Reading Tocqueville in Qatar and Georgetown

Joshua Mitchell’s Tocqueville in Arabia is a conversational exploration of Tocqueville’s democratic genius applied in Arabian lands. I was immediately taken with Mitchell’s description of his personal connections to the Middle East. His father, who taught for years at the University of Michigan, served in State Department posts in Yemen and Kuwait decades before the countries were even known to exist by most Americans. In Yemen, his family was ushered out of the country in the dead of night on horseback for security reasons. Mitchell’s father died much later in Cairo, attempting to understand the nation at the close of his career.

A professor of political theory at Georgetown, Mitchell wrote this book about his time spent teaching at the Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. In this role, from 2005-2008, Mitchell taught an interesting cross-section of Middle Eastern students. Tocqueville was his companion in Qatar. He states, “not an hour went by when Tocqueville’s thinking about the movement from the aristocratic age to the democratic age did not occupy my imagination.”

Mitchell notes that his book is an “imagined embrace between Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Like Nafsi’s work, Tocqueville in Arabia seeks to illuminate the concerns of students in the distant lands of the Middle East; like Bloom’s work, it aspires to be a comprehensive reflection on the challenges facing America today.” The crux of the matter is “de-linked” man. As Tocqueville states, “Aristocracy has made of all citizens a long chain that went up from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks the chain and sets each link apart. . . . [Democracy] constantly leads [each man] back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly to the solitude of his own heart.” He relates the opposition of many of his Middle Eastern students to the free and commercial society of Adam Smith and Tocqueville and to an America that represents such a social and economic ordering. However, as Mitchell remembers, you don’t have to look far to find hostility to the free society. Here is the author’s intriguing description of what academic Marxists and various leftists did in the shadow of actual communism’s demise:

I watched as many tenured Marxists cloaked themselves in new camouflage–some turning to Habermas, others to Arendt, many to Foucault, and not a few to Derrida for their adornment. The revolution had not materialized; the forces of darkness were more sinister than even Marx had imagined. All who moved in these new directions shared Marx’s disdain for what can loosely be called the Anglo-American tradition of liberalism. . . . The spectacle gave cause to wonder: Protected by a system of lifetime tenure, did not society pay a high cost when professors confuse freedom of thought with polite and sophisticated forms of condescension and belittlement that they defend under the seemingly benign banner of “critique”?

Somehow, I don’t think Mitchell is the first to wonder.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mitchell finds that the opposition to modern, de-linked society is expressed by his Qatar school students in tones quite similar to sentiments expressed by students in Buenos Aires and Lisbon, where he also taught the seminal thinkers of modern political economy. Why? How do you account for such similarity across continents and cultures, not only in opposition to a commercial society and widespread individual liberty, but similarity in the very expression of said opposition?

Tocqueville provides the dividing line, he observes, for understanding the shared attitudes toward the U.S. and the free society that our nation represents. Also evident is the bad fruit that continues to be produced by the anti-modern reaction of Europe to the society described by Tocqueville, that is, a democratic, de-linked society with a market economy, and religion in a supporting role but no longer protected or protecting the state. Mitchell states:

[I]n the twenty-first century, the simmering theater for those anti-modern ideas is shaping up to be the former colonial lands of the Middle East . . . Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the various critiques offered of “the West” today, no matter where they appear in the world and no matter how different they appear to be, is that with a little probing their rudiments all can be traced to European anti-modern thinkers–notably to Rousseau, who dreamed of a re-enchanted world; to Marx, who saw in “capitalism” alienation, exploitation, and a war between those who have and those who have not; to Nietzsche, who saw in delinked commercial man a sign of the weariness and exhaustion of Europe; and to Heidegger, whose luminous thinking about Western Civilization’s “closure to Being” too easily invited a cult of death and recklessness . . .

Mitchell’s account of his Middle Eastern students is of a group in some kind of a transition from a pre-democratic, extended family society where there are still certain roles and not the infinite possibilities that his American students believe to be open to them. American students who visit the Qatar campus insist on counseling their contemporaries that they live under injustice. The Americans are shocked, shocked to find little reception for this conclusion. In short, these students do not believe themselves oppressed by such roles: religious, marital, class, etc. American students think they live in ‘false-consciousness’ and must be taught to shake off their fetters. For the Middle Eastern students, Mitchell reports, this merely confirms what they already think about Americans, that they are the people who believe in nothing. Who believes in infinite possibilities for one’s life? His American students do. Perhaps the enveloping reach of democracy, extending beyond government to define personal and social understandings, is the biggest form of false-consciousness.

Religious understanding, indeed the comprehensive way of life offered by Islam is still very much with the students of the Qatar school. There is, however, a softening in this younger cohort. One sign of this, Mitchell observes, is literally the signs of “Mohammed is my friend” that he saw around campus. Surely that is new, and evidence of a democratic shrinking of authority within the faith itself, akin to what happened to Christianity in most churches in America. Maybe. What is clear is that the transition to the de-linked society in the Middle East has not been made, but signs and portents of change are evident. There are still fixed roles that the students will fill, but they think of themselves increasingly as individuals, Mitchell confidently notes.

And this brings us to the central choice before Middle East peoples, Mitchell argues, and that is how will they make this transition of moving from the fixity of pre-modern social patterns to the inevitable de-linked condition of democratic life? Failure to make this transition leads to either “enchantment”– the attempt to recreate a mythical past, or a revolutionary quest that will bypass and forget tradition in favor of a constructed future, Mitchell predicts. We might wonder how war in Syria, the Iranian quest for a nuclear weapon (almost complete), or recent news of Al-Qaeda resurgence in parts of Iraq aid or complicate this argument? Moreover, what of our own ideological stupidity in launching a war for democracy in Iraq? Did America push the region towards one of these frightful alternatives? One finds it hard to make the argument that we helped this region “re-link” or make the transition to democratic society.

Mitchell gives us even more room to pause, though, with his searching criticisms of America, and, at times, the rather mindless assurances of his students whom he suspects are bereft of wisdom, strength, and the ability to understand human suffering and even maintain liberty. They seem to believe in nothing but democracy. They affirm all of the social consequences it produces.

If Allan Bloom thought that divorce had deformed the self-understanding of his students, if not their capacity for love, Mitchell notes that dating itself seems absent at Georgetown. Marriage is seen by students as a romantic arrangement with no real link to the future in the form of reproduction. The birth-dearth has deep democratic roots. We might urge caution here, though, given the findings many have issued regarding students like the ones found at Georgetown. These students, later in life, are largely marrying, staying married, and raising high human capital children, products of assortative mating. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart makes this point well. The real problem is down the socio-economic line whose working-class denizens, unlike their forebears, practice the sexual revolution, but can’t find ways to limit its rather negative consequences in their lives and immediate communities.

So Mitchell thoughtfully repairs to Tocqueville to revive American liberty in the face of these negative facts. This can only happen through the associative arts, that is, we need actual “face-to-face relations” that bring us out of the giant suck of self. On this point Tocqueville states that “Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.” Absent the re-linking of democratic individuals in local associative life, religious congregations, family-life, real democratic participation, we are left between the antipodes of solipsism and the god of public opinion. From loneliness follows the administrative state. Such a binary existence invites the state’s consolidating power, the only power that can create and manipulate public opinion. In this, the isolated individual finds its authority soothing, a comfort for democratic man’s emancipated condition.

We might wonder how fitting the application of a Tocquevillean analysis to the Middle East really is? Tocqueville argues that the age of democracy is providential, inescapable, but democratic states aren’t so inevitable. But is the age of democracy that broke upon the West also inevitable in the Middle East, as Mitchell argues?

His last section on religion invites reflection on the way a public space not determined by revelation has never really developed in Muslim polities. As Mitchell notes, with Islam we deal with a comprehensive religion, a juridical one to boot. Can significant space, autonomy even, be left to law, commerce, education absent the type of interdiction of Islam on these realms that one usually observes?

Christianity has natural law and notions of conscience that permit autonomy in these spheres while providing that arguments over justice, order, and freedom do not devolve into matters of pure will or providential command. Islam, according to certain accounts, struggles in this regard, to put it lightly. The umma or community of the faithful is defined by Islam, and the state is not exempt from its strictures. Even its would be reformers have noted the problems this creates and the need for deep reform in this regard. Overall, Mitchell’s book makes a series of impressive observations on the dilemmas faced by a rising generation of Muslim students; and he also leaves us with much to contemplate not only on the potentialities of nations on the Arabian peninsula, but on this fair land as well.

Reader Discussion

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on January 21, 2014 at 15:24:31 pm

Great piece!
It should give pause to all of the "American Evangelists" who seek to install / instill democracy across the globe.

For a related take, see:

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on January 22, 2014 at 08:57:29 am


I like this piece a great deal, right up almost to the end. A few quibbles, or really questions.

First, do you think it is really true, as an historical matter, that the modern administrative state is at root the product of loneliness? This strikes me as historically, at best, a vast over-simplication, and at worst simply untrue. And if this statement is incorrect, then it gives some pause to the applicability of Tocqueville's analysis to our current condition.

Second, the kind of associationalism that Tocqueville argues prevents the slide from democratic isolation to individualism to egoism is not something we can just take for granted. Tocqueville presented associational life in mid-19th century America is a kind of ontological given--but he did not effectively analyze why the rich associational life he correctly perceived existed as it did. This is what I take to be the contribution of Robert Putnam--we can't take for granted the continued existence of associational life, and contemporary face-to-face associationalism is considerably less robust now than it was in the 19th century. The correlation then is that we are a considerably more egoistic and narcissitic culture than we were in the 19th century. There is much wisdom to consider then, in Christopher Lasche's famous CULTURE OF NARCISSISM.

As an aside, I find that few contemporary political theorists seem to wish to follow Tocqueville all the way to his final conclusions. Egoism is not merely a bad thing in itself--it is also, as Tocqueville argued, a profound threat to democracy itself. If this is really true, then we live today in perilous times.

Third, to what degree does the internet offer an alternative to face to face associations, sufficient to prevent the decline from individualism to egoism and narcissism? My own sense here is that the kinds of associations that people create on line are a very poor substitute for the kind of thing that used to happen in 19th century associations. My guess is that these forms of association give the illusion of face to face contact, without producing the bulwarks against narcissism that Tocqueville argued the older form of association provided.

All best wishes,

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on January 26, 2014 at 07:27:38 am

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