I have said (in what is probably an appropriation but I’ve forgotten the source) that a plutocracy is an aristocracy of wealth. It is a society where, martial valor having once been the source of rulership, wealth is now substituted as the source of rulership.
It is vital, in understanding this comparison, to recall that aristocracy was fundamentally a military form of government. The latter-day salons of Paris before the Revolution teemed with aristocratic hipsters playing at radical politics; they would soon lose their heads. The true fathers of the aristocratic and feudal form of government, however, were altogether sterner and more intimidating men. Their claim to rule was that they were the only men capable of raising an army and leading it in battle. And when barbarians or the Jihad or your blood-feud neighbors came with fire and steel, most folks quickly remembered that the martial form of government isn't wholly worthless.
It was the French Revolution that dealt a death-blow to this form of government, not so much by its ringing Rights of Man theories, but because it activated the middle and even the lower classes like nothing before in history. The energy unleashed in the Revolution convulsed the world for 25 years and (briefly) made France master of Europe.
The common man was in arms, and his armies rolled over any feudal power that remained. (Incidentally, this is why, in my judgment, it is pretty silly as a matter of history to sneer at the French fighting man, given that the French fighting man’s innovations in military and political organization are such important facets of the modern world.)
So rulership by martial valor was superseded, as it were, by democracy. But not just democracy. Other factors were at work.
Capitalism also played a major role in undermining the feudal and aristocratic order by attenuating the connection between capital and property. Formerly the lords’ wealth rested primarily in their land and possessions, along with the rents and resources they could derive from the same. Industrialism and specialization and technology — in a word, capitalism — detached capital from this structure of political economy.
In the social realm the illumination of the middle and working classes to their power to shape and move events is another trend that tended to efface the old aristocracy of excellence.
But the impress of martial valor on the minds of men is not so easily extirpated. It has long been my sense that the image of the bold, ruthless, hard-charging businessman has inherited many of the trappings of the old aristocratic ethos. Ayn Rand most emphatically pushed this connection; her ideal capitalist was clearly a variation on the theme. John Galt is a symbol of the modern man of excellence who by rights should rule and above all self-rule.
America is the commercial republic par excellence. The vision of the Framers compassed a federal system where self-government would rest not on human quality or excellence but on interest and community. The spring of rulership would be consent, which perforce undercuts the claims of merit. Even the man of demonstrable excellence must stand for election, must submit to a public examination of his merits. And quite frequently the public estimate of merit diverges sharply from established traditions of nobility. No small number of successful American politicians has discovered very early on that, under conditions of democracy, dullness and insipidity appear as virtues not vices. There is no end to the frustration this dynamic produces in the thwarted man of excellence; every Republican President since the Second World War has been accused by his elite opponents of idiocy, to no avail.
It is clear that interest and affinity can adjust the emphasis and trajectory of the aristocratic ideal as it develops in any society. Some muddleheaded misfits would give us an aristocracy of poets and Bob Dylan fans; we call them hippies, but even these least industrious of men show some real industry in the art of thinking their ways are true ways and everyone else’s false.
In any case the point here is that the very act of creating society gives rise to a picture of excellence. The community crowns it. Part of what it means to be man is to reach toward excellence. That a martial ideal should degrade into a mercenary one should not surprise us. That a commercial one should succumb to plutocracy is no great prophesy. And the tide will sound and the waves will pound and the morning will be breaking.
But what constitutes this middle class which will form the core of any true regime of lawful equality, or put otherwise any democracy? Why, our Framers have given the answer (or at least an answer) to that: democracy works when it rests on a robust and rambunctious middle class of private enterprisers, whose very quarrels will deflect and hamper tyranny.
So this middle class, so long unseen in history, makes two bold and staggering appearances upon the stage, in America and in France. And the rocks on the sand will proudly stand, the hour that the ship comes in.
Consider Tocqueville’s judgment on what he calls “the particular spirit of the middle class” as it ascended to rulership in France:
The particular spirit of the middle class became the general spirit of the government; it ruled the latter’s foreign policy as well as affairs at home: an active, industrious spirit, often dishonourable, generally sober, occasionally reckless through vanity or egoism, but timid by temperament, moderate in all things, except in its love of ease and comfort, and wholly undistinguished. It was a spirit which, mingled with that of the people or of the aristocracy, can do wonders; but which, by itself, will never produce more than a government shorn of both virtue and greatness. Master of everything in a manner that no aristocracy had ever been or may ever hope to be, the middle class, when called upon to assume the government, took it up as a trade; it entrenched itself behind its power, and before long, in their egoism, each of its members thought much more of his private business than of public affairs, and of his personal enjoyment than of the greatness of the nation.
So there you go. I wrap up this tomfool sketch up by gesturing back to one of the true teachers of man in politike episteme. The world was alternately wracked by radical lunacy and reactionary folly; France flew back and forth between empire, republic, monarchy, even near-socialist state. Tocqueville’s testimony to history through all this was majestic prudence. Just look at that brilliant clause that centers the paragraph quoted above. Note its careful and concise appeal to the virtues of Mixed Regimes, Third Ways, general functional compromises.
We also know, of course, that Tocqueville produced an extraordinary record of the American accomplishment in channeling and encouraging natural independence of mind and enterprising affinity toward the restraint of lawless majority rule. Checks and balances. America was a Third Way between ancient regime and the Convention.
In an ironic contrast, Burke in his country was a wild radical half the time. He fulminates against the Empire and her agents actions in India, Ireland, and America; he suddenly turns against France when she appears to do just what the damnable Yankees had succeeded at. There is Burke, the old defender of Irish and American liberty, thought by some driven mad by his enmity toward the regicides in France.
Meanwhile, a generation later we have Tocqueville, born into the Napoleonic turmoil, whose statesmanship was always a course of wise moderation, whether empire or republic. Nor can you call him a trimmer, for his stances too were ridiculed and denied. Tocqueville was one lonely figure in his day. But it was always because his country was going wildly in one way or the other.
We can no more dismiss France when talking about democracy than we can dismiss plutocracy when we talk about America.