Participation in America

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Authority by Richard Sennett
    Secker, 206 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 436 44675 8

De Tocqueville feared, not for the failure of democracy in America, but for its success: not, like so many of his French contemporaries, for its propensity to release an unbridled égoisme, but for its propensity to ‘unbend the springs of action’ altogether. The citizen of the new republic, as Tocqueville saw him, ‘exists only in himself and for himself’; he neither sees nor feels the others; he is, in this chilly sense, free. But if he is not at once paralysed by the vast possibilities thereby opened up to him, he soon becomes perplexed by the problems of realising any of them alone. Born free, chained, and then re-freed, he is again constrained by the very lack of constraint.

This, of course, is a conservative view, although it is compatibly socialist too. Yet despite the inability of even the most reflective Americans to think in anything but liberal terms (however ingenious they may be, as Louis Hartz once so cleverly showed, in deploying those terms), it is a view which continues to haunt them. Perhaps Tocqueville was right? Perhaps it really is the case that the most nearly liberal society is one in which the promise of such a society is paradoxically preempted? Perhaps a strong and distinctively public sociability, or even a sociability which overrides the very distinction between public and private, is a condition, not merely of order, but of an expressive energy which makes order and freedom itself worth having? Richard Sennett believes that it is.

As he has explained in what he has written about Chicago and about the bewildered self-contempt of blue-collar workers in Boston in the late 1960s, and as he has most elaborately argued in The Fall of Public Man, Sennett believes that the collapse of an imaginatively and practically robust public life in the United States has left a narcissistic incapacity to do anything except bemusedly and confusedly stare at the dead letter of individualism. With a gentleness rare in prophets, a tone indeed as well as a conviction like Tocqueville’s own, he has now embarked upon his most extended account of this state of affairs. This book is the first of four on it. Others are promised on solitude, fraternity and ritual.

His thesis is both historical and theoretical. Historically, he claims that something has indeed changed. A capacity to accept and actually to enjoy authority, he casually asserts, disappeared with political liberalisation in the 18th century and with economic liberalisation in the 19th. Theoretically, the claim is that things could be different. They were in that community which Aristotle described – a community in which all the citizens could collect where they could see and hear each other – and they are, too, in those communities which Louis Dumont describes, with India in mind – communities in which individuals were or are not defined, even to themselves, by their individual properties at all, but by their relations with others. Sennett modestly refrains from combining these claims, either for the past or for a possible future in America itself. As many have said, the first, outside the South, is not possible, and as for the second it may always have been too late. Instead, he concentrates on the pathologies of individualism in the face of authority and the pathologies of authority in the face of individualism. He then tentatively suggests how the springs of what remains of individual action can be recoiled to remove them.

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