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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.