Materialism and Militarism: De Tocqueville on America's Hopeless Hurry to Happiness

ABSTRACT - The purpose of this poster session paper is to use the single example of de Tocqueville's Democracy in America to highlight three points often overlooked by scholars and journalists currently interested in materialism. The first is that American materialism is not a phenomenon of recent affluence, recent commercialization of culture, or recent political leadership. Materialism was one of the most notable traits of U.S. society in the early 19th century, 150 years before the appearance of contemporary correlates of materialism now cited as its causes. The second point is that there are internal dynamics to human values that allow predictions of certain consequences for certain values. By de Tocqueville's analysis, egalitarianism hold in contrast to hierarchical class structure will result in materialism, and mass materialism will result in recourse to mysticism. The third point is that there are cultural and political consequences to materialistic values that go quite beyond private consumer concerns and life-style decisions. Materialists necessarily we hurried and therefore seek quick solutions and are easily frustrated. At personal and political levels, such people are prone to violence and restrain themselves only when the costs of violence are high.



Citation:

Floyd W. Rudmin (1992) ,"Materialism and Militarism: De Tocqueville on America's Hopeless Hurry to Happiness", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 110-112.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 110-112

MATERIALISM AND MILITARISM: DE TOCQUEVILLE ON AMERICA'S HOPELESS HURRY TO HAPPINESS

Floyd W. Rudmin, School of Business/Faculty of Law, Queen's University, Canada

ABSTRACT -

The purpose of this poster session paper is to use the single example of de Tocqueville's Democracy in America to highlight three points often overlooked by scholars and journalists currently interested in materialism. The first is that American materialism is not a phenomenon of recent affluence, recent commercialization of culture, or recent political leadership. Materialism was one of the most notable traits of U.S. society in the early 19th century, 150 years before the appearance of contemporary correlates of materialism now cited as its causes. The second point is that there are internal dynamics to human values that allow predictions of certain consequences for certain values. By de Tocqueville's analysis, egalitarianism hold in contrast to hierarchical class structure will result in materialism, and mass materialism will result in recourse to mysticism. The third point is that there are cultural and political consequences to materialistic values that go quite beyond private consumer concerns and life-style decisions. Materialists necessarily we hurried and therefore seek quick solutions and are easily frustrated. At personal and political levels, such people are prone to violence and restrain themselves only when the costs of violence are high.

THE DYNAMICS OF DEMOCRACY

Alexis de Tocqueville was a minor French aristocrat, who at the age of 26, came to America for the explicit purpose to observe and study the political culture here. His goal, however, was not an American ethnography, but to study the internal dynamics of democracy: "1 admit that I saw more in America than America; it was the shape of democracy itself which I sought, its inclinations character, prejudices and passions" (quoted by Lerner, 1966, p. xxxvii). Fie arrived in 1831 and traveled widely from the east coast cities, up into Canada, out to the frontier, down to the Now Orleans, and the South. Fie interviewed common people, including slaves and Indians, businessman, and politicians, including President Andrew Jackson.

After 41 weeks, he returned to France and in 1835 published his account of this trip. Democracy in America was an immediate success. de Tocqueville was a superb ethnographer and a keen phenomenologist of human behavior and political culture. American readers are repeatedly amazed at the accuracy of his insights, an accuracy that seems accurate oven 150 later.

OBSERVATIONS OF MATERIALISM IN THE 1830'S

De Tocqueville directly discusses American materialism in several different contexts in his book. His main theme is that Americans are excessively materialistic, compared to Europeans, for three reasons:

1) They came to an "empty" continent with almost unlimited access to land and other wealth resources;

'It is hard to give an impression of the avidity with which the American throws himself on the vast prey offered him by fortune. To pursue it he fearlessly braves the arrows of the Indian and the diseases of the wilderness; he goes prepared to face the silence of the forest and is not afraid of the presence of wild beasts. A passion stronger than love of life goads him on. An almost limitless continent stretches before him, and he seems in a hurry not to arrive too late that one might think him afraid of finding no room left." (de Tocqueville, 1966, p. 260)

2) They were released from the restraints of European class structure:

"... the soil of America absolutely rejected a territorial aristocracy"(de Tocqueville, 1966, p. 27)

'When ... the distinctions of ranks are obliterated and privileges are destroyed, when hereditary property is subdivided an education and freedom are widely diffused, the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich.' (de Tocqueville, 1945, p. 137)

3) In a politically egalitarian society, the only means of social distinction were those based on performance, materialistic or militaristic:

'When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete.' (do Tooqueville, 1945, p. 147)

Slight differences in material wealth signified by particular possessions become important. This is the origin of conspicuous consumption.

De Tocqueville was enamoured of American democratic form, particularly the weight of power and activity at the lower, local levels in the town meeting, the city and county governments, and the state governments. However, democracy is inherently materialistic:

"General prosperity favors stability in all governments, but particularly in a democratic one, for it depends on the moods of the greatest number, and especially on the moods of those most exposed to want. When the people rule, they must be happy, if they are not to overthrow the state. With them wretchedness has the same effect as ambition has on kings. Now, the physical causes, unconnected with laws, which can lead to prosperity are more numerous in America than in any other country at any other time in history." (de Tocqueville, 1966, p. 257)

Even apparent service in the public interest is motivated by concern for private wealth:

'The common man in the United States has understood the influence of the general prosperity on his own happiness, an idea so simple but nevertheless so little understood by the people. Moreover, he is accustomed to regard that prosperity as his own work. So he sees the public fortune as his own, and he works for the good of the state, not only from duty or from pride, but, I dare almost say, from greed." (de Tocqueville, 1966, p. 218)

De Tocqueville argued that the two greatest threats to democracy in America were unchecked materialism and unchecked militarism. Materialism threatens democracy because it takes interests and activity away from public to private domains:

"There is indeed a most dangerous passage in the history of a democratic people. When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education and their experience of free institutions, the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint at the sight of now possessions they are about to obtain. In their intense and exclusive anxiety to make a fortune they lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each and the prosperity of all. It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. The discharge of political duties appears to them to be a troublesome impediment which diverts them from their occupations and business." (de Tocqueville, 1945, p. 149)

According to de Tocqueville, materialism was chocked in America by the agrarian bass of the society farming has an inertia that precludes getting rich quick and by high levels of overt religiousity and Christian idealism.

"The main business of religion is to purity, to control, and to restrain that excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men acquire in times of equality, but I think it would be a mistake for them to attempt to conquer it entirely and abolish it. They will never succeed in preventing men from loving wealth, but they may be able to induce them to use only honest means to enrich themselves.' (de Tocqueville, 1966, p. 413)

This mix of materialism moderated by religion also primes Americans for recourse to mysticism and other religious escapes from materialistic pressures.

"Religious insanity is very common in the United States. . . If ever the faculties of the great majority of mankind were exclusively bent upon the pursuit of material objects, it might be anticipated that an amazing reaction would take place in the souls of some men. They would drift at large in the world of spirits, for fear of remaining shackled by the close bondage of the body. . . I should be surprised if mysticism did not soon make some advance among a people solely engaged in promoting their own worldly welfare.' (de Tocqueville, 1945, pp. 142-143)

Pantheism, common to Eastern to religions, is particularly attractive to materialists:

"It one finds a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are only to be considered as the several parts of an immense Being who alone remains eternal in the midst of the continual flux and transformation of all that composes Him, one may be sure that such a system, although it destroys human individuality, or rather just because it destroys it, will have secret charms for men living under democracies." (de Tocqueville, 1966, p. 417)

Militarism threatens democracy in America because a professional non-aristocratic officer corps would need military performance to self-justify itself and to achieve differential status.

"In democratic armies, the desire of advancement is almost universal: it is ardent, tenacious, perpetual; it is strengthened by all other desires and extinguished only with life itself. But it is easy to see that, of all armies in the world, those in which advancement must be slowest in time of peace are the armies of democratic countries. . . All the ambitious spirits of a democratic army are consequently ardently desirous of war, because war makes vacancies and warrants the violation of that law of seniority which is the sole privilege natural to democracy.

We thus arrive at this singular conclusion, that, of all armies, those most ardently desirous of war are democratic armies, and of all nations, those most fond of peace are democratic nations; and what makes these facts still more extraordinary is that these contrary effects are produced at the same time by the principle of equality...

These opposite tendencies of the nation and the army expose democratic communities to great danger." (de Tocqueville, 1945, pp. 281-282)

De Tocqueville observed that the population in a materialistic democracy would tend to be pacific and anti-war because war intrudes on private lives and economic activities. But that a professional military, if unchecked, would seek devious ways to war or threaten democratic institutions directly. Militarism was chocked in America by its geographic isolation from potential enemies.

"The Americans have no neighbors and consequently no great wars, financial crises, invasions, or conquests to fear; they need neither heavy taxes nor a numerous army nor great generals; they have hardly anything to fear from something else which is a greater scourge for democratic republics than all these others put together, namely, military glory.' (de Tocqueville, 1966, p. 256)

PSYCHOLOGICAL INSIGHTS AND IMPLICATIONS

De Tocqueville's most remarkable insight was that materialism has an inherent hurry to it:

"At first sight there is something surprising is this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance. The spectacle itself, however, is as old as the world; the novelty is to see a whole people furnish an exemplification of it.

Their taste for physical gratifications must be regarded as the original source of that secret disquietude which the actions of the Americans betray and of that inconstancy of which they daily afford fresh examples. He who has so his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it. The recollection of the shortest of life is a constant spur to him. Besides the good things he posses"s, he every instant fancies a thousand others that death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans and his abode." (de Tocqueville, 1945, p. 145)

Materialistic values place a premium on time. When there are no limits to the physical resources and the social opportunities to create and acquire material wealth, time becomes the great limiting force.

Of course, hurry precludes satisfaction and enjoyment. Materialism is inherently unhappy: -

"In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; it seemed to me as it a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.

The chief reason for this contrast is that they are forever brooding over the advantages they do not possess. It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lost they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.

A native of the United States clings to his world's goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications." (de Tocqueville, 1945, p. 144)

Materialists are ever in a hurry to find the quickest way to most wealth, to enjoy their wealth as fast as possible. This very hurry, of course, precludes enjoyment and dooms materialists to unhappiness.

The hurry of materialism is also a source of inattention and carelessness, and may be one of the roots of high-volume, productivity orientation of North American academic scholars:

'When the inhabitant of a democracy is not urged by his wants, he is so at least by his desire"; for of all the possessions that he sees around him, none are wholly beyond his reach. He therefore does everything in a hurry, he is always satisfied with "pretty well," and never pauses more than an instant to consider what he he is doing. His curiosity is at once insatiable and cheaply satisfied; for he owes more to know a great deal quickly than to know anything well; he has no time and but little taste to search things to the bottom," (de Tocqueville, 1945, p. 235)

Even those of us who study materialism may be more in its grips than we realize.

To extend de Tocqueville's insight, hurry is also the major psychological precursor to violence. Hurried problem solving resorts to violence. The "frustration -aggression" explanation for violence denotes this. Thus, there is an inherent dynamic to materialistic values of an excessive focus on private, individual activity, hurry, dissatisfaction, and readiness to violence. That is what characterized American materialism 150 years ago. It is even more characteristic today it is also, de Tocqueville might now argue, predictable of those former communist societies now blindly rushing to market economies and democracy.

REFERENCES

Lerner, M. (1966). Tocqueville and America, in J.P. Mayer and M. Lerner (eds.), Democracy in America (pp. xxv-xxxiii). Now York: Harper and Row.

de Tocqueville, A. (1945). Democracy in America (trans. by H. Reeve, ed. by P. Bradley). Now York: Random House. (Originally published in 1835.)

de Tocqueville, A. (1966). Democracy in America (trans. by G. Lawrence, ed. by J.P. Mayer and M. Lerner). Now York: Harper and Row. (Originally published in 1835.)

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Authors

Floyd W. Rudmin, School of Business/Faculty of Law, Queen's University, Canada



Volume

SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992



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