Democracy in America


Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 34 Summary & Analysis

Tocqueville suggests that manufacturing may actually, in turn, end up bringing people back to aristocracy. As a workman applies himself exclusively to a single task, such as making heads for pins, he becomes ever more skilled at that task but ever less industrious or intelligent in anything else. His place in society is fixed and he becomes more dependent and narrow-minded; but at the same time, his employer grows wealthy off his limited expertise and better able to survey the whole, rather than the detail. The differences between worker and master continue to increase: each grows accustomed to either obeying or commanding—a commercial form of aristocracy.
Tocqueville’s analysis and predictions are complex; they are some of his most prescient and astute observations. Just as he has been warning of the tyranny that might result not from a single despot but from majority power, here he suggests that the extension of manufacturing, which one might think preferable to a feudal regime, may end up only increasing the gap between rich and poor and re-creating aristocratic lack of freedom.
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Tocqueville adds that as equality of condition increases, the demand for manufactured commodities rises too; as masses grow more democratic, then, the manufacturing class in particular grows more aristocratic. However, this aristocracy will be new and unique. It will be an exception to the general state of democracy; while the class of the poor is fixed, the rich either lose their fortunes or abandon business once they’ve made a fortune—so the wealthy never create a definite class. There’s also no bond between them and the poor, since their position is relative rather than caste- or territory-based (as in the past). The manufacturing aristocracy arising now, Tocqueville warns, is one of the harshest that’s ever existed: while it’s confined and thus less dangerous, the “friends of democracy” should keep their eyes on it as a potential threat.
Continuing his analysis, Tocqueville turns from production to consumption, arguing that the increasing demand for cheap commodities—and the increased purchasing power of the members of the rising middle class—will feed the power and wealth of the manufacturing class even more. Even as he identifies the ways this class resembles an earlier aristocracy, he’s also quick to point out the peculiar nature this new class will take on in a democracy. Tocqueville’s warning about the power of wealthy businessmen would also prove strikingly prescient for our own times.
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