Thursday, May 4, 2006

Tocqueville in America; or, democracy, blank slates, and utopia (Josh C.)

There are two interesting discussions going on at once over at Crooked Timber, in response to this post by John Holbo. One concerns the history of Tocqueville's reputation/prominence in American (and to some extent more broadly Anglophone) intellectual life and political debate (declaration of interest: I've contributed to this part of the discussion on the Croked Timber thread); the other concerns the validity and applicability of the conservative critique of (alleged) liberal or left-wing attempts to effect radical, ideology-driven social transformation.
This latter point is, I think, an important one; and given its importance and complexity, I want to think a bit more about it before getting into a discussion of it here (but I do hope to do so eventually -- perhaps after I've finished a paper I'm currently working on, on Hume, which is somewhat related). Broadly speaking, though, the dilemma is this. On the one hand, certain conservative or what one might call dystopian liberal critics of radical social transformation (I'm thinking here of Montaigne, Hume, Burke, Oakeshott, Popper, Strauss, Isaiah Berlin, to some extent post-French Revolutionary liberals from Constant to Tocqueville, etc.) seem to me to have a powerful point, and one which we'd do well to heed. On the other hand, warnings against radical change have often been deployed in defense of deeply corrupt and oppressive regimes or norms; sometimes the status quo is so bad that maintaining it is worse than the risks associated with social transformation; and sometimes radical transformations work rather well. Indeed, it is frightening to contemplate what the current state of the world would be without them (I believe it was Anatole France who once said that if men never dreamed -- and, I'd add, never sought to transform their dreams into realities -- we'd still live in caves.) Furthermore, there is the problem of uncertainty. That we cannot know what the long-term (or even short-term) results of our actions will be is both obviously and importantly true; but this cuts both ways -- it may make us cautious about acting, but it also undercuts predictions of disaster; and if we only acted when we could be sure that no undesirable or disastrous results would follow, we would wind up doing nothing at all. Yet inaction is not neutral; it has its own results, for which we who do not act must bear some responsibility.
So how can we tell when we should follow the sceptical, cautious liberals or conservatives -- and so avoid Jacobinism, the Great Leap Forward and all the Five Year Plans -- and when we should follow the dreamers, the visionaries who have generally been the ones responsible for freeing the slaves and bringing hope to the afflicted? I don't have an answer, and doubt that I will, though this is the point I hope to return to. For the moment, I think that it's important to remember that there is more that is important, in considering this, than the ambition of the goals. What means are employed in their pursuit is a decisive question: one answer -- too simple, but at least a start -- is that the difference between change, however sweeping, based on consent, and change, however desirable, achieved by coercion and violence,is crucial. Another important factor is the attitude, the mentality, of the reformers: whether they are dogmatic, convinced of their own virtue or infallibility and thus deaf to criticism and blind to their own mistakes and limitations, or whether they are, while committed, also open, flexible, respectful of others, and regard themselves with scepticism and humility.
As for the other issue -- of Tocqueville's reputation -- I've already said what I have to say about that over at Crooked Timber (and have learned much from some of the other posters, for which I'm grateful to them). Thinking about it, and the quote from Nisbet with which John opens the post, raises another question I'd like to pose to any readers here. Thinking about it, it seems to me that there's a long dry period in conservative political thought -- by which I mean political thought of seriousness and quality (though not necessarily fame) -- in the English-speaking world between, say, James Fitzjames Stephen's Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873), and the post-war period when you have conservative philosophers like Oakeshott and more conservative liberals such as Berlin and Hayek* writing; and even Stephen seems like a somewhat isolated figure (though perhaps one might also count Bagehot, and perhaps Maine -- though I don't know his thought well enough to classify him). So we seem to be talking about a silence of serious conservative political theorising for 80 years or so -- and a general sparsity for over a century, between say Burke and Oakeshott. Could this be correct?

*This should not be taken to deny the vast differences between these thinkers; nor when I describe thinkers as 'conservative' here do I refer to support for what passes for conservative politics in the US today; I mean, rather, the sort of scepticism and wariness of radical change and ideological visions referred to above.

4 comments:

Sean said...

Josh wrote: "...one answer -- too simple, but at least a start -- is that the difference between change, however sweeping, based on consent, and change, however desirable, achieved by coercion and violence, is crucial." What kind of difference is this? Nobody, or nobody worth discussing, thinks that the latter would be better given a choice between the two methods, so everyone agrees that there is that difference. But do you want to make the more controversial claim that only the first method of change is permissible? That claim would be implausible if you said that every change requires consent from everyone. Instead of fighting straw men, I'll wait for you to clarify the point before commenting further.

Josh Cherniss said...

Two points of clarification, Sean. First, my point was not addressed to a hypothetical actor choosing between the two courses, but rather to those seeking to evaluate a number of cases of political action. What I meant to say was that we should, in evaluating political action directed at radical transformation, consider whether the means used were violent or not, rather than talking only about how radical/visionary/ideological the goals pursued are, and how much dislocation/discomfort they might thus cause. Second, I did want to deliberately refrain from adopting the position that all transformation involving violence is wrong (or that all transformation, so long as it doesn't involve violence, is fine), this not being a position I'd want to hold. So, again, the point was that violent or coercive action is something that we should be critical or wary of as such, and that we should in evaluating a political action or program take into consideration whether it is violent or not, and be more inclined to condemn it if it is -- but not that the presence or absence of violent imposition should, in itself, determine our moral evaluation in all cases.
I think that there is a significant obscurity in the passage you quote, even leaving this (and the avowedly very preliminary nature of my post) aside. This is that I didn't say anything about what I meant by 'coercion' or 'consent'. I haven't thought through these issues very far -- so I wouldn't want to present this as a worked-out or defensible theory -- but just thinking about what was going through my mind at the time I wrote the original post, I think that what I would say is that when I talk here about something being based on consent, I mean that it is accepted by a large number of those directly affected by it, and is not violently resisted by any significant number of those affected by it (so that violent behaviour by a few lone kooks doesn't count) -- that most/nearly all of those affected give 'passive consent' in terms of accepting the transformation/policies. By 'coercion', on the other hand, I didn't mean the normal deployment of the coercive power of the state through (legitimately adopted) laws, but the sort of thing we associate with governments that we call totalitarian or tyrannical -- denial of freedom of the press and freedom of speech and assembly, the imprisonment, terrorizing, or killing of critics of the government, the creation of instruments of state repression not subject to due process of law, such as a secret police force, or the use of military or paramilitary forces against the citizenry, etc.
As I say, I don't think that this provides any sort of answer to the question I posed -- I add this merely to explain in a bit more detail, and hopefully more clearly, the thinking behind what I initially wrote. Clearly, a lot of cases -- probably most -- will fall between sheer terror and perfectly peaceful consent and happy acceptance (hopefully they'll be closer to the latter!) My basic point -- which is obvious, but still doesn't always get stated in discussions of this issue -- is that in evaluating political action we should consider how violent/coercive or how peaceful/consensual it is, and not merely whether it aims at radical transformation or at more modest, incremental goals; or, in other words, that the problem with much of the 'radical' politics criticised by conservatives isn't the radicalness of the goals, but the violence of the means used (even if it is somewhat artificial to separate the two).

Sean said...

Thanks for the clarification. "...the point was that violent or coercive action is something that we should be critical or wary of as such, and that we should in evaluating a political action or program take into consideration whether it is violent or not, and be more inclined to condemn it if it is". I agree. I think a lot of revolutionaries would also agree, which is what I meant to express with the thought that everyone agrees that, all else being equal, the more violence is required to achieve a goal, the worse it is to go about achieving it. What people disagree about is whether it is still the best thing to do given the options one has, and about what options one has. It may be true that the problem, as conservatives or liberals see it, with some forms of radical politics is not how radical the goals are. But radicals and their critics undoubtedly disagree about how valuable these goals are, which colors their perceptions of what their options are.

Josh Cherniss said...

I'd just very slightly amend the last bit of what you say, Sean; (some) conservatives and liberals disagree with radicals, not necessarily on the intrinsic value of their goals (though some undoubtedly do disagree about that), but about how feasible they are, and how desirable they are relative to the costs (likely or actual) of achieving them. This latter may be difficult to distinguish from 'how valuable the goals are', but I do think it's (sometimes) possible. I can imagine, for instance, just as attached to the goals of the French Revolution as the Jacobins were, but having rather stronger scruples about the use of terror (indeed, that's what I'd like to think I would have thought at the time.) But if you meant 'value of the goals relative to the means used to achieve them/circumstances under which they're achieved/other, incompatible goals', etc., then I think we agree.