Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of the uncanny oppression awaiting Western peoples in a democratic age has haunted liberal intellectuals for generations. More of a sociologist and psychologist than a political theorist, Tocqueville recognized that what we call “our democracy” is less a framework of political institutions than it is a cast of heart and mind formed by the sensory and experiential environment that arises from the inexorably more general equality of conditions. Tocqueville warned that democratic conditions disposed peoples toward patterns of feeling and thinking that encouraged them to soften all the foundations of social order—an interesting word he associated with regularity, gentleness, quietness, and peacefulness, not just in outward manifestation but inwardly, almost what many Californians would call “zen.”
The magic of this softness is that it is not really weakness, although it is conducive to or enabling of weakness, in a way we will return to shortly. Tocqueville often placed greater emphasis on the secondary rather than primary effects of phenomena, for instance observing that newspapers in America mattered more as springs of social association than fountains of news or even opinion, and it is this secondary quality of democratic softness—not directly weakening people or society or institutions but shaping them to gradually elevate their feeling toward weakness into a moral and spiritual ideal, a sort of “nirvana”—that liberal intellectuals need to contemplate to reckon with the way wokeness might affect the problem of soft despotism.
For it’s clear that we are now deeply into an age of soft despotism. Our regime’s “supreme power” plainly “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform,” hardly against the popular will, but “under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.” It is almost a truism that today people “want to be led, and they wish to remain free.” Logically, as Tocqueville observed, “as they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once.” The way to do this, the way we have done this, is simple: “devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people,” and “combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty.” Note how different Tocqueville is in his judgment from, say, Lord Acton, for whom power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Rather than an evil or greedy class of overlords flexing on the people for their own satisfaction—that is, rather than tyranny—the quintessential going-wrong for us is a kind of trick of the heart that assigns responsibility for our desire for servitude to moral phenomena (such as democracy or equality) beyond our agency. “Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain”—this is the political manifestation of the same softenization Tocqueville describes as the definitive mode of spiritual going-astray in democratic times:
When the conditions of society are becoming more equal and each individual man becomes more like all the rest, more weak and insignificant, a habit grows up of ceasing to notice the citizens and considering only the people, of overlooking individuals to think only of their kind. At such times the human mind seeks to embrace a multitude of different objects at once, and it constantly strives to connect a variety of consequences with a single cause. The idea of unity so possesses man and is sought by him so generally that if he thinks he has found it, he readily yields himself to repose in that belief. Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator, he is still embarrassed by this primary division of things and seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.
If there is a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are to be considered only as the several parts of an immense Being, who alone remains eternal amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes him, we may readily infer that such a system, although it destroy the individuality of man, or rather because it destroys that individuality, will have secret charms for men living in democracies. All their habits of thought prepare them to conceive it and predispose them to adopt it. It naturally attracts and fixes their imagination; it fosters the pride while it soothes the indolence of their minds.
Once again it is very intriguing that what Tocqueville describes is so consistent with the stereotypically “Californian” spiritualism of Westernized Buddhism. By Tocqueville’s lights it would be plain that “Eastern spiritualism” would find fertile soil in an America where democratic conditions had advanced to a point where the temptation of softenization had become irresistible and even second nature in both the private conscience and the public one—where, really, things had progressed so far that, individually and socially, religious and political sentiments had converged to such a degree that the good life had become inseparable from the sensory experience of self-awareness in honoring, praising, furthering, servicing—we might say worshipping body and soul—the universalization of weakness, the weakness that in its universalization becomes strong, complete, total, perfect.
In experiencing one’s own passivity as an admiring other is a purity that alone unites the self with the whole, in other words—a moral phenomenon Avishai Margalit, following Milan Kundera, calls moral kitsch. “Kitsch,” Kundera says, “causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes the kitsch kitsch.” This “ascent” from tear one to two, writes Margalit, is made possible because the object of the tears is one “of great innocence.” The elevation of the respect due the innocent into a cosmic experience of purity, Margalit suggests, derives from the “stress on humans, all humans, as capable of suffering. I believe that there is great merit in this view,” he adds, “but it also carries with it a danger, the danger of seeing all humans as victims. But that is not the end of it. In order to morally dignify the victims, they are always made to look innocent and pure. This is where sentimental kitsch plays its role.”
Now, notably, Margalit goes immediately to the political moralism of race to illustrate his point. “Slavery is the epitome of human degradation and human cruelty, no matter who the slave is. A black man should not need to be as innocent as Uncle Tom to deserve respect as a human being and to be spared the cruelty and humiliation of Master Simon Legree.” Is it not evident that today wokeness is ascendant in our softly despotic regime, not so much because of the minority woke elite and any hard-on for overlordship it harbors, but because perhaps now a majority of Americans, at least on the main social media platforms, have applied to that hard thrust toward power the same spiritualization of moral kitsch that they apply to everything else, seeing the softenization of wokeness at its most brutal, revolutionary, vengeful, retributive, and disciplinary as the freshly purest way they can immediately experience their unity with the cosmic whole? Wokeness, struggling to lift itself up from mere ideology into religion—a religion powerful enough to sanctify both a state fully corrupted by “terrorist white supremacy” and a digital environment indifferent at best to the feelings and demands of people—is in the breast of the majority, as Tocqueville warned, merely fodder—the always constantly needed fodder—for the elevation of experiences of softening toward ever more perfect and full spiritual unity with the All, the One, the Source.
This process is responsible for the at first seemingly bizarre way in which a brute-force authoritarian like Ibram X. Kendi has been transubstantiated into a cute and childlike figure of domesticated sweetness and light; how a revolutionary movement like BLM, flagrantly ransacking property and institutions alike, has been so magically converted into a “peace sign” for self-aware identifiers with the softenized spiritual mainstream; and how the most aggressively deranged and disfiguring manifestations of queerism and sexuality have been almost instantaneously laundered and repackaged into defanged fetish objects of the most cloyingly sentimentalist normies. Wokeness has colonized our institutions, hearts, and minds with such whipsawing speed because soft wokeness, the spiritualism of the people in our democratic age, works so swiftly and surely to elevate the self-aware spiritual sensation of softening wokeness into moral kitsch by passively accepting it into the god tier of cosmic ideals that can unify the public heart.
This is the link between wokeness and soft despotism—one liberal intellectuals above all must confront, and I say this with no disrespect, still being in at least some senses a liberal intellectual myself. Then again, I had begun to confront this material, especially through the phenomenon of the enchantment of the corporation, nearly 15 years ago, through my work on the pink police state. Hopefully this is a new opportunity for at least a few others deserving of public attention to make a reckoning of their own.