Is Civil Society Strong Enough to Withstand the Menace of Democratic Despotism? - Part 2
(Click here for the first instalment of this series on civil society and democratic despotism).
According to French democratic theorist Alex de Tocqueville (1805-1859), the democratic spirit, and the democratic State buoyed up by a narrative of popular sovereignty, pose a grave threat to the integrity and vibrancy of associational life beyond the State. This is so because citizens immersed in a democratic culture are predisposed to place such a blind faith in the authority of “the people” and its agents, that they can tolerate, and even become complicit in, the suppression of non-State associations by the government, just because it purports to represent the will of “the people” as a whole, which is perceived, and felt, to be the highest authority in a democratic society.
Furthermore, actors with a democratic mandate are not confronted with powerful rivals with the sort of clout, de facto power, and public prestige that princes, lords, and bishops enjoyed in a more aristocratic era. On the contrary, many citizens are relatively naked and defenceless before the modern democratic State – and even when they do associate with each other, if they do not manage to gather a very large number of fellow citizens into a common enterprise, their enterprises can be crushed or brought into line with official State ideology and policy with relative ease. Who, after all, may successfully stand their ground before the power and majesty of the “sovereign people” and the “people’s parliament”? Who may resist the disciplines of the burgeoning administrative state?
Potential Resources for Resisting Democratic Despotism
Under these circumstances, what precisely is it that stands in the way of democratic despotism, or the tyranny of the majority? What resources do citizens have to defend their associations, from schools and universities to businesses and philanthropic associations, against the threats of administrative colonisation at best, or outright suppression at worst, by governmental agencies acting in the name of the people? Tocqueville does not seem to address this question in a systematic way. Nonetheless, putting the pieces together, we can infer at least three Tocquevillian convictions that can guide us toward an answer:
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