20 October 2011 | Braunschweig, Germany
TRC/cloudy and dry
Whilst some were absorbed with the horror of a sailor being eaten in the South Seas, cannibalism of another era is reflected in the above painting by E. M. Ward. Presumably it depicts a street scene in London near the Exchange.
This was the first great stock market crash in England in 1720. A fascinating story of mass hysteria, political corruption, public upheaval and personal financial loss due to several fraudulent joint-stock companies that sought to take advantage of the man's mania for risky speculation.
Today's socio economic climate also mandates a revisit of Alexis de Tocqueville's 1835 work, "Democracy in America" [Empahsis added to the more precious and timeless passages]
Well before the distractive Gemütlichkeit of tweeting and other "social networking" Tocqueville examined the political and human aspects of American society from an outsiders perspective. In seeking to sketch the garden in which despotism might grow, he noted the oppressiveness of big government.
Tocqueville observed the (now still prevalent?) human weakness which permits deception through ideas that are "...precise even though false" as well as the tendency of Americans to rely on "...ready-made opinions" rather than our own.
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.