Soft Despotism 101: An Introduction for the Softly Despotized

Once, while discussing Brave New World with a Korean student, I introduced Alexis de Tocqueville’s incisive warning of a new political danger simmering within the age of modern liberalism, a tyrannical form of democratic paternalism which he evocatively named “soft despotism.” The aptness of this contextual discussion was obvious, for at its best, Huxley’s dystopian novel is little more than a progress report on the practical realization of Tocqueville’s speculative hypothesis.

My student, curious to learn more about this revelatory idea, subsequently undertook some investigations of her own, via the internet. The first thing she discovered was that there was virtually nothing available on the topic in her native language, a fact which was as predictable as it is sad, since Korean democracy manifests so much of Huxley’s vision of smiling, sunny social control — soft despotism in its sanitized, technocratic form. Next, she came upon a few English YouTube videos purporting to offer straightforward synopses of Tocqueville’s idea, but found their explanations either so soaked in airy academic abstractions as to be incomprehensible to a non-specialist, or so loosely conversational as to be useless as sources of historical and philosophical perspective. (For a typical example of the latter — the vacuous, presupposition-bloated blather that passes for political philosophy in our soundbite era — you may waste four minutes of your life here.)

The dearth of helpful contemporary accounts of this famous concept is no mere coincidence, of course, but is rather symptomatic of the most pernicious temporal effect of the suffocating government “benevolence” Tocqueville predicted. For the main problem with the usual popular explanations of soft despotism — and the problem is only heightened by the snobbish vocabulary of the more academic formulations — is that a world which is itself so deeply rooted in the thoughts and feelings of a fully-established, globalized soft despotism no longer imbues its citizens with the ready-to-hand historical and emotional context required to comprehend the significance of Tocqueville’s warning. Put simply, how do you explain the danger of a subtle, life-altering shift away from the psychology of the self-governing community of individuals, to an audience that has been raised in the aftermath of this very shift — a population whose psyche has already been so fundamentally altered?

The purpose of political structure, from the point of view of human nature, is to maintain a social framework for protecting and promoting a community’s highest aspirations or ideals. There are, in broad outline, two basic models of aspiration toward which history’s viable civil societies have been directed: virtue (human excellence) and freedom (self-determination). I leave aside aims such as efficiency (productivity) and conquest (brute force), although these have been the practical motives of many real governments throughout history, because these are never the genuine aspirations of a citizenry at large, but only of a ruler or ruling class, which means that a political community structured along either of these lines is in no sense answering to the will of the people, properly speaking, but rather only serving the perceived advantage of the strong, against the will and best interests of the citizenry. That is to say, productive efficiency and military conquest are naturally subsidiary concerns which may well be means to or byproducts of the primary social aims, but must never be allowed to become primary aims in themselves. In political structures forged for the sake of efficiency or conquest, i.e., those in which either productivity or military might is the overarching goal, the rulers are not serving any rational interest of the population, but rather using the people, often by means of various forms of emotional manipulation, as mere instruments of the ruler’s ends — molding them into an irrational crowd, rather than a community of responsible individuals — which means such societies are essentially unjust, if justice has anything to do with advancing the good of a political community.

In theory, every community has to make a choice, implicitly or explicitly, as to which of the two basic human aspirations — excellence or self-determination, i.e., virtue or freedom — will ultimately guide the formation of its societal rules, hierarchies, and norms, as well as determining the specific role and powers of its governing entity. For example, an aristocracy, properly understood, is directed toward the promotion of virtue; a democracy, toward the promotion of freedom.

In essence, it was the balancing of these two natural human aspirations, virtue and freedom, that led Aristotle, philosophy’s master of moderation, to develop his argument for a polity or constitutional republic, in which elements of the aristocratic quest for permanent norms of human excellence are combined with humanity’s natural desire for individual self-determination. Aristotle’s wish, however, though supremely reasonable and quintessentially civilized, seems to hold within it the seed of its own deterioration — which Plato taught us would be true of any practical political arrangement, humans being the inherently weak and imperfect beings that they are.

Despotism in general is an unjust regime ruling the citizens by force for its own benefit, against the people’s will. A despotism might be led by one powerful person or by a group of men who share control of the state’s apparatus. For example, Kim Jong-un is a despot who rules alone. The Thirty Tyrants who governed Athens briefly at the end of the Peloponnesian War are an example of despotism by committee or faction.

Normally, we think a despot is unjust merely because his rule neither answers to the self-governing will of the people nor serves the community’s best interests in any other way. He neither protects liberty nor advances human excellence; in fact, despots are actively opposed to both, perceiving them as threats to power. Furthermore, a despot, as normally understood, is never in any sense chosen by the people — or, to be more precise, he is never chosen as a despot, although a man may become overtly despotic after being elevated to power through popular support, as in the case of a demagogue who promises to rescue the people from some form of oppression, only to use his popularity to impose new forms of oppressive corruption.

The simple point of distinction between despotism (rulers not chosen by the people) and democracy (rulers chosen by the people) would seem, on the surface, to suggest that a society could never fully succumb to the indignities of despotism as long as it maintained its democratic institutions. In other words, the certainty that “we can vote them out” appears to be a strong protection against truly tyrannical expansions or abuses of governmental power. However, as Tocqueville sensed, this appearance of safety itself might be the one weakness that could be exploited by ambitious rulers within a democratic context — a consideration which led him to develop his notion of “soft despotism.”

What if the people elected their leaders, but the leaders, regardless of party, governed as despots due to a form of institutionalized tyranny that resided permanently below the surface of electoral politics? In other words, what if the people lost almost all of their individual rights and freedom, except that they were still allowed to vote for the leaders every four or five years? They would continue to believe they lived in a free society because they had voted to choose their rulers, and could “vote them out,” but in every other way their real situation would be similar to people living under the more typical sort of tyranny, because they would have lost both any true equality of self-determination and any rational hierarchy of excellence.

“But,” we might ask, “why would a previously free people allow their leaders to rule over them as despots, and continue to vote for this predicament?”

Tocqueville’s answer is his brilliant discovery, or rather his ingenious practical extrapolation on Plato’s critique of the democratic soul in The Republic, as applied to the real American democracy he admired, and had spent months investigating in person. They would do it in the names of comfort and security.

In a classical liberal society, individuals have a great deal of freedom to live and work as they wish, and every citizen has the same rights of self-determination, i.e., equality. The freedom creates practical and economic benefits for everyone by means of the profit motive and the protection of private property, benefits such as the Industrial Revolution, technological development, and general wellbeing through increased wages and many new kinds of work; and the equality allows every person to develop his own interests and follow his own aspirations. Tocqueville, however, recognized that this attractive combination of prosperity and equal rights had gradually created a new, special danger.

Wealth makes people comfortable, but in doing so it also makes them excessively attached to their comfort, and therefore excessively concerned about losing it. And the practical and material freedom to pursue their own private interests will lead most people to increasingly follow the imperatives of comfort and personal pleasure, rather than sober reasoning and concern for the public interest, since most people are neither moderate nor consistently rational, particularly to the degree that material advantage holds the decisive vote in their souls.

This increased focus on satisfying their individual desires, together with the comfort and security that wealth brings, will diminish people’s feelings of mutual obligation and personal responsibility, in effect making them self-absorbed and materialistic. They will gradually become less concerned with what is good for the community as a whole (freedom and equality guided by shared notions of the good), and more concerned with what they want (comfort, pleasure) and, more importantly, what they fear (losing their comforts and pleasures).

In short, the people become morally weak. They no longer have the taste or character for facing necessary but burdensome responsibilities, such as protecting their community, looking after their neighbors, or educating their children. They are eager to avoid such burdens as far as possible, in order to stay immersed in their amusements, their material enrichments, their personal fulfillments, and their private enthusiasms.

Clever political operators, seeing how the citizens are becoming detached from public life and excessively motivated by their own comfort, devise a model of political rhetoric and public palliation to take advantage of this general moral drift into confusing immediate advantage with rational self-interest.

“If you vote for me,” they promise, “I will keep your property safe, I will make our society more peaceful, I will take care of the poor, and I will educate your children, so you don’t have to worry about these problems anymore.”

In order to fulfill these promises, they will pass new laws that limit individual choice and self-determination in “small” ways. They will also raise taxes, and create more intrusive new forms of taxation, to pay for the new government programs and the vast administrative state apparatus required to manage these programs. And they will do this slowly, incrementally, divesting the citizens of their proper responsibilities — the natural duties of free citizens trying to live together for mutual benefit — step by step, at each stage representing this shift from individual responsibility to government control as a lessening of some of the unnecessary and unpleasant burdens of social life, which will, they promise, allow the individual more practical freedom to indulge himself, while sustaining the same community benefits, or even enhancing and broadening them, by means of expanded state institutions (and corresponding powers), thus ensuring that “nothing valuable is lost,” and therefore “there is nothing to fear.”

If done compassionately and gradually enough, the citizens, rather than thinking, “Wait! The government is violating my private property,” will think, “I’m glad my government is responsive to our needs, such as taking care of the poor and providing equal opportunity for all, so I don’t have to worry about these complicated problems.”

Instead of thinking, “I don’t want the government indoctrinating my children — I have a right to raise them as I wish,” people come to feel, “It’s so convenient that I can send my kids to free government schools, so I don’t have to take care of them all day, and so I can be confident that they are not missing out on all the new knowledge and skills required in our changing economy.”

Instead of thinking, “Our freedom is worth defending at all costs,” they will think, “I’m happy to give up a little of my abstract, hard-to-define freedom in exchange for the peace and security that our benevolent representatives in government are offering to provide for us.”

Hence, step by voluntary step, people relinquish more and more of their self-determination, they have less practical control of their own property, they sacrifice the freedom to raise their own children. Meanwhile, the government develops a thousand little laws to guide and determine “correct” behavior, eventually making virtue more a matter of obeying the rules than of developing good character, of submission and compliance rather than salvation and self-reliance. Increasingly, the people have given up the right to assert most of the self-governing authority that makes humans truly free in political terms.

They are, however, still permitted to make day-to-day decisions about their pleasures and amusements — what to eat, where to travel during the vacation, how to make money, how to entertain themselves, and so on. And because people have long since become focused primarily on such comforts and pleasures as the ruling aims of their souls, they easily fall into mistaking the state’s permission to make such day-to-day decisions for liberty, and even into confusing the increasing array of acceptable “lifestyle options” available to people detached from any principles of morality or wisdom with an enhancement of liberty, as though living without any guiding notions of human meaning or purpose constituted a freer kind of life.

Their lives are now controlled or manipulated by an all-powerful government in every important way. But they gave up their freedom freely, by choice. They voted for it. Because they still participate in multi-party elections, they do not realize that they are just as surely enslaved as any people ruled by an iron-fisted tyrant, i.e., that their “freely elected government” is as powerful as any tyrant, and they, correspondingly, as powerless as any tyrannized people. And because they live for ease and pleasure, they do not rebel against their limiting conditions, which were pitched to them as a guarantor of comfort, so the society remains “peaceful.” People believe they are happy if they have amusement, wealth, and relative physical security. Everyone works at his job, enjoys his dinner, plays his private games, and consumes the necessary moral and intellectual soporifics (alcohol, drugs, recreational sex, popular idols, mass entertainments) so that he never falls into thinking about why he is living on these terms, or whether there might be a better way. Society is reduced to perfect utilitarianism — little more than an efficient industrial process, comparable to a factory, with everyone performing his proper role, passively and largely without significant complaint, certainly not the kind of complaint that would threaten to fundamentally alter the despotic institutions.

Tocqueville believed this was the most likely way that a free republic would destroy itself. A prosperous and successful democracy, tamed by a life of comfort and security, would not easily allow its freedom to be overwhelmed by a traditional tyrant through force. It would, however, willingly give up its freedom incrementally, to a professional committee of quasi-benign tyrants (or their spokesmen), in the name of increased comfort and security. And as long as the people continued to be permitted to vote for their representative administrators periodically, they would easily be persuaded that they were still free. Persuading adults of almost anything is relatively simple, as Huxley’s fiction nicely demonstrates, if you have previously raised those adults from childhood according to your own notions, and limited their thinking in accordance with your own goals, and if, in addition, you are careful never to seem to be reducing the supply of the people’s most cherished goods, pleasure and safety.

Tocqueville called this hypothetical condition of tyranny with invisible chains and happily obedient slaves “soft despotism.” Huxley, one century later, saw this condition developing in progressive late modernity and imagined it as the precursor to a scientifically micromanaged, all-controlling World State.

Today, we may simply call this condition “us.”

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