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Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, American Democracy, and de Toqueville 16 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democracy, Democratic Theory, History, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Reviews, War & Terrorism.
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[This is Part One of Three entries considering Claus Offe, Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber & Adorno in the United States, trans. by Patrick Camiller (Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2005 [2004]).]

In a world dominated by the United States, many people around the world, scholars and laymen alike, are trying to understand what America means, why it behaves as it does, and how its actions in the world can be controlled or mitigated in some way. To this end, Claus Offe goes back to three key European sociologists, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Theodor Adorno, who visited the United States and wrote analyses of American society, culture, and politics. Offe creates a kind of four-way rubric to judge where a European critique of the United States may come from. Basically, it can either see America as a kind of avant-garde of democracy and democratic social organizer, the experimenter that allows the European to look into its future; or it can see America as a “latecomer society,” as under- or undeveloped, immature. Either of these views can then be given a positive or negative moral value.(1)

Starting with de Tocqueville (hereafter dT), Offe seeks to explain American society in the 21st century and especially the actions of its federal state in the global arena since 9/11. Are there characteristics that dT observed in the 1830 that could explain the War in Iraq, the hostility toward state-sponsored social programs, and the U.S. domination of international economics? Offe argues that for the most part, dT saw America in the first vein, as an avant-garde of what was to come in other democratizing countries in Europe. DT spent much time in his two-volume Democracy in America comparing the U.S. to France and Europe in general; dT’s primary focus was perhaps more about understanding Europe than America.

Although he had a broad view of the multiple causes of American social outcomes, dT concluded that the key to the relative stability of American society lie in customs, or as Offe refers to them, referring to Belah’s now famous turn of phrase, “habits of the heart.” For dT, it was the particular aspects of American life and experience that created a taken-for-granted, or unconscious way of being in American interaction that produced the stability of the society. Mainly, Americans believe that they are all free and equal (dT does address the contradictions of Indians and Slaves as well); they are accustomed to a cacophony of divergent opinions and ideologies, but they settle upon a sort of general consensus that they treat as provisional; and they set up their country to allow a constant “learning by experience” in the government, where if something doesn’t work, they tweak it. All of these allow the American society to flow relatively smoothly and foster a deep kind of liberty, or self-government without hereditary hierarchies or powers. (11-18)

Offe focuses on a handful of key parts of dT’s argument to show the fundamental argument that he made in 1835: The greatest threat to American democracy is from possessive individualism, a particular kind of ‘equality’ that Americans embrace and live for: economic equality. Offe makes the careful distinction between actual economic equality and the American cultural notion of equality, which is that you may be rich today, but you could be poor tomorrow; and I may be poor today, but tomorrow I could be richer than you. Or to put it another way, Americans believe in the possibility of economic equality and accept the capriciousness of markets, making and breaking fortunes, as a matter of fact.

For dT, the lack of hereditary hierarchy leads to a generalized greed in the American consciousness, where the possibility of of gaining economic advantage over your neighbor becomes a kind of passion for equality, governing American life. Because this passion for equality occurs in an unpredictable market with uncontrolled upward and downward mobility, it is infused with fear, creating what Offe calls a “micro-tyranny,” or a self-imposed internalized tyranny, where personal decisions in the market slowly begin to overshadow all other kinds of freedom and all other social actions. (19-20)

A drawback of commercial activity based on possessive individualism is the monotony o flife, the melancholy and ‘strange unrest’ of business people, who cannot enjoy what they have earned, and the loss of republican virtues. (21)

In this context, political liberty becomes a burden, so that the drive for ‘economic equality’ ultimately leads to a gradual relinquishing of political and social power to the state. But because the state is set up to respond to the majority’s will (based on what is “most” rather than what is “best”), the state will ultimately focus its attention on the market as well, being primarily an instrument of the pecuniary interests of the misplaced equality. In this way, America was set up in 1835 for its people to literally chose despotism in order to live in their economic environment of possible economic equality. For dT, this creates an America of undifferentiated individuals who are, in fact, actually conformists in the market, and who have no care for their past or their future, nor for their social relationships in the present. All that matters is their economic lives. (22)

Most problematic for dT is that the rule of the majority ultimately means that culture and politics, the realm of values, ideas, and intellect, is subject to the a flattening, a dumbing down, a forced conformity to the will of the majority (whom he presciently calls the ‘middle class’). One hundred years before Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, dT was theorizing the “culture industry”; and several years before Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, he predicted the concentration of capital and the dehumanization of the workers in America. (23)

His theory of the culture industry foresee’s Adorno’s in stunning accuracy: equality in possessive individualism leads to cultural conformity. Artists produce for the market or for bosses rather than for art’s sake. Utility outstrips aesthetics or meaning as the motivation for artistic production. The democratic aesthetic sense is reduced from the “great” to the merely “pleasant or pretty.” His theory of the concentration of capital simply sees workers native abilities and desires subordinated to the will of their employers; and the concentration of economic power transforming the state to the protection of the wealth of the owners. In this situation, the newly wealthy class have no social obligation to the rest of America, and act out of the socially acceptable possessive individualism. Ultimately, the majority are wage workers who are dependent upon employers for the livelihood and social status. (24-28)

DT argued that American culture had one major counter-valing force that prevented the demise of the democratic society: its “habits of the heart” as produced in religious communities and in voluntary associations. Simply put, dT believed that without centralized government, Americans were forced to interact with each other in voluntary associations; but that these associations were incredibly flexible, forming around the changing needs and opinions of their members. This, combined with the voluntary nature of American Christianity, acted as an ethical check to the worst possible effects of “equality”: possessive individualism and the passion for equality (29-34).

Offe’s critique of dT and his theorizing from the present (eminent critique) arises from a world quite different from that of 1835, wherein the United States dominates the political and economic scene for the entire globe. For Offe, dT could not have seen some key historical developments in American society, especially in the 20th century. First, Americans have gradually lost their attachment to voluntary association; Offe gestures to the large and growing body of communalist sociology, which documents and often bemoans the loss of community in American life. So the primary check on “equality” is eroding or, by some alarmist accounts, actually already gone. Second, Offe argues that associations in American society are, as often as not, instruments of social control and enforced conformity. In other words, associations can be used to counter-democratic ends as easily as they can uphold and undergird democratic societies. And third, Offe points to the actual structure of American democracy, where power is vertically diffused among state and local agents and agencies, such that the federal state lacks the power necessary to integrate the society as a whole. Offe says that the American state is blocked by communitarian localism: that is, local associations are communal, but rather than undergirding the democratic society, the serve to fragment it. (34-35)

Offe’s assessment of American cultural trends underlying the state are breathtaking in their clarity: American cultural history began with a distrust of the state, and from its founding in the Constitution, American institutions have had as their modus operandi protection of the individual from the state (rather than from other individuals). For Offe, this led to a misplacement of community in religion, where religion became historically the locus of lasting American communities. The mistrust of the state combined with the necessity of having a state led to what Offe calls “nation-building without state-building.” If nothing else, Americans are as a lot anti-state. Offe points to the frontier history and colonization as the sources of these mindsets, where people had to live together and survive without the presence of a state. (37-8)

The federal institutions (state-building) — as Madison, et al., created them — strip power from the federal government necessary for social integration (nation-building). The social and cultural powers left up primarily to local authorities or more commonly left out of the law at all, gives huge power to the courts who must arbitrate social interaction with only a minimum of actual law to guide them (hence the huge body of case law in American jurisprudence). So both the legislative and executive are left only with regulating the economy and dealing with foreign affairs and conflicts. Offe argues that the location of American community in religion and voluntary associations created a society where the government must effect social integration but lacks the necessary powers to do so. (38-40)

And so, Offe argues, the executive and legislative seek enemies outside the boundaries of the United States, extending the frontier of yesteryear out into the global scene. To say it another way, because the American state is so feeble domestically, it must exert itself outward on the non-American world.

But Offe goes a step further to argue that because American religion, the locus not only of community but of social morality, is outside the purview of the state, it exists pre-reflexively. That is, morality of the American society is literally a habit of mind, a self-evident truth; so that in the foreign policy sphere, unexamined moralities are enacted upon the world with America as missionary, savior, democratic hero. There are no social formations set up for society-wide discussions of morality, for critical examination of social morality and collective argument. All such arguments happen in local communities (usually but not exclusively religious) and are then enacted unexmained in the public sphere.

As current developments since 11 September 2001 have illustrated, in all these projects this dominant power proceeds in its (now for the first time structurally unendable) war against ‘evil’ and for ‘good,’ not by rule-bound but by decision-bound principles, not in the framework of recognized international law and human rights norms, but unilaterally, even if supported at the time by an alleged ‘coalition of the wililng’ of individual staes. This policy of voluntaristic coalition-building may be understood as precisely a resurrection of the spirit of voluntary sects and local associations on the plane of international politics. (41)

Connecting ‘habits of the heart’ or customs of a society to the behaviors of its federal state and its government is a tricky endeavor. Inevitably the generalizations can serve to overwhelm the specificity and, especially in America, the diversity and conflict among competing ideas. On one hand, I found myself nodding in amazement at Offe’s analysis: yes, dT saw the possible weakness or tendency toward despotism (loss of liberty) in American ‘equality’ but his antidote was too weak. But something about Offe’s focus on religious community is bothersome to me. Indeed, in what I wrote above, I’ve already gone beyond Offe’s actual argument and expanded it in ways that move past religious communities in terms of the location of morality-formation. What I suppose bothers me is the tenuous connection between the religious communities and voluntary associations and the enactment of that morality. It seems particularly clear in George W. Bush that he is uncritically enacting quasi-religious moralities in his conceptions of America’s role in the world. And while I agree with Offe that American electorate likes (for the moment) its religiosity in the Executive, I also think this represents a particular historical moment in American history, post 1973.

Obviously, the American state lacks the power to enact major social programs that would or could serve to integrate the society; and its legislature and executive are limited in ways that are regressive from a European perspective. But equally obviously, at the empirical level, the kinds of moralities that get enacted in the government are hotly contested. Even GWB’s war on terror, though initially immensely popular, was contested from the beginning. While the system may allow someone like GWB to emerge, I’m not sure that it necessarily would have led to those particular values.

On the other hand, I can see the frontier mentality and Manifest Destiny enacted throughout American foreign policy since the 1850s, leading to America’s particular kind of imperialism, a kind of indirect empire. And I definitely see the values Offe critiques (i.e., America as missionary of democracy, as the scion of ‘the good’) as having been continually enacted for 150 years now–but never unilaterally and always with a great deal of controversy and cultural battles, beginning with the Mexican War and coming all the way forward to the War in Iraq.

Ultimately Offe’s theory fails to explain why, despite the massive resistance from the people (often the majority of people, as in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and Vietnam), those particular values get enacted by the government. In other words, it doesn’t explain why the American executive behaves as Offe accurately describes, despite the fact the morals arising out of the people don’t necessarily match or support its action. Yes, we have the habit of the heart of our voluntary association, yes that leaves a void where social integration is concerned; but why did one particular set of values become the dominant one expressed in the foreign policy of the American state, even in the face of opposition from its people?

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