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  • The Challenge of an Asymmetrical World
  • Abdou Filali-Ansary (bio)

While Alexis de Tocqueville was observing democracy at work in the New World, he constantly had in mind the prospects for democracy in Europe. Inspired by what he witnessed in America, he was led to ponder the processes through which democracy was emerging in tradition-laden societies like his native France. Comparison, or rather asymmetry, is always present in his thought. Thus while democracy is part of the destiny of human societies, it does not arrive everywhere at the same time, nor is it born complete and in identical forms. Its basic principles are certainly the same, but the historical processes through which it comes into existence are different, as they are shaped by particular conditions and conjunctures.

This is one of the aspects of Tocqueville’s thought that is most relevant to our present conditions. Asymmetry is still with us. In fact, nowadays it is the main feature of our situation, and it constitutes the greatest challenge to our understanding of human societies and the ways in which they change. Of course, the “actors” in this asymmetry are no longer the same, since today we consider “Western” countries, whether North American or European, to have already attained a working form of democracy, while the countries of the “South” are (hopefully) on the path leading to it. “West” and “South,” it is true, are very broad and inaccurate categories, as is suggested by the asymmetry of the geographical positions to which they refer. This is but one aspect of the difficulty of intellectually grasping the character of the “great divide” between contemporary societies, which now has democracy as one of its basic criteria. [End Page 79]

How different is the present situation from the one described by Tocqueville? And to what extent can his intuitions help us to understand our own times?

Democracy in its modern incarnation (as opposed to the Athenian-style democracy of the ancient world) was born by chance, says Tocqueville. It is kept alive by a combination of natural or accidental conditions—for example, the open spaces and rich resources offered by newly discovered America—and systems consciously designed by human beings, such as the laws and regulations established by communities of settlers. The most important cause, however, of the success of American democracy is a constellation of specific attitudes, with religious beliefs, worldviews, philosophical understandings, and ethical principles interwoven in a such a way that they could play a determinant role.

We may refer to this threefold categorization of the causes that maintain democracy (I, ch. 17) as Tocqueville’s “triad.” Democracy can emerge (but does not necessarily do so) whenever three basic factors are present. The first factor is the conditions for economic and social prosperity. The second is a social order defined by some kind of positive law. The third is what we would call nowadays a complex of conceptions and attitudes, where culture and ethics define a pattern of expectations and behavior.

This third and most influential element of the triad is at the same time the most difficult to grasp and to act upon. How can we make people feel more confidence in their neighbors rather than being distrustful? How can we make them be more cooperative and more respectful of moral principles? We know that this third element is necessary for the success of democracy, but the question of how to achieve the required changes in people’s attitudes and beliefs demands the most intense mobilization of human understanding.

Development and Democratization

As we proceed further, we have to stress that, beyond the formal and easy similarity between what Tocqueville described and the present situation (what we may call the two forms of asymmetry), there are very powerful and evident differences. First, the prospects of economic progress are far from equal on both sides of the “great divide.” Affluence continues to grow at a faster pace in the West, creating new problems by its very progress. It is highly uncertain, however, whether the countries of the South will ever catch up, or even reach the point where they can provide what is nowadays considered a minimal level of basic needs...

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pp. 79-86
Launched on MUSE
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