Alexis de Tocqueville’s Prediction of How American Democracy Could Lapse Into Despotism, Read by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houelle­bec­q’s third nov­el Plat­form, which involves a ter­ror­ist bomb­ing in south­east Asia, came out the year before a sim­i­lar real-life inci­dent occurred in Thai­land. His sev­enth nov­el Sub­mis­sion, about the con­ver­sion of France into a Mus­lim coun­try, came out the same day as the mas­sacre at the offices of Islam-pro­vok­ing satir­i­cal week­ly Char­lie Heb­do. His most recent nov­el Sero­tonin, in which farm­ers vio­lent­ly revolt against the French state, hap­pened to come out in the ear­ly stages of the pop­ulist “yel­low vest” move­ment. Houelle­becq has thus, even by some of his many detrac­tors, been cred­it­ed with a cer­tain pre­science about the social and polit­i­cal dan­gers of the world in which we live today.

So too has a coun­try­man of Houelle­bec­q’s who did his writ­ing more than 150 years ear­li­er: Alex­is de Toc­queville, author of Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca, the endur­ing study of that then-new coun­try and its dar­ing­ly exper­i­men­tal polit­i­cal sys­tem. And what does per­haps France’s best-known liv­ing man of let­ters think of Toc­queville, one of his best-known pre­de­ces­sors? “I read him for the first time long ago and real­ly found it a bit bor­ing,” Houelle­becq says in the inter­view clip above, with a flat­ness rem­i­nis­cent of his nov­els’ dis­af­fect­ed nar­ra­tors. “Then I tried again two years ago and I was thun­der­struck.”

As an exam­ple of Toc­queville’s clear-eyed assess­ment of democ­ra­cy, Houelle­becq reads aloud this pas­sage about its poten­tial to turn into despo­tism:

I seek to trace the nov­el fea­tures under which despo­tism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the obser­va­tion is an innu­mer­able mul­ti­tude of men, all equal and alike, inces­sant­ly endeav­or­ing to pro­cure the pet­ty and pal­try plea­sures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, liv­ing apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his chil­dren and his pri­vate friends con­sti­tute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fel­low cit­i­zens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touch­es them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in him­self and for him­self alone; and if his kin­dred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his coun­try.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tute­lary pow­er, which takes upon itself alone to secure their grat­i­fi­ca­tions and to watch over their fate. That pow­er is absolute, minute, reg­u­lar, prov­i­dent, and mild. It would be like the author­i­ty of a par­ent if, like that author­i­ty, its object was to pre­pare men for man­hood; but it seeks, on the con­trary, to keep them in per­pet­u­al child­hood: it is well con­tent that the peo­ple should rejoice, pro­vid­ed they think of noth­ing but rejoic­ing. For their hap­pi­ness such a gov­ern­ment will­ing­ly labors, but it choos­es to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that hap­pi­ness; it pro­vides for their secu­ri­ty, fore­sees and sup­plies their neces­si­ties, facil­i­tates their plea­sures, man­ages their prin­ci­pal con­cerns, directs their indus­try, reg­u­lates the descent of prop­er­ty, and sub­di­vides their inher­i­tances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of think­ing and all the trou­ble of liv­ing?

Being a writer, Houelle­becq nat­u­ral­ly points out the deft­ness of Toc­queville’s style: “It’s mag­nif­i­cent­ly punc­tu­at­ed. The dis­tri­b­u­tion of colons and semi­colons in the sec­tions is mag­nif­i­cent.” But he also has com­ments on the pas­sage’s phi­los­o­phy, pro­nounc­ing that it “con­tains Niet­zsche, only bet­ter.” The oper­a­tive Niet­zschean con­cept here is the “last man,” described in Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra as the pre­sum­able end point of mod­ern soci­ety. If con­di­tions con­tin­ue to progress in the way they have been, each and every human being will become this last man, a weak, com­fort­able, com­pla­cent indi­vid­ual with noth­ing left to fight for, who desires noth­ing more than his small plea­sure for the day, his small plea­sure for the night, and a good sleep.

Safe to say that nei­ther Niet­zsche nor Toc­queville looked for­ward, nor does Houelle­becq look for­ward, to the world of ener­vat­ed last men into which democ­ra­cy could deliv­er us. Houelle­becq also reads aloud anoth­er pas­sage from Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca, one that now appears on the Wikipedia page for soft despo­tism, describ­ing how a demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment might gain absolute pow­er over its peo­ple with­out the peo­ple even notic­ing:

After hav­ing thus suc­ces­sive­ly tak­en each mem­ber of the com­mu­ni­ty in its pow­er­ful grasp and fash­ioned him at will, the supreme pow­er then extends its arm over the whole com­mu­ni­ty. It cov­ers the sur­face of soci­ety with a net­work of small com­pli­cat­ed rules, minute and uni­form, through which the most orig­i­nal minds and the most ener­getic char­ac­ters can­not pen­e­trate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shat­tered, but soft­ened, bent, and guid­ed; men are sel­dom forced by it to act, but they are con­stant­ly restrained from act­ing. Such a pow­er does not destroy, but it pre­vents exis­tence; it does not tyr­an­nize, but it com­press­es, ener­vates, extin­guish­es, and stu­pe­fies a peo­ple, till each nation is reduced to noth­ing bet­ter than a flock of timid and indus­tri­ous ani­mals, of which the gov­ern­ment is the shep­herd.

“A lot of what I’ve writ­ten could be sit­u­at­ed with­in this sce­nario,” Houelle­becq says, adding that in his gen­er­a­tion the “defin­i­tive trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety into indi­vid­u­als” has been more com­plete than Toc­queville or Niet­zsche would have imag­ined.

In addi­tion to lack­ing a fam­i­ly, Houelle­becq (whose sec­ond nov­el was titled Atom­ized) also men­tions hav­ing “the impres­sion of being caught up in a net­work of com­pli­cat­ed, minute, and stu­pid rules” as well as “of being herd­ed toward a uni­form kind of hap­pi­ness, toward a hap­pi­ness which does­n’t real­ly make me hap­py.” In the end, adds Houelle­becq, the aris­to­crat­ic Toc­queville “is in favor of the devel­op­ment of democ­ra­cy and equal­i­ty, while being more aware than any­one else of its dan­gers.” That the 19th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca Toc­queville knew avoid­ed them he cred­it­ed to the “habits of the heart” of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. We cit­i­zens of demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­tries, whichev­er demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­try we live in, would do well to ask where the habits of our own hearts will lead us next.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alex­is De Tocqueville’s Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Most Insight­ful Study of Amer­i­can Democ­ra­cy

How to Know if Your Coun­try Is Head­ing Toward Despo­tism: An Edu­ca­tion­al Film from 1946

George Orwell’s Final Warn­ing: Don’t Let This Night­mare Sit­u­a­tion Hap­pen. It Depends on You!

Is Mod­ern Soci­ety Steal­ing What Makes Us Human?: A Glimpse Into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra by The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life

The His­to­ry of West­ern Social The­o­ry, by Alan Mac­Far­lane, Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty

Hunter S. Thomp­son Gets in a Gun­fight with His Neigh­bor & Dis­pens­es Polit­i­cal Wis­dom: “In a Democ­ra­cy, You Have to Be a Play­er”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • os says:

    “Islam-pro­vok­ing satir­i­cal week­ly Char­lie Heb­do”
    I am appalled by this sen­tence. Shame on you! You must have nev­er read Char­lie heb­do to say some­thing like that. please tell me how were they pro­vok­ing islam? first of all that satir­i­cal jour­nal nev­er pro­voked any­one, it is a satir­i­cal jour­nal, they crit­i­cise the extrem­ism of any reli­gion , but they nev­er ever pro­voked a reli­gion. This jour­nal is pub­lished in France, and in France it is allowed to crit­i­cise reli­gions, this is dif­fer­ent from pro­vok­ing them, they nev­er did it to pro­voke , there was a deep­er pur­pose behind the satir­i­cal car­toon name­ly make peo­ple think. the ter­ror­ists who killed them said that Char­lie heb­do pro­voked Islam and insult­ed the prophet, and you are using the same rhetoric. Shame on you!

  • JV says:

    I agree with you in prin­ci­ple, but from a prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, Char­lie Heb­do is the very def­i­n­i­tion of provoca­tive, a label they were/are proud of, as any satir­i­cal pub­li­ca­tion would be.

  • Gerald says:

    Inter­est­ing. I was struck with how de Toc­queville’s sec­ond two quot­ed para­graphs cap­tured the essence of today’s pro­gres­sive and bureau­crat­ic states.

  • os says:

    they want to make peo­ple laugh pri­mar­i­ly by mock­ing the idio­cy of extrem­ism in reli­gion often, or the idio­cy of every­day pol­i­tics. Some­times, its not that fun­ny, some­times i too think that it’s too much, but they are nev­er, nor they are look­ing to be provoca­tive. It may have seemed provoca­tive for non-French because most of non-French do not under­stand, nor grasp the impor­tance of sec­u­lar­ism in France.

  • Carroll HINKLE says:

    I have been think­ing of de Toc­queville’s com­men­tary on Amer­i­ca for months. Today was the day! I will go back & reread where my ques­tions lead me. Thanks

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