Political Freedom: Arendt and de Tocqueville
Freedom in America emanates from the state of political freedom held by the citizens. Both Hannah Arendt and Alexis de Tocqueville provide criticism of the apparent shape freedom maintains in America as well as insight regarding how they perceive true political freedom. By using the observations and criticisms of de Tocqueville and the vision of Arendt, the position of modern America and its relation to the ideals of political freedom can be understood.
It is necessary to understand de Tocqueville’s observation of equality in order to make the distinction of democracy and how freedom relates to it. According to de Tocqueville, democracy requires an initial ingredient of civil equality. Civil equality is the absence of social divisions and barriers. The necessity of equality then leads to individuals and the deconstruction of community bonds. This occurs because the presence of community requires separate social classes and dependencies based on the class relations. De Tocqueville says, ?equality places men side by side, unconnected by any common tie? (de Tocqueville 194). Individuals’ needs and desires in society evolve into individualism and the further pursuit of one’s self-interest. Political liberties and freedoms are thus sacrificed in attempts to satisfy the private appetite for personal gains. De Tocqueville maintains that,
Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtue of public life; but, in the long run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.
(De Tocqueville 193)
Such selfish disassociation from society equates to tyranny of the majority under the despotic rule of centralized government because citizens no longer find reason or a feeling of responsibility in terms of a public realm that offers no direct personal reward. The collapse of public responsibilities is rooted in the growth of private desires.
Alexis de Tocqueville takes democracy down a miserable path where citizens become divided and governments become despotic and centralized. The morals of society collapse, connections dissolve between citizens, and freedom produces private animosities, but despotism gives birth to general indifference (de Tocqueville 195). Democracy in America does not end in despotic centralization; it concludes with the realization of the need for political freedom and the insinuation of power into the citizens through associations. In order to combat the evils which equality may produce, there is only one effectual remedy, –namely, political freedom (de Tocqueville 197). Political salvation in America does not seep from the national government, nor does it fester within the states themselves. De Tocqueville recognizes associations, which are the political forces beyond the sphere of institutional government, as the necessary means of preserving political power of the majority and political freedom in democracy.
If men living in democratic countries had no right and no inclination to associate for political purposes, there independence would be in great jeopardy; but they might long preserve their wealth and their cultivation; whereas, if they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered.
(De Tocqueville 199)
Associations offer salvation where governments fail to preserve themselves. Without politics beyond the government there cannot be politics within the government except for absolute despotism.
For Arendt, the circumstances that inhibit political freedom and those that establish it are of equal importance. This helps in developing the necessary means involved in obtaining political freedom. There ?should be no reason for us to mistake civil rights for political freedom, or to equate these preliminaries of civilized government with the very substance of a free republic (Arendt 220). Arendt has established civil rights as an entity separate from political freedom. Civil rights apply to liberation and not political freedom, because civil rights do not necessarily assume the presence of freedom. Civil rights can be granted to a population under the rule of a tyrant in the form of a law, but when the population is not part of the formation of such a law then political freedom does not exist.
According to Arendt, the presence of poverty further suppresses the possibility of political freedom. If individuals are forced to focus their efforts towards the fulfillment of biological needs such as food and shelter then they cannot possibly be political. Capitalism also prevents the existence of Arendt’s political freedom because capitalism is based on consumption. When the members of society are focused on obtaining goods and material possessions they become equally preoccupied as individuals engulfed in poverty. Capitalism creates greed and unnecessary needs and desires that inhibit political freedom. Political freedom requires an absence of as many social conditions as it does a presence of other conditions.
Arendt puts forth not only criticism of past governments, but also the criteria she deems essential for a society to be politically free. She insinuates that society, in order to be politically free, needs to first be liberated from the constraints of aristocracy. Arendt asserts ?that liberation may be the condition of freedom but by no means leads automatically to it(Arendt 29). Liberation has more to do with obtaining civil rights than it does with practicing political freedom. For Arendt, political freedom means the right to be a participator in government, or it means nothing (Arendt 218).
Political freedom, as discussed in The Revolutionary Tradition and Its Lost Treasure, obliges the presence of a population who thinks in terms of we rather than I. When all members of a society strive for a better community, thinking in terms of the populace, they will be able to exist politically free. Shifting the focus of the individual from the private interests created under capitalism to a public concern necessary for political freedom, more will be done to benefit society as a whole. Learning to escape the private realm and understand the public is to understand the possibility of a greater good found in working together rather than many separate smaller goods held by only certain individuals. Individuals with separate personal goods allow for the existence of individuals with their own separate failure and lack of essential good.
The concept of greater good versus private good is easily explained through the examination of any system where separate individuals work together to produce a good that can only be created collectively. Think about a kitchen in a gourmet restaurant. There are numerous chefs working on specific tasks. Each chef needs the abilities of the other chefs to compliment his or her own abilities because the final entr?e is not complete without the contribution of the entire kitchen staff. The chef responsible for making sauces may create a fabulous sauce, but it is a failure if he or she has nothing on which to put the sauce. Arendt sees how working together can provide a far greater benefit than working alone; this principle holds true in politics just as it does in the kitchen.
De Tocqueville’s observation of the potential political power of associations opens a window of opportunity regarding political freedom. Arendt rules out the possibility of freedom when citizens lack involvement in the government. To be a participator in politics does not necessarily require an individual to be a participator in government. Political power is not confined to the government, nor is it necessary for political decisions to spawn from within the governmental confines. It is de Tocqueville’s realization of the association in America and its potential as a powerful political entity that creates the possibility of achieving political freedom. Arendt’s vision is implying a political state where power is limited in the Federal Government, and it is de Tocqueville who recognized the loss of citizen power through centralized government as a harmful consequence of modern democracy. So, to take the present form of government in America and bring it closer to the ideals established by Arendt and de Tocqueville would require the decentralization of the federal government, reinstating more power in the individual states as well as the cities within those states. This does not imply that it is necessary to weaken the military power found in such a strong federal government, but merely that there are certain issues that are better off being dealt with in a smaller vicinity of territory. The association has the potential of becoming the true voice of the citizens of America, the realm of political freedom in the present where it so often seems that the political power of the majority exists only on the day of election. By maintaining the process of representation but limiting the power of representatives, America has the potential to restore the freedom that founded our nation.
Reinstatement of the power of the majority of the citizens requires more than a mere reduction of structured government power; it requires a desire of the citizens themselves. I propose that the representatives should hold solely the responsibility of putting the laws, regulations, and rights into effect, not actually proposing and writing such legislature. The proposition and writing of legislature needs to rise from the majority of citizens if it is ever to be followed and endorsed by those same citizens. The associations are where such legislature needs to be devised and proposed to other citizens. It is already recognizable that political power and influence exists outside of the government; one needs only look at the NRA and the NAACP to understand this potential. If permitted, such associations, as well as numerous others, could provide a means of citizen representation far more efficiently than a centralized government. This improvement in efficiency is due to the fact that all laws are not always the right laws for all people in all parts of the country.
The process of citizen representation through associations has multiple possibilities. Petitions can be used as a means for associations to gain citizen support for the issues at hand. With the Internet as well as the centralized living in America it would not be difficult for groups to contact other members of the community and approach them regarding a certain issue. If the associations acquired a majority support in a given area then the issue would become policy or law and the representatives would the institute the law or policy as it was devised by the association.
So it is understood that political freedom is a possibility in America. I have taken the understanding of de Tocqueville and Arendt and applied their principles and visions to formulate and understand where America is in the present and where America needs to head if political freedom is to become a reality. I understand that this vision, my own vision, is very rough and is vulnerable to much criticism, but it must be realized what potential exists in America. Arendt and Tocqueville have paved the road to political freedom; now it is up to the citizens to travel that road and obtain the freedom that founded our nation.