5 Lessons from a seminal book : Democracy in America

Democracy in America (written in 1831 and published in 1836) has been a seminal book in understanding not only democracy and America or democracy in America but a penetrating gaze into human situation with the precision of a surgeon and grace of a beautiful woman of late 18th century.

Collected and paraphrased few below that helps explain some key themes of our times :

  •  The industrial insight that with extensive credit and large operation, prices of each unit of item becomes less and less and production becomes more and more. This insight / theory can be applied in wider scope and in other areas. This explains why in the online world, most of the things are free but founders are extremely wealthy. This also explains the modern hypes related to entrepreneurship, venture capitalists, Gross Customer Value, “No user to be left behind.”
  • When social conditions becomes more and more equal and democratic, slightest inequality becomes intolerable. Or in other words,  more equality creates a more acute sense of any real or potential inequality. Among managers today, no manager even thinks of some 10,000 times difference between the income of his and that of the CEO / owners but becomes agitated, tense, depressed and sometimes suicidal/murderous when he finds that his colleague has a raise / bonus marginally higher than him. Investment bankers, during their yearly bonus time can be considered a proof of this. 
  • In an aristocracy, a man is known first by his birth, lineage, coat of arms, ancestral home and the wealth enjoyed is not amassed by them and neither are they insecure of losing it.  Hence when a man of such climate joins army, becomes a politician, becomes a public servant, he considers this as a part of his career and life. In democracy, the rank and the social status from the “job” one does is the all and in all of life. Contemporary men and women of any social status, in general, do not retire on their own unless kicked out or hammered by disease or silenced by death. We should not consider this the fault of our particular age but manifestation of the eternal human attribute. Many white collar crimes happen because once the person loses the rank (or thinking of losing or retiring), his anxiety manifests into behaviour which the courts and juries pronounce to be criminal.
  • In an aristocracy, money or wealth is one of the portfolio items in a man’s search for recognition and status. In a democracy where everyone is equal, money or wealth becomes the only instrument of social demarcation and this demarcation being highly volatile, there emerges a class of men whose insecurity of losing wealth / money make them behave like thoughtless brutes. In an equal society, people are fiendish about money not because of the money per se but they are convinced of the omnipotence of money in the time they live. In an aristocracy, a man’s motivation to get a public office is not primarily motivated by money but in a democracy, this tends to become the primary objective. Since the position of a man in democracy is finally and constantly decided by his fellow citizens, any man in a democracy, however great or wealthy or successful or powerful has a deep sense of insecurity. Many of world’s richest men and women take immense efforts to look and present themselves like a fellow citizen (note how Mr. Zuckerberg with T-shirt – a 30+ billion worth man and the impact it has on an average fellow citizen who also wears T-shirt. )
  • Democracy gives rise to an aristocracy which is fundamentally different from the aristocracy we have encountered earlier in human history. In the older version of the aristocracy, servants were having little freedom but there was an obligation on the part of the aristocracy to take care of them. Contemporary post-industrial aristocracy is highly restrained in interfering with the individual freedom of the people they employ but do not relate in any way.  This is more harsher form of exploitation where one class disowns all obligations or abrogates to the state with this classic democratic argument that every man is free to make his destiny. In aristocratic climate, this freedom being absent also relieved men from one of the incessant miseries of our times : How not to fail and grow and to succeed, to have that minute edge over the fellow men ? This freedom puts tremendous pressure on everyone with the horror of failure. Hence we have this great doctrine being propagated which was never heard in human history – There is no shame in failing. 
  • In aristocracy, private lives of the leadership class is colourful and varied. This is because of two resources available to that class : leisure and the privilege of secured wealth. Both these were acquired not through serious specialization work. A man of aristocracy could become a specialist if he chooses to but in democracy, any chance of social mobility for a man demands specialization. Such specialist men do not belong to themselves but to their profession. Highly successful doctors, technical men, engineers, consultants, analysts belong more to their profession than to themselves. They do acquire wealth but has no leisure as they always fear some completion, some jealousy, some honours not yet achieved, in other words – they are in a flux and pass from less and less leisure with more and more money.  Merciless competition to join elite technical and managerial schools of specialization is a sign of increasing democratic age. 
  • War is viewed completely differently in aristocracy and in democracy. War in an aristocratic society starts and stops quickly.  In democracy, it is extremely difficult to start a war and almost impossible to end it. In aristocracy, a military leader is known first by his family name and then by his rank in the army. He joins war, among other motivation is to have military glory. The greatest problem to mobilize a democratic nation to war is naturally impossible because of love of comfort of the citizens. Since army in a democratic nation reflects more of the nation as a whole than that in an aristocratic nation, the only way to get promotion is when seniors leave. This rarely happens in a democracy (because rank is everything – there is no other difference ) and it is war that most warms the heart of ambitious young men. However, once war destroys comfort, the same citizenry now becomes ferocious in defending the same comfort and army now fuels the ambition of young men and war kills and removes the up and downside ranks. Hence it becomes very difficult to stop a war in democracy. If there is no foreign war to fight, there remains strong incentive for the military men to stoke, foment, continue any internal dissension or conflict. 
  • The greatest paradox of democracy is this : there is very little faith in the elected leaders for long period but increasingly powerful faith in centralized power. In a democracy, a voting citizen will abhor and laugh aloud if he is told that the elected leader is a divine manifestation but the same citizen will, in a docile manner accept the demands of a clerk in fulfilling a particular form that more and more interferes with his lives. If a middle manager of a modern corporation is told that his CEO is a divine figure, the dullest one will denounce this assertion but the the best manager will fill-up all the HR forms and assessment details very diligently and with high sincerity. 
  • In a democratic set up where equality is less perceived but sensitivity about this is paramount and everywhere, very great writers seldom rise. The readership, in their psychological set up cannot reconcile the fact that one of their fellow citizens may be infinitely more wise than them. Hence they patronize mediocre thinkers and writers whom they treat more like a buffoon : they admire their antics and skill but use them for temporary distraction. Hence, writers bear a great responsibility to hold in front of their audience something which they need so desperately but which they will most likely conditioned to ignore. 
  • It is easy to say whether a nation is democratic or aristocratic by simply looking at the public buildings and architecture. In aristocracy, the class that commissions major architectural projects never has any incentive to earn something out of these projects. In a democracy, every architectural project presents itself with the opportunity to make money for a chain. This chain is a representation of the nation and imitation and mechanical reproduction always reduce cost and hence architecture in democracy in always of poor quality. An example : look at our modern buildings in our most democratic cities and look at some of the buildings in Paris, Florence, Victorian Bombay and Calcutta. This is a tremendous insight : Architectural Beauty is directly interlinked with the political environment. In other words, the more democratic a society becomes, the uglier its cities become. 
  • Equality of all citizens and love of comfort an a trivial private life are part and parcel of democratic environment. The attention span and range of thought are so narrow that the talent to contemplate long term project or to nurture long term ambitions wane. This means that in course of time, the factors that keep a comfortable life running become weaker and after a certain time, the whole nation lapses into material decay. Hence, single minded focus, disinterested work on long term projects, contemplation on something beyond this life in days and week are most needed by democracies to keep their material comfort intact but all these smell of religion and negation of the present material world and is an anathema. Democracy has the habit of rejecting exactly those things most-vehemently and confidently  that has the most powerful impact in nurturing it. Post-Buddhist India was the most world-renounced variety but it offered a material life and comfort and architecture that next 1500 years did not equal in the fullest sense.
  • Nothing, not even war startles a democratic citizen more than facing the fact that his neighbour, his cubicle mate, his boss, his municipal leader, his friend, his colleague, his facebook friend may be in effect much better than him. This collective horror makes them always looking for the opportunity to have these upstarts and towering men “cut to size.”. But as long as something called ambition is there in the hearts of few men, they will devise their own schemes and one of the surest ways is to capture public imagination. Now public imagination, collectively speaking , in a democracy is that of a five year child (who will happily and easily barter a rare and high quality diamond with a glittering toy without having any inkling that a high quality rare diamond can get him millions of such $ 1 toy) and ambitious men first become their playmates and let them be used. They “customize” everything for this five year old and with immaculate finesse simplify and distort and after a time, the public discovers them to be like them, with all the common frailties. Observe the rise of many gurus and god-men (and women) in India and then their subsequent downfall. 
  • When a society enters from aristocracy to democracy, one must bear in mind that the men who destroyed the aristocracy were themselves breathed the air and some of the grandness, manner, world-view rubbed onto them. This tends to make the pioneers of democratic revolution more moderate in their zeal and as the revolution evolves, the next waves vilify the pioneers for having the same propensities which they were fighting against. This will stabilize after some time as general security and stability take the society to the next equilibrium. From this equilibrium of mediocrity, no genius can pull the society back. It’s natural course will be towards totalitarianism. On the other hand, a totalitarian society embarked on the democratic  path will initially complain of the discomfort and the previous ruling class will voluntarily join to hasten the democratic revolution. The reason is amply clear : a ruling aristocratic class, while in its peak strength and glory remain quite secure and any democratic idea will be crushed at the inception. It is the self-doubt in the aristocratic class that sows the seed of democracy and equality. Calcutta in 1960s and 1970s was undergoing a transition and it witnessed something strange : stone statutes of many great men of previous era were found to have been decapitated by the young revolutionaries. 
  • An aristocrat in a democratic time has two options : either to retire in anonymity or to welcome the democratic revolution and ride the tide. This class of men provide each democratic revolution with something invaluable : visible ensign of victory. Since perception is everything in democracy, this capitulation of the aristocracy is the most powerful symbol for the masses and they love it so much and believe its authenticity so much that the greatest worshipers of equality see nothing strange while being led by an aristocrat, whose forefathers had severely exploited their forefathers barely a generation ago. In India, many great democratic leaders were from the aristocratic class after British Empire collapsed. The retired class here were most of the princes and kings who were too aristocrat to have found the democracy incompatible. 
  • A grand insight of our age is that although democracy makes the society more equal in a collective manner, it does not necessarily make it happier. Democracy and its attendant freedom of choice which starting at  political level trickles to all the levels pose something dreadful to each individual ; it asks something like a magistrate : “Now, all the highs in the field are being leveled and you have the freedom to play well. How well shall you play ? “. In absence of any goalpost set (by others), a man in a matured democracy gets bewildered, as if frozen and only thing he knows are players like him, only goal he has is to search for a goal-post and the only satisfaction he gets in finding that there is no one who appears better than him although he knows they are different. This is the greatest threat for democracy. A man can reconcile prison if he has committed a crime, a man can reconcile, with more efforts when he has not committed any crime but it is impossible for a man to reconcile the fact although he is told to be free but this freedom quite often appears to be a prison where he is consigned even without knowing whether he is free ot un-free. In 1960s and 70s counter culture, many young men and women – quite educated voluntarily  joined cults and spiritual organizations which to outsiders seemed (and seems) like a prison with super rigid hierarchy and they wondered after many years, many after leaving the groups at the paradox of making such choice. Choice in a democratic set up is not really choice – it is manufactured rigidity but sweetened with candies appropriate of the age.  

The book was written by an aristocrat – one of the oldest of France, but he captured the essence of the coming age (i.e. our own) and although he spoke softly, this was again an aristocratic subterfuge  and tutored understatement owing to the ancient Greeks – we hear in many pages the momentous march of history and its trumpet this time is an idea that again owes its name (definitely not the form we understand today) to the ancient Greeks.

Alex de Tocqueville can make lasting impression in aristocrat and democrats alike and since both can learn from him, he remains a world teacher. Because, human beings, while we distill the essences of their political organization, it provides us with two immutable configuration : aristocracy and democracy.

Both need each other and Alex de Tocqueville, very subtly and using many devices of art and rhetoric bring us to a point where we have wisdom : We are not guilty or failure. Our age is like a father of us and we have genetically inherited many of his traits, gifts and frailties. 


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