Magazine article The Spectator

The Triumph of Bourgeois Complacency

Magazine article The Spectator

The Triumph of Bourgeois Complacency

Article excerpt

Nowadays I seem to spend my working life - regrettably a diminishing slice of my real life - desperately searching for some burning political issue (apart from foxhunting) to get hot under the collar about, or for a subject about which it is possible seriously to disagree. Dare I mention, in the same breath, that this was also Tocqueville's experience as a member of the French Assembly during the last ten years of the reign of King Louis Philippe.

Here is his explanation:

As all business was discussed among the members of one class, in the interests and spirit of that class, there was no battleground for contending parties to meet upon. The singular homogeneity of position, of interests, and consequently of views deprived parliamentary debate of all genuine passion ... In the political world thus constituted and conducted what was wanted most ... was political life itself ... The whole country grew accustomed to look upon debate in the Chamber as domestic quarrels between members of a family trying to trick one another. A few glaring instances of corruption led people to pre-suppose a number of hidden cases, and convinced them that the whole governing class was corrupt; when it conceived for the latter a silent contempt which was generally taken for contented submission.

As it happened, I came upon this quotation by chance. Looking along the shelves of the London Library for a biography of Tolstoy, my eye was caught by a volume entitled Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville which I had never read and did not know existed. Would a search for Tolstoy on the computer also produce such an unexpected prize? Not being able to work a computer, I would like to think not. In any case I forgot about Tolstoy and took out Tocqueville's Recollections. Wow, what a read! It is a quite unputdownable insider's account of the 1848 French Revolution which deposed Louis Philippe, and also of the few months spent by Tocqueville as foreign secretary in a subsequent short-lived republican administration under President Louis Napoleon - before he had turned himself into an emperor.

The single class Tocqueville was referring to, of course, was the bourgeoisie. By vanquishing the aristocracy and priesthood, and by executing one king and constitutionalising his successor, France had handed power, in effect, over to the bourgeoisie. But because the bourgeoisie was not a distinct and specific body, but rather an amorphous mass spreading up into the lower aristocracy and also down into the better-off peasants, it was almost impossible to tackle. Hence the languor of the people who no longer had identifiable enemies to pursue. Enrichissez-vous was the order of the day. It was not an oppressive or violent rule; nor even, by the standards of the 19th century, one that bore down with any unusual severity on the poor. Rather the opposite. The poor were also getting richer. In spite of this, or even, as Tocqueville believed, because of it, parliamentary life was lifeless, dull, small-minded, 'more like an insurance company looking after the interests of the shareholders' than a government 'firing the aspirations of great nation'.

Soon enough, of course, as Tocqueville goes on to say, socialism, by threatening private property, put adrenalin back into the body politic. But the period Tocqueville describes so revealingly was in the interval between the end of the monarchical-aristocratic era and the dawn of the socialist era, during which the whole of French politics was circumscribed by what was not so much bourgeois triumphalism as bourgeois complacency. …

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