…Tocqueville marveled at the way Americans – in contrast, he thought, to continental Europeans – participated in countless associations and thereby breathed life into their democracy. Instead of appealing to a state authority to solve their problems, Americans founded an association, taking their lives into their own hands and working for the common good. For these reasons, freedom of association, even more than freedom of the press, was, for Tocqueville, one of the most important political rights. It is the practical advantage an active citizenry brings to a polity – in addition to the freedom of commerce and the press and the right to property and free elections – that contemporary political theorists attribute to ‘civil society’.
But Tocqueville was interested in more than the associations’ purely practical significance. Tocqueville continued the tradition in classical political theory that investigates the impact a form of government has on its citizens and their virtue and measures the quality of the government accordingly. His primary concern was not just the political constitution of a polity, but rather the ‘constitution of the souls’ the polity produces. In other words, he was concerned with the social and moral basis of politics and, hence, of democratic governance.
Tocqueville considered human feelings and the process of their formation more significant for politics than rationally thought-out rights and interests. He was convinced that ‘state were not defined by their laws, but rather from their origins by the feelings, thought processes, ideas, and hearts and minds of their inhabitants’. As an ‘aristocratic liberal’, Tocqueville shared scepticism about the coming democratic age with his contemporaries John Stuart Mill and Jacob Burckhardt. He considered himself, in the words of Wilhelm Hennis, an ‘historian of the soul’, an analyst of the order and disorder of human souls in the age of democracy. The decisive question for Tocqueville was how to avoid, particularly in a democracy, the impoverishment of citizens’ souls that would lead to despotism. The Terror of the French Revolution was never far from his thoughts.
Tocqueville saw an answer to this danger in voluntary associations. According to Tocqueville, only in sociable interaction could people develop their ideas and enlarge their hearts. This interaction, which was subordinated to strict rules in corporate societies, had to be brought to life voluntarily in a democracy – something only associations could bring about. Tocqueville believed that the most significant associations in this regard are those that remain purely sociable and exist to improve their member’s mores and manners and to enrich their emotional lives. Such associations are much more significant than those that promoted explicitly political or commercial purposes. Only those associations that are – at least at first glance – non-political and above special interests can free their members from selfishness and create new bonds in modern, egalitarian societies. These are precisely the bonds that play such an important role in Tocqueville’s political thought. ‘Among the laws that rule human societies’. Writes Tocqueville, ’there is one that seems more precise and clearer than all others. In order that men remain civilized or become so, the art of associating must be developed and perfected among them in the same ratio as equality or conditions increases’. Conversely, he thought, if the bonds between individuals loosen, democracy’s political foundation will erode. The less citizens practice the art of association, the greater the toll on their civility and the greater likelihood that equality will degenerate into despotism….
Excerpt from Steffan-Ludwig Hoffmann (2006), Civil Society.