James, Tocqueville and Baudrillard

By | September 8, 2008

C.L.R. James is one among many writers who came from Europe to America and subsequently published their commentaries on the society they found there. In American Civilization, he explicitly linked his work to a tradition established by two predecessors—the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose famous study, Democracy in America, resulted from his travels there in the 1830s; and the English diplomat, James Bryce, who wrote The American Commonwealth half a century later. In recent years, there has been no shortage of European commentators on America, although few have established as profound a connexion with that country as Tocqueville, Bryce and James. Here we seek to place James’s American Civilization (drafted in New York in 1950 and published by Blackwell in 1993) in the ongoing history of reflection on America by outsiders. Specifically, we compare his work with that of two Frenchmen— Tocqueville, the founder of the genre, and Jean Baudrillard, whose America (1989) is one of the more notorious examples of recent postmodernist writing on the subject.

The interest of America for Tocqueville and James originally stemmed from political questions posed within the context of Europe. The relationship of America to Europe, the continuities and the contrasts, forms a pervasive theme of their work. Although separated by more than a hundred years, both writers departed for the New World at a time of ferment in European history, after the political landscape had been transformed by a major event. In Tocqueville’s case this was the French Revolution; for James it was the Russian Revolution. Each man was convinced that democracy is the moving force in modern history and that America is playing the leading role in that movement.

Apart from the obvious parallels in the substantive concerns of Tocqueville and James, there are interesting similarities in their methods. Both writers, upon arrival in America, traveled widely through the country. Its geographical expanse captured their imagination; and a sense of freedom from the confining weight of European civilization is palpable in their writing. But these journeys also directly acquainted Tocqueville and James with the working of a democracy; and, in different ways, each made their personal observations and encounters with sections of the population the basis for understanding American society. They reached similar conclusions, placing their faith not in laws and formal institutions, but in the common people, in their pragmatic political sense. They saw the customs and attitudes to life of ordinary Americans as the safeguard of democracy’s future.

The structure of both Democracy in America and American Civilization reflects these conclusions. Each book is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the ideas underpinning the outward appearance of America’s public institutions, the second with the inner life and social practices of the American people themselves. Each book contains within its own development a movement from form to content that mirrors the historical contrast between the civilization of Europe and its American successor.

Tocqueville set out to examine how Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity had been incorporated into the foundation and functioning of a new society. He believed that democracy, government by the people in their own interests, was the distinctive impulse of his age. Its triumph as a historical process was inevitable and irreversible. The democracy of America was his case study. He found the principle of equality to be a more fundamental and durable feature of democracy than liberty; but he recognized their relationship to be close and complex: “Men cannot be equal without being free and equality, in its extreme form, must merge with freedom.” For Tocqueville the essential feature of American society was its people’s pursuit of worldly prosperity (happiness) under conditions of general equality.

Nevertheless, these observations led him to pose as the central paradox facing American civilization the unequal treatment of blacks, which he described as “the most formidable evil threatening the future of the United States.” He was conscious too of other dangers facing the new democracy. For example, the pursuit of happiness channeled the restless energies of the population into commercial and industrial activity. Yet Tocqueville saw here the possibility of inequalities being established through the growth of a manufacturing aristocracy. Furthermore, he observed that the drive for greater efficiency in America was achieved through specialization, through increasing division of labour. This resulted in a devastating dehumanization of the work process: “What is one to expect from a man who has spent twenty years of his life making the heads for pins?”

More fundamentally, for Tocqueville the greatest threat to a democratic society was posed by despotism. This was because it was part and parcel of the growth of democracy itself. Equality was linked to individualism; but, in isolating individuals, democracy weakened the connections between them and undermined their resistance to encroaching centralization. The power of society in a democracy was likely to be oppressive; the only counterweight in his view was the ability of citizens to form free associations.

At the close of the first volume of Democracy in America, there is a striking passage that in many ways anticipated the world in which James lived and which shaped his work:

“There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world, which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly assumed a prominent place among the nations; and the world learned of their existence and their greatness at almost the same time. . . .Each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

James’s own study, begun a century later, shows how deeply Tocqueville understood the social, economic and political forces at work in democratic society. In American Civilization he takes up Tocqueville’s themes of liberty, equality and the forms of association; and he examines their meaning in a mid-twentieth century America where the pursuit of material wealth had reached its fullest expression in the system of mass production pioneered by Henry Ford. For James in 1950 the society’s original ideals of freedom and equality had by then been sacrificed to an oppressive work regime that paradoxically made it feasible for the people in general to aspire to the material means of achieving these goals. If Tocqueville placed equality at the centre of his interpretation of the new democracy, James was preoccupied with freedom, or rather with the awareness of its loss that permeated the consciousness of Americans in his day. Moreover, James saw that the worldwide struggle of popular forces against totalitarian bureaucracy had brought Tocqueville’s prediction of rivalry between America and Russia to the nightmare conclusion of the Cold War.

There is little of this grand vision in the more recent writings of European intellectuals. Nor is there the same sense of the American people as the vanguard of world civilization. Baudrillard’s America offers a typical example of the distaste felt by European elites for the American version of democratic society. While appearing to be seduced by the surface gloss of America, Baudrillard in reality gives vent to the deep hostility he feels towards the common people. They simply do not exist in his book. Their passive lot is to be imprinted by the myriad signs of advertising and propaganda whose meaning is vouchsafed only to the traveling intellectual, the author himself.

Baudrillard, a Cartesian subject if ever there was one, thinks alone in a universe unmediated by the presence of others. Hence his preference for the desert as an image of American society, reflecting the emptiness of the world he inhabits, as he watches it flashing by his car window. Traditionally, the European writer has conceived of his audience as a narrowly-based cultural elite, successor to the courts of the absolutist monarchs. He resents bitterly the democratization of the means of communication, especially television, since it threatens to bypass the monopoly of knowledge and information which was once stored in books. Even worse, democracy might transfer power from the intellectuals and their masters into the hands of the people themselves.

It follows from this that the intellectual denies the ability of the masses to make appropriate use of the information coming their way. One means of doing so is to represent America, the place where people power and mass communications are most developed, as a bewildering maze of signs detached from any sensible forms of social life and made meaningful only by the arcane manipulations of a master semiotician. In this way, Baudrillard and others like him transform the idea of America as the future into a grotesque cacotopia that it would be perverse to emulate. It is safe to celebrate the old Hollywood movies, as long as television, advertising and fast food are held at bay. America may even offer tourists the chance to relive cinematic images in the Western desert today, before they return to the safety of the old way of life.

The contrast between Baudrillard and James could not be greater. James too made a mind-expanding journey shortly after arriving in America from Europe. But he stayed for more than a decade. He made it his business to penetrate “the actual and intimate lives” of the American people; and he used the opportunity to overthrow the burdens of his own European intellectual legacy. He saw that the development of mass communications in the twentieth century had opened up a huge audience for information and entertainment. James recognized that the volatile tastes of this mass audience gave expression to social forces that had their roots in personal experience, in an individuality multiplied by millions. The purveyors of popular art forms, in his view, had to pay close attention to the revealed wants of their customers. Moreover, these forms reflected the essence of modern social life, its movement. The new audiences for the mass media have elevated the scale of perceived community far beyond the old limits imposed by work and residence, moving beyond the nation-state to embrace the emergent idea of one world society. James never underestimated the sophistication of ordinary people, certainly not their ability to make independent judgments about what they were fed by the media.

James, accepting the intrinsic movement of American society, felt compelled to address its history. Americans may not have a strong historical sense, but they make world history—whether in the eighteenth century with their revolution, in the nineteenth with the Civil War or in the twentieth with their military interventions abroad. James saw his task as the need to situate the growing power of the American people in a social history which was at once local and global. Baudrillard knows nothing of American history. History for him is what intellectuals pass on to the educated classes in books. Americans have no place in that version of history; they do not exist. Let them be reduced to the images of Hollywood movies or to fleeting encounters in desert motels.

Baudrillard is not indifferent to his great French predecessor. Like James he refers back to Tocqueville, only to conclude that the famous unity of private interest and public spirit has gone. He insists that there is no collective principle left in America to modify the fragmentation of individual existence. If James reached the opposite conclusion, then so too was his method an extension of Tocqueville’s. For him the meaning of popular culture was to be found in its resonance with the lives of ordinary Americans whom he studied over a period of many years. Not for him the jottings of a few weeks’ holiday spent trying to match what can be seen through a car window with youthful memories of the cinema.

As a representative example of much postmodernist writing in recent years, Baudrillard’s America is an indictment of that whole intellectual class whose postwar prosperity has insulated them from the movement of modern history, so that they can only see in America a mirror reflecting their own alienation. The intelligentsia have truly become a class without a social purpose. It is hardly surprising that, faced with the rise of popular forces on a world scale, they retreat into the old forms of intellectual life associated with Europe’s bourgeois civilization—and thereby constitute a ready-made market for Baudrillard’s excesses. James’s 1950 manuscript, Notes on American Civilization, is an even more pressing antidote to such thinking today than when it was originally written.

[Written with Anna Grimshaw. Note by Jim Murray, C.L.R. James Insititute, July 2001: This text was written in 1990 as an Appendix to the Institute pamphlet C.L.R. James and ‘The Struggle for Happiness’. The authors decided at the last minute not to include it because they thought it might “unbalance” the structure of the pamphlet. The material here was also not included in the slightly modified version of the pamphlet that became the Introduction to the 1993 Blackwell edition of American Civilization by C.L.R. James. James’s own title for the book, at the end of his life, was The Struggle for Happiness. The title was changed, after he died, against the editors’ wishes.]

Leave a Reply