Herbert Spencer Opines On America

by zunguzungu

I don’t have any real commentary on this, but I found Herbert Spencer’s 1882 account of the anti-democratic tendencies of the American guilded age worth passing on, as you’ll see from my bolding. Not only is the language used to make that argument (“losing their freedom”) oddly contemporary, but his account of power is interestingly Foucaultian in the way violence is replaced by the silent compulsion, by conduct of conduct instead of repression:

Herbert Spencer: “…After pondering over what I have seen of your vast manufacturing and trading establishments, the rush of traffic in your street-cars and elevated railways, your gigantic hotels and Fifth Avenue palaces, I was suddenly reminded of the Italian republics of the middle ages ; and recalled the fact that, while there was growing up in them great commercial activity, a development of the arts which made them the envy of Europe, and a building of princely mansions which continue to be the admiration of travelers, their people were gradually losing their freedom.”

Interviewer: “Do you mean this as a suggestion that we are doing the like?”

Herbert Spencer: “It seems to me that you are. You retain the forms of freedom, but, so far as I can gather, there has been a considerable loss of the substance. It is true that those who rule you do not do it by means of retainers armed with swords ; but they do it through regiments of men armed with voting-papers, who obey the word of command as loyally as did the dependents of the old feudal nobles, and who thus enable their leaders to override the general will and make the community submit to their exactions as effectually as their prototypes of old. It is doubtless true that each of your citizens votes for the candidate he chooses for this or that office, from President downward, but his hand is guided by a power behind, which leaves him scarcely any choice. ‘ Use your political power as we tell you, or else throw it away,’ is the alternative offered to the citizen. The political machinery as it is now worked has little resemblance to that contemplated at the outset of your political life. Manifestly, those who framed your constitution never dreamed that twenty thousand citizens would go to the poll led by a ‘ boss.’ America exemplifies, at the other end of the social scale, a change analogous to that which has taken place under sundry despotisms. You know that in Japan, before the recent revolution, the divine ruler, the Mikado, nominally supreme, was practically a puppet in the hands of his chief minister, the Shogun. Here it seems to me that the ‘sovereign people’ is fast becoming a puppet which moves and speaks as wire-pullers determine.”