“It is not technology that has hollowed out civil society. It is something Tocqueville himself anticipated, in what is perhaps the most powerful passage in Democracy in America. Here, he vividly imagines a future society in which associational life has died:
“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone . . .”
“Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood . . .
Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
“Tocqueville was surely right. Not technology, but the state – with its seductive promise of ‘security from the cradle to the grave’ – was the real enemy of civil society. Even as he wrote, he recorded and condemned the first attempts to have ‘a government . . . take the place of some of the greatest American associations’.
But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day with the aid of an association? . . . The more it puts itself in place of associations, the more particular persons, losing the idea of associating with each other, will need it to come to their aid . . .
The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and its industry if the government came to take the place of associations everywhere.
Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.
Amen to that.”
Excerpt From: Ferguson, Niall. “The Great Degeneration.” Penguin Group, USA, 2013-05-15. iBooks.
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