tocquevilleA friend once described conservatives as people who agreed about one important thing–that at some point in the past, something went terribly wrong. After that, conservatives splinter into untold numbers of camps, since they disagree ferociously about the date of the catastrophe.

Most conservatives today agree that America has taken a terrible turn–that something went wrong at some point in the past. Most believe that America was well-founded by the Framers of the Constitution, but that something bad happened that corrupted the sound basis of the Founding. A few–generally unpopular–believe that Lincoln is to blame, that he introduced the beginnings of centralized State and the imperial Presidency. Many point to the catastrophe of the 1960s as the main source of current woes (a striking number of these constitute the neoconservative faction). But, at least in the circles in which I travel, an increasing number have settled on the Progressive era at the turn of the 20th-century as the source of today’s troubles, and see President Obama as the direct inheritor of this philosophical and political movement that was born in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

The dominant narrative about the rise of Progressivism, both in the halls of academe and its distillation in the popular media expressed by figures such as Glenn Beck, is that Progressivism was a virus that was incubated in a foreign (particularly German) laboratory and was transported to America by intellectual elites, often educated at German universities and influenced by thinkers such as Kant and Hegel (such intellectuals include the likes of Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson, and John Dewey). These Progressives despised the classical liberal philosophy of the Founding, and sought either an explicit rejection of the Constitution or an effective change by re-defining it as a “living” document.

This is a plausible case–and, the fact is that major progressive figures turned often to German and other foreign sources in developing their intellectual critique of the classical liberal philosophy of the Founding. Thus, by attributing the rise of Progressivism to a foreign contagion, it can be comfortably maintained that the Founding was good and true and was corrupted by a fifth column.

However, what this argument overlooks is that the greatest analysis of American democracy–Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, a full half-century before the flowering of Progressivism–already perceived the seeds of Progressivism’s major tenets already embedded in the basic features and attributes of liberal democracy as established at the Founding. Of particular note, while the major figures of Progressivism would directly attack classical liberalism, Tocqueville discerned that Progressivism arose not in spite of the classical liberal tradition, but because of its main emphasis upon, and cultivation of, individualism.

Individualism is a distinctive phenomenon arising in liberal democracy, notes Tocqueville. The idea of the individual is at least as old as Christianity, but individualism is a new experience of self that arises with the passing of the experience of embeddedness in a familial, social, religious, generational, and cultural setting that is largely fixed and unchanging–the basic features of an aristocratic society. The rise of liberal democracy, by contrast, is premised upon a view of the individual deriving from the social contract tradition, which conceives of human beings in their natural state as defined, above all, by the total absence of such constitutive bonds, inherited roles and given identities (a philosophy that Bertrand de Jouvenel said was developed by “childless men who forgot their childhood”). Instead, as Tocqueville describes, in a democracy, “the chain” that once bound a peasant all the way to a king is “shattered,” throwing each individual in their freedom and equality finally “into the solitude of their own own hearts.”

What Tocqueville recognized is the resulting paradox of this new experience of the self: that the unfettered individual culminates in the rise of the collective. For the first time, humans are not defined by their constitutive roles and memberships in groups, in places, in relationships. And, as a result, as individuals, for the first time they recognize their membership in something larger–humanity. As Tocqueville writes in an important passage about the rise of religious “pantheism,” the experience of individuality gives rise to an obsession with “unity,” even at the cost of the individuality itself: “individuals are forgotten, and the species alone counts.” Liberated from all constitutive memberships, as individuals they experience their “species-being.” As Tocqueville recognizes, Locke’s individual is the midwife of Rousseau and Marx.

In the chapter that follows his discussion of “pantheism,” Tocqueville logically and sequentially moves to the subject of “perfectibility.” Once democratic man recognizes his membership in “humanity” at large, he becomes devoted to the improvement of everyone–and no-one in particular. In a democratic age, shorn of all positions and status, a new and nearly universal passion for perfectibility comes to predominate–the improvement of society constantly in the name and belief in the ever-increasing democratic equality of all humanity. Only when the aristocratic order has been displaced, and the individual has been liberated from the old order, can “the human mind imagine the possibility of an ideal but always fugitive perfection.”

The liberation of humanity from all partial and mediating groups and memberships finally culminates in what Tocqueville famously calls “the tutelary State”–the rise of a new form of tyranny, “democratic despotism,” particularly chilling because it comes about not through the imposition of force and violence, but at the invitation of an individuated and weak democratic citizenry. No longer able to turn to the old orders and organizations to which he might once have belonged, “he naturally turns his eyes toward the huge entity which alone stands above the universal level of abasement”–the State–amid his individuated weakness.

As Robert Nisbet recognized in his 1953 classic, The Quest for Community–deeply influenced by Tocqueville’s thought–the prevailing belief that the relevant debate is between individualism and collectivism represents a false dichotomy, that, in fact, the two are mutually reinforcing. “Individual versus State is as false an antithesis today as it ever was. The State grows on what it gives to the individual as it does on what it takes from competing social relationships–family, labor unions, profession, local community, and church. And the individual cannot but find a kind of vicarious strength in what is granted in the State.” (This was the entire point of the Obama campaign’s portrayal of “The Life of Julia,” whose life story has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. She is a person portrayed as utterly alone, and the only source of support is from the State. Thus, while she is proudly free, she is also weak and alone; her actual “autonomy” was achieved as a gift of the State; and, as democratic citizens, we are obligated to provide her autonomy while assisting her in her isolation as a requirement of the fulfillment of democratic individuality and equality).

Tocqueville wrote of these dynamics in the early part of the 19th-century, half a century before the development of Progressive philosophy and politics. It is surely the case that Progressivism found inspiration in “foreign” sources, and this has led many conservatives to conclude that Progressivism arose from a foreign “contagion” that infected the healthy organism of the Constitutional republic erected by the Founders. However, Tocqueville’s analysis presents a discomfiting fact–that the basic inclinations toward progressivism were there at the creation. As Nisbet recognized, “the real conflict in modern political history has not been, as is so often stated, between the State and individual, but between the State and social group.” Conservatives should eschew the “false antipathy” in their assertion that salvation is to be found in individualism; rather, what is needed is a renewed defense of the institutions and memberships aside from, and distinctly placed, to that of the State–family, community, local markets, Church. Not because these constitute “lifestyle choices,” but because they are the true sources of human liberty–liberty through reforging the chains that democracy shatters in the pursuit of liberation in the name of individual autonomy, culminating with the rise of the modern, Progressive State to which we finally sacrifice our individuality.

Books mentioned in this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of The American Conservative.

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10 replies to this post
  1. Well, I think that the Founders did not intend for this kind of individualism – nor the democracy that spawned it – to become the bedrock of American culture. Ample constitutional protections against democratic culture were there from the begining – insofar as I can tell, the House of Representatives was meant as the be-all-and-end-all of democracy in America, with the Presidency having a popular component, but ultimately chosen by Electors (and for good reason, since the Founders wisely concluded that a majoritarian President would be a regional President rather than a national one). No one in their right mind, during the founding, advocated for democracy. To some extent, progressivism was also an attempt at remedying the problems inherent in democratic culture. After all, Woodrow Wilson argued that politics was no longer capable of being a debate on merits, but only a forum for partisanship. The progressive ideal of replacing partisan politics with enlightened administration, and the function of the State as regulator of the people was in some ways also seen as a remedy for the ills of democratic politics identified by Tocqueville. Certainly the Germans who came up with it, like Bismark, did so for eminantly Conservative reasons – they wished to preserve a semblance of Order and liberty for the higher types of men by creating a system that would tend to the needs of the lower types of men, thereby keeping them docile and fending off revolutions. If the Welfare State is the price we pay for preserving a political community from democratic communism; so be it – so the Germans seemed to think, and American progressivism through FDR as well. After all – something is to be said for “Julia” getting what she actually wants; in a cosmic sense, she is the victim of individualism – but if you ask her (and we did, in 2012), she very much enjoys the State doing everything for her, and the concept of family and local community as ideals are alien and somehow intimidating to her. It boils down to what Tocqueville wrote elsewhere – that Equality is easier to love than Liberty; liberty requires virtue and a stoic capacity for suffering the consequences of self-government, as well as manly pride in self-government. These are hard traits, democracy is soft.

    If we really followed the Germany progressive ideal, we would take care of Julia, but her social status would be a lower order of person. Present American democracy rejects even this progressive canard – that there are experts, people of talent, administrators, enlightened persons. Julia now wants not only to be cared for, but to run the State that cares for her – even if she runs it into the ground because concepts like “debt” don’t register with her.

  2. Well I guess I would agree if individualism was in fact viewed in such an atomistic sense back when Tocqueville wrote this. This analysis would also apply perfectly to the causes and results of the French Revolution. I think however that this essay (and Tocqueville) glosses over and doesn’t appreciate the complexities of individualist thought Today no leading libertarian thinker I’ve read defines individualism in such an anti- communitarian hermetically sealed off sense. Individualism in modern libertarian thought does not mean going lone wolf on everything or rebelling against every single authority. I can’t help but sense a subtle ant-libertarian tract in this essay as well.

    I think an analysis that does a better job at looking at the complexities of individualist thought back then is by F.A. Hayek in his “Two Types of Individualism” from his book Individualism and Economic Order. Hayek distinguishes between an authentic individualism which he traces from Locke, Mandeville and even to Burke no less! Hayek writes, “The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke”. Hayek also notes presciently the errors made by writers like Professor Deneen by saying:

    “I can give no better illustration of the prevailing confusion about the meaning of individualism than the fact that the man who to me seems to be one of the greatest representatives of true individualism, Edmund Burke, is commonly (and rightly) represented as the main opponent of the so-called “individualism” of Rousseau, whose theories he feared would rapidly dissolve the commonwealth ‘into the dust and powder of individuality,’ and that the term “individualism” itself was first introduced into the English language through the translation of one of the works of another of the great representatives of true individualism, de Tocqueville, who uses it in his Democracy in America to describe an attitude which he deplores and rejects”.

    Its this version of individualism that he rightly sees as being the true barrier to collectivism. He differentiates this from a Rousseaun/Cartesia individualism. This Hayek calls “the rationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism.” This is the type of crucial observation that Professor Deneen doesnt give us.

    Hayek concludes “the fundamental attitude of true individualism is one of humility toward the processes by which mankind has achieved things which have not been designed or understood by any individual and are indeed greater than individual minds.” I do believe that this strand of individualism existed back then and to leave the reader the impression that individualism leads to collectivism without the kind of analysis that Hayek provides is respectfully misleading and inaccurate.

  3. Delightful analysis!
    My question is, Where does the rise of the American political elite, warned of by Madison in Fed. 39, and the collapse of virtue among the citizenry fit into Dr. Deneen’s narrative? Is it that “individualism” leads toward what Voegelin referred to as the “Egophanic Revolt”, inevitably followed by the person’s inability to experience the reality of existence?

  4. Historically, societies collapse when the bonds between people have grown too weak to weather the inevitable storms of life. “Individualism”, whether of Anarchist or Libertarian (or Libertine) variety *intentionally* weakens society. There is nothing conservative, or even Conservative, about “individualism”.

    • Someone forgot to tell the early conservatives that. William Buckley referred to himself as an individualist on numerous occasions and in his book, God and Man at Yale, he said, “I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” What kind of individualism was he advocating you suppose? Frank Chodorov, an ardent individualist, was the major influence on Buckley becoming a writer.The organization that Frank Chodorov founded and Buckley presided over, ISI, was originally known as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists.

      I seriously doubt these people were anti- communitarian. Chodorov discovered his individualism around the time he rediscovered his very his pro communntarian Jewish faith. (Chodorov still noted that “the Jew is too individualistic to be tolerated by the collectivism he sometimes urges”). Unfortunately, Kirk’s misunderstanding of the individualism of his day (“atomistic”) has carried the day.

      “Historically, societies collapse when the bonds between people have grown too weak to weather the inevitable storms of life”. True, but that is not the individualism Hayek advocates and historically conservative/libertarians defended, but anti social behavior.

      You really should read Hayek’s essay that I reference in my post in which he clarifies individualism much better than others and also read Chodorov’s brief but important essay “What Individualism is Not”.

      Rightly understood individualism is comfortably situated in the historic conservative tradition.

      • There is really a difference between “individualist” and “individualism”. A difference which, alas, often is confused.
        Notably, Frank Meyer was attempting to have a fusion of conservative and individualist thought in the pages of NR, and with Buckley’s blessing, to be sure. I need not research the Holy Scriptures of Conservatism as you suggest, since I have been reading such since at least 1964. I agree that several writers have said thus and so. They were right if they promoted “individualist” and wrong if they promoted “individualism”.
        As Lennon said, “I don’t believe in ‘isms’.” They are usually non-conducive to rational discourse, and even to critical thought.
        Much as I respect Buckley, or Kirk, or Hayek, or any of the demigods in conservatism’s Pantheon, I am not obligated to agree with any of them in any particular. As a thinking person, I do not feel the necessity to shut up when one of them is quoted in contrast to a statement of mine.
        That persnicketyness makes me an individualist, but not a slave to individualism. Call me irresponsible, but that’s the way the ideology crumbles in my estate.

        • The last thing I want to do (I can’t)is to shut up a thinking man like yourself. I was hoping that a thinking man like yourself would see the real point of what I was trying to do and that is demonstrate that this universal and absolutist statement, “There is nothing conservative, or even Conservative, about “individualism” is not historically defendable.

          And no, I would not call you irresponsible.

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