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Monday, July 20, 2020

A Telegram from Early Affluent Age to Late Affluent Age

Looking through my commonplace book, I ran across this passage, and marveled at how much of Alexis de Tocqueville's observations of early 19th century France could be made of early 21st century America. See if you do not agree:
“But,” he [Tocqueville] wrote, “I am firmly convinced that chance can do nothing unless the ground has been prepared in advance. Antecedent facts, the nature of institutions, turns of mind, and the state of mores are the materials from which chance composes those impromptu events that surprise and terrify us.”

He then lists, in the case of the 1848 Revolution, what these were: the industrial revolution, which brought many workers into Paris, not all of them able to live on their wages or to find work; the passion for material pleasures, which fed on envy; theories that poverty could be eliminated by mechanical changes in social arrangements; contempt, well earned, for the nation’s rulers; centralization, which brought the engine house of the country to Paris; and the instability of a society that had lived through no fewer than seven revolutions within sixty years.

. . . .

Beginning at the top, he is death on King Louis-Philippe. The revolution “was unforeseen by everybody, but by him most of all; no warning from the outside had prepared him for it, for his mind had retreated long ago into the sort of haughty loneliness inhabited by almost all kings whose long reigns have been prosperous, who mistake luck for genius, and who do not want to listen to anybody, because they think they have no more to learn.” Louis-Philippe’s fault was “to corrupt the people without defying them and to twist the spirit of the Constitution without changing the letter; to play off the country’s vices one against the other; and gently to drown revolutionary passion in the love of material pleasures; this had been his idea throughout his life, and it gradually became, not just his main, but his only thought.”
Joseph Epstein, Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (HarperCollins, 2009).

I had come to think this particular trick was a more recent innovation: “to corrupt the people without defying them and to twist the spirit of the Constitution without changing the letter; to play off the country’s vices one against the other; and gently to drown revolutionary passion in the love of material pleasures." One might assume that having legal and journalistic and media industries mobilized to these ends were necessary conditions for revolution. But Louis-Philippe, Tocqueville thought, had pulled off the same effects single-handedly.

The difference being, perhaps, that Louis-Philippe did not foresee or intend of his efforts the revolutionary effects.

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