Jonah D. Levy. Tocqueville's Revenge: State, Society, and Economy in Contemporary France. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999, 386 pp. $US 55.00 cloth.

This book can be described as formed of three Russian dolls. The smallest doll is made up of an empirical study of the economic effects of the 1982 Defferre decentralization reforms in two provincial centers, Besançon and Saint-Etienne. The middle doll provides a narrative of the Mitterand government's turn from the dirigiste state towards an "associational liberalism" (the term is the author's) lying somewhere between the statist status quo ante and a politically unacceptable "free-market liberalism." The largest doll seeks to draw theoretical lessons from the other two and contribute to the literature on civil society. Briefly, the author's argument is that a vibrant civil society, contrary to the impression left by the literature, is not some pure historical precipitate that develops spontaneously, independent of all political activity. As often as not the state plays an important role in the development of a healthy civil society, whether by establishing its overall institutional framework, or by actively aiding the growth of the associations that make it up. Rather than being a rival in a zero-sum game, the state, if it moderates its ambition in the proper direction, can work to strengthen civil society, and thereby increase the sum of both political and economic benefits.

This was just what the Mitterand government sought to do, thereby breaking not just with the socialist party's earlier statist tendencies, but with the whole direction of the French state since the absolutist monarchy. Once the "Jacobin" left's policies were judged a failure, Mitterand turned to the "second left" which had been arguing that power should flow not from top to bottom, but from bottom to top, both for "ethical" reasons (to maximize the citizen's participation in the "self-organization" of society) and for historical reasons (in view of the shift to a post-Fordist economy which is less susceptible to large-scale planning and the promotion of a few large "national champions"). It is in this context, the author argues, that the Defferre laws are to be judged. For our author understands these laws as seeking to encourage local powers to work with small and medium enterprises to promote economic growth of the flexible, post-industrial kind. The empirical study (the smallest doll) examines the execution of these policies "on the ground" and concludes that the results fell far short of expectations for a whole variety of reasons (e.g., the historical weakness of the local actors, the dearth of resources during a recessionary period, the political compromises embedded in the original legislation, the absence of feed-back mechanisms, etc.) A quick, general survey suggests that the experience of Saint-Etienne and Besançon was replicated in other areas and sectors. Thus, although "associational liberalism" was the stated goal of the socialist party (and later of the Gaullists), the political practice resembled more what the author calls a "statist two-step." By this latter term he means that the post-dirigiste state, after having withdrawn from a sector of the economy, finds itself forced, in the face of the problems of a "failed" civil society, to intervene, but now in a limited and ad hoc manner. Thus, in the end, France proves not to be the best illustration of the author's theoretical claim that a strong state can create a strong civil society. And so, in a final comparative chapter, he turns to Germany and Japan as better examples of his primary thesis.

The empirical study is unexceptionable, and the history of Mitterand's change of direction is most interesting; yet despite my sympathy for the author's central argument, I find myself troubled by the use of the term "civil society" to construct a theoretical framework-. The idea of "civil society," as it came to be developed in the seventies and eighties, was addressed to the difference between totalitarian and democratic regimes at the level of what might be called their symbolic institution: that is, in democratic regimes the transformative capacities of the community appear as constituted from multiple, horizontal foci, and not from a single, totalizing center. Once "civil society" comes to be used to describe differences between democratic regimes, its value is much reduced; only by claiming that one democratic regime is more "totalitarian" than the other can the term retain even a minimal utility. Thus the author must speak of a "Jacobin" state and refer to Tocqueville's arguments concerning the absence of intermediary bodies, as well as le loi Le Chapelier of 1791. The latter, it will be remembered, sought to ban economic associations (notably unions, but also business associations), and another law introduced by Le Chapelier (but which did not bear his name) sought to outlaw political parties. However, while unions and parties did not, arguably, exist during Tocqueville's time, they have been very much part of the French landscape since the end of the nineteenth century. Moreover, in the face of the gross simplification of the claim that De Gaulle was a direct descendant of Colbert, it must be remembered that state planning as developed in the post-war French state was designed in part to facilitate communication between state and society in a situation where unions and parties appeared too politicized to act as "intermediaries" (its commissions de modernisation were made up of societal "stakeholders" as well as state functionaries). To claim, if only implicitly, that France's civil society was weak because its strong state was (if only in a diluted sense) totalitarian, is unsustainable. It is true, the relations between state and society in France were different from those in other places. But it is by no means obvious that the French Fourth or Fifth Republics were thereby less democratic than the governments of Germany or the United States during the same period.

In truth, the author uses the term "civil society" more in an economic than a political sense. (Thus he makes the highly contestable claim that Tocqueville thought a strong associational life was good for economic development--and the latter, presumably good for democracy, despite the creation of industrial "aristocracies"). The author, however, is not alone here: there is an entire literature that speaks of the "autonomy" of society (where once one spoke of the "autonomy of the state") as a condition of economic development, and talks of "social capital" as a measure of the depth of that autonomy. Arguably Mitterand too came to believe that an autonomous civil society was necessary for economic growth (though the Defferre laws were passed before the abandonment of macro-state planning, and originally for exclusively political reasons --"misty" reasons according to our author). But I would argue that the idea of civil society does not in itself produce a strategy for pursuing (let alone a means for analyzing) economic development. How is one to measure the strength of civil society (without immediately confusing it with some measure of economic success, and thereby rendering the argument circular)? Presumably, one requires some measure of "associational density." But already the literature begins to divide; to take, for example, a number of recent works on the United States, there are those arguing that a decline in associational life is jeopardizing America's political economy, and others that argue that a surfeit of associational life is producing something akin to gridlock. And is not such a split inevitable when using such an unrefined and undifferentiated concept as "associations." What are the "associations" that comprise civil society? Our author, for example, includes local government (of the "decentralized" but not of the "deconcentrated" kind). And when speaking of associations isn't one speaking less to economic realities than arguing against a certain economic "imaginary," one that claims the market to be composed of dispersed individuals mediated by economic competition alone (a claim that never described the reality of even "free market liberalism"). Or does the talk of associations and civil society not include "free market liberalism," whether in theory or practice, and exclude only the dirigiste state? There is much ambiguity here. Moreover, beyond the problems of defining a "strong civil society," is it true that strengthening civil society produces strong economic growth? If one admits, as does our author, that the dirigiste state in France produced strong growth during the "trente glorieuses" after World War II, one must also admit that the civil society argument only works in a post-Fordist economy (and one must claim that we now live in a post-Fordist and exclusively post-Fordist economy). And then there is the problem of economic statistics and short time-lines. A few years ago, when the book was written (if not published), the French economy appeared in considerable difficulty; today, while unemployment rates are still very high, its growth rates surpass those of Germany and Japan (the author's models of a successful associational liberalism) and even the United Kingdom (then touted as a model of successful free-market liberalism).

Towards the beginning of the book Jonah Levy notes that, according to the civil society literature -- and he seems to concur -- a strong civil society is both good for the polity and good for the economy. In the face of such a "good" concept, one that will save us all, it is time to take a second, hard look.

Brian Singer
Social and Political Thought
York University

November 1999
© CJS Online