Tocqueville's Political Economy

By Richard Swedberg | Go to book overview

Chapter Ten
THE ECONOMY OF THE OLD WORLD

NEXT TO Democracy in America, it is in Tocqueville's work on the French Revolution that one can find his most sustained as well as most creative analysis of the economy. Tocqueville's work on the French Revolution is typically identified with what he has to say on this topic in The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). In this chapter I will also discuss two additional writings by Tocqueville on the same theme: his essay “Political and Social Conditions of France” (1836) and the set of notes that are today known as the second volume of The Old Regime.

There are interesting similarities as well as differences between “Political and Social Conditions of France” and The Old Regime, both in terms of the general analysis and the analysis of the economy. And despite its fragmentary nature, volume 2 of The Old Regime contains some tantalizing hints about the way that Tocqueville would have analyzed France during the years from 1789 onward. Again, this is true both when it comes to society in general and its economic dimension.

Just as Democracy in America contains nothing of interest when it comes to economic phenomena, according to some well-known commentators, there are those who argue that this is also true for Tocqueville's analysis of the French Revolution. François Furet, in particular, has taken this position in his well-known book Interpreting the French Revolution, in which he also proclaims The Old Regime to be the best work ever written on the French Revolution. He says, for example, that in The Old Regime “the economic development of French society… is ignored as a factor in its own right.”1 And if Tocqueville happens to touch on an economic topic, “his economic analysis is always superficial and vague.”2

These types of arguments, as I shall try to show in this chapter, are not correct. The Old Regime does consider economic development as a factor in its own right, and its analysis of economic phenomena is not superficial and vague. What then accounts for Furet's charges? Much has to do with the fact that Furet draws on a much too restricted and conventional view of what constitutes “the economy” and “economic phenomena.” A key purpose of this chapter is therefore to show that Tocqueville's analysis in The Old Regime, just as in Democracy in America, contains a suggestive analysis of economic phenomena—and that this becomes clear if one accepts a broader view of what constitutes economic analysis.

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