On Tocqueville in Algeria and epistemic violence

It’s high time for the discipline of political science to reckon with its explicit and implicit epistemic violence.

Tocqueville Wikimedia commons
Tocqueville, who is almost synonymous with liberalism, democracy, and individual rights in the US, is known to be an apologist for colonisation and white settlers in North Africa [Wikimedia commons]

The news that Princeton University had finally given in to years of student protests and calls to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs – finding that the former president’s “racism makes him an inappropriate namesake” – reverberated across academic institutions in the United States. 

It was the latest in a series of anti-racist acts that included the toppling of statues of racist historical figures and the removal of racist emblems from state flags. The removal of Wilson’s name from Princeton University buildings has shaken the ivory tower, in particular, scholars of international relations who are being pushed to think or rethink the way they read, teach and write about these classic figures of political thought.

But while Princeton’s decision is welcome, it is merely one of many steps the discipline of political science must take in order to reckon with its explicit and implicit epistemic violence.

Alexis de Tocqueville is a case in point. Tocqueville, who is almost synonymous with liberalism, democracy, and individual rights in the US, is known to be an apologist for colonisation and white settlers in North Africa.

Writing Democracy in America in 1835 made him a hero of sorts, with streets, hedge funds, and restaurants named after him across the US. In the classroom, he is taught as a classic, timeless thinker in many comparative politics and political theory syllabi. His praised work on democracy, however, was built on the twin practice of glorifying democracy in a white-settler society – the US – and defending a French-led total war against North Africans in their own territories. 

Tocqueville was not just a theorist with a knack for travel; he was a member of parliament from 1839 to 1851 and was briefly French foreign minister during the Second Republic in 1849. When the French government and its elites were debating the merits of domination as opposed to partial colonisation of Algeria, Tocqueville wrote, in his 1841, Essay on Algeria, an unequivocal endorsement of a full-on colonisation. His thoughts on the merits of democracy and individual liberties clearly did not extend to North African natives.

Tocqueville’s plan to subjugate Algerians and replace the population with European settlers included several concrete steps. He contended that the second-most important step in the conquest “after the interdiction of commerce, is to ravage the country”. As he further explained, “I believe that the right of war authorises us to ravage the country and that we must do it, either by destroying harvests during the harvest season, or year-round by making those rapid incursions called razzias, whose purpose is to seize men or herds.”

If this savage policy recommendation was not clear enough, he reiterated in bullet points the necessity to “destroy everything that resembles a permanent aggregation of population or, in other words, a town.” The essay is littered with Orientalist views on nomads, on Islam, on the uncivilised Africans, and the trigger-happy Arabs. Tocqueville’s most stubborn recommendation comes in repeating throughout the text that “until we have a European population in Algeria, we shall never establish ourselves there (in Africa) but shall remain camped on the African coast. Colonisation and war, therefore, must proceed together.”

In October 1843, upon returning from a trip to Algeria, Tocqueville revealed his thoughts on Islam in correspondence with French writer Arthur de Gobineau, an early promoter of scientific racism, stating that he was convinced that there were “few religions as deadly to men”, and that Islam was a step back from paganism. 

What Tocqueville observed in (white) America, he had hoped for in North Africa. The Arabs and Amazigh could be, like America’s original peoples, ruled over and governed, but should exist separately, together, from their free, democracy-deserving white colonisers – European settlers in Algeria and white Americans in the US. Opposing dictatorship in Algeria, as Tocqueville did, was not out of a commitment to democracy for native peoples but for a Manichean world with a twin practice of granting freedoms to white settlers and subjugating, in his words, even “ravaging”, Arab-populated towns.

Should we just ‘learn to appreciate’ the good parts?

To pause for a moment and ask difficult questions about political thinkers that we have long taken for granted is not a call to stop reading them. Quite the opposite. It is a call to read them fully and unselectively, not in small segments.

A typical move in defending and sanitising Tocqueville’s political thought has been for some to remind us that he was an eloquent critic of slavery in the US and a proponent of original people’s rights. But is this enough? I am no psychoanalyst to figure out how one can be this and the other at the same time, but I know that Tocqueville’s work on Algeria, from 1841, was much later than his work on the US – 1835.  

I am also ready to believe that Tocqueville might have felt a deeper sense of empathy with causes and peoples that were too distant – slavery in the US – to cause a direct clash with the interests of the government he served. That same empathy, if there was such, was not afforded, in practice, to the natives of North Africa as it was in the context of North America. 

Another one is to tell us that “people are complex” and that there is no merit in pointing out the “bad stuff”. When I posted on Twitter, a year ago, my thoughts about Tocqueville and Algeria, voicing that the continued praise and adoration of him among political scientists is an epistemic violence to so many of us, I was scolded for failing to appreciate what a good piece of writing Democracy in America was. This trope of tone-policing and scolding people for not being able to “appreciate” or at the very least disagree in silence is nothing new, we see it everywhere, but it is part of a larger structure of epistemic violence against people of colour.

Several awards in the name of Tocqueville are given to students, researchers, and alumni to recognise excellence in scholarship on freedom, democracy, and academic achievement. My favourite is the Prix Alexis de Tocqueville, a prize for political literature awarded every two years to “a person who has demonstrated outstanding humanistic qualities and attachment to pubic liberties.” The winner of the latest edition of the Prize is none other than Henry Kissinger. When I learned of this, I wondered what someone in Cambodia might think humanism looks like with Kissinger as its face. 

What these awards do is, like statues and buildings’ names, institutionalise epistemic violence. At the most basic level, epistemic violence is about dominant systems of knowledge oppressing “other” knowledge structures and normalising a common sense that is inherently violent and unjust. Having to apply to study in buildings and programmes named after organic intellectuals who spent their careers normalising racism and othering is a form of oppression. Likewise, for academics in political science, sitting in a conference room, as I have many times, listening to talks glorifying Tocqueville as a beacon for democracy and individual freedoms is a form of epistemic violence.

To close, there is no end in sight to all that needs to be renamed, toppled, and changed both on the streets and in academia because the violence that is folded in with these histories we tell, theories we teach, name chairs we hire for, and awards and accolades we seek to add to our credentials are countless. Repairing epistemic violence has got to be a long and challenging path, given how deeply rooted it is and far back it goes, but it is necessary.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.