alexis-de-tocqueville-2.jpg

Tocqueville in China

For the last few weeks, I have been hunkered down, madly trying to finish a book on early Sparta. I had intended to finish it this past August. But due to circumstances beyond my control I spent the better part of that month in the hospital at the National Institutes of Health — far, far away from the books I needed to consult again and again. I managed, nonetheless, to get a draft done — apart from the conclusion — by the end of Thanksgiving. But, as anyone who has ever published a book knows, there is a considerable different between finishing a draft and finishing a manuscript sufficiently polished that you are willing to send it to your publisher, and in December and early January I wrote, rewrote, and re-organized the cussed thing until my head began to spin. Until you become obsessed, you cannot kill the monster.

Since then, I have been no less madly focused on getting ready to teach two semi-new courses this term — one a survey of ancient Greek history from primeval slime through Alexander (a course I have not taught in that form for thirty-five years), and the second a graduate seminar on Machiavelli — the man who gave the devil his moniker “Old Nick.”

TocquevilleAncienRegime.jpgA friend, however, sent me a link today to an article that arrested my attention — and, since the news it reports is likely to pass unnoticed if I do not draw attention to it, I am going to pause for a moment to comment.

For more than thirty years, at meetings of the Institute of Current Affairs (of which I was once a fellow and later chairman of the board), I have been arguing that China would eventually come apart at the seams. During that period, the People’s Republic embarked on a path to commercial development that flew in the face of the indoctrination that the Communist Party in China had drummed into the long-suffering people of that country for the previous four decades. The contradiction between what the party had preached and what it came to practice could not have been more flagrant, and it seemed to me that it was, in the process, subverting its own legitimacy.

All that it would take, I argued, would be an economic downturn — and the place would blow up. Beneath the surface, deep resentment of the inequalities that came with economic growth was becoming pervasive, and this resentment was bound to be reinforced by the fact that — given the level of government control and the profound familial orientation of traditional Chinese culture — the party would quickly turn into a crony-capitalist cabal, as the descendants of famous communist revolutionaries enriched themselves and displayed their ill-gotten lucre in ostentatiously obnoxioux ways. All of this might be tolerated as long as rapid economic growth continued and nearly everyone profited. But, I contended, if and when a contraction takes place, if and when unemployment grows, if and when the dreams of ordinary Chinese are dashed, there will be hell to pay.

The model I suggested was eighteenth-century France, and the book to read was Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterpiece The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, which argued that, for a considerable time prior to the French Revolution, things had been getting markedly better for the French, not worse. What happened in and after 1789, Tocqueville argued, was a revolution of rising expectations — expectations that eventuated in disappointment. By 1789, next to no one believed in the legitimacy of the old order. It drew support solely from the fact that things were getting better all the time.

I mention all of this — not only because I think and have long thought the analogy apt, but because I am clearly no longer alone. The article to which I linked above indicates that Tocqueville’s minor masterpiece is now the rage in China and that senior figures in the Communist Party there are recommending that party functionaries read it.

Take this piece of information and ruminate on it, and consider it in light of the recent scandals — which threatened to reach into the Politburo itself. If Tocqueville’s book is being read, it is because at least some of the men who rule China are wondering whether their country is near a tipping point — in which a seemingly minor event (the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, for example) sets off a conflagration.

Twenty-three years ago, at the time of Tiananmen Square, China very nearly came apart. Some Chinese, who know a lot more than I do about the state of affairs in their country, evidently think that it may do so again, and the very fact that are contemplating such a nightmare suggests that it may be on the horizon. If and when such a regime stops delivering the goods — even if only for a short time — there will be a fury unleashed.

  1. Randall Tinfow

    I have first hand experience with government officials who are silent partners. What’s striking is how this is the normal , accepted way of getting things done in a society where government has an outsized influence.Also worth noting is the heavy undercurrent of resentment between the urban middle class and what privileged Chinese disparagingly refer to as “country people,” often those outside of the Han ethnic majority.

  2. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    TeamAmerica: Prof. Rahe:

    Wouldn’t the Chinese gov’t be likely to start a war as a diversion, which would also be a way to deal with their population of surplus males. They might initiate a maritime conflict at first, perhaps with Vietnam, the Philippines or Taiwan. Obama’s displays of weakness might encourage this, since as Ike said, “Weakness, history has shown, is often provocative.” · 5 hours ago

    Edited 1 hour ago

    Yes, alas, yes.

  3. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Paul DeRocco: It’s hard to imagine Obama assigning Tocqueville as required reading for his politburo. · 5 hours ago

    Yes, it is quite a thought.

  4. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    All of these comments are thoughtful and pointed. Ah, Ricochet!

  5. Eric Rasmusen

    Or perhaps it is the Recollections that is relevant. Should they fear 1789 (utopians and mob viciously overthrow degenerate aristocracy and church and incompetent executive) or 1848 (first a popular revolution against a boring executive, then a coup by a would-be Great Man openly imitating a dictator of 50 years previously).

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37892/37892-h/37892-h.htm

  6. Cornelius Julius Sebastian

    I wonder how much it woud cost for us to send them a billion 45 vinyls of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”?

  7. Douglas Wingate
    Paul A. Rahe

    Since then, I have been no less madly focused on getting ready to teach two semi-new courses this term — one a survey of ancient Greek history from primeval slime through Alexander (a course I have not taught in that form for thirty-five years), and the second a graduate seminar on Machiavelli — the man who gave the devil his moniker “Old Nick.”

    Will you consider making audio or video recordings of the seminar on Machiavelli and making them available on the Web?

  8. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Douglas Wingate

    Paul A. Rahe

    Since then, I have been no less madly focused on getting ready to teach two semi-new courses this term — one a survey of ancient Greek history from primeval slime through Alexander (a course I have not taught in that form for thirty-five years), and the second a graduate seminar on Machiavelli — the man who gave the devil his moniker “Old Nick.”

    Will you consider making audio or video recordings of the seminar on Machiavelli and making them available on the Web? · 31 minutes ago

    In principle, yes. I am not sure how to go about it; and, of course, this would be a matter for the college to decide.

  9. The Mugwump

    I recall in the ’90′s when the Italian people voted their entire parliament out of office.  The clean sweep was something close to 100%.  An Italian psychiatrist gave an interview shortly thereafter.  His clients were all former politicians and his practice was booming.  He stated categorically that every client he was treating had entered politics for the graft.

    I’ve got to assume that what’s true for Italy is true everywhere else.  I don’t agree with the proverb that power corrupts.  I think it more likely that corrupt people are drawn to power for the filthy lucre.  Sociopaths like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama crave the attention, but most politicians seem to work in the shadows quietly amassing personal fortunes while they claim to serve the public.

    It seems to me that personal virtue should be a prerequisite for public office.  Of course, that would require a body politic that can recognize virtue.  What we have instead is a public that can be bribed by self-interest, or flattered, or otherwise manipulated.  There is a fundamental flaw in the belief that people can be self-governing.  The flaw is human nature for which nothing can be done.    

  10. Astonishing

    Fury indeed.

    I hope they learn from Tocqueville because one trembles thinking of Napoleon, the post-revolutionary disposition of Chinese nukes, the Arab Spring, and that famous misquoting of Chou En Lai misattributed to Mao.

    And, on a much happier note, who will purchase our debt?

  11. Illiniguy

    Paul Rahe: “Beneath the surface, deep resentment of the inequalities that came with economic growth was becoming pervasive, and this resentment was bound to be reinforced by the fact that — given the level of government control…the party would quickly turn into a crony-capitalist cabal, as the descendants of famous communist revolutionaries enriched themselves and displayed their ill-gotten lucre in ostentatiously obnoxioux ways… But, I contended, if and when a contraction takes place, if and when unemployment grows, if and when the dreams of ordinary Chinese are dashed, there will be hell to pay.”

    Doesn’t this sound like some other country we know? Aren’t we any less close to such a contraction and upheaval; isn’t our “crony-capitalist cabal” just as close to exploding as China’s?

  12. Jim Durbin

    I first read de Tocqueville my junior year in college.  It amazed me and inspired me, and I spent the better part of a decade basking in it and quoting it as a source of American exceptionalism.

    In 2009, my first Tea Party event, I realized something terrible.  de Tocqueville was no longer a source of inspiration, but a warning.  A dusty old tome from a long gone age. China is not the US.  If they are reading it, it’s too try to extend their run of good luck.  They have a far different history to draw upon, and if they’re using it for advice, it’s because they’ve come to where I have – a recognition of what was, not what will be.
  13. Stephen Hall

    China is like a crab. From the outside, it looks formidable. Beneath the hard shell it is all sponge. The regime has no real supporters. It is merely, and barely, tolerated. That toleration will vanish once the rate of economic growth slows to the point that unemployment begins to rise.

    Official corruption is also a major issue for ordinary Chinese. Few Chinese are untouched by the massive and routine venality of party bosses and government officials. There is a Chinese-style popular fury brewing, of which the CCP leadership is all too aware. ”President”-”elect” Xi Jinping has openly stated that popular anger at corruption already poses an existential threat to the communist regime.

    Occasionally, there is an anti-corruption crackdown. The result is that lower level officials are shot while higher ones are dismissed and possibly imprisoned. In each case, however, the punished individuals are on the losing side of some intra-CCP power struggle, and corruption is the crime of which they are publicly accused and convicted. As all party bosses and government officials engage in graft at least to some extent, corruption provides an easy pretext for disposing of political opponents. Everyone in China knows this.

  14. RushBabe49

    My impression is that the majority of the Chinese population is still in the “poor peasant” category in the hinterlands, and their lives don’t seem to have improved all that much (and may have been degraded by all the pollution, bad food, bad medicines, etc.).  Ticking time bomb, indeed.

    On another note, my impression of all communist, “godless” societies, is that their respect for individual human lives is very low, so it doesn’t really bother their governments much that their people suffer on a day-to-day basis.  This usually comes back to bite them.

  15. ctruppi

    ~Paules, as a native Italian, I can assure you that nothing has changed in that part of the world since one Julius Caeser invaded Gaul to enrich himself for power. Everything you write is absolutely true!As for China, they are a potential basket-case with nuclear weapons, an ageing population, a demographic crisis with too many males and a diminishing population. This is not a good recipe for stability. Right now they are practicing the economic equivalent of digging holes and refilling them with public works projects that have no economic viability besides keeping people employed. A huge percentage of Chinese “defense spending” is earmarked for internal policing. So maybe they’re taking this Tocqueville guy seriously.The fat lady is not singing yet regarding Chinese current status, but she’s definitely clearing her throat! Western governments all know about this house of cards but say nothing because the Chinese make cheap crap for us, buy our debt and natural resources (here’s looking at you Australia). When the house collapses, I wonder how long it will take for people to admit that they knew this was going to happen all along.

  16. TeamAmerica

    Prof. Rahe:

    Wouldn’t the Chinese gov’t be likely to start a war as a diversion, which would also be a way to deal with their population of surplus males. They might initiate a maritime conflict at first, perhaps with Vietnam, the Philippines or Taiwan. Obama’s displays of weakness might encourage this, since as Ike said, “Weakness, history has shown, is often provocative.”

  17. Paul DeRocco

    It’s hard to imagine Obama assigning Tocqueville as required reading for his politburo.

  18. Astonishing
    Paul A. Rahe

      . . . the second a graduate seminar on Machiavelli — the man who gave the devil his moniker “Old Nick.”

    Just curious. Do you think Machiavelli deserves his bad reputation? Or maybe an even worse one?

    With regard to that, it is my opinion (perhaps not original, but orignal to me) that Machiavelli believed himself to be The Prince, that is, The Prince par excellence–not the prince of a worldly estate exactly, but the prince of something much greater and grander–the prince whose ideas would rule forever over the minds of men. His competition was, one might suppose, Jesus.

  19. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Astonishing

    Paul A. Rahe

      . . . the second a graduate seminar on Machiavelli — the man who gave the devil his moniker “Old Nick.”

    Just curious. Do you think Machiavelli deserves his bad reputation? Or maybe an even worse one?

    With regard to that, it is my opinion (perhaps not original, but orignal to me) that Machiavelli believed himself to be The Prince, that is, The Prince par excellence–not the prince of a worldly estate exactly, but the prince of something much greater and grander–the prince whose ideas would rule forever over the minds of men. His competition was, one might suppose, Jesus. · 1 hour ago

    Yes, Old NIck and Jesus Christ were in his view rivals — unarmed prophets who had found another sort of arms. Machiavelli is even more provocative than he seems to be. I wrote a bit about him in Against Throne and Altar.

  20. Douglas Wingate
    Paul A. Rahe 

    In principle, yes. I am not sure how to go about it; and, of course, this would be a matter for the college to decide.

    Moreover, you already have lecture notes and discussion plans to finish, from which making the arrangements for recording and editing video would be a distraction. Maybe I should fall back to saying that if you’re amenable, and if one or more of your students have audio recording devices and are willing to make audio MP3 files or podcasts and put them on the web somewhere, you can extend your audience by at least one. :-)

    As for the college, Hillsdale’s public lecture series on the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (101 and 201) are evidence that some of your colleagues see publicly available lectures (at least of some sort and pitched at some level) as a means of outreach to the public. That circumstance seems to foretell that you could gain acceptance for whatever reasonable plans you and your students might devise.

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