The History of Fear, Part 3

Today, in my third post on the intellectual history of fear, I talk about Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. (For Part 1, Hobbes on fear, go here; for Part 2, Montesquieu on terror, go here.)

I suspect readers will be more familiar with Tocqueville’s argument. But that familiarity is part of the problem. Tocqueville’s portrait of the anxious conformist, the private self amid the lonely crowd, has come to seem so obvious that we can no longer see how innovative, how strange and novel, it actually was. And how much it departed from the world of assumption that, for all their differences, bound Hobbes to Montesquieu.

For more on all that, buy the book. But in the meantime…

There are many who pretend that cannon are aimed at them when in reality they are the target of opera glasses.

—Bertolt Brecht

Just fifty years separate Montesquieu’s death in 1755 from Tocqueville’s birth in 1805, but in that intervening half-century, armed revolutionaries marched the transatlantic world into modernity. New World colonials fired the first shot of national liberation at the British Empire, depriving it of its main beachhead in North America. Militants in France lit the torch of equality, and Napoleon carried it throughout the rest of Europe. Black Jacobins in the Caribbean led the first successful slave revolution in the Americas and declared Haiti an independent state. The Age of Democratic Revolution, as it would come to be known, saw borders transformed, colonies liberated, nations created. Warfare took on an ideological fervor not seen in over a century, with men and women staking their lives on the radical promise of the Enlightenment.

Alexis de Tocqueville

But more than any particular advance, it was a new sense of time and space that distinguished this revolutionary world from its predecessor. Montesquieu came of age in the twilight of Louis XIV’s sixty-three-year reign. The uninterrupted length of Louis’ rule left a deep impression on The Spirit of the Laws—of time standing still, of politics moving at a glacial pace. The Age of Democratic Revolution set a new tempo for political life. Jacobins in France announced a new calendar, proclaiming 1792 the Year One. They tossed out laws bearing the traces of time immemorial. They took new names, affected new manners, and voiced new ideas. History books still register this extraordinary compression of time, with dynasties rising and falling within months and years rather than decades or centuries. Even Kant, with his obsessive punctuality, reportedly could not keep up with the pace of events: on the morning in 1789 when he heard of the fall of the Bastille, he stepped out the door for his daily walk later than usual.

Politics not only accelerated; it thickened, as amateurs rushed on stage, demanding recognition as political actors in their own right. Prior to the Age of Democratic Revolution, political life was a graceful but delicate dance between king and court. But suddenly the lower classes were given the opportunity to make, rather than watch, history. According to Thomas Paine, politics would no longer be “the property of any particular man or family, but of the whole community.” With plebeian recruits jostling for space, “the soil of common life,” Wordsworth noted, grew “too hot to tread upon.”

As late as France’s Revolution of 1848, even the most liberal of aristocrats would feel squeezed by this inrush of new bodies. On the morning of February 24, just after the Parisian insurrections had begun, street demonstrators confronted Alexis de Tocqueville, soon to be minister of foreign affairs, on his stroll to the Chamber of Deputies.

They surrounded me and greedily pressed me for news; I told them that we had obtained all we wanted, that the ministry was changed, that all the abuses complained of were to be reformed, and that the only danger we now ran was lest people should go too far, and that it was for them to prevent it. I soon saw that this view did not appeal to them.

“That’s all very well, sir,” said they, “the Government has got itself into this scrape through its own fault, let it get out of it as best it can.”

“. . . If Paris is delivered into anarchy,” I said, “and all the Kingdom is in confusion, do you think that none but the King will suffer?”

Whether Tocqueville’s “we” was a reference to his interlocutors in the street or colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies, it suggested the populist familiarity that high politics had now acquired, a political immediacy simply unthinkable under the Old Regime.

Honoré Daumier, The Uprising

These changed dimensions of time and space would utterly transform how Tocqueville—indeed, how his entire generation, and generations after them—thought about political fear. It would do so in two ways: first, in his sense that it was the mass, and not the individual, that drove events; second, in his recasting of Hobbes’s fear and Montesquieu’s terror as mass anxiety.

Tocqueville believed that the crashing entrance of so many untrained political actors made it impossible for anyone to undertake, on his own, significant political action. “We live in a time,” he noted, “and in a democratic society where individuals, even the greatest, are very little of anything.” Or, as Michelet, describing the plight of the individual amid the mass, put it: “Poor and alone, surrounded by immense objects, enormous collective forces which drag him along.” For all their differences, Hobbes’s sovereign and Montesquieu’s despot were singular figures of epic proportion, projecting their shadow across an entire landscape. The mass eclipsed such figures, allowing no one, not even a despot, to put his stamp on the world. There simply wasn’t enough room.

For Tocqueville, the mass meant more than political congestion: it threatened to dissolve the very boundaries of the self. Not by crushing the self, as Montesquieu had envisioned, but by merging self and society. Unlike the frontispiece of Leviathan, where the individuals composing the sovereign’s silhouette insisted upon their own form, the canvas of revolutionary democracy depicted a gathered hulk, with no recognizable human feature or discrete part. So complete was each person’s assimilation to the mass, it simply did not make sense to speak anymore of individuals. “By dint of not following their own nature,” John Stuart Mill gloomily concluded, men and women no longer had a “nature to follow.”

The new political tempo of the Age of Democratic Revolution, Tocqueville claimed, also produced a new kind of fear. With everything in the world changing so fast, no one could get his bearings. This confusion and loss of control made for free-floating anxiety, with no specific object. Montesquieu’s victims were terrified of tangible threats: punishment, torture, prison, death; Hobbes’s subjects feared specific dangers: the state of nature and the coercive state. The anxiety of Tocqueville’s citizens, by contrast, was not focused upon any concrete harm. Theirs was a vague foreboding about the pace of change and the liquefying of common referents. Uncertain about the contours of their world, they sought to fuse themselves with the mass, for only in unity could they find some sense of connection. Or they submitted to an all-powerful, repressive state, which restored to them a sense of authority and permanence. Anxiety, then, was aroused not by intimidating power—as fear had been for Hobbes and terror had been for Montesquieu—but by the existential condition of modern men and women. Anxiety was not a response to state repression; it induced it.

The Lonely Crowd

With mass anxiety giving rise to political repression, with the experience of those below forcing the actions of those above, Tocqueville completely transformed fear’s political meaning and function, signaling a permanent departure from the worlds of Hobbes and Montesquieu. Redefined as anxiety, fear was no longer thought of as a tool of power; instead, it was a permanent psychic state of the mass. And when the government acted repressively in response to this anxiety, the purpose was not to inhibit potential acts of opposition by keeping people down (Hobbes) or apart (Montesquieu), but to press people together, giving them a feeling of constancy and structure, relieving them, at least temporarily, of their raging anxiety. Thus did Tocqueville take yet one more step away from the political analysis of fear offered by Hobbes, and set the stage for Hannah Arendt, who would complete the journey.

But Tocqueville also departed from assumptions about fear that both Hobbes and Montequieu, despite their considerable differences, had shared. Unlike Hobbes or Montesquieu, Tocqueville saw the lines of anxiety’s genesis, cultivation, and transmission extending upward, from the deepest recesses of the mass psyche to the state. Hobbes and Montesquieu believed that the state needed to take certain actions to arouse fear or terror, that the initiative came from above. Tocqueville turned that assumption upside down, claiming that anxiety was the automatic condition of lonely men and women, who either forced or facilitated the state’s repressive actions. To the degree that the state acted repressively, it was merely responding to the demands of the mass. Because the mass was leaderless, divested of guiding elites and discrete authorities, state repression was a genuinely popular, democratic affair.

Unlike Montesquieu or Hobbes, Tocqueville suggested that the individual members of the mass who sought to lose themselves in the state’s repressive authority were culturally and psychologically prone to submission. Hobbes and Montesquieu believed that the individual who was to be afraid or terrified had to be created through the instruments of politics—elites, ideology, and institutions in Hobbes’s case, violence in Montesquieu’s. But in Tocqueville’s eyes, politics did not have to do anything at all. The anxious self was already on hand. No matter how politics and power were configured, the self would be anxious by virtue of his psychology and culture.

Ultimately, it was this vision of the democratic individual amid the lonely crowd that made Tocqueville’s vision of mass anxiety so terrifying. In claiming that anxiety did not have to be crafted, that it was a constitutive feature of the democratic self and its culture, Tocqueville suggested that danger came from within, that the enemy was a psychological fifth column lurking in the heart of every man and woman. As he wrote in a notebook, “This time the barbarians will not come from the frozen North; they will rise in the bosom of our countryside and in the midst of our cities.”

Hobbes had tried to focus people’s fear on a state of nature that lay in the future and in the past and on a real sovereign in the present, Montesquieu on a despotic terror that lay in the future or in the far-off lands of Asia. Both sought to focus people’s fear on objects outside themselves or their countries. Tocqueville turned people’s attention inward, toward the quotidian betrayals of liberty inside their anxious psyches. If there was an object to be feared, it was the self’s penchant for submission. From now on, individuals would have to be on guard against themselves, vigilantly policing the boundaries separating them from the mass. At the height of the Cold War, American intellectuals would revive this line of thought, arguing that the greatest danger to Americans was their own anxious self, ever ready to hand over its freedom to a tyrant. Warning against the “anxieties which drive people in free society to become traitors to freedom,” Arthur Schlesinger concluded that there was, in the United States, a “Stalin in every breast.”

The other object to be feared was the egalitarian culture from which the democratic self arose. Tocqueville did not call for a reversal of democratic gains or a retreat from equality. He was far too much a realist and believer in the revolution’s gains to join the chorus of royalist reaction. Instead, he argued that to preserve the gains of the revolution, to help the democratic individual fulfill his promise as a genuine agent, the self would have to be shored up by creating firm structures of authority, restoring to it a sense of local affiliation, fostering religion and other sources of meaning, situating the self in civic associations whose function was less political than psychological and integrative. To counter mass anxiety, egalitarians and liberals, democrats and republicans, should cease their assault on society’s few remaining hierarchies. They should not participate in the socialist movement to centralize and enhance the power of a redistributive state. Instead, they should actively cultivate localism, institutions, and elite authority; these remnants of the Old Regime were the only bulwark against an anxiety threatening to introduce the worst forms of tyranny seen yet. The task, in other words, was not to continue the assault on the Old Regime but to stop it, to focus attention not on overturning the remains of privilege—local institutions and elites, religion, social hierarchies—but on enhancing them: these were the only social facts standing between democracy and despotism, freedom and anxiety.

One hundred and fifty years later, communitarian intellectuals in North American and Western Europe would offer a similar argument.


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