The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

CCDS Hosts Two-Day Conference on Well-Being and Engagement


On Wednesday, October 21, 2020, the Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS), a research center at The American University of Paris dedicated to promoting the practice, study and life of the democratic, began a two-day Well-Being Conference in conjunction with the Tocqueville Society. The bilingual, interdisciplinary event, held entirely via videoconference, was the fourth such collaborative convocation between the two organizations. The program was developed by the editorial board of The Tocqueville Review – an academic journal dedicated to Tocqueville’s ideas that has, for the last four years, been hosted by CCDS – as well as the philosopher Catherine Audard, a specialist, among other areas, in the work of John Rawls.

The foundation of the conference was an engagement with Tocqueville’s analysis of material well-being and its implications for political engagement in volume two of his Democracy in America, published in 1840. Tocqueville argues that the pursuit of individual well-being may, over time, lead to a reduced interest in politics and the state, instead engaging citizens in a search for “small and vulgar pleasures” that reduce engagement with politics, paving the way for “soft despotism.” Speakers were encouraged to engage with competing conceptions of well-being and government since the nineteenth century in the context of modern sociopolitical crises, including environmental damage linked to over-consumption, financial capitalism and its associated inequalities, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the conference’s first day, which was predominantly conducted in English, and following an introduction from CCDS director Professor Stephen Sawyer, Eloi Laurent (Sciences Po and Stanford) gave the opening talk, addressing the question of how the search for material well-being around the world has had an impact on the biosphere. Following the talk, which focused on how we can balance citizens’ pursuit of individual well-being with environmental protections moving forward, Professor Julian Culp of AUP’s Department of History and Politics posed a question about whether, in the context of developing countries, it was just to demand a reduced emphasis on material well-being when other countries have already enjoyed the benefits of materialism. Laurent replied that the impetus to respond to the climate crisis falls mostly on wealthy nations, and that a distinction could be drawn between “survival emissions,” necessary to ensure individuals’ welfare, and additional “luxury emissions.”

The first day continued with two talks from historians, beginning with Professor Sawyer himself, whose talk covered differing interpretations of Tocqueville’s use of the term civil society, arguing that while he framed the second volume around the theme of civil society broadly construed, the concept which he elaborated much more carefully was that of “democratic society.” According to Tocqueville, the rise of a new form of civil society with a particular attachment to material well-being was not the result of capitalism, as many economists had previously argued, but rather of the democratization of civil society or what he refers to as the rise of a “democratic social state.” “A focus on material well-being can lead to overinvestment in our private lives,” explains Sawyer.  In this context, we may accept despotism as long as we are able to maintain our material well-being. “Tocqueville’s response,” Sawyer argued, “was to double-down on democracy. There needs to be increased popular participation in the decision-making processes of politics, beyond traditional voting, to counteract the possibility of a new despotism.”

Following Sawyer, Li Hongtu (Fudan University) moved discussion on from Tocqueville by covering two distinct interpretations of John Stuart Mill in historical definitions of well-being in China: a more liberal interpretation in 1902, which emphasized individuals’ right to choose a life they believe in, and a postwar emphasis on well-being in a more social, or collective, sense.

The second day of the conference was largely francophone, and included talks from economists Gérard Cornilleau (CNRS and Sciences Po) and Pierre Madec (OFCE Sciences Po), on measuring well-being; from sociologist Simon Langlois (Université Laval, Quebec), on consumerism and well-being; and sociologists Michel Forsé (CNRS-CMH) and Maxime Parodi (OFCE Sciences Po) on well-being and social justice. Political philosopher Philippe Van Parijs (Université de Louvain-la Neuve) presented his research into well-being and the universal basic income. He argued that such policy cannot be justified on the grounds of improved well-being, economic growth or wealth distribution. Universal basic income, he argues, can only be justified on moral grounds: whether or not a society believes citizens deserve such an income.

The conference drew a large audience from around the world. The conference papers will be edited and published in the first issue of the Tocqueville Review in 2021. You can also read a brief follow-up interview with Eloi Laurent on Tocqueville21.

Throughout 2021, CCDS will be hosting a year-long series of lectures, workshops, roundtables and readings on the concept of the demos in the 21st-century, asking how we may build political and social solidarity within and beyond the nation in order to confront today’s essential challenges – be it climate change, racial injustice or radical inequality. Across languages, cultures, disciplines and media, the Demos21 convocation will explore essential problems of contemporary democracy, and uncover the shapes democratic publics and authorities may take in the decades to come.