to prepare their children for adult life, while the sovereign tries to keep people in childhood (p.818). It takes care of people’s needs, manage people’s the most important affairs and consequently reliefs people from thinking for themselves (p.818). Slowly people stop to use their free will because of the most important decisions are taken by the sovereign. Moreover, there is nothing more important than society as a whole. Individuals do not matter anymore. That is why there are just a few extraordinary people in democratic state because it is very hard to poke the head above the crowd (p.819). The sovereign does not destroy things, it prevents them from happening; it does not break the people’s will but softens it (p.819). Consequently,

“the nations are reduced to a group of industrious animals and the governments become their shepherds” (p.819).

This kind of servitude is the most likely in the democratic state. People in democracy want both to lead and to be led and remain free at the same time. Therefore, they imagine single, omnipotent power but one that is elected by the citizens (p.819). In other words, centralization is combined with popular sovereignty.

Tocqueville putted is in the following way:

“Each individual allows himself to be clapped in chains because he sees that the other end of the chain is held not by a man or a class but by the people themselves” (p.819).

Tocqueville added that nowadays people surrender to administrative despotism and popular sovereignty because they believe they have done enough to secure their liberties, while actually they surrender their liberties to national government.

The subjugation is very dangerous in democratic state because the sovereign decides about lesser affairs, which are deeply impact all citizens. If the sovereign prevents people from taking decision in small daily matters they start losing the ability to think, feel and act on their own. Eventually, they lose their humanity (p.821). On the other hand, the same people who are not allowed to decide about their private lives, are granted the right to choose the government of the state. Howetyrannyver, Tocqueville says that if people are incapable to manage their own affairs, it is impossible that a liberal, energetic and wise government can emerge from the elections in the nation of servants (p.821). Sooner or later, in such conditions people would get rid of the representatives and subject themselves to a single master (p.821).

Tocqueville offers some remedies for the tyranny of centralized and protective state.

First, to prevent tyranny from occurring it is necessary to divide the central and omnipotent power. Some part of the power should be entrusted to secondary bodies temporary constituted of ordinary citizens (p.823). For example, they would might take a form of provincial assemblies. It is not only about dividing central power, it is also about building unity and responsibility among the citizens. When they share part of the power, when they come together to solve their daily matters they identity changes from “I” to “we”. People become less egoistic and work together for the common good.assocoations

Second, associations also can play important role. The associations might become influential and powerful entities. Regardless the reason for getting together (industrial, commercial, cultural, educational), associations make people enlightened and powerful and they would not become easily subjected or oppressed (p.824. Associating should become a common practice rather something extraordinary for the citizens. The more people engage the better.

Fufreedom-of-pressrther, Tocqueville thought that the press is a great democra
tic tool against oppression of the individuals (p.824). When society as a whole is the one that matters, the in
dividuals become weaker and isolated. The individuals cannot defend themselves against the majority. and thus the press might become their democratic instrument of liberty(p.825). (see my post on the news media ).

Finally, Tocqueville strongly believed that the judicial power is the greatest guarantee of individual independence (p.825). The essential is that the court should not only take action after the oppressed ask for help but also should take its own initiatives and be always ready to assist those who are the weakest in the society.

What do you think about Tocqueville’s idea of tyranny of centralized and protective state? Do you think that the remedies he offered are effective tools to prevent the tyranny?


Tocqueville A (2004) Democracy in America. New York: The Library of America.

20 thoughts on “What kind of despotism we should fear?

  1. Hi! I strongly recommend chapters on tyranny of majority, and tyranny of centrilized and protective state. Moreover, chapters devoted to individualism are really interesting. Tocqueville was a great inspiration to Hannah Arendt, who refered to his views in her work on individualism and loneliness in modern states. Both authors have so much to offer!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I think that Tocqueville had some interesting ideas- and to an extent as long as the judicial system and press are not corrupt they act as a good tool against tyranny. One area where history has proved Tocqueville wrong is that democracy is actually excellent at eliminating tyranny altogether- the issue is actually when government becomes corrupt and tyrannical, the first thing they do is get rid of democracy- pretty much always instituting a one party one vote system. But I think that is something that we can say with the benefit of hindsight. Anyway this was really interesting food for thought!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for your comment! To fully understand Tocqueville we should look at all “remedies” he offered. However, discussing all of them would be like writing a book!
    In my opinion, Tocqueville failed to offer any remedy to tyranny of majority towards black people. I understand that he created a fundament for modern concept of equality and many human rights groups have refered to him, but still I expected much more from him in this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Personally I think that in retrospect, Tocqueville was young, impressionable, naive, inexperienced in his philosophy and poorly informed about how power is distributed and manipulated; a poor observer. He wanted to “prove” or demonstrate that one nation had found a solution to man’s problem of despotism. What he completely failed to see, being a product of his times, white and privileged, was the horror of institutionalized slavery and the decimation of millions of inhabitants of the American continent and systematic denial of voting rights to women and their exploitation at home and in the work force. His “democratic” America was a chimera of pure propaganda, its veneer hiding the reality: a despotic regime of predatory capitalism and oppressive Christianity. We can now see the result: a sick empire destroying the world and itself through greed and abysmal corruption and complete moral bankruptcy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes you are right, Tocqueville failed to offer solution for slavery. He elaborated on issues that were comfortable to discuss, while he did not pay any attention to the tragic situation of black people. He even said that… Americans treated blacks better than other British colonizers treated indigenous people in other parts of the world. He said it was because of American people’s character and good mores.
    You also mentioned oppresive Christianity. I do not understand why he praised Christianity so much. He knew how much evils the religion could cause.


  6. Except for very rare individuals, the elites only see the world from the point of view of the elites. Since they “run the world” it’s always the kind of world we get.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting, I have never read any Tocqueville so thank you for summarising this one for me. The press is an interesting deterrent against repression. I wonder what he would have made of today’s dumbed down and click bait driven media. That isn’t to say there is ‘t some good journalism out there, it just doesn’t seem to be a priority in a lot of cases.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think that nowadays there isn’t any good journalism out there. Last American presidential campain did show us that the news media are not intersted in reporting anymore. What news media do is manipulating people. If sobody does not agree with particular media’s view is perceived as enemy. In many countries the media became the weapon of governments against both oposition and the people. Let’s not forget about various influential interest groups, which direct the media. Tocqueville said that the press was supposed to make weak and isolated people’s voice heard. Now, the media make infuential people’s voice heard instead.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The only paper – well magazine – I read concerning news is Private Eye, it mixes satire with its journalism but has no agenda other than to expose corruption and lies and it does a fantastic job, it also highlights the proper news stories that are allowed to be reported.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for summarizing this book… I don’t read enough anymore. I do think it’s important to read an array of opinions in order to form your own. I have always said we don’t live in a democracy but a kind of autocracy run by giant corporations who feed us what we should think and feel. That seems to be more true now than ever. Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Many people want to believe that power belongs to them in democracy. In fact, there are different interest groups and other actors that make the decisions.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s