1: The trajectory of Toqueville’s thinking
In “Democracy in America”, Toqueville considers that the democratic system is deeply rooted in the USA for three reasons: the natural environment, the legal system, and public sentiment. But in examining the relative importance of these three factors, he considers that the legal system is more important than the natural environment in contributing to the US maintaining a Democratic Republican system, and that public sentiment is more important than the legal system. From this, we can conclude that public sentiment is the most important foundation for a society and nation to build a legal system and democratic institutions.
But what basic social form is the foundation for the public sentiment of American people? Obviously, it is the township: the township gave birth to these sentiments, and became the foundation for a democratic society. In “Civic virtue and civic government: townships and the origins of American government”, political scientist Ren Junfeng follows the research on townships in Toqueville’s “Democracy in America” to understand the development of democractic institutions and sentiments in American society. He comes to see townships as the most basic form of social organisation for people in the New World, and as the most basic social factor in American society, serving as an embryo for the whole society. Ren Junfeng also considers that the experience of townships by the citizens ensures that American society is built on solid organic networks of religious and social connections, and has determined the unique nature of their revolution. Unlike what people generally think, it did not come from the texts of Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers.
As the authors quoting Toqueville say, in New England, the township system first came to maturity, it formed a whole,
political life was largely born out of the township…’ In the township, democracy is no longer abstract, but is specifically reflected in the handling of public affairs within each township, and through the participation of each in public affairs, good public sentiments are developed, and only through these good public sentiments within the townships can public virtue and public government be achieved, and public order, morality and the rule of law be deeply rooted in the public. New England townships ‘offered a positive model for other parts of the federation, and gradually became a standard for other regions.’ The people of New England were attached to their township because ‘it gives them a sense of power and a sense of independence; they love their townships because they are involved in leading the township’s affairs; 他们热衷于乡镇，因为他参与乡镇的领导事务；他们热爱乡镇，因为他们不会因为自己不走运而心生怨妒。乡镇寄托着他们的理想和未来；乡镇生活中的每一事件他们都是亲历者；在这一可以伸手可及的有限空间，他们参与治理社会。对于这些，他们习以为常，否则的话，要自由只有革命，他们的精神贯穿其中，热爱秩序，领悟权力之间的和谐，并最终对自己承担义务和享受权利的性质形成了清晰而符合实际的观念。”这一点是人们津津乐道的一个美丽传说，从五月花号在北美洲陆地科德角艰难靠近之后，这些来自欧洲逃亡清教徒们（41位男清教徒）还未落地就在船上签署了《五月花公约》，在这片原本只是荒袤的殖民土地上种了现代文明的火种，写下“经由民众同意而行使统治”的政治契约，开启了自由、民主在这片新土地的新的历史篇章。
Based on this, Ren Junfeng considers “The 150 years of the colonial period informed the experience of life in the townships, and they informed the deep conservatism of the 18th Century American revolution. Its goal was to defend the long-standing democratic habits that developed in the townships: 它的目标在于捍卫久已形成的以乡镇为载体的民主习惯：人民主权、对不当统治的反抗权、无代表权不纳税、被统治者的同意、社会公约、自然权利、权力之间的钳制平衡”。由此，民情形成，加上托克维尔提说的地理环境、法制两个因素，构成了美国的独特民主。而这种建立在自然形成的、带着浓厚新教伦理色彩民主习惯，让民主在美利坚的乡镇，成为了一种具体而可以操作的生活方式了。在“经由民众同意而行使统治”的最根本政治契约下，乡镇民众不仅选举乡镇行政理事组成行政理事会，他们还在乡镇的重大议题上表达自己的意见、主张和不满，将政治契约内化为“天赋人权”的一种，而且还是最重要的一种，毫无保留地应用。而在其他时候，乡镇的具体事务则交由行政理事会酌情处理，保持者美国式的秩序与自由（美国传统乡镇一直拥有强悍的民兵队伍以及民众合法拥有枪支，乃至各个州的自治，也正是基于对政治契约的捍卫，时刻表达着政府特别是强政府有可能侵犯民众意愿与权利的警惕）。随后这种政治契约不断地扩散到整个美国政治机制里，成就了托克维尔眼中的美国民主。而美国的民主也随着托克维尔的精辟挖掘，抽丝剥茧地展现在世人面前，成为一代又一代政治学者的思想宝库。
2: Rural autonomy in China and America, same road out, different ways back.
American townships, from a Chinese perspective, are the equivalent of rural villages. Therefore, comparing America’s “township autonomy” with Chinese “village autonomy” is of great importance. By studying the township system in the United States, we can easily come to ask the following question: why did the Chinese “village autonomy” not lead the narrow village world to develop upwards and outwards and become the embryo of a self-governing society?
I think that to a large extent, this is because Chinese villages encountered three unprecedented destructions: the first is the decline of traditional rural ethics, and modern lifestyle replacing the traditional village ethical order; the second is the excessive strength of the executive power, so that village autonomy became no more than a miniature democratic drill; and the third is the various impacts of urbanization, such as the mobility of the rural population, and the fact that the tide of urbanization engulfed a large number of formerly rural areas.
As for the nature of this autonomy, the American township system is spontaneous, and bred American democracy from the bottom-up. The Chinese village autonomy is largely an intrinsic and spontaneous process, but it is promoted from the outside. 这从跟不上促使村民自治，经历了三十多年依然是点到为止，并且每况日下。
If we look at the current situation, and issues faced by village autonomy include “population and talent drain”, “bribery and violence”, “dwindling enthusiasm for elections among farmers”, etc etc, but more important is the fact that the most intrinsic mechanisms and operations of village autonomy are increasingly manifesting power constraints. Essentially, village autonomy is a compromise institutional arrangement. This form of autonomy, from the start, was largely promoted by the Executive Power, and so, in line with the expression ‘village chief’, village autonomy has a strong “chiefly colour”. Especially after the abolition of the agricultural tax, autonomous village organisations have taken an increasingly ‘executive’ form, and the tinge of village autonomy has been watered down. Furthermore, if we look back at thirty years of village autonomy, we can observe one very important point: that village autonomy is just treated as a means to an end. The goal is to achieve economic development, legal politics, and social order. The goal is not democratic elections in themselves, but to help farmers get richer. And so it is only through many changes of circumstances and crises that many scholars and grassroots workers are showing concern today about ‘village autonomy at a dead-end’, and are reflecting on ‘where to go on after village autonomy’.
Then the situation of China’s vast rural areas resembles that described by the French sociologist Mendras in ‘The end of the farmers’: ‘In a society where people know each other, confusion of roles, a low level of labour division and high levels of self-consumption, these are the characteristics of a traditional agricultural civilization, and the disappearance of these characteristics has brought about a fundamental change in the value system and the shape of social relations. These changes will expand following their own logic, until a new system and new relationships are formed.’ And from this also come waves after waves of sighs on the theme of ‘everyone’s hometown is disappearing’.
And so we sigh in empathy with Ren Junfeng: a village without a country is weak, but a country with no villages must remain indifferent. At the same time, he also recommends: “to this end, we need to reconstruct a society that consists of small places, where people can see themselves reflected in their own government, and the government is in their midst. We need to return to the human scale. ‘Human scale’ here means the close proximity of field homes, neighbourhood clubs and farmers’ bureaus. For local people, it is the factories, the stalls, or the small shops on the streets; agricultural and consumer cooperatives, credit unions and local unions of villages, towns and neighbourhoods. It is activities of this kind, on a small human scale, which create the framework for community connections, prosperity and freedom.’
But from this, you can also see the culturally conservative tendencies of the author, and his intense desire to return to traditional models from the past. But what we have to say is, in a society so much like what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes as a ‘besieged society’, mobility and uncertainty have already destroyed the ‘society of small places’ mentioned by the author above. “everything solid has disappeared, everything holy has been profaned, and people must now calmly face the real situation of their lives, and the real nature of their relationships’: Marx’s declaration in ‘The communist manifesto’ still echoes through modern society. But what will the new system and model will be like, for a China which is undergoing massive change? Nobody can assess with much clarity.
3. Public virtue and public government to serve as foundations of civil society
Of course, this current difficulty cannot become an excuse or justify us giving up. No matter what the new system or plan is like, it is certain that we are progressing towards a civil society 市民社会: whether in rural areas or cities, there is consistency. But in the development of a civil society, each step requires strong civic virtue as a basis. And civic virtue precisely comes from constant attention to and participation in public affairs. If virtue is to become manifest in a society, citizens must have the widest possible participation in public decision making. Just as happened in New England where, ‘the township system played a key role in nurturing this kind of civilised citizens. Only within the human scale of the townships can democracy be effective and reliable. Only through the townships could people develop deep concern and complete understanding of public affairs, and through repeated face-to-face dialogue, take part in the government of local society.”
Thus far, careful readers might have identified a problem: from the above analysis, when asking ‘how can government by the people come to be?’ Answer to this question risks falling into a circular argument. For instance, we can start by answering that government by the people needs solid civic virtue as a basis. But where does good civic virtue come from? According to the author’s analysis, it comes from the citizens’ broad involvement in public affairs – but a question then comes out: if the people are able to demonstrate continuous enthusiasm for public affairs, is that not in itself a kind of autonomy of the people? Meaning that the government of the people has already been achieved.
However, this difficulty, this does not prevent us from paying attention to the meaning of civic virtue and civil govenrment, and their mutual relationship. In fact, when analysing them, the first thing to do is to realise that there is not a causal relation between them, but they are like parallel railroad tracks: they are indissociable, and together they make viable and safe road for society to go forward. It’s only possible to preserve the “good life” and the “good society” when both exist. But clearly, civic virtue is the condition for “the good life”, and civil government is the condition to protect “the good society”.
Civil virtue is basically a request for everyone to develop personal control through ethical reflection. Only when more people show more public morality when faeing others and society can ‘the good life’ start and maintain itself. Everyone sticking to the moral principles inscribed in their hearts, while also freeing themselves from what Cui Weiping calls ‘the darkness of humanity’, this is ‘the ultimate life’. As for other people, it follows the principle of equality, as happens in the townships of New England, where people have a face to face dialogue, they express themselves, they listen to others. This way, they learn how to argue and convince others, while also learning to control their emotions if they can’t convince others, to use reason, and reach mutual compromise and order through consensus – they learn mutual respect, self-control and courtesy. The famous French philosopher Luc Ferry, in ‘What is the good life’, defines the good life as ‘principles determining your life based on introspective respect for others that does not exclude oneself, in harmony with human order.’
Civil socity, to put it simply, is nothing but self-management. But the self here is that of a group, whether in a village, or a city district, only a self-managed society can be called a ‘good society’. Self management means getting outwards towards social participation, getting beyond the family, and take care of society, be concerned with public affairs: for instance, not just sweep the snow outside your own gate, but also the snow around it, etc. and adopt an attitude of ‘this is my responsibility’ rather than ‘it has nothing to do with me’. And from the point of view of government ethics, ‘the first concern of a good government should be that the people no longer need government and develop the habits of self-governance’, but people should also defend their own interests, 谁也不要被谁代表、让渡自己的不该让渡的权利. The author of ‘public virtue and civil government’ quotes the instance of the American colonies refusing the principle of ‘abstract representation’ proposed by the motherland, and this is a great source of inspiration for us. Some British officials proposed the principle of ‘abstract representation’, meaning that even if some districts do not have members or representatives in council, this does not really affect anything, because the council itself is already their representative, and not every place needs a representative. This was a departure from the political principle of ‘no taxation without representation’, and in this regard, North Americans found it highly objectionable, they considered that ‘abstract representation is nothing but a trap’, ‘we simply will not have this thing called abstract representation’; if they really mean what they say, ‘then why doesn’t the United Kingdom further reduce the number of its own constituencies? ‘ then after gradually reducing the number of representatives, then the House of Commons (and the Upper House), can finally close shop.
Of course ‘the good life’ and ‘the good society’ essentially combine to form what professor Xu Bi from St Mary’s California College in the US calls ‘the good public life’, in ‘what is the good public life’, in line with the general model of American social values, he considers that good public life ‘is in line with the ethical direction of American virtues. Freedom, equality and dignity form its core contents, where there is effort to maintain a universal rational standards, it accepts the lessons from the past and constantly correct past mistakes, and constitutional law is there to maintain order and democratic life. This kind of life not only includes ‘good life’ (as in happiness), but it also provides ways and means to reach happiness and achieve public good.”
But the most important thing still is that: ‘It’s not after the good public life has been designed and arranged by sages and elites that the people are invited to execute their proposal, but it is gradually formed, modified and perfected by thousands of ordinary people governing themselves. For that reason, we can say that without a democratic civil society and self-governance from social groups, there cannot be good public life.’ This is the same intention as that of civil government. Therefore, we have more or less entirely understood the relationship between ‘civil virtue’ and ‘civil governance’, and the value that they both contribute to the formation of civil society (and good public life).
Sources: ‘Popular virtue and popular government: townships and the origins of American government’, Ren Junfeng, Shanghai People’s Publishing House, June 2011.
‘What is good public life?’, Xu Ben, Jilin Publishing Group, January 2011.
‘What is the good life?’ (France), Luc Ferry, translation Dina Huang, Shipeng Xu, Xiaofei Wu, Jilin Publishing Group, November 2010.
‘Democracy in America’, Charles Alexis de Tocqueville, translation Guoliang Dong, Commercial Press, December 1988.
‘The end of farmers’ (France), Henri Mendras, translation Li Peilin, Social Sciences Academy Press, January 2005.