Industrial Aristocracy

The following is an excerpt from Tocqueville's “Democracy in America” written in 1835.


It is acknowledged that when a worker spends every day solely upon one process, general items are produced more easily, rapidly, and economically.

It is likewise acknowledged that the larger the scale on which an industrial undertaking is conducted with large amounts of capital and extensive credit, the cheaper its products will be...

I see nothing in the political world which should be of closer concern to the legislator than these two axioms of industrial science.

When a craftsman is constantly and solely engaged upon the making of one single object, he ultimately performs this work with unusual dexterity; but at the same time, he loses the general capacity to apply his concentration on the way he is working. Day by day, he gains in skill but is less industrious; one may say that as he, the workman, improves, so does he, the man, lose his self-respect.

What can be expected of a man who has spent twenty years of his life making pinheads? To what might this powerful human intelligence, which has often stirred the world, apply itself except research into the best ways of making pinheads?

When a workman has spent a considerable part of his existence in such a manner, his thoughts are forever taken up by the object of his daily toil; his body has contracted certain fixed habits which it cannot discard. In short, he no longer belongs to himself but to the profession he has chosen. It is no use laws and customs striving to break down all the barriers around this man or opening up on every side a thousand different paths to wealth. An industrial theory more powerful than custom or law has tied him to a trade and often to a place, which he cannot abandon. It has assigned him a certain station in society which he cannot escape. It has brought him to a stop in the midst of universal movement.

As the principle of the division of labor is applied more completely, the worker becomes weaker, more limited and more dependent. The craft makes progress, the craftsman slips backwards. On the other hand, as it becomes clearer that industrial products are all the better and cheaper as production lines are more extensive and capital is greater, very wealthy and enlightened men appear on the scene to exploit industries which up to that point, had been left in the hands of ignorant or restless craftsmen. They are attracted by the scale of the efforts required and the huge results to be obtained.

Thus at the very moment that industrial science constantly lowers the standing of workers, it raises that of the bosses.

While the worker, more and more, restricts his intelligence to the study of one single detail, the boss daily surveys an increasing field of operation and his mind expands as the former's narrows. Soon the one will need only physical strength without intelligence; the other needs knowledge and almost genius for success. The one increasingly looks like the administrator of a vast empire, the other, a brute.

So, the employer and the worker share nothing in common on this earth and their differences grow daily. They exist as two links at each end of a long chain. Each holds a place made for him from which he does not move. The one is dependent upon the other.

The dependency the one has upon the other is never-ending, narrow, and unavoidable; the one is born to obey as the other is to give orders.

What is this, if not aristocracy?

As conditions become more and more equal in the body of the nation, the need for manufactured products is universal and ever greater; the cheap prices which bring goods within the reach of modest fortunes become a great ingredient of success.

Richer and better educated men emerge daily to devote their wealth and knowledge to industry; by opening great workshops with a strict division of labor they seek to satisfy the new demands which are evident on all sides.

Thus, as the mass of the nation turns to democracy, the particular class which runs industry becomes more aristocratic. Men resemble each other more in one context and appear increasingly different in another; inequality grows in the smaller social group as it reduces in society at large.

Thus it is that, when we trace things back to their source, a natural impulse appears to be prompting the emergence of an aristocracy from the very heart of democracy.

But that aristocracy is not like any that preceded it.

In the first place, you will notice that it is an exception, a monstrosity in the general fabric of society, since it applies only to industry and a few industrial professions.

The small aristocratic societies formed by certain industries inside the immense democratic whole of our day contain, as they did in the great aristocracies of ancient times, some men who are very wealthy and a multitude who are wretchedly poor.

These poor men have few ways of escaping from their social conditions to become rich but the wealthy are constantly becoming poor or leave the world of business after realizing their profits. Thus, the elements which form the poorer classes are virtually fixed but those that produce the richer classes are not so. In fact, although there are rich men, richer classes do not exist, for the wealthy do not share a common spirit or objective or traditions or hopes; there are individual members, therefore, but no definite corporate body.

Not only are the rich not firmly united to each other, but you can also say that no true link exists between rich and poor.

They are not forever fixed, one close to the other; moment by moment, self-interest pulls them together, only to separate them later. The worker depends upon the employer in general but not on any particular employer. These two men see each other at the factory but do not know each other anywhere else; and while they have one point of contact, in all other respects they keep their distance. The industrialist only asks the worker for his labor and the latter only expects his wages. The one is not committed to protect, nor the other to defend; they are not linked in any permanent way, either by habit or duty.

This business aristocracy seldom lives among the industrial population it manages; it aims not to rule them but to use them.

An aristocracy so constitute cannot have a great hold over its employees and, even if it succeeded in grabbing them for a moment, they escape soon enough. It does not know what it wants and cannot act.

The landed aristocracy of past centuries was obliged by law, or believed itself obliged by custom, to help its servants and to relieve their distress. However, this present industrial aristocracy, having impoverished and brutalized the men it exploits, leaves public charity to feed them in times of crisis. This is a natural consequence of what has been said before. Between the worker and employer, there are many points of contact but no real relationship.

Generally speaking, I think that the industrial aristocracy which we see rising before our eyes is one of the most harsh ever to appear on the earth; but at the same time, it is one of the most restrained and least dangerous.

However, this is the direction in which the friends of democracy should constantly fix their anxious gaze; for if ever aristocracy and the permanent inequality of social conditions were to infiltrate the world once again, it is predictable that this is the door by which they would enter.