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Volume 28, Number 3 (Spring 1988)

The Problem of Democratic Individualism

Peter Augustine Lawler

From the vantage point of modern liberalism, and especially liberal democracy, America is not without its problems and limitations. The possibility even exists that America’s apparently extreme partisanship on behalf of the individual could have the perverse effect of promoting the destruction of individuality or human distinctiveness. Alexis de Tocqueville named this American or democratic extremism individualism, and he claimed that it is the theoretical error that threatens the future of humanity.

The origin of individualism, or the idea of the solitary, self-sufficient human self, is still not well understood. It is accounted for with considerable persuasiveness in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, especially in its second volume, the one which has the democratic individual as its theme. But this book is almost never read well, especially by Americans. Tocqueville’s fear that its meaning would forever elude his readers remains well founded. It is difficult for us democrats to believe that Tocqueville really says that individualism is a democratic excess, and that its emergence, which is coincident with the progress of democracy, could be the cause of the abolition of humanity. We cannot help but believe that the cure for what ails democracy is more democracy. Even those American social scientists who attempt to follow in Tocqueville’s footsteps are too dogmatically democratic, too American, one might say, to agree with or even really want to understand Tocqueville.

There is somewhat of a Tocqueville revival in America today. Its heart is perhaps the most widely acclaimed work in American social science in recent years, Robert Bellah et al.’s Habits of the Heart. This book, an exploration of the limits of American individualism today, is a genuine and sometimes penetrating attempt to appropriate creatively Tocqueville’s “new political science” for our time. It claims to be “explicitly and implicitly a detailed reading of, and commentary on, Tocqueville.” Bellah could not, however, bring himself to agree with Tocqueville that the problem with America is too much democracy. Consequently, he explicitly dissents from Tocqueville’s connection of the emergence of individualism with the progress of democracy or equality. For Bellah, individualism is the enemy of democracy, emerges in opposition to it, and can be eradicated by more of it. His immediate adversaries are Ronald Reagan and other allegedly anti-egalitarian, individualistic proponents of “neocapitalism.”

Actually, Bellah accepts much of Tocqueville’s analysis. His precise position is this: to the extent the idea of the individual is democratic or egalitarian, it is salutary. To the extent it is undemocratic, it is pernicious, or individualism in Tocqueville’s sense. The goodness of democracy or egalitarianism is his first principle. His dogmatism on this point is what, above all else, separates him from Tocqueville. My purpose is to examine both Tocqueville and Bellah to illuminate the problem of democratic individualism.

Tocqueville argues, and Bellah agrees, that democratization dissolves the ties or duties which link human beings to one another—those that constitute the family, religion, and political community. Each of them is to some extent inegalitarian or undemocratic. They, for the democrat, require the illegitimate subordination of the individual to other human beings. Democratization means freeing the individual from the rule of others for self-rule. Bellah sees this movement as destroying inequalities through “the absolute commitment to individual dignity.” On the basis of his affirmation of its success, he asserts that today it is “intolerable” to compel the individual to defer uncritically to the authority of others. He or she should be free to live however he or she thinks best. All assertions of the existence of a common moral authority in matters of personal morality, for example, in matters concerning sex and family, are manifestations of “authoritarianism.”

The problem with this destruction of authority, both Tocqueville and Bellah agree, is that the complete self-sufficiency or autonomy required by radical individualism is impossible for human beings. For Tocqueville, radical individualism and radical egalitarianism really point to the same thing—atomism. Atomism is the result of the destruction of all that binds human beings to one another and all that distinguishes them from one another.

An atomistic world would be one full of a mass of equally insignificant, identical, isolated selves, each of which is radically free from all external duties and restraints that might determine the purpose and direction of its existence. This freedom is freedom for an impossible task: the human self cannot originate its own content out of nothing. The atoms are alike because they are equally without distinctively human content.

The very perception of unlimited freedom by a human being is dizzying and terrifying. It is something from which the apparently radically liberated self desires above all to escape. Without communal resources to shape and limit self-determination, the democratic self chooses not to determine itself, i.e., not to exercise its freedom. It passively defers to public opinion, Tocqueville says. But this opinion itself is determined by no self in particular. The democratic self really seems to defer to some principle of impersonal materialism. It has no point of view from which to differentiate itself from its “environment.” Radical individualism makes individual distinctiveness—individuality in any meaningful sense—impossible.

Both Tocqueville and Bellah also call attention to the unendurable misery of this unsupported self—the one which is free from the undemocratic or anti-individualistic illusions which once bound human beings to religion, family, and political community. The liberated self is not full of the self-confidence that might make genuine autonomy possible. It is all too aware that it is not a god. It is aware primarily of its radical contingency or neediness. It knows that it cannot really satisfy its own deepest longings. The deepest of these, according to Tocqueville (but not Bellah), is the longing for immortality. Yet the deepest consequence of the perception of the truth of individualism is that one has no choice but to attempt to satisfy one’s desires all by oneself.

Bellah follows Tocqueville both through his examination of affluent Americans and in his observation that the democratic individual is restless even in the midst of abundance. No amount of material success can wholly satisfy human desires, those which are at the root of the need for morality and religion. Democratic individuals continue to pursue even greater amounts of such success only because they believe they have no choice but to hope that somehow it can become satisfying. No other standard of success is credible to them. Because their hope is unreasonable, and Bellah never tires of pointing out the incoherence of American arguments based upon it, democratic individuals tend to avoid the leisure that might lead to self-contemplation. Their need to work hard has remarkably little to do with want in the usual sense. But it seems they cannot work hard enough. In a self-consciously individualistic time, they can hardly hope to avoid self-contemplation altogether.

Bellah and Tocqueville agree that democratic individuals cannot help but be anxious, sometimes even melancholic. They are susceptible to religious madness and ideological fanaticism on the one hand and the pantheistic lullabies of therapists on the other. Generally speaking, their reason tends to give way; if their humanity is sustained, it is only through an assertion of will. This self-destruction of the mind occurs most readily among the most talented democratic individuals, the ones who are most aware of the futility of democratic striving but who see no credible alternative to it.

For Bellah and Tocqueville, a related problem with democratic individualism, the one which makes it not really democratic, according to Bellah, is that its destruction of qualitative or community-generating human distinctions causes economic distinctiveness to become far too important. The result is a materialistic assertiveness or competitiveness which distorts all of human life. The idea that individuality is rooted only in materialism really produces nothing but misery. It produces poverty and related forms of human degradation for those who fail in the race of life. It also produces the anxiety of extreme self-consciousness for those who succeed. Both the affluent and the impoverished have reason to be radically dissatisfied with a wholly democratic individualism. In America’s mostly middle class, democratic society, it is the dissatisfaction of the affluent that is politically significant. It is their opinions that Bellah criticizes. He wants to heighten their anxiety and lead them to acknowledge the cause of their misery.

For Bellah, the cure for the misery of individualism is the completion of democracy or “economic democracy.” It is his contention that the misery and anxiety of democratic affluence would disappear in the process of the democratic destruction of economic distinctions. He is somewhat unclear concerning why this would occur. He has the propensity to equate anxiety with guilt. Affluent individuals know they do not deserve the affluence that sets them apart from other human beings. They are worried about being able to sustain it in economic competition. They know it causes undeserved suffering by others; they are afraid of these others. Their “heart” or “conscience” calls them to participate in the creation of genuinely egalitarian communities, to commit themselves to alleviating the suffering of the economically oppressed. Such commitment brings affluent individuals’ own anxiety to an end. They are no longer isolated by their wealth and competitiveness.

Once one looks beyond Bellah’s rhetorical cleverness and methodological pretense, it becomes clear that he writes as a partisan of socialism. He suggests that America’s most successful socialist, Eugene Debs, was the paradigmatic appropriator of the American tradition for this century. He also, following the lead of other contemporary American socialist intellectuals, makes the case for understanding American populism as indigenous socialism. Even in light of Bellah’s argument, however, one cannot help but observe that socialism has never been popular in America, and most Americans still believe it to be antagonistic to their tradition. Bellah responds to this observation by criticizing the opinions of most Americans. He takes his bearings from what he believes a consistent articulation of the American tradition to be. He tries to improve America through using the Socratic method in the service of egalitarianism.

Bellah’s opinion that socialism is the appropriate culmination of the American tradition as the only antidote to its self-destructive individualism is the product of logical deduction. He calls it the deepest insight of the biblical and republican—or to some extent anti-individualistic—elements of the American tradition. It is the only one of these insights, apparently, which has not been rendered incredible by the progress of democracy or individualism. Socialism is, in principle, the only regime more democratic than democratic individualism; it is more consistently egalitarian.

It is also correct to call Bellah a Marxist, although, in doing so, I do not want to be misunderstood. He is not a partisan of the Soviet Union. He is, more generally, a sincere opponent of totalitarianism. He believes he is interpreting the development of the American tradition correctly. He is right to imply that the Tocquevillian and the Marxian analyses of the excesses of individualism are similar, and he is to be applauded for discovering that Tocqueville thought through more clearly than Marx many of the key Marxian insights. By calling Bellah a Marxist I only mean to say that he leans toward the Marxian, rather than the Tocquevillian, solution to the problem of democratic individualism.

Tocqueville and Marx seem to agree that radical individualism is unendurable for human beings. Tocqueville contends that it must be moderated by religion and other “aristocratic” or qualitatively based ideas for the idea of the individual or human distinctiveness to endure. If religion—or the truth of the idea of the soul—cannot be sustained in democratic times, then socialism is not only inevitable but perhaps even beneficial.

Tocqueville believed that the perpetuation of religion in democratic times was possible because the human soul really exists. Human beings have nonmaterialistic or spiritual needs which must be satisfied wherever they exist. The end of religion would signal the end of humanity, and Tocqueville did not think that the destruction of humanity is necessarily the final consequence of the unalterable progress of democracy.

Bellah wants to do justice to both religion and socialism, but he cannot do the impossible. Socialism is really his choice. His propensity is to reduce religion to the theology of liberation, to an instrument for bringing socialism into being. He praises the perspective of today’s “mainstream” Protestant intellectual establishment, the one which identifies religion almost wholly with the cause of socialism. He also contends that Catholicism finally came into its own after Vatican II, by which he seems to mean that its leaders lost interest in almost everything but economic reform and opposing nuclear war.

Bellah shares Marx’s enthusiasm for the possibility that the destruction of economic individualism, as the only form of inequality left in the world, would be the definitive triumph of democracy. Tocqueville fears that democracy’s victory would be humanity’s defeat. While Tocqueville is willing to be a partisan of war, although, of course, not all wars, Bellah and Marx affirm doctrines which point to a world without war, because it would be without individual competitiveness.

Would an egalitarian redistribution of wealth be sufficient to create such a world? Only if human discontents and the aggressiveness they produce have fundamentally an economic cause. But why are Tocqueville’s and Bellah’s Americans restless in the midst of abundance? They are pained by their consciousness of their individuality, their self-consciousness. They are anxious not about the scarcity of economic resources but about the scarcity of time. They know far too well that the pleasures of life are fleeing. They do not have time enough to enjoy. Their happiness is undermined by the intensity of their consciousness of time.

Their human misery comes from the fact that for them being human is little more than that consciousness. Only through the destruction of self-consciousness, which is always part of human existence, could the human discontents which produce war, competitiveness, and aggressiveness disappear. Do Bellah and Marx share the hope that the excesses of individualism will destroy human individuality or self-consciousness altogether? If so, that is the reason they do not share Tocqueville’s moderation. Tocqueville opposes the excesses of individualism on behalf of the human individual.

Consider what a Tocquevillian account of the most powerful reason for the attractiveness of Marxism for democratic intellectuals would be. For the Marxist, in truth, the lesson of the experience of unadorned or wholly democratic individualism is that humanity itself is worthless. The resulting hatred of the human condition produces the final revolution, the one against all human distinctions or self-consciousness. This revolution is for the reintegration of human existence into non-human nature, for the wholly “species being.” It is for the end of human freedom. It, to be sure, is also in the service of egalitarian consistency. The idea of human freedom cannot sustain itself indefinitely in light of the skeptical materialism that has fueled the democratic or egalitarian movement in thought.

There is something unfair about the identification of Bellah or even Marx with this conclusion. Both individuals really believe that a comprehensively egalitarian reconstitution of society could produce an unparalleled manifestation of human freedom. Bellah, for example, hopes for the replacement of the merely extrinsic satisfactions of economic reward with the intrinsic rewards of worthwhile work well-done. Only with the destruction of the former, he believes, could the latter come into its own. He also notes that materialistic restlessness of democratic individualism distracts the individual from contemplation of the “mystery of being” in communion with fellow human beings. There are other classical and biblical elements in Bellah’s criticism of democratic individualism. His opposition to this individualism, like Tocqueville’s, is partly from the perspective of an individual with an aristocratic attachment to intellectual excellence, to the idea that the truly human pursuits must be understood as choiceworthy for their own sakes.

Bellah revolts against democratic individualism partly because souls like his are not properly appreciated by the mixture of oligarchy and democracy which largely characterizes today’s American regime. He is surely extremely aristocratic in his attachment to a vision of a world full of human excellence undistorted by materialistic competition. He has a far more difficult time coming to terms with democracy as it really exists among human beings than Tocqueville did.

Bellah is a Marxist, ultimately, because he shares with Marx the hope that the radicalization of the democratic principle can somehow satisfy his aristocratic longings, those of his soul. His remark concerning the common contemplation of the mystery of being is not a characteristic one. He opposes, for the most part, the “depolitization” of religion. His enthusiasm for the radical possibilities of egalitarian thought leads him, for the most part, to reduce morality to political morality and the Bible to a call for economic justice and pacifism. Perhaps this enthusiasm is evidence for the assertion that the attractiveness of Marxism for human beings, and especially democratic intellectuals, is in its assertion that the misery of human individuality was created by and hence can be destroyed by human beings. We can deliver ourselves from our self-created misery through the further making of history.

Tocqueville denies that history could ever provide a solution to the problem of human misery. As a result, he cannot share Bellah’s enthusiasm for socialism. It is a democratic excess, a radical revolution against the truth about the human condition. According to Tocqueville: “The short space of three score years can never content the imagination of man; nor can the imperfect joys of the world satisfy his heart.” These “joys,” we must emphasize, include the participation in and even the achievement of radical social reform.

Tocqueville goes on: “Man alone, of all created beings, displays a natural contempt for existence, and yet a boundless desire to exist; he scorns life, but he dreads annihilation.” The contradictions expressed here—those, as Tocqueville puts it, of the beast with the angel in him—are the deepest source of human misery. According to Marx, religion will disappear when human misery does. That might well be true. But the misery to which Tocqueville calls attention cannot be eradicated through social reform, unless such reform can somehow or another bring humanity to an end. Because Tocqueville is a partisan of human freedom, even at the expense of happiness or contentment, he could not recommend such reform. Its goal, no doubt, would be the divinization of humanity. But, because such a goal cannot be reached through merely human effort, its result would be humanity’s brutalization.

Tocqueville traces the beginning of the democratic or egalitarian movement in thought to the sixteenth or seventeenth century. It is based on the skeptical denial that the human being has a soul or spiritual needs and a spiritual being. The bias of democratic thought against religion, one which Tocqueville observed when he called the religion of Americans their most precious aristocratic inheritance, is really a bias against the human condition or human individuality as it really exists. The self-sufficient or isolated and autonomous individual it apparently promotes is not human.

Bellah sometimes rightly criticizes the opinions of Americans with this conclusion in mind, but he fails to show how his radicalization of the egalitarian principle restores the idea of the human individual or human dignity. Socialism as a comprehensive, constitutive principle of society is radical democracy; it is also, according to Tocqueville, the enemy of the individual and of religion.

According to Tocqueville, Americans will remain partisans of human liberty as long as they remain religious, and they remain remarkably religious even today. They have not and they must not abandon the idea of God, which subordinates human beings, even if all human beings equally, to Itself and hence limits self-rule, in the name of egalitarian principle. Such consistency would not only be without God but without human individuality. Human beings, to remain human, must come to terms with their human desires and human suffering. They must prefer their human freedom to mindless, servile contentment. Tocqueville did not think that they could do so if they did not believe religion was in some sense or another true, if they did not believe in God or the soul.

In our time, no one has understood the genuinely radical truth that the fundamental human choice is between the truth of religion and the truth of socialism better than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. According to him, the essence of socialist ideology is the assertion that the value of the individual depends upon the success of social reform. It deprives individuals of any point of view from which to differentiate themselves from society. They are reduced to a social product and nothing more; they “democratically” lose their individuality.

Religion, or at least biblical religion, sees individuals as creatures of God. As creatures made in God’s image, they possess a freedom that is given to them, not by society, but by God. They are free to acknowledge in their hearts their subordination to the will of God. Religious belief gives individuals a point of view or “inner” freedom to resist the lie of socialist ideology and maintain their genuinely individual dignity.

It goes without saying that Tocqueville would not have agreed with all of Solzhenitsyn’s political analysis. But on the analysis of the problem of democratic individualism he is much closer to him than to Bellah. Democratic individualism or materialism cannot, by itself, sustain human liberty. 

Peter Augustine Lawler is an associate professor of political science at Berry College, Mount Berry, Georgia.

Posted: May 11, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.

Imagination it is that shapes society—moral imagination, or idyllic imagination, or diabolic imagination.

Russell Kirk

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