The Book in which We Talk de Tocque (Part 3)

November 26, 2010 § 2 Comments


Democracy in America – Volume 2 (de Tocqueville, Alexis)

“It is not the elected official who produces the prosperity of American democracy but the fact that the official is elected”
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Tocqueville wrote Volume II of Democracy in America in 1840, a full decade after his original voyage across the Atlantic. The benefits of years of reflection are evident in this volume: it is more meditative in approach, and broader in scope than the first one. No longer does he describe America, its political institutions, or even its people. His thoughts are about human society at large, and about how democracy influences the behavior of a society, its industrialists, its armed forces, its politicians, its ordinary citizens, their theatre, poetry, science, philosophy, manners, the very language they speak, and their general outlook to life. Increasingly, his words are meant for his own countrymen. The trend-lines he saw so plainly during his visit showed him that Europe was headed in the same broad direction as America; he foresees grave pitfalls and huge opportunities in the road ahead, and the fundamental aim of his book is to ensure that Europeans avoid the former and avail of the latter.

Disparity in India (Courtesy http://www.boston.com)

As I finally put down the book and begin to write about it for the last time, I feel my aim should be somewhat similar. Tocqueville wrote in his home country, France, about a foreign land he had visited, a 64-year old democracy at the time; I live, today, in the foreign country he had visited, and my thoughts are for my own motherland, India, coincidentally, in the 64th year after it began its journey towards becoming a democratic society.

I say ‘began its journey’ because although it takes a single stroke of a midnight hour to declare political independence, it takes generations to become a truly democratic society. As Tocqueville says,

A nation which has lived for centuries under a class and caste system does not reach a democratic state of society other than through a long series of more or less painful transformations, involving violent efforts and accompanied by many changes of fortune in the course of which property, opinions and power are subject to rapid changes.

A democratic society is as much about social equality and political consciousness as it is about the right to elect one’s legislators. We began our journey as a collection of a large number of feudal aristocratic societies, and our society is still in transition today. An important milestone along the way is the gradual growth to prominence of an urban middle-class, and this is taking place in India, but asymmetrically, in pockets, even as vast parts of the nation are still riddled with caste and class inequalities. It is this fledgling middle class that the lessons of Tocqueville primarily concern, because members of this class hold the key: they can either handhold India through this difficult metamorphosis, or stay on the sidelines and watch the country sell itself into slavery again.

The first thing Tocqueville tells the Indian middle class to guard against, is a tendency to be selfish, individualist and politically apathetic.

“There are … nations where the inhabitant sees himself as a kind of settler, indifferent to the fate of the place he inhabits. Major changes happen there without his cooperation, he is even unaware of what precisely has happened… Worse still, the condition of his village, the policing of the roads, the fate of the churches and presbyteries scarcely bother him; he thinks that everything is outside his concern and belongs to a powerful stranger called the government. He enjoys what he has as a tenant, without any feeling of ownership or thought of possible improvement. This detachment from his own fate becomes so extreme that, if his own safety or that of his children is threatened, instead of trying to ward off the danger, he folds his arms and waits for the entire nation to come to his rescue.”

The gradual equalization of social conditions in India has involved a partial breakdown of an earlier social structure that had stood firm for millennia, one that precisely located the identity of a man in terms of a well-defined and complex hierarchy, determined by his position within his extended family, their status in the community, its position within the sub-caste, and ultimately, how the caste itself ranked in the scheme of things. People understood this web of relationships around them, and fell back on it in times of doubt or need. Over the last few decades, an increasing number of urban Indians have started living “a life independent of others.” If this breakdown is not recognized, and the resultant vacuum not replaced by other modes of free association on political and social themes,”a time might come when the disorderly passions of a few men, with the help of the stupid selfishness and small-mindedness of the majority, would ultimately force the main body of society to suffer strange social changes.” I think of Bal Thackeray and his band of bigots holding Mumbai to ransom, mostly because the more liberal-minded inhabitants of the city cannot be bothered to connect with each other and assert themselves – but this is just the most glaring example of this phenomenon.

This apathy is accentuated by a bloated sense of self-worth. The Indian middle-class has been brought up on a steady diet of self-congratulation. From history books in school to mass media to political propaganda, Indians are told how special India is, how economic and military super-power status is ours by birthright, and how we lead the world on so many fronts. Well, it turns out we are not exceptional even in this – media, governments and educational systems in every democracy tend to reinforce similar messages and build an exaggerated sense of self-importance in their citizens:

“For fifty years the inhabitants of the United States have been repeatedly told that they form the only religious, enlightened and free nation… They possess, therefore, an inordinate opinion of themselves and are not far from believing that they form a species apart from the rest of humanity…”

This vanity would be merely risible if it were not dangerous as well. The smug, self-satisfied, sense of superiority makes it difficult for our urban middle-class to identify deficiencies in our society, or even to accept them as deficiencies when they are pointed out. Criticism is often dismissed as an unpatriotic act – and it is always the nation that is the loser when that happens.

Third, says Tocqueville, the urban middle class in a democracy needs to guard against moral and intellectual laziness. This is a dark abyss down whose slippery slopes we have already commenced our precipitous descent, as evinced by our eagerness to cut corners, to tug at the corners of the ethical and the legal at times, but to achieve success at all costs with as little expense of effort as possible. The Wall Street Journal celebrated this spirit of “Jugaad” in 2009, and many Indians were cock-a-hoop, seeing their street-smart wiles gain international recognition as a management philosophy. Fellow-bloggers Gaurav and Amit have written about the same phenomenon here, but here’s Tocqueville predicting it, way back in 1840:

“On of the distinctive features of the democratic ages is the taste shared by every man for easy success and immediate enjoyment… The majority of those who live in times of equality are filled with ambition both vigorous and mild. They wish for immediate success without expending great effort… they congratulate themselves on being able to depict huge objects at little expense and drawing on the public’s attention with no effort.”

The reach is never for the stars, it is for the low-hanging fruit; the emphasis is not on innovation, but on improvisation; the goal is not excellence, it is not even success – it is merely the mimicry, the outward manifestation, the simulacrum of success that matters. Consequently, products and services on offer are often mediocre, with little attention to detail – and consumers tolerate this, because they share the same mentality. “No longer capable of greatness, men seek elegance and prettiness,” Tocqueville says, and he could easily have been speaking from one of the tinsel malls that line our cities these days, “they aim for appearance, rather than reality.”

This laziness is a social disease that infects the intellect as well. I mean a tendency to not think for oneself but to accept the views that we are bombarded with continuously, by the media, by “experts” of every hue and color, and mainly by society itself:

“The majority takes upon itself the task of supplying to the individual a mass of readymade opinions, thus relieving him of the necessity to take proper responsibility of arriving at his own. Thus, he accepts without scrutiny a great number of philosophical, moral or political theories on the word of the general masses…”

The democratic citizen’s curiosity, as Tocqueville points out drily, “is both insatiable and cheaply satisfied, for he is anxious to know a great deal quickly rather than to know anything well.

The problems of India are too complex for this middle class to grasp or grapple with, in its present state of mind. All that they are willing to concern themselves with, is their own wealth, and this too was prophesied by Tocqueville:

“It is a strange thing to see the feverish enthusiasm which accompanies the Americans’ pursuit of prosperity and the way they are ceaselessly tormented by the vague fear that they have failed to choose the shortest route to achieve it… When the taste for physical pleasures in such a nation grows more speedily than education or the habit of liberty, a time occurs when men are carried away and lose self-control at the sight of the new possessions they are ready to grasp. Intent only on getting rich, they fail to perceive the close link between their own personal fortunes and general prosperity. There is no need to wrench their rights from such citizens; they let them slip voluntarily through their fingers”

The biggest danger in all this, is that this indolent, self-absorbed, avaricious middle class will gradually lose its relevance to Indian society, which will totter along with its myriad problems, until unscrupulous tyrants seize control, and run the country according to their whims and fancies, while the citizens essentially revert to a state of slavery. By refusing to involve ourselves in the governance of our country, we will then have to accept the rule of whoever is willing to be our masters.”Under this system, citizens leave their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters, and then they return to it.

According to one plausible school of thought, this has already happened in India.

Nevertheless, the final message I take from Tocqueville is one of hope. All is never lost. We are still a democracy, and a democracy always has the ability to right its wrongs, to rid itself of tyrants, and to will itself to prosperity and freedom. And as he reminds us, we are still in a transitory phase, from one era of social immobility to another – and this is the most exciting phase in the entire metamorphosis, a golden age, an age of revolutions, an age of decisions and choice. To be born in these times is both a responsibility and a privilege. But listen to Tocqueville, he says it so well:

“Under a caste system, generations follow one another without men ever changing their position; some expect nothing more and others expect nothing better. The imagination falls asleep in the middle of this silence and universal stillness. The idea of change no longer suggests itself to the human mind.
When the class system has been abolished and conditions become almost equal, all men are constantly on the move but each of them is isolated, independent and weak. This is very different from the previous state of affairs; however, it is similar in one respect – great revolutions of the human mind are extremely rare.
But between these two extremes in the history of nations, there is an intermediary period, a glorious and restless period where conditions are not so fixed that intelligence stultifies or so unequal that some men exercise great power over the minds of others, and where a few can modify the beliefs of all. It is then that powerful reformers appear, and in a stroke, new ideas change the face of the world”

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