Tocqueville on the Emergence of Despotism

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Tocqueville: Book I Chapter 1 via


This text must’ve been Huxley’s inspiration for “Brave New World”.


Apparently, Huxley drew upon Henry Ford’s vision of an industrial utopia:


Crossing the threshold to eusociality requires only that a female and her adult offspring do not disperse to start new, individual nests but instead remain at the old nest.

by Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita & Edward O. Wilson
26 August 2010 Nature

This controversial paper demoted the importance of inclusive fitness in the evolution of eusociality by, in essence, positing what amounts to parasitic castration of offspring by their mother so as to form the sterile castes.


I feel like this is appropriate as a welcome.

Seriously, welcome to the site.


I was (happily, it seems at first pass) unaware of this line of thought. I note, with suspicion at the outset, that “eusociality” is defined as the highest form of society. Hmmm. As I tried to get into this material, and the necessary definitions of terms, I became more and more convinced that it is an attempt to lend weight to the proposition that communism (“eusociety” to the max) is in our genetic and ethnobiologic cards. I was also reminded of my medical school textbooks. Surgery - a most incisive (pun intended) and practical field - texts were short and to the point. By comparison, psychiatry texts ran into the thousands of pages. I inferred that the more words required to describe a subject, the less well it was either understood and/or the less likely it reflected some component of reality. There are just too many political undertones in this article and too many leaps of scientific faith to allow me to read it with anything other than maximum skepticism.


Despotism is alive and well in the USA under the Biden-Clinton-Obama-Pelosi … Organized Crime Syndicate. Everything they accuse Trump of they are guilty of - right out of the Saul Alinsky playbook.


There are just too many political undertones in this article and too many leaps of scientific faith to allow me to read it with anything other than maximum skepticism.

The socialist wing of sociobiology, led by such as Dawkins, signed a petition with more than a hundred cosigners in protest to this article so I suppose I understand your skepticism. However, my take on the socialist objection to it is that it does, as I stated, essentially define the mechanism of eusociality as parasitic castration – not a very flattering picture of “the highest form of society”, unless one is into that kind of kink I suppose.

However, “eusocial” is a technical term that is relatively well defined in ethology with the sine qua non being reproductive specialization according to the most senior coauthor, E. O. Wilson. One should also note that the sociobiology wars of the 1970s consisted of Harvard’s Red Diaper Babies going for the jugular of E.O. Wilson. So if Wilson is trying to pull a fast one on us so as to convince us that parasitic castration is the highest form of civilization, it would represent a relatively new kind of rhetoric. whose persuasive power is opposed by known socialists in the field.

As for the “leaps” my understanding of the article is it was forced on the authors by several decades of field observations that built such a case against inclusive fitness that it became necessary to find a new mechanism. Say what you will about Wilson – he’s very driven by empirical observation, to the point of coming up with a paradigm shift that overturned much of his own work and late in his life.


My uninformed assessment is we should be very cautious when people throw out terms like “parasitic castration” and “reproductive specialization”. They sound like variations on “intersectionality” – a nebulous term which means whatever the speaker intends it to mean at that singular moment in time, with the expectation that most listeners will be frightened into sagely nodding their heads in approval of this new form of Political Correctness while internally understanding nothing.

Of course, I am always ready to learn something new.


parasitic castration” and “reproductive specialization” are technical terms with little if any controversy within ethology. Denying people precise technical terminology is only a good idea when, as is so often the case in theology or the social pseudosciences, they are simply used as shibboleths.


So, um, with regard to “the emergence of despotism”, where does eusociality fit in? Are you saying it IS despotism, or are you saying it’s the opposite of despotism?

And where does “parasitic castration” fit into the discussion? Whatever the being called a queen, is, can she be said to be a parasite? She is a member of the Same insect species, right, ? though specialized. She’s giving as much as she gets. I looked up that term, and I’m wondering about the parameters of it. What are the checks on parasites specific to one host which render the host sterile? Obviously they can’t do it on such a scale that both species die out.

And….in my beginning is my end: I commented first, about “Brave New World” which is a “eusocial” society where certain women are kept as breeders (but not necessarily against their will, as I recall) and everybody else is trained in a “specialty” right from the communal nurseries: the babies destined to be laborers, “worker bees” f’rinstance, receive punishing stimuli if they exhibit any interest in art or nature.

If anybody wants to see eusociality from inside the hive or the hill, E.O.Wilson wrote a novel, “Anthill”, which is good, though I remember being much more interested in the ant characters than the humans. And even a better book is Lalinne Paul’s “The Bees”. That one is really entertaining.

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" M. castrator supports the intrAspecific hypothesis of social parasite evolution"

A Social Parasite Evolved Reproductive Isolation from Its Fungus-Growing Ant Host in Sympatry

Indeed, intraspecific parasitism one of the few ways (perhaps only 2) that speciation occurs within a [deme].(deme | biology | Britannica).

The OP has quoted from one of my favorite, if not my favorite, passage from Democracy in America. About 15 yrs ago, I went on a Tocqueville jag and read that book, taking notes. I dog-ear pages with material I like, but there are so many pages thus marked it’s hard to find what I’m looking for. I return to the book occasionally as an old friend… opening it to a random page to start reading.

Some passages gleaned from my notes:

[A] despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love one another. He does not ask them to assist him in governing the state; it is enough that they do not aspire to govern it themselves.

I have already pointed out the distinction between a centralized government and a centralized administration. The former exists in America, but the latter is nearly unknown there. If the directing power of the American communities had both these instruments of government at is disposal and united the habit of executing its commands to the right of commanding; if, after having established the general principles of government, it descended to the details of their application; and if, having regulated the great interests of the country, it could descend to the circle of individual interests, freedom would soon be banished from the New World.

It is easy to foresee that the time is drawing near when man will be less and less able to produce, by himself alone, the commonest necessaries of life. The task of the governing power will therefore perpetually increase, and its very efforts will extend it every day. The more it stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other.

I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.

Now it is in the nature of all governments to seek constantly to enlarge their sphere of action; hence it is almost impossible that such a government should not ultimately succeed, because it acts with a fixed principle and a constant will, upon men, whose position, whose notions, and whose desires are in continual vacillation. It frequently happens that the members of the community promote the influence of the central power without intending it. Democratic ages are periods of experiment, innovation, and adventure. At such times there are always a multitude of men engaged in difficult or novel undertakings, which they follow alone, without caring for their fellowmen. Such persons may be ready to admit, as a general principle, that the public authority ought not to interfere in private concerns; but, by an exception to that rule, each of them craves for its assistance in the particular concern on which he is engaged, and seeks to draw upon the influence of the government for his own benefit, though he would restrict it on all other occasions… Thus a democratic government increases its power simply by the fact of its permanence. Time is on its side; every incident befriends it; the passions of individuals unconsciously promote it; and it may be asserted, that the older a democratic community is, the more centralized will its government become.

The passage quoted in the OP goes on thus:

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. 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.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again.


It’s simple; “where your treasure is—there will be your heart also.”

“They” are bought and paid for.


I grew up in NYC in 1940s, 1950s surrounded by Red Diaper Babies whose parents were if not card-carrying members of Communist Party USA were sympathetic. What we are seeing in US today and to a lesser extent perhaps in UK is the success of Stalin’s “ideological subversion” described by KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov in 1984.

Even though Soviet Union is gone, the influence operation succeeded now with a life of its own and is into the third generation of Social Justice Warriors, Cancel Culture Maoists et-al. I suspect it is too late to fix, but I hope to be proved wrong.

The current apparent military defeat of Putin in Ukraine from US, UK weapons and the Ukraine will to fight only increases the probability that he will launch nukes especially if he fears loss of Crimea. Sept 11, 2022


Defeat? The land-bridge to the ocean is complete.

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There are two aspects of despotism, first why someone would want to be a despot? I wrote about that as “The guru trap.” The attention a guru (or despot) gets is (for sound evolutionary reasons) as addictive as the most addictive drugs. It involves the same brain circuits.

The other question is why people support despots or other kinds of crazy leaders. This seems to be an effect of genetic selection for war. Weird as it sounds, war is good for genes for war and bad for the people who engage in it. The lead-up to war comes from the recognition that the future is bleak, the circulation of xenophobic memes, and the increasing attractiveness of crazy leaders.


A side effect of population growth in good times. I have a math-based analysis of this but most people utterly reject that humans have evolved psychological traits they don’t know they have.